Friday, September 20, 2013

Where Did I Learn All This Stuff?

I don't know for sure, of course, but it occurs to me that some readers might be asking themselves "where did he learn all this stuff?" My knowledge of music is hardly comprehensive (I know almost nothing about middle-period Britney Spears' harmonic practice, for example) and it is not nearly as profound as it could be. But over the course of some forty-six years as a professional musician, I have picked up quite a lot. Where and how?

As far as formal study goes, that only began when I was twenty and entered the University of Victoria as an undergraduate, first in music education and then in the School of Music. But before that I had spent some years playing bass and electric guitar in a rock band and a year or so playing acoustic guitar and singing as a 'folk' musician à la Bob Dylan. I had then taken up the classical guitar and taught myself to read music so I could learn to play Bach on guitar. In undergraduate history and theory courses at the University of Victoria and later at McGill University, I did pick up the basics of harmony and theory--but not counterpoint as I managed to miss that year when I transferred schools. In between, I spent a year in Spain in total dedication to mastering the technique of the classical guitar. The final stage of my formal training came decades later when I returned to McGill as a doctoral candidate in musicology where I completed all the seminars for a doctorate, though not the dissertation. It was then that I did the first and only counterpoint course I have ever taken: the advanced seminar in fugue, the most advanced counterpoint course offered. I also did seminars in things like "non-classical theme types", comedy in opera, Shostakovich symphonies, DuFay, paleography and so on.

But, oddly, all this formal training left me with huge gaps in my knowledge of the basic repertoire. In eight years at university I don't recall once studying a Beethoven piano sonata or string quartet. I do recall doing the Fifth Symphony, very briefly, in first year history survey, but the most exposure I had to that piece was when I taught it to a very large class of non-music majors. The only time I was exposed to species counterpoint was again when I taught it in a basic theory class.

Where did I learn about those things I now consider core? I taught myself. I would guesstimate that only about 15% or 20% of my musical knowledge actually came from classes. My knowledge of repertoire comes largely from my own listening and study. No-one took me through all the Beethoven quartets. You would think, as they are pretty much the most profound music ever written, that every music school worth its salt would be offering a comprehensive course on them quite often. But no, I don't think that is the case. I don't have the time to search through all the course offerings of every school, but this is more typical of the kind of seminar we are offered instead of the Beethoven quartets:
The Socio-Cultural Study of Music
This seminar series is designed to introduce students to the socio-cultural study of music, with a focus on the work of Professor Georgina Born. The seminars introduce a series of innovative approaches to how we can understand and study contemporary musics, although the ideas are relevant also to historical musicology: the seminars are therefore broadly methodological. The nearest discipline to the space the seminars will occupy is ethnomusicology. However Born’s work is not ethnomusicological as that is broadly understood: it uses the method of ethnography, but it does not focus primarily on non-western musics but on contemporary musics of the developed world, so that a better disciplinary designation for this course is a combined anthropology/sociology of music. Moreover, while the majority of Born’s work has been on music, she has researched and written about a range of areas of cultural production and creative cultural practices including television, digital technologies and new media, and art-science: the seminars therefore also place research on music in this wider context.
Students are required to read and be prepared to discuss set texts by Born and key related texts, including such figures as Bourdieu, Foucault, Ihde, Feld, Goehr, Bohlman and DeLanda, as well as the work of several McGill professors with whom Born’s work is in dialogue: Prof. David Brackett, Prof. Jonathan Sterne and Prof. Will Straw. Each week Prof. Born will introduce or speak to the key questions and readings at issue; two students will also present summaries and discussions of readings as agreed beforehand. The allocation of student presentations will happen in the first weeks of the seminar and all students are required to present. Final mark for the course will be based on the in-class presentations and a final paper of 10-15 pages. Further details will be given at the start of term.
Oh yes, very, uh, stylish. This looks more promising:
Multiple Perspectives on the Analysis of Instrumental Works by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert: Case StudiesMusical compositions are literally “com-posed” by a multitude of parameters, such as form, rhythm, melody, dynamics, voice-leading, topoi, schemata, harmony, etc.  In order to grasp the complexity of musical works, the analyst is compelled to understand both the individual characteristics in their own right and their mutual and multifaceted interrelatedness. This seminar begins, by way of an elaborated example, with a multiple-perspective analysis of Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata (op. 32/ nr. 1) (motivic, form-functional, hypermetrical, hermeneutic, etc.). The aim of the seminar is to discuss and evaluate the different approaches and to apply multiple analytical approaches to other key works from the classical and early-romantic repertoire. Special attention will be given to the question of how far these different parameters contribute to the creation of musical form. Requirements of this course include (a) weekly assignments (readings and/or analysis preparation) (b) a one-hour class presentation in which a group of related compositions is presented (“a mini corpus-based study”), and (c) a paper in which this presentation is written out and further elaborated.
But at the end of the day, I suspect you will have a lot of familiarity with the complexities of this abstract approach and not know the Beethoven quartets very well at all. This is a more typical kind of course:
Music and Politics: Analytical Case Studies from the Eighteenth through Twenty-First Centuries
How does music convey political meaning? How does a political message manifest itself in the compositional procedures themselves? What are the mechanisms by which a work is politicized beyond composer intent? Can music be apolitical? This seminar will address these questions in selected works from the eighteenth century to the present through score analysis, study of the sketches and writings of composers, as well as by examining the aesthetic contexts and reception histories of the works. Scores to be analyzed include excerpts from The Beggar’s OperaUn ballo in maschera (Act III), Die Meistersinger (Acts II and III), The Threepenny Opera, Eisler’s Gegen den Krieg, Dallapiccola’s Il Prigioniero, Boulez’s Structure Ia, Maderna’s Composizione in tre tempi, Nono’s Intolleranza, Adam’s On the Transmigration of Souls, as well as from works chosen by the seminar participants. Course requirements include weekly assigned readings and listening, two in-class presentations, a midterm essay, and a final paper.
The thing to realize is that if you are NOT working at this level of complex abstraction they will not give you the doctorate and you won't get the job. Sometimes there are interesting insights that can come out of this kind of course. But the focus is really on the elaborate methodology and not on a comprehensive sense of the important repertoire. A typical professor would far rather interrogate the concept of "important repertoire" than actually know it.

So when do you get to know the repertoire? Theoretically that happens in all those undergraduate courses labelled "chamber music literature" etc. But there is never enough time. You skim, you browse and you skip over the surface. I recall studying ONE Haydn quartet in my undergraduate years.

What a university education gives you is basically an introduction to music. From then on, you are on your own. I never had the least exposure to the Shostakovich string quartets at university--never heard one note. What I did several years ago was buy the Emerson box of them and listen to one quartet every morning until I got them in my ears. Then I started looking at the scores. After several years, I am still getting to know them!

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