Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Jazz at Yale

It is never too hard to predict what will set off New Yorker critic Alex Ross. So this rant about the Dean of Yale School of Music being insufficiently deferential towards jazz is not too surprising. But it is rather entertaining:
Reading yesterday's New York Times, I came across an article that appeared to date from around the year 1930 — the period in which dunderheaded authorities like Daniel Gregory Mason inveighed against the vulgarity of jitterbugging. In the Times piece, Robert Blocker, the dean of the Yale School of Music, explains why jazz is not a priority for his institution. He is quoted as saying: “Our mission is real clear. We train people in the Western canon and in new music.” This is real bad. Jazz is a monumental art form, its major figures among the most original thinkers in twentieth-century music. Its links to classical composition are myriad: classical players who are not exposed to jazz will deliver poor accounts of much music of the past hundred years, from Gershwin to John Adams. It's remarkable that the leader of a music school would resort to such inane formulations when speaking to a reporter. (News flash: jazz is Western, and it is also new.) Blocker's attitude is all the more astonishing in light of the fact that a decade ago the Yale School of Music received an unprecedented hundred-million-dollar gift, one that allowed the school to end tuition. You'd think that freedom from financial pressures would have encouraged the school to widen its intellectual horizons. Instead, perhaps not too surprisingly, sudden wealth seems to have brought about an entrenched, reactionary mindset. Gunther Schuller is roaring from his grave.
 By Alex' criteria I am the very model of a "dunderheaded authority" because, just as Daniel Gregory Mason (a well-known composer and critic in his day) thought that jitterbugging was vulgar, I'm fairly sure that I have said somewhere that twerking is vulgar. I'm also of the opinion that the Yale School of Music should see as their primary mission the transmission of the Western canon extending back in time and forwards to contemporary music. We have seen over the last few decades the destruction of English departments as the study of the great works of Western literature was replaced by their deconstruction. Fewer and fewer students enroll in English because reading Roland Barthes and Derrida is far less worthwhile than reading Shakespeare--who is anathema because he is dead, white and male. Of course, so are Barthes and Derrida, but that's ok because they are attacking Shakespeare. It is actually refreshing to hear a dean be so bold as to actually state his mission clearly! The job of Yale Music is not to cultivate the Miles Davises and Ornette Colemans of the future (for one thing, the era when jazz produced such giants is long gone), but to transmit the thousand year tradition of great Western art or concert music and train a new generation of performers and composers who have an idea of what it is.

Nothing against jazz, but it is not part of that tradition and not a good fit in academia. Great masters of jazz have never come from a university environment any more than punk bands, hip-hop artists or country music stars have. Why would they? A university music department is not needed to support and teach those genres. As the dean said, “Our mission is real clear. We train people in the Western canon and in new music.” Why is this controversial, or in the golden prose of Alex Ross, "real bad"? Perhaps you can make a case that jazz is a monumental art form, its major figures among the most original thinkers in twentieth-century music--I have my doubts, personally. But even if this were the case, this still does not imply that Yale should be teaching it. There are a number of schools that do specialize in jazz such as the Berklee College of Music.

Alex mentions Gunther Schuller who is not only rolling in his grave, but roaring from it! This provides us with an excellent example of why jazz and classical music (or concert music, or art music) are awkward bedfellows. Schuller, who just passed away a couple of months ago, was a formidable figure in both the jazz and classical worlds. In the 1960s and 70s he composed works that tried to synthesize the two traditions. In later years he reverted to being primarily a classical musician as Artistic Director for the Northwest Bach Festival in Spokane, Washington. I think, at this distance in time, it is possible to look back at his attempt and see that it was ultimately unsuccessful. His "third stream" compositions have made it into neither the jazz canon nor the classical canon.

But you be the judge. Here is Schuller's Variants on a Theme of Thelonious Monk for 13 instruments, from 1960:


18 comments:

Marc Puckett said...

I don't see the point, no. Pleasant enough, once, though, but am not a jazz person. My guess is that the couple of people I know who go to the jazz club would be outside smoking after the first few minutes but what do I know.

Bryan Townsend said...

I don't know why, but I have an instinctive aversion to all these kinds of "mash-ups". I know that there are wonderful examples of syntheses in the past, such as Mozart's fusion of the opera buffa and seria genres and Haydn incorporated some of the flavour of Hungarian gypsy music in the occasional minuet. But this sort of thing, the jazz/modernist synthesis, just seems wrong to me. There is some kind of fundamental sense of things like timbre, rhythm and phrase that are utterly different and performers in the one area just don't seem to feel the other one properly. I have never heard an example, including this one, that wasn't rather a second-rate one, both in terms of performance and composition. But, you know, it's not really my core expertise, so feel free to disagree.

Christine Lacroix said...

Hi Bryan,
I've been meaning to ask you what exactly you meant by 'mashup' when you used that term to describe The Trooper Overture by 2CELLOS. Remember it started with the William Tell Overture and then went into Iron Maiden? I looked on Wikipedia and they said a mashup is a piece composed of other pieces. But is that all it is? Does it mean they carry the tempo or some other element from one piece into another? Sorry to keep asking beginner questions!

By the way it just took me a while to figure out that you get email alerts by clicking on 'Email follow-up' when choosing an identity for the comment.

Bryan Townsend said...

Ya caught me! "Mash-up" is a cool, hip term, not a technical term in music at all. It just sounds cool when you use it. What I mean by it is different pieces or different styles are mushed together. A more traditional term is "medley", but those have a different feel. The mixing together of different styles is kind of a post-modern thing and I'm not sure we have a term specifically for that.

Christine Lacroix said...

I wasn't trying to ask a gotcha question I just didn't understand. If people are using the word mashup it it must mean something! And if it means mushing different styles together why do you say it's not a musical term? How else could you say it?

So in the Trooper Overture by starting with the William Tell Overture they 'mushed together different styles'? I thought it was kind of cool to start with an overture since I heard once that overtures were originally used to get the audience to pay attention and get them back to their seats. That's sort of what happened in the video if you remember? They used it to get the audience to stop throwing trash at them? If I keep referring to 2CELLOS I might end up giving you hives so maybe I should stop!

Bryan Townsend said...

"Mash-up" is a really recent usage. I don't think I heard it before the last year or so. It has a meaning in the pop world, I guess, of layering, or alternating bits of, two different pieces of music. Hard to know exactly because the pop world is not known for its precise definitions!

I said it wasn't a "technical" term. Technical terms in classical music have precise definitions. Some examples: dominant 7th, col legno, rounded binary, invertible counterpoint. But not so much in the pop world.

Not every word means something in the sense of "refers to some real thing in the real world". Some words are just "buzz-words" or "dog-whistles" that push people's buttons or something. Remember when we used to say things were "groovy"? Can you define that for me? Show me what it refers to in the real world?

You use 2Cellos for examples because you are familiar with their music. Perfectly sensible.

Christine Lacroix said...

You're very kind Bryan. I appreciate your patience. The word groovy. So you must be about my age. I suspected as much. You seem fond of the Beatles and Bob Dylan. That's sort of a giveaway!

Bryan Townsend said...

Hey, isn't everybody a Beatles and Dylan fan?

Christine Lacroix said...

I mentioned a Beatles song to a group of young adult students and they'd never heard of it. I played a clip, no recognition. Then I found out that not only had they not been born yet when the Beatles were popular but their parents hadn't either! Felt like an antique.

Bryan Townsend said...

There are some young people that are very big Beatles fans. It might be part of your job as a teacher to make sure they are exposed to the Beatles! Oh, and Bach and Mozart too. I had a teacher in Grade 9 that I am pretty sure played some of the Rite of Spring to us in class one day.

Anonymous said...

This article appears to rest its case on nothing further than the Argument From Authority. The Canon, whatever it is, is not to be questioned. But we question it. We question it as we question orthodox religion. We question whether it exists to perpetuate its own self-interests. We are suspicious of its racial and cultural exclusion. We are suspicious of its narrow view of the philosophy of education.

We affirm the place of jazz in 20th and 21st c. art. We affirm the importance of extemporaneous composition, and the importance of the insights it offers into musical cognition and the teleology of music. We affirm the importance of communitarian instruction and the distributed nature of knowledge.

Moreover, we believe that Yale, as an elite institution, has the obligation to assimilate diverse cultural forms that the canon gives no one the authority to reject.

Bryan Townsend said...

Aha, the anonymous We weighs in. Thanks for the comment. You really should read more of the blog where you will find me questioning just about everything, the canon included. But your comment has a kind of pre-fabricated doctrine to it, so perhaps it would be best not to waste your time.

Christine Lacroix said...

Wow, Bryan, that was an unfruitful exchange. I've just re-read your post to see what could have offended Anonymous so much. On the surface it might be seen as simply two different opinions on the merits of including jazz in the music curriculum at Yale. Perhaps you musicians cherish your music the way some people cherish their kids and get totally freaked out if someone demeans them in which case your post might have felt like a serious slap in the face to a jazz loving Anonymous? But what does race have to do with the subject? Are there liberals and conservatives in the world of music as well as in politics? Is that what this is about?

Bryan Townsend said...

There is certainly ideology in music. Some essential components of modernism are related to an ideology. But the source of this comment seems to be the rather virulent ideology of the social justice warriors that is currently running wild in academia like smallpox. Part of the raison d'être of this blog is, frankly, to oppose this very point of view as it is inherently anti-aesthetic.

Christine Lacroix said...

Virulent, warriors, running wild, smallpox, anti-aesthetic....I'm glad to see you're trying to tone this discussion down a notch. Bryan you're confirming what I was starting to suspect. Being conservative or liberal IS temperament as it seems to be trans-contextual. So a real political conservative might turn out to be conservative in their ideas about music? Maybe? Just a thought.

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm not sure if you have been following the recent student protests at Yale and other universities? Hard to describe them in any other terms, I think. I don't think I follow your argument here, though. Calling conservative or liberal views temperament puts them beyond discussion, which is not where they should be. Besides, lots of people, myself included, change their basic position over time.

Christine Lacroix said...

No I actually haven't been following the recent student protests. Students seem to protest a lot of things, don't they? They did when I was a student in the 60s and 70s.They still do here in France.
I don't think using 'temperament' to understand liberal or conservative tendencies puts anything beyond discussion but it might provide another key to understanding why political discussions seem so futile. And you may have taken some time to mature into your conservative or liberal tendencies but you're there now and I'm wherever I am and not much will budge either one of us. Especially not 'facts'! Discussion should lead to understanding and tolerance but it seems to cement opinions more firmly. By the way, it's a pity isn't it that people don't identify themselves when they leave comments? Is it the internet version of road rage? Anonymity gives us all sorts of freedom! I suspect that Anonymous in this thread works or studies at Yale. I'm disappointed that the conversation went off the rails so quickly.He or she might have even been a 2cellos fan!

Bryan Townsend said...

The current kerfuffle is quite interesting actually. You might have a look at this for an overview:

http://www.wsj.com/article_email/radical-parents-despotic-children-1448325901-lMyQjAxMTE1ODIxNDYyMTQ0Wj

I hope very much that my views are not ossified and immune to being corrected by facts. I hope every day to come to a better understanding of what is going on. But this is not to deny that I am pretty sure of a set of basic principles that I don't see wobbling around on a daily basis. In many areas I take a while to form an opinion. That was certainly true of my understanding of the climate change debate. The fundamental principle there, it seems to me, is that this is really not about any empirical facts regarding the environment, but about the machinations of power and money.