Monday, November 20, 2017

Shoehorning it in

I've been so critical of the folks over at Musicology Now that I lean towards trying to find something nice to say. I mean, there have to be some good posts, right? I did just run across an interesting one: Building a Better Band-Aid by Gwynne Brown. It is about the difficulties of teaching a music history survey course. Of course, survey courses come in various guises. I remember one professor bemoaning the ever-increasing difficulty of his survey course--20th Century Music--because when he started teaching it, in the mid-70s, the century was a whole lot shorter. Every year, it got longer (needless to say, this was a while back).

Now, what with the demands that music survey courses be "de-centered" away from purely classical repertoire so as to include jazz, world music and popular music, the task has suddenly become much harder:
I was daunted by the logistical challenge, but also excited to teach a class that combined virtually all of my favorite things. I divided the semester into thirds. The first, on art music after The Rite of Spring, concluded the prior two semesters’ overview of classical music history. The second unit attempted a concise overview of the “official version of jazz history” so ably identified and fileted by Scott DeVeaux in “Constructing the Jazz Tradition: Jazz Historiography” (which I assigned).[2] The third provided a swift introduction to the field of ethnomusicology, followed by a taste of Shona mbira music and South Indian vocal music, chosen largely because these were of particular interest to me. 
Since the catalog had promised that the course would include popular music, I shoehorned it in. There was obviously no point trying to survey every major pop style in three class meetings, so instead I explained that our goal was to sample some of the different methodological approaches in pop music scholarship. I assigned three readings that ranged widely both in their authors’ scholarly perspectives and in the music under consideration. We had particularly lively and worthwhile discussions of Jeffrey Magee’s revelatory song biography of “Blue Skies” and Peter Mercer-Taylor’s dazzling and eccentric analysis of R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People.[3]
On the whole, that first semester went smoothly, but by the end it was clear to us all that we had plowed through jazz history, pop music scholarship, and two non-Western musical traditions at an almost comically accelerated pace. The students were openly critical of the disproportionately lavish amount of time the music history sequence had bestowed on Western classical music. My new third course, designed to improve the inclusiveness and diversity of our music history curriculum, had rendered unmistakable that curriculum’s ongoing imbalance—not to mention its overwhelming whiteness.
Well, yes, overwhelming whiteness is certainly going to seem a problem. It is not, however, a problem exclusive to classical music. I watched a really interesting history of mathematics the other day and, guess what, every single figure mentioned, from Pythagoras to Euclid to Descartes to Leibniz to Gauss to Gödel was, you guessed it, not only white, but male. (I have to qualify this just a tad: Arabic and Hindu mathematicians were mentioned, largely because that is where our number notation comes from.) I can hardly wait until math survey courses start figuring out how to change their curricula for the sake of diversity and inclusion.

The solution musicologists seem to be drifting towards is to make it all about them and their methodology:
When I abandoned comprehensive stylistic survey as a realistic goal, I discovered the advantages of calling my students’ attention to the diverse values, goals, and tools that musicologists bring to their work on the music they care about. I have made this “meta” perspective a unifying theme for the semester. Major styles, canonic repertoire and recordings, and important individuals and groups remain important, as one would expect in a typical music history survey. However, when students consider questions like “What kind of evidence does the author use?” and “What relevant topics does this scholar leave out?” they gain additional knowledge: that music history is constructed, brick by brick, by individuals with particular priorities, strengths, and limitations.
The great advantage here is that because you are prioritizing the methods and interests of current musicologists, who are a pretty diverse bunch, you can mostly ignore the embarrassing fact that the great classical repertoire of Western music is, like the history of mathematics, almost exclusively the creation of white men.

So far as I can see, the students who come out of this course are going to know a bit more about jazz, world music and popular music, and a whole lot less about classical music. I guess that's ok with them.

When I took a music history survey course myself as an undergraduate, the professor took all of the fall term to get to Monteverdi. In January she began with the post-Monteverdi Baroque and she had to tack on an extra class at the end to cover the 20th century: Schoenberg, Bartók and Stravinsky all jammed into one class! And, of course, she didn't even mention jazz, world music or popular music. That you can explore on your own. So for our envoi today, we will listen to the Magnificat by Claudio Monteverdi:


David said...

Caveat: I am unable to get worked up about the Dead White Guy syndrome that has so many agitated these days.

To my mind, one of the great things about music that is composed and preserved with notation (the bulging treasure trove of Western Classical (Art) Music is that it can (1) be performed by anyone regardless of gender or race; (2) be appreciated and prompt connections and feelings and enjoyment by anyone regardless of race or gender or culture; (3) outlast (hopefully) the tyranny of neo-Marxism that has claimed the spotlight at the present time. [Remember, the works of J.S. Bach were neglected until their rehabilitation by Mendelssohn. (Correct me if I have this wrong)]

It seems to me that the gnashing of teeth, rending of clothes and tearing of hair that is triggered in some when they look at the history of this great music is just mis-spent energy. The great gift is the music left for us.

Bryan Townsend said...

It is an awfully good idea to express our gratitude for all the great music that has come down to us--especially this time of the year.

Yes. lots of contrived hysteria out there. What attracted me to this article was that it was quite sober, not hysterical. Mind you, still trapped within a rigid ideology...

Musicians like Mozart and Beethoven were well aware of the music of Bach, but it was indeed Mendelssohn who revived the public performances of his larger works. So you could say that Mendelssohn popularized Bach.