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MIT student blogger Sam M. '07

Song of Myself by Sam M. '07

All we need is music (sweet music).

Oh, I was going to answer a bunch of questions today, but it turns out that somehow along the line I managed to answer them all in the comments. So go back and read the comments! It’s like when your favorite networks try to convince you to watch reruns during the summer except you were watching “Dancing With The Stars” instead!

Well except this one, from Wenhao Sun… which I’ve been meaning to answer for a while:

Hey!

I’ve heard that Bartok Concerto for Orchestra is absolutely awesome – I haven’t actually had the opportunity to hear it, but I suppose I’ll go check it out. With regards to Beethoven, his late stuff is pretty awesome (with some weird stuff lol, Op.133 Grosse Fugue? I don’t know … at least I don’t see the genius in that one yet). Anyway, how is the music department at MIT? I’m a pretty avid classical violinist with a passion for chamber music, and I’ve heard that MIT has a rather strong music department. Could you give me a little information on its orchestra and chamber music program (for composing as well, as that’s always interested me)? Thanks!

– Wenhao Sun

As far as late Beethoven goes, I’d really like to get into him but haven’t had the chance yet–I’ve heard some of his later piano sonatas sound remarkably like Joplin (Scott, not Janis), which just sounds awesome.

The music program at MIT is actually quite strong, and one of the reasons I ended up coming to MIT over some other schools. My junior year of high school, I had the pleasure of singing under Dr. William Cutter in the Pennsylvania Region V chorus, and it was quite possibly one of the most informative and brilliant musical experiences I’ve ever had. Although I’m sure MIT’s music program doesn’t rival that of any conservatory or even some larger liberal-arts type schools, it helped to know that a school as good as MIT at science and engineering had such great faculty working in their music department. Dr. Cutter also teaches at the Boston Conservatory and prepares the choirs for Boston Lyric Opera and the Boston Pops.

Exactly how good is MIT’s music? Well, I’ve performed in the Concert Choir, a large, 90-ish member free-for-all choir, and the Chamber Chorus, a 30-ish member more exclusive group focusing on smaller-scale works. While neither is the most technically proficient group I’ve ever been in, I’ve had the opportunity to perform a more diverse and challenging repertoire of music than I ever saw in high school–in five semesters here, I’ve performed, among other works, Mozart’s Requiem, Stravinsky’s Mass, Bach’s Magnificat, and Handel’s Messiah–all with appropriate (and professional) symphonic accompaniment.

My freshman year in Chamber Chorus, I had the unique opportunity of performing a work specifically commissioned for the group–Libby Larsen’s “The Nothing That Is.” The whole program can be found here. Check out the libretto here. Larsen may have gone a little too far in making the piece “MIT-oriented.” Among other influences, the piece is based on Indian cosmology, Apollo 13, Hamlet, Vatican II, New Math and the infinite summation “1 + 1 – 1 + 1 – 1 + 1 – 1 + … ” No, really. There were breaks in the song where I was singing “one plus one minus one plus…” for a minute straight, and there’s a great crescendo where the choir chants, “T minus zero zero zero zero zero nine, T minus zero zero zero zero eight …” all the way down to blastoff. Yes, that concert certainly was a unique experience to say nothing else.

Oh! I’m getting so excited about this concert now! In addition to the real, unreal, and indescribable Libby Larsen piece, we got to sing the twenty-minute long Copland piece “In The Beginning,” which starts off when “God create the Heaven and Earth” and doesn’t finish up until “Man became a living soul.” I never even knew they wrote 20-minute long a capella choral works when I was in high school, and certainly had no idea that I’d be singing one. That was probably the most challenging piece I’ve ever sung.

Oh, but beyond the realm of choir… MIT has a bunch of official music groups you can find here, including a symphony, a wind ensemble, a jazz ensemble, and a Gamelan conducted by nationally-renowned musician Evan Ziporyn. As a member of the Chamber Music Society, one of my friends during his semester at MIT was coached in a string quartet by Pulitzer-Prize-winning composer John Harbison. I’d say that’s pretty cool.

You can take any of the above ensembles as a class for six units of general elective credit, which, in my experience, is UTTERLY MEANINGLESS except for boosting your GPA. Hey, my A in choir made the difference between an x.84 and an x.86 for me last term, which is quite nice when MIT rounds your GPA to one decimal place.

In addition to all these organizations, MIT has a bunch of student-run groups, including like six a capella groups, a concert band, a marching band, a Senegalese Drum Ensemble, and a guild of bellringers. Though Wenhao might not fit in so well in any of the above on violin (well, maybe Marching Band; we’re kind of desperate), the point is that whether you play cello or kazoo or pan pipes or oboe of love, there’s probably an ensemble at MIT for you.

Finally, one last thing to look at is the Emerson Scholarship. To get this, you audition (open to the entire community, from first-term freshman to nth-year grad students) in August on one or more pieces of your choosing. If successful, you can take weekly private lessons from any instructor of your choice in the Boston area and MIT will pay for half of it. Since there are a lot of really excellent teachers in the Boston area, this can turn out to be a great deal for you if you’re committed to studying performance.

And then there are music classes, too. You can go back and check out my experiences with 21M.302: Harmony and Counterpoint II over the past term. In addition to writing a Theme and Variations in the high classical style, I had to learn how to improvise on piano and do some crazy, crazy sight-singing exercises I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies. Beyond composition, MIT also has some excellent history of music classes, which I’ve been told are unusually good for a school with no graduate music program. I took 21M.271: Symphony and Concerto last year. It starts at the invention of the symphony and ends at Eliot Carter, whom I still HATE, touching on pretty much every important composer in between. Professor Lindgren is fantastic, and going through basically all modern Western music in chronological order was tremendously helpful in broadening my own musical understanding. I highly recommend it to any MIT students, present or future, reading this entry.

To conclude–yes, Virginia, MIT has a music department.

tomorrow: Sam’s adventures in Judaism!

7 responses to “Song of Myself”

  1. Phil says:

    We all know that Janis Joplin is at least 10 times greater than Beethoven. I mean who are we really trying to kid here?

  2. Sam says:

    Amen to that, brother.

  3. Clark Poland says:

    I’m curious how… skilled the jazz scene is like (if you know). I love jazz and I’d love to keep playing, but the thing is I picked up the sax a year ago and that’s all of an experience with jazz I’ve had. I’d like to think I’m relatively decent, but my improv leaves much to be desired and my theory’s weak. I know that’s all relative, but, any advice/suggestions/comment?

  4. Zac DR says:

    So Sam when you were looking at colleges, which colleges were you looking at in particular?

  5. Sam says:

    Since there are like 3 Sams who comment on MITblogs, I really should get a unique moniker for comments, a la madmatt. sadsam? Okay, perhaps I will think of a better one:

    to Phil/Sam — although I’ve always liked Janis’s desperate rendition of “Summertime” and manic take on the lesser-known song “Catch Me Daddy,” I have to admit that I find Beethoven to be a slightly more accomplished artist

    to Clark — the main outlet for jazz at MIT is the Festival Jazz Ensemble (FJE), which you can find from the performing groups link above. I went to their concert this past fall and I have to say that they were quite good and the top players were no slouches at improvisation, although I don’t know anything about the audition process or how difficult it is to get in. At any rate, it won’t hurt you to try, and there are jazz composition and arranging classes that require no previous theory backgroud which you can take first term Freshman year to hone your abilities. I also know of two or three smaller (5-6 person) student-run jazz combos.

    to Zac — I applied regular decision and was accepted to MIT, Harvard, Harvey Mudd, and the University of Rochester. There were a few other schools I was looking at, including Caltech, University of Chicago, and Swarthmore, but I ended up not applying. I’m not really in the know about this kind of thing, but looking back I think I really should have applied to 1 or 2 more schools just in case, even though I would have probably been just as happy at Rochester (my “safety school” because of a scholarship given to me by my high school) as I would have been at any of the others.

  6. Wenhao Sun says:

    WOW.

    Thanks! It’s almost like I had an MIT blog dedicated to me. I feel pretty honored. Well, it’s really nice to know that MIT has an accomplished music program; it had originally been one of the limiting factors of the school for me, but now I have another thing to look forward to. Goooood stuff. Well take care, happy holidays!

    – Wenhao Sun

  7. Wenhao Sun says:

    Nice Whitman reference by the way. I was originally planning on reading more ‘unexpurgated sexual vitality’, but MIT music is good too tongue laugh.