Friday, August 31, 2007

"The Office" (Workstation series) 32 ("What was that about 'compassion' again?" edition)

Friday of the first week of classes, and "Dave's not here, man!" [obscure Cheech 'n' Chong reference]. Working at the Office off-campus.

But even if I didn't have a spouse who has to be teaching on-campus in about 20 minutes, I'd know we were back in the semester, in the early part of the calendar, but at the end of a week with a Party Weekend looming. Because the place is overrun with about five tables of sorority girls, so identified not only by hair, nails, jewelry, and makeup, but also by their Greek T-shirts and ballcaps, and the expensively-bound privately-printed souvenir photo-albums they are showing each other--and by the fact that they are talking louder than everyone else in the place.

It's not their fault: they're raised in a culture in which vicarious self-engrossment, far from being a contradiction in terms, is in fact the prevailing media archetype: individuals (Lindsey, Britney, Madonna as the senior and canniest example) who are make a 7-figure living out of being famous for their foibles, not their accomplishments. It's not a contradiction in terms, because those celebrities have little to contribute except the outsized baroque bizarreness of their dysfunctional personalities (as I write this, the Kentucky-Fried-Chicken-stained designer gown Britney wore to a notorious recent photo shoot is up on eBay, and the auction bidding is off the hook). And, with the ubiquity of these mass-media archetypes in the kids' daily lives, it's no wonder that the "Simple Life" (Paris and Nicole) or the "Real World" (MTV) is realer via the electronic baby-sitter than human contact--or that they think their own lives will only have meaning to the extent that they can imitate the Celebs.

My personal issue: how to manifest compassion to these kids when they're monopolizing the sound-space, or waltzing across the parking lot talking animatedly on their iPhones or Razrs oblivious to the traffic patterns they're stepping out in front of, or swerving across three lanes of traffic to make an illegal right turn in their GMC Behemoths [tm] while repairing their mascara or text-messaging with their other hands--and then look hurt when you honk the horn or cuss at them.

In the abstract, or close-up, it's easy to recognize their individuality and sympathize with the shitty cultural archetypes they've been bequeathed. Thinking about them with Albert King's gigantic guitar in the headphones blocking out their guinea-hen cackling, or watching (having a hand in) the lightbulbs going off over their heads in the classroom, or playing the blues for them, or even explaining to them at 2:30am that trying to "party" at your off-campus house with some little blonde who is so utterly stupid that she thinks she can "overdose" on weed is a bad idea, it's a lot easier to see them as persons, as individual jewels (flawed diamonds, maybe, lacking polish), and to get a perspective on how much they can use the help that adult, self-actualizing, responsible, impassioned role models (parents, teachers, ministers, etc) can provide. In the middle distance--in the traffic patterns, or the mass plagiarisms, or the "but we were just tryin' to have a little fun...Sir!" keg parties--it's a lot harder to cherish them.

But the Buddha didn't say "manifest compassion for some beings," or "...for those beings who are responsible," or "...for those beings who you think deserve it," or even "...for those beings who don't throw beer cans and piss on your lawn at 2:30am." He said "all beings."

Which, on the Friday of the first day of classes, means all the half-grown, half-formed, half-spoiled, half-perfect children in the room.

On the docket: finish up re-reading Cockrell's Demons of Disorder. I am reminded in this re-reading that Demons does a particularly wonderful job of locating behavioral archetypes (referenced by the titles of minstrel songs) in the careers of three individuals in the antebellum period: "Jump Jim Crow" (the raggamuffin, slow-talking, tongue-twisting dancer and leaper who emerges later in Uncle Tom's Cabin's Topsy and Our Gang's Alfalfa) in the life, career, and artistic choices of Thomas 'Daddy' Rice; "Zip Coon" (the flash-dressing, fast-talking, foppish dandy pimp who rolls again as Staggerlee and Snoop Dog) in the Trickster social outlaw George Washington Dixon; and "Old Dan Tucker" (the tall-tale-telling, giant-brag-spouting, frontiersman who strides across the landscape as the keelboatman Mike Fink, Fess Parker's Daniel Boone, or Hendrix's Voodoo Child) in the prototypical urban ethnomusicology of banjo virtuoso and blackface troupe leader Joel Walker Sweeney, who throws down again in the careers of "white boys playing the blues" like Mac Rebennack/Dr John, Johnny Otis, or Stevie Ray Vaughan.

In this respect, Cockrell is setting a pattern (locating certain American 19th-century archetypes in both the songs and the biographies of seminal blackface minstrels) which Rip Lhamon, in Raising Cain, picks up again as "lore cycles", finding the dance steps of the "Catharine Market 1820" in the buck-and-wing of Bojangles Robinson or the videotaped autobiography of MC Hammer.

These are great, great books (also pictured here: Bean's edited Collection Inside the Minstrel Mask, a compendium of short or pilot essays by a lot of the authors I'm already working with; and Rip Lhamon's Jump Jim Crow, essentially a source-book containing full transcriptions of hundreds of "Lost Plays, Lyrics, and Street Prose of the First Atlantic Popular Culture"), but so far, in all of my reading and re-reading as I prepare to go out of town for archival work on my antebellum painter, I haven't found any that have made one crucial further deductive step: the recognition that, for all the noxious racist stereotypes which blackface no doubt manifested--and which have been very successfully complicated as revealing a whole range of other reactions, by Cockrell, Eric Lott, and Lhamon among others--these early blackface minstrels were not only pop stars but also were engaging in a kind of urban ethnomusicology: the close observation and admiring imitation of black (syncretic, urban, northern or frontier) performance arts. These (going all the way back to Charles Dibdin in the late 18th-century ballad opera The Padlock) were the prototypical "white boys playing the blues." Yes, there was racism, and exploitation, and appropriation, and opportunism in their activities--"isms" which crop up in later instances of mainstream-culture appropriation--but those "isms" have been not unknown in the history of "formal" ethnomusicology as well.

Ethnomusicology, in this sense, is inevitably and universally an act of translation: someone goes somewhere and observes someone else doing something, and then returns, trying to explain--to translate--something of how that activity works, and what it means, to the original participants. That's what ethnomusicology does. What it yields, very very often, is an enrichment: not only of the opportunistic individual scholar's pocketbook, publication record, or CV, but also of the dominant culture. Dominant/mainstream culture has tended to appropriate from subordinate/minority culture, through all ages, societies, and situations, because it is at the margins that new art begins. Appropriation--and its loaded and sometimes racist cousin, representation--are at the heart of how culture is born, transmitted, and transmuted. Ethnomusicologists translate an unobserved minority or niche culture to another or majority culture--even if the end-goal of that translation is simply to reflect that dominant culture back upon itself. This is precisely what Lhamon, Lott, and Cockrell have shown the early blackface minstrels to likewise be doing. They were--in an arguable, incomplete, but nevertheless legitimate simile--the first urban ethnomusicologists.

And that vicarious outsider's dominant-culture view has always been with us, too. George Dixon blacking up (either on stage or in the prints of his inflammatory populist newspapers), Tom Rice imitating Georgia Sea Islands children's dance-songs for a heaving mass of "Bowery B'hoys" on the (truly riotous) stage of the Bowery Theatre, Joel Sweeney learning banjo-picking from Cincinnati stevedores and bringing that "participant observation" to the stages of America and Europe--they were playing to the citizens, the suburbanites, the middle-class voyeurs who were titillated by the outrageous public antics of the then-mass media.

So I guess that's why I stand with those blacked-up white boys, those prototypical urban ethnomusicologists, likewise lambasted before the bar of history by post-modernist cultural critics (usually not artists themselves), who want to say that we're "nothing but thieves," "guilty of cultural appropriation," or--to quote the well-known minority scholar of black music to whom I once had the (mistaken) temerity to say "I play black music", not recognizing that my musicianship in the idiom made her feel defensive--"just a bunch of white boys playing the blues."

So we are.

I have to try to learn to manifest the same compassion and awareness of immanent potential I feel for those nameless black informants who gave the world the past 200 years of its popular music, toward those loud-talking, iPod-enabled, cell-phone clutching, traffic-cutting, Paris-imitating, blond-highlighted, sorority-rushing, children, who imitate because nobody has ever taught them to create. My job is to show them how to do just that--if create, if not art, then an effective argument; if not an argument, then at least an effective individual life.

Just a bunch of white boys playing the blues.
Now playing: Allman Brothers - You Don`t Love Me

Thursday, August 30, 2007

To steer us safely home...

Before I have to read the inevitable MSM jokey-bits about "Bubba Gump Shrimpers", etc., which will--as the mass media always does--trivialize the power of what Captain Ed Keisel did:

Captain using first aid book delivers baby on shrimp boat
Let me just say that, as not too many places in the post-industrial technological West, being a boat's skipper is still a very ancient archetype. For at least 20,000 years, the job hasn't changed very much: come back with the same number you went out with. Find the fish and the wind when you need them, duck the storms when you can, and take care of your people. And, in the very worst case scenario, die for them if you have to. There's a reason that all people's scriptures are full of the metaphor of the ship's captain steering his crew safely home.

My second-favorite line from the story:
Keisel used net twine, sterilized in boiling water, to tie off the umbilical cord and cut the newborn free from his mother.
I honor Captain Ed Keisel--and Ted Hood, and Ed Hall, and even Crazy Art Hogan, the captains and mates out of my own past--for what they taught me about ships, and the sea, and about how to be a man.

My favorite line in the story:
"We set out with a crew of three, and we came back with a crew of four," Keisel said.
Thanks, skipper.

"The Office" (Workstation series) 31 (Indra's Web edition)

Back at the "Office" (campus satellite version). Meetings, lessons to give, CD artwork finalization, meetings with supervisees, etc.

The School of Music here is a very different place than I recall it being when we arrived seven years ago. Too many changes to enumerate, but one sea-change can symbolize many: there are now at least six self-identifying Buddhists on the faculty and we don't have to be paranoid about being ridden out of town on a Baptist rail (this in a town where, three years ago, a donated sculpture of the Windy Man, symbolic of the winds that blow all the time on the South Plains, was destroyed as "idolatrous" by some apeshit self-identified "Christian", at which the gutless City Fathers threw up their hands and decided the sculpture had been a Bad Idea in the first place). And, as of Tuesday morning, a tenured faculty member who's also certified to teach by the Kripalu Institute began a twice-weekly early-morning "Yoga for Musicians" class. For credit. In a state school. In West Texas. In the county self-identified as the "Buckle of the Bible Belt." The place about which Junior said to Karl Rove "I want a position-paper so simple even the boys in Lubbock'll understand it." A yoga class, full of undergraduates. Buddhists on the university faculty. Teach-ins against the war. The world is changing, whether the hate-mongers want to believe it or not.

Sixteen or seventeen years ago, when I was deep in the throes of being abused by the various suits at Indiana University who worked actively against my candidacy in Musicology, Dharmonia bought me a button which perfectly encapsulated my attitude about hanging tough for the long haul, but which I had to stop wearing because it made various of those (and other) dysfunctional suits too nervous, because, deny it as they might, they knew they were behaving unethically, unfairly, and with pointless paranoid cruelty, to me and hundreds of others. The button read

"Laugh while you can, but we'll be in charge someday."
And now, seventeen years later, we are.

I almost can't recall the last seven years--there have been so many events and so much change, in what is--in the context of a life--not very much time, that I can't keep track of them all. But I know this is a different place than it was seven years ago. And I know I'm in a different place than I was seventeen years ago. And not just because "we're" in charge.

But because, dammit, the world doesn't have to be an unethical, unfair, and cruelly paranoid place. We, each and all, can work to make the world better. It takes patience, and courage, and the ability to stick to the post and stay motivated with infinitesimally slow incremental change. But change does happen. This is of course drastically facilitated by working with compatibly hard-working and idealistic people, and it's one reason that Dharmonia and I stay here. I don't give a shit whether it's the Buckle of the Bible Belt--the people we work with (colleagues and students) are jewels, and we are blessed beyond measure to be counted among them.

The way we heal suffering in the world--our own and others'--is, to quote Katagiri Roshi, "Make positive effort toward the good."

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

"The Office" (Workstation series) 30 (full-moon-madness edition)

Back at the on-campus "office-away-from-office": Starbuck's coffeeshop just down the road from the Music Building. Dell laptop (with crucial iTunes for teaching and headphones for blocking out the "sad-bastard" [Jack Black tm] rock they play on the store sound-system), Dharmonia's elbow and headphones as she familiarizes with the materials for the course of mine she is covering while I'm "on leave"."

Hafta make an appearance at colleague's "Music as Cultural History: The Early Period" class, reciting the opening of the Odyssey's Prologue with lyre accompaniment. Blues Monday, Homer Wednesday, Irish music Thursday and Friday.

On the docket: a revisit to Dale Cockrell's brilliant (and seminal) study of the carnivalesque roots of blackface minstrelsy: Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World. This was a very important and significantly early (1997) corrective to the earlier conviction, which had scared away from the topic most musicologists, that minstrelsy was nothing but inept noxious racial parody. Cockrell shows that the tradition of masking, face painting, motley clothes, and "rough music" (clattering banging outdoor music for drums and winds) goes all the way back to Roman Saturnalia, and that blackface, while undoubtedly heavily influenced by the early performers' awareness and study of African-American performance in the urban North and frontier West, found its audience because of that audience's existing traditions of charivari and "shivaree." A great book when I first read it, but one which I expect to be even more illuminating in light of all the other work I'm doing with minstrelsy sources prior to departing. Am trying to get as much of that reading and note-taking done in advance, because I don't want to be carrying books in the damned roll'y-bag.

I've got no complaints about my life.

Bonus: Full pre-Harvest moon rising.

A real white-night last night--moon still up and full when I left at 5:45am headed for the cross-trainer.

Now playing: Hubert Sumlin - The Same Thing

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

"The Office" (Workstation series) 30 ("Easter 1916" edition)

Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
[They] are changed, changed utterly:
Yeats was writing about Easter 1916, and facing the fact that even people he hated, or disagreed with, or (with the hardwired patrician hauteur of his Anglo-Protestant class, which crippled his "folkloric" interests, in contrast to the empathy, insight, and friendships which JM Synge created) despised, had, through the doomed late-Romantic rhetorical gesturing of the Easter Rebellion, simultaneously realized the sordid reality of the "blood sacrifice" Patrick Pearse had idealized, had joined hands and stepped through the looking-glass of literary modernism into a 20th Century of technology, brutality, and authoritarianism. And, despite the wrong-headed political naivete (and self-centered late-Romantic mythology) of the Anglo-Celtic Renaissance, had paid a supreme sacrifice--even if it was pointless. Death was death; courage was courage, even in the most ridiculous circumstances.

This is the first day in 15 years when, during an academic semester, I did not have to be teaching a class while courses were in session--and the first day since 1984 that I have not had to be on a college campus at all. It's a strange, though not unwelcome situation. I've got no excuse--I have more time and more support for my own research than I have had in at least 20 years. In fact, I have a mandate: they gave me a bunch of money to go off and do these two books I say I have in me.

I have to leave my department in my colleagues' capable hands, trust that the systems we've built over the last seven years are good systems, that my colleagues are capable of handling whatever and all of the minor administrative conflagrations will certainly arise, and get this done.

Time to go to work.

O'Flaherty Irish Music retreat, Dallas, Oct 07

[Passing on an invitation from Dallas's Ken Fleming (banjo and box) I have heard nothing but good things about this event, now in its 4th year. Ken is Good People and the instructors they've laid on are top-notch. Well worth the investment of time and money.]

Just wanted to pass on some information about a traditional Irish music camp in Texas called the O’Flaherty Irish Music Retreat that is getting great reviews by instructors and students. Here are some of the details:

This year’s retreat is October 26-28 at the Hoblitzelle Camp and Conference Center in Midlothian, Texas, about 30 minutes south of Dallas. Classes begin Friday morning and the retreat ends Sunday night. Each day (Friday, Saturday, Sunday) there will be three 90-minute classes and one 60-minute workshop. There’s a superb lineup of instructors this year, including such wonderful players as Matt Cranitch (fiddle), Patrick Ourceau (fiddle), Mickey Dunne (uilleann pipes), Tommy O’Sullivan (guitar/singing), Catherine McEvoy (flute/whistle), Pat Broaders (bouzouki/singing), Mark Stone (bodhran), Therese Honey (harp), and many more. Each night there will be instructor concerts and sessions. On the final night, there will be a “Singers Scramble” and “Texas Tune Tussle” which features a friendly competition among ensembles that are formed at the retreat during the weekend followed by a farewell concert. Lodging on campus will be available from Thursday evening through Sunday night with check out by 11 a.m. on Monday the 29th. Meals will be offered Thursday dinner through Monday breakfast. There will be a shuttle to and from DFW and Love Field Airports and the camp.

Costs are $150 for tuition, $80 for youth 18 and under and seniors 65 and older. Meals, lodging and shuttle service can be reserved separately. If you’re interested, visit the retreat’s website at or call the retreat office at (972) 238-8724. This is a great way to spend a three-day weekend being saturated in Irish trad music with a community of players.

Monday, August 27, 2007

"The Office" (Workstation series) 29 (release-the-hand-brake edition)

Starbuck's Coffeeshop, within the Student Union Building. Where I "hide out" (nominally) when being in my School of Music office makes for interruptions on non-essential errands.

Today was the first day of classes, and also the official first day of my "Faculty Development Leave." No obligation that I be on campus, but I have six faculty members starting on classes that they individually have not taught before (a lot of shuffling-the-dominos to cover my absence from the classroom) and I wanted to be 5:00 minutes, rather than 40:00 minutes, distant, in the event of problems. (And my guys all know to find me here if I'm not in the Music building). My sole formal obligation was to go play Mississippi Delta blues in the "History of Rock Class" which Dharmonia created and which the Dearly Deported is teaching while Dharmo covers my undergrad class. Pretty good gig, huh? Leave your sabbatical only long enough to go play the blues for 441 undergraduates, howling out Son House's "Death Letter Blues" and Tommy Johnson rockin' "Big Road Blues," come back to the coffeeshop to write recommendations and commendations for the great work people are doing, keep peckin' away at the minstrelsy project (just took delivery of Inside the Minstrel Mask, can't wait to delve into it) before heading off here on Sept 10.

My colleagues who pass me en route to caffeine tease me, assuming that I'm on campus rather than riding off into the sunset because I can't tear myself away. But, really, it's just that I'm taking the long view: my senior colleague is departing August 2008 to a well-deserved (and long-postponed) retirement, we've got a search to run for his replacement, and that search has to start happening now. Why would I ignore that, and the six new teaching assignments, given that I'm going to come back as Chair in four months? Let me get my guys squared away, with the tools, systems, and resources they need, now: it's easier to solve problems from 5:00 minutes, or even 40:00 minutes, away--rather than 2000 miles.

Was delighted to hear how well everybody's first day had gone. I knew they would do great--it's just nice when they realize that they will.

Also nice to have a first rehearsal scheduled (for this weekend) with this project.

Here's a (redacted) quote of the faculty-wide email I wrote in response to my colleague's formal retirement announcement:

"Dr H---- has provided an environment within our division that has made possible everything we have accomplished over the past seven years: complete revision and modernization of the undergraduate curriculum, the same for the graduate curriculum, the (current) finalized revision of Music Appreciation suite of courses, the expansion of the Tenure Track musicology faculty, the expansion of the Musicology graduate program's enrollment, development of a practicum by which senior graduate students move into teaching-assistantships and adjunct positions, placement of undergraduate and graduate musicology students in top-notch graduate programs and very competitive job situations, development of the undergraduate degree in Vernacular Music, the Vernacular Music Center and its attendant Scholarship, and even the very renaming of our department from "Music History and Literature" to the much more apposite and relevant "Musicology."

As I said to Dr H---- in a private email when he shared this news with me: "We could never have accomplished everything we have done in the last few years without your support, perspective, and advocacy."
Up here on the South Plains, we believe in saying "Thank you."


Lubbock's Landscape in the Sky.

Now playing: Ramones - I Wanna Be Sedated

The bottom line: a thinking population has to learn how

The NYT finally confirms what we've been saying for years: that teaching people critical thinking, critical speaking, critical writing, critical listening is essential just so they can function.

Young Workers: U Nd 2 Improve Ur Writing Skills:

Nearly half the executives said that entry-level workers lacked writing skills, and 27 percent said that they were deficient in critical thinking.
Line of "Course goals" from our syllabi:
7. Listen, read, speak, and write critically about the relationship between musical styles and cultural histories.
Yes--this is what we do: we teach them to think. And yes, it's goddamned essential if you want to have a functional culture. Glad to see that even the Paper of Record gets it.

Gone but still guilty

The contemptible Alberto Gonzalez ("in a democracy, idiot-boy presidents usually get the enabling real-estate-lawyer Attorney Generals they deserve") gets bounced, long after he's due.

"Department of Don't Let The Door Hit You In The Ass On The Way Out"

Instead, let us hunt you down and subpoena your sorry ass. This ain't the corporate world, Abu: you don't get to run the company into the ground and then take a golden-parachute kissoff.

Perjury is still perjury, bogus claims to "executive privilege" be damned. You're goin' to jail.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Fuzzy people 12 (Athenae edition)

Ground owl, TX South Plains, late summer 2007.

He had a lot to say to me but he let me take his portrait.

"The Office" (Workstation series) 28 (public radio edition)

Workstation for the radio program: iTunes, MS Word, and 70 gigs of mp3's, on the Dell laptop; Adobe Audition and MS Word on the large-drive workstation that's patched to the studio mixing board and the good microphones. Using old-school radio chops (do the voiceovers in real time, ride the faders, improvise the commentary) and new-school technology (digital editors and tera-byte-sized hard drives for storage).

As I said to one of my treasured doctoral candidates: "Any day in which I make something and teach something is a good day."

Bonus: near-full-moon on the South Plains.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Chair, beeyatches!

As of 6:45am I was formally asked to become Chair of the Musicology Division, and accepted. This has been the plan (mine and the bosses') for a long time, ever since I was hired in 2000 with the mandate to "modernize the department"--and which I worked my ass off to accomplish, but it's a relief, a validation, and an inspiration to have the day finally arrive. I am proud of what we have accomplished and confident that we have laid the foundation for a great future.

I am grateful to Robert Peatty, and Robert Prins, and Joseph Dyer, and Marek Zebrowski, and Dianthe Myers-Spencer, and David Patterson, and David Baker, and Thomas Binkley, and J Peter Burkholder, and Jeff Magee, and the much-missed Austin Caswell (RIP), and Tom Mathiesen, and George Buelow, and the hundreds of others revered teachers who have shaped me and have given me what I know how to do.

I am humbled beyond measure, and grateful beyond words, for their generosity to me.
Now playing: Berrogüeto - Bailador (voc)

"The Office" (Workstation series) 27 (Saturday cardio edition)

View from the cross-trainer. This, and this, are how I lost 64 pounds since August 20 2006--themselves the product of 12 years of graduate school followed by 6 years of triple-loaded sprinting to tenure.

My thanks to Dr Brenda Morrow, who steadily manifests the (for me) perfect combination of objectivity, empathy, and ass-kicking, for lighting that particular fire.

Now playing: Berrogüeto - Bailador (voc)

Friday, August 24, 2007

"The Office" (Workstation series) 26 (Quincentennial edition)

"The Office" at the (real) office. Trying to keep a low profile during sabbatical (I've already had 4 knocks on the door in the 10 minutes I've been here) but had a bunch of on-campus stuff to do. Self-made bookshelves, too many instruments stored here because there's no other space.

Lots of news to share but no time to do it now: two gigs to play tonight. Also wished I could have made this the "two-thirds and counting, bitches!" edition of the "100 Greats" (#67 coming up) but there just isn't time on the Friday before classes start.

Will just have to settle for this as the 500th post to Coyotebanjo. Thanks to all beings in the 10 Directions, and to the readers and commenters, who have made the writing possible.

Now playing: David Lindley - Brother John

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Racehorses at the gate

Originated as a comment over on Terminal Degree.

Sometimes people get nervous or intimidated before the semester starts, especially if they have not had a lot of prior experience upon which they can rely. My response to TD was:

If you know this about yourself just prior to the start of every semester, then you can anticipate it, yes? You say that within "two minutes" of the class starting, the anxiety melts away. If you can anticipate the anxiety, and can predict that it will melt away, then maybe you can see it not as anxiety but as another, more useful/usable emotion.

I myself hate waiting for the first day of classes, but not because I'm anxious about the classes--rather because I just want the damned hovercraft parents to leave and let me get on with my job of educating their little darlings. I'm very fidgety just before classes start, but that's because I want to get at it.

Maybe it's not anxiety at all. Maybe think of it the trembling of a race horse or a sprinter at the gate. You know you can do that job--take that nervous energy and consciously direct it toward the teaching. As I'm sure you know, students--even the most outwardly-blase, alienated, Paris-Hilton-imitating students--are inspired by positive energy. Maybe this is because they've encountered unalloyed intellectual joy so seldom, but whatever the reason, even those big-sunglassed iPhoned nimrods in the back of the room are more intimidated than they let on. You know that you will walk in the first day like a blast of pure positive energy--now you need to trust that you will, allow yourself the nervous excitement, and wait for that starting gun.

It's clean work, right? Feels good, doesn't it?

"The Office" (Workstation series) 25 (light at the end of the tunnel edition)

Gettin' dug-out all up in this crib. Meetings meetings meetings emails continue, but many of the problems begin to be resolved. And the big one: first Faculty meeting of the semester, and I didn't have to go! Boo-yah, baby!

A bunch of hires (TA's, adjuncts, new TT faculty teaching Music Appreciation) looking really good--a huge relief. This is a year when the third leg of our Musicology teaching tripod (undergraduate majors, graduate majors, and undergraduate non-majors), the music-appreciation courses for the general undergrad population, goes through final curriculum revision. I was brought in in 2000 with the stated mandate to "modernize the department." We completely revised the undergraduate music history curriculum (a huge job in itself, made unusually successful because not only did upper-administration say they wanted a completely new curriculum, they actually meant it and supported it--a very rare occurrence). We completely revised the graduate curriculum, structure, and offerings (in the midst of, over 4 years, replacing 3/4 of the faculty in the division) and were successful.

Now, because of a particular coincidental watershed moment represented by departures, leaves, or shifting assignments, we have the opportunity to overhaul, streamline, integrate, telescope, and make-consistent that third leg: the music appreciation courses for non-majors. We've now brought into- and on-line a full suite of such courses (History of Rock, History of Jazz, Masterpieces of Music, plus seminars on hip-hop, vernacular music, and adjacent topics), fully supported by multi-media, smart classrooms, online component--a huge job. We're now in train to develop fully online/distance-learning versions of same: that's one of the key tasks for this year. By this time next year I expect us to be enrolling over 1500 students per semester, with concomitant credit-dollar generation, in the Music Appreciation courses.

What makes all this possible--the straw that stirs the drink--is the superlative skills of the tenure-track, adjunct, and teaching-assistant faculty we work with. These people are top-notch, they're up-do-date, they're collegial, they're imaginative, and they work their asses off. I am incredibly fortunate to having this staff--all the revisions, technology, shifting pedagogical paradigms in the world would mean nothing in the absence of staff who can work into the classroom and light those fires.

These off-the-hook meetings, emails and planning sessions are mainly designed at making sure the staff has what they need in order to do what they do at the calibre of which they're capable. When I started teaching adjunct (sometime back in the Pleistocene Epoch) nobody at my alma mater knew squat about the topics I was to teach, no materials existed, and there was neither mentoring nor oversight. Fortunately, my personality is sufficiently akin to that of a big mean dog in the back yard that I didn't want anybody messin' in my stuff, and was happy to get on with the process of teaching myself how to teach those topics.

Similarly, I want to leave my staff the hell alone to get on with doing what they're so good at. Contrastingly, though, I want to make sure that my guys know there is a support network here, that we in the musicology division work together, sharing ideas, brainstorms, materials, and problems, and that we believe they are entitled to all the support and assistance necessary to let them excel. I am absolutely convinced that they will. But I'm going to be out of town most of the semester, and I want to anticipate and fix as many problems or unclarities as possible now, so that, when the bell for the First Round rings next Monday at 10am, they walk into their classrooms knowing we've got their backs.

To quote one of my favorite TV characters ever:

"We're a group. We're a team...We win together, we lose together. We celebrate and we mourn together. And defeats are softened and victories are sweeter because we did them together... You're my guys and I'm yours... and there's nothing I wouldn't do for you."
Toby's right. They're my guys and I'm proud of them.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

"The Office" (Workstation series) 23 (layin' rubber edition)

The rubber continues to hit the road: meetings, meetings, meetings, emails, placement exams, grading, meetings, emails, hurried lunch, mentoring, meetings, emails, grade entry...

Ain't no better today than it was yesterday. But, I expect more substantive blogging to resume next week ("100 Greats" #67 for sure).

Bonus: New Mexico moon at West Texas prices:

Now playing: Ry Cooder - Tattler

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

"The Office" (Workstation series) 22 (Rubber hits the road edition)

Holy crap. For somebody who's on sabbatical, I sure do have a goddamned lot of meetings over the next days. Sheesh!

Fuzzy people 11 (Nathaniel Hawthorne edition)

Headless Highness, asleep on the bed. You have to look several times to figure out which end is up, right?

Thanks to Chipper for the "fuzzy people" appellation.

Monday, August 20, 2007

"The Office" (Workstation series) 21 ("Here we go again" edition)

[nb: Of course the following is overstated; of course it makes generalizations. Despite the impression, this is not written out of anger, but out of an intense conviction that this is a hard, valuable job, and out of a racehorse-at-the-gate desire to get started. Those parents who get that effective child-rearing mandates time and teaching, rather than buying and outsourcing, are invaluable; there are just too few of them. ETA: Dharmonia presents a counterpoint, below.]

The move-in (parents moving kids into dorms) weekends have begun: good weekends to avoid campus by a wide berth. Roads are blocked, drivers are confused and prone to stupid decisions, offices and systems are jammed, the Student Union is off the hook. On this weekend every year, we are overrun with parents who look stunned as they pull up to campus in their oversized obese gas-guzzling American cars, offspring carefully ignoring them while they talk to some generic peer-group member on the cell phone.

I feel sorry for them: the parents who have mistaken prosperity for happiness, possessions for fulfillment; the kids who don’t know who they are and whose upbringing hasn’t helped them find meaning and value in their lives.

Gary Snyder wrote a poem about raising his sons in the “old ways” and the irreparable damage done when these old ways are lost. When you teach a child the way that children have been taught for 40,000 years (less the last 100 years of stupid assembly-line pedagogy) you not only convey information, you convey a way of being; a way of understanding who you are in the world: how to plant a field, use an axe, fix a transmission, diaper a baby, cook a meal, write a poem, play an instrument, defend your loved ones. In the framework of teaching skills, you also model a way to be. As Natalie Goldberg said, “A great teacher teaches with his or her whole life and being.” This is the antithesis of “Do as I say, not as I do”; it is rather more like “Watch what I do and learn how to be.” Fail to convey this, and you wind up with an object-oriented “buy shit for the kid” child-rearing approach that leaves us in 21st Century America where we are: with a perpetual adolescence that yields thumb-sucking media-saturated celebrity-worshipping possessions-fetishizing infants of all ages—not adult humans who can make choices, choose goals, and realize a life-path.

They don’t know how to do this—how could they know how to do this?—yet many of them are actually crying out for models to believe in: models for functional adult humanity, models for how to feel inspired about your life, models for how to feel clean and impassioned about how you spend your time. I know this because I know how they respond when they find such role models (other people, not me). I see it: even the bored, alienated, posturing, sighing, eye-rolling, slump-shouldered, cell-phoning, text-messaging, wardrobe-copying worst of the lot sit up, light up, become animated, and respond when they are presented, even if only for a few 50-minute periods per week, with the possibility of themselves creating a vision of who to become, rather than trying to trade in the counterfeit coin of American mass-media role-models.

American standardized education is nearly completely contradictory—particularly in the wake of the noxious class-based “fuck the poor, my kids don’t go to public school anyway” standardized-testing penny-pinching obscenity of Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” (another in a long line of market-tested slogans like “Compassionate Conservatism” and “Operation Iraqi Freedom” which the jumped-up direct marketers and public-relations experts who took over the White House substituted for any actual policy, expertise, or effort). In the American 21st century, primary- and (especially) secondary-level public school administrators put unconscionable pressure upon teachers to demonstrate acceptable “results” to standardized testing methods, in turn forcing those teachers—some of the most appallingly exploited and abused public servants in our nation—to abandon teaching in favor of preparation. “Preparation” for essential nothing but the short-term regurgitation of meaningless data. No skills, no values, no critical thinking, no sense of individual self—just “teach to the test,” and later for learning. No wonder the little darlings come to think of education as nothing but a big shuck, yet another time-waster like TV or cell-phones or videogames, for which you pay out your (or your daddy’s) money in order to “get” what you’re “entitled” to. That is not true education, it is not true teaching, and it does not create true, functional, valuable, fulfilled, contributing adults. It creates arrested adolescents, only now with all the additional money, hormones, and unaddressed anger of an overgrown child.

And then comes the day when Mom ‘n’ Dad have to drop Junior off at college, when they can’t any longer run Junior’s life, wash his clothes, pay his parking tickets, wipe his ass, and otherwise generally keep him (or her) a perpetual early-adolescent, because the college says No, your child has to act like an adult now. And Mom ‘n’ Dad realize—appalled—that they’ve done nothing to create someone who can function this way. That’s why Junior sits in the back of the Escalade, cell phone glued to ear, completely disengaged from whatever conversations Mom ‘n’ Dad are trying to have with the administrators and advisors and teachers who, they belatedly realize, are going to be tasked with turning their Little Darling into the functional adult Mom ‘n’ Dad have failed to create. That’s why Grandma strides obliviously through the Union, yelling into her cell phone “Can you believe it? We weren’t even allowed to go into the ‘Students Only’ orientation with him!” Betcher ass, Grandma: we need to get these kids away from you, and more importantly get you away from these kids, so we can begin the (belated) process of growing them up.

And then Junior walks into class that first day or week, after Mom ‘n’ Dad ‘n’ Grandma have finally gone home, and the professor says “What do you think?”

And Junior freezes like a deer in the headlights, because too few prior adults—not the overstressed public school teachers or the overworked and absent parents or the jock-minded military-modeling coaching staffs or the by-the-book youth ministers—have ever had the time or inclination to simply say “Hey kid…what do you think?” Out of the kid’s fear of this unfamiliar question comes silence, or avoidance, or an attempt to regurgitate as they’ve done in high school—or, if they’re really intimidated, plagiarism, group cheating, or absenteeism. And so then we have to begin from Square One: conveying that, in fact, their individual critical opinions are not irrelevant, but central, and in fact essential—that, in contrast to too much of their prior experience and indoctrination, the principal goal of their college years will be to teach them to form their own opinions. To quote Chris Rock “anybody who says they’re all one thing or another is a fuckin’ asshole. Listen for a minute! Let it all swirl aroun’ in you mind for a while. Then form an opinion.”

These parents are my generation--even the generation of my younger siblings. They grew up in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, offspring of the '50s and early '60s Baby Boomers who thought they could transform the world by taking drugs and having a lot of sex, and who, when they realized such activities just burned their brain cells and gave them diseases, went back home, joined (genetic or big-government) Daddy’s business and tried to bury their lostness in a mind-numbing cloud of possessions.

But in order to sustain that cloud, they had to buy more and more shit, acquire more and more yuppie toys, feed the addictions of their offspring, and work 60- and 70- and 80-hour weeks to stay ahead of the resultant debts. And that meant that both parents worked, or that dad was never home--that there was enough money, but never enough time to actually pay attention to the full-time job that parenting represents.

So they out-sourced parenting, just the way they outsourced jobs to save money: they hired nannies or after-school programs or used TV or videos or saturation in “youth sports” or more and more laws that tried to legislate behavior or public school systems which they tried to run using a budget-for-results model they borrowed, imbecilically, from their CEO world, and they hardly saw, never mind taught, their children. Of course their children are bored and disgusted with them: their children don’t know them, their children only know about getting more stuff, their children have been kept infantile, acquisitive, and passive, and THEN they have to cart them off in the last two weeks of August and leave them at university. Of course the parents looked shocked, and out of their element, and (behind it all) scared--because deep down, some of those parents are saying to themselves “shit, did I make the wrong parenting choices? What makes me think this kid can handle this? I’ve done her laundry/paid his traffic tickets/bought her cars/given him shit/figured her checkbook/bootlegged his homework for her/his whole life. What are they (what am I) gonna do now?”

I can’t help parents with that: they’re the victims of their own ill-informed, unexamined, bad and wrong choices in child-raising. All I can really do is wait for them to be gone, so I can get to work at the teaching and mentoring and child-raising that’s still left over.

It makes me cherish all these kids, and cherish those parents who have understood the importance of teaching as part of child-rearing. And it makes me want to say to the others, the ones who haven’t so understood, “look, it’s too fucking late. The kid will survive, because we’re good at our jobs. But you parents need to just leave, and let the kids, and us their teachers, get on with it.”

[ETA: Dharmonia responds:

It’s 1975, and you’ve spent the last 10 years believing, perhaps naively, that there is more to life than the “Leave it to Beaver” model that you were presented with in your formative years. You joined anti-war protests, you took TM, you went to coffeehouses, you smoked too much pot to do well on your chem final, but you sincerely believed that you and your peers could actually change the world, if you tried hard enough.

Now it’s 1975, and there is a recession. Your English / Philosophy / Creative writing degree is not helping you. Tired of flipping burgers, you go back to school and get an degree in computer science. Perhaps you get an MBA. Slowly, you begin to be able to pay back your debts.

By the 1980s, you’re thinking that maybe you can finally buy a house, maybe get married. The world is completely changed. It’s very, very difficult to hold onto any of the beliefs that you had in 1975. War did not end. The “war” on poverty was lost in a dramatic way. Drugs (and drug cartels and the Americans who enable them) have won the “war on drugs.” By 1985, or maybe even 1990, you give birth to one of the kids that Coyotebanjo is observing in his post.

The 80s were lucrative. However, this came at a serious expense. You and your partner – if you’re lucky enough to have one – both work between 40 and 45 hours a week, not just to “buy stuff,” but because the house that cost 45,000 bucks in 1975 now costs $345,000. You have almost no time to spend with the kid. If you want him / her to have arts, sports, music, etc., you have to provide them for the kid yourself because everything that has anything to do with quality of life has been yanked out of your public schools. This means not only spending more time carting him around, but also more money, and the circle goes on. The kid gets a lot of confusing messages, including the message that “quality of life things cost a lot of money.” The kid also gets the following conflicting message: “I have to make a lot of money in order to have any quality of life” and “I don’t want to have to work 80 hours a week like my parents.” In the end, none of this shit has given the poor kid that much better a quality of life – but he/she wants it, and has absolutely no freaking idea where to get it.

I am not angry at these parents. I missed *being* one of these parents by a fluke of fate. I can’t imagine the conflict and the frustration and the love that they must simultaneously feel. I also can imagine how the kids feels as they look for meaning in life – just like we did – as they take drugs and make bad friends and come to stupid conclusions about how to find that meaning – just like we did.

I want to help them. But I also want to turn to their parents, who were my colleagues and my cohorts and my friends, and say, It’s all right to stop worrying about them. They will find their way, and if it’s any consolation to you, I will do my damndest to sit there and listen to both their brilliant ideas AND their crap, and if I can, help them find their way. The best message I can think of to send to these parents is not exactly “butt the f--- out” – it’s *you don’t have to keep worrying* -- there are other people out here in the world who are looking out for your kids. You can leave them here, and they will be OK.

Meanwhile, the best thing you can do to make your kids ok is to *remember* the shit you believed in back in 1975, and either keep fighting the good fight, or at least help some people, do something for the environment, do SOMETHING. It’s not too late to try to do whatever we need to do to ensure that these confused, lost kids will have a prayer of having a planet to live on when they are 55.

[To which I respond:

Fair enough, and your response is a lot less mean-spirited than my original post. But I don't think I intended (I know it was unclear) to be speaking of those who "came back" from the '60s and scuffled through the '70s and into the '80s, finally getting their psychological and/or financial heads above water by the term this year's Freshmen were born in '89. I'm speaking, above, of those who never scuffled, who probably never marched on a picket line or wrote a poem, but just bought into the '80s "Greed is good" mindset, promulgated it to and used it to spoil their kids, and only now are discovering that greed is not "good", but that their kids haven't gotten anything to value other than materialism and pretentious ennui. I feel sorry for the parents, Dharmonia is right, but I feel a hell of a lot sorrier for the kids (and I'll even reserve some of that sorrow for those of us who have to cope with educating these kids in the aftermath of dumbass '80s/'90s values).

Now playing: Bainito Muyanda - Nang'weye Khunzaga

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Ice-breakers on the first day of class

Originated as a comment over at Terminal Degree:

On names: here's an ingenious one somebody on our campus taught me: On the first day of classes, hand out a 9x12 manila envelope to each stduent. Take five minutes and have them write their preferred first name (large) on the envelope, and in its corners, their home-town, major, instrument, and/or studio teacher. Have them use the envelopes to store class materials (listening notes or something similar) and require that they bring to class each meeting. Then, make the rule that when they raise their hands or are called upon, they must hold up the envelope. It becomes habitual, and a bit of a standing joke, but it breaks the ice, and teaches their names (and a bit about themselves) not only to you but also to their classmates.

We call them "SHMRG" envelopes because we use LaRue's Guidelines for Style Analysis (basically, subsuming commentary on musical style under umbrella headings of Sound Harmony Melody Rhythm Growth). We require a "SHMRG worksheet" for each piece students are responsible for, and we require that they both keep all SHMRG worksheets in the envelopes and have the envelopes at every class. We enforce conscientious maintenance of SHMRG envelopes by doing "spot-collections" of the envelopes (unannounced): TA's tally the total number of completed worksheets versus those required and a grade is assigned on basis of whether the dossier is complete.

The big, central NAME is the major purpose: you required that anyone responding or asking in class must hold up the envelope (I usually make a joke about my terrible memory for names) and you want to be able to see the name from across the room (and you want all other students to be able to see it also). The "hometown," "instrument," and "studio teacher" labels are there because that is the first information the kids will typically offer to one another. The "random fact" we describe as "a random fact about yourself that you think someone looking at you might not automatically know." This is a great ice-breaker and I've gotten fascinating replies, e.g., "I won a scholarship for catching the biggest fish," or "I always wanted to go sky-diving" or "I LOVE to go sky-diving". These convey to the kids that we care about who they are as people, not just cogs; they encourage the kids to see themselves as complex and unique; and it helps them find points of commonality or curiousity with one another. It sets a nice tone, right from the first day.

Further refinement: if it's a large group and you want them to develop some cordial relationships with other students in the class they don't know (especially important if you're going to assign them to in- or out-of-class collaborative teams), take 2:00 minutes after they have finished writing on their envelopments to do the following: tell them to turn to the nearest adjacent person they don't know (have to specify that, as new students tend to clump together with others they're acquainted with), introduce themselves, and read to one another the various factoids, with special emphasis on the "random fact" element. It's a great jump-start toward a collaborative in-class feeling, which in turn facilitates discussion, response, cooperation, and so on.

Fuzzy people 10 (moving-picture edition)

His Highness, sleeping in a hyper-yoga position which would only be comfortable for someone with four legs and that long a spine.

Thanks to Chipper for the "fuzzy people" appellation.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

"The Office" (Workstation series) 20 (Tropical depression edition)

Saturday morning crowd at the Office (different group, on a very different biorhythm). Dharmonia is out of town but the remnants of Tropical Storm Erin have arrived. Though this is more the remnants of monsoon than the kind of storm I grew up with, it's the kind of day my mother (whose NY publisher family summered Down East) described as "State of Maine weather." I don't know the origin of the term but I can vouch for its descriptive accuracy. This kind of weather--misty, cool, not too much wind, light blowing rain--is the kind of weather you get on the coast of Maine in late spring (basically, June) and early fall (basically, late August). It's great fishing weather--I remember a lot of days out on the lobster beds with weather like this--and it's great curl up in a bookstore or a library in a big chair weather. Days like this in my home town when I was a child were days when my mom would drop me and my younger siblings off at the local library and leave us there, happy, for 2 or 3 hours (you could still do that in the '60s without either terror or lawsuits). That library was the only place in my home town I felt safe, and when, years later, I visited after its renovation only to find the interior utterly changed, even re-engineered and configured, it was one of the most shocking, disorienting experiences of my life. That's when I knew my home was gone (childhood house long since sold by then) and my childhood was too.

Rainy days are good days for learning to accept loss.

Now playing: Gordon Bok - The Stable Lad

Friday, August 17, 2007

Why the dominant culture fears artists

Another fantastic quote from Rip Lhamon's magnificent Raising Cain: why the dominant culture fears artists, especially marginal or vernacular artists: because we are

an independently fearsome, ragged cohort. [Lhamon, Raising Cain, 152]

Betcher ass we are: independent, ragged, and fearsome. More art has been created by the poor, the ragged, the despised and the marginalized than has ever been created by dominant culture's lapdogs and lackies. Topside Culture fears us because they can't control us and they can't survive without us.

Now playing: Fats Domino - Be My Guest

"The Office" (Workstation series) 19 & 20 (double-espresso edition)

Aug 16.

Barnes & Noble cafe on the TTU campus. This is a preferred workspace for me when I have to be on campus. If I'm in my faculty office, I'm vulnerable to the kids who'll come knocking. It's not that I don't want to see them--it's just that they can eat all the time allocated for own-work. Historically this is why faculty run office-hours, but with the insanely busy and on-demand lifestyle that a lot of the students (and the faculty!) maintain, fixed office hours usually result in no takers and a faculty member pinned down in the office awaiting those no-shows. Makes more sense to have office hours "by arrangement," to do as much using email/remote means as possible, and to work
away from the faculty office. Of course this means that I have to relocate periodically, because once I've been sighted, then some percentage of folks know where they can find me.

This cafe is part of the massive renovation of the Student Union Building completed about 24 months ago. Prior to that time, we were mired in the 1960s Ag-school decor (furnace brick, ugly stacking chairs, and lunchtime options limited to sub sandwiches, barbecue, and pizza (which Dharmonia termed "sliders" for their gastrointestinal motion). This renovation, undertaken by the same teams of architects who redid our English & Philosophy complex, succeeded at the remarkably difficult task of matching the existing architecture, making it seem much more elegant, and providing modernized facilities of the sort that both incoming students and prospective faculty count on: post office, computer support, healthy-alternative food options, and, crucially, a coffee shop with a good cafe and serving good coffee. With the campus-wide free wireless, it's a nice place to work, while also being 2 minutes' walk from the School of Music, 1 minute from the library, and equidistant b/w my office and Dharmonia's.

Aug 17. Back at The Office, but later in the day, so had to settle for station along the front wall. Overcast day today with bits of rain: we're at the far NW edge of expiring Tropical Storm Erin, just getting unexpected rain, instead of getting flooded out as in Houston and the Hill Country. Late start due to three hour plumbing job this AM--not the plumber's fault, just pipes that, for TX, qualify us as an "old" (e.g, more than 15-year-old) house. Ouch!

Mostly working my ass off to get department, systems, and staff ready for start of fall semester. Any problems I solve now, while in residence, are problems I don't have to solve later, at long distance. After 7 years renovation, departmental offerings and procedures are actually in pretty good shape: we are finalizing the third part of a tripod revamping (graduate, undergraduate, non-major) and it's all pretty much done; that "non-major" renovation goes online this fall semester. Expanding de facto "adjuncting" (really, a practicum for finishing doctoral students) to teach Music Appreciation; consolidating various classes for greater efficiency; integrating more consistent syllabi, delivery, procedures, course requirements. Hoping it all pretty much works while I'm gone.

Still slugging away at the minstrelsy material. Almost through the re-read of Lhamon's Raising Cain; my own contribution (performance practice, context, and musicianship in early minstrelsy) continues to come clearer. Seeing more and more extensive overlaps b/w African-American and Anglo-Celtic sonic and visual vocabularies in this period, up to and including not only tune types and rhythms, but sounds, instruments, and dance moves. You can see these overlaps, syncretisms, and creolizations in my artist's works. 3-week research trip coming up, also involving taping for a banjo documentary and meeting with publisher's rep for the "100 Greats" project.

Apropos "100 Greats", friends and other readers continue to be very encouraging about the writing, most recently about Blind Willie Johnson. It's hard to understand one's own writing, and, especially in the immediate aftermath, it's damned near impossible to judge it. I finished the Blind Willie, which has been gestating for at least a year, and thought, "Well, shit, I dunno. Maybe that's just going to be one of the second-string near misses." And then various kind correspondents write to say "fuck no! This is one of the best." This is the most tangible argument for the inevitable and essential separation (preferably in two different bodies) of "editor mind" versus "author mind", a distinction that we try to teach to students also. In my observation, writer's block usually emerges from a combination of insufficient time or preparation, lack of confidence, lack of experience, or--most immediately and most tangibly--the attempt to simultaneously compose and edit. You write a sentence and a half, you run into the "oh, that's not the right word, let me delete that and think of another," and then you scroll back a little more and say "oh, God, that's not the right word either, I have to fix that one too," and you scroll back and get entangled in fixing something before it even exists. We try to teach students to free-write (close your eyes, turn off the monitor, recite into a tape recorder, visual someone with whom you're conversing, whatever it takes to turn off the editor mind--I even have one student who plays Tetris for a while before writing, just to shut down the editor mind) first, and edit later. Preferably way later.

So you finish Blind Willie, and you think, "oh, fuck it. Maybe next time." Then readers turn themselves inside out over it, say "they're getting better and better," and you think, "Oh yeah. Shut off the editor. Just write the fuckin' things; let somebody else worry about which are good."

Hence the editorial meeting, in NYC in September.

Hence also this experiment: an audio podcast of one such "100 Greats" post, the one on Lou Reed's Rock & Roll Animal. The idea is to imagine the same material in a different medium, one that could be used to complement the written essays. Though I've produced good radio for at least 15 years, this experiment brought home to me just how much there is a gap between what makes good prose versus what makes good radio--they are dissimilar media with dissimilar needs. Not sure this works--but in the spirit of the above, I don't have to know whether it works. You try something: you take an idea and you bring it into existence--e.g., you make something--and you worry later and in a different mindset whether it works.

Back on the docket.

Now playing [nb: This is a fuckin' awesome trad record, recorded live in a room the way it should be]: Zoe Conway - Wild Strawberry Hill Live/The Horse's Tail

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Max Roach (1924-2007)


Bird. Diz. Bud Powell. Mingus. Clifford. Dinah Washington. Abby Lincoln. Ellington. M'Boom. Cecil Taylor. Shepp. Bill T. Jones. Fab Five Freddy. In a career that spanned sixty-five years, he made every one of these musicians, and hundreds more besides, and thousands of students, play above themselves.

I'll have more to say in a future "100 Greats" (on Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet), but today a short gassho will have to suffice.

Thanks Chief. You never knuckled under, never coasted, never sold out. Thank you for your contribution to the universe.

Salaam aleikum. Go with God.

Music, memory, conversation, patience

[Originated in a comment over on]

Thinking about building a musical repertoire:

Though, at an early stage of developing a repertoire, it can seem essential to remember every last tune you learn, and to be able to bring it to mind and to start it unaccompanied, as your repertoire grows, and your circle of playing acquaintances expands, remembering every last tune may come to seem less crucial. There are people who know 2500-3500 tunes, can recall their histories and the circumstances in which they were learned, and can bring them to mind without prompting (Paddy O Brien of Minneapolis is one, Grey Larsen is another), but these persons, in my observation, are in the minority.

It seems to me more common that most people who learn a lot of tunes do not recall all the tunes learned: there will be a large body of tunes you have learned over the years, with a smaller subset of tunes that you recognize when heard, a still smaller subset that you can join in when others start them, a still smaller subset you can start on your own or can bring to mind unprompted, and the smallest subset will be whatever tunes are your current favorites and which you currently most enjoy. All of these nested subsets have interplay with each other, but most players do not command all these tunes to the same degree at a given stage in their development.

Players with good memories and very quick ears get to a point where the distinction between "pulling a tune out of the memory" and "learning a tune on the fly" begins to disappear. I cut my teeth playing with people who could listen on the first iteration, finger along on the second, and by the third iteration of the tune be playing along. When asked if they already knew the tune, these people tended to say "well, I've heard it." Does this mean the person had learned the tune under the fingers, forgotten it, and then been reminded in the session? Or did it mean the person had *not* learned the tune under the fingers, but had honed the ability to pick up tunes on the fly--in short, to PLAY WHAT THEY HEARD--to an extent that "remembering" the tune versus "learning it on the fly" was largely erased.

Particularly in session playing, it seems to me, it doesn't so much matter whether you can recall 95% of the 500-1000 tunes you know. It is more important to be able to recognize tunes and join in when they are started by others. This is one of the reasons that I prefer to go to sessions with unfamiliar musicians--because I can be assured of hearing tunes I've forgotten, or never heard. Thus these sessions have a much higher incidence of challenge and discovery. This is also why I appreciate the people I play with regularly, because they work hard at learning new tunes and bringing them into the mix.

So the more long-term takeaway goal might be, not "how do I remember every tune I've ever learned," but rather "how do I hone my ability to pick up tunes on the fly, remember them when prompted, and join in swiftly?" When you get to this point, the process of building a repertoire becomes very different: you're no longer agonizingly counting up tunes in your lists, sitting in the session hoping that people start tunes you know, or waiting to pounce on moments of silence so you can start your tunes on your own.

At this stage, the session becomes much more like a conversation, or a poetry slam, or a storytelling session--where you are no longer worrying about whether you have the physical skills to play what you hear. Those skills (the ability to hear something, played by another or playing in your own head, and immediately or at least swiftly be able to bring it out of your instrument) are already taken care of, and you can concentrate on the beauty and unique eloquence with which each individual person expresses her/himself.

This also connects us to older, more vernacular and memory-oriented models for sharing, teaching, and passing-on culture. It is not dissimilar to the techniques of memorization and rhetoric that both Cicero and Aquinas described. The ancients, and the vernaculars, knew a lot about communication and memory that we hyper-literates have forgotten or eroded.

Fuzzy people 09 ("blue-collar dog" edition)

More evidence that animals are superior to humans. Brother's dog Sammie. She's the "shop dog" here, and as Brother points out, a real blue-collar, lunchpail-carryin' beast.

Thanks to Chipper for the "fuzzy people" appellation.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

"The Office" (Workstation series) 18 (Crazy-busy edition)

Everybody seems only now to have remembered that they have to go back to work in 2 weeks. I've been thinking about little else for the past 3 months--and I don't have to. Pushing so many bytes over email connection I'm surprised the wireless wires aren't glowing.

Bonus image (awkward reflection edition):
View from the top floor of the local branch of the super-giant-multi-national-banking-conglomerate where Dharmonia and I both bank and also produce radio. This top floor (looking south) also houses the university's Restaurant and Hotel Management program classroom, a full-function restaurant. Not the best food in town by a long shot, but this is typically a stop on the tour we give prospective faculty members, for three reasons:

  • It's damned near the tallest building for 200 miles--and even that 85 feet or so makes you feel a bit less like a flea on a griddle (also expands the horizon's distance to around 25 miles)
  • The student restaurant is close and quick (good for jammed-up interview weekends) and almost every accounting person on campus will accept a receipt-for-reimbursement without objection--which is by no means a foregone conclusion with almost any other establishment in town
  • We can take candidates down one end of the hall and introduce them to the top-notch staff at the local NPR affiliate--a significant quality-of-life consideration for the DFH's who are often our preferred arts candidates
  • You step out the elevators on this top floor and this is the view: to the south over Tech Terrace, where many faculty (including ourselves) live, and with a deceptively green landscape. Candidates typically say "Oh, so there are trees here! What a relief!" We refrain from making them aware that this is the only heavily-wooded neighborhood for, oh, say 300 miles, and that (if there were windows on the N, W, or E) this is the only wooded landscape you're likely to view.
God! More frickin' bidness emails. Gotta go.

Fuzzy people 08 (concrete spoor edition)

Somebody got there before the concrete cured.

(Thanks to Chipper for the "Fuzzy People" appellation.)

Coyotebanjo Irish slow session (teaching session)


Just an announcement that the Coyotebanjo Irish slow session (teaching session), open to all interested in learning and playing Irish traditional music, will resume in new digs at J&B Coffee back room (26th & Boston, Lubbock TX USA), beginning Aug 18. Meets weekly 4-6pm, admission is free, and all are welcome. Please pass the word!

See poster: feel free to download, print, forward, and post.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

"The Office" (Workstation series) 017 (back in the saddle edition)

Back in the saddle. Need to regain the momentum after three days' vacation. View west from the front tables of The Office.

Bonus image: cloudless storm sky to the west. Doesn't necessarily translate all that well to digital photo medium, but if you look down toward the horizon, you can see the blue shade into the greyer and more gunmetal end of the spectrum. On days like this, when the blue shades into brown, it means dust-storms to the west which are heading east. But when it's blue into grey, it means rain coming.

Monday, August 13, 2007

More road-lite blogging (back on track tomorrow)

Kim's prayer flags.

Storms over Taos mountain:

Fuzzy people 07 (Taos edition)




Thanks to Chipper for the "fuzzy people" appellation (and to Chipper and Kim for their fuzzy people!).