Category: Column

                                Image via Yael Turitz

Thanks to my loving professors, I spent almost 90% of my spring break doing homework (not that I’m bitter or anything). I only had one chance to get out to the movie theater, my typical go-to break activity, but I knew exactly what I wanted to see: Bill Condon’s live-action remake of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

Growing up, Belle was my favorite princess. An avid reader myself, I thought I was just like her, dreaming to travel and escape my “provincial life” (to be clear, I lived right outside of Washington, D.C. and was not at all stifled, but, hey, the eight-year-old mind sees what it wants). I owned a golden gown Belle costume that I insisted on wearing far too often for my mother’s taste (see above picture for proof, in case you doubt me), and the movie practically lived inside the VCR.

Needless to say, I was pumped to see this movie. And, despite having to sit in the third row because the theater was so crowded (and therefore feeling like I was going to vomit throughout the entire movie because of my ridiculous motion sickness), it did not disappoint.

When I opened the newspapers the next day, however, I was shocked by the reviews. Ty Burr from The Boston Globe called it a ‘strenuous copy cat” of the original, while The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern said it was “crazily cluttered, overproduced venture in industrial entertainment.”

WHAT!? Strenuous copy cat? Crazily cluttered? What movie did these people watch!?

Despite my high expectations, I was pleasantly surprised by Condon’s film. Emma Watson proved that not only is she a incredibly talented actor, a natural beauty, and a wonderful female role model, but that she can sing like an angel. She sounded like she could be on Broadway, hitting notes with the same bravado as the original Paige O’Hara, and her pleasant tone felt so natural for a Disney princess. I honestly have no idea what voice Ty Burr was listening to when he said her voice was “never able to break out into the kind of sonic glory an audience might crave.” If anything, he could critique Dan Steven’s or Emma Thompson’s lacking voices, but their voices worked with the beast and teapot they respectively played, so he really shouldn’t do that either.

But what really confused me was that both Burr and Morgenstern seemed completely opposed to the need for a remake at all, yet seemed upset when the film changed or added any aspect to the 1991 classic. But the truth is that Condon’s film stayed extremely close to the original, not changing any plotlines or characters. The few pieces the new movie did add was a (barely) openly gay character, a couple of new songs written by the original composer Alan Menken and famed lyricist Tim Rice, and a scene that tells us how Belle’s mother died from the plague, and her father was forced to leave his wife to save his daughter– all modern additions that make the movie more resonant for modern audiences, and actually much deeper without taking away from the buoyancy and magical aspects of the original fairytale. What more did they want?

I guess you could argue that Disney shouldn’t be making remakes of great films, that they should let the originals stand on their own– a debate that will likely only become more prevalent as Disney continues to make remakes. But as I sat there, marveling at the incredible special effects, the moving additional scenes, Emma Watson’s refusal to wear a corset and perfect portrayal of a strong-willed Belle, I clearly saw the value in this remake. The remake is similar enough to the original that it doesn’t offend, but newly beautiful and relevant– so don’t listen to these people. I dare you to go see Beauty and the Beast in all its special-effects, costume, design, acting, singing glory and tell me it’s not a worthwhile movie.

For me, it was a dream come true.

 

The Must-(Not)Binge List: For the past few weeks, I’ve been painfully watching the CW’s Riverdale, mostly out of a sense of obligation to the Archie Comics that saved me during my lowest sleepaway-camp moments. But enough is enough. The new show, starring AJ Apa, Lili Reinhart, Camila Mendes, and Cole Sprouse is excruciatingly overdramatic. Neither Apa, Mendes, nor Reinhart can act, and the show’s plotline tries and fails to mix the teenage angsty characters of One Tree Hill with the dark plotlines of Black Mirror. Even Cole Sprouse, my favorite of the Suite Life brothers, can’t do anything with his brooding but unnecessary Jughead character. Don’t waste your time, especially if you were an Archie Comics fan. This show is an embarrassment. My grade: D

 

Do you belong here?

It’s a loaded question, and one I believe that many Columbia students encounter during their time here — commonly in the first or second year. The feeling that while your classmates are smart, talented, and generally have their lives together, you are dumb, untalented, and merely pretending that you are not falling apart.

This feeling, labeled Impostor Syndrome from its first characterization in 1978, is thought to be common in high-pressure cognitive environments — by some estimates affecting as high as 70% of the population in these environments. The psychologists who first discovered the phenomenon, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, described it as “a feeling of phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.”

While not recognized as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (more commonly known as the DSM), Impostor Syndrome can have real effects on the way people interact with the world, especially among college students in elite universities.

Terrified of being outed, the ‘impostor’ avoids taking on extra challenges, hesitates before  applying to high-level internships or fellowships, studies excessively to make up for their perceived cognitive deficit, or correspondingly, procrastinates out of fear that they’ll never finish it all.

When something bad happens, whether it be a below average grade, a failed audition, a rejected submission, or merely a fight with a friend, the ‘impostor’ does not see it as merely a small setback in an otherwise well-lived life. They see it as a confirmation of what they’ve known all along — that they do not belong at a school like Columbia, and that they are doomed to fail.

In particular, certain populations are more susceptible to Impostor Syndrome — for instance, those which have been underrepresented or disadvantaged. This group predominantly includes women, people of color, and first-generation students, and these identities can negatively impact student performance in a significant way.

When primed with their identities, each member of these groups did dramatically worse on tests of logic or mathematics, in some studies underperforming by 10-20% than those who were not reminded that they were “different.”

Why do so many high-achieving students ignore all evidence to the contrary and believe they are inferior? How can this belief so negatively impact their performance? While Impostor Syndrome has not yet been studied neuroscientifically, some clues from related fields of study can help shed some light on possible neural mechanisms underlying Impostor Syndrome.

One possible explanation comes from the perceived inadequacy causing an activation of stress-systems in the brain. As I have discussed before, when your brain is flooded with stress hormones the amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex, and the insula all light up. Activation in these brain regions is known to induce anxiety and fear, as well as a host of other deleterious effects on student health.

Correspondingly, induced stress can inactivate your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and inferior temporal cortex — reducing working memory load, the ability to form new memories, and the ability to recall stored knowledge. In effect, if you constantly believe that you are not good enough to succeed, your success might ironically decrease.

Far from just a cognitive nuisance, if Impostor Syndrome is left unchecked it can cause extreme risk-aversion and contribute to generalized anxiety disorder. So what can be done about it? Some evidence points to fact-exposure as a good treatment — remind yourself of all the times you have in fact succeeded.

When failures inevitably occur, take the time to analyze how much was truly your fault, and how much can be chalked up to bad luck. Perhaps most importantly, talk to the people you trust about the feelings of fraud you might be experiencing. Whether that is your parents, friends, or a therapist, talking through those fears and having them invalidated can often be cathartic in combating Impostor Syndrome.

In an environment of brilliant and hyper-competitive peers, it can be easy to compare your inner self to your classmates outer selves without stopping to think that the vast majority of your fellow students are struggling with the very same issue. And if nothing else, I can answer the question I asked at the beginning of this article for you — yes, you do belong at Columbia.

 

The ending scene in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

 

On Thursday night, the Met opened its season’s production of Beethoven’s Fidelio.

The protagonist, Leonore, is the most positively impactful woman in all of opera. Disguised as a man named Fidelio, she earns the trust of Rocco, the prison warden. He brings her to her husband Florestan, a prisoner locked in a cellar cell. Once there, Leonore defends Florestan from Don Pizarro, the governor of the prison, by threatening him with her gun. Because of her actions, Leonore is hailed as a heroine of “noble courage.” Joy reigns as the couple is safely restored when Don Fernando, the minister, arrives.

Representations of constructively influential women in opera are rare. Most are throwing themselves off of castle parapets (Tosca), displaying a deranged, febrile madness (Lucia di Lammermoor), or even stripping for kings (Salome). The Met picked an important moment to portray an antithetical example. Adrianne Pieczonka, a Canadian soprano playing Leonore, said, “And with what’s going on in the world, I think it’s great to have a strong woman—a brave, courageous woman on a mission.” The only thing missing is a direct reference to Trump.

Given its backdrop, how was this politically charged opera vitalized? Marzelline, Rocco’s daughter—performed by Hanna-Elisabeth Müller in her Met Opera debut—sang wonderfully. Her voice had a sweetness that was maintained throughout her range. Jaquino, Rocco’s helper—played by David Portillo—sang with appropriate anguish over Marzelline’s spurning of his love.

In the subsequent ensemble number, Rocco and Leonore (Fidelio to these folks) joined Marzelline and Jaquino. Rocco—sung by the role-switching Falk Struckmann (formerly Don Pizarro in the Met’s 2000 production)—rang richly in his low register, but thinned out up high. As the night went on, however, his upper tones took on a rounder, fuller shape. Rocco’s employer, Don Pizarro—invigorated by Greer Grimsley—sounded diabolical in his “Ha! Welch’ ein Augenblick!” aria. Grimsley’s repeated “Ha’s!” menaced his adversaries (and the audience!).

After Pizarro’s aria, Pieczonka presented her “Abscheulicher!” solo. Here and elsewhere, I observed her physically reaching upward for climatically high pitches. Her action affected her sound quality: her high register was quavering, forced, and over-vibratoed. In contrast, Müller visibly sunk down into her upper range. As a result, her highs maintained depth and quality. A casting switch between these two sopranos would be beneficial—but admittedly impossible—for this production.

Act 2 starts with a jolt: Florestan calls out “Gott!”, a desperate heavenly plea. Florestan—enlivened by Klaus Florian Vogt—has a many-colored voice: his timbre sounds like the mixing palette of a master painter. His unique hues transmitted the hopeful content of his singing.

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Klaus Florian Vogt as Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Some of Sebastian Weigle’s tempo choices detrimentally affected tonight’s performance. In “Gut Söhnchen, gut, hab immer Mut” the tempo was inappropriately slow. I have courage—“Ich habe Mut!”—but apparently not enough to show any vigor. And, in Pieczonka’s “Abscheulicher!” aria, the orchestra sounded safe, even calculated, during accelerandos. The correct energy can be achieved in upcoming performances by a reconsideration of phrasing and articulation.

The horns, however, turned in an excellent performance in the “Abscheulicher!” obbligato. Their tone was pure and their phrasing smooth and effortless.

The singer’s performances were framed by Jürgen Flimm’s production. Flimm’s work, staged for the fourth time at the Met, effectively recontextualizes Fidelio in the mid-20th century. In the first act, the principal themes of hope and freedom are juxtaposed against a starkly bare prison. For the final scene, Robert Israel, the set designer, depicts triumph with a backdrop of wispy clouds strewn across a light blue sky: it is little wonder that the words for heaven and sky are the same in German.

At this euphoric ending, Don Fernando has arrived, ousting Don Pizarro from the stage. The role was performed by Günther Groissböck with an imperial, declarative style, suiting the character well.

After, the chorus, winds, and low strings exclaim joyfully. Freude und Freiheit—Joy and Freedom: Beethoven affirms cherished values with his distinct emotional directness.

During the curtain call, I saw that the bronze heroic figure—which looms in the background of the ultimate scene—was taken off of his horse, placed dejectedly on the ground. To complete the coup, I think, appropriately, Leonore should be put in his former position—a nobly “nasty woman” who deserves her high praise and honors.

 

Beethoven’s Fidelio runs through April 8, with casting changes. The opera will be broadcast live April 1, at 1:00 PM, on WQXR 105.9 FM. Information and ticket listings (including student and same-day rush tickets) can be found online at metopera.org

Professor Fred Lerdahl Reflects on His Time at Columbia

After 33 years of teaching music composition and music theory at Columbia University, Professor Fred Lerdahl will be stepping down at the end of this semester.

“I’m the—by now—oldest member of the department. So I’ve institutional memory,” Lerdahl recalls with a genial trace of his Midwestern roots.

Lerdahl has been an active member in the development of a department: from two disciplines in 1979—Historical Musicology and Music Composition—to four—Ethnomusicology, Music Theory and the aforementioned two—in the present-day. Nowadays, thankfully, old contentions have cooled: the composers and historians apparently couldn’t get along in Lerdahl’s early years at Columbia.

The burgeoning disciplines have affected Lerdahl’s composing. For example, after reading an article on scale types in an ethnomusicology publication, he was inspired to rework these ideas rhythmically in his composing.

Lerdahl’s career bridges music theory and music composition. His 1983 Generative Theory of Tonal Music, co-written with the linguist Ray Jackendoff, is regarded as a seminal text in the field of music cognition.

Exploring tonal theory in that book influenced Lerdahl’s composing. He developed his own syntax of harmony, voice leading, and what he calls “expanding variations” or “spiral form,” a compositional structure that he created.

Admittedly, I was surprised when I learned that he was interested in tonal music, which is perceived as outdated in the world of contemporary composition. When asked about the negative perception, Lerdahl clarified the definition and implications of his tonality.

“I wanted to recover a sense of centricity—being able to depart and to return—to me that’s very expressive and very powerful,” Lerdahl explains.

“My own harmonic and, broadly speaking, tonal syntax is different than the classical kind; I’ve been influenced by certain composers of course, but I’ve tried to make these things new.”

Centricity focuses on departing and returning, difference and familiarity. Like centricity, Lerdahl achieves unity in his favorite instrumental ensemble: the string quartet. Lerdahl observes that the quartet has cohesiveness because of the instruments’ similar sonic realms, yet variation in tone color because of the adventuresome sounds that can be created.

When composing, Lerdahl begins by thinking about the piece’s expression. He calls this opening phase a “dream state,” adding that “it’s like you’re in the dark.” After mentally grappling with his ideas, Lerdahl reaches an “Aha!” moment.

“The really critical moment for me in composing is when I find the good match between the expressive nature of what I’m trying to do and the formal procedures that I’m using,” Lerdahl describes.

“I know after that I may have good and bad days but that it’ll all turn out alright.”

From his theory and composition work, it is apparent that Lerdahl has developed his own artistic voice—he did not just accept what someone else told him to do.

Lerdahl’s path is a model young composers can follow. When asked to give advice to aspiring composers, he emphasized a foundational motivation.

“The most important thing is that you have to really love what you’re doing. You have to—it has to be a necessity for you,” Lerdahl strongly asserts.

“Otherwise don’t do it.”

The next step, like any other profession, is to develop your skills. For composers, this translates to moderate piano abilities, good ear training, conducting experience, score study of both contemporary and past works, and the essential courses in music theory.

A composition teacher is of course beneficial for a growing composer. Lerdahl’s teaching has a twofold focus: craftsmanship concerns—from notational strategies to bass line movement to rhythmic interest—and artistic vision. Lerdahl notes that finding your voice as a composer is a mysterious, variable process: It takes some years to mature it while for others it comes easily.

Soon, Lerdahl will be moving out of Dodge 602, tucked away in the corner of the hallway, so close to the theatre department’s office that he has probably received many an errant knock from mistaken dramatists, taking his numerous articles and books and scores off of the over-filled shelves with him.

Lerdahl will use his newfound time to finish two in-progress books (Composition and Cognition, based off of his 2011 Bloch Lectures at UC Berkeley, for example) and complete composition commissions. In the coming weeks, a duo for cello and piano will be premiered, a series of CDs from Bridge Records will be released, and his “Chaconne”—recently written for the Daedalus Quartet—will be performed. Obviously, Lerdahl will continue to lead an active musical life.

I think I read on the Core Curriculum website that it is, in fact, a requirement to self-identify as a nihilist in order to graduate. So, being the ever so proud CU student that I am, I am going to put on my Nietzsche thinking cap and use nihilist inspiration to poetically write about a relatively unimportant topic–yet another step towards my transformation into a hybrid of a “Columbia Sad Boy” and Carrie Bradshaw.

Note: if you’re reading this and do not go to Columbia, what I’m really saying is, “I am going to use a type of philosophy that rejects morals in order to justify trivial everyday occurrences”. But I promise to try and make it (ironically?) enjoyable!

“There are no moral phenomena at all, but only a moral interpretation of phenomena,” I tell myself as I eat my 11th Oreo cookie of the night, wondering if the same goes for calories. If I were in a movie, there would be a freeze frame, and the narrator would ask, “I bet you’re all wondering how she got here.” (Yes, I stole that from a old meme, and no, I have no qualms about doing so.) Anyway, the answer is midterms. Can you picture it now? Me, sitting without pants on, surrounded by a haphazard pile of highlighted notes, a feral look plastered across my naked eyes. I bet you can almost smell my annoyance and unquenchable desire to say “fuck” after every other word.

Now let’s analyze the events that got me here. I passively surrendered my elliptical to an old man today, WHICH I HAD DEFINITELY RESERVED DESPITE HIS INSISTENCE, texted yet another “no worries” to the most fuck-iest of boys, literally fake smiling through my disappointment at my own goddamn cell phone. *Turn on Carrie Bradshaw voice here* “When did I become this nice girl?”

All right, you can turn the voice off now.  But seriously, when did this stigma of “nice girl” get attached to me? I’m sure some of you are reading this, asking, “This petty bitch thinks she’s nice?” Believe it or not, I am often qualified as the “nice girl”. Sure, I try and hide it behind what is basically a satirical sex column and an edgy nose ring, but somehow this nice stigma keeps rearing its ugly head. That bastard. In reality, I don’t think I have a higher dosage of niceness than any other person. Sure I have that Midwest “charm,” which comes off differently here in the bustling city, but that doesn’t correlate to a legitimate higher level of niceness.

So Nietzsche, I turn to you. Maybe, as you have suggested, niceness doesn’t exist at all. Maybe all this niceness is just Midwestern ignorance caped in hopefulness, an identity concocted up by other people. A label which I, like my frequent meme use, embraced without reservations.

Guess what…. This happens in international politics, too! (Yes… this is where I relate my existential crisis to nukes, or more specifically unconventional weapons and warfare). You see, conventional weapons share this similar perceived niceness as me, whereas unconventional ones have this perception of immorality, or “not-niceness”.

In “A Genealogy of the Chemical Weapons Taboo,” Richard Price analyzes just exactly how this dichotomy of “conventional” vs. “unconventional” came to be in war. It is a thirty-page article, but in a reductionist summary, basically he traces this idea throughout history analyzing the strategic, tactical, and moral implications of these weapons, and why society developed a taboo against using “unconventional” weapons. 10/10 would recommend reading the article if any of these things sound remotely interesting to you. When you really think about it, there is but a slight difference between the output of these types of weapons. Each “type” has the same dosage of deadliness, so to speak, nukes just are perceived to be more deadly.

Oddly enough, Price goes to conclude his article with a lovely quote by Foucault.

“The successes of history belong to those who are capable of seizing these rules, to replace those who had used them, to disguise themselves so as to pervert them, invert their meaning, and redirect them against those who had initially imposed them.”

Maybe it’s the one too many Redbulls, or a delusional sugar induced coma (I’m on my 15th Oreo now), but I found this approach oddly inspiring and applicable to my current situation. I want to exalt these nihilist findings with a solid white-girl confirmation: “YAS bitch”.

When it comes down to it, I am not nice, I just appear to be so. That being said, I am no longer going to adhere to this perceived identity. No more taking my goddamn elliptical. No more playing it cool with the douches lurking in the back of my political science class. Damn straight I am going to adhere to Foucault’s wise-words: invert my niceness and use it against those who see me as such.

Anyway, if nothing else goes well this midterm season, at least this mid-semester breakdown has taught me one thing (yes, in true Bradshaw form, I plan on concluding with a cliche…): maybe I just have to learn to “kill ‘em with kindness.