Yesterday on the Other Side of the World

This is a chronicle of my life and times in the US, first as a foreign student from Malaysia/Singapore, and then as a cog in the wheel of a large US company. It aims to be a synthesis of (a) reminiscence of things past; and (b) blog entries I might have written if I had a blog then.

Location: Malaysia

Friday, September 12, 2008

Music Composition Course

College students are concerned about many things, one of which is the grade point average (GPA). It is both universal and personal at the same time. Everybody has one, but many people try to keep it private. In that way, it is like your underwear. However, your GPA doesn’t change everyday. In that way, it is unlike your underwear. As an average, it changes only slowly, with your latest course grades comprising a smaller and smaller fraction of the whole, as the years go by.

Some courses are popular because their average grade is A. Thus, taking such courses can raise one’s GPA. (unless you’re that guy of whom “an A drops his GPA!”. In Princeton, you can do better than an A – an A+ counts for 4.3 points, whereas an A counts for 4 points. Thus, with enough A+s, one’s GPA could be pulled up over 4, and an A would indeed drop one’s GPA.)

So how could students be adventurous and take courses far from their comfort zones, without fear of the effect this would have on their GPAs? The pass/fail system provides a way. If you “take a course pass/fail”, any passing grade is recorded as “P” (pass), and any failing grade is recorded as “F”. Courses taken pass/fail do not count towards one’s GPA. Most interestingly, the professor teaching the course does not know which students are taking it pass/fail.

I hardly took advantage of the pass/fail system. One of the few times I did was for a music composition course. This course was the second in a series of two, and I had not taken the first one. I was not planning to work hard in this course. I wanted to properly take advantage of the pass/fail system, so I could have more time for leisure and for my other courses. Besides, I believed that the efforts put in should be commensurate with the potential rewards. Thus, I didn’t study for this course. The professor put a generous selection of listening and reading materials on reserve at the music library. I didn’t listen to any of it. I couldn’t, or I would be wasting the pass/fail privilege!

I attended most of the classes. They weren’t held at an ungodly time of day like 9 am, and besides, I wanted to learn something. Classes had the cosy atmosphere of precepts, with lots of interaction. Our able instructor was a practicing composer from eastern Europe, that I shall call H. I like the way he stressed the fundamentals. H wanted us to have a good understanding of established principles of harmony. Thus, for a good while, we studied Bach chorals, as models of four-part harmony. Lucky me! Bach is one of my favorite composers.

Learning by example has its peculiarities. In many cases, we could observe music composition rules in action. For example, we observed that parallel fifths and parallel eights are rare or never seen in the chorals, and therefore they are bad.

Which came first? The chorals or the rules? Are parallel fifths bad because Bach avoids using them, or does Bach avoid them because they are bad? Once, we spotted a place where Bach had not followed a rule. People took the opportunity to pounce on Bach. Some of us tried to help Bach out, giving excuses for him along the lines of why the rule didn’t apply in this case. However, others refused to bend the rules, always staying ahead with the “but”s.

The TA eventually had to admit, with a sheepish grin, that he had no better explanation than:

“Well, indeed we see that Bach did it, so it must be ok.

Since it was a music composition class, we had a couple of homework assignments in which we needed to submit our original compositions. I went with what was most familiar to me – a composition in what I thought was the style of Mozart. It was sweet, simple and … well … lightweight (ok, that’s enough of insulting the memory of the great Amadeus – I didn’t really think it was in the style of Mozart; maybe it was more in the classical style, in general). Well, it was only a homework assignment anyway.

Who was to know that H would choose to discuss our homework in class! It was a small class, so we had time to go through all the compositions. When it came around to mine, my ears got hot and my tongue got sticky. I nodded and smiled, and hoped it would be over soon – what if somebody pointed out how pathetic it was? Somebody said: “it’s nice, kind of classical-style – like Mozart”. H didn’t have any criticism of my piece that I could remember, but then it was time for the next guy’s piece. H looked at the first few bars and started frowning, and then suggesting modifications. The student tried to explain how it should go, and boldly ventured “it’s nice”. H barely looked up to acknowledge that remark. He continued frowning. “Yes … it’s nice … but … how about …” and “or how about …”.

Another time, it was H’s turn to be on the examining table (and this he climbed onto voluntarily). He showed us one of his own compositions. I don’t remember H’s comments, except that they were not as flowing and confident as when he commented on other composers’ works. I found that the piece had a pleasing effect from combining two instruments in a certain way. If I could go back to the class today, I would have spoken this complement out loud, however, I kept silent. And my unspoken remark passed into that abstract trash heap of unsaid words. It’s a trash heap both universal and personal at the same time.

There is a Murphy’s law for everything. The Murphy’s law for the pass/fail system is: when you take a course pass/fail, you will get an uncounted A+. This Murphy’s law came and bit me after the composition class was done. Curiously, I felt both happy and sad when I saw the A+ from H. An A+ always got me going, but in this case … I guess H never found out I could not officially receive his generous grade. It was like when H played his composition for us and my complement remained in my head.

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