Tag: active listening

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.)

Thinking in Jazz

I now offer my apologies for the title of this week’s post to Dr. Paul Berliner, author of a book of the same name (although he adds the subtitle “The Infinite Art of Improvisation”). I decided to use the title after receiving an invitation to participate in a survey about “Embodied Cognition; Distributed Cognition and Improvisation” that was forwarded to me by Dr. Lewis Porter, head of the Jazz History and Research master’s degree program at Rutgers University. The questionnaire gave me reason to re-examine some of the issues I’ve been discussing in recent posts about how jazz is perceived as an academic discipline vs. how certain core elements of jazz are embedded in rap music.

Berliner’s book, which earned the Alan Merriam Prize for Outstanding Book in Musicology from the Society of Ethnomusicology, is an academic inquiry into the who, what, why, where, when, and how of the culture of jazz in New York during the 1980s. Berliner interviewed more than 50 jazz musicians of all stripes and asked them to discuss how they learned to improvise. He approached the task in the same manner as when he did his field research for his Deems Taylor Award-winning The Soul of Mbira: music and traditions of the Shona pople of Zimbabwe, moving to New York City and interacting with his anthropological “informants.” Most of the established jazz musicians at the time had not learned jazz in an institutional education setting, so Berliner heard a lot about musicians getting together in community-based study groups, going to jam sessions, and being involved in mentorship with their more experienced elders. Of course, there were younger musicians on the scene who did study jazz in college, but they had generally been exposed to it before then; musicians who had never played jazz until they went to college were few.

My own college studies didn’t begin until 2001, almost thirty years after my career began, and it was during my graduate studies in 2006 that I first heard of Berliner’s book. Part of me was fascinated to read how the artists who were interviewed learned to play jazz pretty much the same way I did, by listening, practicing, performing, and listening to whatever feedback was given. I transcribed solos and tunes with a friend and, later, on my own, just like the people in the book did. I didn’t miss that much by not going to college, except for the fact that a college education then was more manageable in terms of costs. The book, however, was conducted as field research, as if Berliner was researching a primitive community in a place far away from America, and I began to notice that the idea of “place” in the jazz studies courses I attended had more nuance to it than just physical location. I began to think of place as having temporal and experiential components as well as geographical ones. Berliner’s research, no matter how valuable in terms of its musicological insights, treated the community of jazz musicians as existing outside of the academic world, although many, even if not most, of the musicians being interviewed went or taught (and still teach) in academic settings.

Things are different now and there are plenty of aspiring and accomplished jazz musicians attending colleges and universities. They study with professors and adjunct instructors who work from syllabi and within the guidelines proscribed by their institution’s vision statements. One thing that isn’t different, though, is that improvisation is still a mystery to many non-jazz trained musicians and intellectuals who want to quantify, and possibly codify, the elements and techniques that go into it. What leads me to this conclusion is the questionnaire I mentioned earlier, put together by Dr. Martin E. Rosenberg, an independent scholar and guitarist residing in Pittsburgh. His questionnaire asks some basic questions about the strategies a jazz musician might employ as they go about improvising: How does one practice it? How does one facilitate a more fluid perception-synthesis-performance state of being? What does one do when interacting with other improvising musicians during rehearsal? How does one describe their emotional responses to what they hear other improvisers play?

What strikes me about Rosenberg’s questionnaire (which I’ve paraphrased; there are actually 12 broadly worded questions arranged into four categories) is that there is very little inquiry about passive listening as an integral part of learning to play jazz. Maybe the subject is left out for a reason (i.e., to see if those responding to the questionnaire include it without being prompted), but this is an issue among many of the “old-school” jazz educators working in institutions of higher learning. Not infrequently, they have found themselves before a roomful of students who don’t listen to jazz very much, if at all. This seems to be considered an irrelevant issue among higher education administrators who insist that being obsessed with, or even interested in, playing music need not be a prerequisite for studying it. It seems that all of the jazz musicians I know have made a conscious decision, as well as a prolonged and concerted effort, to live a life dedicated to making music. Dr. Rosenberg is a dedicated jazz guitarist (as well as a self-employed information technology consultant/architect) who describes his work as “studying jazz improvisation as an ‘emergent’ phenomenon … an extension [of] earlier publications on the cultural work of the scientific concept of ‘emergence’ or ‘self-organization in the other arts and philosophy.” I’m now reading his articles “Dynamic and Thermodynamic Tropes of the Subject in Freud and in Deleuze and Guattari” and “Jazz and Emergence (Part One) From Calculus to Cage, and from Charlie Parker to Ornette Coleman: Complexity and the Aesthetics and Politics of Emergent Form in Jazz,” and find myself numbed. Not at anything Rosenberg has done—I plan to answer the questionnaire to the best of my ability—but rather with the language and attitude that comprises what I can only describe as institutional chauvinism towards the arts in general, music in particular, and jazz especially.

Rosenberg approaches his work through the lens of philosophy and accesses two 20th-century French philosophers who I had never heard of until I read his work: Gilles Deleuze and Pierre-Félix Guattari. They wrote several books together that, as far as I can tell, explain the perception of self as a relentless string of comparisons of differences between oneself and others (e.g., I am me because I am not you). I’m sure that there is value to the approach, and I eagerly look forward to finishing the second of Rosenberg’s articles. Then I can find good translations of those French philosophers’ works and start reading them. I have been laboring under the assumption, one that I learned from my mentors and colleagues, that jazz improvisation is about tapping into a state of awareness where the self is connected to others—not different, but the same—and when that state is reached, the music happens. This is understood not as an illusory or metaphoric concept, but as a dynamic and essential element of music production. It is about a total involvement in making music that transcends awareness as an individuation of self. Possibly this concept is taken out of context by some who look at music as “apolitical.” Fortunately, though, Deleuze and Guattari understand this and use what I, at least for now, think is a horrible term, “minortarian” to describe how musicians perceive and present themselves among what is described as a “dominant culture.” Unfortunately, they seem to believe that these two factions are “complicit” with each other’s agenda, or at least the minortarian one is complicit with its dominant culture. The implication would be that without a dominant culture, the minortarian one ceases to exist.

Food for thought!