Sunday, November 27, 2011

2012 Grawemeyer Award Winner, or, Hey look, another Violin Concerto

Greetings from the University of Louisville, or as we're known this time of year, Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition central.* I'm taking a break (ok, procrastinating) from my nearly-completed PhD applications to tell you (ok, post links I cribbed from Alex Ross) about this year's Grawemeyer Award winner, Esa-Pekka Salonen. I haven't heard the work, and I won't begin speculating wildly about what yet another award going to a Violin Concerto means (4 or 5, depending on how you split the Kurtág, out of 25), but I figured you'd want to know. Either way, new music FTW!

* No one actually calls us this.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Transcription: The Ethnomusicologist’s Greatest Tool, or The Most Over-Rated Aspect of the Field?

I have been doing a lot of thinking about transcription’s relevance to the contemporary field of ethnomusicology. My conclusion: like it or not, transcription is a necessary evil, but only in certain instances, as it is often a complete waste of time.

Before going any further, I must submit to full disclosure. I am currently taking a course in transcription methods and it is proving to be the bane of my existence. Not only does it take up an enormous amount of time, but it also is the source of unrelenting stress. To make matters worse, I am amazingly terrible at it. For reference, each week I (attempt) to transcribe musics from varying cultures and genres: British ballads, country blues, Cambodian orchestras, central African hocketing flute tunes, Bulgarian women’s choirs, etc.

Now, I don’t mean this post to be a proverbial pity party, nor do I intend it to function as an outlet for my frustration. I am truly interested in opening a dialogue regarding the necessity of a skill that takes many years of hard work to simply hone to acceptable levels.

For those of you who are not ethnomusicologists, transcription (the process of visually representing music by way of writing it in standard Western notation or by devising an alternative means of achieving the same effect) began as a way for ethnomusicologists to discuss music with people who had no means of hearing the sounds for themselves. As technology has improved and recordings have become immediately accessible, there are some in the field who feel that the practice has run its course—Nettl seems to have aligned himself with this school of thought, at least to a degree. Some, such as Seeger, have even taken a proactive approach to eliminating the need for researchers to make their own transcriptions by developing transcribing machines—now, I know someone out will say that Seeger and the like spent countless hours working on devices such as the Melograph in hopes removing the biases of the human ear, though do you honestly think that was the only motivation? And, on the other hand, there is no shortage of those who stand unwaveringly by the skill as the principle tool in the ethnomusicologist’s arsenal. So what is the answer?

Now, I have already given away my thoughts, but some explanation may be in order. Like it or not, technology is advancing so rapidly that we are capable of embedding recordings in whatever e-Book or online journal article we happen to publish; until the takeover of e-books, online guides and supplemental CDs serve the same function. Additionally, it seems that a computer program capable of accurately analyzing tones and rhythms is within grasp. Moreover, if the ethnomusicologist is well trained in analytic techniques, s/he can effectively convey her/his thoughts with words alone.

However, spending hours listening to, and tweezing-apart, a single piece of music in order to accurately transcribe it provides access to otherwise unobtainable insights. Furthermore, the inclusion of a detailed transcription alongside a published text allows others to make their own judgments and to form their own opinions about the music; to deny this chance not only adversely affects the student, but the field of knowledge as a whole.

So, what do to? Should we continue to torture pupils of ethnomusicology through the forced acquisition of a skill that serves no genuine purpose outside of some sadistic rite of passage? Or, should we continue to ensure that no ethnomusicologist is sent out in to the field without the foremost skill necessary to accurately and justly serve the music s/he is to encounter?

Friday, August 26, 2011

Rethinking My Position

Ok, here’s the deal; I was wrong. I hate to admit it, I really do, but I must be honest with myself. After watching Tuesday’s semifinal round of “America’s Got Talent,” the grandest display of amateur talent the world has ever seen, I fear I must mourn the loss of the starry-eyed idealism that I expressed in last year’s post concerning this hit TV series. For those you who may not remember (or who never read), last year's post chocked back excitement for the rise in classical music’s cultural capital—a phenomenon that I truly felt we were witnessing. In summary of the previous entry, I expressed the opinion that the competition’s continued dominance by classically trained (and more importantly competent) musicians was a sign that Americans were starting to make the long and arduous return to artistic refinement. After watching the latest round of the current season, I am left questioning the haste of my celebration. At this moment, my sentiments on the subject read more like a cantankerous old coot who scolds the neighborhood kids for “playing that god-awful racket too darn loud.” In the first draft of this post, I even went so far as to say, “I am now forced to recognize that the American masses are so blinded by the pizzazz that the talent-less hacks of today’s Top 40 continually pass off as ‘music,’ that we as a society, are truly incapable of differentiating between ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ That is to say, when something is presented to us under the guise of talent and refinement, we accept it without question.” However, in review of my words, I acknowledge that I may have been too harsh. After all, we as trained musicologists must remember that we listen deeper and more acutely than most other folks. If this were not the case, the little need there is for us would be greatly diminished. Nonetheless, I stand by my aggravation and disappointment.

My fit of exaggerated discontent was caused by the performance (and all performances prior) of Lyes Agnes, a self-proclaimed, though utterly untrained opera singer. Ms. Agnes is a favorite of both the judges and the audience, as she has strikingly beautiful personal style and a heart-warming story. Throughout the show, her talents have been praised for her ability to perform classical works—though her song on Tuesday night was a rock song with “classical” vocal stylings—with technique and poise. However, I am always left wondering if the judges and I saw the same performance. Again, recognizing my belligerent attitude, her spotty pitch, over singing, inappropriate use of ornamentation, incorrect breathing and poor posture, leave me feeling utterly unimpressed.

I do not mean to single out Ms. Agnes, or to suggest that her decidedly “unclassical” approaches are the reasons that classical music will not witness an elevation in cultural capital anytime soon. She has, though, opened my eyes (and I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing). Music, as suggested by my heroes of the Marxist School of Cultural theory, has simply been commercialized and commoditized to the point that an understanding and appreciation of true art has slipped from our collective consciousness.

With that said, there are several very good musicians still in the game, not the least of which are Daniel Joseph Baker and the band Poplyfe. The difference however, is that the aforementioned groups are not watered-down versions of classical musicians; they are powerful and talented popular music acts. And, for some reason, this sort of labeling makes a world of difference in how I perceive them.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Completion of "A Career"

From Laurel Fay's wonderful and indespensible Shostakovich: A Life:

"The final movement of the [13th] symphony, "A Career," was dated 20 July 1962, a date that... Shostakovich would commemorate for the rest of his life." (pg. 229)

In honor of the man and his music, and in the spirit of continuing the celebration (and turning this into a yearly thing), posted below is 5th movement (NB- the first video begins at the end of the 4th movement). I plan on listening to the movement and spending a moment or two reflecting on the text. As Shostakovich said, "Every morning, instead of morning prayers, I reread–well, recite from memory–two poems by Yevtushenko, "Boots" and "A Career." "Boots" is conscience. "A Career" is morality. One should not be deprived of conscience. To lose conscience is to lose everything. And conscience needs to be instilled from earliest childhood." (pg. 229)

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

New Music Feature, Part 2- James Young

It's been a while since I've posted (I'd actually forgotten the log-in, so what does that tell you?), but I thought it was worth commemorating our 15th follower! We've finally expanded to the point where I don't even know each of our followers personally, which is a new level of celebrity for me. I'd like to continue with part 2 of our new music series, featuring three piano pieces by James Young. For those of you unfamiliar with this feature, I encourage you to check out the first part, where I review a piece by Nat Evans. (I could also refer you to the two or three posts wherein I ranted about getting this feature started, but we're here, so why quibble?) 

In the interest of full disclosure, some background. James and I went to U of L together, where I was continually in awe of his intelligence, sensitivity, and musical intuition. We spent many a night ranting over the confining nature of the modern concert space, and I consider him a close friend and one of the best musical minds I've had the pleasure of working with. He's now at the super fancy Peabody Conservatory, and has just finished his first year of DMA work. I'm writing today about three piano pieces he gave me the first summer I taught in college; I thought it'd be interesting to have my students talk to a real live composer (and Boulez has like a three year waiting list). James shared his time and ideas with my students, who liked these pieces (more or less).*

The first piece, "Game," is structured on three groups of staves. Like Stockhausen's Kalvierstücke 11, the pianist can select from which grouping s/he choses to play from. In James's piece, the pianist begins with one pitch, and then selects the next fragment from the top grouping. Once the pianist plays the groups a set number of times, they move onto the second group, and so on. The fragments get progressively more complicated, but if one listens carefully, one can hear the initial pitch return like an aural anchor throughout the work. The beauty of its work lies in its nature as fragments; despite the fact that my students would inexorably label the music as "random," each gesture is written so that it seems a logical reaction to what came before, and to what follows. In fact, each fragment would probably be worth exploring and developing, so compelling is each idea. I wish that I had multiple interpretations to compare, in order to better realize the potential of the piece's changing nature.

I find myself compelled to criticize the second piece, the evocatively titled "Large Black Window." The voice leading could at times be smoother (for example, in the beginning measures, an E and D changes places, with one becoming the melody note and the other the inner voice, in subsequent measures. To be fair, it looks more awkward than it sounds). There could be greater differentiation between harmonic and melodic elements (or the melodic could come to the fore more prominently sooner), and the syncopated chords at the end don't seem to grow from the earlier music (if that is indeed even relevant aesthetically). This is all by way of hedging, and I fear, like the Queen in Hamlet, that I doth protest too much. I really like this piece. The harmonies are colorful yet accessible and the overall structure of the piece supports its drama, realizing the upward expanding ideas latent in the first bars of the piece. In a purely sonic sense, I find it truly beautiful. If postmodernism is nothing more than accessible modernism, then this piece is postmodernism at its finest. If the same is a blending of elements of a modernist language divorced from the modernist loathing of the moving, then this piece is still postmodernism at its finest. 

The final work, "Motion Machine," features the best aspects of a repetitively based, motoric rhythmic energy, with none of its downfalls (which, at this stage in music history, include lapsing into parody or failing to commit enough to achieve escape velocity for fear of repeating oneself). The main ostinato is perfectly proportioned; it isn't too long or repeated too often without a change in accents to bore. Again, this mix of modernist ideas and postmodern accessibility is at the heart of what makes these works good music. Couple this fact with the music's viscerality, its palpable sense of how fun it is to realize these works at the piano, and you have a maturity in writing for piano that belies James's young age.** I eagerly await his other works for the instrument, and fervently hope that he explores using a larger canvas.

Overall, I was struck with the use of space throughout all three works, both in the sense of utilizing the physical keyboard and between the various musical aspects. No doubt a sensitive performance helps immensely, but the breathing room between gestures in "Game" was just enough to let you absorb each idea without becoming ponderous. The same applies to "Large Black Window." After each arpeggiated chord, performer and composer left a moment to hear the entire sonority, and reveal in the play of overtones that makes the work so colorful. Conversely, the filling of the musical space so completely in "Motion Machine" makes that work a perfect end to the set.

At the risk of generalizing, these piano pieces seem more accessible than some of James's music, and can serve as an excellent introduction only to his music. They should also serve to bolster the supporters of new music, knowing that many talented composers and responsive performers have yet to be discovered. If this convinced you to seek out this music, I couldn't ask for anything more (and if James leaves a comment with his contact info, you can find out where to hear his stuff). And for all of those who I've promised I'd write about, I still intend to follow through. All the names are saved on a sticky note, which constitutes a written contract and will serve as a guarantee.*** Have a happy 4th of July!

* As a disclaimer, it's been that long since I've seen the scores, so if details are wrong, I beg forgiveness, and hope James will rectify them with a comment.

** Hand to God, I didn't originally intend this pun, but it's well worth keeping.

***This does not actually constitute a written contract.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Yay! I have a Master’s Degree! Now What Do I Do? -Part II

I want to start off with an apology for taking so long to get this to you, our loyal readership. In explanation of my tardiness I will say that I have been consumed by a project that I intend to publish; I have been examining the significance of the invocation of place in Memphis rap. As a tangential aspect of the research, I have also been working on a proposal for presentation at a national conference, which was just submitted (as in, about an hour ago). So, without further delay, here is a recap of my first year as a doctoral student.

Yay! I have a Master’s Degree! Now What Do I Do?

–Part II: Doctoral Studies

I recently finished my first year as a doctoral student in the Musicology/Southern Regional Studies program at the University of Memphis. During the first two semesters, I was able to take ethno courses in American Folk/Popular Musics, The Blues, World Musics, and Fieldwork and Methodology; my final papers ranged from the important of place in local rap (see above) to measuring the acculturative process on the indigenous music of Easter Island. I learned a substantial amount and I thoroughly enjoyed the process of doing in each case. I also realized that there is an exciting (read: intimidating) amount of material out there. Even after working in two separate traditional music archives and spending countless hours reading about/playing/listening to music that is not Western art music, not to mention serving as the graduate assistant for three separate World Music courses under two instructors, I went into this year with only the slightest understanding of humanity’s musical capabilities. The great (read: scary) part is that in reflection of my first year of doctoral studies, I am now even more aware of the vast amount of music with which I am still not familiar.

In addition to the ethno courses, I also had the chance to take a couple historical musicology courses: Renaissance Music and American Amateur Brass Band. Though the latter is more akin to the folk/pop side of the coin, my final paper focused on Ives’s compositional relationship with the brass band. Coming into the program I was worried that I would not be able to take musicology courses as the SRS coursework is a hefty load, so I was relieved to have the opportunity to fit these in (I have a M.M. in Music History and Literature). The brass band course was particularly fun as we spent the last portion of the semester playing the music, all of which was new to me. This experience also served as my foray into the bass drum, which was cause for lots of laughs and hopefully not too much frustration on the part of the actual musicians.

One of the most valuable lessons that I have learned over the last year is that ethnomusicology is not a science and it cannot be approach like one—historical musicology, while I will still argue is not a science, is at times more “scientific,” especially when the analysis is based on universal theories and the composer/performer is able to explain his/her intentions using a language that is understood by the field at large. By this, I mean that music, as a part of living culture, is always in flux. The ethnomusicologist is responsible for documenting music in situ, as it existed, exists and changes and the ethnomusicologist must be willing to arrive at a destination other than the one s/he was aiming for. As such, I now see that the music we study is not benefited by examination in a vacuum, which is a problem that many historical musicologists face.

I believe the hardest lesson that I have learned is that not everyone in a doctoral program (be it musicology, performance or otherwise) approaches school the same way I do, and that this is not necessarily a bad thing. I obsess over assignments and am notorious for tackling papers from the moment they are assigned. I also write dozens (I mean this literally) of drafts, editing for hours on end. And, after all of this, I am rarely satisfied with the final outcome. For others, a 25 page final paper can be whipped out in a week and still receive a good grade, with which the author is content. In doing so, those who prescribe to the latter method are spared my anxiety and mental distress. The lesson being that what works for me doesn’t work for everyone, and that is ok. Also, I guess the better lesson is that I shouldn't take my self so seriously.

Another hard-to-learn lesson is that undergraduates are often times morons. Though I have been in academia for the better part of a decade now, this past semester’s Italian I was the first 100 level course I have had in many years. I was dumbfounded by the lack of focus, the reprehensible behavior and the desire to distract from others’ learning. I am inclined to write this off as an isolated incident, though I think that Prof. Hausmann might be able to support the contrary. We will see, I suppose, if the situation is any better in Italian II.

Like Prof. Hausmann, the biggest difference between the fall and spring semesters was also my comfort level. Just having a semester’s worth of experience with doctoral studies really helped me to produce better work. Not only had I had time to get comfortable with the new expectations of a doctoral student, but I was already settled into my job and into the city as well. I also didn’t have to spend the entire break leading up the semester studying for entrance exams, which was certainly a plus.

The most difficult adjustment I have had to make, aside from being 8+ hours from home, is that I have had to work on building a new support network. By the time I left Louisville, I had made many great friends and developed wonderful relationships with a handful of faculty members. Needless to say, it was never difficult to find someone with whom to share a meal and drinks, or even to coerce someone into reading over a draft or a proposal. Though I am starting to build those sorts of professional and personal relationships here, it was not easy. It also is taking longer than I seem to remember it taking when I first arrived in Louisville, though I am not sure why.

The biggest benefit to doctoral work, at least for me, is my assistantship and stipend. Working in the music library I am surrounded by scores and books all day, which is a nice reminder that I should be doing something productive. I also work with some amazing and talented people, which is always a good thing. The best part, though, is that I don’t have to work an outside job. I spent my time at UofL working in an art museum, which was a lot of fun, though it was less convenient. I also feel more appreciated now that I have a fancy scholarship and stipend. If you can get paid to go to school, I highly recommend it.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Yay! I have a Master’s Degree! Now What Do I Do?

We at Musicological Musings are happy to report that both of our regular contributors have recently reached milestones in their long journeys toward academic excellence: John has finished his first year as a college professor and Tyler has wrapped up his first year as a doctoral student. In the wake of such accomplishments, we are offering a two-part, year-in-review post highlighting the highs and lows found along each path—we hope this exercise in narcissistic reflection will prove especially interesting for those of you who are currently trying to decide between looking for a job and applying to terminal degree programs. The first of such installments is given below and the second will follow in a week or so. As always, please feel encouraged to leave questions and comments.

Yay! I have a Master’s Degree! Now What Do I Do?

–Part I: Professorship

I recently finished my first year of teaching. I taught a history of Western music for non-majors (essentially a music appreciation class on steroids) and a history of rock and roll (which is essentially a cash cow for the University). All things considered, I think it went very well. I think most of my students learned something, I feel that I was as an effective a teacher as I possibly could have been, and I played a *lot* of music, so hopefully some of it sunk in.

One of the hardest lessons I've had to learn involves what one professor has called the "digging holes or stringing wire" problem–that in a survey course, you need to find a balance between covering as much as possible (there are student and institutional expectations inherent in a survey course) and going in depth enough with a few topics (so that students not only have time to think about something, but that it's possible to demonstrate discipline-specific thinking). The first semester of my Western music course, I definitely strung far too much wire. While I was better able to manage this in the spring, I still need to go deeper more often. It's a tough decision (do I leave out Josquin? do I skip Mozart's chamber music?), and one I don't relish making. I use Kerman/Tomlinson's "Listen," which intentionally focuses on the common practice period; since this is already built into my text, I might take more advantage of it. I will still talk about everything else, but I don't think I'll focus on it as much next year (this has the added advantage of playing to my strengths). I also think that I'll do a brief historical survey, and then organize the rest of the course by topic (do a 3-week unit on operas, for example).

I honestly think I'll do the exact *opposite* in my rock class; I've added about 25-45% more material than we usually cover [N.B.- this estimate is a guess. No math was used in the arrival at this number]; while I end up skimming over a lot, I want to paint the broadest picture possible, since so much of the music is known to so many of my students. I will try to focus more on specific songs (talking about why they work and so forth), but I think that I will continue to move over a vast amount of material. I've tried going to the present, and I've tried making it to the 90s, and I think that I will continue to end around that later time. I've also found that, if I end with rap, it ties together a lot of the major themes we began talking about at the start of the semester, but reframes them (it's a lot easier to see why N.W.A. is scary, but Bill Haley? Not so much).

The biggest difference between fall and spring was my comfort level; unfortunately, this translated into me being expansive (read: long-winded) with the material at the beginning of the semester, and then needing to move far faster throughout the remaining material (my course calendar was a joke by the beginning of February). I also noticed that the students are better (smarter, more engaged, more polite) in the spring, and can't wait to break in another group of freshman.

One of the other major changes I'm making is about my attendance policy. It's currently punitive, and I have logistical and philosophical objections with it. I think that I'll still have a hard and fast rule (for example, if you miss four or more classes, you fail automatically), but there will be rewards instead of punishments (for example, if you miss three classes, you can redo a paper, etc)

I'd also like to make a quick mention of the fact that I've gotten great institutional support this past year. I've heard lots of horror stories, but at every level, I've felt supported, listened to, and helped. I've also been able to take advantage of several pedagogical classes specifically for part-time faculty, and hope to do the same next year.

If I had to bitch (which I do), I'd say that the "cons" include living so far below the poverty line that there isn't any other legal job I could have that would pay less, and the students. While they can obviously be a real treat, I've been appalled by what seems like the ever expanding new lows of student behavior, spelling, etc. I had a girl email me all semester and not address me by name (even FIRST name, which I had to wean some students off), or sign her name, or tell me what class she was in, or use proper grammar or spelling or any punctuation. Every time I think I've hit bottom, I find a new low. I'm sure if I talked to a physicist, there's a universal field theory in there somewhere.

The most important lessons I've learned: you have to let a *lot* roll off your back. I'm naturally an A-type wound-up spazz-wad, but if I project calm in the class, I feel that more learning (and less resentment) happens.

I've also learned that you should never, EVER, EVER talk about basketball. I'd rather talk about Obama, Jesus, and why 9/11 was an alien/governmental conspiracy than basketball. I'll stick with making hockey references.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Origin of Music

Have you ever wondered where music comes from? I don’t mean this in the “iTunes is killing local record stores” sense, or even in the more philosophical “what factors underscore the creative output of a musician?” sense; I mean, have you ever really wondered why humans first began to manipulate their acoustical environment? If you are a composer, musician or musicologist of any stripe, I am willing to bet that you have. Luckily for you, the following is an ultra-concise, pocket-edition summation of some of the more interesting theories on the origins of music as formulated by the leading minds of the musicological, philosophical and otherwise-academic worlds. I will, however, offer the caveat that some of these theories are a bit nutty and most are not—and never were—accepted by mainstream academia. It is also important to remember that, short of a flux capacitor and a modified DeLorean, there is no way to prove—or disprove—any of this. Nonetheless, they are fun to consider, even if only briefly.

At this point, I am also realizing that it is probably beneficial to provide a definition of “music” that can be used as even footing for all who are about to consider the following. In doing so, I acknowledge that trying to define music is just as problematic as trying to determine the origins of music. However, if we can all approach this from the same vantage point (even if the view is only shared within the context of this post), then we can hope to avoid some of the more troublesome pitfalls that often plague discussions similar to this one. That said, for our present purposes, let’s look at “music” as: humanly produced and/or organized sound that is presented within some sort of frame. For those of you keeping score, this means the hum of the florescent lights above your head and the murmuring of the folks around you do not qualify as music. Cage’s infamous 4’33” does, however, meet the necessary qualifications. In a similar fashion, the chirping of birds is not music, though all prerequisites are satisfied when found in the context of a composition by R. Murray Schafer or when rendered by Messiaen.

Now let’s move on to the theories which are supplemented by occasional color commentary.

-Charles Darwin suggested that music evolved out of the mimicry of animal mating calls (I bet he would have loved Teddy Pendergrass).

-Herbert Spencer felt that music came out of heightened or emotional speech (Emo fans, pay attention).

-Carl Stumpf says the idea of fixed pitch or tonal language developed as a means to communicate over a long distance (This one goes to 11).

-Curt Sachs builds off of the ideas of Stumpf in suggesting that there were two paths to music: 1) logogenic (out of speech) and 2) pathogenic (out of emotion).

-Bruno Nettl, working of off Stumpf and Sachs, believes language and music developed simultaneously. Thus, one would be the logical and equal partner to the other. As such, this theory, like many earlier theories, also suggests that speech and song were more closely related at some point in our collective past than they are now. (Can you picture Neanderthals communicating in Sprechtstimme?)

-S.F. Nadel suggested that music arose out of myth. All cultures have myths on the origins of music, and thus Nadel figured that music is intrinsically connected to ritual and religion (Much of Christian rock has done little to improve this relationship).

-René Girard, like Nadel, taught that music arose out of ritual, but more specifically out of the first ritualistic murder. According to Girard, this ur-murder was a direct result of the scapegoat mechanism. In a nutshell, Girard is saying that people, in mimesis of one another, desired what they did not possess, and in the process of searching for someone to blame for their shortcomings, isolated one person as the cause. This newly identified “problem” was then, let’s say “solved,” thus giving rise to celebration.

Personally, I find Girard’s origin theory to be the most plausible as well as the most interesting. Thoughts?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Early High School Graduation in Indiana

Recently, the Indiana Senate voted to offer an “early graduation scholarship” for each high schooler who graduated “before grade 12” and went on to college. The idea behind this is obviously to decrease the amount of money the state has to pay each year for secondary education by funneling the students out of public schools and dumping them, orphan-like, on a college doorstep.

It doesn’t take a lot of thinking to realize this plan’s Euripidian flaw. We don’t even need to get into the logistical problems of starting college in the spring semester (which will either throw students off required sequences, or cause colleges to adjust two-term introductory sequences). These high school students will have a half-year less of math, of English, of writing, of foreign languages, etc. This is learning that will have to occur at some point, and even in my short tenure as a college professor I’ve found that most of my students are already woefully unprepared for higher level thinking and writing. There’s no way that having new students with up to a year's less knowledge will help the problem.

These students will also have that much less physical, emotional, and social development. Most 18 and 19 year olds aren’t prepared for the non-academic challenges of college life, so how can we possibly expect those who are even younger to cope? The disparities between freshmen and seniors is already wide enough (since brains take years to develop, as do social skills), and adding 17 year olds to the mix can only exacerbate existing problems, while creating new ones.

The final problems with this plan are two-fold. Indiana’s law essentially guarantees that everyone who wants to be competitive for jobs, etc., will have to go to college. Having a college degree used to mean something (or so I’ve always been told), but as it becomes the new standard, it starts to mean as much to the job market as a high school diploma: it only matters if you don’t have one. Moreover, if the state saves money by getting kids out of high school and into colleges earlier… yes, the short-sightedness of this plan rapidly becomes apparent. The state might save money for a few years on secondary education costs, but then will have to put that money into colleges and universities.

Trying to save money and balance a budget by cutting education is a classic “nose to spite the face” situation. It might work well in the short term, but it’s not a viable long-term solution. If we want a workforce that can’t compete, a country whose test scores can’t impress, and citizens who can’t think well enough to realize a stupid idea when they see one, slashing education is the way to go. But if we want smart, articulate, well-spoken individuals who are intellectually flexible, rational, and capable of understanding not just 21st century problems but 22nd problems, education is the only viable long-term solution. 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

South African Singing Groups and African-American University Jubilee Singing Groups

I’d like to offer up some thoughts on the musical and social connections between the vocal groups in South Africa and those of Jubilee singers from the Historically Black Colleges in the United States. Although the ideas and conclusions expressed herein have yet to be fully formed, I think the observations are worth sharing, even in this nascent state. With any luck this will eventually develop into a conference paper, so please feel free to offer your comments, concerns or insights on the matter.

With the recently concluded semester I had the privilege of taking a course in American popular and vernacular musics. During one of the lectures, Dr. David Evans—noted Blues specialist and Grammy award winner—spent considerable time on the formation and proliferation of singing groups at such schools as Fisk, Howard, and Tuskeegee Universities, a phenomenon which occurred at the turn of the 20th century. As he was playing an example from 1902 by the Dinwiddie Colored Quintet, a group associated with the Dinwiddie Normal and Industrial School, I was struck by the sonic similarities between this music and South African vocal groups like Solomon Linda and His Evening Songbirds and the more contemporary Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Following up on these musical connections, I discovered that university Jubilee groups and South African vocal groups do have interconnected histories despite the musics being separated by many miles and having arisen from somewhat divergent cultures; that is, post-slavery America and Anglo-conquered Africa.

The Jubilee groups are a product of African American spirituals fusing with Western classical sensibilities. Through this process, university Jubilee groups presented folk material in a Western classical idiom by relying on cultivated voices and formal performance practices, thus bridging the gap between “art” and “folk” realms (the significance of such, is an article in an of itself). The resultant music exploded into the collective consciousness of America, and soon the world, with ferocity that went unmatched until Bieber-mania (now entering into the “popular” realm). These spirituals, with their wonderfully lush textures and close, sliding vocal harmonies were praised by the lay music consumer, music aficionados, and even the most stringent German-born musicologists of the day (if you have ever read any Adorno or Dalhaus, you most certainly have an impression of the astounding levels of curmudgeonly-ness the latter were capable of). At the height of the popularity of the Jubilee groups, ensembles like those from Fisk and Howard Universities were traveling the world performing for sold out audiences and even for the occasional royal court. During these worldwide tours, groups often stopped off at harbor towns, such as Cape Town, South Africa, as it took a long time to take a boat around the world. While docked, performances for locals were inevitable.

The Americans were sure to make an impression on the black South Africans, largely because the music of the university groups was concordant with that of their own. That is to say, both musics relied on similarly thick vocal textures and close harmonies. The South African tradition is rooted in the Zulu Kingdom (1818-1897) and thus was established a decade or so after the United States ended the practice of importing people as slaves (from 1808 onward, all slaves in America were born in America; a trend that led to the development of a distinctly unique African American culture), which suggests that both styles developed independently, as slaves in America did not possess musical memory of Zulu musical traditions.

Apart from the musicality, the social implications of Jubilee singing did not go unnoticed by the South Africans. The university singers, through their fancy suits and sophisticated countenance, occupied a social tier more in line with their white oppressors—if literal equality was not accomplished, and I don’t mean to suggest that it was, the semblance of such was, at least temporarily, present. South Africa, at the time, was under the tyranny of the white aristocracy and black South Africans were not blind to the similar injustices endured by African Americans. As such, black South Africans saw something in these singing groups that seemed worthy of mimicry and thus began to synthesize practices of the Jubilee groups with their own traditional music; a coalescence that resulted in the development and popularization of the vocal style proliferated by groups like the aforementioned Ladysmith Black Mambazo (and later problematically appropriated by Paul Simon). Furthermore, with this adaptation, the music also once again makes the migration between “art,” “folk” and “pop.”

Here are a couple clips so that you can see the similarities for yourself (and yes, the second example is the original recording of what would, thanks to Pete Seeger and later The Tokens, later become the painfully obnoxious “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”).