Category: submission

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Admittedly, I was surprised when I learned that he was interested in tonal music, which is perceived as outdated in the world of contemporary composition.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.

 

                                Image via DailyMail

That now infamous mess-up at the Oscars literally made my heart stop.

For some context, I had been anxiously awaiting 7pm all day. I stayed up late the night before, I finished all my work, I showered and ate dinner– nothing was going to come in my way of Hollywood’s most important night. As movie lovers will understand, the Oscars are the Superbowl of all things entertainment. And you don’t miss the Superbowl.

The night was going very well. I thought Jimmy Kimmel was an extremely tasteful host with a nice balance of political (but non-offensive) jokes and your average dig at Matt Damon. At one point, he even surprised a real LA tour group with a trip to the Oscars, a move which had me cursing my parents for planning our family vacation to LA at the completely wrong time. There hadn’t been any real surprises of the night by the time we got to Best Picture, with Emma Stone and Casey Affleck taking home the night’s top acting prizes, Mahershala Ali and Viola Davis taking supporting actor awards, and La La Land’s Damien Chazelle becoming the youngest person ever to win Best Director (he’s 32, even though you might think from first glance that he’s 15). Even though Lin-Manuel Miranda lost the Best Song award he so clearly deserved, the night went on pretty much without a hitch– until Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway took the stage to announce the night’s most coveted award, Best Picture.

From the start, Best Picture was really the only contended race of the night. La La Land was the early favorite, but Moonlight had recently begun to clean up at award shows, which left many wondering if it would steal the Oscar at the last minute. Plus, with all the backlash from last year’s #OscarsSoWhite, could the Academy really get away with awarding its top prize to an all-white film over an all-black one? Would they dare?

So when Dunaway announced La La Land as the winner, everyone took in a breath of confused emotions: Did Moonlight ever really have a chance? La La Land was great, but I guess I was kind of hoping for an upset. Is this racist? Am I happy right now? And then, when Oscar producers stormed the stage and we saw Emma Stone gasp and mouth the words “oh my god,” it was a whole different range of emotions entirely: Holy crap, did they say the wrong name? Holy crap, did La La Land not win? Holy crap, this is so awkward and uncomfortable for everyone involved. HOLY CRAP.

Okay, maybe that was a little specific to my thoughts, but you get the picture. Next thing we knew, the poor producers of La La Land had to stop in the middle of their speeches and announce that in fact Moonlight had won, and then we all sat uncomfortably, not knowing how to feel, as the Moonlight crew took the stage and gave their own speeches. Luckily, Jimmy Kimmel was again extremely suave, jokingly taking full responsibility for the blunder and easing the tension. But holy crap, was that a way to end.

I’ve always looked up to the Oscars, as has anyone who’s ever dreamed of working in the entertainment industry. It’s the ultimate goal, the final sign that you’ve made it. It’s glittery dresses and fancy sets and funny hosts and golden trophies– it’s literally the night at the ball that every Cinderella dreams of. So it was a shock for everyone watching this year to find out that, in fact, the Academy Awards are not perfect. They are run by human beings– accountants who, like anyone else, could accidentally give Warren Beatty the wrong envelope. Famous actresses like Faye Dunaway could ramble off the name from a card which was clearly wrong, and just like that the magic of the night is lost.

I think, really, that my heart stopped that night because I was struck with this reality for the first time as well. Despite being twenty years old, I still thought the Oscars were a glittery and perfect night at the ball. Obviously, the Oscars remain a (likely untenable) dream, but this past Sunday, some of the ethereality and perfection dissipated. Now, when I look at the industry I dream of going into, I am reminded of its humanity, and that pushes me to work harder, but in a different way than I did before. Instead of striving for perfection, I’ve realized I have to strive for realness.

And, honestly, maybe that’s for the better.

The Must-Binge List: It’s flu season, so if you’re stuck in bed for a couple of days, try out Netflix’s Grace and Frankie: a comedy about two older couples who divorce upon discovering that the two men have been having a secret affair for years. It’s hilariously written and has an all-star cast (Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen, AND Sam Waterston!!) Check out the first two seasons online! My grade: A-

 

Emily Nussbaum is a television critic for The New Yorker. With her analytic and sharp pieces of television criticism across various genres, Nussbaum has made an impressive name for herself. Since becoming The New Yorker’s television critic in 2011, Nussbaum has won two national awards, the National Magazine Award in 2014 and the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2016. She has written about a multitude of TV shows including “Mad Men,” “Scandal,” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” The Pulitzer Prize website characterizes Emily Nussbaum’s work as “television reviews written with an affection that never blunts the shrewdness of her analysis or the easy authority of her writing.”

President Lee C. Bollinger and Emily Nussbaum

President Lee C. Bollinger and 2016 Criticism Prize Winner Emily Nussbaum

I had the honor of interviewing Ms. Nussbaum in October. Nervously I asked Emily Nussbaum the first question I had prepared.

“Did you always know you wanted to write?”

Nonchalantly she responded, “Well I wrote in college.” She was a creative writing major at Oberlin College. She later did her master’s in poetry at NYU. “I always knew I wanted to write, just wasn’t sure how exactly, but I knew I wanted to write,” Nussbaum told me.

My next question proceeded naturally. “Did you ever imagine yourself as a television critic?”

“Not really,” Nussbaum replied. Emily Nussbaum went on to tell me she became very interested in television in the late 90s, when “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” aired. She told me that was a transformative time and a very transformative show. She filled her passion for television through various mediums. At Television Without Pity, she was involved (although distantly) in vehement debates and “wild” discussions that they held about television content. Nussbaum told me she would mostly write about academic issues while she pursed a graduate degree. She later got a job at Slate, but only wrote about TV when something truly interested her. She began to focus more on television at New York Magazine, where she was a writer and Culture Editor for seven years. From there, she went on to her current role, as the New Yorker’s television critic.

“Slowly television criticism has become a more respected arts medium,” Nussbaum told me as I asked how people reacted when they found out she was a television critic. Ms. Nussbaum said that at the turn of the century, with shows like “West Wing” and “The Wire,” television criticism became a more sought after enterprise.

I followed up the response with asking how she felt since winning the Pulitzer and what had changed. Nussbaum openly said, “I was more nervous than anything at first.” With increased visibility, Nussbaum told me, she felt her pieces were in more scrutiny. “After a couple more articles, however, I went back to my normal work,” Nussbaum added.

In recent years, television has been changing. Nussbaum reminded me, however, that television on Netflix or on cable was the same fundamentally.

“TV has changed, yes, but just the visual medium, TV remains TV.” Nussbaum qualified her response, saying that Netflix has provided different ways of viewing television, with the recent addition of the “binge watch” into our television culture, and these changes do come with required new forms of adjustment. These changes are not entirely unprecedented, she stated, as she brought to my attention the shift that DVR caused, as people could now suddenly record and pause shows, and thus alter the traditional viewing experience.

For those who might want to pursue a similar career as Nussbaum, I asked her if she had any advice to give to young people. Her response was quite simple, “Things are changing so much. I would recommend talking to an editor, and asking him/her how the current conditions are predicted to be for the specific field one wishes to pursue.” Nussbaum offered more of her knowledge, saying that one of the most important ways of moving up in journalism was developing strong relationship with editors. “Demonstrating your passion for the work you do is always important,” Nussbaum highlighted. She warned, though, to make sure one checks in to see what job opportunities may be available before becoming fixed to a specific career path.

As the interview was coming to a close, I threw out the last question.

“What is a piece that you are most proud of?”

Nussbaum responded confidently, “I wrote a piece about ‘Sex and the City’ that I really liked.” She went on to say that in this piece she explored how comedy could be held at the same level as drama. “It was more of a statement piece,” she mentioned. Alyssa Rosenberg of the Washington Post summarized this piece as, “an essay arguing that ‘Sex and the City’ was just as important as ‘The Sopranos’ in expanding the idea of what was possible on television.” Nussbaum discussed how pieces that challenge her and “don’t come natural” are her favorite work overall. Expanding on the question, Nussbaum said that work that created conversations and developed a relationship with her audience often offered the most satisfaction.

Emily Nussbaum has been a trailblazer in her field, helping raise television criticism to prominence. Nussbaum is the second television critic in almost 28 years to have won the Pulitzer. Examples of her work can be found here.

Foreword: With Dean Valentini urging Columbia students to talk to Columbia Counselling and Psychological Services, I wonder if Yi-Chia “Mia” Chen had tried these services. Has anyone? We essentially seem to be unequipped to deal with catastrophes like this. This article is mainly written not to give the best solution, but to ask for solutions. What can we do better to prevent things like this from happening again? What improvements can be made?

Today I received an email from Dean James Valentini about the apparent suicide of an exchange student at Columbia College from Waseda University in Japan. It is not the first time since my first year in Columbia that I received an email like this.

But that is not the scariest part. It is not the death that is happening so close to us that we fear, but the oblivious bystanders.

The oblivion of this world.

My first reaction to the email is: if it happened yesterday, why is no one talking about it today?

Death at this moment has become a private matter. Only a small group of people are suffering in an unknown corner of this world, while the vast majority don’t even seem to care.

This earth, without her, keeps spinning around its axis.

No one knows that she took her own life that day. If not for the email, I even would not know anything about it. Even people living in the same floor with her may not have a clue. Right now, I am sitting in the Columbia Writing Center, and people around me seem to mind their own business, jumping and rushing around to fix their essays to get an A in the class.

But at the same time, someone, someone that I might have passed by every single day on campus on my way to University Writing, gave up her life.

The parallel is striking. The same road we choose to cross every single day may lead to a drastically different ending.

I talked to several friends about the news, but all I got are just oblivious, brush-it-off, I-don’t-know-what-to-say answers. The conversations quickly die off or move on to another topic.

Is it just me? Or is the world is so used to catastrophe and death that no one seems to care anymore? Or is it only my world that is so full of translucent fragile bubbles that when death tumbles on its feet near me, it is so easily crashed.

For those who are so used to seeing death, their world must be made from cotton, muffling their ears so well that they can easily move back to their original tracks when death missed them merely.

Yeah, my next-door neighbor killed herself, but I have a midterm tomorrow.

I don’t really know her. I need to study.

It is so curious how the world deals with the death of a stranger, as it happens so often.

On this campus that breaths of liveliness and ambition, it also buries lives. Very often.

But what role do we play in this ridiculous game of life, in an event like this?

We bear witness. For the deceased lives.

Is death or suicide still meaningful if no one knows about it?

If no one knows me in this world, is my life still meaningful?

Do we live for ourselves or for people who know us?

Do you still choose life over death adamantly if no one cares about you in this world?

If you live in agony and solitude, do you choose to live?

Or would you choose death, even when you are surrounded by people who love you deeply?

I have to end my writing process also at this moment because my appointment is up for discussing the paper due tomorrow.

I also have to throw myself entirely into another conversation because there are things that I have to prioritize as well.

I talked to my parents and my friends, but all of their responses reveal the inertness and the powerless of words when facing the topic of death.

When death merely missed us, the mixed feeling of regret, relief, fear, anger, grief, sorrow cannot be concluded by a simple word.

Many people choose to ignore that feeling because it happens every second. 1.8 people die every second, to be exact. By the time you finished reading this sentence, 4 people have died.

Th human mind seems incapable to deal with the fact that the world is dying every half second.

Just like no one can celebrate every birth of a new born child, no one can grieve for every death that is happening around the world.

We simply don’t have enough joy and sorrow for strangers.

Our emotion seems reserved and ephemeral at this moment. Reserved because of the emotional distance between the person and us. Ephemeral because of the limited time.

Are we oblivious? Or do we simply save it for people we care?

We approach the topic of death with caution. Isn’t it because that we are afraid that we will spread too thin in the face of catastrophe?

The world keeps spinning not because it is okay without her, but because MY world is okay without her.

We all have limited emotion reserve. I am really sorry that I cannot share a piece of my pie with you. I am truly sorry.

But at the same time, in the deep corner of our heart, don’t we feel a little lucky that we don’t know her at all?

Because of the strangeness, we can tip-toe dancing around her death, wasting the life that she no longer had.

We are innocent from the news, so we don’t know what happened, so we don’t care, so we are oblivious.

But can we keep pretending when Columbia sends us an email to let us be informed?

Do we have the right to choose to be uninformed when death comes near? I guess, we can always choose to distance ourselves from death. We can choose oblivion.

But, can we?

Should we?

I have to move on, eventually.

I am the bystander who chooses to bear witness.

I can choose oblivion, but somebody cannot. They have to wait for time to heal their wounds.

I fear the oblivion, but I understand it. Because in this world, every single second, there are someone who is overjoyed for life, and someone who suffers from it.

These two things happen everywhere at the same time.

They can be 100,000 miles, or the thickness of a wooden door from each other.

She laughs, I cry.

He cries, you laugh.

We begin to understand this world. We begin to understand the double-sided nature of joy and sorrow. We begin to understand ourselves.

We start to know life, a little by little.

At the same time, the frat parties are still on tonight next door to the campus.

If you need to reach out to someone regarding mental health, these resources are at your disposal: