The Academic Club
Nipissing University, Canada.
y now, the old boys' network has been exposed
--that subterranean club, membership to which opens
the doors one thought responded to the key of merit
only. So too have the lobby groups been exposed--political
influence, we now know, is a well-developed business, and
the individual who wants representation best not waste
his/her time talking to an MP but join a lobby group
After years of trying to 'make it' as a writer and composer,
I have, I think, uncovered yet another invisible club--the
academic club. Actually, it's not so much a club as a style,
I think, and yet I'd be hard pressed to describe it.
The uncloaking of the phenomenon began when I joined the Canadian
Electroacoustic Community (CEC). I noticed that I didn't 'fit in'.
I thought it was my sex (the CEC was almost exclusively male) or
my lack of affiliation with a university or a business (such
affiliation seemed the norm), but gradually I came to see, or
rather to hear, that the stuff I was composing was not at all
like the stuff others were composing. My stuff was still, I
thought, electroacoustic music and therefore I was still rightly
a member--but there was a difference, a big difference.
Then I noticed that almost all of the winners of the Bourges
competition, perhaps the most prestigious electroacoustic music
competition, were PhDs. Even in the lesser SOCAN competition for
young composers, the winners were almost exclusively PhD candidates.
What are the odds, I wondered.
Now of course that could simply mean that PhDs, having studied longer
and more deeply than non-PhDs, compose better music. Yeah right.
Bach didn't have a PhD. Nor did Chopin. I don't know about Charles
Fox (a really big name in film composition) or Yanni (a very popular
instrumental composer). 'Better' is an aesthetic judgement and I
don't see that grad school improves one's aesthetic sensibility.
It could be that the judges, if they're PhDs themselves, know and
favour the competitors who are PhD candidates. But I believe the
judging is blind.
I think it's the style. All of the winners' stuff sounds, well,
awful. It sounds like the stuff I wrote as assignment pieces when
I was studying toward my ARCT in composition: pieces intended to
achieve a certain musical goal, to fulfil certain artificial
requirements (e.g. write a piece using this tone row and such and
such instrumentation), pieces derivatives of or reactions against
a very narrow canon of music, pieces whose aesthetic--if there is
one--is ultra cognitive. The stuff sounds like sonic research more
I recall one such composer, a Bourges winner even, bragging about the
density of his piece--there were millions of notes involved, extensive
overdubbing of tracks resulted in as many as 400 notes being heard at
the same time. (So? How does it sound? Awful. I heard it.) I'm
not saying that sonic research is necessarily bad. But if the
competition is for sonic research, the organizers should say so--so
someone doesn't submit music instead.
I recall an adjudicator's comment, years earlier, to the effect that
my submitted piece was 'not new music'. Yes it was, I'd written it
that year! That's not what 'new music' meant. And if I'd been in an
academic music program, I would have known that. But they never said
the competition was limited to academic definitions, to academic
I noticed the same phenomenon with the poetry, and to a lesser extent
the novels, which were getting published. Again the aesthetic seemed,
well, artificial. And there was a narrowness of form, a similarity--as
if they all had the same grandfather. And yes, all the poets seemed to
have MFAs or PhDs in Literature.
Even in philosophy, there's a certain style of paper that gets published
--papers written in what I'm calling the academic style. I was,
fortunately, told about this, explicitly, by one of my graduate philosophy
profs: my papers were well-written and my ideas were certainly very good,
but, alas, she explained, my tone was too conversational, too casual, too
informal; my work, she feared, though certainly worthy, would never get
published in philosophy journals--at least, not in academic philosophy
journals (trouble is there are no non-academic philosophy journals).
Not having completely accepted this lesson, I found the first draft of
my thesis returned by my advisor with the request that I replace all
contractions with their long forms.
I'm not saying this academic style, whether in music, poetry, philosophy,
or what have you, is bad. Well actually I guess I am--I am suggesting
that it's unfortunate that more attention is paid to style than to
substance, to form than to content.
But what I'm especially saying is that the invisible should be made
visible, the implicit made explicit. The Bourges Competition people
and others like them should say that pieces written in the academic
style are preferred. Publishers should be as upfront--I wouldn't have
submitted half the manuscripts I did to half the publishers I did if
they'd said that they publish only poetry written in the academic style.
So why don't they say so? Well, perhaps they share the arrogance of all
groups that see themselves at centre stage--they don't even consider the
existence of others. They believe they're the norm, they assume they're
the standard. So what they are goes without saying. (In Canada we call
Blacks Black; we seldom call Whites anything at all.)
But failure to identify can lead to great difficulties. I believe this
is happening right now with feminism. There's academic feminism and
there's non-academic feminism. Some of the anti-feminist tracts
(Christina Hoff Sommers' Who Stole Feminism? Katie Roiphe's The Morning
After, etc.) are actually talking about academic feminism, the Women's
Studies kind of feminism, which, actually, is a very narrow kind of
feminism. Most feminists living today are, I believe, over thirty-five,
and therefore probably never even took a Women's Studies course; we
haven't even heard of Lucy Irigaray. It's a dangerous situation because
other academics think then that their Women's Studies department
represents the mainstream of feminism. And there's the problem: the
university, the academy, is not the mainstream.
Most academics seem to think the university is the centre of the universe.
And I guess it has been, for them: it's been all they have known through
four years of undergraduate education and another two years for a Masters
and yet another four years for a PhD. But the rest of the world didn't
stand still for those ten years. Not even the rest of the intelligent or
even intellectual world.
It doesn't take a genius to recognize that there's not enough room in
academia for everyone whose IQ is over 120, 140, or whatever. Those of
us not affiliated with a university are not morons. And we're out here
living, some of us composing, writing, thinking, and doing so unjacketed
by the academic style. But that's no reason to dismiss or exclude us.
And, well, if you think it is, at least say so!