MIT Music Programs FlourishBy Ann Ames
The music department offers a wide variety of unique opportunities for undergraduates. This is partly because there is no graduate program to steal the attention of the very talented faculty, and partly because the Institute is willing to structure the curriculum around faculty members' expertise, instead of requiring a strict, standard program.
What MIT students outside the musical community may not realize is that the department's academic curriculum is rich and rigorous, and is taught by a faculty that would make any conservatory student jealous. Consider a world music course taught by Lecturer George E. Ruckert, who studied in India with the renowned sarodist Ali Akbar Khan, or Assistant Professor Evan Ziporyn, whose work in Balinese music earned him a Fullbright Fellowship in 1987. Advanced theory students have an opportunity to study with Professor John H. Harbison, who has received both a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Foundation Grant for his compositions.
Faculty amass awards
The extensive list of awards and impressive degrees earned by members of the music faculty is still growing. Every professor and lecturer on staff has a busy professional life, whether his or her field be performance, composition, or research. Assistant Professor Martin M. Marks, a musicologist specializing in film music, is currently writing a series of three books on the evolution of film music. He also plays the piano accompaniment to silent films in area festivals.
In addition, the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra, directed by Lecturer Mark S. Harvey, just recorded its first CD, which is prominently displayed among the new jazz releases at Tower Records. Ziporyn recently purchased a Gamelan, an orchestra of traditional Balinese instruments that is now the focus of a new performance group on campus and that will be incorporated into his world music course.
Associate Professor Peter Child, whose compositions have won acclaim from such organizations as Tanglewood and the New England Conservatory, is writing an oratorio in collaboration with Alan Brody, professor of theater arts and director of the Music and Theater Arts Section in the Department of Humanities, and Senior Lecturer John S. Oliver, director of the MIT Concert Choir and Chamber Chorus and founder of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the John Oliver Chorale.
Groups have won acclaim
In addition, opportunities to perform abound in the music program. There are seven formal ensembles and a chamber music society led by faculty members, two musical theater groups, a student-conducted orchestra dedicated to new works, and any number of spontaneous explosions of musical creativity. Check out the Student Center Commitee's "Battle of the Bands" sometime, or pause to listen to an impromptu duet, trio, or quartet in Lobby 7.
The concert band has had a successful history at MIT with its longtime director, John D. Corley Jr. From the beginning, Corley's objective as conductor of the Concert Band has been to provide for students an environment in which to forget their academic pressures while stimulating their creativity. Since 1958, the band's repertoire has consisted almost entirely of works composed for its medium, including approximately 40 which were commissioned for the group.
These commissions represent such an important collection of concert band music that when Oxford University Press decided in 1986 to begin publishing band music, they approached Corley with a proposal to print an "MIT Series" of band works which would then be available for rental by other ensembles. Although nothing has yet been published, Corley said that Oxford has about 24 of the band's scores and that the project is still alive.
Undergraduates are focus
Such active groups and faculty can only bring excitement and freshness to its classrooms, especially in a department without a graduate program, where all the emphasis is on undergraduate education. This attracts many talented professionals to the Institute. Instead of being forced to teach standard subjects designed to produce graduates with a broad base of general musical knowledge, professors here can offer subjects from their own areas of expertise, eliciting all the enthusiasm that abounds in anyone given the opportunity to explore and share whatever it is he or she loves.
Even with prestigious faculty, the music department lacks an advanced degree program. There has been talk of one, but opinions are mixed on the issue. Harvey said that more in-depth teaching would give him new ideas for his own work. Another professor thinks undergraduates would benefit from the presence of graduate students, who could help bridge the gap between youth and experience.
Others oppose the idea, claiming it would destroy the heart of what Harbison calls "an exceptional undergraduate experience." Child feels that in addition to degrading the unique quality of existing opportunities, the institution of a graduate program would introduce to his job the moral dilemma of sending students into a highly competitive field with limited opportunities. He does not encourage students to follow music professionally, and recommends that a student do some serious soul-searching before applying to graduate programs in music
However, the Institute may eventually require this popular and expanding department to adopt a more traditional approach to music education and to offer advanced degrees. Harbison, who has been here since 1969, said that MIT in general has become a part of the mainstream, which is more interested in standardization than innovation. But Child said that the department is not headed in this direction.
Part of MIT music history
When Lecturer Corley came to MIT in 1948, he wondered if he was doing the right thing. He had been invited here by Klaus Liepmann, then Director of Music, to fill a need for a greater variety of performance opportunities on campus. Corley attended a Wednesday evening rehearsal of the concert band, which a student was conducting at the time, and was so impressed by the quality of the repertoire and the enthusiasm of the students that he took charge of the group that very night. His acceptance of a position as part-time instructor increased the number of the music faculty to three, only two of them full-time.
The formal music program had begun just one year before, when Liepmann became the first professor of music at the Institute. Prior to that time, students had been forced to take musical matters into their own hands, and although there was no official academic recognition of their efforts, the Institute enjoyed a surprisingly rich, if turbulent, musical tradition. A variety of clubs sprang from students' creativity.