Top of the charts: Valedictorian composes impressive record of achievement
As he began his senior thesis in music
composition, Chris Douthitt already had written songs for several years
on his own and with his rock band, the Lazy Pheromones, and garnered
praise from his professors as a gifted composer, guitarist and singer.
But when Douthitt shared the early lyrics for his thesis -- three songs for guitar, bass and fiddle -- with Paul Muldoon, he didn't exactly receive a standing ovation. The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and creative writing professor, who also plays in his own rock band, "didn't pull any punches," Douthitt said. "He made me rewrite -- a lot."
"It was a pleasure for me to work with Chris, though I'm not sure if it was always a pleasure for him," Muldoon recalled. "I found myself giving him what must often have seemed like a very hard time, pushing him to exceed his already high expectations.
"As I often told him, the only reason for my being tough on him was my sense that he really had it in him to excel in the area of songwriting. I wasn't interested in his being merely good, but very good," Muldoon said. "I'm delighted to say that Chris is the kind of student who responds well to that pressure."
Building on Muldoon's challenge, Douthitt crafted songs for his thesis that are "really beautiful, really wonderful," according to Dan Trueman, assistant professor of music and Douthitt's primary thesis adviser. They also are a testament to the passion and drive that have helped Douthitt achieve the distinction of valedictorian of the class of 2006.
Douthitt, who will deliver an address at the June 6 Commencement ceremony, has built a sterling academic record over the past four years, with just one A- keeping him from a perfect grade point average. In that time, he also has amassed an impressive catalog of compositions ranging from rock songs to a Mass movement to computer-generated music (as part of the Princeton Laptop Orchestra).
"The environment [at Princeton] encourages you to focus intensely on your interests, under the guidance of people who you would otherwise read about," Douthitt said. "I'm kind of amazed that I've been able to do basically what I'd be doing anyway -- writing songs -- but with serious composers listening to them and being critical. At the same time I've been able to learn about the wider world of music from a pretty deep compositional perspective.
"When I think that Paul Muldoon actually read what I wrote every week -- that's the kind of education that I associate with Princeton," he said.
A two-time winner of Princeton's Shapiro Prize for Academic Excellence, Douthitt last year was awarded a Beinecke Scholarship, which provides outstanding students in the arts with $32,000 for graduate studies. He will investigate options for graduate programs as he spends the next year in Chicago, where he will work on his music and undertake a summer internship at the American Indian Center through the Class of 1969 Community Service Fund.
Finding his focus
Douthitt's decision to attend Princeton was influenced by the University's "no loan" financial aid program and the reputation and range of its undergraduate curriculum. Douthitt initially expected music to be more of a side pursuit while he majored in ecology and evolutionary biology, English or religion, but "it ended up that music was what I was spending most of my time on and what I was looking forward to," he said.
While the choice of major seemed obvious, Douthitt had some doubts. "I was kind of nervous about how I would fit into the music department, because I didn't play an orchestral instrument. But of all music departments, this is the one to accommodate somebody like that. I've been lucky that the department is structured the way it is, with composers who like the kind of music that I would be doing anyway and have been very encouraging about it."
Douthitt received his first guitar as a Christmas gift in sixth grade and quickly immersed himself in learning to play Beatles songs. He also was influenced at an early age by the music of Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead and Neil Young, and later by contemporary bands such as Wilco, Deerhoof and Built to Spill.
At Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane, Wash., where he also was valedictorian in 2002, Douthitt joined with his younger brother and two friends to form the Lazy Pheromones. He hesitated to pin a label on the band's style, describing it as "somewhere between country and indie guitar rock." Douthitt has continued to play with the band in Spokane during summer breaks, and will spend his next year in Chicago collaborating with bandmate Blake Walker, now a sophomore at Northwestern University.
Douthitt said that coming to Princeton has allowed him to broaden his musical horizons, particularly through introductory theory courses that "opened me up to more music that's grown out of the classical tradition."
"I felt like that just improved my overall compositional chops a lot -- I started to understand that writing music was more than just about finding something that sounds good on the surface," he said. "It has to have an internal logic that connects what you hear on the surface to how the pieces fit together at a deeper level. In those classes we learned through 'classical' music, but I think this applies just as much to modern music as well -- it's kind of like learning musical craftsmanship."
Douthitt said many of his songs may be built upon his personal experiences, but through the writing process "they take on a life of their own." One of his senior thesis songs, "Evenings I Spent Gazing," was inspired by the University Chapel, where he has spent considerable time as a member of the Chapel Choir.
Trueman, his thesis adviser, said, "Chris has a really creative voice in his approach to music -- not just writing music, but thinking about music -- that is understated and subtle, really quite beautiful, and unlike anything I've ever really heard before. … He's very smart, very perceptive, very hard-working. He also has a remarkable ability to take criticism and learn from it."
As a performer, Trueman said, "He has a very idiosyncratic voice and an individual style of singing that is really quite wonderful and immediately captivating."
Dmitri Tymoczko, an assistant professor of music who advised Douthitt for his junior independent work, noted, "Many students would have decided that it wasn't appropriate to write a set of rock songs as a junior paper. Chris was willing to think outside the box and approach songwriting with the same intensity and seriousness that one has when writing a string quartet."
"Musically, I'm quite impressed by two things: Chris' harmonic sense and his ability with lyrics," Tymoczko added. "He has a knack for writing catchy, quirky chord progressions and for hitting just the right level of elusive, allusive obscurity one wants from a rock lyricist."
Whether the future takes him toward MTV or a Ph.D, Douthitt said he wants to "keep writing music as long as I can."
"We're going to be hearing from Chris for a while," Trueman said. "The whole road to becoming a rock star is very unpredictable, and I'm not sure if he's even going to want that, but I think he's going to be doing a lot of very interesting stuff in music for a long time."