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Postmortem III

Here it is, the much-unanticipated and long-overdue third installment in the postmortem franchise. The main reason for the wait? My five-year break from teaching Writing About Music. While I might not have felt compelled to write a third postmortem after the odd experience of teaching the course back-to-back semesters before the gap, I was supposed to write something about the variety of research projects I had tried. Alas, as so much in the Pit Stop, plans went up in a puff of smoke. I may get around to writing about research here; if not, expect a Postmortem IV … someday.

But what am I doing, envisioning sequels of sequels before the present post has even been written? What is this, a summer blockbuster? A bestselling young-adult dystopian “novel”?

The reason for the hiatus, by the way, is that other faculty members expressed interest in teaching the course. Needless to say, this is a wonderful thing; you really feel like you’ve contributed to a department’s culture when you design (or co-design, in this case) a course that other faculty want to teach. These faculty then go on to create their own versions of the course, which may in turn influence the shape and direction of one’s own version, &c. So, for examples: Prof. Elyse Zucker structured the course entirely around jazz; Prof. Anne Rounds used the course to explore issues of music and culture (exercise, consumption, education, social space more generally). I’ll have a bit more to say about Prof. Rounds’s syllabus later on.

Anyway, it was good to have fresh bodies to work on, or at least the ears and the parts of the brains connected to them, the rest hardly concerns me, except insofar as it enables them to talk, walk in and out of my classroom, etc. A lot of water has passed under the bridge vis-à-vis reading and listening between Fall ‘12 and Spring ’18 (yes, it has been a year since I taught the course—again, puffs of smoke), much of it during my sabbatical over the 2016-17 academic year, and this meant a flood of new ideas for teaching—new texts to read, new assignments to write, new possible approaches to the material. In fact, I originally had in mind to do something quite different from what I’d done before. Part of the reason for this was my deteriorating hearing: I thought it might be impossible to teach the course with the sort of close attention to listening that I had in the past, and as such that it might be easier to structure the course more like I do my other electives (such as my historically-organized short fiction curriculum for Studies in Fiction), with students investigating a few longer texts that raise a variety of issues about music. I thought about using Geoff Dyer’s jazz book But Beautiful, and Carl Wilson’s contribution to the 33.3 series Let’s Talk About Love, both of which I read on sabbatical, and perhaps one or two others (David Byrne’s How Music Worksoccurred to me as well, but I’ve only read a piece of it thus far). But I wasn’t sure what framework I could use to bring them together—it’s easier to do with a genre course like Studies in Fiction, or even Latin American Literature in Translation, the other two sophomore-level English electives I regularly teach.

Maybe it was laziness. Maybe it was nostalgia. Or maybe it was some last hurrah before the ship of my hearing careens over the horizon of the audible. But it was also at least partly a result of looking over the reams of material I’d already created, and all the other work I’d done for the class over its three previous incarnations, and deciding there was quite a bit worth holding onto. I ultimately opted to keep the original framework of the course, update and expand the materials in the first three units, and replace the last two units with new materials and assignments, including excerpts from But Beautiful, the sole required text. What follows, then, is a tour through these changes, what seemed to work and what didn’t, and what I think is still left to be done, should I have the opportunity to teach the course again. One more time would do my heart good.

Now, if you’re new to this blog or these quasi-public teaching journals, you’ll probably want to go back and read the first two installments, “Postmortem I” (3.13.11) and “Postmortem II” (2.24.12), since the groundwork for the philosophy of the course, its general shape, and the assignments I’ve used are all discussed there, and I’ll be alluding to these throughout, hurdling most repetition to focus on new stuff. (Or, as the Japanese softcore producers say to Max Renn (in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome) when he asks to see just the climactic episode: “But Max! You won’t understand a thing! It’s all set up in the first two!”)

Words to listen by

To introduce the course, I went back to using excerpts from My Music (Wesleyan UP, 1990), the book composed of transcribed interviews from the Music in Everyday Life Project, for an icebreaker, and for the first, ungraded “My Music” essay. I’d tried a couple of other things the previous two times I taught the course, but I think this works best as a general introduction, allowing students to access music on a personal level before they are asked—as they will be for the remainder of the semester—to do more. The only problem was that I also threw them a couple of quotes by Jacques Barzun and Leonard Bernstein from longer pieces I’d used in previous semesters (as the Spanish say, me fue la mano, i.e., I got carried away), and these opened up some very large and muddy cans of worms I hadn’t intended to open until later in the semester. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to preview some knottier Big Concepts with the promise of returning to them later. The caveat, for me as much as for all teachers working to (gently) prod students out of their comfort zones: when we overload our syllabi (and overloading has been a perennial problem for me, as I’m sure it is for other teachers: our community college students need so much in the way of background knowledge, and we want to give them so much), there is a point after which the returns diminish; the more we try to do, the less we actually accomplish.

As in previous semesters, from here the course moved into a listening-focused unit, with a description of a piece of music as the capstone assignment. With some minor tweaks, I used to same assignment as before. What I expanded, however, was the manner in which I approached listening. Here I was inspired by Prof. Rounds’s syllabus (which she was gracious enough to share with me) to break down the listening unit into the elements of music. I’d always been rather scattershot before: an in-class exercise where I fired random bits of unfamiliar music at them, and had them work in groups to think about how they would describe it to someone who hadn’t heard it before; a class on basic song structure, cropped from the first of two music theory courses I audited at City College, to help them think about organization; and a few standout examples of musical description for models and strategies. Back during my last semester teaching the course (that is, in Fall 2012), I’d begun to move in the direction of formalizing this unit, and had even gone so far as drafting a multi-page handout on the elements. I hadn’t made it past melody and timbre, but I did share what I had with a Writing Fellow at the time, who gave me useful feedback and—perhaps most important—did not seem to think what I had thus far was entirely ridiculous. (I think I’ve had three different opportunities to kidnap CUNY grad center music doctoral student Writing Fellows, and every time they’ve given me great feedback and support. A thank-you to them and to our WAC coordinators for their generosity.) As I belatedly turned myself back to this work for Spring ‘18, that original four-page draft ballooned into a ten-page behemoth (twelve if you include the last part, “Other Strategies, Advice, and Caveats”), a bona fidepacket of listening exercises that formed the core of the classwork and homework for the three weeks leading up to the assignment … and only about two-thirds of which we were able to complete in any depth before moving forward.

There are a few questions buried here. The first is how much one can hope to achieve in five or six classes for students most of whom haven’t the faintest idea how to analyze music. It is, as I’ve noted in previous Postmortems, at once a central element and a quixotic fantasy, at least without some sort of music pre- or co-requisite for the course, which does not seem to be forthcoming. At the same time, frontloading the course with formal listening exercises is also an opportunity for them get a toehold in concepts and language they will continue exploring and potentially applying for the rest of the semester, as every succeeding assignment either mandates or invites them to do. Hence, what may seem impossible to do in a few weeks may actually form a substrate on which they (hopefully) grow for the ten or so weeks that follow, drawing on these nascent skills, and further developing them through application. Indeed, the goal of the course has always been to build outward from this “raw” approach to listening, so that describing becomes one element in a bigger toolkit for apprehending music in language.* As for this mini listening boot-camp, the goals were to (a) give students enough to work with, which in the context of the class means enough that they feel like they can approach writing a description of a piece of music they like, try to apply some basic vocabulary, and feel that developing 600-900 words is challenging, but not impossible; and (b) make doing so accessible, and potentially even enjoyable. In the end, I want them to think about the music they love but take for granted in a more formal way; to become more conscious about how it works, and why.

It was very much a feeling-out process, as can probably be imagined. I actually stole Rounds’s opening gambit: “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and the assignment that students come to class with a song they could hum—a really wonderful idea. After reflecting on how best to approach this, I remembered earworms, which I first encountered reading Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia a number of years ago; I thought it might be a good topic of discussion for introducing melody: a song that they not only could hum, but that insists on being hummed! In hindsight, I think the Sacks chapter on earworms, which is only about ten pages long, would have made for better reading than the CNN and NPR pieces I ended up finding on-line. That said, there was something instructive about these articles. Researchers’ attempts to describe what makes an earworm are so vague as to lose any explanatory power: simple, but not too simple; should go up, but also go down; contains an interesting (??) interval …. one ends up with the impression that psychologists really have no clue what makes a melody an earworm. As one of my students quipped, if they ever did manage to figure out a formula, they’d be millionaires. (N.B.: Also potentially useful here is Mark Twain’s entertaining earworm story “Punch, Brothers, Punch,” which I posted on Blackboard but did not require students to read.)

“Twinkle” was indeed a great melody to begin with; I even found an instructional video on YouTube with Space Invaders-like blobs landing on the appropriate keys of an animated keyboard, the tempo at a wounded crawl. (What I wouldn’t give to have an actual, physical keyboard in the classroom for even just a few days … ah well. As my union puts it, our teaching conditions are our students’ learning conditions.) I ended up pairing “Twinkle” with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”; the two worked beautifully together to think about similarities and differences between how melodies are shaped (ascent and descent, leaps and steps, range, repetition, question and answer, and so on). My coda was Eric Dolphy’s “Hat and Beard.” As I wrote many moons ago on this blog (see “Underground Man,” 5.27.10), Dolphy’s melodies sound like they should be hummable … but reproducing them when they’re gone, even after you’ve heard them a number of times, is enormously difficult. Dolphy’s melodies recall what the man himself (and others before and after him) said about music more generally: “You hear it, and it’s gone.”

In the process of constructing the packet, I also realized (or perhaps better resolved on) something else: given in part that this is an English course, making analogies—even sometimes rather strained ones—between the sorts of things students would have encountered in the writing-sequence courses and music could be a viable way for them to make potentially enlightening connections. Every art can serve as an analogical reference-point for any other, with music perhaps the one that most depends on such analogies. So, for example, I compared melodies to summaries—the “gist” of a song; the thing we can abstract from the broader sonic information. I used the relationship between dependent and independent clauses (which at least some of them suffered through, particularly if they started the writing sequence at the developmental level) to try to elucidate the role of tension and resolution in melody.† I also tried to illustrate tension-resolution by applying a technique we sometimes use in teaching poetry and description to highlight the importance of a writer’s word choice: How would the meaning change if word Xwere replaced by word Y? The same might be asked of a melody. I sang the first part of “Rainbow” and, on the “high,” the unresolved ending of the antecedent phrase, I replaced it with the octave (“way … up … high!”). I’m not sure it helped, but the idea seems right: they could compare a clearly resolving note with one that suspends, that expects an answer, in the context of a single melody. (It also (hilariously) made the song sound like a TV jingle selling, I don’t know, sofas—which is probably right, since a jingle, as opposed to a song, seeks immediate resolution.)

At the same time, developing students’ music-writing skills is a matter not just of more careful and analytical listening, but linguistic precision. After suffering through a few semesters of the blandest and most generic language to describe music’s affective character, parts of the packet forced them to expand their vocabulary in the pedagogically-dreaded abstract: to create a palette like a painter’s, but of words; to find stronger, more specific, more evocative terms for describing the shades and complexities of emotional states to which music can give us access. That’s right: I actually asked them to make lists of synonyms, and we discussed shades of difference between, say, angry and enraged (quantity), or chipper and pleased (quality), and then how these words might be applied to different music selections. Compare, for example, Peter’s theme in Peter and the Wolf to the beginning of the Pastorale symphony. If we agree both of these are “happy,” how can we distinguish the quality and intensity of happiness? We also discussed adjective-adverb combos, Roland Barthes be damned (e.g., “resignedly happy,” which may describe how I feel reading Barthes). I was taking off here from a moment in the opening chapter of Aaron Copland’s What To Listen For in Music, plane #2 of his planes of listening, the expressive plane. I should add that it was also a fine opportunity to undercut such approaches, and to make students wary of clichés. In case you don’t know or remember them, Simpsons creator Matt Groenig’s ‘80s Life In Hell comics featured the “Feisty Film Critic” and “So You Wanna Be a Rock Critic,” both extremely funny parodies of the critical enterprise. One includes a matching exercise where the critic selects an adjective from column one and an adverb from column two, and ends up with a ridiculously clichéd pair (e.g., “hauntingly evocative”). Touchee, Copland!

Now, is there something too rote, even pedagocally unsound, about this approach? Are you sure? How sure are you? I have the feeling many of my students have never been asked to think consciously about the way language parses emotional experiences, not even in poetry.

From melody we moved into timbre. I think this section of the packet also had much that worked well. I still follow the advice of an intro-to-music syllabus I found on-line a number of years ago: start with voice. Not only, as has been much written about, because the voice (together with the beat of the heart) is the basis of all music, but also because it’s what students feel most comfortable talking about. Voice, together with the words sung or rapped, allowed us to focus on three things: the story or emotion being communicated by the words; the physical qualities of the singer’s voice and the words we might use to describe them (breathy, raspy, gruff, that sort of thing); and the attitude (as part of their artistic persona) they projected, the last of which again draws on a concept they should be familiar with from their earlier English classes, tone. Thus, voice forms an entry-point for thinking about timbre more broadly; tone becomes a bridge to tone quality, something we use to distinguish one person’s speaking voice from another’s; and considering the voice as an instrument becomes a bridge to the timbre of instruments. For the latter, I confess—I have already obliquely done so—I used “Peter in the Wolf,” and another lovely educational video I found on YouTube. (I’m only rhetorically ashamed; I listened to this piece growing up and have always loved it, and I can’t think of a composer with a more robust and evocative melodic imagination than Prokofiev.) The focus on voice also allowed me to re-use several of the tracks I had used in my previous “scattershot” semesters (2010 and 12) for opening listening exercises, including Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday,” Tom Waits’s barroom “Innocent When You Dream,” Alberta Hunter, Nina Simone, Johnny Cash, Perla de Cadiz, and Pantera.

Any attempt to try to explain music’s affective meaning raises a host of issues. For example: how to speak about any one element in isolation from the others? Of course, this is true of any analysis. (Given that I have largely abandoned a formal approach to the elements of fiction and poetry, I should ask myself here, publicly, why am I attempting it with music. Naivete?) In giving students, say, the opening section of the Pastorale symphony, or Peter’s theme, one can’t help but notice that the affective character of the music is as much a product of instrumentation and arrangement as of melody—and before long the whole kit and caboodle is dragged into the discussion. (We were actually able to capitalize on this by listening to a selection from Swan Lake, in which the central theme radically changes its character when it re-appears in a new arrangement.) In hindsight, it makes me wonder if this formalized listening unit might be turned ninety degrees, so that, rather than foregrounding the elements, it foregrounded instead the physical aspects of timbre and melody on the one hand, and its affective character on the other. In this way, one might begin with emotional response—what the music makes us feel, often the first impression of a piece—before asking students whatthey are hearing in the music that provokes this response. This would allow the elements to emerge more naturally from a discussion of the way we respond to the music we hear. Something to think about.

Something else worth considering: as noted, by the time they take this course, students will have completed the foundational courses in the English sequence (Comp 1 and 2); they will have been trained throughout those two semesters to find main ideas, paragraph topics, and (God forbid) that elusive-reductive something called the meaning of a poem or story. But in this course, students are pushed up against texts where they’re asked to think less about meaning than texture: to describe what it is they hear, and from this to consider how and why it provokes certain responses in a listener. Of course, we try to do this in Comp as well, particularly in the second semester, which, at Hostos, is literature-based. But we know, as per Billy Collins’s hilarious “Introduction to Poetry,” that resisting this desire to ferret out meaning is an uphill battle (cf. “They begin beating it with a hose/ to find out what it really means”). I know that my students have always had a wretched time with prosody—ironic, given that prosody fills their lives in the form of the music most of them listen to (or maybe not so ironic; see below). But if they have so much difficulty parsing the music of a poetic line or stanza, why would I imagine they could do it with melodies, with sound? Of course, resisting this trampling the text in the quest for meaning, the violence of it, the consumer mentality behind it, and teaching students to luxuriate in the sensual thereness of the text, might itself be a justification for a class like Writing About Music: without the ability to jump right to meaning, students are forced to confront the physicality of the musical “text” … and this might have a payoff for their ability to appreciate the sensual there-ness of any text: linguistic, visual, etc.

Speaking of texture … I won’t, not very much, because I didn’t, not very much. It is in some ways the most difficult element to teach to non-music students, so it was somewhat fortuituous that we ran out of time to really do it justice. A couple of years back, Prof. Rounds introduced me to a Steve Reich piece called “Clapping Hands.” It begins with a synchronized 12-beat pattern, repeated eight times; after each set of eight, one person begins the pattern a beat ahead of the other, and, as in a classic Reich tape-loop composition (e.g., “It’s Gonna Rain” or “Come Out”), the two clappers fall further and further out of phase with each other, until they wrap around again. As “the rhythmic corollary to the harmonic idea of imitative polyphony” (as I have called it elsewhere on this blog), the piece seemed like a perfect way to introduce the concept of texture. And so long as we were singing and/or listening to “Happy Birthday” (Monroe) and “Twinkle, Twinkle” (Space Invaders), we simply hadto try “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” which was actually the piece cited in my first-semester music theory textbook to introduce the concept of polyphony.

But I also realized that a rigorous, formal understanding of polyphony wasn’t necessary for students working at this level of music appreciation. Non-musicians (a category which would include many, if not most, music writers/critics) tend to use the concept much more generally—not to say vaguely/sloppily—to mean something more like the overall sonic density of a piece, with an ear toward the way voices and timbres bleed together as well as stand apart. In this way, texture becomes a variant of signal-to-noise: To what extent do the various sonic components of a piece of music blend into a single mass of sound? To what extent can we hear individual voices braiding together, or pulling apart? To what extent does a single voice predominate? To illustrate, I used the very New York analogy (which I think I might’ve read somewhere) of sitting in a noisy public place—a park, a bar, whatever. I wanted students to be able to think about the overall ambient quality of a piece, the way the combination of sounds, of timbres and melodies and rhythms, sometimes pull away from each other, sometimes bleed into each other, to create music’s Gestalt effect. The problem: it’s difficult to articulate this without entering into a basic discussion of harmony, of consonance and dissonance, without exploring a few basic intervals … and given the overall trajectory of the course, where I want students to be for their first graded assignment, opening this Pandora’s box might be the straw that … broke … opening this straw camel might be the box … shit. Let me come back to this a little later.

Of all the elements we explored, it was rhythm that snookered me. I was very much a victim of my own assumptions here. As an amateur musician who always felt more comfortable with rhythm than melody or harmony, I thought I had some intuitive grasp of the topic; perhaps I even thought that rhythm was somehow “easier” to explain than the other elements; and that these two things together meant I already had the resources to make it clear. An embarrassing admission for a veteran teacher, but there it is. These assumptions led to a number of confusions as we tried to parse the rhythms of the various assigned pieces. It was most an issue when we listened to a baroque piece together: without percussion or bass to provide a clear backbeat, and what with all the fluctuations in dynamics and tempo that accompany classical performance, students had difficulty finding the regular pulse (so-called “motoric rhythm”); tempo, meter, and texture (in the shape of other voices ornamenting the melodic line without changing the pulse) ended up all balled together, and were only partly untangled by taking a few steps back. The upshot here is that I need to rethink my lesson on rhythm to find the sorts of handholds I’ve found for melody and timbre. Perhaps, given how beautifully “Clapping Hands” introduces the idea of polyphony, re-ordering the elements—even putting rhythm first—would make sense.

I did have at least one idea worth revisiting and revising: dance as a means of imagining rhythm (and to be sure, music more generally). Even just by tapping a foot or hand, or clapping along, rhythm becomes visible, tangible: we see/feel the way the body translates it. Unlike my mostly failed attempts to get students to hum their hummable melodies, a couple of students did get up and dance a merengue to Joseito Mateo. (The humming was very early in the semester … so maybe they were just beginning to feel more comfortable in the oddballness that is this class, and more importantly, with each other.) My epiphany here for future semesters was to ask students to find/watch a video of the dance associated with the rhythm in question (the two may be synonymous), and write. What does the way in which the body (and perhaps pairs or groups of bodies) translate rhythm reveal about the characteristics of that particular rhythm? And perhaps, though more carefully: What elements of the associated culture might this rhythm/dance express?

As noted above, for song structure I partly reduxed the adapted lesson on Cake’s “Stickshifts and Safety Belts”; I thought it worked better this semester with the addition of Beyonce’s “Halo” for comparison and contrast. Structure is a great example of something students “know” from listening to so much popular music, but aren’t necessarily conscious of knowing. It was a good opportunity for me to take basic verse-chorus-bridge song structure and algebraically boil it down to 32-bar structure, allowing me to make a connection back to “Rainbow” and forward to the jazz we would listen to later in the semester, and hence maximize the recursive use of the assigned listenings. It was a similarly good opportunity to again make connections to both the English sequence and the just-studied elements, here by thinking of a song as a story independent of its lyrical content: Does it have a climax? If so, where? And how do you know?

Ending the unit with structure makes for a nice segue into the formal assignment, since it provides one possible model for how to structure the description essay. But this semester I also provided a second, more direct model: a model description essay using the Judas Priest song “Fever,” which I posted and annotated to show the different techniques I had used to organize and develop. Making models for the graded assignments was actually a big overall upgrade in the course as a whole this semester. I had good a student performance review from a previous semester which I also annotated and posted; I also linked to a couple of performance reviews on the Pit Stop. For the photo-bio assignment (see below), I annotated and posted a current student’s “A” paper, for those who needed or wanted to revise. And for the final assignment, which asked students to analyze song lyrics in terms of their musical components (below, below), I again wrote and annotated a model, this one using Dr Octagon’s “Earth People.”

Given all of the above, and the new ideas that occurred to me during the semester about how to approach some of this material, I did begin to wonder whether the time devoted to introducing the elements of music should be extended to seven classes, that is, fully one-quarter of the semester. But at what point does this “close listening” component begin to take over the course, and turn it away from the writing that is its ostensible focus? At what point, given that I am not a music instructor but rather play one on CUNY-TV, am I doing students a disservice by not transitioning more quickly into reading and writing? Re-organizing this unit, as per the notes above, might help me re-think how much time I want to devote to the elements/analytical listening next time I teach the course. Perhaps the goal here should be—particularly since this is a writing-intensive course—to make sure each element has a language/writing payoff in the way the description of timbre does (and, prospectively, rhythm). These are the sorts of questions raised by interdisciplinarity, particularly when one is trying to build a bridge from one’s own discipline to the mare ignotum of another. There are other possibilities: continuing to explore the “other” discipline via reading, auditing classes, and talking with teachers; co-teaching or co-developing materials with music professors, as I have done with WAC fellows. (Unfortunately, the pecuniary environment (austerity) doesn’t reward educators who want to team-teach.)

One constant of music appreciation textbooks is that students should get a broad range of things to listen to—sort of a no-brainer, but it bears mentioning. We want them to open their ears to different sounds and forms of expression. We want them to create new synaptic connections, push their brains to fire in new ways—I can’t think of a better way to describe what happened to me when I first heard Bartok’s string quartets, or Ligeti’s etudes, or Messiaen’s Catalog of Birds, or John Zorn with Milford Graves, and so on, and so on. That said, there is a fine line between opening and overwhelming; and, when the task at hand is analysis, focus might be more important than breadth. All this is to say that I most definitely overkilled on the number musical examples I assigned. It is part of the seduction of having so much available. As I write this, I wonder if there might be a way to synthesize what I tried this semester with what I have done before: spend that first day firing a bunch of random, broadly-selected pieces of music at them; in the subsequent classes, turn to parsing the elements, focusing mostly on pieces they were exposed to in that first class. This way, studying the elements would become in part an investigation of why they wrote some of the things they did on that first day … and how they might use the elements to approach listening on a different level.

That said, as I’ve noted several times above, recursivity was indeed something I have tried to build into the course since teaching it for the first time; the issue is continuing to find moreopportunities to make connections, while at the same time not allowing the evolution of the course to stagnate (via the possibility that each element becomes so essential to every other that one is loathe to change absolutely anything). For example, giving students “The Augurs of Spring” to listen to when we examined rhythm, and “Free Jazz” for texture, means that, when we got to the question of the importance of historical context for determining the meaning of performance (see “Postmortem II”), together with the excellent reading “Beethoven’s Kapow” (about the first performance of the Eroica symphony), we will look at similar historical responses to the first performance of the Stravinsky (excerpted from Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise) and—in our modern context—the rift in the jazz community created by the arrival of Ornette Coleman, and again with the release of Free Jazz (captured in the divergent reviews the greeted the album’s arrival in Down Beat) as other examples of ruptures—moments when audiences were (at least in some versions of the events) unprepared for the sonic experiences that awaited them … when, just like my students encountering some of the strange music assigned in this class, they, too, were overwhelmed, confused, frustrated, shocked … enraptured.

Where’s that confounded bridge?

I admit it: I didn’t get the joke of Led Zeppelin’s “The Crunge” until a couple of years ago. Now I’m hip enough to use it as a section title. I’ve come a long way, baby! My “bridge” here will consist of a few notes on the units of the class that changed the least—comparison-contrast and performance review—and maybe even a fourth chord.

The more formal listening unit made it possible to treat my old lesson on “Born in the USA” (see “Postmortem II”) as at once capstone and step forward. The unit, which segues nicely into the comparison-contrast assignment between covers and “originals,” didn’t change too too much: a few new choices for song pairs, and some new readings. I never much cared for the old ones, but had never been able to find anything better. I had already assembled a handout of provocative quotes for in-class writing from those two articles, and realized this semester they’d actually work fine without the articles themselves. Together with these quotes, I assigned new material from a critical anthology about cover songs, Play It Again: a short excerpt from the introduction, and a longer, denser one from an article by pioneering metal theoretician Deena Weinstein. In “Stereophony,” Weinstein introduces the title concept to explain how we listen to covers, and the way that this listening practice differs from the romantic assumptions that accompanied the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. Overall, the combination of excerpts gave a much fuller set of ideas to play with, and helped pave the way for a richer discussion of today’s musical landscape of samples, mash-ups, and plunderphonics. Again, I’m embarrassed by the sheer quantity of the riches of YouTubeLandia I mined for my class: from Will Smith’s recasting of “Just the Two of Us” and Puff Daddy rapping over a loop from The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” to Evolution Control Committee’s seminal mash-up of Herb Alpert and Public Enemy, etc., etc.§

Something else happened in this “covers” unit that is worth mentioning, in this case because it strikes me as so indicative of the musical-cultural moment our students inhabit. One song pair I wanted to assign was Hendrix’s “You Got Me Floatin’” and PM Dawn’s wonderful re-invention (on the Hendrix tribute album Stone Free). The problem? I couldn’t find Hendrix’s “You Got Me Floatin’” on YouTube. WTF? I wasn’t aware we had entered a new era of YouTube: the combination of listener reviews (I believe they’re called “vlogs”) and amateur covers buries the originals so deep that they become unrecoverable. (I have the feeling this is also a matter of copyright protection: as songs are continuously removed and re-posted, they do not generate the number of views to compete with popular vlogs and covers, and so grow increasingly invisible as viewings of the latter, “parasitic” texts increase.) Annoying? You betcha! Here I was, nervous that we had moved beyond the age of covers, into an age when only samples and mash-ups make sense anymore … and what I discovered was quite the opposite: we have never been more in an age of covers than we are now. And then the teacher in me started to wonder if this might be an opportunity, a platform for a new assignment. Thus far, the four times I have taught the course, the song pairs have been assigned by me. (In fact, in this last semester, it was the only one of the five graded assignments where students didn’t get to choose their own piece. My reasoning: the cover and original have to “work” together to produce a successful assignment; the added variable makes it that much less likely that students will choose viable material.) Instead, what if students picked a song they liked, and then a variety of amateur covers, listening for what changes between them, and judged which cover version was “best” based on criteria developed through class discussion of the assigned reading—the most creative re-invention, the truest to the original’s “essence,” or whatever? This would have the added virtue of giving students the opportunity to push the “evaluation” button they’re so desperate to push with everything they listen to (see “Postmortem”) … but only after doing the initial legwork of close listening, analysis, and comparison.

As for the performance unit, very little changed in terms of reading selections or assignments. That said, as noted in my introduction, my ability to speak to and organize discussions about some of this and other topics was deepened by the reading I have done over the last half-decade, most of all during my sabbatical; the example that pops to mind is Steve Waksman’s discussion of the contrasting significance of stadiums and festivals, which helped inform our discussion of Hendrix at Woodstock versus Houston at the Superbowl.

Pictures worth a thousand notes

In the last two units of the semester I departed entirely, or almost entirely, from what I’d done in the course before. The fourth unit, focused around jazz and Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful, built nicely from the gallery walk lesson (see “Postmortem II”), for reasons to be explored in a moment. As it turned out, the bridge between the two African American musical forms that were the focus of these last two units, jazz and hip hop, was created by the students themselves, since hip hop came up in the initial discussion of jazz, and allowed students to use a contemporary context as a way to help them make sense of the earlier form, with which they had little if any direct contact.

Before jumping into the Dyer, it made sense to take a week to give students a brief historical and cultural grounding in jazz. Many of the short reading selections were taken from Robert Walser’s excellent anthology Keeping Time, with a couple of other tidbits thrown in (from the introductions to Nat Hentoff’s Jazz Is and Ted Gioia’s brand-new (at the time) How To Listen To Jazz, and Bill Evans’s justly famous liner notes to Kind of Blue). Musical selections were paired with the Walser readings: Satchmo and Gershwin and Duke; Bird and Diz; and two examples of the contemporary moment, the more provocative of which was Esperanza Spalding’s “Jazz Is Soul”—so great to see a contemporary performer whose range spans jazz and a variety of popular forms defining what jazz is, in performance! We then spent two weeks on the introduction plus four chapters of the Dyer, each about a different musician—Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and Charles Mingus, and each of which was paired with a couple of musical selections. We discussed what these different chapters said about jazz, about art and the perils and beauties of its creation, about African American history and musical forms … and, of course, about how we approach that elusive thing called music in words.

If anything, I think I was blinded to the possibilities for this unit—and this text—by the fact that I was suddenly holding a book in my hand, and was able to look around the room and see students (most of them, anyway) holding books in their hands, too! How comforting for an English teacher! I was suddenly back in a literature class, and breathed deeply the familiar air. As a result, the text’s potential for this class remained untapped, in at least two ways. First, as Dyer says in his introductory note, what was most inspiring to him as a writer—more than biographies or even the music—were photographs. He goes on to make a number of (highly debatable) points as to why. Dyer includes a few such photos in the text, and mentions a few others in the bibliography, some of which I posted; we took some time to examine them in class. But how much more we could have done! In hindsight, I realized that each of the four classes about each of the four musicians should begin with a much more extensive analysis of a photograph—or, better yet, the students could write about those photographs, either before coming to class or in the first ten minutes. Doing so would help (a) once again weld elements of the class together, in this case by drawing forward insights and practices from the just-completed gallery walk; (b) give students a visual foothold for discussing the fictive aspects of the text, i.e., the details and scenes via which Dyer brings the musicians to life as characters; and (c) create a much firmer segue into the graded assignment.

Connection between the reading and writing: that’s what was most missing from the jazz unit. Students had a choice between writing an essay on jazz based on a couple of prompts, drawing in But Beautiful and/or the introductory readings; or writing a photo analysis based on an artist of their choice. Not surprisingly for this one—as opposed to the other assignments—literally no one chose the straight essay. This was my second revelation-in-hindsight for this unit, one that applies equally to the next unit (see below), and possibly to other assignments where the text serves as generating point rather than sole focus. The key here is to work the introductory material, in which Dyer discusses the use of photographs in his own creative work, into the instructions for the assignment. The assignment would thus ask them to begin with a discussion of Dyer’s preface, probably with some suggested questions to help develop; they would go on to analyze their own photographs of their own artists, drawing in part on the ideas from Dyer they had presented and discussed in the first part of their essay.

Words ARE music

As noted, for the final unit, Sounds, Words … Voices, we turned our attention to poetry and lyrics, and the way poets, singers and rappers encourage us to hear words not just as empty nodes of meaning, but as musical objects in themselves. We segued into the unit by examining poetry that gives particular attention to the sounds of words. Some of these poems I’d taught in Writing About Music before, though without thinking of them as a segue into considering lyrics. This semester, the idea was to make a transition from poetry that foregrounds sound (whether over & above/in lieu of sense, or as an emphatic adjunct to it) to song lyrics, with a particular focus on hip hop. I allowed myself a day-plus to once again try to bridge back to the terminology for analyzing rhyme and meter they would have at least touched on in their second semester writing classes. Although the packet also contained poems by Poe, Hopkins, Carroll, Hughes, Roethke, cummings, and Lorca, I ended up focusing on Frances Conford’s “The Watch,” John Updike’s “Winter Ocean,” and Michael Stillman’s “In Memorium, John Coltrane” for our full-class discussion. The Conford made a nice departure point for the way regular rhyme, meter, and onomatapeia help to create a poem’s meaning and tone. The Updike and Stillman made their own perfect pair: each is a flash musical composition, but with antithetical feels: Updike’s is indeed a winter ocean, all clashing stresses and jumbled images, whereas Stillman’s is pure flow—the relentless drive of a Coltrane solo.** Reciting—really performing these poems was indeed key; and I think that in the future a more formal performance component might be woven into this lesson—perhaps even as a competition? (By the way, if “poetry slam” just popped into your mind, or more broadly the way that spoken-word poetry might fit with this unit, rest assured it has occurred to me as well. It is so much the poetic ambience in which our students live today. Doing so would mean expanding and/or revamping this unit, as well as delving into the culture and practice of spoken-word poetry, about which I am largely ignorant.)

The articles about rap, John McWhorter’s “Americans Have Never Loved Poetry More … They Just Call It Rap” and Kelefa Sanneh’s “Word,” a review of Jay-Z’s Decoded and the Yale Anthology of Hip Hop Lyrics, nestled together beautifully. McWhorter, like the Yale editors, makes the case that rap is poetry. But Sanneh points out—correctly, in my opinion—not only that such claims are more than anything about cachet, but also—and this is really the crux of it—that such a claim ignores hip hop’s actual contribution, its “genius”: “to make us hear words as music.” In this way, the McWhorter-Sanneh “debate” also dovetails beautifully with the jazz unit, which included an excerpt from Billy Taylor’s “Jazz: America’s Classical Music.” What is gained by asserting such equivalencies, Walser asks in his intro blurb, and what is sacrificed? In effect, Sanneh asks—and answers—precisely this question about rap: When rap is equated with poetry, is not something—in fact, its very essence—lost—even in its translation to the printed page, where “literature” is supposed to exist? (What a long way we’ve come since Newsweek’s notorious 1990 attack on rap, which, sadly, does not seem to be available on-line; it might have made a nice counterpoint.) In this context, it was also useful to recall the kerfuffle around the Dylan Nobel Prize a couple of years back—though the connection occurred to me too late to try to find/work in an article; such an article might work well with the McWhorter and Sanneh, demonstrating the way hip hop and folk music are both reference points in broader cultural conversations about and anxieties over art and value: what is literature, who gets to say so, whether lyrics should be valorized as such, and whether what works on the page works orally, and vice-versa.

As always, the sound-based poetry, and then the discussion of the rap articles that followed, was partly intended to serve as a platform for the assignment to come, which asked them to analyze a snippet of hip hop lyrics (or other lyrics, in the case they didn’t listen to hip hop) both “on the page” and in performance, in terms of their sound—rhyme, rhythm, and vocal quality (timbre, delivery, etc.). One of the best things that came out of this—the best things are always unanticipated—was a discussion of the concept of “flow,” which Sanneh raises in his article, quoting Jay-Z. It’s one of the few moments I can remember that I was able to capitalize on a “teaching moment”: I told students to go find the definition in a credible source. It became an extra credit paper-chase. Two sent me personal definitions—they clearly believed themselves authoritative!—although one of them added three wonderful links to freestyle rappers that I was then able to turn around and use in our next class. Interestingly, one student found a blog associated with Oregon State University, but it turned out to be by a student—not strictly authoritative, but with some worthwhile ideas, and good fodder for a discussion of .edu sites and credibility. Finally, one hit the goldmine: Oxford Music Online, the same source they were supposed to visit for the research project, and whose entry on rap from 2013 contained a lovely and very academic definition of “flow.” It also presented a great opportunity to consider why the 2001 OMO entry for rap did not contain “flow” at all, and why the term was not itself an entry … though, as one student rightly noted, it might become one in the future.

Though students had the option to write an original verse in someone else’s style (together with an analysis) or an annotation, the vast majority chose the college essay analyzing lyrics (according to the model provided about “Earth People,” noted above). In this regard, the discussion of “flow,” together with the assigned articles, should allow me to do for this assignment what I intend to do with the Dyer text in the jazz unit: students would draw on concepts and ideas presented in the readings in their introductions, and potentially to help them develop their analyses. This will help (once again) balance the reading and literary element of the class (using expository writing to discuss a text) and the creative and listening element (selecting their own musical text to work with and applying ideas from the class to help parse it).

One bonus of this final unit was that it provided an opportunity to flesh out an idea I had unwittingly raised at the very beginning of the semester, by introducing those quotes from Barzun and Bernstein: music as a circuit that bypasses representation, seeming to appeal to the emotions without recourse to image or concept. In this light I thought to bring in some concrete poetry, though the cummings served well enough to show how the page, as a visual artifact, also communicates outside the meaning structure of grammar. In this regard, it might be nice to also bring back the broader question about how listeners relate to their music—a question that also arises at the very beginning of the semester around My Music. How do they, as listeners, weigh the relationship between words and music? To what extent do, say, racist, or misogynist, or politically-obnoxious lyrics change our relationship to a song?

Conclusioning-a-ning

Well, here I am at the end of another extensive postmortem—the most extensive yet: the organs all in their proper little trays, the body splayed & evacuated … but there, just under where the gallbladder once was, the research project, once again left behind. Like Gary Larsen’s cows, who sit there without opposable thumbs, unable to answer the phone: so I sit. This semester I actually used Prof. Rounds’s research project—I mean wholesale, just took it and jimmied the damn thing into my course, with hardly an edit—I shouted, “There ye are; and make the best of it!”—and so maybe, in my above-threatened Postmortem IV: The Revenge, I will have an opportunity to talk about in what ways it kicks the crap out of the research assignments I’ve tried in the past. As it is, I’d rather spend the remainder of this post(mortem, ha ha, punny punny) discussing what IS here, and what might be.

What IS it, man? A sort of chimera, a hybrid between a very writing-intensive music appreciation course and an advanced composition course that takes music as its semester-long theme. And that is, I think, the right interdisciplinary space for it. The question for me moving forward, then, is not how to change the identity of the course, but how to fully capitalize on this interdisciplinary niche, in such a way that students find and keep their bearings through the semester-long ride.

One way, as noted, is to rein in the assigned listenings (see above). The increasingly extensive use I’ve made of the Blackboard site is obviously a good thing—particularly as this is one of the few courses I teach that I could imagine in an asynchronous environment. But after preparing a hybrid course last year (for second-semester comp), my weaknesseses with Blackboard became that much more apparent. And it’s not just the sheer quantity of material. Why, for example, did I keep the oldest stuff on top, burying the new at the bottom of a Course Content page deep as a well? Scroll, scroll, scroll … So the hybrid training helped me become conscious of stuff like this. But I’m still going to have to start with a judicious pruning of the amount of material; only then will the recursive elements of the course really stand out to the students.

In terms of developing the course further, as I look back particularly on my attempts to make the listening portion more robust, I have started to fantasize about auditing another class—but this time, rather than theory (which, I admit, I partly did for my own pleasure), music education. I actually got this idea by way of my niece, who, as a euphonium player studying music at Northwestern, with an eye toward possibly becoming a music educator, was assigned to visit music classrooms in area high schools. I think a similar endeavor would help me to consolidate the changes I’ve made in the “elements” portion of the class. The trick will be finding a place where I can do it, as I am longer blessed to be living a five-minute walk from City College’s Shepard Hall (cf. “Goodbye, Music Library!” 12.31.12)!

At the end of the semester I gave my students my own evaluation. In addition to asking them about the best, worst, and most difficult readings, listenings, and assignments, and memorable lessons, all of which I’ve done in the past, this semester I asked a series of true-or-false questions: (1) This class exposed me to music with which I was not familiar; (2) This class enabled me to notice things about music I hadn’t before; (3) This class helped me think about the music I like in a new way; (4) I’m now sort of interested in exploring jazz; (5) I’m going to stop listening to everything I used to listen to and, from this point forward, listen only to death metal.

My reasoning was as follows: #1 has to be true; anyone who answers “no” is clearly doing so from either ill will or lack of attention; an “F” answer would would help me rule out corrupt surveys. #5 is obviously facetious. The core questions, then, are #2-4; #2 and #3 are broad goals for the course, while with #4 I just wanted to know if the jazz unit had piqued any interest. I can’t, of course, put too much stock in such a survey; even though I kept them turned over and asked for anoynymity, it does not have the sort of safeguards of a regular evaluation. Still, I thought whatever information I might glean could be useful.

As it turned out, I was wrong about question #1: the only student who marked “F” actually wrote a thoughtful closing note (in a space I had marked for “closing thoughts”); how he or she already knew all this music I can’t say. The only survey I discounted was the one marked “T” for every question … including listening to death metal for the rest of his (or her) life. (Someone else wrote in the closing comment box, “I will never listen to death metal.”) Discounting the all-T survey, the answers were as follows, T’s first: 1, 12-1; 2, 12-1; 3, 9-4; 4, 7-6; and 5, 0-13. Obviously, I’m happy with #2, and moderately so with #3; I really like the idea of students turning a new sort of attention on “their” music. There might be cause for a tiny celebration about #4; some students even marked But Beautifulas their favorite reading, and expressed the wish that the jazz unit had been longer.

And finally. In the academic-political context of our time, it’s hard not to see this long-ass post as a bit of a protest. Perhaps the most dispiriting transformation in academia since I began teaching has been the move to outsource curriculum. Faculty become content-delivery machines, education allocators. Chevron writes my curriculum; I just stick the nozzle in my students’ ears and pump that good ol’ Chevron-knowledge in. I become a glorified TA, really just there to do the grunt work of grading papers, and of course AI is slowly catching up with us there (hilariously, at least for the time being). Frankly, I think we’re in danger of outsourcing ourselves out of a profession. To me, the two most exciting things about teaching are developing curricula and being in the classroom, and my hearing issues are rapidly making the latter a thing of the past. Why on earth would we allow a network of increasingly-corporatized schools and for-profit companies to rob us of the best part of our profession? I love that little feature on Blackboard called “teaching style,” which enables you to select a course theme (rocket! legal pad! ocean!), and the shapes of the buttons. Pretty soon that’s what we’ll be reduced to—what we’ll reduce ourselves to. See ya, birthright! Hello, mess o’ pottage! Every such platform shapes the way we teach, and “education corporations” (an oxymoron if ever there was one) clearly want to control this, in the same way textbook publishers want their products to get adopted, and database companies want to gouge colleges (and use faculty for free labor too boot). Curriculum is the hard-fought product of the reading and study and teaching teachers do, and the dialogue and sharing they engage in: the collective creativity of the professoriate. Why teach otherwise? When I developed my first hybrid course earlier this year, as noted above (to help mitigate my hearing problems), I was given the opportunity (but not mandated—please don’t misunderstand me here) to look at the products offered by one such company; I could, like, link to their dude giving his American lit survey lecture. And then I wouldn’t have to do all that work myself, would I? I, or rather my institution, could just buy it instead. It’s seductive, isn’t it? Being a kept man. Colleges maximize the number of classes we teach, and the number of students in our classrooms; the grind takes away from the time we have for developing course materials; we all went to get our scholarship done, or write insanely long blog posts … and voila, like a little wish-granting fairy, Edukation-R-Us appears to sell us the stuff we need, so colleges can keep stuffing more students into our classrooms, more classes into our schedule. But why would I use that when I’ve already made my own? I like my lectures. I keep refining them as I keep reading and learning. I’m not against the cornucopia of wonderful material available on the web; in my American-themed Literature and Composition course, I always post several of the Annenberg “American Promise” videos and encourage students to watch them. I also post several links about every author I teach, generally ones created by colleagues at other colleges, some by government organizations doing state history, some by independent scholars. That’s a creative commons, like the smaller one we have here at CUNY, onto which, when I am done writing, I will upload this, in the hopes that someone may find it as useful as me, and for the karmic responsibility to others doing the same. But a ready-made template provided by some poor underpaid sop probably burned out from adjuncting, unable to secure tenure-track work in our current academic inferno? Really?

Oh, Henry David! H.D.! Help me! (Thoreau appears from a wisp in the air, dressed as a shrub oak, knocks out the Edukation-R-Us fairy with a two-by-four, and says:) “It is no worse than a thousand other practices which custom [i.e., capitalism] has sanctioned; but that is the worst of it, for it suggests how bad the rest are and to what result our civilization and division of labor naturally tend.”††

 

* Cadences aren’t always easy for students to hear, particularly if they don’t have a musical background. Then again, if Peter Manuel is correct in his analysis of fandangos as heard by audiences with different cultural backgrounds, what counts as resolution is at least partly culturally specific (see Peter Manuel, “From Scarlatti to ‘Guantanamera’: Dual Tonicity in Spanish and Latin American Musics.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 55:2 (Summer 2002), 311-336). I wonder: If one plays the leading tone (in the proper harmonic context), will all people, irrespective of their origins, and based solely on the cognition of hearing, expect resolution on the tonic? It does seem like the academic pendulum is swinging back toward neurobiology. Those last three notes of the antedent phrase of “Rainbow” (“way up high”) are actually the same last three notes of the old six-note jingle in National Brand Outlets commercial (“N, B, O!”). (Is the jingle in a different key? I think so.)

† I realize this is ass-backwards to the way music is thought about today, i.e., not in terms of its elements, but in terms of cultural contexts; there is no such thing as “raw listening.” This is me nodding; this is you waiting for me to say something intelligent in response. This is me going on and talking anyway. This is you, sighing and reading on.

§ The old song pairs I used can be found in the original “Postmortem” post. This semester, I deleted the Beatles Cubanos and the Stones/Devo “Satisfaction” and added three new pairs: “Take Me To the River” by Al Green/The Talking Heads; “Me and Bobby McGee” by Roger Miller/Janis Joplin, and “Crazy in Love” by Beyonce/Antony and the Johnsons. Not surprisingly, the Beyonce had several takers, though I got better work out of “Me and Bobby McGee.”

** Together with John Sinclair’s brilliant Monk poem “humphf,” Stillman’s is my favorite jazz poem. Why does jazz poetry have a tendency to be so elegaic, so heavy? So much jazz poetry seems to miss the breath and hop and light beauty of the music—and what Art Blakey called “goofin’.” They intone rather than sing. Not that there aren’t a number of other poets whose jazz-themed poetry I admire: Baraka’s, much of Komunyakaa’s, O’Hara’s beautiful elegy for Billie Holiday …

†† From “Black Huckleberries,” an excerpt from Wild Fruits, left unfinished at the time of Thoreau’s death, published by W.W. Norton in 2000. The excerpt appeared in Harper’s.

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