An Exhilarating Day with a Dead Man's Papers

This article was originally posted on February 20, 2010 on the now extinct How to Listen blog. It is preserved here in its entirety.

For over a year I have held the idea in my head, tumbling it around, often doubting it, and generally making very little headway on getting something of reasonable usefulness written down. I am talking about the pink gorilla in the corner of every terminal degree: the document. I spend a lot of our time in music school learning to play, and consequently, hopefully, learning to think about music. I don’t spend a ton of time thinking about a very specific topic and doing extensive research on it. But today, I did just that, and it was amazing.

A few weeks ago my great friend, David MacDonald, asked me about my paper. I have been fairly mum about it because I didn’t even know if I could prove what I believed to be true. After I stumbled through a 25 word, beer-laced synopsis, David, a big thinker and reliable skeptic, made “that face”1 and basically told me that he thought I was full of shit.2 Never one to back down from a challenge, and as a guy who needs that occasional ass-kicking, I got to work proving him wrong.

I started doing a lot of reading. One chapter or article, every day, no exceptions. If David didn’t think I knew what I was talking about, then I probably didn’t. I was able to find out a lot about the topic, but not a lot about the composer, who is, in this case, the late William Albright. Unfortunately, as brilliant as his music is, scholarly research concerning his musical ideas and personal philosophies is confined to his obituaries. That wasn’t going to cut it.

Back to the bar.

As it so happened, another great friend spurred me on the next week. The brilliant Laura Donnelly asked me about my research (because Laura is basically a pro-researcher; your mind: boggled) and I told her about my problem. Since she’s such a pro, she said, “You should contact the University of Michigan Library.3 They might have something that can help you.” See? Pro.

So I contacted the U of M Library. I admit, I wasn’t very hopeful, but I needed to try. As it turns out, the U of M Bentley Historical Library actually had all of Albright’s papers cataloged and available to the public! Score! I made plans to go.

The whole morning I was pumped. I was going to do real research! Judging by the titles of the documents, I was pretty sure I could find something I could at least crowbar into supporting my point. Boy, was I in for a big surprise.

When you arrive at the library you have to write your name and vital information on, no lie, four sheets of paper, before they will disappear into the depths of their catalog and bring out one of the 77 boxes that hold Albright’s papers. I started with box 8 which contained most of Albright’s lecture notes and professional files. They brought it to me, explained the rules of reading: only one folder may be removed fro the box at a time. A large placeholder must be inserted into the box. The order of the folders must be preserved. Made sense, if not a little bit OCD. Whatever.

I pulled out my first folder, opened it, and it hit me. This man was real. He wrote things with his hands. On paper. Until then he was just a name at the top of the pieces I was playing. An idea. When I saw his handwriting on yellow legal paper, he became real. It was like seeing the Mona Lisa. At that point Albright wasn’t an idea anymore. He was fingers, and blood, and problems, and life. I flipped through that folder once, just to see what it was like, and to get over that feeling, because I was really moved by what I was looking at.

That’s what it looked like.  Not surprisingly, I spent a lot of the day trying to figure out what some of his words were. There were hundreds of pages that looked like this on all different kinds of paper. Unlike me, Albright seemed to prefer handwriting to typing. Also, unlike me, he also seemed to be willing to write with whatever on whatever he had around. I saw documents written on the backs of department memos, and some written in calligraphy marker. If nothing else, he was a devout recycler.

One of the other interesting things that I was able to glean just from examining this box is that he must have been a horrible filer. He wrote the document you see above nearly 20 times and saved it in his office until he died. Over the years it went through a few changes and expanded slightly, but it remained essentially the same over the 20 years. He clearly was a fan of using outlines to guide his lectures, but comfortable enough with what he was speaking about not to need to write it all out. He believed it.

Now I believe it too. I found things in his writing that came more closely to proving my hypothesis that I could have imagined. It’s very frustrating to me that he isn’t around to pin down on these questions that remain, but these documents go so far for me. I am grateful to the U of M for having the foresight to catalog an old drunk’s documents and make them available to the public. I am also deeply grateful for my super smart, talented, awesome friends who kick my ass when I need it and give me advice that helps me.

I’m telling you, you have to rely on your friends. Thanks guys.


  1. For those of you out there who are planning to embark on writing an academic document that combines an unknown composer and an ill-defined post-war art movement, get used the “that face”.  ↩

  2. Let me tell you, the guy who tells you your ideas are full of shit are the best people to keep around. Trust me.  ↩

  3. Albright was a professor of composition at The University of Michigan when he died.  ↩