Author: Daniel Kellogg

Dynamic Music Appreciation

I’ve become a strong believer in the responsibility artists have to invite a lay audience into meaningful dialogue with art. I don’t care which art form any individual chooses to engage in so long as somewhere they are nourishing their lives with art that challenges beyond the delightful entertainment of Hollywood, mainstream pop music, or quick-read books. As full-time artistic creators, we should proselytize for the power of our artistic medium and how the human experience is both defined and deepened by artistic expression. Those of us who engage regularly with our audiences have the opportunity to help them understand difficult but important music. Many of us have had some experience as high school students when a capable English teacher opened our souls to challenging literature such as Shakespeare, Bronte, Steinbeck, or Lee. With a bit of context, questions, and guidance, a new world opened. This artistic nourishing should happen beyond high school, and working artists are in a special position for this task. We have the credentials and passion to stand in front of a classroom and invite people into a deeper relationship with art.

A recent discussion I had with Conrad Kehn, a Denver-based composer and new music impresario, raised new questions about the current practice of music appreciation classes. He shared that a curriculum restriction required that a course he teaches at a community college focus almost entirely on classical music (white, male, European composers). Most of his students, first generation college students, are from non-white, non-European cultures. Is it a form of cultural imperialism to insist they learn only this material if they want to take a music appreciation class? While I love European classical music and hope there is always room to teach these great composers, our world is much bigger. We all have access to music from a variety of genres, cultures, and modes of creative process. Courses can easily include multiple genres and music that falls outside of traditional notation. If the fundamental goal is for a lay audience to have a greater appreciation for music, cross-genre courses are more compelling and inclusive of greater varieties of musical expression. Artists increasingly cross genres and disciplines, and our courses should reflect that.

We have to be passionate about our subjects so that we offer our best charismatic voices when teaching.

Through the success of my music appreciation course “Tragedy and Inspiration”, I’ve wondered what other topics would attract today’s undergraduates. “Music and the Civil Rights Movement”, “Music as Protest”, “Composers Who Cross Borders”, “Self-Taught but Brilliant”, “Opera, Sex, and Violence”, “Music as Ritual and Religious Expression” are all ideas that could examine a great body of music through compelling lenses. The organizing construct is the way to draw in students. All teachers have a body of music that they are well equipped to teach. We have to be passionate about our subjects so that we offer our best charismatic voices when teaching. Our diverse interests and expertise will lead to a myriad of topics that invite the lay listener into the art.

“Music and the Civil Rights Movement” could host a variety of styles crossing more than 200 years of American history. The bulk of the class might focus on the core of the Civil Rights era but should include the evolution of African-American spirituals, the early formation of blues and jazz, the emergence of rap and hip hop, and many current genres articulating the ongoing struggle against racism in America. Jazz pieces would include Coltrane’s Alabama, Mingus’s Fables of Faubus, Meerpol’s “Strange Fruit,” Armstrong’s “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue?,” and Roach’s We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, among others. Gil Scott-Heron, N.W.A., Kendrick Lamar, Macklemore, and Public Enemy are among many artists who have all used the platform of powerful lyrics to highlight the many forms of contemporary racism. Classical pieces could include Nkeiru Okoye’s opera Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom, Steve Reich’s Come Out, Wynton Marsalis’s oratorio Blood on the Fields, and Frederic Rzewski’s Attica and Coming Together.

Composers thrive with cultural diversity.

“Composers Who Cross Borders” invites a large umbrella of diverse music. From the Beatles’ work with Ravi Shankar to Toru Takemitsu’s embrace of French impressionism to Tanya Tagaq’s integration of throat singing, metal, and Inuit culture – composers thrive with cultural diversity. A host of musical artists have migrated around the world to embrace aspects of their new countries while maintaining a core identity rooted in their place of origin. Composers Gabriela Lena Frank, Tan Dun, Tania León, and Osvaldo Golijov embrace multicultural influences that define the Americas. Classical composers Béla Bartók, Steve Reich, and Claude Debussy pulled key aspects of their musical language from other cultures.

Teaching music appreciation has also helped cultivate or sustain the passion I have for art music. The process of preparing to teach a subject requires a deep dive that may reveal new insights and invite a fresh look. Finding the words to explain a complex subject has expanded my thinking on many topics and is a constant reminder of the richness present in the works of great composers who make up my chosen art form. Preparing to teach forces growth and informs my own composition. The classroom experience is for both the students and myself. I end up loving this music more each time I teach it, and I am always delighted by unexpected comments offered by the students. The greatest compliment is when students tell me they now listen to music with a greater depth.

Samples of writings by Daniel Kellogg’s students in response to questions in his Music Appreciation classes. (Reprinted with permission.)

Misfits and Geniuses

The success of my course “Tragedy and Inspiration” spurred me to think of other meaningful ways to group contemporary music in a compelling music appreciation-style class. “Misfits and Geniuses” became my next course. I started with the attractive idea of creative rebels who bucked traditional boundaries and existed on the fringe. Which composers wrote new rules, expanded the space for music, and crossed dividing lines? This course includes Charles Ives, John Cage, George Crumb, John Luther Adams, Philip Glass (focusing on Koyaanisqatsi and Einstein on the Beach), Meredith Monk, Morton Subotnick, Pamela Z, and Frank Zappa. Undergraduates love the idea of a rebel genius. That simple premise invites meaningful discussion of Cage’s ideas on silence, Zappa’s absurd plurality of styles, and Meredith Monk’s use of the human voice as an expressive instrument separate from the restrictions of language. The variety of styles and artistic approaches again makes for a rich menu of great but challenging contemporary music. We get to discuss spatialization, silence, recreating an imagined ancient musical language, the blurred lines between rock and classical music, extended techniques, deep listening, and the Buchla synthesizer.

Which composers wrote new rules, expanded the space for music, and crossed dividing lines?

The course features nine primary composers. The material begins with some introductory lectures I created and continues with video interviews (available for everyone but Charles Ives), articles, and some critical material. We then focus on three important pieces for each composer representing different aspects of their musical language. A trio of pieces gives a solid overview of their work and generates discussion on the many creative threads that make the composer unconventional.

I wanted to increase the level of student engagement as I developed this second music appreciation course. Current ideas about student learning encourage a steady stream of low level “tasks” that should be completed immediately after absorbing material. I created a “listening assessment” that asks each student to answer eight brief questions. They do this for all 27 pieces featured in the course and get full credit for completing the task. The questions ask simple facts about the music (length, instruments), and they require the students to list some descriptive adjectives and offer a short personal response.

Listening Assessment:

  1. List the performing forces used in this piece. What instruments are voices are used? What non-musical elements are included? Include what you think is most essential to the piece.
  2. How long is the piece?
    1. Under 10 minutes
    2. 10-30 minutes
    3. 30-40 minutes
    4. Longer than 60 minutes
    5. The length is variable (not specifically set from performance to performance)
  3. How would you describe the rhythmic language of this piece? Please check all options that apply:
    1. Fast
    2. Slow
    3. Mid tempo
    4. With an active pulse
    5. Without an active pulse
    6. Complex
    7. Simple
    8. Repetitive
    9. Constantly changing or evolving
  4. How would you describe the harmonic language of this piece? Please check all options that apply:
    1. Complex
    2. Simple
    3. Beautiful and consonant
    4. Harshly dissonant
    5. Moderately dissonant
    6. Organically unified
    7. Disjunctive or fragmented
    8. Familiar
    9. Abstract or unfamiliar
    10. Slow to change
    11. Actively changing
  5. Pick three to five good descriptive words for this piece. Avoid weak words or vague words like nice, attractive, good, and ugly. Find strong words that offer your unique and specific observations.
  6. What personal responses do you have to this piece? Offer a few sentences to describe your unique perspective. There is no right or wrong answer, but listen with attentive ears and offer meaningful insight. What emotions does the music elicit? What aspects of the music are most compelling? Least compelling?
  7. Was this an easy or difficult piece to listen to? Why? Get specific with reasons to support your answer.
  8. Offer one other thought in response to this piece. Possible items to address: What was most surprising or unusual? What moment moved you? What other artist or genre of music might you connect with this piece? If you had to convince a friend to listen to this piece, what might you say?

In this new course, I often ask the students for their opinions about the music, their opinions about the ideas of the composers, and then ask them to decide which of the three pieces are more compelling. While I often tell my first-year composition majors that they should be sponges and suspend judgment on important composers till further in their education, I encourage strong opinions in music appreciation courses. When the student has to offer a judgment-style opinion, they will listen more closely and seek out the ideas that support their argument. I make it clear that it is fine to dislike a piece of music, but they must know why and be able to support their opinion with detailed observation. I may gently push back on a poorly formed opinion, but I find that even a strong negative reaction paves the way for a growing appreciation of the music. That is my goal.

A good portion of the class embraces Cage’s ideas. Others dismiss the ideas as nonsense.

John Cage generates intense discussion. His ideas are easy to grasp and challenge presuppositions held by most people in the class. We begin with Living Room Music, which suggests that anything can be used to make music or serve as an instrument. (It’s also great fun.) We continue with Sonatas and Interludes and end with 4’33”. The discussion of silence, noise, and “what is music?” is exciting. A good portion of the class embraces Cage’s ideas and examines their own favorite music in a new light. Others dismiss the ideas as nonsense. I’m happy with this disagreement so long as everyone knows why they arrived at their conclusions.

I teach Meredith Monk and Pamela Z side by side. Their highly developed and unique vocal technique has shaped the fabric of their musical language. They are performing composers who embody their music with powerful visual and dramatic components. But their music is quite different: Pamela Z often uses technology and words as a jumping off point. Meredith Monk finds the meaning of words too limiting and wants to create beyond the cultural baggage found in words. We look at Hocket, Dolmen Music, and Songs of Ascension for Meredith Monk, and Bone Music, Gaijin, and Baggage Allowance for Pamela Z. YouTube offers great live performances that allow the students to absorb the important visual components of these pieces.

Morton Subotnick and his early work pioneering live composition with synthesizers resonates strongly with the students. Most of the students either embrace EDM (Electronic Dance Music) or some other music heavily dependent on electronics and looping. None of them know of Morton Subotnick’s work, and they quickly appreciate his essential innovations, which made all current mainstream electronic music possible. We listen to Silver Apples of the Moon, The Last Dream of the Beast, and watch excerpts from Jacob’s Room.

There will always be excellent composers and pieces that won’t find room in a semester-length class.

There will always be excellent composers and pieces that won’t find room in a semester-length class. For a final project, I require the students to create a short, NPR-style podcast featuring a composer not included in the main lessons. I recommend they consider Pauline Oliveros, Conlon Nancarrow, Harry Partch, John Coltrane, Joan La Barbara, Wendy Carlos, Alvin Lucier, Terry Riley, Ornette Coleman, Laurie Anderson, or John Zorn, among others. They can also seek permission for a composer of their own choosing. I only require that the composer chosen has a connection to North America and is someone who has worked primarily in the 20th or 21st century. The podcast format allows them to include musical excerpts, which require description and context.

When I talk to my colleagues about “Misfits and Geniuses”, their eyes light up. They each have their own ideas about which great artists could fit into such a class. The pairing of composers and styles is rich with possibilities, and it is exciting to revel in the work of artists who break rules and redefine the musical landscape.


Tragedy and Inspiration

A course I’ve named “Tragedy and Inspiration” is my solution to drawing college students in to a challenging but powerful body of music. The course couples tragic events from modern history with great pieces of music written in response to those events. Reich’s Different Trains responds to the Holocaust and how trains were used to transport people to extermination camps in WWII. Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 responds to the personal and collective loss experienced by the gay community during the AIDS epidemic. Libby Larsen’s Sifting Through the Ruins and John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls respond to the deaths suffered when the World Trade Center buildings were attacked and collapsed in 2001. Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi and John Luther Adams’s Inuksuit respond to the crisis of human activity impacting our environment to create life out of balance. The course covers the historical subject, the composers and their musical styles, and the specific pieces.

Artists have responded to tragic experiences for millennia.

To varying degrees, this body of music either serves to process personal grief experienced by the composer, memorialize those lost for those left living, or mark a protest and call for action. These pieces respond to a common darkness that resonates across the many dividing lines that separate people. The pain of death from war or violent world conflicts transcends our differences. All groups of people throughout history have experienced disease, poverty, bigotry, sexual violence, racial violence, and unnatural death, and artists have responded to these tragic experiences for millennia. These subjects also resonate strongly with undergraduates. They understand the violence, pain, and horror involved in an event like the bombing of Hiroshima and can easily make the leap to the abstract and highly difficult musical language of Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. We begin with news footage, mini-documentaries, and images surrounding the creation of the atomic bomb and the aftermath of the bombing in both Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Then we discuss the abstract language of extended techniques, tone clusters, noise, aleatory, graphic notation, and sonorism that make up the language of early Penderecki. Lastly, we dig into the music and explore how it responds to the event. (Note: Penderecki originally titled his composition 8’37” based on its length. After the premiere he renamed the piece Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima and claimed the piece was always written in response to the bombing of Hiroshima and only after the premiere did he fully understand that. While the renaming is controversial, I accept his explanation and include the piece in the course.)

Because the subject matter is so real and raw, it is easy to bring these undergraduates into a serious appreciation of difficult music. I ask a lot of questions and invite them to offer their own critique or evaluation. While these students are not equipped to offer profound critiques of these compositions, the requirement for written evaluation requires deeper listening. They must have an opinion on the success of the music and defend their positions. The course requires a lot of written responses, and all of the tests are essay tests. I require that students engage with the material with enough substance that they can craft well-written essays (or aspire to such heights). They also have two opportunities to present pieces of their choosing that fit the subject matter. They often bring music from popular genres (rap, rock, country, R&B, etc.), and I welcome the variety. Having music from multiple genres enriches the course and allows for interesting compare-and-contrast discussions.

Because the subject matter is so real and raw, it is easy to bring undergraduates into a serious appreciation of difficult music.

I begin the course with a screening of the first 26 minutes of the documentary A Strong Clear Vision that features Maya Lin and her work to create the Vietnam War Memorial. This remarkable story follows her experience entering a competition for the memorial while still a graduate student at Yale, winning, and defending the design through horrendous public criticism and bigotry. Ultimately, the design has become one of the most celebrated war memorials ever created, and it has had a profound impact on subsequent memorial designs. (The World Trade Center memorial is a prime example.) This is a great documentary and draws the students immediately into the substance of the course. The memorial has served thousands of Vietnam veterans in their grief and healing. She created the piece when she was only a few years older than the undergraduates in the class and stood by her strong vision against tremendous odds. It is an amazing example of the power of art in the face of tragedy.

Here is the content that comprises the rest of the course:

Module 1: War

  • Steve Reich: Different Trains
  • George Crumb: Black Angels: Thirteen Images from a Dark Land
  • Vietnam War Protest Music and Woodstock
    (This unit involves a collection of pieces including):

    • Richie Havens: “Freedom” (performed at Woodstock and based on African American song from slavery)
    • Jimmie Hendrix: “The Star Spangled Banner” (performed at Woodstock)
    • Country Joe and the Fish: “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag”
    • John Lennon: “Give Peace a Chance” and “Imagine”
    • Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young: “Ohio”
  • Krystof Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima:

Module 2: Environmental Crisis

  • Philip Glass: Koyaanisqatsi
  • John Luther Adams: Inuksuit

Module 3: World Trade Center Attack

  • John Adams: On the Transmigration of Souls
  • Libby Larsen: Sifting Through the Ruins

Module 4: Social Justice

  • Gil Scott Heron and issues of inner city poverty and racism
    • “Whitey on the Moon”
    • “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”
    • “The Bottle”
    • “Home is Where the Hatred Is”
    • “Winter in America:
  • Frederic Rzewski: Attica and Coming Together, written in response to the Attica Prison Riots
  • John Corigliano: Symphony No. 1, written in response to the AIDS epidemic
  • Tonja Tajac: music written in response to violence against women, bigotry towards indigenous people, and environmental concerns
  • Jazz and the Civil Rights Movement
    • John Coltrane’s Alabama, written in response to the 1964 bombing of an Alabama church and Martin Luther King Jr.’s eulogy for the four dead Sunday School Girls
    • Charles Mingus’s The Fables of Faubus, written in response to the circumstances surrounding the integration of schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1968
    • Billie Holiday’s famous performance of Abel Meerpol’s “Strange Fruit,” written about lynching in the south


  • Kellogg on Kellogg: Dust Returns, written in response to the untimely death of the composer’s mother

This diverse and strong body of music allows discussion on a range of topics and the many artistic responses. We cover extended techniques, aleatory, spacialization, satire, spoken-word verses sung-word, amplification in classical music, film without narrative, site specific work, noise, chamber music versus symphonic music, classical instruments versus non-classical instruments, etc. We talk about pieces written in the moment compared to pieces written with the perspective of years. We compare Meerpol and Holiday’s searing depiction of racial violence in America (“Strange Fruit”) with Mingus’s absurd and satiric approach to school desegregation (The Fables of Faubus). We compare Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima with On the Transmigration of Souls. We explore what role art can take in healing from tragedy. All of this comes with a menu of great and diverse music. The majority of the course is music that the students likely would never have encountered outside of the class.

The course culminates with students creating their own piece of art in response to tragedy.

The course culminates with students creating their own piece of art in response to tragedy. They pick an event/subject that they resonate with (personal or historical) and create a response in an artistic medium of their choosing (film, poetry, music, painting). They write a self-evaluation in which they state their artistic intent, describe the process, and evaluate their own work. Because this is not a class for art majors, I am lenient about artistic success and focus on the self-evaluation and effort. Some of the projects are stunning as students dig deep and discover creative veins they did not know they possessed. The topics vary widely, and the students share their work in the final classes.

The bulk of the content is offered online. I utilize YouTube, Vimeo, Spotify, and archived web articles to create the content for the course. The students engage with the material through laptops or phones at their chosen time and location. The classroom is reserved for discussion and questions. We typically sit in a circle, and my student teacher suggested we routinely ask short questions that everyone answers with a word or two. This helps everyone in the room have a voice while sending a message that each voice should be heard. I always give a talk about respecting each other when approaching complex issues of racism, genocide, sexual violence, etc., but the conversation always has remained appropriate.

Teaching the class is rewarding and energizing. Many students tell me they will never listen to music the same way again, and they think about their own favorite music in a new light. We get to discuss some raw topics and investigate the power of art to heal, challenge, and memorialize. My greatest hope is that they have a lifelong invitation to seek deeper artistic experiences in their lives. Most of them will go on to have mainstream careers as engineers, business owners, or scientists (the three big majors at the University of Colorado). I want them to find room for art in their lives, and I treasure this brief opportunity to share some great music.

New Approaches to Music Appreciation

My first classroom teaching gig was a music appreciation class at a Jewish Community Center on the outskirts of downtown Philadelphia. The JCC asked for an eight-week course based on the Philadelphia Orchestra concert schedule. For one hour a week, I stood in front of 50 retired adults and talked about music. I loved it, and I selfishly focused on the contemporary repertoire and began to find language to share my love of 20th-century concert music. This was important work. I had a special platform to proselytize the power of contemporary music and to help these non-musicians have a deeper experience when they went to the concert hall. It helped that my students were already ticket buyers for one of the world’s greatest orchestras. They sat with serious interest as we discussed John Corigliano, Claude Debussy, John Adams, Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, and other master composers who found their way on to the orchestra’s calendar that season.

I am filled with joy as a young composer discovers some bit of music that will forever change the way he or she thinks about music.

Fast forward ten years and I am teaching composition majors at the University of Colorado in Boulder. My favorite class— “New Music Styles and Practices”—is a model composition course for undergraduates. We spend two weeks looking at the music of Stravinsky, and then the students are asked to write a piece in the style of Stravinsky. We go on to cover Bartók, Messiaen, Babbitt, Lutoslawski, micropolyphony, minimalism, American nationalism, aleatory, and a host of other composers/aesthetics. It is a semester of discovery for many of these second-year students who have not yet encountered the masterpieces of 20th and 21st-century concert music. I take special delight as they investigate Reich’s Different Trains or George Crumb’s Black Angels for the first time. In some cases, these modern masterpieces shatter the students’ limited aesthetic bubbles. New possibilities or modes of expression open before them like a hiker arriving at a grand vista. I am filled with joy as a young composer discovers some bit of music that will forever change the way he or she thinks about music. By the end of the semester most of the students are different composers. They have encountered brilliance and now savor the seductive invitation to seek new heights and aesthetics within their own music. Like a tour guide, I decide where we stop, which juicy stories get told, and what might be the best angle for a selfie. I am the curator for an exquisite body of music, and my audience is eager.

I paint a romantically rosy picture of teaching, but I think that is important. Teaching has highs and lows, and I need to constantly remind myself of the big picture ideals that put me in front of a class. My voice should convey a conviction that we are studying something important and that I am personally on fire for the subject. I fondly remember Daron Hagen saying that all music classes are essentially “music appreciation” classes. They help us dig into the core substance of musical brilliance and deepen our love of our chosen art form. At least that is how learning and teaching ought to work.

I hold a core belief that art is relational.

This same passion for teaching music to composition majors fuels my passion for talking to lay audiences. I hold a core belief that art is relational, as we share unique and poetic visions about the human experience. The artist has something important to offer that can nourish and elevate the soul. Life without art is pale. I embrace opportunities to share insight into the richly complex and abstract—but highly expressive—medium of art music. I hope to help build an audience for my own work. More importantly, I desire to elevate the listening experience of the average person so that there is a bit more room in their lives to engage art music with meaning and joy. The cynic in me scoffs at this naively optimistic view. But my optimism brings energy and clarity when I speak to audiences. It is a privilege and a responsibility to embrace these platforms and draw an audience towards great music—whether Beethoven or Monk or Reich or Zappa or Higdon.

After a few years of teaching music majors full-time at my university, I became a bit nostalgic for teaching contemporary music to non-musicians. I missed the delight and challenge of inviting a lay audience to engage with abstract art music. So I began to imagine a class for undergraduate non-music majors that focused on art music from the last 100 years. I wanted to provide a compelling and meaty class, filled with contemporary art music, for the average University of Colorado student who came to study engineering, business, or environmental design. I remembered that often an audience merely needs a great invitation into the heart of a piece before they are ready to drop any bias and listen with open ears.  With a good guide, even a contrarian or major skeptic can find meaning in music they once disliked. Over a few years I created two classes—“Tragedy and Inspiration” and “Misfits and Geniuses”—to fulfill my desire to bring art music to non-musicians. These courses have enriched my teaching menu beyond composition students and allow the regular delight of opening ears to music I love.