Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Day 41 (Round II) "In the trenches" (Minimalist edition)

Hump day in the penultimate full week. Next week is 2 days (MT) before mandatory Thanksgiving break; week after is 3 days (MTW) before end of classes; then the aptly-named-round-here "Dead Day" (1 day break); then Finals. Which, if the damned football team keeps winning, may well be interrupted with a Bowl game on the Saturday, when both of my classes are supposed to have their exams.

Obviously same would be rescheduled. And, I can't complain: when ESPN's "College Game Day" (get the airbrushed big-dumb-lummox former jocks who now host the NCAA-oriented talk show into town for 2 1/2 days, broadcasting live from "Tent City", and running constant blurbs about the town and the university) hits your town twice in a season, that's literally 100's of thousands of bucks of free advertising. Which in turn helps with recruiting. Which in turns help generate more money from boosters who don't understand what "music" is unless there's a marching band visible.

But it does make it harder for the kiddos to concentrate. Sitting in my office this lunch-time, I overheard the (excellent, imaginative, approachable, expert) marching-band conductor say to the assembled multitudes "these discussions are ongoing but I can't tell you about any of them." Which the kids understand, but which does basically fuck-all to facilitate their concentration--they're just as scattered and just as much at the end of their emotional tethers as ever. As I commented yesterday, at this late date in a long semester, we have to balance concentration and compassion--and occasionally forego some of the former in favor of the latter.

So far so good. Today was "minimalism" day in the freshman class: Riley, Reich, Glass et al. 10 years ago when I started teaching this material, the classical/conservatory kids were deeply averse to this music, because it was "boring," or "simplistic," or--in short--didn't sound enough like Shostakovich or Brahms. In other words, they were coming from a late-Romantic/early Modern "if it's good it has to be complicated, and if it's simple it can't be good" mindset. Oddly enough, that mindset, or at least its vocalization, is now largely absent any more: the classical kids have heard enough trance music, or house music, or ambient music, or something similar--or even something influenced by these various composers--that the "good=complicated simple=bad" circuit just simply seems to have been unhooked.

Which is a big farking relief. I am not sorry to bid farewell to that late-Romantic/early Modern bullshit mindset, and to no longer have to teach "past" it. So now I can lay Terry Riley's magisterial In C from 1964 on them, and they're totally into it--they don't care that it doesn't sound like Shostakovich or Brahms.

In Riley's instructions, any number or combination of instruments all start together on melodic fragment #1, and all players and sections have to play #1 through #53 in sequence; that much is fixed.

What's not fixed is the number of repeats for each fragment. So Player A gets to decide how many times to repeat #1, before moving to #2 and following; while Player B may decide on a completely different number of repeats for a given fragment. So pretty quickly, the parts move away from one another (in Reich's terminology, they "move out of phase" with one another) and as a result every performance is unique and driven by a wonderfully organic, healthy, and open interplay between composer's intent, performers' choice, and even audience response: e.g., if the players feel the performance is beginning to drag, or to lose the audience, they can opt to move more swiftly on to more engaging or contrasting material--not have to saw away grimly until the symphony is done.

In C is also a great teaching piece because it so clearly exemplifies the fundamental insights of Minimalism, which were "revolutionary" or "controversial" only in light of the German academic serialism that had preceded it in the conservatories: the idea that musicians might have some insight to offer in a given performance, that a given performance might possibly respond to or even thrive based upon responses to audiences, that audiences could actually be encouraged to invest in and enjoy. These were all relatively outrageous coming out of the Second Viennese School/Milton Babbitt/"Who cares if you listen?" era, but they found an immediate positive response.

So to these kids in my classroom. They're actually young enough that they're unaware of the good/bad complicated/simple" hierarchy. So they just dig the music. And at this point in the semester, when we only have 4 more class meetings left before exams, music they can still grok and enjoy is at a premium.

In C is also a great teaching piece because there are actually good and bad performances (I think it was Reich who said "I knew when I discovered I could make mistakes in the method that I was on to something"). So you play them the audio version on the Norton Anthology CDs (short, a little slow, not much dynamic contrast, kind of anemic), and then you play them a youtube video, which has the advantage of adding the visual dynamics and thus more completely engaging them--but which is still kind of anemic and less than riveting.

And then you say, "yeah, I think those performances are kind of weeny--but what a cool idea for a piece, right?", and they reluctantly nod. But the percussionists, usually the most hung-over and least-engaged of anybody in the room, sitting way back in the top tier as far away from me as they can get, are sitting up and taking notice, because they get that a piece like this is going to (a) play to their strengths (time, ensemble, groove, etc) and (b) provide far more room for them to have a say in how the thing sounds.

And then you say, "yeah, I think you guys could do it better. So bring your instruments on Friday, and we'll show those Youtube types how we really do in Texas" and then they get really excited, and you say "OK, we're done for today," and they look at their cell phones to check the time (none of them wear watches anymore) and realize that you're letting them out 10 minutes early, and it absolutely freaking makes their day. And they bolt for the door, and they are actually...excited...about coming to the last Friday in the semester.

That's a good day.


gregory.white said...

I must, say the 'In C' performance of my freshman year was easily one of the most memorable classes I've ever attended and think I can speak for much of the student I talk to in saying that they feel the same.

CJS said...

Glad to hear it--and thanks for your comments!