Coming Up for a Year’s Worth of Air

Yesterday I taught my last class of the semester, and do not teach another one until February of 2008. My sabbatical has begun, and the English language affords no sweeter word. The next 13 months will consist of only composing, writing, traveling, and, of course, blogging. I slept last night as I haven’t in many months. If you are the kind of musician who tends to envy other musicians, you may envy me now. If you know of any other kind of musician, I’d love to hear about it. I’ll let you know when you can go back to regarding my life with bemused schadenfreude. The day will come.

My students, most of whom I am devoted to and vice versa, have trouble understanding why I am so eager to distance myself from them. I tell them, truthfully, that teaching them is a pleasure, and that the relief does not derive from extracting myself from that cheerful, mutually fertile interaction. I try to phrase delicately that certain tensions arise between a professor and his fellow faculty that grow to consume one’s idle thoughts, and that removal from the sources of such tension goes a long way toward restoring mental health. The looking-glass world that is the administration’s view of the faculty is also a surreal environment, and the daily cognitive dissonance of evaluations, reports, meetings conducted in such surreality impinges on one’s sense of the truth.

Those are the excuses I can give them. But how can I also tell them that, as much as I love teaching them theory, immersion in theory is suffocating for an artist? That every week as I exhort them to avoid unresolved 6-4 chords and false relations in their music, I am chomping at the bit to go home and write my own music filled with unresolved 6-4’s and false relations? That the daily construction of musical normalcy with which I regale them, in order to give them a framework to rebel against later, interferes with the looking-glass world of my own music, in which everything is as upside-down as possible? That the dead composers I push on them are unwelcome intruders into my own creative solitude? That the composer who teaches is forced into a dishonest double life, an insecure, nose-thumbing spinner of dreams masquerading as a credentialed authority, and that one must occasionally come up for air and live honestly for a time, or die as an artist?

I have written at length on the dissatisfactions of the academic life, which strikes me as no better or worse than any other for an artist – or rather, both much better and much worse than others, in equal amounts. As Virgil Thomson famously chronicled, every method of making money has its dangers for an artist, including inherited wealth. I imagine that if some demiurge saddled me with a Pulitzer Prize and plopped me in front of the Cleveland Symphony as their composer-in-residence, I would find that environment as damagingly surreal as the one I just escaped from, as full of inflexible expectations and uncomfortable social obligations. I am apparently not very good at dealing with authority figures, or at least so the authority figures I work for have been telling me. Better that I should deal with them from a perhaps marginalized but still tenured and thus stable position. If I lived on commissions and the Cleveland Orchestra board of directors were my authority figures, I would doubtless soon find myself tossed out on my ass and commissionless. Onerous as are its excesses, this life is probably the extant artistic model that my intransigent personality can best accommodate itself to. There were drawbacks to being a critic, too – though, to tell you the truth, I no longer remember what they were.

Somehow in its otherwise so flawed wisdom academia recognizes that it cannot crush the spirit out of a man eight months a year forever and expect that man to retain his usefulness, and so it offers him a free semester now and then to “develop his career.” That’s a euphemism for returning to reality and remembering why you embarked on this particular course in life in the first place, which I joyously begin doing today.


  1. Peter says

    In your dealings with authority figures you are in good company, Kyle. Even Bach faced church elders eager for him to compose in a more pietistic fashion. We don’t now remember THEIR names, though.
    Best wishes of the season!
    KG replies: What a lovely thought to cheer up Christmas. About their names not being remembered,I mean.

  2. says

    I come from a long line of (non-music) college professors, and I’m almost certainly going to end up perpetuating that at some point, if not only as an adjunct tuba teacher, but I have to admit, based on my experiences as a student and also from hearing some of the same things you said from my dad, I’ve come to aspire to reform academia rather than merely join it. It seems that there is a remarkably broad consensus in favor of some sea change in the way music departments operate, yet it is not happening at any perceptible rate. Someone should start a blog about THAT.

  3. Paul H. Muller says

    It is difficult to be a working musician in any capacity: performer, teacher or composer. I have always had a full time day job and music for me has always been a counterweight to the frustrations of the daily grind. If music is the daily grind, consider that your sabbatical should properly be a break from music, not a time to intensify. Good luck!