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Gettin’ that canon off the pedestal

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a bit about the songwriting class I’d been teaching at Duke. I’m going to continue in the mode of self-debriefing, I guess you could call it, with some thoughts about how classical music fits into the general undergraduate curriculum.

I’ve never had much sympathy with the point of view that puts classical music above and apart from other music. Over the past 9 years I’ve taught songwriting and a couple of music appreciation courses, one about jazz and the other quite eclectic. I’ve also taught the introductory theory and composition courses a few times. And I’ve ended up quite convinced that classical music has no special claim to make in the university classroom, at least not in courses of the kind I’ve taught—introductory classes, music appreciation, and history (setting aside theory, though—it’s a separate issue I’m not going to get into). It’s not that I’m disenchanted with the music—I’m as infatuated as ever, and I hope it always has a prominent place on college campuses, just not as the perennial prima donna.

The fat lady sings on, though, no matter how false the pretenses. And it tends to be pretty alienating. Listen, for instance, to this vociferation from blogger A.C. Douglas…

As I’ve elsewhere on this weblog noted, classical music is not “merely ‘one of [music’s many] streams’…, but music’s very apotheosis; the one instantiation of music that alone is capable of subsuming and transfiguring all of music’s other instantiations.”

That’s not a classical music fanatic’s wild-eyed rant, nor is it the rant of a cultural snob. It’s a demonstrable, objective fact. There was a time not long past when acknowledgement of that fact was implicit in the music section of the arts pages of almost all mainstream publications. When the term music was used alone it meant always classical music, all other musics requiring an identifying qualification (e.g., rock music, folk music, pop music, etc.). Today, the opposite is the normative case. It’s classical music that always requires the identifying qualification.

For a classical music critic to even by implication suggest, in an attempt to make it appear more accessible, that classical music is other than what I’ve above described it to be is to do classical music further, even irreparable, harm in the present cultural marketplace…

In the good old days Douglas evokes, classical music was even more explicitly the music of the university than it was of media. Until recently, the term “musicologist” unambiguously referred to a scholar of European classical music, and the association is still strong. The idea that classical music exists on a higher plane was self-evident to many generations of musicologists, and it’s a safe bet that a few still feel that way. I suspect that through force of habit if nothing else the idea still carries some weight in the rest of the university (in some universities, anyways—the focus and tenor of music departments varies wildly between institutions). Any half-decent musicologist who cared to could make a better case for the preeminence of classical music than the one I’ve quoted, but the premise doesn’t stand up well under close examination, in my opinion.

What I get most clearly from what Douglas says is how much music he doesn’t care to listen to and/or how little he gets out of most of it. Apparently he hears and understands music quite differently than I do. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think it’s foolish of him to make a claim about something as subjective and diverse as music that effectively dismisses experiences unlike his own. I’ll happily save my breath and send you to Alex Ross for the more eclectic, less heirarchical point of view, both in his response to Douglas and in this autobiographical New Yorker article, which may be my all-time favorite piece of writing from a music critic (the problem with Ross, in fact, is that I end up wondering if there’s anything I can say about music that he hasn’t already said more eloquently).

On most any page of Ross’s criticism you’ll find confirmation of a principle I’ve arrived at in my teaching—there’s always something more useful, interesting, or enlightening to say about a piece of music (or genre or composer or whatever) than what it’s better or worse than. With that in mind, I’ve talked effusively (at least that’s how it’s felt to me) about music from Beethoven, Monteverdi, George Crumb, a whole raft of jazz greats, The Carter Family, Mississippi Fred McDowell, The Beatles (endlessly), Nirvana, Fleetwood Mac, Sheryl Crow, and many others. I expect that my over-the-top admiration for some of the classical and jazz standouts has been obvious, but I hope I’ve made each one seem worthy because of the specific things it had to offer, not more or less than anything else. I don’t think any self-respecting music professor is going to beat their class over the head comparing the Timeless Greatness of the Eroica with the silly triviality of “Satisfaction,” so I’m probably belaboring the obvious. But the message can seep in, especially if there’s a conscious or unconscious effort to convert the students (which is not the same thing as trying to spark their interest).

After teaching a traditional chronological, single-genre introductory class (Introduction to Jazz) and one that was neither chronological nor genre-specific, I’m sold on the value of shuffle mode. It has it’s risks—I’ve certainly made a mess of it a number of times—but it also opens ears. Here’s a quick example of a juxtaposition that worked well. As an exercise in focussed listening, my colleague Kerry McCarthy and I (the class was co-taught) assigned the students to listen to Schubert’s Erlkönig and “What Makes You Happy,” by Liz Phair. The connection is that in both cases the singer is channeling several characters. We asked the students to write a little about how the music conveyed dialog, character, and drama. The students seemed to hear the inherent qualities of both songs, but certainly of the Schubert, better than they would have without the pairing. I think the contemporary song helped ease Schubert’s into their natural listening space. Perhaps Schubert led them to take Phair more seriously, which is all to the good—her song wasn’t thrown in to sweeten the pill, it was there on its own merit. It also helped that we didn’t give them any build-up or background on Schubert or Phair—it’s too easy to tap into the tired, patronizing cliches that are the main impression many kids have of classical music. Much better to get out of the way and let Jessye Norman’s hair-raising performance make the case, which it does!

I cringe a little every time I write “music appreciation class.” It sounds both lightweight and patronizing, certainly a vestige of the classical-music-is-good-medicine school of thought. One reason that I haven’t been the best teacher for those kinds of classes may be that I can’t accept appreciation as an end in itself, and insist on building assignments around some deeper question of identity or values or whatever (the more glaringly obvious reason is that I’m not a particularly organized or animated lecturer). But naturally, whenever I teach a class I’m hoping that the students are more curious, engaged, open-minded listeners at the end of the semester than at the beginning. That’s more or less the essence of music professorhood. And from that perspective, what I’d most like to say to those worried about where classical music is going as other kinds of music make a greater claim to the curriculum is, let it out of the box! It will do just fine.

I’m not suggesting that eclecticism is the one and only, or a substitute for every class that focusses on a particular genre or era. Nor, when it comes to teaching, are all genres created equal. One of the most enlightening things for me about teaching Intro to Jazz was how rich a topic the blues is. It’s wonderful, appealing music that’s not hard to grasp in musical and formal terms, illuminates and humanizes some pivotal American history, has had a deep and palpable influence on the whole range of contemporary popular music, and comes with a challenging but vivid critical literature. I don’t know what more you could ask for. As a general humanities seminar topic for undergraduates it’s outstanding—for me far more promising than any kind of classical music. Classical music may be more sophisticated in formal terms and more cerebral, but for undergraduates I think the blues is a much better basis for intellectually challenging reading, analysis, and writing. That’s ultimately a personal preference—I’m not claiming it’s the perfect material and everyone should take it up. But anyone who’s worried that college courses on the blues or popular music are a sign of pandering or declining standards should be assured that, in intellectual terms, they can easily leave many an old-fashioned music appreciation course in the dust.

Not that it’s a competition.