Dr. McBrien or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dissertation*

Dr. McBrien or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dissertation*

Well, hey there! It’s been a hot minute since my last post, hasn’t it? The past few months have been quite the whirlwind of activity. The biggest news is that I recently graduated with my PhD in musicology from UC Santa Barbara. (Woohoo!! *Cue smattering of confetti*) As exciting as this achievement was, the first half of this year was insanely busy. One can correctly assume that keeping this blog active (at least marginally) was near the bottom of my “to-do” list as I put the finishing touches on my dissertation. Though I am still in “recovery” mode and not quite ready to launch back into blogging just yet, I wanted to take a bit of time to write some thoughts on the dissertation process while it is still relatively fresh in my mind.

My pride and joy. And by that, I mean the “PHinisheD” novelty mug.

The project was a ton of work, but honestly, I enjoyed it overall. My topic—the relationship between European émigrés and three Los Angeles orchestras in the 1930s and 40s—was fascinating and provided some great material to work with. The research process was smooth, and writing it was fairly manageable as a whole. Would I want to do it a second time? No, probably not, but I don’t regret it.

Below are five big “lessons” I learned during the twenty-two-month journey, with a few miscellaneous items thrown in for good measure. Whether you are prepping for or are in the midst of writing a dissertation, hopefully these will be of some help. And if you are not “dissertating,” some of these things could apply to other big projects or, hey, just life in general!

Before we begin, though, I should also mention that these past two years, I was privileged enough to be in a living situation where I wasn’t required to pay rent or work full-time to make ends meet. This is a huge part of why I was able to focus on the project, finish in a decent amount of time, and encounter relatively few obstacles along the way. I acknowledge that privilege and am well aware that not everyone may be in the same situation.

Without further ado, here are five things that helped me to “stop worrying and love the dissertation”:

(Oh, and if you’d like to read the thing, it will be open access on ProQuest in the coming months. You are also welcome to contact me; I am more than happy to send along a PDF.)

1. Don’t stress out about the proposal—it’s a roadmap, not a final product

One thing I initially struggled to come to terms with was the proposal. This 20-or-so-page document is something one writes at the beginning of the dissertation process that outlines your project’s thesis, methodologies, chapters, early bibliography, and other fun stuff (such as how long you think it’ll take to actually finish the thing). Typically, you’re supposed to complete the proposal before you begin the project in earnest. This means that everything in the document is hypothetical; details will more than likely change along the way.

Same goes for your proposal

At first, this seemed like an annoying task. I felt like I knew very little about where the project would end up, let alone where to start. (Any other Enneagram type Sixes out there who take comfort in plans and schedules?) However, once I began to write down what I did know—and the possible findings and conclusions that might arise from that—to my surprise, the document materialized fairly quickly. Obviously, certain aspects of the project absolutely did change along the way. In fact, my entire thesis and approach shifted barely two months later once I dove into the actual research, but the proposal was still a useful starting point and helped me gather my thoughts early on. So, don’t worry about this aspect too much. It’s a roadmap, not a final product.

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Mozart in the Jungle: A Beautiful Dumpster Fire

Mozart in the Jungle: A Beautiful Dumpster Fire

There’s a moment in the first episode of Mozart in the Jungle when the camera cuts to a lively party in progress at a spacious New York City apartment. Young people are scattered throughout the room, which is abuzz with chatting and drinking. One character scratches a record back and forth on a turntable before the “Toreador Song” from Bizet’s Carmen begins to play over the speakers. Gleefully, the character shouts:

“Let’s get Biz-AYYY!”

It was then my suspicions were confirmed—this show was going to be a glorious mess.

The first season of Mozart in the Jungle dropped on Amazon Prime Video in December 2014. It continued for three more seasons before ending its run in 2018. Loosely based on Blair Tindall’s memoir of the same name, this fictional dramedy series follows the story of young oboist Hailey Rutledge (played by Lola Kirke) as she tries to make it in New York City’s vibrant and competitive classical music scene. Along the way, she must navigate musician egos, backstabbing, blackmailing, mounting expectations, and performance anxiety, not to mention lots of sex, drugs, and alcohol. Sounds fun, right?

Let’s call this one “Mozart in the Jungle out-of-context”

Whenever classical music appears in films or TV shows, the results are always a mixed bag. They either stretch the truth (as much as I adore Amadeus, it’s not the most historically-accurate portrait of Mozart or Salieri), present it as a symbol of the upper-class elite and/or notorious villains (hello, Mr. Bond), or just miss the mark entirely (nothing like trying to sell more Volvos with the music of an unhinged, manipulative mother who’s trying to get her daughter to kill someone). However, there are occasions when the media does get it right. (I’ve always been a fan of this iPad commercial starring Esa-Pekka Salonen.) So, the appearance of Mozart in Jungle sparked lots of excitement and trepidation in the classical community. Would the series finally get classical musicians—and the music itself—right for once?

Well, yes and no.

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Beethoven or Bot? – Evaluating an AI’s Completion of Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony

Beethoven or Bot? – Evaluating an AI’s Completion of Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony

Although most of the hubbub surrounding Beethoven’s 250th birthday has subsided, a few bits of the celebration have lingered into 2021 as concert halls worldwide open up once again. However, one recent Beethoven item has raised many eyebrows in the music world. Back in September, the news broke that a team of computer specialists and music scholars had “completed” Beethoven’s unfinished Tenth Symphony using AI technology and scant scraps that Beethoven left behind upon his death in 1827. Dubbed “Beethoven X: The AI Project,” it was also announced that a recording of the results—played by a live orchestra—would be released the following month. Like many, I was skeptical. This just seemed like another lame excuse for more Beethoven deification, one that would take the focus away from issues that are currently more pressing, like promoting diversity and equity in classical music.

Still, I was curious what the results would sound like. So, I recently met over Zoom with my friend Tanner Cassidy—a PhD candidate in music theory at UC Santa Barbara—to listen to it and share our impressions. (There may have been a smidge of alcohol involved as well… *wink*) Below are excerpts from our discussion, which have been edited for length and clarity. What did we think? Does a computer have the potential to live up to Beethoven or is this something best left in the trash bin? Let’s find out…


Kevin McBrien (KM): So about a year or two ago, this German telecommunications company [Telekom]—with AI specialists and music scholars—was like, “Hey, let’s take these incomplete sketches of Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony and feed it into an AI program and see what happens.” And this is the resulting piece that came out of it. There was this musicologist—Barry Cooper—who reconstructed the first movement in the 80s and that’s been recorded and released as kind of a hypothetical Beethoven 10. And this one, apparently, is just the third and fourth movements.

The musicologist Barry Cooper realized the first movement of Beethoven’s Tenth in the 80s, which was subsequently recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra.

Tanner Cassidy (TC): So there’s no second movement that exists?

KM: I guess not, or there’s not enough to go off of.

TC: I actually have some experience with AI-generated music. An undergrad friend of mine was writing bebop-based algorithmic composition, where he fed it Charlie Parker licks, and then he had me play what the computer spit out, which was just nonsense. AI has really struggled with rhythm, so I’m really curious to see what rhythm sounds like.

KM: Yeah, I heard a snippet of it on an NPR story, and it’s weird. So, I’m also curious to listen to the whole thing.

TC: Well, I’ll mute my audio, and then we can listen to this.


[We listen to the third movement.]

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