Why Move Out of the Ivory Tower?

Why Move Out of the Ivory Tower?

I’m getting ready to head back to Champaign-Urbana after an all-too-short vacation at home. The friends and relatives I’ve visited here have, almost without exception, asked me how many more years of graduate school are in front of me, and I never quite know what to tell them.

I’ve been in school for a long time. I am, in a manner of speaking, in the 18th grade. Ever since I set foot on the bus on the first day at Urbana Elementary (in Urbana, MD, not Urbana, IL), I’ve been looking forward to the last day of school; as my career aspirations came into focus, that day has retreated further and further away. For years, the pursuit of a high GPA has been among my top priorities, but as my friends in other disciplines are settling into jobs, marriages, and parenthood, the idea of enrolling in “courses” and receiving “grades” feels increasingly trivial. On the other hand, the job market is an intimidating place, and I’d almost certainly be wiser to stay in school as long as possible, build a competitive resume, hone my craft, and live off the taxpayers of Illinois to as great an extent as possible. What’s the harm?

I wonder if my colleagues in other programs across the country feel the same way, but the inertia of graduate school is something for which I was not at all prepared. I don’t feel this inertia on a creative level—I think my music is probably developing at an acceptable rate—but on a personal one. The University of Illinois is becoming more and more comfortable, and I have to remind myself that it’s probably not going to get any easier to find a tenure-track position. Should I finish up as soon as I can or take as much time as my funding will allow? More importantly, is anyone else encountering this dilemma?

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16 thoughts on “Why Move Out of the Ivory Tower?

  1. JKG

    The interesting thing about subsisting in an academic environment for too long. An analogy regarding creativity could easily be drawn from concerns many have had with “being in touch with the Hoily Spirit” and attending seminary. The general complaint is: “you might not get the Holy Ghost while at seminary, but you can damn sure lose it there.” Too much dependence upon phony credential and slavish dependence upon those in the academic world can lead to creative sterility. As St, Exupery once lamented about the professor “…having the ability to teach poems, yet lacking the talent to write one of his own.”

  2. jaquick

    Get done…
    …and get out. Or, failing that, just get out. Are you a composer, or a drone for the educational system? No offense meant, but ultimately, that IS the question.

  3. ichypatia

    “I have to remind myself that it’s probably not going to get any easier to find a tenure-track position…”

    Is this really what you want to do? Escape academia only to return a few months later? For some, this may be desirable, but it’s important to remember that there are other options – many possible career paths open to you.

  4. Colin Holter

    Yeah, it really is what I want to do. I understand that a lot of you are disdainful of the “academic composer,” but your music is almost certainly more marketable than mine.

  5. mdwcomposer


    Despite the pros / cons of academia, do you want to teach? That’s not clear from your comments. Whatever music you write, however long you take for your degree, that’s really secondary in a way. When you sign on the dotted line, your job will be to teach, and if that is something you like doing, then of course, academia is your ticket. Maybe not your only one (there are lots of places and opportunities for teaching), but if teaching doesn’t trip your trigger . . .

    Mark Winges

  6. cheetomoskeeto

    5 years undergrad
    3 years masters degree
    4 years DM
    A trip through my twenties which revealed that:
    – I love to teach (found this out as a TA at UT Austin)
    – I love to write music for lots of different situations (concert, media, collaborative, installation)
    – I couldn’t take the jargonese and hyper-deconstructionist mumbo of my fellow composers towards the end
    – I am glad I took my time (I decided to have two kids along the way)

    I was able to build up a nice C.V., write some pieces I love, meet lots of great contacts, learn about so many different things – video editing, graphic design, programming, racquetball,
    After I completed my orals at Indiana University last year, I felt a huge sense of relief and wonder. I had a TT job lined up and was ready to say ‘goodbye’ to ol’ IU and that aspect of being in school. Where as IU is a most grand and illustrious ivory tower, my current place of employment is anything but (we’ve got a tower, but it is concrete and will easily crumble if a 3.0+ earthquake hits). The culture shock took a while to get over but it provided me with everything I needed to transition out of grad school.

    In my opinion, the only harm in staying in grad school too long is up you allow yourself to become complacent with the situation. I’ve seen it happen (even to myself for a while, I’ll admit) and I’m sure there are others who’d concur.

    Oh, and don’t let the academia haters get you down.

  7. amc654

    Let me put a slightly different spin on it, Colin. I’ve found it increasingly difficult to write, the longer I’ve been away from my student days. I had my last proper lesson in 2001, and, frankly, I really miss the structure and discipline that came from regular interaction with classmates and teachers. I’ve been speaking with several of my ABD students at Northwestern, and it seems many are starting to feel the same difficulties — they’ve been away from lessons for awhile (some a few months, some a few years), and they’re having trouble remaining disciplined, and they miss having someone to bounce ideas off of each week.

    For my own part, I’m currently in the rather amusing position of being in search of a composition teacher (even if only for informal but regular meetings), even while I make my living being a composition teacher.

    This is all to say, I think you could take your time at UIUC. It of course depends on how much you enjoy the environment there (students, faculty (*wink*), etc.), but I’d argue that graduate school often gives opportunities to develop (and to be really bold, to really explore and experiment and find exactly what your music is or might be) that don’t readily exist on the other side of the degree fence (or, rather, that have to be much more carefully cultivated/invented on the other side fo the fence).

    And, as one more (rather polemical) aside, _none_ of our music — academic, anti-academic, populist, esoteric, pandering crap, whatever — is “marketable.” Even the people who are writing music that you think is “marketable” are still just a tiny sliver of the tiny sliver of whatever miniscule “market” classical/art music maintains. These days, even the most pandering, populist attempt at communicative classical music is preaching to the choir, at best — and the choir has about 3 singers.

    Boola boola.

  8. pgblu

    no subject
    I’d love to know if Colin has found any of this helpful. For my part, I imagine he could have told himself these things himself. Except for ‘boola boola’.

    So are you done with your 12-tet yet? I mean really done done done? I can’t wait to hear it.

  9. Colin Holter

    As always, I appreciate the responses – this might be the kind of question, however, that no amount of input from well-wishers can make easier to answer. I had hoped that my raising this topic would elicit more reaction from others who are in the same boat (i.e. other graduate students), but whatever.

    The 12-tet is about 80% done, not including parts preparation (which, with 1/4-tone fingerings, will be time-intensive). I’m behind schedule, but I ought to be able to wrap it up in the next week or two. Nice of you to inquire, though. I look forward to hearing about Darmstadt.

  10. ydandaman

    none_ of our music — academic, anti-academic, populist, esoteric, pandering crap, whatever — is “marketable.” Even the people who are writing music that you think is “marketable” are still just a tiny sliver of the tiny sliver of whatever miniscule “market” classical/art music maintains.

    I understand what you are saying here, but I think your statement misses the point. Yes, no composer who makes their living in academia has music that is “marketable”, funny coincidence huh? But anyone making their living mostly or wholly from composing obviously has music that is “marketable”. This would include people such as John Adams, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Lowell Liebermann, not to mention many electronic music composers (and of course countless jazz and rock composers). Or do none of those people qualify as “art music”?

    Just because the audience is vastly smaller for music meant to be appreciated as art doesn’t mean that it’s not marketable, at least if it’s of sufficient quality, I mean there are people who make their living creating seemingly random collages of extremely abrasive noise. I don’t think we have anyone to blame but ourselves if we can’t find an audience that will support our music.

  11. amc654

    I understand what you are saying here, but I think your statement misses the point. Yes, no composer who makes their living in academia has music that is “marketable”

    I didn’t intend to limit my comment to academia, or to “academic” music. It’s true: Adams, Reich, Lieberman, etc. all do make very comfortable livings writing music, so you’re right, there’s at least enough of a market to support them, financially. (Though … compare their relative fame/success in our field w/ a similar figure in, say, pop music … it’s clear exactly what sort of market we’re dealing with.)

    What I was really talking about, though, really ought to be termed “market share,” and in that case, even someone like Reich has a market share that doesn’t even come close to that of an obscure indie group. Worse, I’d bet more people own the “Clap Your Hands Say Yeah” disc than own any Liszt, much less Reich or Adams.

    And … also, you’re wrong. There are several composers working in academia who make very livable livings through commissions in addition to their teaching. And, frankly, I wouldn’t think that commissioned academically-employed composers make any more or less than commissioned non-academically-employed composers.

    Anyhow … I didn’t mean to be talking about the amount of money made — I was talking about … influence? Significance? I don’t know. But something like that. Q-rating? In any case, my comment had nothing to do w/ academia. Except the “Boola boola” bit, which was meant w/ appropriate irony. Died-in-the-wool academic composer type quoting Feldman making fun of academic composers …? I don’t know. I’m channeling Kyle Gann today. Must be a Northwestern thing.

  12. ydandaman

    I know there are some academics who could make their living elsewhere, I was exagerrating to make a point. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with working in academia per se, but what disturbs me is the attitude expressed by Colin and others that academic positions exist as some sort of refuge for people who’s music is too artful or experimental to be marketable. My point is that there is no type of music that is inherently unmarketable, and that this is merely an excuse for people to avoid accountability for the quality of the art they are producing.

  13. ydandaman

    Before people start flaming me on the “quality” issue, understand that I don’t mean it as an absolute. I just mean that without an audience for our music what is the point? Is it just for the benefit of our own ego? We don’t need to compete against Britney for the hearts of impressionable teens looking for the next musical fashion accessory, but aren’t we fooling ourselves if we ignore the successful, extremely experimental artists working in electronic, jazz, and rock music? There is obviously an audience for this stuff!

  14. JKG

    Serious popular music
    The “market share” notion is pretty novel. As someone whose serious catalogue is written entirely of a love and passion for the art, I have no dearth of technique or artistic goal for getting those works completed. However, in the process I find that all of my musical skills can come in handy when I write for any style or any ensemble, even if its not dire experimentation (which ain’t my cuppa tea) or the most rigid stylistic exercise in neo-romanticism I can dream up. Point is – what’s wrong with a composer making enough of a living to purchase a quiet little house? I used to think I’d be prostituting myself if I wrote for corporate training videos and that ilk, yet I know now that I can provide a quality product at a good price and compete squarely while I’m doing it. The relative sophistication of the client is rarely an issue, as my serious work is already aimed at the workingman (elitists be damned). Does that make my serious music any less art?

  15. jbunch

    the community
    The University is one of the only institutions left on the planet where their exists the recognition that all types of people and art have a right to exist , grow, and flourish. Its unfortunate to see that we so easily surrender art over to the popularity contest of the market. While we must, of course, be allowed to listen to whatever speaks to us as individuals, the market does not leave room for strange, unfamiliar, and “difficult” forms.

    I had this conversation with one of my roommates – a non-musician. I played the galop section from tanzsuite mit deutschlandlied for him and asked him what he thought about it. His response was “well, it’s kind of cool, but I probably wouldn’t bump this if I was riding around the neighborhood.” He harbours no resentment towards Helmut Lachenmann, new music, dissonance, funny noises, or horses – but sees it rather as “functional” music – music which has a time and a place (and an audience).

    I always find it dismal when people complain about the limited audience appeal of some new music – as if composing for each other is a bad thing. There are a lot of us out there. Academia isn’t perfect, but it’s high time we stop passing on these rediculous myths of the “sterile academic composer.” There is a broad array of “populist” composers teaching at prestigious institutions (in fact, almost all of the populist composers that come to mind have university jobs, or had them at one point or another).

  16. jbunch

    Yes, I know the market craves oddities. But – assuming that we’re not talking about Japanese leaf-blowers tuned to Bb-major with house trance beats accompanying a Shaimen exorcism ritual carried out on a busty-blond from Texas – a Jonathan Harvey Quartet only has so much market-power.


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