Category Archives: future of college/university music education

Davidovsky and the ICE at Miller Theatre

Mario Davidovsky, whose work was the subject of last night’s Composer Portrait at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, was a leader in the development of electronic and electro-acoustic music. That genre consists of carefully worked-out sound collages, music which shocked and alienated many early audiences, which many traditional classical musicians (and musicians) still detest, and which I happen to really enjoy.

So why do I like it when so many years later so few others do?  It may well have to do with my mother, who, when I was a child, had me lie down, close my eyes, and listen to a recording of Vares’s Ionisation. Let your imagination go, she told me.  Tell me what you see.  She may have had me draw pictures.  Varese called his music “organized sound” and that early immersion in that one piece made me open to so much.  (It’s funny.  I don’t remember her having any other interest in avant-garde music.)

I’ll admit it, I had never heard of Davidovsky before I read about this concert. I’m not a new-music maniac like my friend, former student, and admired colleague Jon Silpayamanant, who could probably do an hour or two on Davidovsky off the top of his head. And I knew nothing about him and his work before I sat down and started reading the excellent program notes [pdf] by Paul Griffiths.  I loved the concert, including the on-stage conversation between him and Melissa Smey, the Miller Theatre’s director.  Here’s Davidovsky in another interview:

 

So why did I go? To hear the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE).  Who cares what they’re playing? I knew it would be good. Besides the group’s incredible reputation, the flutist Eric Lamb, who attended DePauw for a while, is one of the members, and I really have been wanting to hear him perform.  I’d missed their concert which opened the Tully Scope series, in order to hear Meridith Monk speak at Symphony Space, and when I read about this concert, I made it my top priority.

I’m going to all these concerts and writing them, giving myself a new education, as I prepare a course or courses for DePauw music majors on career issues in the developing classical/post-classical music world.  Look at the schedules of the ICE and Eric.  They are great models for what can be done separate from the slowly dying win-a-competition, win-an-orchestra-job traditional world.  The ICE has a tremendously strong, visionary leader in Claire Chase, and uses musicians of extraordinary accomplishment, like Eric and the trumpeter Gareth Flowers (whom I met when he performed as half of The Batteries Duo at the Chamber Music America conference).

A lesson here is that if you develop extraordinary ability in a niche about which you’re passionate and develop a great reputation, people will come to whatever you do.  You’ll build your own audience.  It’s a point Frances-Marie Uitti made to me after I heard her play at LPR.  She has a huge career performing all over the world with a repertoire of avant-garde cello music that not even many cellists don’t know or care about it.  It’s devoting yourself to something you’re passionate about she told me.  You can knock yourself out for a while seeing who can play the Brahms F Major Sonata better, but that’s not what the world needs or wants.

OK, back to the Davidovsky concert.  Terrific, fascinating, extraordinary music, performed incredibly well.  Davidovsky the first or one of the first to combine recorded, electronically-generated sounds with live performers.  The program began and end with two such works, Synchronisms No. 9 (1988) with violinist David Bowlin, and Synchronisms No. 12 (2007) with clarinetist Joshua Rubin.  The rest of the program consisted of purely acoustic works which the motivic interplay was fascinating. (You can read the details in the program notes linked to above.) One of the musicians told me Davidovsky’s music (with which he was not previously familiar, either), reminded him of Webern’s, with the short motives and the hocketing.  “A lot like Webern,” I replied, “but longer.”  We had a laugh.

Here’s a different performance of the Synchronisms No. 9:

Walking home the 23 blocks to my apartment (I was seduced by the Ben and Jerry’s shop, don’t tell my trainer, but as long as I gave in to temptation I decided to really enjoy it), I was thinking about this sort of well-attended concert, dedicated to the work of a single, obscure-to-the-general-public composer, could only happen in a few places.  A performing arts series at a great university, in a large city, in a neighborhood with a lot of urban intellectuals, also accessed easily by public transportation.  The Miller Theatre’s Composer Portrait series is really quite something.  It’s the kind of thing that can happen at a university which can afford to present events that aren’t part of the new populist trends in classical music.  While I have nothing to do with Columbia, I did feel proud to be part of what we call “the academy”–the community of colleges and universities.

(By the way, I forgot to add the “SJ” for “Sabbatical Journal” number in a recent posts, and so I’m not going to number them anymore.  Unless someone demands it!)

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Filed under Claire Chase, CMA 2011 Conference, Composers, Ensembles, Eric Lamb (flute), Frances-Marie Uitti, future of college/university music education, Gareth Flowers (trumpet), International Contemporary Ensemble, Le Poisson Rouge, Mario Davidovsky, sabbatical journal, The Batteries Duo, The Batteries Duo, Young Performers

Classical Music Establishment to Young Performers’ Creative Selves: Drop Dead

In a comment on my previous post, S.W. raises an objection:

If composing was an equivalent skill to performing, then there would be far more composers than we see today. Moreover, if world class performers were also world class composers — in equal number — then the world would be awash in new music with a clientele clamoring to hear it as they clamor to see world-class performers. Neither is true. The input and output channels for composition and performance seem to be quite distinct and different, distributed very, very unevenly amongst any given population and not clearly understood as different processes. This was true in Bach’s day and remains true today. Else, James Levine and Yo-Yo Ma and Placido Domingo and Joshua Bell and Jessye Norman would all prove your thesis by their prodigious output of compositions. Additionally the recently deceased Milton Babbitt and his only world famous student Sondheim would both have shown their performing gifts in many, many concert appearances. I venture the opposite view, that most performers cannot and do not compose for a very basic reason, and that is that the two skills sets are not equivalent, nor equally distributed in a population, and your assumption that they should be is incorrect.

There’s a lot of truth in that comment. High-level composing and performing aren’t equivalent skill sets. As I said in the original entry, “It’s true that not everyone with a great gift and skill at composing has the gifts to be a great performer, and vice-versa.” I’m not proposing that the skill sets should (or could) be evenly distributed.

Participation in the activities ought to be, however.  If a world-class performer composes and improvises and keeps it private because the music isn’t great, that’s fine by me.  But if more performers had been composing and improvising all along, as a standard part of their educations, some of the music might be really, really good. We’ll never know, though, because for the most part they weren’t encouraged or allowed to explore their creative potential.

Compositional talent may be inborn, but compositional skill is developed through training, practice, study, and being mentored.  It doesn’t just happen.

We need to get away from the all-or-nothing mentality, the idea that you have to be great at something or not do it at all. Classical-music education, and classical-music culture, lacks widespread engagement by performers in the process of creating.  And suffers for it.  It’s a systemic problem.

Welcome to our school. You’re eighteen and have yet to manifest great skill at composing?  That’s OK, you’re a performer, or a music education major.

Oh, you have musical ideas in your head?

Hmm.  Just ignore them.  You’re not a composer, after all. No portfolio.  Your ideas are not worth hearing, exploring, or developing. No (significant) institutional  encouragement or support will be offered.

Failing to nurture the creative selves of young musicians, the structure of most classical-music education doesn’t allow students to develop their musicianship in the integrated way that, for example, jazz students experience.  Many others have argued this better than I.  Harold Best, who was the Dean of Music at Wheaton College for many years and a leader in the movement to mandate compositional and improvising activities in the National Association of Schools of Music accreditation requirements, has a great way of putting it.  Music schools (the ones focused on the classical tradition) do a great job of teaching students to think about music, he says.  But we need to do better at teaching students to think “in” music (i.e., to develop inner hearing), and the one of the best ways to do that is by “thinking up” music.

But for the most part, the classical-music education system, and classical music culture, says (in effect) “drop dead” to young performers’ creative selves.

Where I teach, at DePauw University, there have been tremendous differences between the periods when we’ve had a composer on the faculty and when we haven’t.  Students want to compose.  With guidance and training, they learn and grow a tremendous amount.  When there’s no composer on the faculty, no composition courses or lessons or informal mentoring, there’s something deeply lacking.  Some of these kids might develop into good composers if they had encouragement and support.  They’d absolutely become more complete musicians with greater insight into the process of composition.  But in a composer-free environment, that’s not going to happen.

It doesn’t seem much better at large institutions with a composition faculty.  The composition majors get trained, but there’s little opportunity or encouragement for performance majors to compose, or to improvise.  To create.

Virtually the entire pedagogical repertoire for any instrument consists of pieces written by performer/composers of the 18th and 19th centuries.  When it comes to the 20th century and beyond, there’s almost nothing.  Classical music education became about learning to play the canon of great works, and much academic composition about writing pieces for other academic composers and a small, highly-educated audience of new-music followers.

Obviously people are going to specialize, especially in high-level careers. But that doesn’t mean that even the most gifted and disciplined and virtuosic young musicians wouldn’t benefit from an educational system that insisted they create music, good, bad, or indifferent.  Right now, in this time of great challenge, we continue the folly of forcing students to put arcane details of pre-Renaissance music into their short-term memories for a test while ignoring their creative selves.  (Despite the NASM standards, composition and improvisation activities tend to be of the low-impact, exercise variety in the form of theory and class piano exercises.) I’m not saying students shouldn’t learn Western classical-music history. But something’s not right when memorizing things we know the vast majority of students will quickly forget is an iron-clad, top priority while discovering what it is like to create a piece of music is not even on the list.

Those of us setting music school curricula (faculty) were trained in this same system.  It seems normal to most of us; for the most part, we are blind to the fact that we are perpetuating the same sort of creative abuse that we may not even understand we experienced.  We don’t want to admit to ourselves that we could have had richer lives if we’d composed and improvised music.

The idea that the whole system, the system of which we are both products and perpetuators, is screwed up?  Too awful to for most of us even to contemplate.

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Filed under creative process, crisis in classical music, future of classical music, future of college/university music education, improvisation, inner hearing, Uncategorized

Audience-Building Thoughts at the Football Game

One of my new School of Music colleagues works from about 8:00 Am to 11:00 PM or midnight.  (I know this because he’s renting a room from me until he and his wife can sell their house in the state whence he came to DePauw. So much for those who think college professors, especially at undergraduate teaching universities, have a light workload.  With all the prep work, especially as a new faculty ember, it’s easily a 60-80 hour per week gig.)

So I called him this morning and told him he had to take a break and let’s walk over and watch at least the first half of the football game.

As we sat there and I looked at all the students there–so many more, even on the field, than come to a major ensemble concert, I wondered, how would we get them to a concert?  Voluntarily? These thoughts crystallized for me:

  • Undergraduate music majors should be engaged in a four-year conversation about and experiment in getting students their own age to classical concerts.
  • This can include permission and empowerment to create new-format musicking events.
  • A great project would be to have a class or a self-selected group go to athletic events and interview students there to find out what their history is with classical music and what would attract them to an event including classical music.  (The success my first-year seminar students have had in the past has come, in part, from informal interviews of their friends who gave them ideas for an event.)

This question sprang to mind: what would it take to get the entire football team to come to an orchestra concert? (Or a choir concert;  as a cellist, things like orchestra concerts tend to materialize in my imagination before others.)  The corollary, of course, is, what could the orchestra or choir do for the football (or basketball or track) team in return?

Which got me thinking: what do college music ensembles do to visibly contribute to the life of the whole college/university community.  Sure, we put on concerts that anyone can come to.  But they don’t.  Our traditional concerts are in many ways, public class presentations. On some level they are perceived that way.  What does a music school or department do to genuinely make a difference in the life of the community?  What do we do to be perceived as and genuinely be central to the life of the academic/creative/social organism?

I looked at the young men in front of me enthusiastically cheering on the DePauw Tigers, who were easily trouncing the Rose Hulman Engineers. I imagined they had been to few if any symphony orchestra concerts.  Our students need to talk to them. How do we get the entire university community to feel the same sense of identification with the choirs, orchestra, and concert band that they do with the sports teams.  (By the way, we are a Division something-or-other school with no athletic scholarships, so our teams are made up of genuine student athletes, many of whom are truly scholars.)

I don’t know the answer.  My intuition and my intellect say that in large part it means getting musical performances out of the sacred caves we call concert halls–which at DePauw, as at many schools, are pretty well hidden.

It’s a challenge for those of us teaching music on the college/university level.  Especially for those of us over 50, the job is less for us to figure it out ourselves than to empower and facilitate our students in discovering and creating.  Not to say that I wouldn’t encourage ensemble directors to get together with the coaches and sports teams and brainstorm on how each organization could help the other.

Recovering from an illness, I made it through the first half of the game.  The vision of the entire DePauw Tigers football team at a DePauw Symphony concert is still burning in my imagination.

Each of us in music education (in every domain–primary, secondary, and collegiate) would do well to be letting our imaginations run wild, challenging our young student friends, and experimenting like crazy.

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Filed under audeince building, DePauw, future of college/university music education, Musicking, non-traditional concerts