Why are good teachers strange, uncool, offbeat?
Because really good teaching is not about seeing the world the way that everyone else does. Teaching is about being what people are now prone to call counterintuitive, but to the teacher simply means being honest.
– Mark Edmundson, Why Teach?: In Defense of a Real Education, p. 181
At the request of my department chair – and he so rarely asks me for anything, I could hardly have turned him down – I am teaching a 20th-century music history survey course, or rather, music since 1910. I’ve been dreading it, and my fears are so far confirmed. First of all, I have long been convinced that you can’t do the entire 20th century in a survey course. To me, third-semester music history should be 1900-1960, and the fourth semester should take over after that. Not only is there way too much material, there’s no unifying idea to the first and second halves of the century. The year 1976 seems to remain a popular stopping point for many professors and textbooks, and I wonder if anyone (besides me) has ever taught a 20th-century class in which the last three decades got as much attention as the first three.
Secondly, while it’s always easy to know where to start, and has always been tricky knowing where to end, these days ending is impossible. Forty years ago, when I took this course at Oberlin, you could begin with Stravinsky and Schoenberg and work your way up, decade by decade, through the various movements and major figures. It was assumed that the language of music was evolving, and that that evolution could be traced, with a few detours and parallel streams. But of course, now we know what happens: past 1970 the idea of a mainstream evaporates, and – as musicologist Leonard Meyer so shrewdly predicted – we entered a kind of stasis in which many, many styles compete and continue. Everything is permissible; a million things have been done, anything we can imagine will be done eventually, and many things that had been done get done all over again. I suppose if you’re a hard-core traditionalist it’s easier to draw your boundaries, but the Downtown music I like to focus on blends into jazz and pop around the edges. I have to argue with students for the right to teach Laurie Anderson, Pamela Z, and Mikel Rouse as postclassical music. Just deciding what music to include within the definitions of the course requires a whole separate section on the philosophy of music.
And I am finding that the philosophical difficulties extend into the past retroactively. I know perfectly well what I’m supposed to teach, and in fact, I am quite lucky in my mandated choice of textbook: the new Taruskin/Gibbs Oxford History of Western Music. The book itself has revisionist leanings and casts its own sly suspicions on orthodox pedagogy, and so is more in sync with me than any other textbook I could use. The best thing I can say about it is that its pronouncements never make me wince, which I consider high praise in this context. We use it for the entire music history sequence because its quality is so high; the fact that Professor Gibbs is on our faculty is, of course, entirely coincidental (as is the fact that I am heavily quoted in the final chapter).
But given the sequence of the textbook, I have to start out with Schoenberg, and for me, to start with Schoenberg already puts everything on the wrong track. (If this offends you, read further at your own risk, because it’s only downhill from here.) The assumption of Schoenberg’s importance, given the continuing unpopularity of his music, is founded on the further assumption that what we’re teaching is the evolution of the musical language. In fact, the very title of our music history sequence, The Literature and Language of Music (“lit’n’lang” in departmental parlance, reminding me of “live ‘n’ learn”) presupposes that there is a language of music evolving through its canonical examples. If you want to trace a certain absolutist attitude toward atonality, and the development of the 12-tone row as a technical device, Schoenberg is of course essential to the sequence of events. But does his music, therefore, deserve pride of place in the literature?
I consider it the most important thing I can teach my students, assuming I ever succeed in getting it across, that a lot of music that seems nonsensical or off-putting at first is well worth putting the effort into assimilating. Nothing irks me more than the reflexive resistance they put up against music they don’t “like” on first listening. When I was their age, any piece I didn’t understand represented a challenge, a gauntlet thrown down to my musical intelligence. There was not going to be any piece I couldn’t fathom. (Many fine “conservative” pieces I could superficially comprehend, I now realize I dismissed rather too easily.) And yet, there is now tons and tons of difficult, complicated, obscure music, and after 45 years of deciphering it I am aware that not all of it eventually repays the effort. I was determined to master the intricacies of the Concord Sonata, Le Sacre du Printemps, Pli selon pli, Turangalila, Mantra, Philomel, and I love them all, I’m devoted to them, thrilled to introduce students to them. Other works that I committed many, many listening and analytical hours to – almost all of Schoenberg, everything by Berg except Wozzeck, all but a few pieces of Elliott Carter – simply bore me today. I know that Op. 31 Orchestra Variations and that damn “Es ist genug” violin concerto inside and out, but they strike me as awkward and pedantic. I listen to them with acute understanding of how they’re made, but never admiringly. A lot of that music I feel I was brainwashed into taking very seriously, and the effects of my youthful brainwashing are largely worn off.
So, of the music I cannot honestly advocate to students on account of what I perceive as its inherent virtues, by what criterion do I urge it on them? If historical importance is the guideline, then one needs to climb the ladder of influences, but it turns out that that ladder frays into a maze at the top. And actually, looking back from 1970, any sense of a mainstream had pretty much died as soon as neoclassicism was pitted against dodecaphony. The moment Scriabin, Ives, Stravinsky, Varése all separately agreed to use sonorities never heard in music before, everything really became permissible instantly – it just took a few generations to realize the implications. People today still write neoclassic music, still write 12-tone music. Partch leaped into just intonation only 15 years after The Rite of Spring, seven years after the first 12-tone row, and that’s the course I’m still on. 4’33” is closer in time to Pierrot Lunaire than it is to the present. If we’ve had a hundred years of multi-subcultural stasis, how much does it really matter who did something first? My students get a much bigger kick out of Gruppen and Sinfonia than they do from Webern, and since I agree with them, why not simply detail the pedigree of the 12-tone idea as part of a discussion of serialism? Why play the first 12-tone music instead of the most rewarding?
In fact, to present 12-tone music as a major movement at all, I have to attempt to explain why certain composers considered it so crucial to have some universal new system to replace tonality. And the truth is, I don’t understand why they felt that way. I’m so much more in sympathy with what Ives wrote: “Why tonality as such should be thrown out for good, I can’t see. Why it should always be present, I can’t see.” Tonality is so widely evident in much well-regarded music of recent decades that my students and I share the same incomprehension on this point. It sounds like an episode that belongs in the book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Some people in my position would make a countercharge about minimalism, but they would have to contend with the Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt fans among my students; and minimalism never tried to corner the market. (I’m also teaching my minimalism seminar this semester, and the students in there are passionate about the subject, so well-informed that they’ve brought up more obscure pieces than I had planned to address.)
The upshot is that I can no longer teach the canon of early/mid-20th-century music, as it was taught to me, in very good faith. The only criterion I could defend, if challenged, is how much fulfillment I still get from the music today, with some scholarly lip service granted to what pieces posed an influence on the composer’s contemporaries. Certain composers who don’t get much academic attention – Milhaud, Poulenc, Tailleferre, Busoni, Wolpe, Sorabji, James P. Johnson, Vermeulen, Blomdahl, Rochberg – seem to me infinitely more appealing to present than some of the usual suspects. After all, we’ve already gone through this revisionist process for 19th-century music: if we hadn’t, we’d still have to be putting Hummel and Spohr on the listening tests. At the other end, I have only the flimsiest of rationales for teaching all the wonderful array of postclassical music I love while still excluding jazz and pop, the ultimate one being my faulty or nonexistent expertise in those latter fields. I resorted to describing the history of my idiosyncratic career as justification for my particular view of recent history, and while I’m happy for student input, I hardly want to surrender my hard-earned historical understanding to the chaos of 22 variously-informed student perspectives.
So it’s a mess, and an enforced experiment with few visible guideposts. I’m afraid I know the last hundred years of music so well that I no longer know what the history of it is.