Dartmouth's Music Department: An Appraisal

The first time I tried to write this article I tapped into an emotional core well beyond what I would ask Mouth to publish. My polemic was too specific and accusatory; in other words, academically suicidal. I decided to put the pen aside and figure out what I was trying to say in a more general sense. Dartmouth’s Music Department is, by construction, resistant to change. The problems that plague it – its persistent lack of guidance, poor infrastructure, and bureaucratic indifference - are really nothing new. Yet it all manages to feel so raw. What is it about the state of academic music at Dartmouth that provokes such a powerful reaction in me?

My revelation was minor, but essential: things here change more rapidly than I had realized. By their very nature, music departments marinate in the sweat and tears of individual musicians. The art they produce is raw; it is necessarily new, the primary agent of change. When I came in as a freshman and the senior ‘13s were at the climax of their artistic angst, our Department was in a different place. Then, the practice rooms were soaking in the juices of Prokofiev Concertos and Bach Violin Sonatas, among other renditions of genius the school saw that year.

The specifics matter here. Music isn’t something that is simply done and over with, like a term paper or a big weekend. I discourage you to think about music in the nihilistically cyclical way we tend to think about most things at Dartmouth. Music, particularly art-music, is based on the act of creation. To explain Emily Hyun’s senior recital, for instance, as somehow institutional or part of a larger cycle would be to deny the radiant truth of her performance. It is not simply another roster of musicians, another performance, another day. There is no checklist here. Each and every time music is made at Dartmouth, something beautiful and something horrible happens. The beauty is the resistance of the moment. It lies in the fact that something pure and true is conceived amongst the stagnation and inertia of the Department. The horror is the life-denying indifference that is always implicitly insisting it doesn’t matter. And it makes every moment, every individual instance of music, feel fresh. Triumphantly, we bleed out in the practice rooms.

My critique is deeply psychological and I invite you to analyze me; my complaints are just verbal manifestations of the angst I feel daily. How can I discuss the ways in which I have had to bushwhack my way through the Department without avoiding that pernicious “I?” I can’t separate my experience from what I perceive as broad-based critiques. The temperamental humidity of our subterranean facility causes my instrument to swell like a stubbed toe. I go days without experiencing natural sunlight, without even feeling remotely close to the sun. And yet, the Department itself always seems strange. Even when you expect to know everyone else camping out in the practice rooms, it more closely resembles a nomadic trading post than a proper village. I might encounter the occasional familiar wanderer, but for the most part we are individuals staking lonely, transient claims. After contemplation, I’ve recognized the authenticity of my gripe. Each one of us, individually, is the Music Department. There is nothing beyond our efforts - only through our creativity and labor can music be continually reborn, every second of every day of every year.

If I leave my tuner on to identify the ambient pitch of a practice room, it will sometimes pick up a B-flat. If it’s truly there, I can’t hear it; my ears are too accustomed to what the non-sound sounds like. Some days I almost imagine it into existence. It manifests as a word: Why? Why am I holing myself away from the world? Why do I need to surround myself with ugliness to access beauty? Why do I bother trying when few have any expectations of student musicians generally, me in particular? Why do I bother trying when society thinks of music as a hobby, my specific interest as a relic?

I speculate that others have these thoughts too, but at this point my mind is so inwardly focused speculation is all that exists. I’m sure that they too cling desperately to the answers. The answers can be found in a professor who tells you to do better. They can be found in a knock on the practice room door or in the knowing smile of a comrade as she slinks past it. The best answer of all is just a note, a word in a musical essay. For some reason, at that time of that day, it is the word that you need to hear. You have made it for yourself, and you feel strangely lighter afterward.

Meanwhile, we seethe under the yoke of optimism. Right now, it feels like a paradigm shift is possible. The proposed renovation of the Hopkins Center, the relative recency of the Hanlon Administration, the remarkable sense of a macro-inflection point that is causing Mouth to publish this issue in the first place - this could be the final, glorious defeat of the old music institution at Dartmouth. After all, the visual arts recently benefited from a similar renaissance. What if, five years from now, we had a Department of instructors who truly sought to take the intellect and drive of our students and direct it toward music? What if their offices had windows? What if we showed off our Music Department to prospective students, and what if they came here because of the impression it left? It would be vital to musicians, sure, but think about how it could change our own perception of Dartmouth. Alumni returning would see it with the nostalgia they have for Baker or Dartmouth Hall or Webster Ave. Even the most tone deaf of them would consider it a part of themselves in an essential way.

President Hanlon comes to our shows. He, at least nominally, supports student musicians, and listens to our concerns. He speaks publicly about experiential learning in the same style of The New Yorker articles that concern the new “creative entrepreneur.” It’s on the tip of our tongue. I feel like we are all waiting for Parkhurst to start shouting. What could be more experiential than performance and composition? What social change could be more revolutionary or more uplifting than staking the claim of Dartmouth as a home for musicians?

Dartmouth’s liberal arts environment is the natural starting point for “creative entrepreneurship,” a hideous buzzword that fails to capture the nature of creativity but for now must suffice. The Music Department could be more than a barely viable program for musicians already here. It could be a unique model, a rival to the skills-acquisition focus of conservatory, that integrates the non-musical skills a conservatory cannot teach. If musicians must be machines, they would do well to be critically minded, anti-fragile machines (Dartmouth students, more or less). Music is buttressed, not burdened, by the departments Dartmouth consistently gets right, like History or Computer Science or English. It’s too easy to gloss over the academic aspects of music. Performance is a function of intellect, cultural awareness, cooperation, and theory. Musicians should be risk-takers, creative and analytical thinkers, and informed citizens. I see a future where students are told to make music, where the Department responds, nurtures, and challenges our interests, where administrators and faculty and non-musical students acknowledge that art-music matters in a fundamental sense. Our facilities should be a beacon and a point of pride, not the ramshackle tomb we retreat to today.

This isn’t about me any more because we all have expiration dates as musicians here. Mine is approaching, certainly before any significant change can claim victory over the Department. I will have to make the same choice that every Dartmouth musician has to make, that my freshman year idols made, and that incoming freshmen will one day be forced to make. Die or be reborn?