Prakazrel Michel, better known as Pras, wrote most of his verses and hooks to The Fugees’ first album, “Blunted on Reality,” while a Yale freshman. In between philosophy and psychology courses, Pras was in session with Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean in New Jersey, laying down tracks and trying to keep up with his schoolwork. Mixing turntablism with live instrumental arrangements, the trio sampled artists like Earth, Wind & Fire, Kool & The Gang, Aretha Franklin and Buster Williams, updating funk, hard bop and R&B by integrating it into the developing tristate hip-hop culture.
Aside from Pras, Cole Porter and the indie outfit The Dirty Projectors, Yale has a weak history of producing icons in popular music. There are plenty of famous actors, architects, artists and classical musicians who emerge from Phelps Gate, but few current undergrads can expect to be the next Vampire Weekend or MGMT. Harlem Shakes are the closest thing we have to a popular touring Yale band, and Pitchfork.com just trashed their new album with a 5.0 rating. Oh, and they just broke up.
There is a small community of live musicians who both play and attend shows in campus dining halls, multipurpose rooms and the occasional off-campus house or bar. But the Yale administration, and the student body, rarely has embraced student-written pop music as a legitimate art form — or even as an enjoyable social option. While the concept of a “student band” may harken back to high school coffeehouses filled with hours of Led Zeppelin and Blink 182-inspired mediocrity, the social importance of original popular music makes it the Yale administration’s duty to ensure the success of a Yale music scene.
Yale does an incredible job of appearing hip. Its smorgasbord of performance groups, Undergraduate Organizations Funding Committee equipment, recording studios and funds for the arts seem the perfect fit for the college-age rocker intellectual. But the distribution of these studios within the residential colleges — combined with steep recording fees — bars most Yalies from access, and poor training of student engineers yields unintentionally lo-fi recordings.
A vibrant music scene exists in the classical, jazz and a cappella realms, as they tie into notions of Yale traditions and find support in meaty alumni networks. But UOFC equipment is mishandled, and a band looking to release an album will not get any Sudler money to get it rolling. Yale requires administrative intervention to facilitate a thriving student scene of musicians, sound and recording engineers, concert lighting designers, booking agents, promoters, and studio and band managers.
Artists should not always have to be concerned with the logistics of setting up shows and funding gigs. Artie Kornfeld, 110-time platinum record recipient for songwriting, production and management, and creator of the Woodstock Festival, says in a phone interview, “Administrators have to understand that there’s an art to putting out music — your soul’s on the line.”
Perhaps the growth of a centralized music structure will encourage Yale undergraduates to identify with the college at large, rather than merely their residential colleges. The universality of the live music experience can forge social connections much greater than those achieved on the sweaty dance floor of the Saybrook 12-Pack.
BUT DOES ANYONE CARE?
This semester students flocked to the college seminar “Hip-Hop Music and Culture,” taught by music historian, anthropologist and DJ Nick Conway. A flip through this year’s Blue Book yields “Forms of Pop/Rock Music,” the freshman seminar “Noise,” “Fundamentals of Music, Media Art and Technology” and last year’s courses taught by the progressive ethnomusicologist Michael Veal on “The Electric Music of Miles Davis.”
“The reason we have the hip-hop class is because it’s incredibly relevant and modern. It conduces a lens to understand what’s going on in that culture and society,” Conway says. This semester, close to 80 students applied for 18 spots in the class, and the main draw is not the course’s social science distribution requirement.
The final creative project for the course follows one guideline: “Take some aesthetic of hip-hop and run with it,” Conway says. “Some will do graffiti, some will shoot a documentary and later say how much they learned from the creative process.”
The academic interest is certainly there, as students appear excited to venture away from the norms of histories focused on dead white males and ancient spice trades.
In a poll conducted by the News from Sept. 22 through Sept. 24, 362 students of the 764 who responded cited Rock/Pop as their favorite type of music. Further, 63 per cent of students said they enjoyed attending rock concerts. 64 per cent said they enjoy attending a capella concerts.
“It’s too bad that there aren’t as many classes that are solely focused on a brief historical and cultural movement,” News staff reporter and hip-hop student Chris Merriman ’11 says. “Having taken ‘Formations of Modern American Culture’ and ‘African-American History,’ I got a passing glance at a bunch of different phenomena, but it’s almost like doing a disservice to these movements by covering them in such a simplistic way.”
THEORY WITHOUT PRACTICE
Whereas the Theater Studies Department offers a wealth of practical courses on acting, directing and playwriting, with occasional seminars on lighting, set design and sound design, the Music Department does not offer training for musicians who stray from the classical realm. Few rock guitarists will audition for departmental music lessons, and lyricists will be hard-pressed to find a course on popular songwriting.
Lauren Holmes MUS ’12 says, “Popular music is simply not a big component here.” While science courses have lab components, and art courses (including photography, painting, sculpture, acting, directing and playwriting) integrate theory with practical application, such a theory-practice combination in the Music Department exists almost exclusively in the Western classical realm.
One exception is a course called “Javanese Gamelan,” where students learn the Javanese theory, history and culture while learning how to play the related instruments.
The classical nature of practical music courses intimidates rock musicians. The “Composition Seminar,” with its 10-person enrollment cap and requirements of one to two scores and recordings, hardly seems fit for the composer of a progressive rock opera.
RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW
Students are working to develop a buzz on campus for their original music, but they are often undermined by poor University infrastructure.
“We’re living through the most exciting time there’s ever been to be a student musician because it’s easier than ever to get yourself heard on the Internet,” Michael Waxman ’10, founder of the production group Yale Music Scene, says. “But at the end of the day, the goal is still to perform live in front of an audience, and it’s difficult at Yale.”
Currently three student organizations are concerned with the creation of contemporary music on campus: the radio station WYBC, Yale Music Scene and the music group Sic Inc.
WYBC, though it does not facilitate any sort of workshop or conversation with musicians, hosts two events during the year (Fall Fling and Battle of the Bands) that are centered on student bands.
Yale Music Scene, in Waxman’s words, aims to “create a vibrant music scene at Yale.” This takes the form of a daily updated blog featuring mp3s, videos, previews and reviews of student bands on their Web site yalemusicscene.org, and the develop
ment of weekly concerts and open mics.
Sic Inc started this year as an outgrowth of Sic Futuristic, a multimedia production presented at the Off-Broadway Theater in spring 2009 that merged student-written contemporary electronic and classical music with dance and video. Currently the group functions as a body of composers and artists interested in bringing progressive, original music to campus.
In terms of funding for shows and events, WYBC has a substantial budget due to its affiliation with a private radio company, while Yale Music Scene and Sic Inc function solely through independent investments and occasional funding from the UOFC and Sudler.
Music performance spaces are limited to hard-to-book campus theater venues, dining halls and common rooms. The occasional concert takes place in an off-campus apartment, outdoor space or New Haven club. Students looking to record music may wish to use the Silliman or Timothy Dwight studios, but if they’re not in those colleges or don’t have a friend in the studio, they will be denied access — or asked to pay a hefty fee (at Silliman).
Shows would not go on without the audio equipment arsenal belonging to Waxman — a student. Some organizations rent a power amplifier system and lighting par cans from the UOFC, but often the equipment is unreliable, poorly managed and hard to obtain.
“For Battle of the Bands 2009, lights were missing wing nuts, one didn’t work, it wasn’t worth carrying it up to Stiles,” Sean Owczarek ’11, president of WYBC, says. “They gave us all our cables in a tangled mess. This year the equipment looks slightly better, but for Battle of the Bands it was great to work with Waxman to use stuff that he actually cares about.”
BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO BAND PEOPLE
Sic Inc and Yale Music Scene give hope for a sustainable and innovative student music community. But fundamental structures are not yet in place for a large audience to enjoy their creative products.
What should be the best advocate for live music production at Yale works instead as an impediment to legitimizing student music. First and foremost, Sudler funds must be used to support on-campus endeavors, as stated in the guidelines. But with no central performance spaces for bands, this one rule deters concert planning.
Section 2F of the guidelines buries aspiring pop and rock performers by stating, “Sudler funds may not be expended on the following items … (2) Support of visits by outside artists … (4) Rental of off-campus sites … (6) Production of recordings/music videos … (8) Payments for professional/appearance fees, wages, honoraria or awards.”
These four items inhibit student musicians from filming promotional videos; creating demos to shop to students, non-Yale listeners and booking agents; and attracting larger audiences by combining student bands with professional acts on and off campus.
No immediate administrative plan calls for the development of a central student union to host a music performance space or fund off-campus events. Theater students will compete with bands for Nick Chapel or the Off-Broadway Theater. But if theater managers were sympathetic to student bands, concerts in these spaces could add variety to otherwise dramatic offerings.
“I have limited experience with rock concerts on campus,” Rorie Fitzsimons, technical director of undergraduate productions and special events, said in an e-mail. “That experience was with Calhoun Cabaret, where a series of open mic nights and band presentations have taken place over the years.”
Even if student musicians can locate a space to play on campus, they end up needing to rely on Waxman to engineer sound and provide equipment. With Waxman set to graduate in the spring of 2010, it’s unclear who will have the resources to supply a drum kit for a gig, let alone mic it.
Like obstacles to gigs, impediments to recording extend beyond a lack of funding. There are simply no capable or consistent engineers on campus with a background knowledge of component design, project workflow and microphone placement. And even if there were, proper equipment and resources are few and far between.
“There are barely any people who are qualified to record,” Waxman says. “There are many interested, but there is not the infrastructure to learn.”
Of the 764 students who responded to the News poll, 154 said they were interested in learning audio production. 133 said they were interested in learning how to manage a band.
The recording studios on campus are funded through private grants and donations, and therefore the affiliated colleges care more about their own students’ needs than those of the greater Yale College. According to School of Music recording engineer Gene Kimball DRA ’72, it costs $100 per hour to record at the Sprague Hall studio.
The subsequent lack of recorded music on campus prevents student musicians from spreading their music digitally without splurging on professional studios and engineers.
Nick Lloyd ’97 MUS ’01, owner and chief engineer of New Haven’s Firehouse 12 studio, record label, bar and concert venue, remembers his time as a Yale student as one scattered with off-campus parties and a steady gig schedule with a New Haven band he joined as a freshman.
Commenting on the relative lack of enthusiasm on campus for rock music in comparison to theater and a cappella, Lloyd says, “Rock bands don’t have any link into any particular department or any cultural memory at Yale yet. Because there is no history of it being something that happened here, there’s no incentive to create a venue for its expression.”
Lloyd was quick to mention interaction between Yale students and New Haven audio engineers, musicians and booking agents as a way to improve the quality and dispersal of student music. The first step appears to be offering a college or informal seminar on audio recording to render the on-campus studios useful, including the Stiles-Morse Digital Media Center that, according to Ezra Stiles Master Stephen Pitti ’91, should be unveiled in late August 2010.
“There are definitely people in the Music Department who are interested in recording techniques, but it hasn’t worked its way in there,” Lloyd says.
After graduating from Yale College, Lloyd continued his studies at the Yale School of Music, where he ran into a wall of resistance to modern trends in music that continues to exist in the graduate program.
There is one undergraduate course, “Fundamentals of Music, Multimedia Art and Technology,” that provides a brief survey of audio technology. But it carries a prerequisite of an intermediate music theory course, and the professor, Michael Klingbeil, is a composer and not an engineer.
Doing his part to bring recording training to Yale students, Lloyd is prepping a course in the School of Drama. “The course I’m teaching in the spring does have a sound design component,” he says. “However, to get any experience, it has to happen through the Drama School and not through the Music Department.”
Both Lloyd and Kimball recommend the development of a faculty-student mentorship program. Lloyd also expresses a desire to bring professional rock and jazz players onto Yale’s campus — and encourage students to explore the New Haven professional music scene — through apprentice work at studios and gigs at local clubs.
But Lloyd could not comment on any immediate plans for increasing New Haven and Yale musical interaction.
“We don’t have communication,” he says. “I don’t know what the avenue for opening a relationship would be.”
CARING IS SHARING
Yale is a liberal arts institution. The broad reach of such a classification should not exclude the hands-on study
of academic endeavors. No graduate school would want a chemistry student who has no lab experience, so why would a music engineering, ethnomusicology or teaching program care to accept a student with no experience in the studio?
When Pras was at Yale, he claimed it was necessary to head to Jersey in order to achieve musical success.
“When I said I was doing an album [while at Yale], it was like I was saying, ‘I’m going to the moon.’ It sounded so out there, it didn’t sound real or like something that was tangible,” he says. “Today, you say, ‘I’m going to make an album,’ it’s like, ‘I’m going to take a trip to Miami.’ ”
Music now is more democratic and accessible than ever. The ability for students to record on their laptops and market their shows on various social networks has decreased the need for major representation as a precursor to distribution.
“We are members of a do-it-yourself generation,” Waxman says.
But without proper equipment funding and administrative interest to legitimize student bands, it’s unlikely that anyone on or off Yale’s campus will ever care about its student-written rock, pop and hip-hop music.
“As a musician, you have the freedom to express yourself without fear, and the freedom to dissent in a peaceful way,” Kornfeld says. “Take the chains off of our minds.”
From the bleeding-heart folk singer to the pop princess reminiscing about fall days spent wrestling in fallen leaves, singer-songwriters are the poets of our generation. But no student rapper will receive a $40,000 Frederick Mortimer Clapp fellowship to write rhymes in the Brazilian Amazon, as that money will keep flowing to Yale literary enthusiasts throwing out metaphors about brown rocks in Ireland.
And if Yale’s not willing to deliver the funding, maybe it’s up to students to join forces with former Yalies who wish there had been a music scene on campus when they were students.
“I didn’t even know there was a music scene at Yale. I guess it was pretty much nonexistent,” Pras says. Now recognizing the lack of opportunities Yale rock, pop and hip-hop musicians have on campus, Pras says, “You know what, by next year I’ll definitely be building a studio. I don’t care, I promise. I’m going to start Twittering now. We’re definitely putting something together.”
After the interview, Pras’ Twitter read, as promised, “Just finished an interview with Yale Daily News talk about my time there while making the fugees first album, wow! Donating a studio there.”