I'm not much of a conductor: it was never part of my training, of the musics that I was involved in playing, or of many of the musics that I was studying. And, that is particularly the case of choral music. I can listen to choral music, study it, teach it, etc--but I was never much interested in either performing it or, especially, conducting it. I've been counting-in tunes for 40 years, but it's only in the last couple that I've had to try to find--and learn--the skills to lead either (a) a group of singers through a choral texture, when I never had the training myself; or (b) a group of young instrumentalists to play and feel a dance music in a way that, as classical musicians, they never have before. I'm better at the latter--having a better grasp of how it works myself--but am learning to get better at the former.
There is--or at least should be--an absolutely magical moment that occurs at that moment when someone leading a musical performance counts-off the tempo into the first downbeat. In the world of classical music--especially of Baroque and/or chamber music--that moment is very much truncated: for the Baroquies, it's a "sniff and go" (sniff loudly, in time, on the last upbeat before the played downbeat); for the classical/chamber people, it's often a single up-bow, in the same moment, giving the tempo and the last upbeat before the sounded downbeat.
In most lyric musics--those musics in which the arc of a melody, pre-composed or spontaneously improvised, is the focus of attention--one of the most effective and subtle ways to conceive the count-off is as "the Big One"--to hear the measure, which in most Western music is conceived as the basic, replicating pattern of time, not as "4 beats to the measure and the quarter note gets one beat" or "6 beats to the measure and the first and fourth 8th note each gets the emphasis", but as a single, arcing, resilient "One". In fact, when trying to show an ensemble how that "One" might look as a conducting pattern, I'll sometimes describe a big vertical circle with the right hand, with the hand decelerating as it lifts (e.g., "against" gravity) and then accelerating downward ("with" gravity) as it heads toward the downbeat. This is useful for showing young musicians the way a phrase, conceived not as a subdivided measure of 4 quarters or 8 eighths but as a single big "One", can contain within itself some flex and phrasing within the time. "It only really matters that you be together at 'One'".
In most dance musics, on the other hand, time is much better understood as a kind of micropulse: as a constant, ongoing, endless, "chugging" flow of interlocking pulses--a net beneath the sound, interlocking parts over which the rest of the musical texture--the sounding part of the musical texture can either float, or lock in. In such dance musics--particularly but not exclusively those dance musics in the irreplaceable, ubiquitous, and world-changing musics of Africa and her Diaspora--players sound or elide, lock-in-with or upset overlapping groupings of that fundamental micropulse.
In Afro-Cuban music, it's a realization in sound of the dancing implicit in the clave. When I was playing with the great drummer Andrew Lazaro--me and a bunch of other white boys in Indiana just beginning to learn to understand how the music had to feel in order for it to sound right--he would give us the count-off into the clave only after he'd stood up and danced a few steps: it was only then that he could know the right tempo. And that danced-in cycle of the clave let us not only hear, but also see, the way the tempo was about to feel--when it was RIGHT.
In jazz, it's understated, as is the jazz conception of the beat in the first place: like the groove itself, the count-off is the responsibility of everybody present, and you're supposed to hear it inside at the moment it is first sounded. This was the great breakthrough of bebop: the realization that the drummer or bassist shouldn't have to "hold down" the beat--everyone should have it so deeply internalized that everyone could hold a piece of it, together.
In rock 'n' roll, of course, that countoff is an intensely iconic, even shamanistic moment: that count-off that signals the festival that's to come: never captured better than in Springsteen's epic live version of "Rosalita", when the horn-section & rhythm section syncopated unison tumbles down into a fermata on a low dominant people, and, of the band's suspended time, The Boss screams, over the roar of the crowd, "One - Two - Three - FAH!"
But in traditional musics of all kinds, and especially traditional dance musics, and especially in the teaching of traditional Irish dance musics that I do, that count-off is an incredibly important moment when, if I'm paying attention with the heightened level of empathy a good teacher should employ, I can convey, just in the inflection, shape, attack, pitch, and duration of those counted syllables, the fundamental nature of the rhythmic world we're about to enter together. In dance musics, the time is always there--and our job as musicians is to "enter" the time--to recognize it, emplace ourselves within it, and bring it into audibility:
"ONE - two - three - foh-!"
The music--the micropulse--the inaudible but essential rhythm of the heartbeat, the lungs pumping swiftly or slowly, the blood soughing through the arteries, the leaves bursting with chlorophyll and withering with the changing season, the moon through its phases, the shifting of the tides, the planets in their orbit--those rhythms are always there. Our job as musicians is to recognize their presence .
And help others hear them. It's a holy thing, what we do.
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
I'm not much of a conductor: it was never part of my training, of the musics that I was involved in playing, or of many of the musics that I was studying. And, that is particularly the case of choral music. I can listen to choral music, study it, teach it, etc--but I was never much interested in either performing it or, especially, conducting it. I've been counting-in tunes for 40 years, but it's only in the last couple that I've had to try to find--and learn--the skills to lead either (a) a group of singers through a choral texture, when I never had the training myself; or (b) a group of young instrumentalists to play and feel a dance music in a way that, as classical musicians, they never have before. I'm better at the latter--having a better grasp of how it works myself--but am learning to get better at the former.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
As cheap as it gets. You can get ten pounds of onions for less than 3 dollars--more if on sale or at a farmer's market--and the latter is better for the local economy anyway.
When I was 20 years old I talked my way into a job as the first line cook they hired in a new restaurant startup. I had been building houses and I was fed up with getting home at 4pm too exhausted to practice. And I thought that learning to cook would be a portable workable trade--which it was--and didn't yet know that it's one of the more self-destructive lifestyles--that would take me a while to learn.
So I hoicked myself down to a small restaurant startup in my home town, to which I had moved back after burning out at the University of Chicago, and applied for a gig as their first employee. The only reasons I can think why they hired me--with little to zero professional cooking experience--would have been (a) they were both so exhausted: him from cooking 8am-12midnight, her from hostessing the same hours, and then doing the books, that they couldn't see straight, and (b) because they were unused to an applicant with such a polysyllabic vocabulary.
I learned a lot cooking there. I learned how to think like a cook, to understand the slow-motion ballet that is the interplay of cook, utensils, pans, foodstuffs, and heat, and to understand the heightened sense of accomplishment--and, let's face it, adrenaline--that came from cooking 115 meals over a 12 hour shift.
I also learned this version of onion soup.
Slicing the onions:
Rule #1: Chop way more onions than you think you'll need. Then chop the same volume again.
Hint: this is one of those "you've got to have a sharp knife" situations (or sitcheeayations, to quote O Brother). Cut the top and bottom stem off the onion. Then cut in half, DOWN from top to bottom (e.g., along the stem). You'll wind up with two half-hemispherical pieces, each half-sphere made up of the semicircular concentric half-rings of the onion's layers. Turn one of the halves flat-side-down on the cutting board. Slice once, twice, or three times across the axis of the stem--so that you wind up with a sideways stack of two, three, or four concentric half-circles. Then turn the knife 90 degrees, and cut down across the stack: you'll wind up with small, regular bits as the right-angle slices you've made, and the layers of the onion, yield three-dimensional rectangles.
Melt a good deal of butter over a not-too-hot flame in a large tureen. You're going to caramelize the onion: that is, you're going to cook the onion in the hot butter so that the onion turns brown ("caramel-colored") throughout, with crispy edges. This changes not only the texture of the onion, but also brings out its sweetness.
As the onion is cooking-down, keep stirring, scooping the hottest parts from the bottom of the tureen and "turning-over" the chopped onion, just as if you were turning soil. Continue this until the onion is completely caramelized.
As the onions cook down--and I'm talking maybe by 75%: 1 gallon of onions going down to 1 quart or less--add thyme, sage, garlic, black or white pepper, a bit of salt or tamari (the latter gives a nicer color), a good splash of white wine. Lower the flame to medium and stir in the spices, giving them a good 3-4:00 minutes to cook into the onions.
Once the spices have been heated through and absorbed by the onions, you can add 1 cup of stock per quart or so of onions. You can use any kind of stock: rendered or dry, chicken or vegetable. Be advised: if it's a commercial stock, especially the dry sort, you'll need to ramp down the added salt, as commercial stock contains a lot. When in doubt here, use less salt, more pepper, and more wine.
Allow to simmer on a low heat for at least 1 hour. Meantime, grate some hard-but-not-sharp cheese (Jack is good, sharp cheddar too); avoid the very salty romano's or parmesan, as there is already enough salt in the recipe. You're also going to restrict the cheese to a sprinkling on top of the bowl as you serve: people go wrong with onion soup when they use too much cheese, insufficiently toasted. Use less cheese and melt/toast further.
Meantime, slice a good whole-grain or sourdough bread and toast the rounds, enough so that they are crsip but not browned.
Spoon soup into bowls. Place a toasted bread-round on top of each bowl and sprinkle cheese over the top. Toast in a 450-degree oven for 3-4 minutes, until the cheese bubbles and melts.
Serve with a sharp white wine and a green salad, oil & vinegar dressing preferred.
Good peasant food.
Thanks, Steve Z.
Monday, September 28, 2009
Next up in the Netflix queue: Cadillac Records.
I so wanted this movie to be, if not good, at least not actively bad. This is some of my favorite music in the world and some of the most admirable people I've ever heard of, who I first encountered on record, and in the medium of my hero Peter Guralnick's books (Feel Like Goin' Home and Lost Highways, and paralleled by his masterpiece Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm & Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom). I already knew, at 18, how extraordinary these people what: what titanic, stronger than life-and-death, elemental, brilliant, courageous, creative personalities they were. I met Muddy at the Chicago Blues Fest in the winter of 1978, and even though I was 7 inches taller, I felt small, shaking his hand, which still, after 40 years, had all the sharecropper's calluses. And as I watched him jitterbug with the white boys in his band, Steady Rollin' Bob Margolin (guitar) and harpist Jerry Portnoy, I realized that there was a lifetime of wisdom that this music could teach me.
Unfortunately, we aren't going to get it from this movie. There is more truth about the blues in three minutes of Son House singing "Death Letter Blues" on German television than there is in this entire film. And, despite the focus and selflessness of Geoffrey Wright's Muddy Waters, the feral intensity of Eamonn Walker's Howlin' Wolf (easily the most compelling portrait in the film), the professionalism of Adrien Brody's Leonard Chess, this is not the story of Chess Records or of the extraordinary artists and people who made it happen.
And it's because the people who were empowered to set the shape, story, and production values of this movie are a product of Hollywood, which by definition insulates people from reality and from a sense of the real greatness of this music and musicians. No matter how well-meaning either writer/director Darnell Martin or "executive producer" Beyonce Knowles might consider themselves to be, no matter how much they may gush about the "genius" of the actual actors in the film, or the "genius" of the artists they are portraying, they are fundamentally shaped by Hollywood story values, which simply refuses to believe that there could be any truer, realler or more valuable story than those seen through the Hollywood lens.
People in Hollywood, no matter their background, simply cannot grasp what hard life is actually like: working stoop labor, playing in bars where guns and knives are part of the work environment, being ripped-off because you're poor or your skin is the wrong color and you have no recourse. They cannot grasp that those stories are the real stories, the valuable stories, the stories that speak to real peoples' actual lives.
The film suffers from all the problems of a Hollywood star vehicle "produced" by its star. It doesn't matter how much Beyonce gushes about how much she has to learn from the great actors she's working with: the distortion of the actual history here reveals not only her fundamental inability to shift the focus from herself (and no matter what you say, neither Etta James nor Len Chess is the heart of the Chess story), but also her fundamental inability to see where the actual story is, or the vastly greater power, charisma, and excitement that could be found in that story.
The heart of the Chess Records story is the courage, focus, imagination, and flat-out goddamned hard work of the people who fought for decades to get their music heard. The heart of this story is Muddy, and Wolf, and Walter, and, yes, Willie Dixon, and Sammy Lay, and Hubert, and Pat Hare, and, yes, Leonard and Phil Chess. The heart of the story--and precisely that portion these Hollywood assholes can't see the woods for the trees--is the love story between all of these people, and the music that resulted.
The strong points:
Geoffrey Wright, as always and ever disappearing into his character, capturing Muddy's control, force of character, and wary resilience;
Eamonn Walker's remarkable, feral Howlin' Wolf, in which he captures not only Wolf's sheer physical force and mannerisms, but also the tamped-down rage of the abandoned child inside him, and much-smarter-than-Muddy grasp of the reality of the Chess/Muddy relationship. The best scene in the movie is the first meeting between Muddy, Wolf, and Len Chess, when Wolf, clad in ragged overalls and driving a beat-up rusted-out pickup, turns down an advance from Len Chess, and points out to Muddy that his ride is paid for. Best line, Wolf speaking to Muddy: "He's a white man; you a black man..Course he's gon' make the money. You from Mississippi, ain't you? I'da thought youda known that."
The portrait of folklorist Alan Lomax, who first recorded Muddy in '41, which at least reveals the fundamental decency and excitement Lomax exhibited in his belief regarding the power of the music he was "discovering." Lomax was a prick and an opportunist with an astonishing inability to reflect upon himself, or how his artists saw him, but there is no denying the enormous improvement he made in the lives of many of his artists. And extra credit to the film-makers for including the too-often neglected John W Work, without whose service as intermediary much of Lomax's Deep South collecting would never have occurred.
Mos' Def, an incredible, intuitive, unself-conscious comic actor (he was fantastic in Lackawanna Blues, another movie that suffered dreadfully via the infliction of star power--in that case, of Halle Berry--upon a fundamentally sound story), whose Chuck Berry may or may not be grounded in much biographical fact, but which captures the humor, smartassed self-confidence, and insouciant brilliance of his instinctive melding of blues, country, and rockabilly.
The weak links?
The obviously tacked-on narration by Cedric the Entertainer as Willie Dixon. Fundamental warning bell: any time a movie uses an extended voice-over narration by a minor character in order to catch up on the big gobs of narrative which they can't seem to portray on screen--or, even worse, to tell the audience how they are supposed to interpret the Really Big Questions which the movie claims to be addressing but which the film-makers evidently don't trust themselves to have conveyed.
The triteness of the Little Walter portrait. Not Columbus Short's fault--he makes the most of the thin gruel he's given--but the picture of the doomed, child-man genius, mistreated in his youth and a gun-toting, cop-baiting loose cannon as a man, is out of the most tired "VH1-Behind the Music" playbooks.
And, let's face it, the glibness of Beyonce's Etta James. There's a story I have from the General, who's far more knowledgeable about film than I, which alleges that Beyonce had never heard Etta sing when they started the film.
As my friend the General said: that's not Beyonce's fault. But it is the fault of Walker, not only the director but the writer of the film--who's going to rewrite history in order to cook up some apocryphal affair between Len Chess and Etta James as the focus of her soft-focus lip-service-only star-vehicle clusterfuck of a pseudo-"history"--and who doesn't even get that maybe Etta's singing might have had something to teach Beyonce. Beyonce obviously didn't get it. And her singing shows it.
There is probably more truth in three minutes of Etta singing "At Last," in the twilight of her career, missing a leg to diabetes, maybe 100 pounds overweight, than in any music Beyonce has ever been involved with. And damned sure more truth in that singing than there is in this movie.
Maybe the gut truth of this movie is conveyed in the first of the anonymized user comments that comes up in an imdb search: "This is mostly fiction and an insult to the artists and the history of Chess Records."
The fact is: this is not a movie about black Hollywood redressing the distorted American popular music history that left black geniuses out of the history books--and the royalties statements. It's a movie, once more, which is about rich Hollywood types ripping off the memories, and the genius, of artists who Hollywood will never, would never, comprehend.
I'll go back to Muddy, that cold winter of '78. And Wolf, keeping his band on the road to help his sidemen pay their rent, from VA-Administration dialysis machine to machine. To Son House, singing "John the Revelator."
Fuck Beyonce. Fuck Hollywood.
This is "where the soul of man never dies."
Thank you, Muddy. Thank you, Wolf. Thank you, Etta. Thank you, Walter.
Thank you, Len and Phil.
We are all in your debt.
Saturday, September 26, 2009
Baraka may refer to:
- baraka, also berakhah, in Judaism, a blessing usually recited during a ceremony
- baraka, also barakah, in Arabic, Islam and Arab-influenced languages such as Swahili, Urdu, Persian, Turkish, meaning spiritual wisdom and blessing transmitted from God; or in a Sufi context, "breath of life"
- Baraka Bashad, meaning "may the blessings be" or just "blessings be" originally a Sufi expression
- Baraka, means 'Blessing' a spiritual power believed to be possessed by certain persons, objects, tombs, in Arabic, Swahili, Urdu, Persian and Turkish
You might not, not think so now,
But just you wait and see
Someone will come to help you
Posted by CJS at 1:39 PM
Possibly the most beautiful, heartfelt, and spiritual song Zappa ever wrote or played. And now, sixteen years after his entirely-too-early death, when I hear Ike sing "I can't wait to see/What it's like on the Outside Now" and FZ tear into the solo, there are tears in my eyes.
Thank you, Frank.
Posted by CJS at 10:58 AM
Friday, September 25, 2009
A friend up in points Northwest is revising her Irish culture & folklore course, preparatory to the spring field-trip they take, not unlike our own. We were knocking around ideas for additions from the world of theater, and here's what I came up with:
Several sources occur to me, and they all come out of my (limited) experience of Irish folklore. So, with full disclaimers about my lack of theatrical knowledge:
1) Henry Glassie's work, particularly in All Silver and No Brass: An Irish Christmas Mumming, the extended preface to his Irish Folk Tales book, and certain chunks of both Passing the Time in Ballymenone" and Stars of Ballymenone", talks about the relationship between folk drama, storytelling, and "modernist" trends in Irish theatre during the Celtic Renaissance. Henry has made some, I think, very interesting connections between the "abstraction" of, say, Beckett in Godot, and the starkness and ritual gesture in the Fermanagh Mummers' play. And, like Dick Bauman, Richard Schechner, and Mukarovsky before them, Henry has thought a lot about the performative semiotics of conversation in folk cultures, stories, puppetry, and ritual.
2) Synge's own fieldwork is, it seems to me, a hugely important part of his plays: not just the the stories upon which he based Riders and Playboy, but the way in which he, like Yeats, thought that Irish folktale and custom could be a tool for revitalizing Irish theatre. That was the whole premise behind the Abbey, right? To create a venue in which "new Irish plays" by playwrights writing on nationalist themes could explore that nexus. There's a certain "objective" stance in Synge's plays that, it seems to me, is reminiscent of the "dispassionate reporting" of murder ballads and such like.
3) I think Beckett is hugely important here. Though he is typically understood (as I perceive it) as a rather challenging, abstract, "modernist", I think things like Godot are very much reflective of the seemingly-aimless, non-directional, "passing the time"-style conversations that neighbors who've been neighbors for 10 generations have.
4) I don't find Yeats's plays particularly persuasive, but I do think that he saw a legitimate and very interesting connection, potentially fruitful for new experiments, between various forms of ritual or folk drama and a modernist expression. Somewhere between folktale, Noh, and Picasso's experiments, Yeats found possibilities for masking and a non-representational "ritual" drama. Another interesting one to look at here might be the "corporeality" that the American avant-garde composer Harry Partch was working on at nearly the same time, where dance, instrumental music, song, mime, and intoned speech could all work together.
5) No doubt you've read Heaney's modern translation of Beowulf. Thought that's written epic, not theatre (though theatrical in origin, and you've got to see the American Benjamin Bagby's solo tour-de-force of the thing in Anglo-Saxon!), it was spoken epic poetry first. And I love that, as the General pointed out, Heaney starts his version not with the usual translation of "Listen!", but rather the word "So..." Which he explicitly relates to his hearing his uncles open folk-stories.
There's something about that incipit "So..." that conveys, much more than the imperative "Listen!", a sense of entering a story, mid-stream, that is going on, has been going on, and will continue to go on, flowing like a river into which the storyteller, and his/her audience, can dip at any point.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
A young friend, now overseas, is working on research on possible processes for studying and practicing medieval improvisation. Here's the first-half of my reply to her specific questions:
I'll answer under your four headings but should preface this by saying I was taught a couple of different approaches: notably (a) a very ear-training-centric approach (a man named Charlie Banacos in Boston area, who taught many of the great jazz players who went through the Boston jazz scene, including John Scofield, Pat Metheny, and Mike Stern) and (b) a very vocabulary/pattern-centric approach (David Baker's "How to play bebop" school of books). That said, I would further observe that, (c) having spent the last 14/15 years teaching people to play a different vernacular music by ear, in a method that's very much an outgrowth of David Baker's, I would now approach teaching improvisation in yet another fashion, one that drew upon (a), (b), and (c), but that was mostly based upon (b) and (c).
Some thoughts about why down below.
1.) what I've read seems to reduce the teaching of improv into transcribing performance and practicing scales, is this really how Jazz is usually taught, or is there more to it?
I'd break down jazz pedagogy differently, under the different categorical headings of the skills that each aspect of pedagogy is designed to enhance:
A. Ear training (mostly vertical sonorities) and melodic replication (mostly horizontal lines)
B. Vocabulary (knowing the melodic gestures, and the harmonic progressions, that make the music sound like jazz)
C. Harmonic expertise (understanding the very complex, seventh-chord-oriented chordal language of jazz, and (very importantly) understanding the very wide range of scalar alternatives to specific progressions, and the very wide range of chordal substitutions that can be superimposed upon the pre-set chord progression.
D. Tools that integrate the above.
A. All jazz players--horns, keyboard, bass, other chordal instruments, and (ideally) singers--spend a LOT of time working at the piano to develop the ability to hear complex vertical sonorities (4-note seventh chords, quartal/quintal harmonies, "upper-structures" including 9ths, 11ths, 13ths and their chromatic alterations) and, very importantly, to hear root motion. Jazz tunes tend to modulate every 2-bars or 4-bars, and so it is extremely important to be abel to hear what the motions are, where the modulations occur, and how the roots from key to key are moving. Related to this is learning the very wide vocabulary of "chord-scales" that can superimposed upon sonorities of various types: when I was practicing jazz actively, I would play scales, patterns, and transposed melodies in anything up to 13 different scale types, in all 12 keys. Just as chords can be superimposed on top of other chords, alternate scales can be superimposed upon the same chord. Especially in the case of the standard 8th-note lines of bebop, where on-beat/off-beat 8ths alternate, you can play many chromatic alterations on those "off-the-beat" 8th notes.
Example: in a jazz context, it is very common to substitute the lydian mode (#4) for the major scale, as, in an 8th note context where the scale is outlining the stacked-thirds of a chord, the #4 is often an off-the-beat note. Hence it's an easy way to provide chromatic "flavoring" within an essentially major-mode context. You practice those 11 or 13 different scale types over their related chords in order to begin to be able to "hear" the chromatic alterations as options.
B. Vocabulary: jazz players--with the exception of those who play "free" or avant-garde styles which consciously eschew any reference to earlier styles--play within a tradition which includes a basic vocabulary for communicative competence. This includes
1. Common-practice tunes--or at least chord progressions. There are literally thousands of jazz tunes based upon the chord changes of the blues, of George Gershwin's 32-bar "I Got Rhythm" chorus, or a small number of other jazz and Broadway tunes, mostly dating from the '20s and '30s. Because jazz, in most styles, is based upon improvising melodic lines over pre-set chord changes, having an intimate and practical aural facility with those chord changes is a basic part of being able to play by ear. It is possible to improvise jazz while reading the chords from a chart, but the results are usually quite unsatisfactory (a lesson it took me years to learn).
Hence, every jazz player will spend hundreds of hours practicing improvising over blues changes, "Rhythm" changes, and the chord progressions of tunes like "Indiana" and "Cherokee"--in all 12 keys and in every imaginable tempo. Knowing these chord progressions is a key part of jazz competency.
2. Additionally, the jazz vocabularies includes a close and facile familiarity with the melodic conventions of the various jazz eras. Sometimes these are specific melodic figures ("licks") associated with certain styles or players, but equally commonly these melodic conventions represent specific patterns which outline, negotiate, or otherwise imply specific harmonic structures. A competent jazz player will, for example, spend thousands of hours figuring out, and then practicing in all 12 keys, patterns that outline a ii7-V7 progression, in 1-bar, 2-bar, and 4-bar phrases. Having done this, s/he will spend thousands more hours practicing these same patterns in all chromatic permutations: outlining ii-V, ii7-V7, ii7b5-V7#9, etc.
3. Additionally, a competent jazz player is expected to be conversant with the melodic vocabularies--the pet licks--of his/her favorite players, or of the major players of his/her instrument. This is where listening to and transcribing (not "writing down", but learning and playing by ear) the soloes of noted players comes in: if you want to learn the melodic vocabulary, and use it with authority and suitability, you have to go to the players who shaped that vocabulary. Learning, playing, and transposing to all 12 keys the solos of noted players is, for jazz musicians, analogous to learning tunes for Irish players.
Moreover, it is possible to process those soloes into your own vocabulary: you learn the solo, you memorize and play it back at speed, then in all 12 keys, and then you go through the tune, phrase by phrase, and you isolate each chord-outlining phrase, and then you practice each phrase in all 12 keys, and then you practice using that phrase in all available permutations and situations in other tunes, and so on.
C. Harmonic expertise. Harmonic complexity: the way to build forward-moving horizontal root motions, and to build interesting, unique, challenging sonorities over those roots, is probably the area of jazz's greatest theoretical sophistication and highest expectations for improvisers. All improvisers spend time learning and practicing chordal shapes, and--especially--the very complex and diverse voice-leading which moves by 1/2 steps from one chromatic chord to the next. The art of jazz melodic improvisation, in those genres that use chords, is in finding ways to spontaneously create horizontal 8th-note lines that simultaneously create melodic interest AND fit the specific chord-tones of the underlying progressions. Jazz composers often create especially challenging and unique vertical sonorities in their chord progressions in order to inspire ilnear improvisations. Similarly, chordal players (piano/guitar) and bassists are expected to understand ways of voicing, superimposing, chromatically-altering, substituting, and voice-leading chords to create unique backgrounds for the improvisers. And bassists, of course, spend all night long improvising 4-quarter-note walking lines that simultaneously outline the chords and provide forward rhythmic motion.
D. Integrating. One practices chord voicings, progressions, root motion, and voice-leading on a chordal instrument, and on one's instrument (a horn player can outline chord progressions, substitutions, and voice-leading just as well as a chordal player); one practices patterns (derived from solos, invented, or both) over all these chord progressions; one practices and memorizes (in the ear) the progressions of common and uncommon tunes; one learns, transposes, practices, and breaks-down the solos of influential players. One plays over chord progressions, imagined and pre-recorded. This is all in addition to the basic technical practice of being able to get around on one's instrument, and the more advanced technical practice of developing one's own preferred timbre, intonation, and phraseology.
h/t to Taiyo.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
This past weekend brought the first "away" game for the university's football team, a game with the hereditary great rival school, down east and south of here, and a (football and music) program that is massively better funded and has a much bigger ego than ours. It's always an uphill, unevenly-fought battle, and the odds are usually stacked against our team.
And, in the event, though they weren't embarrassed, they did get beat. Was out in the canyon at friend Coop's adobe on the Friday evening, and watching at least the first few minutes of the game on his big-screen, and after an 80-some-yard punt return by the Bad Guys, we all looked at each other and said "OK, it's time to go out to the studio and play tunes." Which we did, on a beautiful cool evening, looking west over the playa lakes to the infinite West Texas horizon, only enlivened (after full dark) by the stolen car that somebody dumped and torched, while we walked, at the boat landing across the lake.
It was also, ironically, September 19, the latest created holiday, "Talk Like a Pirate" Day, and a unique confluence of calendar phenomena: first away game, against the hereditary rivals, under a coach (ours) who's a pretty darned good amateur historian, and a pirates buff, and with a marching band (ours) whose director, no dummy, has put together a half-time show that draws from "Captain Blood," "Pirates of the Caribbean", and about a half-dozen other pirate movies, and into the maw of the Bad Guys multi-million dollar stadium.
There was never much question that our guys were gonna get beat, and the confluence of Talk Like a Pirate Day didn't really do much for me:
One of my ancestors was a cavalry captain under Oliver Cromwell (here's hoping he was a Roundhead for class reasons, not sectarian ones) who was granted all the land on Long Island he could ride over in one day on the back of a bull, and that was the foundation of the town in whose square there is still a bigger-than-life-size statue of a bull in his honor.
Another was a six-foot-three-inch Tory horse thief and raider who was hanged in the wake of the Revolution and announced, on the scaffold, that he was only called a traitor because he had "chosen the wrong side". That story's probably apocryphal, but the one about him kicking off his shoes on the scaffold, to give the lie to his mother's prediction that he would surely "die with his boots on", knowing my family's personalities, is probably true.
Others fought at Culloden (right side, wrong leader: Dick Gaughan: "Bonnie Prince Charlie did about as good for Scotland as a dose of cholera), were exiled to Ulster, and then homesteaded on the "Old Frontier" in the same era as Hawthorne's Hawkeye and Uncas.
Another was a combat engineer who survived D-Day, the drive into Germany, and my mother.
"Talk Like a Pirate" day, another manufactured marketer's holiday (like Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Columbus Day, and Labor Day--the REAL labor day is May 1: Solidarity Forever!), is fun and all (Yaarrr!) but I don't need no fuckin' manufactured excuses to talk (or act) like a pirate.
It's in my bloodlines.
All that being said, and given my historical preference for the underdog, I would not have been sorry to see my home university upset the oddsmakers and steal one out from under their pompous top-dollar price-is-no-object privileged arrogant Boosters 'n' Alumni from that Place Southwest of Here.
Maybe next year.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Balancing on the cusp, all up here in this crib. Opening of the fifth week of the semester, and, as usually happens up here on the South Plains, an absolutely hellacious wind blew through last night (after the temperature dropping about 15 degrees in two hours yesterday evening), with some rain, and this morning dawned cold, clear, and with a new tang of fall in the air. The campus was filled with shivery little South Texans, still clad in their gym shorts and flip-flops, and exclaiming over "cold" it was.
But if you come from where I do, you don't really believe the year's turning until you can feel it in the air. So it's kinda gratifying when it All Comes Round that the season changes just as year hits the 12 hours light/12 hours dark cusp, and the first wave of exam hits, and everybody across the campus realizes that we're now deep in it.
Monday is a work-the-to-do-list day: no classes to teach, and I've kept the student meetings and lessons to Tues-Wed-Thur, knowing that I'd have a lot of away dates and long travel weekends. That means that I can still work my stuff on the Mondays--whether in residence on the South Plains or in England, San Antonio, Philly, Dallas, or any of the other places I have to travel this semester--without missing the weekly meetings with the kids who are counting on me to be present, and who I've got clustered on those Tues-Wed-Thur. Always a nice springboard into the week, when I am in residence, because I feel like I'm getting a jump on my own work before the week closes in. Also brings the weekly Mon AM meeting with my treasured VMC assistant, whose gig is funded by a "Growing Graduate Programs" grant, and who, for the first time, is helping us take action on all the initiatives that have been thought-up but shelved for lack of time over the past 9 years. It's great to be able to brainstorm with somebody who "gets" the point of certain ideas and can take them and run with them. Somebody I can task with 7 or 8 different projects and count on to follow up, and even to critique and enhance in ways I hadn't thought of. Her first task: finding the funding to continue the gig--I don't never want to be without this kind of help again.
The most *fun* task that came out of yesterday's session? This idea (lightly redacted):
My assistant's reaction when she saw it?
"I'm attending!!! Now where the hell am I gonna find a Mister Darcy?!?"
Balance of the day, hour after hour, was working on service stuff: commenting on student abstracts and proposals, designing and updating PowerPoints for Tuesday classes ('cause there's no time on TR to do that), finishing up some requested revisions on a quite-large (c40pp) solicited journal article, promotions for our own and colleagues' events, problem-solving some staff stuff, reading tenure and promotions dossiers in anticipation of Wednesday faculty vote, and so forth.
Today brought the two graduate seminars which meet TR: "Topics in Ethnomusicology" and "20th Century Music", the former of which I've taught once before, and the latter at least 4 times before and I just don't have to work them the same way I did upon their initial iterations. That's not to say that there is any less prep to be done for either of these classes, but rather that the prep is quite different: the Ethno course's previous iteration was done in the post-iTunes/PowerPoint/Breeze slideshow era, and that means that I have all the pdf's for articles, all the Discussion Questions (anyway from 10 to 30 questions, per article, designed to elicit close reading and thoughtful seminar discussions) for articles and textbook chapters, most of the images and video clips I might employ, and most of the websites and links I might want to send them to. So, about all I need to add is the pdf'd scores and links to same, so that students can both listen and also score-read online through the course Web 2.0 portal.
And that in turn means that I can finally, after 4 prior iterations of the 20th Century Course, think about expanding my own knowledge of the topic. I taught it the very first semester I was here, 3 months out of my dissertation defense, and had to write it on the fly, re-learning and figuring out how to present repertoires I'd only previously known as a student. That was a hell of a challenge and there wasn't really any point along the way where I felt I really had the command and comprehensive picture of the topic I thought could be created.
It's gotten a little better each year, as I've been able to tweak, expand, fill-out, and so on, but I've never--until now--had the time to think about a fundamental rebuild of the course. It probably won't happen this iteration either, but that's not the most effective way to rethink a course anyway.
Much better is to map multiple routes through the same terrain, which really means having a relatively wide range of alternate compositions which can be employed to make the crucial points. So, not only Erwartung and Pierrot Lunaire, but also Die Gluckliche Hand and The Book of the Hanging Garden, and so on. This pushes me, the professor, to expand my in-depth knowledge of a wider range of repertoire, while also making the same central/crucial points I want to present, and it broadens the students' understanding of the depth of those repertoires. Over time, it means my own grasp of the repertoire is more nuanced and complicated, and it makes negotiating multiple routes through the terrain itself part of the seminar process.
Feels good to finally have some time to move closer to what I think this course could be.
After that, it was another promotional meeting with a reporter for the student newspaper, and then the evening's set-dance class. 17 people in the room, 2 full sets, 3 more figures in the Clare Orange and Green and the Caledonian, and an absolutely crystalline evening to walk home in.
At the cusp of the seasons, the balancing point of the year, I'm aware of how fortunate I am in my life.
And I'm grateful.
Monday, September 21, 2009
A colleague allied at Points North posed a question about approaches to keyboard in "Celtic" styles. Here's what I came up with:
The "vamping" style of piano associated with the Irish ceili bands (and probably growing out of the frequently inapposite approach of New York session pianists hired to accompany Sligo emigre fiddlers). Pianists would supply the full harmonic accompaniment for a front line of flutes, fiddles, accordions, and banjos, along with a drumset playing employing quasi-marching band patterns. Pianist had bass line and chords: left-hand in a kind of stride piano pattern, playing R-5-8ve figurations in 2/4 a la polka, or sometimes walking diatonically between chord roots; while the right-hand hits triads or triadic fragments on the off-beats/up-beats. This is employed in 2/4 and 4/4 meters, but also, interesting, in 6/8. In that latter, the left-hand hits the bassline patterns on 1 & 4 of the 6/8, while the right-hand "offbeats" will come on 3 and 6. So there is kind of "boom chick-boom chick-boom" feel to the pattern: provides a strong sense of cross-rhythm in 6/8, and of right-hand anticipation into the downbeat left-hand bass notes.
The art of ceili band "vamping" piano is not so much virtuosity or obvious variety--it's more about really knowing the melodies of the tunes, being able to accent their internal melodic syncopations, creating rhythmic "lift" for the dancers, and so forth. Really, just like any dance-band music: subsuming other considerations to making it groove.
The great Charlie Lennon
A fuller, more interactive version of the same thing is found in Cape Breton, where the left-hand still carries bass-line on strong beats (2/4, 4/4, or 6/8), but the right-hand, while maintaining the general off-beat/up-beat cross-rhythm, will also play more linearly and selectively. Rather than employing the relatively lockstep "boom chick-boom chick-boom" etc of the "vamping" style, the Cape Breton players will break things up, play cross-accents, play along with the melody, and generally be much more interactive and employ wider textural contrasts.
Hannah Stockley and Brad Murphy
Some button accordion players (notably Tony Mac Mahon and Billy McComiskey) have developed a virtuoso approach to the left hand bass buttons, which combines both very complex syncopated chording and accents, and also the held drones and slow moving descants of the Irish pipes. Piano accordion is rare in Irish music, less rare in Scottish music, but the button box is the commoner free-reed.
Mac Mahon plays "Napoleon Crossing the Rhine"
Billy plays two of his own tunes.
Finally, keyboardists in the folk revival (sometimes pianists, but more often organ, harmonium, harpsichord, clavinet, or other synthesizer players) would employ accompanimental techniques that were more reminiscent of the core instruments and the sometimes-idiosyncratic modal/harmonic language. Some borrowed from the open/modal sonorities and filigree associated with the harp, while some more interesting and subtle approaches were derived from the broken chords and multi-functional dyads employed by the regulators of the uilleann (Irish: "elbow") bagpipes.
Triona Ni Domhnaill with the Bothy Band had played harpsichord, and that let her employ clavinet with a quasi-Baroque style right-hand (lots of melodic figuration, ornamentation, etc) while exploiting the instrument's electronics-goosed bass to play rock-style bass lines. Extensions of this have come from various other keyboardists in revival bands, most notably Alan Reid of the Battlefield Band (Scotland), who is a notorious abuser of synthesizers' cheesy stock factory presets.
Triona with the Bothy band, "The Green Groves of Erin / The Flowers of Red Hill"
Shirley Collins used arrangements put together by her sister Dorothy, who was actually rather knowledgeable (for the time) about Renaissance music--probably David Munrow's influence. Dorothy sometimes employed a small portativ, and would have been familiar with the "bits you leave out" in Renaissance polyphony to heighten the modal and decrease the triadic atmosphere.
Shirley in 1978 with the Albion Band and Martin Carthy.
Various people (notably Grey Larsen with Metamora, and, perhaps less notably, myself, on my solo discs) have done very interesting things with the field organ or harmonium, which, with their small sound and acoustic timbre, seem to blend very well with bowed and plucked strings, and the double- and free-reeds of pipes and accordions.
Grey Larsen (on flute; no field organ, unfortunately) and Cindy Kallet
In the Albion band, which employed at one time or another just about every British folkie, there was extensive use of open tunings on guitars, and mandolin-family instruments, for this same purpose: to move toward the mode/drone environment of the pipes and harp, and away from the triadic focus used by American folk music and its British (e.g., skiffle) imitators.
The Albion chordal sound, overwhelmingly, comes out of the extraordinary open-tuned guitar work of Martin Carthy, who played in various tuned-down open modal tunings, and had a wonderful droning, percussive guitar approach (strongly influenced by fiddle and pipes); and, secondly, by Richard Thompson, who played mostly electric guitar, but was very strongly influenced by Highland piping.
Carthy plays the Morris tune/song "The Cuckoo's Nest"
Thompson tearing it up: "Jerusalem on the Jukebox" on Night Music in the '80s.
Of course it is possible to create interesting droning/modal effects on standard-tuned guitar, but to really get the kind of drone and counterpoint that these guitarists were capable of, you need the open sonorities of certain strings ringing while others are fingered. And those open tunings, especially the ubiquituous DADGAD (lowest pitch to highest pitch) most definitely changed the sound of guitar in traditional Celtic musics. In addition to Carthy, two wonderful exponents are Pierre Bensusan (a fantastic solo player) and Michael O Domhnaill, who used DADGAD to play rhythm in the Bothy Band.
Bensusan plays two jigs: "Merrily Kissed the Quaker's Wife / Cunla"
Micheal (RIP) introduces and plays rhythm guitar for a Bothy Band jig set, with Triona starting the set.
Friday, September 18, 2009
Another busy tough day, bringing its own conflicts (and technology snafus), with not enough time to create a proper-length blog post. But in the interests of maintaining the continuity, here's a short note I dropped to a student a while back who was expressing difficulty in "choosing" a research topic--really, in generating ideas that felt as if they had enough potential to permit moving forward:
Thinking about research areas:
Don't underestimate the validity of first/initial impressions; they need not connote a long-term commitment. It's worth at least looking at any topic that seems interesting, if for no other reason than that such a look is the only way to deepen the sense of whether there's any there there:
Here's a way to start thinking about it. Rather than thinking about time-periods that interest you, think about approaches to a topic which you might find congenial.
What kinds of research-work appeal? Score-study? Primary sources? Biographical links to compositions? Culture/context/reception of works? Interaction b/w music and other cultural/historical phenomena? Oral history? And so forth.
What repertoires appeal? Orchestral? Chamber? Song? Non-traditional/vernacular? New music?
What time periods or geographical regions appeal? It is no longer the case that musicologists "only deal with classical music"; musicology is now very widely-understood to encompass the whole world of music and the whole gamut of analytical approaches.
Different topics will tend to demand different types of research approaches. If you have a sense of the research approaches you might find congenial, you can reverse-engineer to find topics that respond well to those certain approaches.
Sometimes you ask yourself, not "What is the 'good' topic?" but rather "What kind of work do I like to do? With what kinds of tools am I facile?"
There are a lot of ways to peel the apple.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Limbaugh calls for return to segregated buses.
You know, Rush, if we were even willing (much less able) to return to the lily-white 1950s that you seem to think your audience wants to buy into, then we might start prosecuting felons for child rape. And drug abuse. And treasonous speech.
Instead of making them millionaires and de-facto leaders of a major political party.
Rush, if you ever disrespect our President like that again, I'm gonna pull your fuckin' card, okay? ...When it turns out you're lying, we're gonna spend every nickel of MoveOn's money to fuck you up. I'm gonna bribe newshounds to go after you, I'm gonna pay guys to go after your weak fuckin' network, and I'm gonna tell all the guys I know that you're a child-molester and a rat, and I know a lot of people. And after that, you're gonna wish you listened to me, 'cause your shitty pool hall crime syndicate radio network is gonna get sued, and your doped-up reporters are gonna get sent back to doing weather in Arkansas, and this fuckin' retard right here is gonna be testifying against you for a reduced sentence, while you're gettin' cornholed in your cell by a gang of crackers. 'Cause from what I've heard, the guys that get sent up Concord for raping kids, life's a motherfucker.
Posted by CJS at 9:15 AM
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Dunno why, but some days you can just feel that the catching-up is actually working, and that you are, at least in comparison to past days, if not ahead, then at least much less far behind.
For me, this semester the MWF days tend to be "get shit done" days--days when, because there is no in-the-classroom obligation, I can do a lot of all the other stuff that we're supposed to make happen once we hit tenure: committee work, running-the-division work (today brought the monthly division meeting, among others), brainstorming-with-colleagues-in-other-divisions work, and perhaps most intensively but also most rewardingly, the one-on-one meetings with students who are in one or another part of the writing stage: independent studies, Master's theses, and doctoral dissertations.
I've blogged extensively about writing and editing, and the fact that I myself learned to write by (a) reading great writing, of many sorts, virtually since toddlerhood, which was simply the luck of the family-culture draw: everybody in my family read voraciously; and (b) being critiqued by great editors: I was fortunate to hit Indiana University when there were at least a half-dozen fantastic writing coaches on the staff of various departments who saw some value in the work I was stumbling to articulate--and who could provide some solace and protection against the dysfunctional assholes who just wanted me to go away, because the work I wanted to do was evidently, for them, so fundamental a threat to what they believed musicology should be.
So I kind of saw it all: people mired in the past and in their own Ivory Tower privilege to define (impose) the terms of the discipline, versus people rooted in the past but who had the brains, guts, imagination, and pure-D simple human empathy to understand that the mark of a living intellectual tradition is that it can change, and admit of new paradigms. Peter Burkholder, Austin Caswell, Jeff Magee, Tom Mathiesen, George Buelow, Dick Bauman--these were people who were profoundly important and empowering in my life.
The least I can do is pass it on.
That means taking the time, concentration and effort--and manifesting the non-domineering mentoring and guidance--to help young scholars and writers get better at what they do. That means lots of attention to detail, style, and clarity; to organization and precise articulation; to methodology, analysis, and philosophical perspective. It means marking-up drafts with maybe 20 extended comments (thank the Universe for MS Word's "comment" function, as I can type about six times fast as I can write, though still slower than I can speak) per page; it means prefacing every editing session with the disclaimer "Now, look. I'm a very heavy-handed editor. Don't let all the red type freak you out--you can adopt, adapt, employ, ignore, or contest any or every one of these comments." And then adding the dictum, "But I really insist that you articulate a response, if only to yourself, to each of these."
And then it also means taking the time, one-on-one in the office, to sit with these developing authors and work through the prose, page after page. In doing contract writing, and journal articles, and book drafts, I've usually worked with editors at a distance, in which situation really the only practical way of receiving feedback is the medium of those marked-up pages. And that is a cold and (potentially) brutal medium. Where possible, it's far more efficacious for a learning writer to be sitting in the room with the editor, so that the prose becomes the foundation for a conversation, Socratic or otherwise, about where and why and how the writing is working or not.
And then it also means to understand that the craft of writing, the pure day-to-day slog through the words, most of which you know even as you write them are going to have to be discarded, the sense that there is a mountain of dirt to move and you're only shifting a few shovels a day, is an almost insurmountable burden. Particularly if, as a scholarly (as opposed to "creative") writer, you're not even going to get the same kind of ego-gratification as the novelists and poets and memoirists. As a matter of fact, as a musicological writer you're trying to create the clearest, most generous, most articulate, and most transparent prose you can, so that the beauty of the musical phenomena you're describing can come through. You have to be pretty damned generous, and pretty damned dedicated, and pretty damned disciplined, and pretty damned mentally tough--for years--to write good scholarly prose. And you've got to be sufficiently thick-skinned to take 20 editorial corrections (or more) per page. Meeting after meeting after meeting.
So it also means a hell of a lot of dedication: from the writer but also for the mentoring editor. It means recognizing the potentially fraught level of commitment a scholarly writer has to maintain, draft after draft and month after month and year. So the editor damned better keep in mind how hard it is to be edited, and how much an author cares about trying to convey, with beauty, the truth of what s/he is seeing. It helps if you as the editor remember how hard it is to be the writer.
So: one editorial/feedback session, by phone, 8am. Another at 10. Another at 1pm; and 2pm; and 3pm.
Pretty hard work. But pretty rewarding, too.
Makes you feel you're making a positive difference. Maybe even helping people
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Another day with almost no time left free for the blog. But here's some quality bibliographic data, anyway:
The discipline of performance studies, which takes off from linguistics, anthropology, drama theory, kinesics, and folklore, has been a hugely valuable influence on my own thinking about the analysis of music, both as scholar and as performer. I had the great good fortune to have my first ever folklore training by a 7000-level course in performance studies, taught by my mentor (and Outside Reader) Dick Bauman, one of the giants in the field--it helped, of course, that he was a musician himself, and a no-bullshit guy trained in Texas.
It was an absolute revelation: the recognition that there was an entire discipline dedicated to the analysis of performance, to the kinds of layered understandings--they called them "intertextualities"--which I had intuited as a musician since I was 11 years old. Ever since that time, and maybe before, I had been watching musicians who were absolute virtuosos, not only at the technical mechanics of music, but also the expressive palettes and symbolic choices that made one performance transcendent and another distant. I had learned, intuitively and inarticulately, that of course the time of day of the performance mattered; of course the makeup of the audience, and their response or lack thereof; of course the specific texts mattered, but of course so did the way you played (or played with) them; if course how you stood, dressed, or gestured mattered. I didn't know why these things mattered, or how to understand the procedural and perceptual models upon which they were based, or how to articulate the reasons for the seemingly-arbitrary but nevertheless powerfully-expressive choices great performers made on stage, but I knew, instinctively, that this was where the heart of truly great performances lay. I knew that Miles Davis, Fela Kuti, Big Bill Broonzy, Frank Zappa, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Charles Ives, Kate Bush (performances or compositions-about-performance by all of whom were subjected to detailed analyses in my dissertation) were doing something powerfully magnetic and psychologically moving, beyond and addition to the notes, and that this was why these performances were so riveting.
Dick Bauman, and the discipline of performance studies as he taught, gave me the tools. I knew, from Day 01 in that 7000 "Introduction to Performance Studies" seminar--largely populated by folklorists; I was the only music major in the room--that this discipline was going to make sense to me, not only as a scholar but as a performer myself, and it was like the sun coming up: I realized, pretty much from that very first day, that I wasn't going to have to invent an entire methodology and analytical perspective in order to do what I wanted to do with Miles, Fela, Broonzy, FZ, Screamin' Jay, Ives, Kate; that I wasn't going to have to re-invent the wheel; that this discipline--which in 1992 had mostly been applied to theater, storytelling, ritual, and other folk performance, not to music--was going to make it possible for me to write my dissertation.
I find it enlightening, and humbling, to recognize that almost all the texts in the following note, sent to an overseas colleague who is particularly interested in tools for analyzing the interaction of music and movement, are texts I first encountered in that 1992 seminar.
Here are a few authors and sources which I have found especially useful in thinking about the expressive relationships between movement and meaning. Many of them come out of either performance studies (drama theory) and/or cultural anthropology. It may very well be that you know these authors already:Thank you, Dick Bauman. Thank you for your great teaching; you opened doors for me.
Richard Schechner, Between Theater and Anthropology. A classic text, by an avant-garde director and trained anthropologist, about how many expressive forms (including "theater", but also conversation, mime, dance, etc) take on layers of communicative meaning in the heightened perceptual spaces of performance. There are other texts by Schechner, but this is the classic explication of his theory.
Victor Turner, The Anthropology of Performance. Another very important figure in the analysis of expressive arts, and especially ritual, as communicative tools. Trained as an anthropologist, his early fieldwork was on African traditional ritual, but he became very interested in the semiotics--construction of shared meanings--which rituals of many sorts employed.
Maya Deren, a dancer not trained formally as an anthropologist, did some very valuable film/documentary work in Haiti, about how dance, music, and so forth worked together in vodun ritual to create meaning. It was released as Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti and was very influential.
Jan Mukarovsky, a theater and literary critic, was a very strong influence on Prague School linguistics, which moved beyond the simple technical analysis of texts as prose to develop a set of tools that permitted analysis of texts as sources for semiotic analysis of performance. Very influential upon my own teachers in folklore, especially Richard Bauman (see below) and Henry Glassie. The classic text (1978) is Structure, Sign, and Function: Selected Essays.
Richard Bauman, the outside Reader for my dissertation and a great hero, was a major figure in the performance-centered analysis of folk-tale and narrrative. Good examples of his approach to "intertextuality" (e.g., looking at the multiple "texts" of a folklore performance--words, inflection, gesture, facial expression, movement, etc--and how they overlap and reinforce or contradict one another) are in the classic Story, Performance, and Event: Contextual Studies of Oral Narrative.
Erving Goffman's concept of "frame analysis" (e.g., learning to interpret performances' meaning not only by analysis of their "texts"--e.g., words, music, movements, gesture--but also of the "frames" or communicative perspectives in which these texts are presented) was very influential--and very helpful for me, in thinking about performance as ritual. The classic text is The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, but the earlier Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior is shorter and well worth a read.
The journal TDR-The Drama Review has a lot of analysis using these tools and can provide good models. It is true that they are focused upon theater, but the breadth of methods and critical perspectives their authors bring to bear is very high and provides lots of ideas for analysis of other kinds of performance. I am attaching a pdf of an article I did for TDR, quite some time ago, on Miles Davis and performance semiotics--this is an early version of a later (and better) chapter in my dissertation, but the attached will give a little sense of ways I was at that time employing semiotics and performance studies in my own work.
Monday, September 14, 2009
Quick hits on the day--too long and too tired for a full post. Coming up: the final "presentation" day of the Acadian trip, thoughts on exam philosophies and practice, a source-list of performance-studies scholarship, another on Anglo-African musical scholarship.
8am: Dharmonia for routine procedure to clinic. Pay a $60 deductible and be reminded again that anybody who opposes significant health-care reform in America is saying, in essence, that the poor don't deserve to live as long or as healthy as the rich.
10am: Teach Dharmonia's Freshman section, in a class I originated and still really dig teaching. Give them 25 minutes on "African retentions" in American music (including but not limited to: a preference for polyrhythms; a preference for ensemble-style textures, even in the work of solo players; the use of call-and-response textures; instruments imitating the timbres and inflection of the voice; use of improvisation) and then ram them through another 25 minutes on pan-global approaches to teaching quite-sophisticated concepts of rhythm: West African (interlocking parts), Near Eastern (rhythmic cycles and drum syllables), North Indian (bols and tala).
11:15am: back to check on Dharmonia. Spend much of the rest of the day sitting in an uncomfortable clinic chair, thanking my stars for accessible (if slow) wireless access. Get about three different student papers or abstracts edited, do a good deal of scheduling and division-maintenance, finish prep/polish of the two lectures for tomorrow (though it's not done yet).
3:30pm: chauffeur home. Cook some food. More division-maintenance.
7pm: in to school to teach 1st iteration of 2-part "jump-start" for grad students prepping for history portion of various forms of exit exams: Master's oral, PhD and DMA written qualifying. Grad students take exit exams near the end of every semester--that means that at the beginning of every semester, there's some group of students who massively benefit from some focus upon smart study, prep, and practice techniques. It's surprising--or should be surprising--how many students get into a grad program without ever having the opportunity, inclination, or resources to actually learn how to study. I always begin these jump-start sessions with a disclaimer apologizing for any redundancy or over-simplification, but (it's my impression) that same typically occurs--mostly they're a little or a lot set back on their heels with a realization of just how much there is to learn.
8:30pm: home to check on Dharmonia, answer more emails, provide more editing and critical feedback for various local and distant friends and students. Cook some food for Dharmonia, prep some food for tomorrow (which starts at 9am and goes until 9pm).
10:30pm: finish this blog post, hoping to have conveyed the reasons for its brevity.
Saturday, September 12, 2009
Travel day yesterday, presentation day today, report-in-the-aftermath day tomorrow.
Below the jump:
Mr Man and mommy, snoozing
Off for the past three days on a guest-shot weekend, consulting for a regional neighbor's newly-endowed program and chair on a model not unlike my own. I've been doing these kinds of guest-shots for 2 or 3 years now: someone will ask me to come in and talk, out of my own experience, about some aspect or other of the expertise I've developed, over the past 25 years or so, in academics, music, pedagogy, or research. It's still the case that the majority of such trips, for me, are presenting research papers or occasionally service-oriented panels, at national or regional meetings of my principle professional organizations: the Musicology society, the Ethnomusicology society, or occasionally organizations on African-American music, Irish Studies, or pedagogy.
In such circumstances I am very fortunate in that there is usually at least a partial subvention (for travel and accommodations, anyway) coming from my own home institution, as these activities are part of the "professional profile" that academics are expected to pursue and maintain as part of their assignments and load.
I will also do travel stuff sometimes as a straight-ahead representative of our program, without a specific presentation in train, simply as part of recruiting for our program. However, neither I nor my boss likes to do this, because to quantify the value of such unspecified activity (no "paper", no "presentation", no "panel", but simply "attendance") is rather difficult as against cost of travel & accommodations. And, over and above the cost in dollars, is the cost (to me, anyway) of time. I love to travel to interesting places--though, like most adult humans and especially those 6'2" and above, I love it a lot less since the US government sold its soul to the robber barons of the airlines--but I hate to be away from my own home program.
Years ago, in conversation with a Wisconsin-based avant-garde jazz guitarist named Jack Grassel whose music I admired enormously, he said to me "Well, I'm sorry, I don't tour much--because it cuts into my practice schedule too much." At the time, as a starving jazz guitarist who was barely making ends meet teaching and playing odd-jobs, the idea of being paid a living wage to travel and play seemed idyllic, and I was stumped as to why Grassel might prefer to turn down gigs in favor of staying home and working on the chops.
As the years have gone by, and I had some years of road-work under my belt, I've come to see the point: the fact of the matter is that, in many musics, traveling does not enhance your skills or productivity, even if you're playing (or conferencing) every night you're out. In fact, traveling, and the surrender of your schedule, diet, environments, and sleep-patterns which traveling entails, is pretty much inimical to productivity. It's rewarding and stimulating, and fun to see old friends and colleagues (or to pointedly ignore the various types, who, having sabotaged you for years, now want to make friends), but the conferencing is not terribly productive.
Somewhat different from this, and more recent, are requests that come from outside the conference mechanisms, in which an outside entity wants me to come in more as a "consultant" or "outside expert." This is a source of particular satisfaction, because, as my admired older brother admitted in a blog post about himself, money is only one of the ways in which my particular personality cna be reimbursed. As the big D said, I'll put forth a helluva lot of effort on behalf of an entity that will pay attention to my feedback and value my insights. One colleague says "I'll come talk to you for free--but you gotta pay me $1000 a day to sit in airports", which I think is actually a pretty healthy attitude.
So in the past few years, I've been hauled in cross-country (and cross-Atlantic) by various programs who are actually willing to pay me some money, and--far more gratifying to a musicologist's ego--give me a platform to offer feedback about what they're doing and what they might do more/better.
It's an activity in which I am actually damned glad to have become involved only later in life--because it actually does call for some tact and diplomacy. Not so much if you should have to say critical things: most programs are well-aware of potential pitfalls in their work, and so they are actually relatively receptive to critique--often times, the critique from an "objective" outsider is necessary in order for the locals to persuade upper administration to take necessary steps.
No, the diplomacy is more essential--and more at risk--if, like me, you're an academic with a lot of opinions, who spends a lot of time holding-forth to young people with relatively under-developed critical equipment, in situations where you have all the communicative power and they have very little.
This can often lead to hubris. Most academics have the affliction, because their verbal platform is (can be) so wide-ranging, and because there is (can be) so little accountability. College professors can say some outrageously dumbassed or self-loving things and very often escape any critique, much less consequence.
And so of course if you want to be a competent pedagogue, much less a decent human being capable of an open and equitable conversation, you learn to keep a guard on your tongue, to think hard about not only "what you meant" but also "what they heard", and to find ways of articulating both pleasant and difficult truths in constructive and empathetic ways. These are of course some of the most essentials skills for a competent administrator, and the fact that many, many academic administrators are so goddamned bad at the job (and so insufferably unaware of that incompetence) is because a background as a hubristic professor does not necessarily breed tact and measured speech.
Or it sure hasn't in me. But--and especially in the last few years under the tutelage of my current boss--I have continued to regard myself as an improving student of effective and appropriate systemic communication. And that practice and attention in turn has led me to a better, and I think more apposite, set of skills for approaching these guest shots. Often times I'm brought in (as "External Examiner", or "Outside Reader", or "guest panelist", or even, baldly, "consultant") without an entirely clear directive about what the hosts expect /require from me--sometimes that's because they don't know themselves, and are bringing me in for precisely that kind of advice. So, in addition to tact on-site, I have to exert some analysis in advance, to drive to divine what I think might be the stuff I can bring them.
So to Friday's gig: small music program, in a part of the Deep South very rich in local indigenous cultures, but with what I suspect might be a prior disconnect (and resulting distrust/miscommunication) between campus and local community, and now sitting on a substantial endowment for a professorship that might begin to specifically bridge those gaps. They found me on the Web, and have essentially concluded that they want to do there what I've done here.
The irony, of course, is that I need to go into these situation, to help them articulate and advertise for the skill-set, personality, track record, and candidate, who can accomplish something analogous to what I've done, without sounding like I'm saying, as Peter Burkholder once joked to all of us, "how to Be Like Me." Which should be a salutary and interesting exercise.
Allons a Lafayette. Acadia, here we come.
Wednesday, September 09, 2009
Taking over from a post over at Dean Dad, in which DD comments upon the lack of accountability which post-tenured faculty tend to get away with:
Your points about the pitfalls and problems of the system are, as always, well-taken. And, as somebody who's now a tenured beneficiary of the system, I would still agree with you that its structure is archaic and its potential for abuse by lazy senior faculty substantial.
However, leaving aside (what I believe to be) the unlikelihood of fundamentally dismantling the system, I'd put forth that it is possible to bring some pressure to bear on the non-performing seniors. In the current system, however, that pressure does not, as you've said, result from the implicit or explicit threat of termination.
On the contrary, the pressure can from administration come via the withholding of indulgences, resources, or enablements. I have observed expert administrators finding ways to reward those who, like TR, carry more than their equal share of the service burden: travel money, the go-ahead on pet initiatives, attention from and the ear of the boss; while tacitly withholding (or, let's say, "declining to commit the resources") to those who aren't pulling their weight.
This usually means that the administrator has to put up with a lot of self-entitled whining from the non-performing seniors: such folks seem to be remarkably unselfconscious about complaining when something is withheld, even if they are remarkably unresponsive to appeals to their work ethic. But if the administrator is willing to be a bit thick-skinned about sitting through the whining, s/he can still send the (mandatorily unstated) message "if you don't perform, you don't get the resources/indulgences/initiatives".
My observation and experience as an over-performing research/teaching/service contributor suggests that people like me are often willing to carry the extra weight, if we receive the extra resources/indulgences/initiatives. In fact, some of us figure out that, in the context of an academic administration in which there will inevitably be under-performing members, a little bit of extra work can grant extra power within the organization, even if you're junior to the non-performers.
As you say: you'd never even get out of HR if you tried to fire the non-performers. But you can isolate their infectiously bad attitudes, you can reward those who work harder, and you can actually bring a good deal of peer pressure to bear. In some jobs I've had, I've observed some (by no means all) under-performers, when they look around and observe a harder-working junior being rewarded, up their productivity, because not all bad or lazy behavior is ineradicable.
And, in the worst-case scenario, if the under-performers refuse to change, by rewarding the harder workers with resources/indulgences/initiatives, you as administrator are sending the clear, but legal implicit message, "hard workers get rewarded; under-performers become isolated."
That can't be a bad thing--even if it's not the ideal solution.
A commentator over at DD suggested that "the martyrs just need to stop permitting themselves to be martyred", which I think reflects a hopelessly simplistic, and not particularly incisive, understanding of what's happening. Mostly the "martyrs", as she put it, are in the position of taking on too much work because they don't feel safe, or perhaps diplomatically-equipped, to decline. And, another significant percentage of those folks--hardly "martyrs"--take on the extra work, not because they feel intimidated into accepting, but simply because they can't stand to have the work either (a) not happen or (b) happen poorly. Some of us take on extra work because we think it's work that is worth doing well. Of course, this is heavily impacted by one's own sense of the institutional culture in which one works--if you see your oboss working harder, and smarter, than anybody else, then the motivation to work harder and smarter yourself is vastly enhanced.
As I have said to my graduate students on the job market, and mentored junior colleagues just-hired: one of the best avenues to security and clout in a new job is to work about 5% harder and behave about 5% nicer than the local norm. It's not productive or wise to work FAR harder, as this can lead to either (a) alienation from colleagues who are put off or intimidated by an overachiever, or (b) to winding up in just the "martyrdom" position that Susan described.
But working a little bit harder, and being a little bit more graceful, than the local norm does a bunch of things, all positive:
- it tends to confer the additional clout, and access to resources, that I've described above;
- it tends to make one stand out positively against one's colleagues, because the normative reaction amongst academics to service duties is to either whine, resist, or under-perform;
- it tends to confer a good sense of how the organization works, and which parts work well; and, as you perform a *little* better and act a *little* nicer, it tends to make a smart administrator select you for the more interesting, challenging, and hence rewarding service duties.
Tuesday, September 08, 2009
Monday, September 07, 2009
Lotsa stuff happening very very swiftly all up in this joint.
We're 1 week and 2 days into the Fall semester, and have now been through one full rotation-and-change of the weekly calendar. Also, atypically, we had a week-and-a-half of classes preceding Labor Day (early start to semester this year) instead of just 2 days, so it was much more possible to get the kids back into "Holy crap, we're back in school!" mode than in the more typical 2-day jump start. Overall, this year's calendar is vastly to be preferred, as there's far less mental fog and thus much greater pedagogical efficiency.
In the interests of catching up with "In the trenches" posts I owe the blog, here's a bit about how each day shook down:
On Tuesday (Day 04 "In the trenches"), I was feeling pretty excited and encouraged about the way that the new-regime staff assignments might chunk-out everybody's time home. So far, so good: haven't heard of any crises from the staff, everybody seems to have the tools they need, everybody seems to know what they're doing. 'Course, there's still lots of time for i to fall to pieces, but the systems seem to be sound.
Wednesday (Day 05) brought another "service & research" day--though at the beginning of the semester, those days are still definitely skewed more toward the "service" end of the spectrum. Haven't been able to do much on the minstrelsy manuscript since Day 01. So Wednesday was: checking on assignments, especially checking-in with instructors-of-record and grad assistants, many of them new in their respective assignments, to make sure they had what they needed.
Also started locking-in my own weekly MWF calendar of meetings, appointments, private lessons, thesis consultations. I teach almost nothing in the way of private lessons--though I did it for years, my own honest perspective is that, with the exception of the (very) occasional student who needs studio-style teaching from me that can't be got elsewhere in the region, it's not the best or most efficient use of my time. There was a period, for example, after the retirement of our long-tenured guitar professor, when I took over teaching just the couple of jazz/plectrum guitarists then in the program, as the person then on-faculty with the most immediately-relevant (Master's in Jazz Guitar performance) qualification. And I still teach (really, "coach") the several MUBA students (fiddle, flute, percussion, etc) for whom there isn't another local vernacular teacher.
This is not an optimum situation, mind you: I would much rather that my fiddlers, flute-players, percussionists, etc should have a weekly lesson with an expert in that instrument and idiom, but we're a helluva long way out up here on the South Plains, and so it's not always possible to access such teachers. We do the best that we can, by sending kids out to more occasional and more distant one-off lessons, by encouraging them to take advantage of summer workshops and weekends and the like, by coaching them as we can (I can't play the fiddle, but I know what Irish and old-time fiddle are supposed to sound like, and am starting to have a pretty good sense, as a non-player, of the mechanics necessary to make those sounds), and, especially, by seeking to facilitate occasional visits by expert players.
Usually, we'll try to build these around some kind of concert event, so as to maximize the bang for the buck: try to locate somebody who's on the road from hither to yon and can build in a mid-week gas-and-lodgings gig (we don't have enough of a budget to be a destination for most artists), and make sure that person gives us a master-class, a classroom visit, the concert, and, if we can scare 'em up, lessons to fill in the cracks. With the visiting artists we seek out, their willingness to be bunked-in with hosts (we always feed, sleep and booze-up our artists very generously), and their generosity and "buy-in" to the VMC's mission, we can put such artists in front of an awful lot of kids in an awful lot of complementary contexts in the course of a "VMC weekend."
Still means there are a few kids per semester who really need the weekly coaching, and so those times in my own schedule--which are at a premium, because it's not my principle job to teach lessons--tend to go to kids who are finishing up, and need to take advantage while they're still here.
Thursday (Day 06) is, as with Tuesday on the TR schedule in this fall semester, another heavy teaching day: "Topics in Ethnomusicology" (history, philosophy, methods of the discipline; readings and discussion on sample ethnographies; fieldwork projects from seminar members; probably the most intellectually-demanding course I regularly teach) followed by "20th century music" (more-or-less a period seminar in the "long Twentieth Century", but really more a cultural history of modernism in Euro-American art forms; text is Glenn Watkins's genius Soundings).
Each of these 80-minute meetings has, built into the schedule, at least a 60-minute followup block, during which I will turn the class slideshow (text, images, audio, video, links to online scores and listening files through our library's subscriptions) into flash files & upload to course website; I will also typically upload the prompts ("Discussion Questions" or "Reading Notes") for the next assigned readings, whether in the textbook or via JSTOR pdf's, and will always write a followup "further to our most recent meeting" email, which I have found is extremely useful in both tracking the course progress, but also in keeping seminar members on-task. This is a trick I learned, actually, from "good-practice" approaches to chairing meetings: distributing meeting-minutes that include action items makes it explicit that all participants have a responsibility for follow-up. So I need that 60 minutes after each seminar meeting, to complete these meeting-by-meeting followup tasks while the session is still fresh in my and their minds.
After that, on Thursday, come two or three more lessons and thesis meetings. As I've said, I don't do much in the way of one-on-one private lesson teaching, as it's typically not the best use of my time or (narrow) skill-set. But I do spend a very substantial chunk of time, as would be expected of a Ph.D. in the Graduate School faculty, supervising Master's theses and Ph.D. dissertations in Musicology and Ethnomusicology.
And I'm not bitching about this. I spent a lot of years--too many years--writing a damn dissertation and earning a damn Ph.D. not to be supervising theses and dissertations. And I was trained in writing and historical/analytical thinking by giants on the earth, whom I thank once again. And I believe in the value of that kind of thinking and writing, particularly when--as I've said elsewhere--it accomplishes the subtle task of being both rigorous scholarship (and thus credible to the field specialists) and also engaging advocacy--and thus accessible to and valued by the general population.
There are two ways I learned to write, and to write well enough to be able to teach others:
(1) I had the good fortune read an awful lot of very good writing, from a very early age. Everybody in my family was a reader, and we all read voraciously, in every genre. It's like listening to great musicians: you read enough great writing that has spoken across time periods and audiences, and, if it rubs off no other way, you'll simply flat remember how and why that writing worked.
(2) Concomitant to that, and at least as important, I was edited over and over and over and over again, by absolutely masterful prose stylists, Peter Burkholder and George Buelow chief among them. They wrote so beautifully, and read so closely, that they understood and had years of practice at articulating why a given passage did, or didn't, or could be made to work. That's where, and how, I learned to teach writing, and where I garnered what skills I have at that pedagogy.
The issue here, though, is that you can't substitute for item (1): you simply have to read a absolute metric ton of good writing, and that's very time-consuming--usually we're talking decades of reading. And item (2) is, almost inevitably and I don't know a way around this, massively time-consuming: the student simply has to write a lot of raw prose and the teacher simply has to spend a lot of time reading it--and not just reading but writing comments upon--that prose.
This takes a lot of time. You can read prose quickly, and form responses and feedback to that prose almost as quickly as you read it, but in order to get that feedback into a form that is constructive for the student to hear, you simply have to capture it. I have experimented for a while with providing comments upon undergraduate drafts (not final versions) via spoken-word audio file; initially, I was very hesitant, as I wondered if the students would have trouble processing feedback in audio versus textual form (I sure would). However, their own comments, and empirical evidence, suggests that this works pretty well.
But final drafts, and more sophisticated writing, just seem to require a visual, text-based form. You just have to write those damned comments (thank God, for those who don't remember the old "marginalia and red pens" days, for word-processors' "commenting" function), and then you have to sit the student down, and talk through those comments, the considerations that go into them, and the fixes that are perhaps possible. I still think that the direct, person-to-person, detailed-specific, line-by-line-by-line edits are an unavoidable and absolutely essential part of how people learn to do scholarly writing.
And it takes time. I may teach smaller numbers of students, or fewer preps, but I am damned sure spending the same amount of time in "teaching." It's very, very labor-intensive--most principally, of course, for the candidates, who can very understandably feel that the process will never end--but also for the supervisor. It can take *years* and it's a damned grind for everybody.
End of this day brings the weekly "Musicology Happy Hour". Most all of our divisions try to have some kind of weekly get-together, informally to hash through departmental and divisional decisions that are more quickly and efficiently dealt with via multi-channel face-to-face conversation than by email. Our theory brothers and sisters at Tech have a weekly Friday lunch at a local Indian restaurant--not least because none of them have to teach on a Friday afternoon, and so their weekend can begin Friday right after lunch.
For us, though, because our teaching schedules overlap and conflict too much, a Thursday at 5pm (when most of the performance studios have a mandatory studio class, and so few students or performance faculty are around) is better. We meet in the back room of a cocktail bar across the street, and over the past few years that single 1-hour gathering, when folks are mostly en route from the school on home, or to wherever their Thursday evening will be taking them, is actually pretty productive: it's a chance to unwind at the shag end of the work week, an opportunity for us to share ideas, problems, and solutions (especially with pedagogy), and to bring to one another's attention tools and resources we all might benefit from employing.
Thus to this: the conversation at the happy hour this week was mostly about technology: predictable geekery about our "smartphones" (most academics don't give a shit about being able to access a camera, video-cam, or facebook from a phone, but damned sure do give same about being able to access email or the desktop computer via phone--if only to be able to check references and clear the inbox of late-breaking items). But, more saliently to the stated purposes of the Happy Hour, a chance to talk about using Web 2.0 (RSS feeds, Google calendar, and the wiki) for filtering the torrent of information we nowadays deal with. The fact that, as I've said, I have the Fridays free, meant that next day, in response to the conversation, I could come up with this.
Which is supposed to make everyone's life easier.
Friday (Day 07) brought more student/grad-student meetings, and more writing and administering, in anticipation of a weekend that would bring a "slow" session (teaching session), a radio production (if not two), a video-podcast-editing session (where I learned that the program I'd been using for a year to edit had gone away, and that it was going to be necessary to learn the industry-standard Adobe Premiere--thank the Universe for computer-expert ensemble members), a Celtic Ensemble rehearsal (and the soda bread and "proper Irish tea" that plugs enough calories, caffeine and sugar into the mix to keep 'em going), some office rearrangement (got to find desk-space for the Administrative Assistant the grant bought), and so on.
Before we head back into Week 03.
Still holding so far. And this year, maybe even gaining a little.