Reading Time: 6 minutes

During the 2016 US presidential campaign, Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson was asked on national television what he would do about Aleppo as president. When he said, “And what is Aleppo?” my heart lurched. And when the interviewer said, “You’re kidding,” then spelled out the centrality of Aleppo to the crisis in Syria as if Johnson had revealed himself to be a small, dim child, my lurched heart collapsed like a dying star.

It took me back to a moment in my doctoral program when I sat with five other candidates for the Ph.D. in music in the withering glare of an astonished professor. She was a brilliant composer with an encyclopedic grasp of All Human Knowledge, or so it constantly seemed, and a mission to ferret out the ignorance of others, often publicly, with unforgettable shock and zeal. And hey, a Ph.D. represents a capstone endorsement of mastery in a given field, so such ferreting is not without purpose. But she felt that subject mastery should be accompanied by general mastery. Again, I agree — brilliance in one field accompanied by ignorance in most others isn’t a great educational outcome. But there are side effects of this kind of prolonged trial by fire, and for many years afterward, I struggled to shake a really bad habit: the inability to admit that I didn’t know something. ANYTHING.

Back to the withering glare, which was deployed when she realized that none of us knew the name H.L. Mencken.

I later discovered Mencken and became a great admirer. But when she read a Mencken quote in the seminar, the name rang no bells. Sensing this, she said, “And H.L. Mencken is, of course…?”, I sat in silent, rising horror with my classmates, knowing what would come.

A gasp.

“H.L. Mencken??”

Her eyes inflated and met each of ours in dramatic turn. Another gasp.

“H.L. Mencken H.L. MENCKEN???” 

“A writer?” someone guessed desperately.

“American or British? American or British???”


“Critically. Important. Influential. Early. 20th. Century. American. Journalist. And. Satirist. H. L. Mencken.” She exhaled in disgust. “You should know H.L. Mencken.”

But we didn’t. And worse, now she knew we didn’t.

In addition to good things, grad school is an extended exercise in hiding what you don’t know. You first learn to hide it from those who hold your future in their hands, then quickly generalize the habit to all humans. When someone asks a grad student in music if he or she is familiar with a certain composer, performer, conductor, stylistic movement, or piece — or in this professor’s case, writer or activist or medieval Estonian peasant revolt — the graduate student will answer with some version of, “Yes, of course.” Every time.

If the student actually knows it, you might detect this slightly enthusiastic leaning-forward, an eagerness to share. If he or she has never heard of it, the “Yes, of course” will be accompanied by a facial expression that says, “I seem to have swallowed a cockroach.”

S/he’s worried that the thing in question might be so well known to the asker that saying “Never heard of it” will seem as bad as if the question had been, “Are you familiar with the letter E?”

Next time you’re around a grad student in music, say, “I just adore the late quartets of Johann Mamflamheim, don’t you?” When s/he says, “Yes, of course,” ask which one is his or her favorite and why. Real entertainment ensues. The game is adaptable to all fields of study.

This professor lived for that kind of reveal.

The oral preliminary exam near the end of a Ph.D. program is the culmination of this dynamic. You sit around a table with your doctoral committee — usually 4 or 5 graduate faculty members — and they grill you unsmilingly for two hours. The purpose is to test the comprehensiveness of your knowledge of the field. If you fail to demonstrate sufficient mastery, in their sole judgment, you are dismissed from the doctoral program and may not re-apply. 

My Ph.D. area was music composition. A year before the oral prelims, I asked my grad advisor what I could expect. “It’s not pleasant,” he said. “That’s by design. They will try very hard to rattle you. They want to reveal what you don’t know and see how you handle that.”

Mm. “Should I expect theory too, or just composition?”

He looked at me over his glasses. “The subject is music. Music as a human endeavor in all places and times. Absolutely everything is game.”

I spent that year in intensive gap-filling. I scoured the Harvard Dictionary of Music for unfamiliar terms. I refreshed my knowledge of medieval modal theory. I listened to hundreds of hours of music in every culture and genre. Classical, jazz, Balinese gamelan, Indian carnatic microtonal singingshape note singing, Tuvan throat song, and the insane piano rolls of Conlon Nancarrow. I read histories and analyses and theory journals.

Two days before the exam, riffling through some journal, I saw a passing reference to a piece called The Infernal Machine, written by Christopher Rouse in 1981. An example of the mechanistic movement of composition in the late 20th century, in which musical instruments were used to evoke machinery. I’d never heard of the piece, the composer, or the stylistic movement.

I filed the information in my head.

Two days later I was sitting before the committee, waiting for the first question.

“I’ll begin,” said the Formidable One. “Mr. McGowan, what can you tell me about the mechanistic movement of composition?”

I am not kidding. I nearly passed out.

“The mechanistic movement,” I said steadily, “was a late 20th century experiment in which musical instruments were used to evoke the sounds of machinery.”

“Excellent,” she said. “Name a representative composer.”

“Well there’s Christopher Rouse, of course.”

“Of course. And a piece by Rouse that can be rightly called mechanistic?”

“The Infernal Machine.”

“Excellent!” She was determined to find the edge of my abyss so she could place her fingertips on my chest and shove. “And the year The Infernal Machine was composed?”

I paused, pretending to search deep in my files for what was actually still on a Post-It note flapping perilously in the breeze on my prefrontal cortex. “I believe that was…1981.”

She slammed a hand on the table. “Yes! Excellent!”

This is not a story of celebration, you understand, not even slightly a brag. This was stupid luck, a bullet dodged. I can only guess how the rest of the prelim would have gone had I whiffed the first pitch. The nature of such exams is to build a mighty snowball around any small core of found weakness, which underlines the basic lunacy of the assumption that a person can be in full possession of knowledge, even in one field of specialization, Herself excepted.

Fast forward to now. I’m reading a great book called Listen to This by Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker, a collection of essays about music covering an amazing range of topics from Schubert to Radiohead.

In the Radiohead chapter, guitarist Jonny Greenwood is quoted as saying “I heard [Olivier Messiaen’s] ‘Turangalîla Symphonie’ when I was fifteen, and I became round-the-bend obsessed with it.” That kind of thing is always fun, like finding out Yo Yo Ma loves bluegrass.

Twenty pages later, in a chapter on the Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen (yep, say it out loud, I’ll wait: ), we get this:

It was the experience of hearing Messiaen’s sublimely over-the-top Turangalîla, at the age of ten or eleven, that inflamed his desire to compose.

Well that’s funny. Two very different musicians had their minds nicely blown by Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphonie before they could drive.

Oh, and here’s an interesting thing about the Turangalîla Symphonie: I’D NEVER HEARD OF IT. I didn’t even know much about the composer, and I certainly would have remembered the name of that piece.

I have a thousand files in my head with information about music. The J.S. Bach file has bio on the surface, then continues down through elements of style (and why), favored genres (and why), impact on the course of European music including specific influence on key composers of the following generations, and a thoroughgoing catalog of works, including an ability to sketch the full 32-movement structure and harmony of the Goldberg Variations on the back of a napkin after three pints. I could pick out his handwritten music notation from a lineup. I ran the whole C minor Passacaglia through my head as I sat in the Thomaskirche where he worked and is buried. I know Bach and a hundred others inside and out.

But my Messiaen file looks like this:


French composer, 1940s. Catholic. Wrote ‘Quartet for the end of time,” a lot of long notes. Liked birds.

On one level, the details are trivial. They aren’t what ultimately makes for mastery. But they are the brown M&Ms of knowledge: If those surface details are wrong or missing, it probably indicates rot down below.

If the Formidable One had asked me to name any two pieces by Messiaen, I’d have been screwed. But here were two musicians of very different traditions who had come across and been deeply influenced by a massive orchestral piece of his that I’d never even heard of, even after completing a Ph.D. in composition and teaching music history at the college level for 11 years. And they knew it when they were 10 and 15.

But here’s the thing: after years of recovery, I’m apparently okay with that. Until now, I’d never heard of it. There, I said it out loud. Never heard of it.

If you find yourself in possession of 80 minutes and a sense of adventure, here’s the massive, weird rollercoaster of the Turangalîla Symphonie by Olivier Messiaen.

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Even for Messiaen, the Turangalîla-Symphony is weird. Rather than the usual rapt mixture of birdsong, plainchant and Catholic theology, here we have dancing rhythms, tantric sex and laughing gas. — Phil Kline

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Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...