Thursday, January 31, 2008

Day 16 "In the trenches" (Blue Norther edition)

Blowin' like sixty out there. Where we live, on the South Plains, the weather we receive is particularly diametrical according to the prevailing wind patterns: if it's early Spring (around here, after Feb 15), or mid-May, we get the wettest warm weather of all--trade winds blowing up out of the Gulf. Most of the rest of the year, it's dry as hell and the winds blow almost all the time west-to-east. When it's west-northwest we get hellacious thunderstorms, when the even-drier northern New Mexico air hits the damper Gulf weather nudging up over the Caprock Escarpment just to the southeast. When it's west-southwest (unusual) it's like the Santa Ana winds out of Arizona--dry, hot, and gritty (what we were getting two days ago in the dust-storms).

But along about mid-January we get the coldest, and typically the driest, part of the winter: when the wind blows straight the hell down out of the north, all the way from Montana and Saskatchewan. That's when it's a cooold mo-fo out there, when the wind whistles right down the avenues of the campus and the shivery little underdressed Houstonians and Austinians exclaim "it's say-oh cooowwllddd out thar! Ain't chew cooowwwlllddd?!?" We ex-pat New Englanders tend to just hunch our shoulders and pull on our gloves.

Hump/crunch day. Thursdays this semester are the most out-straight of all: Dharmonia yoga class at 8am, Executive Committee at 9am, meet w/ student independent study at 10:30am, Musicology staff lunch/round-table at 11:30, teach Diaspora seminar at 12:30, break for 30 minutes at 2, studio lesson at 2:30, finish updating materials for Friday Discussion Sections (led by TA's), home around 5, cook dinner, work on music textbook materials, 8:30 play coffeehouse gig, 10pm home to finish Friday preparations and crank out a blog post. Don't leave much breathing space.

But, Friday's an easier day: TA's have the 10am class, so there are some meetings before and after lunch--but I've kept the day intentionally as open as possible, so that the extensive away-dates and long weekends (mine, in this case, not the students') necessitate the least missed- and thus made-up Lubbock obligations. I like to be on-hand for the first iteration of the TA-led discussion sections, and to look-in about 10 minutes into the meeting, just so that the kiddos know that Dad's in the house and he'll get out the Belt if he has to (there's a great scene in the classic film A Christmas Story, during which the Little Brother, hiding in horror under the kitchen sink, whines "Daddy's gonna kill Ralphie!").

But the Friday discussions have the more significant merit of providing the TA's the deep-end-of-the-pool experience of having to hold 35-55 kids' attention, and maintain order and cohesive intellectual effort, without Dad (or Mom) in the room--a crucial learning-by-doing overall dynamic. There are kids who will not speak up in the lecture meetings because, despite the staff's best efforts, they're still too intimidated or afraid that they'll "sound stupid." Discussion sections help them, because their sense of the consequences of an uncertain answer is lessened. And, because ultimately we want them to discourse with each other. When there is someone in the room whose catalyst role they are accustomed to, they get used to following, rather than leading. And at some point they're going to have to take command, if only of their own intellectual processes.

They're partly resistant, and partly passive, and partly lazy--but mostly they're just scared, and all that other stuff is just cover for being scared. They're scared mostly because their experience has been woefully limited (by intention of their elders), and once they arrive on campus, they begin to intuit those limitations. They begin to suspect that the world is bigger, culture more complex, history more nuanced, morality more subjective, suffering more random and more inevitable, than they have been taught. And they know they don't understand these things--hell, they begin to intuit that they don't even know how to read for content--and they get scared that they're alone in these limitations--rather than that those limitations are multiple-generation-wide.

So they're quiet and "passive" and "unresponsive" in class, because they're (in many cases) desperately hoping to conceal what they think is their anomalous lack of preparation, talent, or insight. Our job is to provide a vision of an active intellectual life, the rewards and challenges that such a life offers, and a plausible, tangible, concrete, believable map through that terrain.

Below the jump: Blue Norther on the South Plains.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Day 15 "In the trenches" ("Isms" edition)

Undergrads today. Our kids are incredibly visual: most of their data sources are visual, most of their learning is visual, and--if we're smart as pedagogues--we teach with that in mind. That means we do a lot with iconography, but also with demonstration / imitation / critique (I always give a help-file with every writing assignment, which help-file always includes a sample assignment or template). This is not because they're dumb, or can't process information--but because they come to us with a prior educational experience, and the vast amount of their self-teaching has been done by observation, imitation, and experiment--poorly, when they're being taught to imitate the standardized text answers or to sing by rote; more effectively, when they get the "read one, see one, do one" model I learned in the trades.

They are tremendously verbally prolix--they talk constantly, if not in person then via cell-phone, IM, or text-messaging (text messaging is not prose--it's a direct translation, via acronyms, of their conversational discourse)--but they are not particularly verbal. That is: they are not accustomed to precise speech, the merits of clear sentence construction, the clarity that accurate grammar provides, the usefulness of a large and facile vocabulary. All of this is stuff that has to be modeled for them, ideally in the classroom (again, if they see and observe the professor and the TA's employing text-speech this way, they can begin to imitate and replicate it); we can then offer critique and coaching, and thus begin to move toward greater verbal command.

But, in the interest of bridging from their familiar pedagogical experience into more unfamiliar territory, we use a lot of iconography, a lot of visual aids, and a very careful and precise use of PowerPoint. The situations in which PPT doesn't work well are those in which a literate professor attempts to use the slideshow as a means of expanding/increasing the amount of text that a post-literate student audience can take in. This leads to densely-packed slides, simultaneous spoken and projected text, and a general confusion and splitting of attention. One thing I've learned from reading the blogs about presentation, sales-pitching, and so forth, is to learn how poorly text translates to a projected medium, versus how well images do.

So here's the slide for "Exoticism". In toto:

The theme: "The roots of musical 'modernism'" (e.g., in all the other late-19th-century "isms"--romanticism, nationalism, exoticism, etc which predated and helped fuel it).

The question: two words. The takeaway point that I want to burn, as new synapses, into those undergraduate brains: "if we look at an image, or listen to a composition, from the 20th Century, one of the ways we can understand composition choice is by asking ourselves about compositional goals. And one way of understanding the dizzying stylistic diversity of the 20th Century is to understand that the driving force shaping compositional goals was aesthetic diversity. In other words, the myriad "Isms" to which composers subscribed and which they tried to realize in works."

But I want to say that to them, or even better have them arrive at those insights themselves. I do not want them to see those insights in print on the screen--not only for the more abstract pedagogical reason that a concept arrived-at is better retained than one imparted-to, but also because, quite simply, they can't read, copy and listen all at the same time. If there's text on the screen, they're copying--not listening. So we vastly truncate the text on-screen, give them just the anchor to hang their lecture-notes upon, and push/force them to extract the additional, crucial information from the spoken commentary. This is the "critical listening" and "synthesis" part of the equation.

The images: two, without captions except those contained within the extensive verbal commentary that we prompt them to supply and discuss: a 19th-century French print (of a snake-charmer in an Egyptian marketplace) and a publicity still of Ellington's 1930s Cotton Club Orchestra, with the chorus line of feathers-and-cowries-clad light-skinned black girls. This usually effective for eliciting an extended discussion of race, "Self", "Other", economics, and "the Exotic." And it provides them a visual peg upon which to hang their understanding of an abstract and verbalized term. And it helps them begin to look for aspects of an "Ism" (color, light, alien dress or characters or skin tone, the unpredictable, sensual, irrational, or feminine) not only in a visual image but also in the a sonic language.

This may be a post-literate, online/digital generation. But these are old, old models: just ask the guys who cast the stained glass at Chartres, who carved the stone crosses or illuminated the manuscript at Kells, who painted the 32 views of Mt Fuji, who troped the medieval manuscripts at Santiago de Compostela, who sifted out the sand mandalas at the Potala.

It's an old, old way. And there's a lot of wisdom to it.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Day 14 "In the trenches" (landscape-in-the-sky edition)

It never fails: almost always, on our audition weekends, or the periods when we're bringing in search candidates, or a guest artist, we wind up with the landscape truly in the sky--the great "brown-out" that began The Wizard of Oz and that, for generations, caused West Texans to paint their windows shut. These are the days that you don't wear your contact lenses and you don't chew gum--and, if we're lucky, there'll be moisture behind it, and it winds up raining mud.

On the other hand, at some subliminal level, the ferocity of the weather, the implacability of the terrain, the impenetrability of the small-town mindset, all contribute somehow to the general "neighborliness" of the faculty. The county itself was founded less than 140 years ago and before that it was part of the Indian Territories--in fact, it's specifically the Llano Estacado where both Coronado got lost (and left behind a trail of stakes in the plain so he knew if he was walking in circles) and the Comanches who kidnapped the Coates children in Savage Sam (son of Old Yeller). It must have been a fuckin' brutal place 140 years ago: treeless, featureless, patrolled by Comanche and Apache, with massive and constant wind- and dust-storms--and the first "sodbusters" who lived here--so-named because the Johnson grass sent out such long and tenacious roots, searching for water, that you could barely get a plow through it--lived in dugouts roofed with sod.

In climates like that, it doesn't really matter whether you like your neighbors, or agree about the property lines (though water rights could get pretty deadly)--when the storm kicked up, or the crops failed, or the well ran dry, you damned better be able to count on the people down the road. Because if you couldn't count on your neighbors, you were in real trouble. It's still the case that, if you break down back on one of those county roads, every single car that passes you will stop and find out if you need help. The first winter Dharmonia and I were here, we had a single snowstorm, of maybe 5 inches. We got up the next morning and I said "I'll go out to one of the hardware stores and get a snow shovel" (what the hell? We'd given away our snow shovels when we left Indiana). Inevitably, every single store was sold out, because they only ever stocked 5 in the first place (years later, my buddy Steve said, "you shoulda asked for a grain scoop--it's the same thing, and they woulda had hundreds of those"). Came back, went next door to the elderly neighbors, and said "friends, if you might lend us your snow shovel, we'll be happy to do your walk for you." The elderly Texan looked at Dharmonia, and said "wha?" (e.g., "why?"). "Well, so you can get out to your car"; to which the response was "I ain't goin' out in that! I'll just wait'll it stops." So they did.

Anyway--one of the things we learn out here is that we damned better be nice to each other--because climate, topography, and sociology are not so salubrious as to keep people here who are unhappy with their colleagues. Instead, we offer a situation where people take care of each other, respect each other, and try to help each other however they can.

We play nice because we need to play nice. And we don't really give a shit about the dust.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Day 13 "In the trenches" (buckling-down edition)

Gotta be kind of a quick hit today: 4th week of the semester and we're in buckling-down mode. As image reveals, am multi-tasking, to the extent of running two laptops at the same time: one my battered Dell which the SOM bought me, and which I haven't quite yet killed (I get about 2 years out of a laptop before I've dropped it too many times) and the other an even older steam-powered Dell which I'm borrowing for tomorrow's Study Abroad Fair. This is a bi-annual event, at which faculty and departments from all over campus set up displays, hand out fliers, and talk to students, with the idea of enhancing enrollment in those courses which involve some kind of Study Abroad experience. Six years ago our then-Chancellor set a goal of having 5% of all current students studying abroad in a given semester--but given that our ratio at that time was 0.5%, we had a long way to go.

The university helps some, assessing students with a per-credit-hour $3 fee which goes toward SA scholarships, on whose selection committee I've sat (big job: we typically read 350-400 applications per funding cycle) even past the minimum tenure, because I believe in the process. My own Study Abroad course is a seminar ("Music, Folklore, and Tradition in Irish Cultural History"), which I love teaching, and whose 2-week May trip to the west of Ireland is a blast--but which has been hellaciously difficult to recruit for in the past two iterations. I am reasonably confident that this is due not so much to the content (evaluations for the course have so far been very positive), but rather because of a tanking economy--which cuts into families' willingness to pony up any additional costs, even only a couple of thousand bucks--but even more because of a tanking dollar overseas: the first year we led the trip, it cost the students a little over $1800 for airfare, transport, accommodations, admissions, and 1 meal a day--an incredible bargain. This year's projected budget was $2500 for the same package (which Dharmonia and I book completely on our own--no tour companies involved). I couldn't stomach a 30% increase in just three years, and decided to take a year off, both to grow the pool of interested candidates and, equally, to wait for Chimpie to get the fuck out of the Oval Office in hopes the dollar would recover a bit.

In the process of putting together the media materials for the Study Abroad fair (on the right-hand Dell in the image), was re-editing a slideshow I made as a memento for the first-year group, adding images from the most recent trip. Brought back a lot of pleasant memories and helped (after the horrific agony, and personal financial cost, of balancing books from '07 iteration) to rekindle my motivation for the value of the trip and merit of incurring the extra effort. Hope we get to make this trip again in '09.

Undergrad "Music as Cultural History: The Modern Period" met today. Fourth week of the Spring semester is tough, as they're just back from the long MLK holiday, but also because, at our school, the spring semester has nearly as many "away dates" as at-home ones. 3rd weekend in February brings Texas Music Educators' Association meetings in San Antonio, a huge (c ten thousand attendees) gathering of the tribes and vendors. It's a heavy sales presence--the best access most K-12 music educators have to shopping the new publications and resources--and, it being Texas, a huge showcase for area ensembles, competing in every imaginable category at every imaginable ranking, from tiny schools to huge ones, and in every different kind of configuration. Texas model of public music education is very vital--every middle school has a band,. chorus, and orchestra--because Texans tend to see music-making as every bit the competition that football is. Just as you've gotta have a band for football season, you've gotta have a choir and an orchestra that can compete. Hell, they even have high-school one act play competitions.

This can be a pain when you want to try to wean kids away from a "music as competition" model, but it also has the valuable impact of making sure that (a) kids understand playing music is serious business and (b) parents understand music costs money and family effort. Most of the music kids (and their families) who attend TMEA value the process and respect the providers.

But, in past years, it was more-or-less a wash for anybody involved in post-K-12 education. Dharmonia and I were encouraged to attend in the first year we were here (the precise quote was "Well, the school here will pretty much shut down, so you might as well attend") but I found myself walking around the giant convention center display hall and thinking "given that I'm not buying choral music editions or marching band uniforms, there's really squat for me to do here." So I wound up on the Riverwalk drinking margaritas, which was fun--but a waste of time.

This year I've been charged, by a senior supervisor who is also a past officer of the organization, with constructing a slate of offerings seeking to enhance presence of world music, and of university-level educators, at the convention. So we've got a Thursday round-table, and then a series of lecture-demo's, saying, first to each other, "what do you do in the classroom/rehearsal hall? What do you do?" and then, to the general public, "OK, here's some of what you can do with all the world's other great musics." My own take on that is that superimposition of standard Western analytical and pedagogical tools is both clumsy (because employing tools designed for a different idiom and thus a different set of tasks--a Phillips screwdriver when a straight-blade is required) and arrogant (because presuming that these more familiar Western tools are somehow "the best" or "most effective."

I tend to start from Ground Zero, asking "What tools has the indigenous pedagogy developed? Whatever they are, they've had centuries of refinement in order to best teach what that tradition believes to be musically important." If Irish traditional music never developed a complex and sophisticated pedagogy for teaching harmonic practice, it's because Irish trad music did not value that particular complexity. If African traditional music developed very sophisticated means of manipulating both timbre and rhythm, but tended to ignore precise distinctions of pitch, then it's because that tradition valued precision in the former, and not in the latter.

So we teach by doing, by use of--as I say to my ethno students--a "demonstration - imitation - critique" model. This is what apprenticeship has always done, and it still carries on in various musical lineages: for example the jeliyat of West Africa and the garanas of the Hindi classical tradition. It's the model that says, to quote the great Buddhist writing teacher Natalie Goldberg, "the teacher teaches with his/her whole being, not just with words." Or, to paraphrase the Thelonious Monk quote that formed the title of my dissertation:

"I Can Show It to You Better Than I Can Explain It to You."

That's mostly how I learned these musics. That's mostly how I teach them.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

"The Office" (workstation series) 089 (keep-on-keeping-on edition)

Meta: In this, the third weekend of the semester, I can definitely tell I'm back from sabbatical. Dharmonia's out of town, but so far I can still keep to the schedule that's shaping up: whereas over the course of the sabbatical, it was five-days-a-week of "The Office" series (charting research and development of the minstrelsy book proposal), and weekends were for "100 Greats", the procedure that's come into focus for the semester of return is five-days-a-week of "In the Trenches", with weekends for "Office" work and, when I can give birth to 'em, the last third of the "100 Greats." Even if the topics of the various series are different, they share reasonably consistent goals: to use this medium to try to boost the transparency of a public scholar's life, either for the morale or sense of solidarity of those in parallel situations--that is, colleagues, or for the (hoped-for) edification of those who are aiming toward this kind of life--that is, students.

So the "Trenches" series is an attempt to make-more-transparent the 5-days-a-week reality of teaching musicology to undergraduate and graduate populations; the "100 Greats" an attempt to both turn folks on to great music (the High Fidelity "Top 5 records" syndrome; cf the "Comic Book Guy" on The Simpsons) but also to try to show how great music might help shape, and save, somebody's life and sanity; the "Office" series to depict the process by which a large-scale project of musicological research might be conceived, mapped, pursued, and submitted for publication.

I suppose it's metaphorically apt that all three of those are still very much works in progress. That's life, I guess.

Back to "Office" work today: I will be waiting on notifications from the target publisher's outside readers for some time yet (at least another 3-5 weeks, I'd guess), so the only work I can/should do on the minstrelsy project would be that work I know I want to do anyway, regardless of the readers' favorable/un- reaction. So I'm filling in the gaps in some of the background reading:

  • Robert Toll's Blacking Up, one of the important and relatively early (1974) studies of blackface. I didn't prioritize this in the initial Lit Review for the proposal, because Toll's book is mostly about the shows and their content, not their cultural/sociological intent or meaning (cf Lott and Lhamon), their roots in European carnival as well as African festival (cf Cockrell), their musical construction (Nathan) or performance practice (Carlin). And its focus is late: the shows only really became the focus of the idiom in the mid-1840s, which is approximately where Toll begins. I'm interested in the 'Teens and '20s, when the creole, improvisational, boundary-crossing street idioms that would be borrowed for the stage were first coming together on the Lower East Side;
  • Lynne Emery's 1972 Black Dance, to which I'm returning, having previously read and note-taken, because the proposal in its final form identified movement vocabularies (specifically as captured in my target painter's oils) are going to be a key topic for analysis of cross-cultural borrowing; re-reading a good text in light of an evolved thesis is never a bad idea, because you see different things than when you are looking for evidence of a prior thesis;
  • Leonard Curry's The Free Black in Urban America, 1800-1850, because another theme that has emerged throughout the research, particularly in the urban outskirts of antebellum New York (to north, west, and east of the city--especially on Long Island), is that free versus bonded and white versus black categorizations were nowhere near as consistent, impermeable, or contemporaneous as as been thought. The reality is that, even if there were not a great deal of mixed-race children born, outside the very low-income environs of Five Points, where blacks and whites, natives and immigrants lived, worked, danced, and slept together, there was a great deal of cultural exchange, and that cultural exchange blurred not only cultural but also racial boundaries. My crucial insight: that such blurring of cultural/racial/musical boundaries happened in rural areas--very much ignored by the scholarship, in favor of the more colorful, better-documented urban environments.
Gotta go to work.

[Oh, and by the way: if you're within striking distance of the South Plains, feel free to come out for this]

Now playing: Dave Swarbrick & Martin Carthy - The Pepperpot/Sailing Into Walpole's Marsh/Bunker Hill

Friday, January 25, 2008

Day 12 "In the Trenches" (happy-hour edition)

Dancing 'til Monday comes around.

[Ashley Hutchings]

Friday blast edition: off in about 90 minutes to the weekly Irish pub session, which we started 6 years ago as a Friday 6:30-9pm situation because we thought it might interface pretty well with the transition for our core audience from work-week to weekend. Have housed in several different locations, each with strengths and weaknesses, but I can feel (intuit/sense) another shift coming. Historically, the period right around St Patrick's (March 17) is a pretty good time to make a change, as you can launch the new location, day, or time with a splash (Patrick's week is typically the only week when bars will lay out any $$ for advertising). Back at the old standard tonight though: nice little pub, but with some noisy resident bar-flies and really crap smoke-control (yes, Texas is the holdout after both Ireland and France caved--you can still smoke in Texas bars).

Other news: Friday meeting of the undergraduate "Music as Cultural History: The Modern Period" class. Fridays in our regular rotation are the discussion-section days--no lecture, the students break up into two or three rooms, and Teaching Assistants facilitate discussions, review, team-projects, take questions, etc. It changes up the presentational dynamic (good for the kids), gives tenured faculty a bit of a break (handy if they have to be out of town for conference weekends), and provides graduate students the opportunity to stand up in front of a classroom and make it work all by their lonesome (good professional development and CV line-items).

But it's also useful to provide a bit of a transition to this altered dynamic, location, and mode of operation. In the first couple of weeks of the semester, we tend to have all discussion sections meet together, in the big lecture hall, to make sure everybody is well-and-truly jump-started into the semester (this is the first year in which all discussions sections meet at the same time on Friday--formerly, due to room restrictions, they met at different times, and it was impossible to bring them all together on a given Friday), but today was the transition day: when we introduce the new mode of operation, start to hand over facilitation duties to TA's, and get the kids acclimated to operating under the TA's control and in collaboration with one another.

So it was Iconography Day. I've blogged before about the degree to which 21st century students respond with remarkable acuity and energy to iconography: they are used to processing data visually and they're very engaged by such a process.

So we look at this image by James Gillray, the mordant early-19th century caricaturist (titled Farmer Giles and his wife introduce their daughter Betty to the neighbors...) and we talk about caricature, and the physical attributes which caricature uses to depict class, intellect, or social identity, and about the rituals of vetting-and-negotiation that 19th-century arranged marriages implicated (cue those kids who've read Jane Austen and the Brontes in high school) and the ways that music, the study of music, and the instruments of music (especially the parlor piano) were markers, and tools, of social advancement. They're typically very engaged, and by the end of a 12-minute discussion, capable of extending this mode of analysis to their individual teams, under roving supervision of the TA's.

So then we put them in two groups, in opposite "bleachers" of our large auditorium-style lecture room, and distribute copies of various other images (especially Impressionist, Expressionist, and Exoticist--these are the dominant tropes in the late 19th-century music we're looking at right now) and ask them, in groups of about 8, to decide amongst themselves what "Ism" should be attached to their image, and, crucially, the evidence and interpretation which legitimates the group opinion. Almost no one has taught these kids that an opinion unsubstantiated by evidence is irrelevant--for many of them, the only "opinions" that have been modeled for them are the unexamined, low-information, programmed convictions which their parents, neighbors, youth ministers, coaches, or other authority figures have promulgated.

In contrast, we say "why do you believe that? I won't believe it unless you provide a concrete, articulate, logically-sequenced, presentation and interpretation of evidence." By insisting on this in an in-class, coachable situation, we can then insist that they extend analogous intellectual process to the discussion sections under TA's, and, eventually, to their individual research project.

It's a hard slog, but it's remarkable how swiftly they wake up, engage, speak up, and begin to communicate amongst themselves, particularly when we break up the knots of friends and stick them in groups of unfamiliar colleagues. This serves the added benefit of helping them get to know one another, and thus begin to converse and collaborate across cliques.

We usually run out of time before we get all the comments heard--which is a good thing, because it means that we're starting to generate some energy that can carry over, to the next class and to the next discussion sections. It also has the deeper, more lasting, and I think even more valuable effect of modeling a mode of conduct, and demonstrating (because saying this would completely go by them) that they are responsible for the conduct, caliber, range, interest, and sense of reward that happens in the classroom--not us. This is a major maturation moment, and, when it works right, represents a final break from the K-12 "teach to the test" / "my mommy and daddy paid for my education so you have to give me a degree" mindset that we battle every day.

Further to that: this week also represents the very tense period when teaching faculty receive both numerical evaluations and transcribed comments from the previous semester's students. It's really important to get this data--but this data is typically horrifically vulnerable to distortion, manipulation, or downright vengeful conduct. It's an opportunity for students to say laudatory things, constructively critical things, or spitefully destructive things, and it's why anonymized sites like ratemyprofessor etc are despicable--because the reality is that, for any age group in America, the opportunity to anonymously lash out--particularly at a defenseless or not-at-fault target, is seldom resisted (cf the infamous Stanley Milgram experiments, about which I almost came to blows with a gutless Assistant Prof at UMass Boston).

Hence to the impassioned and very thoughtful post "Devaluations" over on Dharmonia's blog. She lays it out very well and with a remarkable degree of objectivity; you should read it. But I'm going to bootleg my comments over here, in case you don't:
I agree that evaluations-time is enormously fraught, for precisely the reasons you articulate: because, typically, the most negative comments come from students who have (a) been very low-engagement in the class, have not invested much effort, and resent being made to work at all or (b) entered the class with a skewed sense of what its content or assignments would entail, through having failed to read, understand, or listen to the clear prospectus that we all typically provide.

It is tremendously difficult not to get "tossed away"--as Katagiri Roshi would put it--by the storm of emotional responses Dharmonia eloquently describes. But the reality is that the evaluations *should* elicit only very small, carefully-considered, conscious, and dispassionate responses: we look at the net feedback, attempt to discern patterns and figure out a more articulate expression than students tend to provide, and see if we can locate areas for improvement in our own teaching. Typically, we can--it's just more difficult when we are understandably angry and hurt by the spiteful little punks who want only to cause damage.

But, as the young HH the Dalai Lama said to Allen Ginsberg when Ginsberg asked him how to cope with frightening hallucinations that arose during meditation:

"If you see something horrible, don't cling to it. If you see something beautiful, don't cling to it."

A competent administrator (and thank the Universe, the Boss at Dharmonia's and my institution is one such) will look at a low-lined quantitative evaluation, or a spiteful, contemptible, and cowardly cheap shot like some of those Dharmonia quotes above, and say "OK, I can *tell* that this is spite, not commentary," and will discount it. I have *heard* our boss say precisely those words, in response to some outlier viciousness.

We have to avoid getting either obsessive or defensive about such attacks. We are *above* this--*we* have the power, and therefore the responsibility. As Dharmonia knows, we cannot succumb to the tit-for-tat, "some kid made a cheap shot so I'll tie myself into knots trying to figure out 'why they hate me'", knee-jerk subjective reaction. We're bigger than this. We're strong enough to take the hit, look past the spite and desire-to-hurt of the few, and try to discern the valid critical feedback of the several. It's of course easier if our bosses can do this too, and harder if we're in those snake-pit situations (just the sort that Dharmonia and I graduated from) where such evaluations can be used manipulatively against us.

One of our Buddhist teachers once said, "You have to dare to be disliked." Meaning: you have to dare to do the right thing, the difficult thing, the pedagogically responsible and mature thing--which usually means to look past the spite, assimilate the feedback, and fucking let it go.

It's hard. Waiting a few days before reacting, getting a trusted friend to read your evaluations and pass along a summary, or the good stuff, or an analysis of the patterns for improvement--instead of reading them for yourself--can also be a good strategy.

You're not here to be their friend, or to teach in their preferred style, or to act like their mom or big brother, or to baby them as their K-12 teachers were forced to do. You're there to be their teacher.

That takes courage. And that's another thing (along with data, and context, and critical thinking / reading / speaking / writing / listening, and ethics, and rigor, and esprit de corps) that we're supposed to teach them.

Ain't nobody else done it for them yet--so we got to.

Below the jump: chorophyll moving on the South Plains:

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Day 11 "In the Trenches" (dancing-out-the-pain edition)

The great hard-rock frontman David Lee Roth (he wasn't a great singer, but he was a great front-man; see this "100 Greats" post) once said, "You should never go out on stage for a rock show unless you're planning to dance someone in to the dirt." Roth was talking about the sense of frustration that an awful lot of musicians encounter as they try to build a career--particularly in the heartless maw of the pop industry--and about the sense of cathartic, defiant relief that some kind of success in rock 'n' roll can create--not just for the drugged-out stars who stand up on stage and abuse the groupies afterwards, but also for any guy who works five days on an assembly line or a job-site and, at the weekend, just wants to drink beer and scream his head off at a rock 'n' roll show.

Not a very Buddhist sentiment, and not one as a result I'm allowed to espouse. But, if permitted a slight modification / semantic manipulation, it's one I would subscribe to--namely, that in the path toward some kind of creative fulfillment, maturity, and identity in the arts, you're going to encounter an awful lot of people who seem to feel it is their ideological mission in life to make sure you don't get where you want to go. Any teacher, any administrator, any allegedly well-meaning "authority figure" who tries to, or succeeds at, eroding a young person's desire to learn and grow, is committing a great evil in the world--and I would have no trouble taking up Yamantaka's sword against them.

Roth's smartass front-man's statement has a kernel of truth: no matter how successful you are in the arts, somewhere inside you is the memory of times when some nimrod tried to tell you you couldn't do it. Almost all of us have 'em--the only ones who don't are those pampered few who were child prodigies and never had to deal with anything except fawning adulation--the poor bastards (I still remember the European-born piano teacher at IU who once said, to a party full of his students, "I've never washed a dish...I wouldn't know how"). And if you have those memories, then somewhere deep inside you is a knot of anger, resentment, and beneath that lies anxiety or plain naked fear--because what if that nimrod in your dim and distant past was right? It's frickin' hard enough to be an artist in this culture; how much harder does it get when someone who's been presented to you as knowledgeable and authoritative confirms your worst fears: that you can't actually get where you want to go and that you are naive to try?

For 12 years, at IU, various such nimrods tried to tell Dharmonia and myself those things--and even after we'd left, when we would recontact that bureaucracy, we would instantly experience the punch of the memory-button that says "Oh my God, I remember this kind of bullshit. Holy crap, you mean they still act this way?" Those wounds go deep, just like Dave said.

Which is why, when somewhere down the line, you look up and realize that you are where you wanted to go, that you weren't naive, arrogant, or self-deluding in thinking that the long slog across unmarked broken terrain was taking you where you hoped it was, that you do have something to offer, that you are making a difference in some young people's lives, and that, through your agency, or at the very least in those specific hours when those young people are in your teaching space, no arrogant and small-hearted nimrod is going to lay that shit on them, it feels pretty good.

In fact, it feels like a hard, knotted kernel of anger, resentment, anxiety, fear, and beneath all that, hurt, is slowly being loosened. Just to put that goddamned tired old burden down--and to dance it into the dirt--is a profound relief and one for which I daily say prayers of thankfulness.

So to today's lecture in the African Diaspora class. We've had historical, contextual, social/cultural, geographical, and aesthetic background; we've played some polyrhythmic textures together; we've done a bunch of readings and some discussion of those readings; we've started talking about research project topics and strategies; and today, for the sake of changing up the dynamic again (nothing is more inappropriate for a course in the African Diaspora's music than some white guy standing up and "lecturing"), we'll have what Dharmonia calls "the petting zoo"--bring in a bunch of instruments, play and talk about them, pass them around, let people try them out.

The tactile experience of seeing and hearing an instrument played live, of seeing the choreography of the physical technique and feeling the impact on your skin and your tympanic membranes, is utterly different than seeing the same instrument on video or in a book. And then, holding the instrument in your hands is even more transformative.

I know what a profoundly different (and difference-making) experience it was for me, as an 11-year-old, to see the great Martin Grosswendt playing the National Steel and spinning it in the air over his head, and I can assure you that it was an entirely different experience when you were sitting eight feet away. And then he'd catch it, flip it back onto his lap, and pick up the downbeat of the next measure of the Booker White song after the stop-time.

So I'm going to walk into this class today with the little guy pictured in the "Office" photo above: called by various names in various places in West African (hoddu, xalam, ngoni), it's, technically speaking, a "plucked lute", with a gourd body, a rawhide head, a stick-based neck (which serves as both fingerboard, neck-block, and tailpiece), two strings made of fishing line, and anchored to the neck with an ingenious little rawhide friction knot that also serves as the tuner. It's played with a variety of techniques, both striking and plucking, but one of the commonest (and most useful for pedagogical purposes in this class) is to strike downward with the index finger's nail, on one or both of the strings, and to follow on the off-beat by plucking the lower-pitched of the two with the trailing thumb. The technique is percussive and polyrhythmic (two independent parts interlocking with one another), permits a remarkable diversity of beat-groupings and subdivisions (two's and three's and any permutation of the above) and thus links-up with ideas we've already introduced about ensemble, polyrhythm, balance, etc. Today's "petting zoo" further permits introducing the idea of such textures as accompaniment for recitation or song--and thus links back to the social role and power of the jeli, the poet-singer-historian-genealogist who, in the Mande world, is the principle repository of memory.

Which, if you think about it, is my job too.

I would never have imagined, 20 years ago and in the throes of IU's abuse, that I would both Chair a Musicology department and play the hoddu in order to teach my beloved students about an ancient artistic tradition which I think has an awful lot of sanity to teach us moderns.

But I am.

Hear that, you past demons under the dirt? This is me up here--dancing.

Below the jump: sunrise and moonset on the South Plains.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Day 10 "In the Trenches" (Post-It edition)

Blogging light today. Here's why:

7:00am Alarm; up, cook breakfast, etc

8:30am Into the Satellite Office. Discover that the Breeze slideshow I thought I had successfully exported (to give the day's undergraduate Listening Quiz in streamlined and item-anonymized format) will not reopen. Re-import all sound files, re-published Breeze. Still nothing. Punt: create iTunes playlist, anonymize tracks for display. Suck down first cup of coffee.

10am Teach undergraduate class (70+ students, "Music as Cultural History: The Modern Period." Today was a stand-alone lecture--that is, one not covered in the textbook--tracing the history and evolution of "an idea" over the course of the 19th century from around 1815 to around 1890: "Night Music"--the "idea" of the nocturne.

Started with JAM Whistler paintings from the late 19th, influences upon Debussy, sources of Impressionism (like Expressionism, Pointillism, Cubism, Exoticism) in visual arts. Identify characteristics of "impressionism" in visual art (subjective, blurred boundaries, temporary nature of image, intent to elicit in viewer what the painter "was feeling"), Socratic discussion regarding possibility of translating these aesthetics to composed music. Possible? Yes, possible.

Trace "Nocturne" from John Field to Chopin to Mendelssohn "overture to a Midsummer NIGHT's Dream" to Liszt "Nuages gris" to Debussy orchestral "Nocturne: Nuages." Can we hear shared compositional characteristics becoming associated with a specific set of emotional, visual, experiential, or temporal situations? Yes, we can. Moving on.

11am Observe colleague (for 3rd-Year Review) teaching the parallel, 2nd-semester "The Common-Practice Period" course, taking notes for report. Excellent job, though being a control-freak and alpha-male I have to restrain myself from jumping up and dope-slapping the little bastards in the back row who are sleeping. I'll get 'em someday, I swear.

12-12:30 Grab quick South Beach-friendly chicken Caesar wrap at desk.

12:30 Meet with doctoral Music Education student who is working to design both a dissertation topic proposal and a semester-long practicum which will equip him with the tools he needs to research, record, transcribe, analyze, annotate, and publish a set of Brazilian children's songs. Big job! But fortunately he has Portuguese in the family.

1pm Meet with trumpet player to teach him reveulta of medieval cantiga d'amigo so he can join in on ensemble tutti for Celtic Ensemble Galician program (dress rehearsal tonight, concert Sunday). Good ears and attitude, thank God.

1:30 Meet with Boss to discuss status of assistant professor search, Internet/"viral video" marketing, future staffing solutions. Our meetings always seem to run long, and not just because I'm a musicologist and like to hear myself talk. Even worse: he likes to listen. Dangerous combination!

2:15 Fifteen minutes breathing time. Suck down second cup of dark roast. Compose staff emails, work on curriculum retitling and revision.

3pm Meet with MM Musicology candidate who is starting to brainstorm thesis topics. All five are terrific--how to select or, even better, to combine or integrate under a larger research profile and long-term arc (dissertation and post-).

4pm Faculty meeting. Take notes, pay attention, strive not to mouth off (mostly successful).

5pm 1-hour breather, eaten by followup with search committee emails and "next-step" scheduling (dear God: schedule 5 busy faculty and 4 different candidates to be in a conference-call within a 10-day period? Why didn't I ever learn to use the Outlook or Excel "meetings" functions?!? Maybe next year.

6pm Meet off-campus with doctoral student in dissertation stage who works 9-5pm as arts administrator (except when she takes her lunch hours to teach Music Appreciation for us).

7pm Home for an hour. Cook a simmer-on-the-stove dinner (Coyote's Silk Road red lentil soup--I made it up just now; home-made hummus) so that Dharmonia has a hot meal to come home to from her rehearsal. Come to think of it, chill a bottle of wine too. Compose hasty and cutting-corners blog post.

8pm Dress rehearsal in the space for Celtic Ensemble concert. Hope they're all heads-up and eyes-open ready to roll. Block and sequence, play "tops and tails" (e.g., beginnings of pieces, ends of pieces, and the staging/blocking/speaking that bridges from one to the next).

10:30pm Home in time to hope that Colbert is still managing to maintain his remarkable pull-it-out-of-his-butt improvisational genius in the absence of his writers.

11pm shut off television and 'puter in hopes of at least 30 minutes of no VDTs, so I have a prayer of sleeping.

11:30 Zonk (I hope). Executive Committee meeting tomorrow, 9am.

Welcome to the Chair, baby.

* Further to the Day 09 mystery question: I was thinking "Summer Reading Program" and the Stones quote "'Cause summer's here and the time is right"

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

"In the Trenches" Day 09 ("Street-Fighting Man" edition)*

Back to teaching after the MLK holiday: short week, but no less jammed. Today is “Musics of the African Diaspora” class.

We’ve had the preliminary discussions about the pre-Colonial kingdoms of West Africa (to correct the still-prevalent presumption by undergraduates that, although the Middle Passage was a Very Bad thing, the reason slavers were successful was because of the limitations of West African culture), about musical and social aesthetics in West Africa (community, balance, “finding your place,” music as a tool of enculturation and social modeling), and about the impact of Islam even in sub-Saharan West Africa. We’ve had our preliminary demo-workshops learning polyrhythmic percussion music using vocables and beginning to experience integrating such polyrhythmic sound with analogous motion. We’re into our readings (John Miller Chernoff, Gerhard Kubik, and, for today, Robert Farris Thompson) and learning some skills in reading and synthesizing critically for purposes of seminar discussion. We’ll start in tomorrow talking about project ideas—usually narrowing, specifying, building a workable and arguable thesis—and ways to begin research and brain-storming. Then we’ll hear a bunch of examples, working on hearing “like Africans”, and then start talking about colonial contact—not so much about how Europeans conducted themselves (they mostly know that sad history) but more about how to read between the lines of the primary sources to reconstruct early performance practice and meaning. We can only really trace Africanisms in the New World if we have some understanding of how those procedures worked in the pre-colonial era. They’re most not documented in indigenous sources (except for the degree of continuity in performance practice even after the Middle Passage) but there’s actually fairly detailed information in the first colonial accounts—if you can read past the cultural bias and distortion.

In other business: it’s not a novel insight, but I’m having confirmed for me again that the biggest shift in moving to a Chair’s position is the added service work: committees, especially. The transition is eased because, with the explicit support of my senior colleague, I have been “growing into” the chair’s role for at least the past 4 years, and as of Fall 2007 semester was essentially fulfilling nearly all supervisory functions: curriculum design, new courses, chairing internal committees, searches, design/implementation/assessment of graduate examinations, strategic planning, outreach and recruitment, etc. The biggest change is the external stuff: the stuff at the upper echelons of the SOM administration (and beyond) and in which all chairs are expected to participate: cross-school and cross-college committees especially. This isn’t a lot more time-consuming than formerly, as I was usually dealing with the fallout of those committees’ decisions—but it’s another hour here and there, dotted through the week’s schedule, when I have to be somewhere specific following somebody else’s agenda.

Add to that the expanded number of graduate projects that all of the Musicology staff are supervising, as our graduate program grows, and there are a lot more 1-on-1 hours in the week. I love working with grad students, but, in my formulae, a 1-to-1 hour is a lot less time-efficient than seeing 30 kids at a time. That formula is the same reason that I basically do not teach private lessons anymore—I love doing it, but my schedule sort of doesn’t permit a full hour’s time for a single student. The exceptions to this, as they should be, are those students who are, like the grad students, my direct supervisees, who are both entitled to and should receive the tailored 1-to-1 contact.

Add to that the cross-campus committees: curricular, Teaching Academy, Study Abroad—and those controlled-by-others hours start to mount up. As with today’s: the University’s Freshman Summer Reading Program, for which I was recruited a couple of years back, and to which I now return after sabbatical. I stick with the committee (like Teaching Academy and Study Abroad) because I really believe in the mission: to select a single text, suitable-but-challenging for a high-school senior, that all students who have enrolled at our school are encouraged to read in the summer before they arrive here in Lubbock. It’s a voluntary program, so many students do not participate, but a surprising number do: typically those whose parents recognize that the transition from high-school (good, bad, or indifferent; big-city or small-town) to college is going to be a bit of a shock. A smart parent in our target recruiting populations recognizes that Junior is going to have to do some growing-up swiftly, in that first Freshman semester. The dumber or more absentee parents fail to recognize this, and Junior shows up—usually with an expensive, gas-guzzling car, and a lot of personal possessions which Mom & Dad have purchased to try to replicate in the dorm room all the comforts of home, not realizing that the very most important possession they could have supplied Junior is some maturity and self-reliance—with the unconscious presumption that college is going to be like high-school: learning by rote; teaching to the standardized tests that are the Bush Administration’s long-term contribution to the destruction of American public education; no need to do homework; being told by teachers or parents when to wipe your nose; being permitted to make as many errors and blow as many deadlines as you wish and still, at the eleventh hour, do “extra credit” that magically erases the consequences of your own bad decisions; etc.

The Summer Reading program tries to address that—to convey to kids that the college experience that follows that last summer after high-school is going to be different: that you’ll be expected to read and think critically, that you will be invited (in fact, required) to form and articulate opinions that are the product of such critical reading and thinking, rather than the rote parroting of the opinions your parents, coaches, youth ministers, or small-town mayors dictated. Some students struggle with this, and need to have critical thinking modeled for them. So they read the book in the summer, and then, in the Freshman Experience courses, there are discussions, exercises, assignments, and visits by authors. Other students (I would have been one of these) are so bored-stupid by their high-school experiences that they can’t wait to get into the meat of the college experience. Both groups benefit from the experience.

There’s also a sub-text to the program: in addition to providing a shared reading experience that can help kids get to know one another in their Freshman classes, the Summer Reading Program text can also help youngsters learn to think, and behave, differently than in high-school: to begin to take responsibility for their own education. Both our secondary education programs, and 21st century middle-class Anglo values, tend to absolve youngsters of responsibility: if every move in your educational life is being dictated by teachers, school boards, hovercraft parents, or standardized curricula and testing, then—just like the Army—you don’t have to make choices for yourself. Some kids chafe at this (again, I would have been one of these), but many sink into a comfortably-numb state of doing the minimum of what they’re told, on the timetable imposed, and not worrying about the long-term benefits of synthesizing bodies of knowledge. You learn such synthesis by internalizing a body of knowledge (say, a book), by deriving key insights or themes from that body of knowledge, by then articulating those insights and citing evidence in support of your interpretation, and then by defending and refining those insights in the face of contrasting interpretations. These skills are not taught in public high schools because the global power elites have no interest in a critically-reading-and-thinking population (when you have a Secretary of State and a President who both either dislike, or lie about, reading for pleasure, you know that this anti-critical-thinking stance is de facto policy), but development of such a population is still the mandate of a real teacher. That’s why I, nominally a music history teacher, sit on a committee largely weighted toward those English and Humanities faculty who are charged with implementing the slate of activities for which the Summer Reading Text serves as core curriculum:

Because I’m interested in resistance. And revolution. And the Long Memory.

So to this year’s final choices: Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey, a particularly clearly-and-affectingly-written account of a little boy from Honduras whose mama is in the States, and who sets out on the road to find her, with nothing but a phone number in North Carolina. It’s a beautiful, heart-rending story, and with a tremendous immediacy resulting from Nazario’s textual and photographic account of following Enrique on the trip. However, it has something of a conventional “happy-ending,” and, unfortunately, has a climactic reunion scene on the soundstage of a television talk-show. There’s nothing necessarily dishonest or manipulative about this narrative arc—it’s the true story, after all—and it’s certainly compelling (Nazario won a Pulitzer for the book). But it tends to reinforce the idea—for a high-school age reader—that the way that problems get solved is by the semi-divine deus ex machina of the mass media; e.g., “Oh, it’s OK, this story has a happy ending, because the talk show brought the family back together. Time to change the channel.”

My problem with the above, for the specific purposes of the Summer Program, is precisely this: that it tends to reinforce conceptions of narrative and cause-and-effect as they are taught to high-school students. My concern with such a text is that the target incipient-Freshman population, trained to seek the “correct” answers of a standardized testing method, will similarly seek the “correct” interpretation. What we want is for them to problematize things: not to ask the internal question “what is the ‘right’ answer that the test/teacher wants?” but rather “what do I conclude about this narrative/problem/issue?” The typical incoming Freshman has had scandalously little opportunity to formulate his/her own opinions—typically they don’t even realize that they are allowed to do so.

For that reason, I like the second choice, Luis Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway, much better. It’s just as closely-observed—Urrea obviously followed the coyotes and their passengers just as closely and extensively as did Nazario—but the narrative is also opened-out and contextualized, within the frames of international economics, racial identity, corruption, political opportunism, and so on, on both sides of the border. Urrea obviously talked to just about everyone on all sides of all issues around the illegal immigrant traffic, including individuals (legal and il-) who would seem never to have spoken to anyone else. If possible, he must have put himself at even greater risk of retaliation, from legal, para-legal, and illegal sources alike, than did Nazario.

As a result, The Devil’s Highway presents a much fuller, more complicated, less-readily-parsed picture. It requires much more in the way of critical reading and thinking, and is much less susceptible to simple “what’s the ‘right’ answer?” responses from students. As a result, instead of permitting the teaching-to-the-test responses that post-high-school students would naturally take (because familiar and previously the standard) to Enrique’s Journey, The Devil’s Highway would ask the same youngster to read and think like a college student.

That’s the goal: a revolution—in thinking and self-realization, for a start.

*Extra credit for anybody who can, in the "Comments", identify the relevance of the Stones quote.

Below the jump: fog rolling in on the South Plains.

Monday, January 21, 2008

"100 Greats" #069: Charles Ives, The Holidays Symphony

Around 1985, after a crisis of conscience and career on a bridge in Nova Scotia, I had gone back to school at the University of Massachusetts/Boston, a concrete canyon of a campus at the south end of the Red Line, at the opposite end of which Dharmonia and I lived in Cambridge’s Porter Square. Given our poverty—voluntary, because either one of us could have gone and gotten a soul-killing straight job, and yet we both persisted in trying to make it work as free-lance musicians and music teachers—UMass Boston was my only option: tuition was $79 a semester and they had a department granting an undergraduate music degree. I met some great teachers there, including my mentor Bob Prins, who first suggested graduate school, and then Indiana University, in that order; Joe Dyer, whose gentleness and mild librarian’s manner concealed a ferocious intellect and first-rate scholarship; Dianthe Myers-Spencer, an excellent jazz pedagogue; Robert Peatty, a crewcut ex-Marine, formerly stationed in Japan, teaching East Asian history and now, I realize, perhaps the first Buddhist I’d ever met; and I also met some nimrods.

I didn’t really know where an undergraduate music degree was going to take me—all I knew was that it was the closest disciplinary concentration to being a freelance musician that was available. I certainly wasn’t thinking in an informed fashion about where I’d end up, or the long, complex, and infinitely rewarding journey that Dharmonia and I would take to get there. But I was starting to discover the places and environments within academia that felt workable and comfortable. After the days of my depressed winter at the University of Chicago, where I cut classes to read and sleep in the library, it was a wonderful and very welcome change to slog up to the top floor of the UMass university library, a reasonably well-stocked collection with coincidentally amazing views of Boston Harbor, and, on breaks between classes or before schlepping back to the Harbor Campus subway stop, to wander the aisles of the stacks. It was there, literally just by trailing my finger along the titles in the ML410s (biographies and studies of individual composers), that I stumbled across David Wooldridge’s From the Steeples and Mountains, a rather impressionistic and subjective study of Charles Ives. I would subsequently come to see that book rather differently, but at the time it moved me inexpressibly, because it captured the ways in which Ives’s compositional philosophy—contradictory, judgmental, ideological, but at the same time open, deeply compassionate, inclusive, and heart-on-the-sleeve honest—was a reflection of who he was as a person: a product of his background, terrain, historical moment, and personal experience.

Ives’s music expresses, more clearly than any book or (certainly) than he was capable in his own convoluted writing, precisely who he was, warts and all. He was a Yankee tinkerer and a secret lover of Dvorak and Debussy; a straitlaced Victorian who ranted about the “long-haired nancy-boys” and “pansies” that he saw the late Romantics and (especially) the Impressionists to be, but who also (secretly) paid the legal and bond costs to get Henry Cowell out of jail after he was imprisoned on a criminally unjust morals charge; a devotee of Thoreau and Emerson who—realizing that writing the music he wanted to write would preclude ever making a living as a professional musician—made himself a millionaire in New York insurance company, virtually inventing the concept of life insurance (and, for that matter, worker’s compensation) at the same time; a man who prized “manliness” and “vigor” in music and in life but for whose last four decades was virtually an invalid after a series of massive heart attacks, and who would break down in tears after visits by younger composers who he admired but who couldn’t get performances or even readings of their own works. He was an infinitely brave, infinitely contradictory man—both in his Memos (autobiographical and philosophical jottings and scribblings which are often hilarious and apposite but equally often contradictory and incoherent) and in his personal conversation—who said “I’ve never written anything I couldn’t hear” but hated recording his own music; a man who idolized his Civil War bandmaster father to the extent of turning George E. Ives into a larger-than-life myth and denying the influence of his college composition teachers.

To quote his disciple Cowell, Ives wanted to “live in the whole world of music.” Raised as piano accompanist for folk fiddlers, as church organist and snare-drummer in his father’s bands, trained by George in the European skills of harmony, theory, and counterpoint, intimately familiar with the German Romantic tradition and proud of his allegiance to it, he simultaneously concealed his debt to Debussy and Wagner, two composers who had an enormous impact upon him but whose public personae he felt obligated, as a staunch small-town Connecticut Victorian, to repudiate. He himself had the public persona, late in his life after the heart attacks had almost killed him and had ended his active period of composition, but was kept alive by the careful calm ministrations of his wonderfully-named former nurse and current spouse Harmony Twitchell, of the white-bearded cranky old Yankee (there’s a wonderful photo of him, age 70, glaring fiercely into the camera while clutching a canoe paddle, which comfortingly down-state prop had been suggested by the photographer).

But that was all a mask: a mask for the gentle, sensitive, idealistic, courageous, endlessly creative man that he was. Ives never resolved the conflict between his personal ethos of Victorian morality, the mask of old-Yankee idiosyncrasy that was imposed upon him by his younger ‘rediscoverers’, who desperately wanted to find in him a rough-hewn genius who would finally, after centuries of Europhilia, give them their “American Beethoven,” and his prototypically 20th-century modernism. In fact, it was that fruitful conflict—the rough edges of his personality and artistic identity—that made his personality impossibly contradictory and his music astonishingly innovative. He never resolved that conflict in his personal worldview—in fact I think it’s that conflict which damned near killed him with a series of heart attacks—but at the same time, I think it’s what gives his music its intensity, its courage, and its power. His only peers in the century are Schoenberg and Stravinsky—both of them far more public, far better known, far more influential, the scions of compositional schools, far more extensively feted and idolized, but not a bit more creative than he.

He made C’s at Yale University, but unlike a much more recent “Gentleman’s C” from Yale, whose name I won’t even write in the same essay but whose greed, sociopathy, sense of entitlement, and pure unremitting ego have destroyed as many lives as Charles Ives’s music enriched, Charley earned his low grades honestly—by refusing to write in the way that his (Germanophile late-Romantic) composition teachers wanted him to. Horatio Parker, founder of the Yale composition department and a noted member of the “Boston Classicists” (McDowell, Paine, Griffiths, Parker), has gotten an unfairly bad rap in pop-Ives scholarship, mostly because Charley himself, in the Memos, says such dismissive things about him. But that dismissal had more to do with Charley’s frustrated (and unrealistic) attempt to compare Parker to his father—and it was exacerbated when Charley lost his dad at the age of 20, while he was still at Yale.

Charley tried, briefly, to make it in the world of late-Victorian “respectable” composition: writing a first symphony after Dvorak and a cantata (The Celestial Country) under Parker’s later-repudiated influence, and putting his virtuoso organ chops at the disposal of a succession of Congregational church congregations. But around 1899, he underwent something of an artistic crisis, concluding that the kind of music that he wanted to write, the values he’d learned in Victorian Connecticut, and the lifestyle, economies, and (let’s face it) disreputability of the composer’s associations were inimical to one another, and he went to work in the nascent insurance business—at that time (some different from today!) an industry with relatively high moral goals: e.g., promulgating the idea that a “workingman” could invest a few dollars a week in a life-insurance policy, and thereby assure a minimal living stipend for his family if he should be maimed or killed in one of the notoriously hazardous factories of the day.

It made Charley a millionaire, but it robbed him of the irreplaceable treasure of a lifetime’s worth of time to compose (say, 30 hours per week times 50 weeks per year times the 31 years he worked in business = 46,500 hours), and it meant that he wrote music at night and on weekends and on the commuter train between New York and Connecticut, and piled up the music in his barn and his spare music room. And during his active years of composition, the only people who heard his music were his bachelor-flat roommates, who thought much of it great japes & pranks; his saintly wife Harmony; and the occasional small-eared and tiny-minded New York violinist or flutist who he would pay to come out to Danbury and sight-read haltingly through the manuscripts.

There are two things that happen to a composer who is forced by choice or circumstances to work in this kind of isolation. The first is that she or he has remarkable freedom to hear outside the box of fashionable or “good” compositional technique—to try virtually any sonic idea that occurs, and typically to avoid the closing-down of the ears that academic composition can impose on too young a developing musician (Frank Zappa avoided conservatories like the plague for precisely this reason). But the other impact, the negative one, is that a composer working in isolation typically lacks the feedback from players—or from mentors—that lets them begin to learn the boundaries of the possible, and to recognize that player’s-knowledge might both help him get the effects he wanted, but also elicit the kind of feedback that made sure those effects were scored in sufficiently playable fashion that they could be executed well. Ives never got that latter feedback, until the far-too-late contributions of pianist John Kirkpatrick, who only began working with him years after Ives’s active compositional career had ended.

So he worked at Ives & Myrick during the day, and piled up music in his barn at night and on weekends, and (always anonymously, always generously) used his fortune to subsidize younger composers and their publications (Perspectives in New Music would never have debuted the hundreds of pieces it printed over the years without Ives’s subvention).

Dharmonia and I moved to Bloomington in 1987, not really knowing what we were getting into, scared but intrigued about the possibility of “graduate school” (whatever that was). If we’d known it would take 12 years, we might not have done it at all—but we also would never have met the great Buddhas and comrades-in-arms which the experience was going to provide. By the time we arrived in a hot July, I had already fought my way through the alcoholic incompetence and backhanded sabotage of the two associate deans whose every effort for the balance of the time we were there was aimed at purging the place of just such as we (it’s no coincidence that these two bums hated Tom Binkley and roadblocked him every chance they could get) and had gained admission, through the intervention of my revered teacher David Baker, to the Master’s/Jazz program, and Dharmonia (after a hair-raising audition with Tom, which I’ll let her tell in her own time) to the Early Music program. So we were there, and we weren’t gonna leave—and certainly not at the bidding of cowardly and bitter jumped-up accordion players and music theorists.

That same year I met the Ives scholar Peter B, who though only a few years older than I, was going to be one of my chief mentors, and someone I still look to for advice and as a role model. He’d written probably the best-informed dissertation about Ives, as a student at the University of Chicago, and he had transformed the field of Ives studies, both in adding to the information about the indigenous and specific musical sources tunes in Ives works, and more importantly by demonstrating, in the calmest and most precise way possible, the degree to which despite his own denials Ives had been indebted to the lineage of the 19th century symphonists. It changed how people thought about Ives, allowed scholars to let go of the tired old canard that Ives was a primitive genius “original” (as if that was mandatory to explain his greatness) and in turn the stupid burden of “only when we find our ‘American Beethoven’ will our music measure up”.

That clarity—that Quaker-theology-rooted ability to see and acknowledge what was there, instead of what someone wanted to find there—and the calm and objective acknowledgment of the truth, are some of the greatest gifts he gave me. Peter is one of the bravest scholars I’ve ever met—not least because too many scholars are too cowardly, too opportunistic, too indebted to the power elites who endow buildings and sit on Boards of Regents. He showed me both the moral relevance and the pedagogical validity of being a true public scholar: someone who manifested the high ethics and the commitment to the truth-without-bias which scholarship is supposed to espouse—but which too few scholars, their personal lives inadequate to scrutiny, are prepared to embody.

Peter was.

I remember when Dharmonia and I were invited to his wedding, the first Quaker meeting I perhaps had ever been to. The Quakers are an old, old tradition in North America, and they’ve done a remarkable job of retaining the anti-war, anti-class, “speaking truth to power” strictures of their first immigrant founders (see David Hackett Fischer's wonderful Albion’s Seed for a fascinating exegesis of this intellectual heritage). And I saw that in Peter B: in the calm, the objectivity, and the unflappable and unflinching dedication to principle which he tried to teach me (I was a slow learner but a hard worker). Peter later married a man named Doug, who he’d met in the local Friends Meeting, and that local Meeting was, despite the resistance of the Yearly Meeting (the regional organization that is Quakerism's closest analogue to a diocese or Presbytery), sanctioning the wedding. As I understood the story, the Yearly Meeting had said to the Bloomingtonians, “we can’t sanction this,” and the local Meeting had, calmly and unconfrontively but with remarkable clarity, said “we don’t care; WE are sanctioning it.”

It was held in the upper floor of the local arts center, and run like any other Quaker meeting: there was a brief formal address by community leaders, and then brief statements of intent and commitment from Peter and Doug, and then we sat there. And sat there.

Because that’s what they do, in the Society of Friends, and have done for the past 400 years. There is no hierarchy in the Friends; there is also remarkably little dogma. There is simply a conviction that individuals should be allowed (expected, required) to rule themselves, and to make life decisions based on the dictates of the Spirit moving within them. And that, if the Spirit intends something, it will be revealed. Finally—and most radically and disorientingly, considering in the cacophony of most North American religious denominations—the Friends believe that the way provide room for the Spirit to speak is to sit quietly and listen.

What a remarkable thing: a church service, a community of friends, the celebration of a marriage and a new life together, in which the expectation is simply that all present should sit quietly, reflect, and await the Word. It’s as close as we ever got in North America’s Anglo traditions to the “just sit” dicta of Zen Buddhism, and it’s a remarkable experience and vision of how to be a community.

In the event, it was remarkable: people sat and simply felt (if others were feeling anything like what I was) grateful to be there, to be able to contribute to this celebration by their presence, and joyful about this union. The words that rang in my head all during that time of silence were, curiously enough, a quote from Rastafarian doctrine: Give thanks and praises.

There was a lot of humor, too: when, eventually, individuals began to speak, there were funny and loving tributes to Peter and Doug as individuals, including some ruefully affectionate reminiscences by friends and prior partners. I remember when, in line to inscribe the guestbook commemorating the occasion (a signature which felt like more than just a memento—it felt like a commitment) my great teacher David Baker, a Naptown-born and –bred bebopper of the Old School, who’d gigged with Wes Montgomery and written charts for Eric Dolphy and George Russell, was introduced by Peter to “my new husband, Doug”, and, after they’d turned away, shook his head and said “well, I ain’t used to it, but I’m workin’ with it.”

And there was one moment in which the magnitude and the beauty and the courage of what we were sharing snapped into focus: that moment when a late-middle-aged gentleman in a conservative blue suit stood up to speak. Peter picks up George’s story:

He gave us a hideous yellow glass candy dish that we treasure and leave out on display because we treasured him (he died, alas, more than ten years ago).

Anyway, George stood up, and it became apparent that he was almost completely overcome with emotion—he could barely get the words out. And you realized, at that moment, that this conservative-looking banker-suited gentleman, at that moment, to the Friends’ Meeting which was celebrating Peter and Doug’s wedding, was coming out as a gay man.

He said, stumbling over the words, “I am so grateful to you young men….Because…when I was young…we had to love in secrecy and in silence”. And it brought home both the sadness and injustice of that past history, and the joy and import of what we were all there to do.

And the entire room gasped with tears.

That love, that conviction, and that deeply American internal paradox between what we say we believe in the abstract about “those People,” and what we realize we feel in the flesh-and-blood moment of those we love right now, runs throughout Ives’s music. It’s the sense, as the great Hunter Thompson put it, of the gulf between what we are as a nation and what we could be, if we could “just keep the nation out of the hands of greasy little hustlers.”

There was nothing small about Ives, no “foolish consistency as a hobgoblin of little minds” about his music. In Ives’s music—in the tactile nostalgic beauty of Three Places in New England, the magnificent detailed sonic memory of Central Park in the Dark, the mourning and healing Transcendentalism of From Hanover Square North at the End of a Tragic Day—there is (almost) everything that--at the opening of the “American Century,” with slavery (seemingly) ended, the shadows of our imperialist damnation not yet looming over the horizon, the chance of a New Jerusalem still seeming possible--made us think we could still be great.

Ives believed that: he believed that art could make us bigger, richer, more joyful, more (let’s face it, he was a conservative patriarchal New England Yankee) “manly”—and that art that failed to do that was bad art, and bad for us. He believe that art could heal us. That it could make us great. That art could make us what the Creator had intended us to be.

There’s a beautiful, heart-wrenching story about Ives in Vivian Perlis’s wonderful and loving Charles Ives Remembered collection, late in his life long after he’d ceased composing, and had abandoned the idea of ever completing his planned Universe Symphony, a magnum opus intending to express nothing less than the beauty of the entire creation, to be scored for four orchestras playing from each of four adjacent mountaintops. Harmony tells the story of a beautiful summer afternoon in Danbury, when Charlie was “staring out the window and looking at the mountains, and humming and whistling under his breath. Finally he stopped, and he turned and looked at me with tears in his eyes. I said ‘what on earth is the matter, Charlie?’, and he said ‘The Universe Symphony—it’s all out there, in the fields and mountains. If only I could have done it.’

Whitman said “I am large—I contain multitudes.” Whitman had the courage to acknowledge those multitudes: both divine and earthly love, the beauty of the natural world and of the New York streets and of common people’s conversation and of the boys he desired, the colossal waste of Appomattox and Shiloh, the greatness of Abraham Lincoln and the catastrophic loss of his death, and the possibilities a true democracy might still realize.

There was nothing small about Charlie Ives, and the courage, stamina, and honest internal contradictions with which he struggled to integrate the irreconciliable. There was nothing small about Ives, or Whitman, or Stephen Crane, or Henry Cowell, or about the love, respect, and moral courage that Peter and Doug taught me.

I hope I live up to their example.

Thanks to Peter B for his clarifications of Quaker terminology. 20 years on, he is still (gently, accurately, wisely) helping me correct my errors of fact.

This post is dedicated to my great teachers.

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