Monday, February 22, 2016

Don Giovanni in Prison

There is an interesting controversy unfolding right now in the halls of academia. A significant number of musicologists seem to be upset by a recent article by Pierpaolo Polzonetti about his experiences in teaching music analysis and appreciation in a prison setting. His article is titled "Don Giovanni Goes to Prison: Teaching Opera Behind Bars." Read the whole article, but this will give a taste of it:
When Bard College asked me to teach a three-hour class on Haydn’s Creation at Eastern Correctional Facility, I did not know what to expect. I accepted out of curiosity. Eastern Correctional Facility is a massive neo-gothic maximum-security prison built in 1900 in rural New York. Crossing into the prison’s mighty walls and passing through the security checkpoint can be intimidating. Encountering the incarcerated students has an even more powerful effect, but in a positive way. To me these men seemed to have dissolved the prison walls, thanks to their intellectual curiosity and their eagerness to learn. They opened their minds and ears to music that sounded exotic to many of them. Eighteenth-Century oratorios and operas can appear meaningless or dull to listeners mostly accustomed to the blatant lyrics and pounding beat of rap music. Classical music and opera, like rap, are acquired tastes and their value is both intrinsic and contextual. Fortunately they had already carefully read the texts I had assigned, including passages from Milton, Ovid, and the book of Genesis. This allowed us to engage with Haydn’s Creation on the basis of a shared intellectual background that made the oratorio somehow familiar and approachable.
The experience was so enlightening that I decided to teach an entire opera history class for inmates entitled “Opera and Ideas.” I taught it at the Westville Correctional Facility in Indiana during the Fall semester of 2014.
If you think that there is nothing objectionable there, then you are just not in touch with some aspects of current musicology. Here are excerpts from some of the comments to the article (which are now closed):
I'm disturbed the tone of this piece, as well as some of the specifics. We can begin with the assumption that all incarcerated males listen to rap. Do none of them listen to pop, rock, country, jazz, or other genres? Is the author making assumptions about his student population? And are those assumptions based on race?
Next the author dismisses rap as having "blatant lyrics" and a "pounding beat." Does "blatant" mean sexual? violent? speaking a truth? Does opera not exhibit these same characteristics at times? Are there no examples of so-called classical music with a pounding beat? 
Next, why does the author feel he has to point out the race of the student who shouts "never" three times, with a frightening crescendo no less, thus associating the race of this student with frightening. 
The assumption that opera can "heal the mind" reduced inmates of the correctional system in a way that suggests that the author never bothered to understand the complexity of their stories and life experiences. 
While there are so many other points I found racist and elitist and entitled, I'll point out this last one--why, in the 21st century--do certain musicologists believe that an understanding of formal elements of musics trumps a visceral emotional response, that you cannot truly understand the music and your response until you know what a descending rapid staccato scale or loud ascending octave leap is? I thought we were so over that.
That the AMS continues to support this kind of rhetoric is shameful.
That is the whole first comment and it summarizes that kind of view well. This is a counterpoint to it:
To me the intent of this piece is the exact opposite of what the negative readings suggest. I'd say that any view that holds that we shouldn't 'impose' 'high culture' on prison inmates (homeless etc,) is the ultimate put-down and contempt. Let the people taking the course be the judge of that.
If these works of art have the power still to speak to us, they can speak to all of us; if a mode of a more technical analysis can teach new insights, they can teach all of us--precisely not merely an elitist minority. It's not Prof. Polzonetti's piece that reduces the inmates to the uncivilized.
In his blog this line stands out to me: 'Classical music and opera, like rap, are acquired tastes and their value is both intrinsic and contextual.'
Another musicologist, Bonnie Gordon, with experience in community outreach contributed a lengthy article discussing the issue with considerable finesse: "The Perils of Public Musicology." Her opening:
The online community of the American Musicological Society is currently exploding around a post by Pierpaolo Polzonetti called “Don Giovanni Goes to Prison.” The post, about teaching opera in prison, sparked both harsh criticism of Polzonetti’s efforts and writings as well as important discussions about implicit and explicit biases in our field.  I am weighing in as someone who runs a program that pairs undergraduates with under-resourced, mostly African American kids for a variety of arts programs and is currently designing a community engagement curriculum for the College of Arts and Sciences at UVa.  While I find the post problematic, I fear that calling Polzonetti and his defenders racists risks turning this moment into a twenty-first century version of the AMS 1964 meeting when Edward Lowinsky associated Joseph Kerman’s call for a native musicology that moved away from “alien” ideas with Nazism.
Here is a sobering passage:
Public musicology in these senses is is not the same thing as community engagement. Teaching opera in a prison certainly seems like one kind of “public musicology,” and like the kind of effort that could be community engagement.  If you take the suspension-to-prison pipeline seriously it’s likely that the men in Polzonetti's class didn’t even have the opportunities that were offered in their schools; if you are suspended you are not in school.  I usually don’t have the courage to write about community engagement because if I make a factual or rhetorical slip up talking about under-resourced African American kids in a town built by the enslaved, the consequences are devastating. That is not the case for writing about Monteverdi.
Yes, it is certainly the case that there are a lot of dangers in discussing anything that involves race, gender, sexuality or class as these are all areas in which politics and cultural theory loom large and that means that they are highly contested nexus of political partisanship. But oddly enough, the only areas of discussion on this blog that have provoked really intense commentary are a) enlightenment values in the context of the tensions with Islam and b) Narciso Yepes and the 10-string guitar--a discussion that I had to end by deleting all the comments! The discussion around Islam was courteous and respectful throughout, even though we disagreed.

I think that the way that I keep things ticking along here without too much outrage erupting is by focussing to a considerable extent on aesthetics and objective musical value. These questions are considered by the progressive cultural theorists to be long since settled, therefore they don't spend any time debating them. In my opinion they are not settled or rather were settled in the wrong way, so they are what I am interested in. If I say that there are problems with rap music because it is rhythmically, harmonically and melodically impoverished, that is an aesthetic judgment and has nothing whatsoever to do with race or gender. Mind you, ignoring race in itself would probably be considered racist in some quarters.

I guess the best choice of an envoi to this post might be Haydn's Creation as it was one piece that was the subject of Professor Polzonetti's first course. The credits are at the beginning of the clip.


5 comments:

Marc Puckett said...

The same DGG email that alerted me to the vinyl release of the Sokolov Shubert/Beethoven CD also mentions a new 5 CD set of Narciso Yepes' live concerto recordings 1969-1979 [http://goo.gl/jrr8Vo].

Marc Puckett said...

I can't resist commenting on Bonnie Gordon's "it’s likely that the men in Polzonetti's class didn’t even have the opportunities that were offered in their schools"-- yes, I can; but you're right that many academic and other sorts of people will consider anyone who professes to ignore race to be in fact a racist. Off to the re-training cam... seminar with you!

Marc Puckett said...

(“White Americans Are Nearly as Blind to Their Racism as Ever Before”-- headline from the LA Times today, noted by James Taranto under the 'Generalissimo Francisco Franco Is Still Dead' rubric in today's Best of the Web.)

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm reminded of why I abandoned a musicology list serve: they got obsessed about the pronunciation of the names of Czech composers to such an absurd degree that it became intolerable. But not all of academia's obsessions are so harmless.

Bryan Townsend said...

This post has started attracting some of those very odd posts referencing Narciso Yepes. Please stop.