Oberlin Blogs

Reflections on a Summer in Oberlin

August 14, 2018

Rachel Gibson ’20


Last semester, I successfully applied for the Oberlin College Research Fellowship, known as OCRF, which meant that I would be spending all summer researching my absolute favorite composer, John Cage. The fellowship is for students that are either first generation, Pell grant-elligible, or of color. To me, this opened up a whole new realm of resources that I did not know Oberlin had. My research project was titled "A Never-Ending Duet: The Intertwinement of Zen Buddhism and the Music Notation of John Cage," which explored the relationship between the two.

For a little background, John Cage was a 20th-century experimental music composer. His music diverged from the traditional norms (think of how Mozart and Beethoven's music looked and sounded), and started to include all noise as music, even silence. His notation included graphics, or pictures, and open-ended directions for the performers to interpret on their own. He also would flip coins to determine what would occur in his music. Throughout the course of his life, he began to study Zen Buddhism as well, which seemed to correspond to a change in how he wrote and notated his music. Cage was purposely vague when asked if his study of Zen truly influenced his music. He said, "What I do, I do not wish blamed on Zen, though without my engagement with Zen...I doubt whether I would have done what I have done." I definitely was intrigued by this quote, and I think it invites those who are curious to see if Zen really did have an impact on Cage. As a result, for my research paper I analyzed several of his works in the context of Zen Buddhism to demonstrate how it prominently influenced a change in his notation over time. 

All fellows choose a mentor to meet with on a weekly basis during their research journey. My mentor is Deborah Campana, the Head Librarian of the conservatory library, and she just happens to also be a well-known Cage scholar who did her Ph.D. on form and structure in Cage's music. I still cannot believe that she works here at Oberlin, and I am so grateful she was willing to be my mentor. She knew Cage and was able to interview him before his death in 1992. Our meetings were always full of excitement because we both had a chance to talk about the music we loved so very much. I learned so much about Cage's music from her, and I feel like some of this knowledge is not something you could just learn by reading a book. 

The transformation of my research over the summer was surreal. When initially writing my research proposal for the application, I wanted to explore how Cage's music notation changed over time and left it at that. After reading his book Silence, I saw how much he referenced Zen and was convinced that no matter what, I would have to address his study of Zen. After that, I became even more convinced that its influence could be seen from the beginning of his compositional career, when he only had an introduction to it, to the end of his life, after he studied it much more intensely. As I learned more and more about both Cage and Zen, I was able to synthesize my own thoughts and opinions into the research paper that I submitted only a few days ago.

At the end of the summer, during my last meeting with my mentor, we talked about the state of research on John Cage's music. What's really sad is that after Cage died in 1992, research seemed to come to a halt around 1995. I also feel a divide between the research of those who personally knew him and the research of those who did not, like my work. I believe there were a lot of things Cage never directly said in his scores, and those who were able to consult him could have definitely received information that would infuence how they would interpret his music. This millennial generation was not around until after he died - we will never have the opportunity to ask him our own questions. However, most of us millennials in the "music world" are only one degree of separation from Cage in some shape or form. Although I will never get to meet him, I believe my generation's role in Cage research is more important than ever. Most composers who collaborated with him are also now dead, so it's almost like we are seeing an end of an era in contemporary music. I can't help but wonder if this is how people felt when the Classical era started to evolve into the Romantic era of music. The scholars who knew Cage laid so much groundwork and foundation for even more research to come. They provided us so much in-depth knowledge and analysis of Cage's music while he was still alive. Now, it's my generation's turn to keep this knowledge alive, expand upon it, and open new doors because this is how we will further his legacy. 

I have always thought Cage's perspectives on music gave a reason as to why my two majors, percussion and TIMARA, were such perfect matches for each other. He revolutionized percussion music, but he was also on the forefront of electronic music. In The Selected Letters of John Cage, he mentioned the words "theremin" (which is the instrument I do a lot of work with in TIMARA) and "percussion" together in one to two sentences. This showed me how connected percussion is to electronic music. I am always on the lookout for new sounds, whether it's striking something or manipulating a recording on my computer to create something new. 


This summer, I also made a ton of new friends that were part of the Oberlin College Research Fellowship (OCRF) and the Mellon-Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF). Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday the fellows had to attend workshops. These taught us about how to conduct research, write an abstract, create a presentation, etc. We were also taught effective planning and time management strategies as well as professional development tips. I thought the workshops were super helpful, especially because I never did intense research before at the college level. Overall, I was able to get to know several other students in this year's cohort through these sessions. 

All of us were also housed in the Firelands apartments this year, and this made it convenient for game nights! I had a wonderful time playing games like Uno and Cards Against Humanity, and it was nice to take a break with the other fellows. I never usually have time for game nights during the school year, so I definitely felt like having free time in Oberlin redefined my relationship to the college and town. 

We also had small group meetings where we were able to talk about our research to others in the fellowship who were in similar fields. It was nice to have more support and encouragement from them. I learned so much from them too! 

In July, another group of students arrived on campus. They were a part of the STRONG fellowship, which stands for Science and Technology Research Opportunities for a New Generation. This cohort was made up of eight incoming first-years, and they were able to begin research in one of the STEM fields. They also had a chance to explore Oberlin before the school year officially started. The Office of Undergraduate Research provided the OCRF and MMUF the opportunity to eat in Stevie for free to get to know the STRONG scholars more. Over the course of the whole month, I was able to talk to all of them, and I value all the wholesome conversations we had. I enjoyed telling them about everything I love about Oberlin. I hope I gave good pre-orientation and pre-Oberlin advice too. However, I am confident that these eight students will successfully take Oberlin by storm once they arrive back on campus. 

Lastly, I was able to hang out with some other students in my percussion studio who were staying here over the summer. While we are all very close and always see each other in the practice rooms and rehearsals, it was freeing to have the time to hang out with them and reconnect outside the Conservatory. 

So, shout out to everyone who made my first summer in Oberlin one of the best summers of my life (you know who you are!). 


There's many more students doing research in Oberlin over the summer outside of these two fellowships. As a result, the Office of Undergraduate Research leads the Oberlin Summer Research Institute (OSRI), which provides workshops every Wednesday for all students. They also provide planned trips and activities. 

First there was a summer kick-off picnic with free food. It allowed us to get to know other students and it happened to be a beautiful day in Oberlin too. OSRI also provides Movie Monday every other week, where they pay for your movie ticket at the Apollo. I ended up seeing Incredibles 2 twice for free.

Then there were trips like the one to Crocker Park, a huge mall only thirty minutes from Oberlin. This also happened to be on a beautiful day, which worked out perfectly because the mall was similar to a small village, so you had to walk outside to go to the next store. There's so many restaurant options, like The Cheesecake Factory, and there's a froyo place. I was able to go into a Barnes and Noble that has two floors. In rural Pennsylvania (where I'm from), malls are about an hour away from me, so being able to get outside Oberlin and explore a new place close by was so fun to me.

Thanks to OSRI, I also was able to go blueberry picking at a farm nearby with other students, and then they took us to Kreig's It'z the Berries Frozen Custard (an ice cream and food stand right outside Oberlin) for lunch. I actually never knew this existed, so it was awesome that I was able to go there in my free time. I hope to go back soon because their ice cream was so good.

I was able to celebrate the fourth of July with some of my percussion studio. We made a small fire and roasted marshmallows. A week later, on a clear night, we also went stargazing. We downloaded a star map on our phones, and we were able to see Mars. Apparently, it was really close to Earth this summer. We could literally see a bright red dot in the sky. We also saw a faint light that was Saturn. 

Oberlin campus
A quiet Oberlin campus.
Albino squirrel
Tappan Square
Beautiful Tappan Square in the summer.

The Conservatory was bustling with summer programs, so there was still a lot of music to be heard throughout the building. It was buzzing with young musicians that were here for the programs such as the Baroque Institute, Credo, and the Cooper Competition

Towards the end of July, there was a free trip to Cedar Point. I hadn't been to a amusement park in years, so it was great to be able to ride some roller coasters again. I don't think I was as daring as I was when I was younger because I definitely sat out for a few rides. I think it was the biggest park I've been to so far.

I ended the summer with a bunch of my new friends at the closing picnic - my mentor came too. Later, there was a bonfire in Tappan Square, and we made yummy s'mores. 

I guess during my time in high school, I never had enough close friends to spend time with. I was too busy worrying about my academic future and college. This summer in Oberlin, I feel like I really made an effort to experience as much as I could. I was able to pursue a research topic that I am in love with, but I also made so many great friends who I value very much and experienced so many adventures in the process.

S'mores by the fire.
S'mores by the fire.


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