Music: The University Outsider

I’ve been remiss in blogging this week, but it was out of my hands. I’ve overcompensated at New Music Box – if you go there you’ll find my 17,000-word essay on political music, Making Marx in the Music. But that was mostly written in August. I wish I could say I’ve been caught up in some wild project that I’ll soon tell you about, but truthfully, I’ve had the familiar academic experience of being up to my neck in committee work. I’m “evaluating” my fellow but untenured professors, and find myself every day now in some new and unfamiliar world. One writes about post-Stonewall strategies for gay self-identification. Another is a leading expert on typologies of citizenship throughout the European Union. Another wrote an enlightening article about “Stereoselective oxidative addition of methyl iodide to chiral cyclometallated platinum(II) compounds derived from (R)-(+)-1-(1-naphthylethylamine).” At least I assume it enlightened someone – I can only deal with such texts by reading them for word rhythm, and imagining how they’d sound set to music.

I’m a conservatory product of the ultraliberal, no-course-requirements 1970s, and I can’t say I had a very broad education. I took almost as much philosophy as music, several dead languages, one poetry class (which, like the languages, was mainly for finding texts to compose music to), and fencing. That’s it. My last science class was in 11th grade in 1971 – I think the periodic table was up to aluminum – and from hearing too many lousy pieces of new music based on scientific models, I’ve developed a possibly unfortunate bias that science has nothing to offer art. As I walked across the stage with my doctoral diploma in 1983, postmodernism, deconstructionism, and structuralism were just getting off the boat at Ellis Island, with unsuspected plans to invade. So I’ve had a lot of opportunity this week, recalling the Thoreavian motto with which I began this blog, to “remember well my ignorance, which my growth requires.” But mostly I’ve thought, “Gee, these guys get to teach all this neat, complicated, real-life stuff, and I spend my days explaining the dominant seventh chord.”

I’m sure my colleagues have their own gripes – the chemistry prof must smack his forehead every time a sophomore forgets the valence of radium, and the poli sci prof may get tired of pointing out that Slovakia and Romania don’t share a border (or do they? and when did Slovakia get on the map?). But people expect chemistry to be difficult and dry, and are sometimes delighted when it’s more fun than they realized. Music is in the nearly unique dilemma of being a “sexy,” hip, creative, fun-sounding course of study that, when you start to examine it, turns out to be a mass of numbers and precise terms. “I feel like I need to bring a calculator to this class,” whined one freshman in Fundamentals of Music. I hear myself tell the class about a “six, five-six-of-five, five-four-two, one-six progression with a chromatic neighbor note,” and think to myself, “who invented this idiot system, anyway?” Actually, I’ve been know to say it out loud. How can something as soulfully emotional as music demand such intricate number systems? And the necessity and slowness of imparting such complicated basics prevents us from teaching music as a humanistic discipline, related to other collegiate subjects, as often as we’d like.

It would feel so collegiate to teach symphonic narratives the way lit profs do novels, and offer thematic courses with titles like “Images of ‘The Other’ in Instrumental Music from Haydn to Steve Reich.” Certainly lots of musicologists at larger institutions started doing such things in the 1980s, under pressure to keep pace with the other interpretive disciplines. But for music majors, understanding the details of, say, gamelan influence on Debussy requires some solid foundation in the theoretical basics, and the pressure we feel to turn out technically equipped young musicians leaves us with little time to reflect on what music tells the world about itself. I did have the opportunity, this morning, to let freshmen figure out, with guidance but somewhat on their own, what the correct chords are for the Beatles’ song “Yesterday,” and it did seem to elicit in some a sudden epiphany that “one, seven-seven-half-diminished, five-seven-of-six, six” packs a certain kind of emotional wallop capable of thrilling the world (and earning the number-cruncher a shitload of money). How long before all those wacky numbers recede into their subconscious where they belong? In time for graduation? In time for me to enjoy the resulting philosophical insights?

Of course, I do also get to teach pitch-set analysis of The Rite of Spring, tempo charts of Nancarrow and Stockhausen, and even (thanks to being at a highly liberal institution where faculty judgment is given free rein) a very popular course in microtonality. As my friends and I often note, it’s a lot easier to teach the advanced stuff than the basics, and twelve-tone technique isn’t nearly as mysterious or hard to convey as the more necessary dominant seventh. But in 1875, John Knowles Paine convinced Harvard to hire him as America’s first professor of music, over the objections of faculty members who protested that music wasn’t a proper area of university study. And I have had many opportunities, over the years, to reflect that Paine might have been wrong, and the protesting Harvard faculty just might have been right.

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