Thoughts on Theses: Albert Joo '15
Issue   |   Wed, 03/25/2015 - 00:42

Albert Joo '15 is a music and economics double major and is writing a music composition honors thesis. His thesis performance is on March 27 at 7 p.m. in Buckley Recital Hall.

Q: Tell me about your thesis.
A: I’m doing a music composition thesis. The music department usually lets you have free reign over what you compose. A lot of people take the approach where they’ll write about a single subject; there is a theme that ties everything together. For me, I decided to write about totally different things for each of my theses, but I decided to tie it together by bringing together different musical genres that I have been influenced by. So my first piece is a piano piece, classical piano, because that’s what I started [learning] music with. Then I move on to 1930s, 1920s tin pan alley music, which was the jazzy pop music that was popular at the time, and that was influenced by a class I took here last semester called Songwriting in Tin Pan Alley, with Professor Morris Mitchell, who was visiting. It was just a very inspirational class. And then the last three pieces use a lot of more modern, contemporary instruments: electric bass, drums, electronics, keyboard, but also some cello, violin, flute and more classical instruments. I try to fuse the two together to make this contemporary pop-alternative kind of thing. The aim here is [to combine] the classical piano and that piece that’s a lot of deep, complex classical music that I’ve been brought up on with the catchiness that you see in popular music. In the 1930s, they were all about being catchy and accessible, so to the audience, I kind of wanted to convey that. I wanted to write music that had both depth and accessibility.

Q: What was the most unexpected thing about the process?
A: I’ve been writing music informally since I was pretty young — I would say middle school. But this was the first time I’ve really sat in front of music notation software and notated everything out. It’s still a learning process. I think I’m still growing. I think I had this false impression that because it was something I did in my leisure time, doing it for my thesis would be easy for me. I’ve actually found it to be harder, but in a good way. It’s something that I’m very passionate about and I need to get it right. But sometimes I get caught up on the little things, and it’s a little difficult to move on, because I want something to sound a certain way. It’s weird when you take something that you’ve done in your leisure time for fun, as a way to relieve stress, and now it’s a source of stress in a way because you want the final product to be so good. But I think there’s been a lot of growth through doing that.

Q: Is there a research component to your thesis?
A: Not directly. But I have done a lot of research because I’m the type of composer that listens to something and gets inspired — any time that I’m listening to something, whether it be the most dissonant classical music or a Top 40 pop song. I think I’ve drawn inspiration from both ends of the spectrum. So I guess that would kind of be research.

Q: When did the thesis writing process start for you?
A: I’ve been taking composition classes here since my freshman year, and I’ve also composed outside of school. Officially for the thesis, I started writing one of the pieces spring semester of my junior year in that Tin Pan Alley class as my final project. I was happy with the outcome of that so I used that as one of my pieces. And the rest of the pieces I wrote throughout this entire year.

Q: What has been most difficult about the process?
A: I feel like, on days when you’re not necessarily inspired, you can still crank out a paragraph or two [of a traditional thesis.] But, writing a music thesis, sometimes I’ll just sit there and I just cannot think of what would go well with the next part, and sometimes you just need to take a break and come back the next day. Sometimes inspiration strikes at the weirdest moments. If you look at my phone, I have a bunch of voice memos of me singing tunes or saying which notes to play on the piano. Inspiration strikes randomly, and sometimes it’s hard to manage that.

Q: What do you think is the most valuable thing you will take away from the thesis process?
A: I think the whole independence factor — working totally on your own, setting your own deadlines. Since it’s something that I used to do for fun, I never really would set hard deadlines. It’s hard to produce anything substantial without disciplining yourself and making deadlines. This has given me the outlook that, even if by the deadline what you’ve produced isn’t as good as you wanted it to be, it still teaches you a lot. I watched this video by Ira Glass, a storyteller, and basically he says that there’s a gap when you’re doing creative work between what you can do and what you want to accomplish. Let’s say I wanted to compose something that sounds like Bohemian Rhapsody, but I have nowhere near the skills to do that, I still have that taste of what’s good or not good. The first few tries or the first year or so you can’t reach that goal, you’re disappointed, and that’s where a lot of people end up quitting. But what Ira Glass said is, even if what you’re producing is not up to par, you have to keep churning it out, and you finally made it to your goal. I think what this whole thesis process has taught me is that sometimes you just have to do it, even if inspiration isn’t striking, you’ve just got to produce something, and then you can edit it later.

Q: Do you have any advice for students writing a music thesis?
A: This is probably cliche, but work on it day by day. Don’t try to put it off until the last minute, especially if it’s important to you. I think if I had procrastinated and was just writing stuff that I didn’t feel was good during the last two weeks before my deadline, I don’t think I’d be happy with it.