Saturday, August 31, 2013

Strategic versus revolutionary thinking

This is a quick hit: haven't time today to really unpack this in any kind of reasoned or polished way [And before anybody gets all het-up a la Clausewitz or Sun-Tzu: no I do not intend to oppose one to the other; that is to say, "versus" in the sense of "Strategic in contrast to revolutionary" thinking].

In conversation with a PhD advisee the other day, we were working with the idea that, in her body of historical investigation, certain individuals seem to have sought and/or found ways in which to "subvert" canonic social expectations about identity: gender markers & behavior, class markers & behavior, and so forth. These individuals are often comparatively though modestly successful at shifting the very social expectations they are subverting. Duke Ellington might be an example: though his 1920s and early '30s compositions were labeled and framed as "jungle music," because of the racist expectations of the time, and though his artistic opportunities were channeled and constrained for similar reasons, Ellington found ways to subvert the most restrictive elements of those expectations, to conduct himself in a "ducal" fashion, and to write extraordinarily original and imaginative music beneath the primitivist surface that was imposed upon that music's presentation.

Such thinking is "strategic", in the classic military sense: it is the ability to observe both available resources and unavoidable situational restrictions, to deploy those resources with maximum positive impact, and in a fashion that minimizes the negative impact of the situational restrictions. In the semiotics of art forms like politics and musical composition, these individuals tend toward recognizing and exploiting opportunities provided by existing power structures, even if the eventual intent is the subversion or dismantling of those structures. In the world of politics, the strategic impulse is captured with incredible energy in The War Room, about the Carville/Stephanopoulas experiencing running the presidential campaign of Bill Clinton. In the world of women's rights, Hillary Clinton might be an apposite related example. In the world of composition, Ellington's an example; we might cite the example of academic composers who wish to create very new sounds but experience an imperative to accommodate, "rationalize" or otherwise operate within the aesthetics of a tradition they've inherited (Second Viennese School, maybe?).

In contrast, there are those individuals (generals, political activists, composers, musicians, authors) who seem to manifest a more "revolutionary" impulse, the Hippie/Yippie/Panther "Up against the wall, motherfuckers!" of the 1960s Cultural Revolution. This "tear down the castle" impulse might be described as "revolutionary"--as intending, not just to succeed within (and perhaps subsequently modify) existing power structures, but to deny and/or dismantle their power. This revolutionary impulse tends rhetorically and tactically to reject the idea that it is even possible to work within the existing power structures without being destroyed or co-opted. In the world of politics, the aforementioned Hippies/Yippie/Panther/Weather Underground cadres might be an example. In the world of composition, the ultra-modernists like Varese or the avant-garde/"anti-academic" composers like Cage or Nancarrow might be suit.

I should emphasize that I have not worked this out in any detailed, consistent or cogent way. But it seems important to me, even in this preliminary form, because of the particular set of factors which seem to me to link parallel cases of "strategic versus revolutionary thinking" in politics and in composition.

It has to do with class and privilege. If you are a political person or a composer, whose background, lineage, inheritance, or economic class admit to you at least the hypothetical possibility of success within (perhaps a modification of) the system, then you are likely to follow that path toward success: it is easier, it is subtler, it is infinitely less dangerous, and it provides at least the possibility of significant reward within the system. But if your background, lineage, inheritance, or economic class (or a combination therefore) seem inescapably to deny you that hypothetical possibility of success within the system, why would you even wish to preserve it? What wouldn't you wish to tear it down?

This may explain why, at least in the world of composition, "strategic" thinkers tend to come from within relatively privileged middle-class-or-above backgrounds: these admit of at least the hypothetical possibility of success within the power structure. Revolutionary thinkers, at least in the world of composition, tend to be individuals who don't see the hypothetical possibility of success.

Of course personality and individual priorities come into this. Of course there are many exceptions. Of course "revolutionaries", not infrequently, come from the privileged (or at least well-read) bourgeois. But if I'm right, and the individuals who think and succeed strategically within the system tend to come from one matrix of relatively privileged circumstances, and those who seek the destruction of the system from outside those worlds of privilege, it might provide a tool for linking class, politics, gender, education, ethnicity, immigrant/native identity, to the kinds of artistic choices composers take. It might also explain why composers tend to be revolutionaries when they are young (unprivileged, outside the existing artistic power structures, with little positive investment in those structures) and to tend toward conservatism as they age and if they succeed.


Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Dream

Crew of roofers arrived before light (around 6:45am) this morning, still working at 5pm. Last night they worked until 8:15, when it was too dark to use the nail gun. The real "fathers" (and mothers) of this country were not the planters and aristocrats. It was working-class men and women, mostly from elsewhere, who built this country, fought its wars, and still fight everyday to realize the dream. On the 50th anniversary + one: "Tell 'em about your dream, Martin."

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

"My parallel universe"

I've joked in the past on this space about how, to whatever extent and in whatever situations I can, I like to use the art forms I know and the skills I've developed over 40+ years to create "my parallel universe"--a place in which participation, community, generosity, the integration of right thinking and right livelihood (two spokes of the Eightfold Path), and creativity can not only exist but flourish. As the great music educator Christopher Small said, "for the duration of their improvised performances, musicians in the traditions bring into being, for that duration, the ideal universe in which they wish to exist." It's a place where no animals suffer, where all are welcome, where the afflicted are comforted and the excessively-comfortable are afflicted, and in which--not least significantly--"the poets drink for free."

The other night, at the end of what will be the first inaugural VMC barn-dance, at the local Yoga studio and coffee shop, the self-described "redneck Rasta" owner, whose day job is as an addictions counselor and suicide-hotline supervisor, said "well, I'm just an energy pimp. And a tavern keeper." I laughed and said "yeah, in my parallel universe." But as I thought about it, I realized it's a pretty profound, cut-to-the-chase definition of what we artists and teaching artists do: we raise the energy, invoke the loas, inspire the divine, channel the creative spirit, re-knit the ravelled sleeve of community. There's a reason that blacksmiths are regarded as sorcerers in West Africa, poets as magicians in the West of Ireland, shamans and healers and writers and preachers throughout the 40,000 years of vernacular culture. There's a reason religious fundamentalists and oligarchic dictators hate us, and repress us, and tear out our tongues and cut off our hands and call us wastrels and "takers".

They fear what we make, and do, and create, and teach. And how we remind our communities of the infinite capacity of sentient beings for transcendence.

They fear us.

They should.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Fall 2013, Texas Tech University Musicology

Here's where we're at:

Upper level seminars:

  • Latino Musics of the Southwest []: TR 11-12:20 SOM:209
  • Musics of the Romantic Period []: TR 9:30-10:50 SOM:209
  • Ethnomusicology []: TR 9:30-10:50 SOM:218
  • Mozart []: TR 12:30-1:50 SOM:209
  • Twentieth Century []: TR 12:30-1:50 SOM:123
  • Renaissance []: TR 2-3:20 SOM:209
  • Grad Music History []: 3:30-4:50 SOM:209

VMC Ensembles

  • Early Music []/a>
  • Balkian []
  • Tzumba World Music []
  • Mbira Group []
  • Celtic []
  • Mariachi Ensembles []

Damned proud of my guys. Damned proud of the mission and the execution.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Informed consent clause for syllabi

Further to a discussion comment over on you want this, or something like it, at the end of your official syllabus.

Informed Consent

I have read and understood the contents of the syllabus for this course and agree to abide by the rules, guidelines, and schedule contained within it. In particular, I understand that:

  • Dr X also agrees to abide by the rules, guidelines, and schedule in the syllabus.
  • I will consult the syllabus if I have a question about the course rules, guidelines, and schedule.
  • Dr. X cannot make special exceptions for me without being unfair to everyone else taking this course.
I understand that my continued enrollment in the course will be taken as indicating my consent to these conditions.

If you are the instructor of record for a room full of 21st century college students, trust me: you want this in your syllabus. Scarred experience talking here.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Day T-minus-13 "In the Trenches" (Round V)

The origin of this series can be found here. At the time I undertook round I of the series (2006 maybe?), it was a way for me to track and share insights generated from a near-tenure associate professor experience. Mostly about the day-to-day of teaching, plus some service, and very much focused on trying to understand and articulate what goes on with undergraduate Fine Arts students, the better to teach to them.
At this point--another promotion-year--it seems it might be useful revisit the day-to-day from the post-tenure perspective, and try to articulate and share the insights of how that stage is different. Primary goal, kind of like the "Good Peasant Food" series--is to capture useful information and stick it in a format that is accessible and helpful to others.
Summer graduation this past weekend. For about the next 8 days, my near-campus neighborhood will be quiet and pleasant; ambient noise from the 8-lane "residential" streets a few blocks away will die down; parking on campus will be easy (though I'll still take the bike--it was only when I got back on the bicycle that I realized just how much I actually hate being in a car); library will be quiet and shelving-order will be in good shape; lot of support staff will be on their much-needed vacations; and everybody will essentially take a few deep breaths before it all starts again.
Tomorrow: the pre-semester "badass warning letter", and CJS as motivational speaker--which is kinda like Chris Farley as "The World's Worst Motivational Speaker", or a dancing bear wearing a funny little fez.

In the headphones: Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's "Allah Hooh."
Asalaaam aleikum.

Friday, August 09, 2013

S'pose we could start with revisiting these:

Signs of life

As a result of some very welcome nudzing and a few kind words, am going to see if I cain't find and deploy the energy to re-open the blog for business. Big ups to my brethren Phil & Jon at the great Dial M for Musicology blog, for showing the way.
  • The Creolization of American Culture (tumblr) (facebook) (UIP)
  • Dancing at the Crossroads (tumblr) (facebook) (URL)
  • TTU Vernacular Music Center (URL) Texas Tech University Musicology (URL)
  • TTU Celtic Ensemble) (URL)
It'll be good to be back, I think.