What Teaching Music History Is Like in Heaven

Awhile back I wrote about my project to put all of the CDs I use for teaching on an external hard drive, and the subject seemed to generate some mild interest among music blogospheroids. I continue apace: I now have just over 4000 mp3s, some 20 days’ worth of music, occupying 33 gigs of a 250-gig hard drive. But I also just received a new G5 desktop for my office at Bard, with a 75-gb capacity. And since I hardly use my office computer, doing most of my business on my laptop, I decided to transfer all of those mp3s to my G5 as well, and keep the hard drive at home. That way I don’t have to load mp3s onto a computer to play them, and don’t have to delete them for space afterward – I just click and the music plays. It’s hooked up to my office stereo, which is an excellent one that was donated to us, and one I’m keeping until we have another use for it.

I can report a revolutionary impact on my teaching habits. A couple of weeks ago a student came in trying to write a piece in jazz style for orchestra. I said, “Well, there are some models for that kind of thing, like Darius Milhaud’s Creation of the World.” I clicked on La Creation du Monde and it played. “And there’s also Bohuslav Martinu’s Le Jazz.” Clicked on it, and it played. “But if you want something more authentic, you might try William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony” – clicked on it, let it play a couple of minutes – “or, better yet, James P. Johnson’s Harlem Symphony” – click, and it played. It’s like I think of a piece and it appears – no searching through shelves of CDs, no trips to the library, no promising to bring that disc tomorrow. I only wish I had my scores as PDFs, because those I still have to search for. A student came in expressing an interest in environmental sound, so I clicked on Luc Ferarri’s Presque Rien No. 1, which led to talk about musique concrète, so I played Varèse’s Poème Electronique. [Note to self: rip some more musique concrète examples.] He also needed some guidance setting a text in English, so I grabbed a blank CDR and burned him some scenes from Virgil Thomson’s operas.

A piece rarely comes to mind that I don’t have on that computer, and I’m astonished at the variety I’ve gotten in 4000 mp3s: the complete secular works of Dufay and Ockeghem, some Scots ballads sung by Ewan MacColl, some Residents albums, Ornette’s Free Jazz, most of the Haydn symphonies and masses, the complete works of Claude Vivier and Mikel Rouse, the Field Nocturnes and the available Dussek sonatas, quite a bit of Indian classical music, all of Harry Partch, Schwitters’s Ur-Sonate, all the major Stravinsky except Rake’s Progress, the complete Well-Tuned Piano, all of Charlemagne Palestine’s discs, the complete songs of Ives, all the orchestra works I teach in my 20th-century repertoire class for conductors, Papago Indian songs, several discs of quarter-tone music by Wyschnegradsky, the complete Brahms piano music, every known scrap of Satie, all my own works, and tons of new music. The main area underrepresented is opera, because I hate to have to upload 45 different mp3s to have Die Gotterdammerung. Somehow I’ve got to have the complete Wagner on there. And I still worry that mp3s aren’t faithful enough to represent the acoustically subtle music of Phill Niblock and Eliane Radigue well. Still, now all I need is a similar setup in every classroom, and teaching music will become a much more vivid experience. I understand there are some copyright problems with this, and I’m afraid we’ll have to end up subscribing to some academic library system that won’t be nearly as diverse as my own collection. Too bad, because we’re getting so close to what teaching music would be like in heaven.

I even thought of offering a class in which I set iTunes on random shuffle and talk about whatever comes up. That’s a little too Cagean, I guess: I’d end up giving long, long disquisitions on Young and Palestine, and cramming everything I know about Satie into 90 seconds.