Thoughts on Theses- Robert Suits '12
Issue   |   Wed, 04/11/2012 - 00:29

Robert Suits ’12
Major: Music
Thesis Advisor: Eric Sawyer

Tell be about your thesis.

Basically, it’s a senior thesis in music composition; it’s your basic cut-and-dried music composition thesis. I ended up writing six pieces, nominally a song cycle. And then ended up organizing rehearsals for that and performing it on Feb. 12.

Who were you writing for?

Most song cycles are more for piano and voice, stuff like that, but I’ve always been into choral music; I’m a member of choral society, and I’ve been a member of choirs since I was a little kid. I wrote one for choir, and then some instruments, specifically a string quartet, piano, keyboard and percussion.

All at the same time?

Well, at one point they were all at the same time. Basically, the way it ended up being structured was that there were six movements: the first and the last were for the entire ensemble, everyone together; the second, fourth and fifth were for choir alone; and then the middle one, the third, was just for instruments.

How did this project come about?

It’s kind of just one of those things that you come across being a music major with a composition focus — a senior thesis is just an opportunity to get a lot of your music played, because being a composition major is kind of different from a lot of other academic work. When, say, for my other major, history, I write a paper, I’m not really writing it for an audience. It’s not really a creation, it’s more just an analysis; it’s my way of engaging with something, figuring out a problem. It’s my way of teasing apart the relationship between historical actors or something like that. Whereas when I think about a piece of music, I’m wanting people to hear it, I’m wanting to express something, however corny that may sound. So you really relish opportunities to hear people play your music, to just realize that — it’s this really cool feeling of empowerment You’re like, wow, I just wrote little dots on a piece of paper, and people looked at it and they made what I think is pretty music, and that’s just one of the best feelings in the world. So a senior thesis is your chance to do 30 minutes of that.

Did you consider incorporating history into your thesis?

Well it’s actually a funny story, now that you mention it. With the double major, I actually started out at this college not being a music major at all. I hadn’t really intended to be a music major; I wanted to take music classes, but only as a side little hobby, I was always like, “History is my major.” But as I went on, in sophomore year, I was starting to take music classes, and I was like, wow, this is really, really fun. And then I just started writing music and kept doing that. But it was always very much an even balance between the two majors; I never thought music was more important than history. I sometimes thought history was more important than music; I always thought music was just my hobby, but that started to shift more towards an equal thing. But then right up until senior year actually I was not really decided on whether I was going to do a history thesis or a music thesis. In fact right up until, I forget what the exact deadline was, but I think it was something like Sept. 5, which was the deadline for submitting proposals to the history department, I was pretty close to ending up doing two theses, a history analysis thesis and a music thesis. Yeah, that would have been fun. But I didn’t really find a topic in history that would really have caught my interest, so I ended up not submitting a proposal. I’m still thinking about whether that was the right decision, but I really enjoyed the music thesis; I wouldn’t change that. Maybe I would have added a history thesis. Funny story though – I got an email from the history department on about Sept. 9 saying “Your thesis has been approved.” And I was having to send this really awkward email to Rhea Cabin, the history secretary saying, uh, I’m not actually doing a history thesis. It was the weirdest thing.

Are you thinking of going into music as a career?

Yeah, I’m not really sure yet if I will; I’ve definitely been thinking about it. As is probably pretty self-evident, music is a really hard field to break into, just because it’s fairly low-demand, and there are a lot of people willing to do music, a lot of people who really want to do music. So I wouldn’t say I’m counting on that as a career path, but I’m certainly going to try to get into it, and if the opportunity should present itself, then I would grab it with both hands. I guess the real answer is, we’ll see.

What was your favorite part of doing a thesis?

Well, this probably isn’t applicable for any of the more academic writers, but for anyone who wants to write a music thesis, I have to say definitely the best part was just when it went right on stage, and just getting to hear that music, music that you really have only heard in your head or in whichever composition program you happen to use. You always hear it in MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) format, and it sounds kind of like a slightly out-of-tune electronic synthesizer. Yeah, just getting to hear that stuff in real life, and how it eventually gets realized. There’s this one particular moment for my thesis which was pretty much impossible to simulate on the computer, because it involves all of the singers doing something completely randomly and at their own pace. It’s a little bit complicated, but it’s this really cool upward motion; it’s supposed to represent the sunrise, and there’s just this explosion of musical color. And I never really got to hear that until two weeks before the performance, when I was rehearsing it, and the first time I heard that it was just like, wow, this is actually even cooler than what I had thought it was going to be.

What was the most difficult part?

Well, specifically the most difficult part was finding string players, in particular violists, because for some reason or another all of the student violists were either occupied that weekend or are just insanely busy this semester, so I ended up having to get funds from the music department to hire a professional for that. And even then it wasn’t easy because I had to schedule around people who have real lives and try and integrate their rehearsal schedule into the student rehearsal schedule. I guess more generally the hardest part would have been organizing and planning rehearsals. But it was definitely a learning experience; it’s going to be useful later in life, hopefully.

Do you have any advice for other students considering writing a thesis?

I would say in general, if you pick something you really want to do, I mean, it is a lot of work, but it doesn’t feel like a lot of work because all of the work that you’re doing, you’re feeling like you enjoy it. So if you legitimately enjoy the subject you’re studying, which you should, because you’re at a great college and in theory, everyone you’re working with should be top-notch. If you enjoy what you’re doing already, then you will definitely enjoy thesis. You’re still going to have a lot of blood, sweat, and tears in terms of actually executing it, but as long as you like what you’re doing, then go for it; it should be fun. In terms of music composition theses in particular, I would suggest … adding a bunch of ninth chords.