Music Man

27 May 2016

Mark Applebaum ’89Alumnus and Carleton trustee Mark Applebaum ’89 has embraced music as his life’s work, building a renowned career as a composer, performer, and electroacoustic instrument inventor. As an associate professor of composition at Stanford University, he’s also a dedicated music scholar and teacher. The man’s curriculum vitae is so infused with music it deserves its own soundtrack.

So it comes as something of a surprise to learn that Applebaum actively strove to avoid “too much music” in his studies at Carleton.

“I was against being a music major,” Applebaum recalls. “I knew I wanted to take some high-level music theory and music history classes, [but] I came to Carleton for an expansive liberal education. There was not a department that didn’t interest me.”

Applebaum sang in choir, played in the jazz band, studied concert harp and jazz piano, and participated in a short-lived but influential Sound Exploratory Ensemble. He also formed an extracurricular group, The Pretentious Art Ensemble, along with fellow Carl John Von Seggern ’90 “and a department store mannequin called Bambi because we didn’t think two comprised an ensemble.” The duo (or trio, to give Bambi her due) played more than 100 concerts at Carleton.

Despite this musical immersion, however, Applebaum declared a music major only when he realized that a double major would limit his ability to sample from Carleton’s rich buffet of disciplines. “For me, Carleton was a laboratory-playground with boundless resources in which you could invent yourself. Music, although a unique kind of human experience, is not more important than any other discipline.”

Today, Applebaum gives back to Carleton to help current and future students have the same opportunity for exploration and growth afforded to him. Along with his wife Joan Friedman, Applebaum in 2014 established the Carolyn Applebaum Endowed Prize in the Arts, an annual monetary award that recognizes students who make a meaningful impact on the arts in student life. The prize honors the memory of Mark’s sister Carolyn, who was devoted to theater and worked as a drama teacher before her untimely death at age 28. The prize is open to sophomores, juniors, and seniors of any major. The couple has also pledged to support the new music addition in the Weitz Center for Creativity and given to support the department’s World Music Initiative.

“We shouldn’t ignore the fact that most Carleton students love music, are fascinated by it, want to think about it, and want to make it on some level,” Applebaum says. “So there is clearly an enormous client base for music even if it produces only a handful of majors.”

Learn more about Mark Applebaum and his music at

Extended Q&A with Mark Applebaum ’89

How would you describe your musical education at Carleton?

I learned a lot from my professors, but probably more from my colleagues. And among my most important mentors was composer, recording engineer, and all-around genius Steve McKinstry, husband of English Professor Susan Jaret McKinstry and owner of the Salmagundi Recording Studio in Northfield. Steve kept very late hours, so I would hang out there during the middle of night. Eventually Steve hired me as his assistant. I learned about electronic music and studio recording technique from Steve, but I also attribute other things to him: my work ethic, attention to detail, sensitivity to sound, and artistic resourcefulness.

In any case, I conceived of my musical education at Carleton as a synergy of campus and off-campus activity; engagement with extant infrastructure and entrepreneurial enterprise; and learning through curricular offerings while rebelling against their limitations. For me, Carleton was a laboratory-playground with boundless resources in which you could invent yourself. It was a place in which I felt, for the first time in my life, intellectual, social, and artistic agency.

How did that foundation help you on your path to your current music career? Did any course, professor, or experience in particular give you a “spark,” or at least aid in that journey?

Composer Philip Rhodes was central in the development of my compositional acumen. Conductor Jeannine Wagar was my comps advisor, and saxophonist Malcolm Lynn Baker nourished my jazz tendencies; they both shared and dignified my interest in marginal, progressive culture. Bob Gjerdingen gave me a solid theory foundation, but he was also a cheerleader for my experimental impulses. But it was Steve Kelly who, after I finished my PhD, invited me back to teach in 1996; this proved an essential springboard for my subsequent teaching career.

I also think that studying abroad—in France and Denmark during parts of my freshman and junior years, respectively—galvanized my outlook as a world citizen and international artist. Having the time to leave Carleton was important. Carleton is a world, but there is a world beyond Carleton.

Where do you see music’s place at Carleton, as it’s not necessarily known for it?

Most people associate top music programs with conservatories. But I was never interested in becoming the kind of music athlete that these programs famously engender. And they also tend to be tediously retrograde: the word “conserve” is in the name.

And some people require an environment with prestigious civic institutions; think Lincoln Center, the Berlin Philharmonic, etc. Those are great, but relying on them for “culture” always struck me as a myopic poverty of imagination. To me, time, compassionate human capital, and open-mindedness are more important resources. And since my work doesn’t require fancy things like atomic particle accelerators or venture capital—not to mention fraternities or NCAA Division I sports distractions—I found Carleton to be the perfect place for creative incubation and realization.

In any case, I would describe music at Carleton as irrepressibly diverse, intellectually intense, open to broad engagement at all levels of dedication—including amateurs (which means “lovers!”), and supportive of extra-curricular musical invention. As such, I think it is the greatest place to explore music. You can do that at the highest level at Carleton, which surprises a lot of people. And most folks don’t know about Carleton’s outsized legacy of producing extraordinary PhD musicologists (think of our ultimate Frisbee niche and you get an idea).

How has the music program at Carleton changed since you attended?

The most obvious difference is Carleton’s commitment to ethnomusicology, world music, and vernacular and popular music traditions. Those were all central in the lives of students in the 1980s, but they were fringe topics in the curriculum. And most visibly: by Fall, 2017 Carleton will have a new music building and concert hall….

Why do you think it’s important to support and strengthen the music opportunities offered at Carleton?

I’m a cultural—and disciplinary—relativist. So music, although historically enshrined in the ancient quadrivium and embodying a unique kind of human experience, is not more important than any other discipline. But a strong liberal arts education should afford the most robust diversity of experience possible, and such a diversity might include music. And we shouldn’t ignore the fact that most Carleton students love music, are fascinated by it, want to think about it, and want to make it on some level. So there is clearly an enormous client base for a Music Department, even if it produces only a handful of majors.

Once we decide to have music at Carleton we ought to do it well (as we do). And, in the abstract, we can say that we always want to do music better. But, despite my professional engagement, I’m not the one to make the argument that we should do music better at the expense of any other academic undertaking (or vice versa).

How long have you been a member of the Board of Trustees, and why did you join?

I joined the Board this school year, the first of a four-year term. The President and the Board invited me to join. That appealed to my ego so I immediately said “yes.” I’m really not sure what they saw in me, and I confess that my opinion of Carleton has dropped somewhat as a consequence of the invitation—I think that Groucho Marx had something to say about this kind of thing.

In short, I was curious to learn more about Carleton from this unique perspective, and to see how I might serve the College in this capacity. Unlike many of my impressive Board colleagues who can propose investment strategies and share legal perspectives, the little that I can offer centers around my experience as a Carl who later taught at Carleton, at Mississippi State University, and now at Stanford University—three very different kinds of institutions that provide educational insights that may, in small ways, contribute to the ongoing discourse that is Carleton.

By the way, the impact goes in both directions: most of my teaching at Stanford and thoughts on evolving Stanford’s learning culture are informed by my affinity for and intimacy with Carleton. So my Carleton Board experience only deepens what I can bring to the table at Stanford. You might be surprised by how much my Stanford colleagues are keen to learn about a small Minnesota school’s best practices.

Serving on the Carleton Board is an ongoing learning experience at and about the place from which I learned how to learn. This bonus Carleton education is really an unexpected luxury.