Still B.A. After All These Years

I’m staggering, this late December, to the end of my first semester in graduate school, pursuing a master’s degree in composition, but I am thrilled to report that my comrades in the department are just as worn out as I am. This counts as a win because I am 58, and they are younger than my own children.

Written By

Susan Kander

A large clock displaying the time 5:32 in front of a building.

It’s never too late. (A clock on the campus of Purchase College, photo via Wiki Commons.)

I’m staggering to the end of my first semester in graduate school, pursuing a master’s degree in composition, but I am thrilled to report that my comrades in the department are just as worn out as I am. This counts as a win because I am 58, and they are younger than my own children.

A flashback, for perspective… 1976: I am a freshman at Harvard, declaring music as my major. For reasons having something to do with being swept away by The Ballad of Baby Doe, which I have seen in Kansas City at the Lyric Opera, and its composer Douglas Moore, on whose knee I have perched as an eight year old, I propose to my adviser double majoring in English and music with a thesis on American opera. There is dubious scowling in the music department, and I am sent to run this up the English department flagpole. I present myself to the Head Tutor, an academic martinet—I remember his rotundity and his Brylcreem—who listens to my wobbly proposal and bursts forth with a viscerally condescending guffaw: “Opera in English is an excrescence, with the sole possible exception of Oedipus Rex.” I have not forgotten his vitriol these forty years. I did not do the double major; I did not explore American opera; I did develop an enduring antipathy for academia.

Now, suddenly, after 40 years of committed avoidance—and a rewarding career as a composer of necessarily American operas, chamber music, music of all kinds—fall 2015 finds me schlepping to the State University of New York at Purchase three days a week for classes, lessons, rehearsals, seminars, and my young colleagues’ recitals. I am studying both composition and analysis with composer Huang Ruo who, along with Du Yun and Department Chair Laura Kaminsky, make up the unusually diverse faculty. I will come back, in another column, to life at Purchase, but will just say here that so far, I’m getting what I came for and much more besides. The first question, however, is why?

The truth is, when I decided to do this, I couldn’t even imagine what a composition lesson looked like. I had never engaged in a formal discussion of how a piece is written, mine or anyone else’s. Though I had participated in or observed lessons like this in the fields of literature, art, and architecture, I had never done it with music. My reconnaissance visit to the school a year ago gave me my first experience of a composition seminar. Sitting in a windowless room with ten students in their teens and early twenties, I listened to a graduate student present his Feldman-esque chamber piece in preparation for his upcoming interviews for Ph.D. programs. That day, I was surprised by so many things: the young man’s compositional style and his passion for it; the other students’ respect and incisive observation about his piece and his work in general. I could see there was considerable knowledge floating around this group and felt that the extraordinarily positive yet thinking atmosphere in the room was clearly driven by the faculty. Most of all, I was floored by the general articulateness of the kids. Every one contributed something to the discussion with clarity of thought and precision of language. And no one gave me the fish eye.

I can do this thing, is what I thought that day. And I can do it here, if they’ll have me. But how and why did I come to this? Why did it suddenly come to me that I needed to blow up my comfortable, autonomous Upper West Side existence and formally study the thing I’ve been pretty successfully doing for so much of my life?

A little more history.

Music is my second career. My first was in theater, writing plays. I did okay—regional stuff, Off-Broadway stuff, a TV show—but in 1993 I decided I was not the fighter I needed to be in a theatrical world that was still enormously hostile to women writers. Ask any woman over 50. Or 40. Or 30. Or… There were a couple of children born. The lever of my switch to music, in fact, was writing an opera for their public elementary school to do. There was a strings program and a band program, but no choral program. So I volunteered to fill that void, writing a 40-minute opera (on a one-and-a-half octave yellow plastic Playskool piano, but that’s another story) and discovered I had returned to something that felt like home.

But with two kids and a more or less instant take-off with commissions, first for more youth operas and then branching out into all kinds of music, I never considered graduate school. I simply set out to a) relearn everything I had forgotten since majoring in music and b) investigate all the new stuff. And the fact is, you can get pretty far doing that all by yourself using New York City as your classroom.

With each new commission, I gave myself new things to explore, new challenges. It’s been a continuous exercise in autodidactics: using music libraries at Columbia University and Lincoln Center; attending concerts at Juilliard New Music, Bang on a Can, and Composer Portraits at Columbia University’s Miller Theater; and encountering an increasing number of 20th- and 21st-century operas in big and little productions. This town’s happy/infuriating tumult of new music, along with its not-new music, is a damn good classroom.

My most recent commissions allowed me to push my music further than I’ve ever taken it, in very different directions. My 90-minute chamber opera The Giver (2012), for which I did adaptation and libretto from the seminal dystopian novel by Lois Lowry, commissioned by Minnesota Opera and Lyric Opera of Kansas City, has a pit ensemble of ten players and many orchestral interludes. Hermestänze (2013), a 30-minute cycle for violin and piano commissioned by Jacob Ashworth, artistic director of Cantata Profana (also my son) allowed me to explore those two instruments more fully—both alone and together—than ever before. After these two large and intense projects, however, I found myself wondering if I had exhausted my learning curve. The thought crept in: maybe it’s time to find someone else to lead my learning, my discovery, for a while and to experiment further from my comfort zone. Music having revolutionized and exploded itself so many times in the last 40 years, there is so much of it I don’t understand just on a technical level. And in the span of a few seconds, the idea of graduate school became the obvious next step.

I did not cast a wide net, but I did talk to composition professors to try to gauge whether this was at all a viable idea. All of them were encouraging and no one made me feel weird. I wanted a degree program that emphasized composing rather than history or theory, with performances of student work built in to the curriculum, not catch as catch can.

Purchase satisfies those requirements and has a faculty of extraordinarily happening composers besides. When I went on audition day, I was welcomed by the students who remembered me from last spring. I specifically asked the one and only girl in the program, let’s call her Woodstock, to give me a tour of the music school. Her energy alone could run a railroad, and her enthusiasm for the school, the department, the faculty, the other students, and the making of music itself is inexhaustible. In fact, one of the most striking things about the little group of composers, who were all turned out to welcome prospective students and answer questions, was their love of their own school and respect for each other. They had all been there long enough to have a realistic view of the place, but what came across was this shared love. As the parent of a violinist, I have been inside many a conservatory and stood among many groups of young musicians, but this vibe was unusual and very real—it is the sort of thing that comes directly from the top.

When I interviewed—nervous!—that day, Suzanne Farrin had been department chair for ten years. She and Du Yun and Huang Ruo sat across from me, listened together to some music of mine and asked me to explain why I wanted to do this. I am giving them my spiel when suddenly Du Yun pops up, expostulating: “Oh I get it: you want to play in the sandbox!”

Yes! Exactly! And they voted me in to the sandbox.

Susan Jander

New York-based composer Susan Kander has been commissioned by a wide range of performers, ensembles, symphony orchestras, and opera companies. She is nationally recognized as a leading composer in the field of youth opera. Her most-produced work, One False Move, “an anatomization of girl bullying,” has been done by opera companies, conservatories, schools, colleges, and choruses all over this country and in South Africa and China. Kander’s current project is the libretto and score for The News from Poems, a three-act opera about New Jersey poet/doctor William Carlos Williams.