Students at Caltech walk past a cannon. In a tradition dating back to 1896,… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)
The courtyard at Blacker House at Caltech was quiet at 6:59 a.m. Wednesday, the empty concrete space littered with several splintered wooden pallets, three large tires, a crowbar and sledgehammer.
A minute later, the crescendo of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" came blaring out of second-floor speakers. Students began to emerge sleepily from their rooms, messy haired and mostly without shoes, their shoulders hunched against the early morning chill as they listened to about five minutes of music.
Instead of serving as the soundtrack for a helicopter mission a la "Apocalypse Now," the opera was meant to inspire the underclassmen to do the rough equivalent: take finals.
Around the country, colleges are offering students a variety of ways to reduce the stress of final exams. Some offer healthier and heartier food; study breaks with games and music, and more. UCLA students can get chair massages, and therapy dogs are brought to USC, among other places, for undergraduates.
But, at least in some Caltech dorms, playing classical music at an hour most 18-year-olds consider barbaric is a way for them to blow off steam and focus at the same time.
When asked if he found the music inspiring, Gabriel Foster, a 19-year-old math major from Milwaukee who admitted he hadn't slept for almost 20 hours while cramming for his tests, said: "Absolutely. Traditions are vitally important to the undergraduate experience."
It's unclear when Caltech students started playing the piece, commonly known on campus as "The Ride." But it seems to have started as a way to get students out of bed in time for finals, no small task at a time of the year when "half the dorm is nocturnal," one student said as the horns swelled.
At Caltech, where there are 31 Nobel laureates on faculty and about 1,000 mostly engineering and science undergraduates, finals are usually given on a take-home basis. Students are told when they must hand in the exams and are trusted to only take four hours to complete them.
The rousing music has led to some eccentricities, especially at Blacker House, where the undergraduates call themselves "moles," either because the rodents are allegedly smart and never see daylight or because "mole" rhymes with "troll," i.e., socially awkward and ill-mannered.
Blacker students take pride in their pranks. One of the house's most famous alumni, who worked on the NASA Curiosity rover's calibration machine, engraved the Greek letters Gamma Delta Beta Gamma on a computer chip on the spacecraft. In the dorm's lexicon, the letters translate to "God Damn Blacker Gang," a reference to what a security guard once muttered after he caught several students riding on the top of elevators almost 30 years ago.
"We're on Mars," Foster said proudly.
According to Blacker rules, "The Ride" cannot be played at any time aside from finals.
Foster found out the hard way when he absent-mindedly hummed the tune when playing chess with a friend. When he realized what he'd done, Foster immediately fled and stayed away for almost two hours, until he finally realized that resistance was futile. He returned for his punishment: being tossed into the shower fully clothed.
A few years ago, several Blacker residents heard "The Ride" and ran outside to find the source, cutting the power to the speakers at an alumnus' wedding on campus.
Others deliberately flaunt the unwritten rule. According to campus lore, one student attached several speakers to helium balloons and floated them to the top of two palm trees that face Blacker, then greased the trunks so they were impossible to climb.
The music kept playing until one student popped the balloons with an air rifle.
The tradition is jarring for some, at least the first time. Graduating senior Supriya Iyer, who lived in nearby Lloyd House, said she jumped out of bed the first time she heard the song. "I totally freaked out," she said. "I thought, 'Who the heck is playing music so loudly?' Then I remembered it was finals."
"The Ride," from Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle, was used in "Apocalypse Now" in 1979.
It leaves such a lasting impression at Caltech that some students say they suffer a mild form of post-traumatic stress disorder after leaving the Pasadena campus. Students said they instinctively think that they haven't studied enough when they hear the opening bars.
Iyer said she doesn't have such a strong reaction but admits she's never really liked Wagner.
"I'm not going to be playing it any time soon," she said.