Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Why we lose our minds in April

Thought this might be an interesting "from the Trenches" post, especially in light of the fact that, at music conservatories, everyone loses their minds in April (deadlines, recitals, defenses, etc). I post analogous "Further to today's class" after EVERY meeting of every class.

This is *why* we all lose our minds:

"Folks:

Mostly good work today.

Note "The Gap" [e.g., between those doing excellent work, and those not]. And if you're on the wrong side of it, what do you need to do to address that problem?

Background paper is due on April 7. DO NOT FAIL to follow the templates; if you do, you will lose points.

Final paper will be due April 25 (Friday). NOTE that this is a full 4 days later than the syllabus calls for--so make best use of that time!

We will attempt (but cannot guarantee) to have them graded and ready to return to you by April 28. If your paper is on-time, complete, and receives a passing grade, you will have the option of either accepting that grade, or revising for CONSIDERATION OF re-grading. Late, incomplete, or non-passing papers do not receive this option.

I propose Exam #2 for April 16--two weeks from today. Will distribute Review Sheet 1 week in advance.

Slideshow is up. Contains added slides, and links. Pay particular attention to the linked videos--remember that they are fair game for testing.

Ms X [TA] will release LQ#3 grades this afternoon. Likelihood is that LQ#4 will occur Wed Apr 23. Playlists for Chap 32ff being populated now.

Hang in there. Do good work.

cjs

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Holding back the tide in a late-stage Empire

As a middle-aged, middle-class, relatively privileged (white, educated, male, heterosexual, tenured) college professor, engaged in teaching music, cultural history, and critical thinking, in a late-stage Empire whose particular addictions--specifically to leisure, material possessions, and the cheap energy which fossil fuels make possible--is rapidly destroying both subaltern societies and the planet's own ecosystem, I sometimes imagine I know what it must have felt like to be a lector or ludus literatus in one of the frontier provinces of late-stage Rome: Valentia (Wales and NW England), say, or Brittaniae (Cornwall). In such a biography, you're a very long way from the centers of power, you can feel and observe (as someone trained and teaching historical consciousness and a degree of cultural analysis) the way in which the larger society, the vast superstructure of privilege, is creaking, groaning, and breaking down. And you can observe, and experience considerable frustration regarding, the psychotic short-term greed and lust for power which leads those at the top of the economic ladder to enact ever more radical, repressive, and short-sighted activities to try to maintain control and keep the addiction fed: clear-cutting Britain to build ships, hiring barbarian mercenaries to protect the homeland, steadily hollowing-out the middle class in order to enrich the oligarchs behind the politicians, creating Praetorian guards of private contractors to guard them, squirreling away their wealth in private troves or in vast estates remote from the centers of conflict.

In a late-stage Empire, there is no middle class, there is no democracy, there is no historical vision, there is no investment in future generations or future resources--human, natural, financial. There is only the ever-accelerating drive to maintain the status quo of the wealthy, and to hold at bay, just under the surface of consciousness, the panic they feel in the very clear, but repressed realization that all the wealth, power, privilege, impunity are going to go away even so.

In such a world, what would you, as a humble teacher, civil servant, carpenter, farmer, do, knowing that the powerful have no ears and no interest for any understandings except their own? What would you tell your kids, as you look at the disintegrating world you are bequeathing to them? What would you tell your students, as you try to impart the modest skills and insight you've spent a lifetime developing to hold back the tide of collapse? It's an enterprise doomed to failure, after all: the oligarchs will behave more and more flagrantly, greedily, and destructively; the subaltern communities will more and more be goaded to attack one another; the middle class will continue to disappear; the poor servant class will expand geometrically even as their standard of living plunges; the planet will continue to degrade. And there is nothing, nothing, (or almost) nothing you can do about it.

What would you do? Well, in your small distant corner of the world, very far from the centers of power, with nearly no voice and absolutely no influence in the public discourse of the day, you might just keep doing what you do: trying to directly impact those around you in positive ways; imparting the skills of critical reading, writing, listening, speaking, and thinking that help young people learn how to cope with changing, unknown, fluid, challenging problems requiring new and unique solutions; laying down in safekeeping, like bottles of wine in a cellar, the stocks of wisdom, history, literature, art, music, science, healing, that might otherwise be destroyed like the Library of Alexandria, and you might try to look forward, past peak oil or wealth, past societal breakdown and the fall of the oligarchs, past the destruction of the imperial Cities and their way of life, past the ensuing Dark Ages...

...to a time when, possibly from the far distant provinces which were least touched by the Empire and soonest abandoned, a few peregrini, a few wandering travelers and scholars, might return toward the center, and begin to rebuild. The new society upon the ruins of the old. 

Because what else is there to do? Despair may be inevitable--but it is also irrelevant.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Dem Boyz (on the 50th anniversary of the Sullivan shows)

-Can you give me a little background on the performance itself?

Sullivan had seen the reception to the Beatles' by local London fans while at Heathrow airport in 1963 and, with the remarkable instincts of a veteran vaudevillian and talent booker, had recognized that such an intense fan reaction might actually translate from the very different English to American audiences. In the event, he was proved right.

-Why was this appearance so important?

The timing was extraordinarily good: John Kennedy had been killed in Dallas in Nov '63, an event which was both massively traumatic and also massively publicized (including the notorious on-camera murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby). At the same time, after a remarkable apotheosis of American-born rock & roll acts between about 1954 and 1959--Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and many "crossover" black artists--American pop music had to an extent entered a fallow period: Elvis was in the Army, Little Richard had (temporarily) gone back to work, Buddy & Richie Valens had been killed, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry had legal or tax problems (or both). At the same time, while this "media space" was opening up, remarkable things were happening in England with overseas transformations of American blues and R&B.

-How did this performance, or the Beatles in general, change American culture?

That's a huge question, and really impossible to answer. The Beatles represented a response to the "Baby Boom"--the post WWII boom in births and, by the early '60s, an entirely new social and marketing class called "teenagers." At the same time, they were a remarkably talented group of individuals--3 incredibly strong songwriters (John, Paul, George), 3 incredibly talented instrumentalists (Ringo, George, and Paul)--and they were remarkably self-contained. They had both the musical talent and imagination and the social/media skills--much of it innate, or learned on the tough stages of the English provinces and the north German nightclubs--to be able to respond to a worldwide media meltdown, with themselves at the eye of the storm, and still be able to respond quickly, comedically, and very, very cannily. They were a remarkable unit.

-How did the Beatles change music?

Well, they took the lessons of many American roots musics, from country, R&B, and blues; to '50s rock 'n' roll; to various Latin pop styles (cha-cha-cha, tango, beguine); elements of big-band music; the choral singing tradition of English Anglicanism, and English folk's modal scales. They wrote all their own music (and John, Paul, and George were all flat-out genius songwriters). They had worked out a way to be remarkably self-contained, both creatively (as songwriters, singers, and instrumentalists) and also financially (Brian Jones, before his accidental death, had charted the course of their success, and its careful, sequential steps) with masterful precision. They managed an oppositional stance to social norms and political conservatism with the same sardonic, parodic, and cocky sense of humor that comedy groups like the Goons and later Monty Python used to such devastating effect. They were remarkably courageous as artists--they constantly tried new things. All of these tendencies drastically "upped the bar" for what a pop group could seek and could accomplish.

-Have you seen the performance, either the first viewing, or a recording? What are your thoughts about it?

I didn't see the performance on first viewing--I was a toddler, but my family weren't particularly television watchers--but as a scholar of American music, of course I've watched recordings. I have very complex reactions, as I suspect do many who loved the group. First of all, they all seem so *young* (younger every time I watch it, as I age). The screaming teens seem like a time capsule--we would never be that charmingly naive or "over the top" in our adulation of pop stars again. But what I take away every time I watch *any* live performance recording of the Beatles--or for that matter, studio footage as well--from the 1964 Ed Sullivan appearances to the last performances on the rooftop of Apple Records in January of 1969--was what astonishing, unique, mutually compatible musicians they were. From the clubs of Hamburg or Liverpool, playing marathon 4- and 5-hour gigs with dancers tumbling into the bandstand, to live performances on Sullivan, to Shea Stadium with a tiny little Shure Vocalmaster PA in the face of 50,000 fans, to that last, elegiac performance on the rooftop at Apple, they were four of the 20th century's greatest pop musicians. And surely, surely, one of the century's greatest, most brilliant, most courageous, most influential musical ensembles.



That's what I've got.



Monday, November 25, 2013

Quick hit: the Irish Triads, and, what it takes to be an "---ologist"

Just less than no time to comment upon this here--second-last week of the semester, and when we return from Thanksgiving break we have literally THREE days of classes only, and on the Tues-Thurs schedule only ONE meeting, but here's one I've previously been struggling to articulate yet which I need to capture:

In pre-Christian Irish oral poetry, an incredibly rich and virtuosic tradition which expected the filidh to memorize hundreds of poems and literally dozens of secret/esoteric languages and poetic schema, a classic formulation was to remember like metaphors or mnemonics in groups of three: e.g., "the three villains of Ireland," or "the three symbols of dischord", etc. My current fave is: "The three folk in horrid hell of great blasts: folk who practise poetry, folk who violate their orders, mercenaries."*

Have been struggling recently to capture in words element(s) which I can articulate as essential in the development of a music scholar. One of the more challenging and fraught situations we face as professors in the Fine Arts & Humanities is figuring out how to advise students who may, or may not, have the particular combination of attributes and aptitudes to "succeed", by whatever metric, in this family of professions: "folklorist," "archivist," "ethnomusicologist," "musicologist," et al.

Not to say that there is only a single path: I have had the great fortune to have, as friends and as mentees, folks who've found a lot of different ways to thread the needle, and to parlay an interest in culture, research, critical thinking, and teaching into a survivable profession and a happy life. I continue to learn, from these colleagues, friends, and former students, all the different ways it is possible to survive and thrive in this thing of ours ("cosa nostra").

But one thing I think I have finally captured, and it separates the research scholars, or the potential research scholars, from those who could be equally successful as teachers, museum designers, radio programmers, journalists, and so on. And it gets back to what I've come to perceive as a "Professors' Triad": the "three things that make a scholar".

Nota bene: the presence of 1 or 2 of these attributes, rather than the full complement of three, should in no way be seen as perjorative: if anything, having 1 or 2 of them, and a range of other life-skills perhaps less directly related to research scholarship, may very well make for a happier, better remunerated, or mentally easier life!

But I think I believe that someone who is to survive and thrive as a research scholar needs all three of these attributes--or to develop a reasonable facsimile of them:

(1) A zest for the actual factual record and the stamina and stick-to-it-ivity to find out that record, whether obtained readily or reluctantly, and whether it manifests a clear & straightforward or a convoluted and sticky narrative. This is the craft of the researcher;

(2) The ability, or the desire to develop the ability, to articulate the narratives and factual chronologies that emerge from the record, in engaging, intriguing, and relatively undistorted fashion. You need to know the facts, and then you need the ability and the desire to be able to articulate those facts in language others can grok. This is the craft of the teacher;

(3) The ability to derive insights from the facts and their narrative. It is not enough, for a research scholar, to know what happened and have engaging ways of conveying what happened. To be an actual research scholar, to be an "ethnomusic-ologist" or a "music-ologist" or something of their ilk, you must be able to perceive patterns others have not. This is how you make an "original contribution to the scholarship": you have to be able to see things, and reasons and causes for things, that others have missed. One metric for this is that, in true and truly effective research scholarship, either you or your audience (readers)--or both, will say "My god, that's so obvious; how come no one ever saw that before?" The effective scholar will have these "eureka" moments, and will then be able to deploy (1) facts and (2) language to convey those new, potentially paradigm-shifting insights, in a fashion that is persuasive.

This is the craft of the scholar.

You can be the most meticulous investigator in the world, or the the most facile and articulate writer, or both, but in the absence of #3--the ability to see new patterns and then to articulate them in a fashion that accords with the factual evidence--you are, actually, probably not cut out to be a research scholar. A teacher, archivist, journalist, arts advocate, radio producer, etc may be a better, more viable--and probably better-rewarded!--path.

Still thinking about this. But the above (entirely unedited) rings true.

*Interestingly, the great 20th century satirist (and satiric poet) Flann O'Brien parodied the Triads in his masterpiece At Swim-Two Birds, a comic version of the po-faced and earnest mock-myths of the "Celtic Twilight/Irish Literary Renaissance". 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The "Wisdom" hashtag

Quite some time back, maybe when I first en-'twittered, I got into the habit of using hashtag sparingly and specifically, and seldom/never the hashtags that were "trending" ("yes, please, let me tag along on the daisy chain of lemming-like shiny media objects!"). More often, I used them a little more like keywords or tags--that is, as ways of identifying particular items as addressing one or another topic I knew I'd revisit and which I inferred others might possibly treat similarly. The first of that series, I think, was the #NuminousMoment hashtag--just a way for me to record and remind myself of certain mindfulness realizations, as or nearly when they occurred. A lot of time they are realizations about the natural world, weather, animals, and other close-to-the-senses moments--the sort of things that can be the kernel of poems.

But the "#<>Wisdom" hashtag is a little different. In my life, as I suspect in those of many others, certain professions--certain jobs--have taught me certain skills and provided certain insights: maybe even "rules for living." So #CarpentersWisdom, #ProfessorsWisdom, #BandleadersWisdom, #ITMWisdom ("Irish Traditional Music Wisdom"), #CooksWisdom are insights that come out of my having held those jobs: e.g., "Pay Attention" might be good practical safety advice under the heading of #CarpentersWisdom or #CooksWisdom, but it's probably also sound, if more metaphorical, when you're dealing with the moment-by-moment improvisation of the bandstand or the classroom.

At the same time, the "#<>Wisdom" hashtags do not only connote "here's the magisterial advice upon which, from my position of vastly greater and meaningful life experience, I will pontificate" (though sometimes such vanity slips through). It connotes, at least as commonly, the self-directed advice "hey, dummy, remember when you learned through painful error not to take your eye off the Skil-Saw blade? You wanna remember that accident the next time you find your attention slipping, please?"

In other words, the #<>Wisdom hashtags can connote: "here's something I learned in the trades, and which either you or I might do well to remember." But it can also connote "hey, dummy, your profession is particularly prone to this or that stupid unnecessary error" (more commonly that's the "Professors" or "Bandleaders" tag) "and maybe you oughta avoid it, huh?"

So if, in my social media stream, you see a #<>Wisdom hashtag, you can figure that it means either "hey, here's something I learned sometime that's worth remembering," e.g., "Professor's Wisdom" for others, but equally likely "here's something you yourself, Coyote, ought to know well enough to remember."

It's a not-bad way to cultivate a record of some minimal degree of mindfulness. As much as one can.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

They shoulda listened to Orville Faubus from beyond the grave

If anybody in GOP leadership had any historical memory whatsoever, they coulda predicted what would happen when they legitimized fanaticism in service of their own greed: "Tactics being discussed among Republican strategists, donors, and party leaders include running attack ads against tea party candidates for Congress; overthrowing Ron Paul's libertarian acolytes dominating the Iowa and Minnesota state parties; promoting open primaries over nominating conventions, like the ones that produced Republican hardliners like Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli and shutdown-instigator Mike Lee of Utah; and countering political juggernauts Heritage Action, the Club for Growth, and FreedomWorks that target Republican incumbents who have consorted with Democrats." http://www.nationaljournal.com/politics/inside-the-messy-but-moneyed-republican-plan-to-neutralize-the-tea-party-20131024

Thursday, October 17, 2013

"Graduate Program Review for Faculty"

Don't ask me survey questions like this on a Thursday evening after a hard week and a glass of wine unless you want an honest answer (and I suspect you don't):

"What changes, if any, could be made to improve the quality of your graduate program(s)?"

Graduate stipends within my Unit (as set by the University) are scandalously low. Too few graduate TA lines are available. Too little financial support (especially TA positions) is afforded graduate students. Improvement in this area is essential. 

More money for outreach. More money for national & international visibility. More money for graduate student research and conference travel. We produce a phenomenally high-value product with a shockingly low level of financial support from the university as a whole.