Goodbye, but not farewell

It’s been a long time. I shouldn’t have left you. Without a strong rhyme to step to. A long, long time — more than a year. Many of you know that my energies of late have been mostly devoted to a podcast I co-host with JF Martel called Weird Studies. Weird Studies has grown to become something like a part-time job, and as I had a full-time job to begin with, there’s been little time left for blogging. And the blogging I am doing is now appearing on the Weird Studies Patreon page.

So for those of you who have faithfully followed us for years and have enjoyed the writing that has appeared here at Dial M, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that I’m still blogging; the bad news is that if you want to read it you’ll have to pay the princely sum of 3$ per month. (And you also get JF’s marvelous writing into the bargain, so really, can you afford not to pay?) But all this means that Jonathan and I have decided to retire Dial M for good. Sometime in the summer our WordPress subscription will run out and the site will disappear. I am going to republish my various things on magic on the Weird Studies blog, and some of my more durable posts, such as the “How to Read Academic Writing” piece, will appear on a personal site I plan on launching some time in the next year. But Dial M itself is going away.

So this is goodbye, but not farewell. Dial M started as a let’s-run-this-up-the-flagpole-and-see-if-anyone-salutes-it experiment; actually, if I’m being honest, the decision to start it was so long ago (2006!) that I can hardly remember what I thought I was doing. But I certainly didn’t think that it would become, in some ways, the one thing that would most determine the course of my professional career. The voice I developed in writing it, a voice that hangs out in a zone between academic and vernacular registers, became the voice of my formal academic work. My most recent publication, “Style as Analysis” (which JF and I discussed in an episode of Weird Studies) might give you an idea of what I mean. So, too, might an essay forthcoming in the Journal of Musicological Research called “What Was Blogging?”, which presents my final and most comprehensive thoughts on this medium. (You can read a draft of it at — you guessed it — our Patreon site.)

Even more generally, blogging gave me a sense of how scholars can, if they wish, participate in the creation of a para-academic discourse. Building spaces for such discourse has become my life’s work; I will never be done with it. So as I say, this is goodbye, but not farewell.

To all our readers: thank you. And see you later.



Posted in Blogging, Meta, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

06 29 18 All Hands

Today (or yesterday, now) there was yet another shooting, this one at a newspaper office in Annapolis, MD, by a terminally angry, misogynistic stalker white guy with a gun who nursed a grudge against the paper. Five newspaper employees at least are dead. My first admission is that I was formulating this blog post before this even happened, thinking instead about all the other violent incidents: Black people being assassinated by southern police or, y’know, “citizen vigilantes,” Sandy Hook, church shootings, sucker-punching at Trump rallies, what women will face when Roe v. Wade goes down (from self-righteous religious protesters, from incompetent, back-alley medical practice), etc. Then I saw this sticker on a car today.


First time I’ve seen it, though others have told me it’s familiar to them—I feel nothing but a kind of disgusted wonder. Still, a premeditated shooting with multiple fatalities was bound to happen today, because it’s Thursday. Reportedly, gun sales go up after every one of these shootings as the Hannities whip up fears that They’ll Come For Your Guns. If this is the case, Wayne LaPierre and his winged monkeys might well consider mass shootings as successful marketing events, no…?

OK. To the point.

A very short time after his admired friend JFK was assassinated, Leonard Bernstein offered some thoughts at a UJA fundraiser.

This will be our response to violence: to make music more beautifully, more intensely, more devotedly, than ever before.

This sentence is always, always, ALWAYS piously posted by musician friends after violent incidents.  As I’ve said many times before, I hate it; it always struck me as a musician’s facile justification (and who better to reflect validity than the protean pianist, composer, conductor, scholar, and teacher Lenny?) for not canceling or rescheduling a gig…and, having said it, returning to worrying about reeds and fingering and getting paid, which are the kinds of things musicians worry about.  The sentence directly following, which I never read until today, is better:

And with each note we will honor his spirit, commemorate his courage, and reaffirm his belief in the triumph of the mind.

The full story of this episode is told here.  Even more meaningful to me are certain other comments from the same Bernstein talk; this passage begins with a quote from Kennedy’s last speech, given in Dallas a few hours before the fatal motorcade on Dealey Plaza.

“America’s leadership must be guided by learning and reason.” Learning and reason: precisely the two elements that were necessarily missing from the mind of anyone who could have fired that impossible bullet. Learning and reason: the two basic precepts of all Judaistic tradition, the twin sources from which every Jewish mind from Abraham and Moses to Freud and Einstein has drawn its living power. Learning and Reason: the motto we here tonight must continue to uphold with redoubled tenacity, and must continue, at any price, to make the basis of all our actions.

It is obvious that the grievous nature of our loss is immensely aggravated by the element of violence involved in it. And where does this violence spring from? From ignorance and hatred—the exact antonyms of Learning and Reason. Learning and Reason: those two words of John Kennedy’s were not uttered in time to save his own life; but every man can pick them up where they fell, and make them part of himself, the seed of that rational intelligence without which our world can no longer survive. This must be the mission of every man of goodwill: to insist, unflaggingly, at risk of becoming a repetitive bore, but to insist on the achievement of a world in which the mind will have triumphed over violence.

Learning and Reason.  Many have already noted the current contempt for actual expertise, what might be called denial culture, the shrieking conspiracist mau-mauing that feeds the terrorism currently found—and carefully nurtured, from the highest levels of government—in the United States.  Liberals (that’d be me and mine) respond predictably: attempting to mediate, seeking common ground, searching for civil discourse with those who routinely threaten (and practice) violence, and accusing each other of not listening properly, not making ourselves understood, not showing sufficient understanding for the pain of…gun-toting white-supremacist incels, I’m guessing?  We’re still getting robbed and humiliated in the high school lunchroom, in other words, and our strategies thus far are quite as effective as Thoughts And PrayersTM have been in stopping gun violence.

I’m writing this because I’m out of ideas.  I’m an academic raised in an academic family, and at my age my effectiveness at armed resistance would be nonexistent.  I’m of the Luftmensch type, the head-in-the-clouds guy who just wants to think about and write about and teach whatever obscurities interest him.  We go to demonstrations (such as one upcoming), but I wouldn’t have been much use storming the Bastille.  So rather than “making music more intensely,” let me mention with one thing I have always done in my teaching, on purpose:

As a musicologist, I teach the history of music, performance practices, writing, that sort of thing.  I don’t believe I have ever taught a class during which I have not interrogated received narratives, conventional wisdom, etc.  Why did the editor of this anthology choose these pieces?  What is the impression left by teaching music history the way it’s usually taught? Why is it an unquestioned aspect of academic writing to say We and The present author and other such puffed-up idiocies?  What are the implications of blindly obeying what our performance teachers tell us when they are merely parroting the way they were taught?  (Universal?  No.  All too common?  Without a doubt.) What does it really mean when they say, impatiently, “ But everyone uses the XXX edition,” or “Unless you’re convinced that you can do something better, you should just play what J. Famous Editor has supplied here,” or “Really?  So you think you can improve on Chopin?” (Or Beethoven, or Liszt…those are the three I’ve heard myself.)

These are major issues in music study.  Outside our world, they look quaint and harmless.  But what I’m really teaching is always. question., however “authoritative” the entity you’re questioning, and interrogate the agenda behind Common KnowledgeTM, Conventional WisdomTM, and the Standard NarrativeTM.  I especially enjoy introducing this approach to those of stricter religious outlook (and boy, do we have them here): I’m not telling them to question the literal truth of every last letter in the Bible; I’m telling them that they’re entitled—indeed, required, being endowed with a brain by the Almighty—to question their teachers, and authors, and editors.  In all areas of my discipline, I constantly preach/hector/require a kind of prove-it-to-me, and often resistant, reading of musical documents: those written, notated, recorded.  This is one of my missions in higher education, and music (just a “frill,” remember?) is ideal in that it’s under the radar of the terrified authoritarians who are quick to make accusations of political or religious or sexual unorthodoxies.  And I have to hope that the seeds of real critical thinking, both the method and the confidence to feel entitled to it, have been planted in these often extraordinary but straitjacketed young minds.  What’s more, I think they’ve always known what I’m doing, and played along (they’ve faced far worse, after all), but I enjoy watching them when I respond to their questions with more questions, and require them to arrive at decisions for which they will take personal responsibility, rather than “it’s in the book.”

That’s what I—one decaying musicologist at a regional state university—have done and will continue doing.  This nation (and so many others worldwide) is, however, still in cultural, environmental, and economic free-fall.  So this is my cry for help; I always feel like I’m only one or three good ideas away from solving everything so I can get back to nattering away about my specialties.  The feeling of witnessing the unchecked corruption of my country and culture is hardly good for hypertension; what is a lumpy, bald, graying old guy to do that will have a real effect?  I’m disinclined to instruct others about what they should be doing (“Crash the grid! Man the barricades!”) because of the hypocrisy of it, and while we do consistently write checks I’m no longer in the business of making calls and going door-to-door: I end up with too much disgust for other members of my species.  I’ve been through a period of letters-to-the-editor/op-eds; friends have thought I’d be physically threatened, in this community, but instead all I’ve gotten is love-notes and thank-yous from the like-minded.

Comments welcome.  What are your suggestions for having a real effect beyond the worlds of music and the academe?   All hands on deck for these treasonous times.

Meanwhile, Bertolt Brecht’s “Motto”:

In the dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing.
About the dark times.


Posted in Academia, Current Affairs, Education, Ethics, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

No one understands you, redux

Since 2006 (with time off now and then) I have been recording my thoughts here at Dial M. By now Jonathan and I have accumulated close to 700 posts at Dial M and at this point I have forgotten a lot of the stuff I’ve written for the site. The other day I re-discovered something I wrote in January 2009 called “No one understands you” and was surprised at how much it predicted a certain dead end in which conversations around identity always find themselves nowadays.

One historical interest I developed in writing my book Dig is the intellectual history of the American Left. When identity politics became a hot topic in recent years (and I am old enough to remember its last big moment in the early 1990s) I knew what I was looking at: an argumentative dead end that the American left has been stumbling into since the 1960s. The postmodern left, the academic left, has inherited a useless mental script from its New Left parents. Anyone who has gone to an academic conference in the last few years will have seen some variation on the following script play out in someone’s Q&A session:

A: You suck.

B: No, you suck.

C: Speaking as a C, I think you both suck.

A: You would say that, wouldn’t you.

Needless to say, no-one is really having a conversation in this type of a situation.

This post continues on the Weird Studies blog …


Posted in Academia, Current Affairs, Intellectuals, Politics

The mental game: advice for campus interviews

Last Friday I gave a short talk at the “Preparing Future Faculty” conference that the IU sociology department puts on each year. I was one of three faculty who presented on the theme of “advice from a hiring perspective” for an audience of humanities grad students, and as I usually do in such situations, I wrote out my remarks in advance. I’m not a bad extempore speaker, but I do tend to go on a bit, and writing stuff out in advance means I know I can hit my points in the allotted time. Plus I like having something I can post on Dial M.

Oh, but first: just as Cato the Elder ended every speech by saying Carthago delenda est (“Carthage must be destroyed”) whether or not the speech had anything to do with Carthage, I will repeat, at every possible opportunity, the phrase “Weird Studies must be subscribed to.” Weird Studies is the new podcast that J.F. Martel and I have launched. Give us a listen.

And now, my talk …

For this talk I am only talking about one particular phase of the much longer-term process of the academic job search. That phase is the little slice of time between the moment you find out you’ve been short-listed somewhere and the time you find out whether you got the job. It’s a peculiar interval of an academic’s life, intense and vivid and exhausting and worthy of contemplation all on its own. My talk today is billed as “advice from a hiring perspective,” and it’s true that I have sat on many search committees and my advice is necessarily conditioned by that experience. That said, such advice as I have to offer is drawn equally from both sides of the desk — the applicant side and the search committee side. They are two sides of the same experiential coin.

I have been on more than a dozen search committees and I’ve done seven campus interviews. I don’t know if that’s a lot or a little, but it’s what I’ve got to work with. Of the latter, four were for universities in the United States, three were in Canada, a couple of them were for jobs I got, and a couple of them were Hindenburg-like disasters. There are some real continuities in my experience of participating in campus interviews, though, and I have tried to synthesize a few bullet-points worth of advice from them.   

1. Live healthy. Treat yourself as if you’re going into training for a marathon or a prizefight or something. Imagine yourself in a Rocky movie, with your face photoshopped into all those training montages. You will likely have at least a couple of weeks between the time you find out you’ve gotten the interview to the time you fly out there. Hydrate! Get regular bedtimes and plenty of sleep! Eat clean! Work out! You’ve got to take care of yourself and get your stamina up. Campus interviews are exhausting and often go on for more than one day. The last one I did, I took meetings with the Fine Arts dean and music school chair, I taught an undergraduate survey class and lead a doctoral seminar, I did a research presentation and a meet-and-greet with students and faculty, and I was repeatedly interviewed, both formally, with the search committee, and informally, in faculty dinners and lunches. Most of these events happened on a single day, and the whole event was bracketed by long flights out and back home. Such campus visits demand a lavish expense of energy and you will almost certainly get a cold when you come back. So Rocky up.

The time that you have to prepare is all about marshaling your energy so that you can fully meet the occasion.

2. When you’re preparing for a campus interview, ask yourself some analytical questions about the place you’re visiting. You won’t be able to find the answers to all these questions, and not all of what you discover will be helpful. Some of what you learn will go in the “stuff you can’t do anything about and should therefore ignore” category (see no. 4, below). But it’s good to go in with your eyes open.

What is the culture of the department? What are its intellectual values? Ambition, amiability, focus on students, spirit of service? Is it a quiet, comfortable place, or is it lively and competitive? Does it subscribe to some ethical, methodological, or intellectual program or project? Are they more about teaching or research? The latter will inform the choices you make, beginning with the cover letter you write when you first apply — for example, the choice of whether to emphasize your teaching accomplishments or your research. Speaking of teaching, how is their curriculum structured? Which are the courses that they need help with?

Above all, what do they really want? They will very seldom tell you and often won’t even know themselves. A department might be in a building phase or it might be undergoing restructuring; it might want a strong leader or a team player; it might want a parent or a younger sibling. Is there a legacy they want to preserve? A tendency they want to resist?Sometimes the question is not what do they want but what do they not want? Organizations often hire reactively: when a long-serving and troublesome colleague retires, for instance, the department looks for someone young and easygoing.

That said, don’t go crazy with speculations about the internal politics at play in any given situation. Sitting where I am now, the speculations I see published at the musicology jobs wiki (tawdry reading!) look like the cracked-out fan theories featured in the documentary Room 237. Academics — especially humanities academics — have a weakness for a certain romantic image of themselves as masters of intrigue, code-breakers, hard-boiled detectives who know all the angles. I assure you that “hermeneutic sophistication” plus intense job anxiety usually equals paranoid fantasy.

Which leads me to my third bit of advice, which is

3.  Be cool, and avoid the uncool. Turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to negativity, and don’t put yourself in the way of it. There’s a lot of bitter, harsh people out there, and the job search brings out the bitterness and harshness in all of us. Be selective about those with whom you discuss your coming interview. By all means do a dry run job talk with your friends and seek advice from all positive and knowledgeable people. Just decide who those people are.

This advice actually ties back to my first one, “live healthy.” A lot of people benefit from purging themselves of Facebook and Twitter. Social media emit a constant pervasive background hum of negativity that will slowly drain you of your vital force. If you were in a run-and-gun video game, you would see your health bar slowly inching leftward as you read about all your friends’ babies and political opinions.

I know, it’s not cool to talk about keeping a positive outlook — academics like to think they’re too smart for optimism — but I will tell you that staying positive is huge. Ask any professional musician or athlete: success in performance is 90% mental.

4. BTW, “mental” doesn’t mean “intellectual.” Mental means: stay in your box. That’s what my distance-runner friend says. He told me that people running a marathon will get pissed off at all kinds of stuff they can’t do anything about. As one hour grinds into the next, he told me, you start perseverating over small irritants: it’s too humid, I’m chafing, whatever, stuff you can’t change. A strong mental game is needed here. “Stay in your box” means, allow yourself to care only about stuff you have control over. Everything that lies beyond the box — politics, family beef, problems in your department or field, a lumpy hotel bed, a funny vibe you’re getting from the interviewing faculty, etc. — for the purposes of the interview, none of this concerns you.

There is one subtle way that academics on the interview trail stray outside their boxes: you read too much into your interactions with the interviewing faculty. If they seem weird to you, if their manner is a little off, if you’re getting a funny vibe … well, of course you are. The people interviewing you are stressed out at a bunch of logistical and personnel problems you know nothing about. Most searches have a lot riding on them: if you’re choosing a colleague you might end up working with for twenty-five years, choose wisely. The people shepherding you around this unfamiliar campus have got a lot on their minds. And so do you. Under such circumstances, you won’t be able to make much sense of the cues you’re getting anyway. (Neither will they.) You’ll be apt to wildly over-interpret chance remarks about, say, real estate prices, and I suppose this is all mostly harmless, but still, it’s a huge distraction. You can get in your own head. And if you do that, it’s hard to be your best self.    

Now, at the beginning of this talk I spoke darkly of Hindenburg-like disasters, so herewith a few stories of things that went wrong.

It wasn’t always my fault. One faculty turned out to be running a Potemkin search: they had rigged it in favor of an inside candidate and then dragged us all through a degrading charade. On the bright side, this sort of thing happens much less often than is generally supposed on academic job wikis. At another campus visit my so-called hosts were so persistently rude I couldn’t think about anything but the secret dynamics that must have been playing out over my head — well, whatever they may have been I never did find out. In the end they didn’t hire anyone. (One of the committee fell asleep during my interview, head back, mouth open, snoring, and then they all weaseled out of taking me to dinner afterwards.)

Other times, it was definitely my fault. The scholar who invited me out to my first campus visit later became a friend, and years after I interviewed at his school he told me that job was yours to lose — and I lost it because instead of teaching a class of straightforward jazz history and theory to undergrads (you know, like, what’s a flat-fifth chord substitution?) I launched into abstract intellectual-historical musings on the poet Amiri Baraka — all very edifying, said my friend, but we’re in the trenches here. We needed you to teach the basics.

Another time, I went with the most venturesome, out-there stuff I had for my research presentation, which was also the newest and most untested, and did not get the response I was expecting from the dry run I did among friends a couple of weeks prior. In retrospect, of course my friends were going to be more willing to give me the benefit of the doubt than a bunch of strangers who were facing the most daunting and fraught and consequential choice a department can make. Big surprise they didn’t go for my homemade Fluxkit.

Sometimes it’s no-one’s fault. It might be just a bad match. Everyone always says that going on a job interview is like going on a date, because it’s completely true. Whether you are going on a date or a campus interview, the best advice is, “be yourself.” It’s also the hardest advice to follow. Sometimes your date is icky and weird, but sometimes they’re just not your type, nor you theirs. No harm done, it happens.

But it’s hard not to take it personally, so I have one last bit of advice: don’t. An interview is only a brief stage in a much longer process of job-finding. You need to take the long view and try not to get too hung up on any one job. Don’t spend a lot of time browsing real-estate listings.

But it is very hard to approach any given campus visit with that kind of equanimity. One unadvertised challenge to the mental game is the fragile little future that comes into being for those few weeks between getting on the short list and finding out whether you got the job. It’s a little embryonic reality, struggling to be born, and when it goes away we mourn it. That’s a weird little thing that happens but that they never tell you about. I don’t think there’s a way around it. To be a competitive candidate, you have to give yourself over to that imagined future self absolutely: you have to believe. Otherwise, why bother? But if you do that you are leaving yourself open to suffering. If you care about it and they take it from you, it’ll break your heart. And that’s what it always feels like: they take it from you. But they’re not doing that. It just didn’t work out.

And think about how you’ll feel when it all goes right! Which it will, unexpectedly and in its own time. I’ll leave you with that cheerful thought. The one with your name on it you never see coming.

Posted in Academia, Labor, Life

Birth of the Weird

A few months ago, I announced that J.F. Martel and I are starting a podcast, Weird Studies. And now, at last, here it is!

Follow on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, etc.

New episodes will be added soon, but for now we have two up: a half-hour intro episode and a full-length show that follows a train of thought begun in my “the Cold War never ended” series, which was really the point where I started writing on Dial M about magical styles of thought.

To some degree, Weird Studies is a product of that writing. But even more, it’s the outgrowth of a conversation that  J.F. and I have been having since we first met in Ottawa in 2015. At that time J.F. had just published his book Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice, which I had heard about on Erik Davis’s podcast Expanding Mind, itself an indispensable part of the weirdosphere. I was immediately a huge fan of the book, and when I was visiting Ottawa my friend Graham introduced us. Graham orchestrated a book launch event at Octopus Books where we all talked about the ideas in Reclaiming Art, one of the foundation texts of Weird Studies, the joke academic discipline whose birth and death I announced on Dial M the next year.

But at this point “Weird Studies” is not quite a joke, even if it is also not quite an actual academic field either.

In lieu of a real academic field, we offer a podcast. As I say, it is an extension of the conversation J.F. and I have been having since the shindig at Octopus Books. We’ve written somewhere between 100 and 200 thousand words to one another — epic flights of speculative metaphysics, cracked-out jags of art interpretation, red-eyed searches for eldritch patterns in the drift of daily life. And that’s what’s going into our podcast, too.

I seem to have gotten in the habit of writing only about things that both demand and refuse definition — hipness, for example. So now, as J.F. and I launch this podcast, the threshold question that greets us is, what is the weird? I’ve written about this before, but it’s worth repeating that “the weird” is both a quality (“El Topo was really weird”) and a way of seeing things. It can be nothing more than a willingness to suspend usual habits of perception and judgment and hang out in the weightless spaces between certainties. It can be an attitude of entertaining an idea. The origin of the word is French, entre = between and tenir = to hold: to entertain is to hold between. In entertaining an idea, I dandle it lightly between my hands, holding it up to the light and admiring how it looks from different angles. It is a way of trying on ideas without commitment, without biting down on belief. It is thinking as idle amusement, the intellectual posture of the Flâneur.

But this is the weird as a function of reception — a question of how we see the weird, not what the weird is in itself. So what gives an idea the quality of weirdness?

In a previous post, I suggested that an idea strikes us as weird when it violates our naïve construal of how reality works. That is, a weird idea lies outside the “construal we just live in, without ever being aware of it as a construal, or — for most of us — without ever even formulating it,” as Charles Taylor writes. Calling it a “naïve construal” isn’t an insult: we all have some largely unavowed metaphysical picture of the world running in the back of our minds as we go about our day. It’s hard to see how it could be otherwise. “Question everything” has a nice motivational ring to it, but really, no-one has the mental energy to question everything: some things you just have to take for granted. Some ideas are like computer programs that arrange the foreground of your experience while running invisibly in the background. In my book Dig: Sound and Music in Hip CultureI argue that hipness is one such script.* But there are many more scripts that run in our minds, regulating what we believe possible or likely and establishing categories for our experiences. I have come up with a list of twelve, though doubtless many more could be imagined.

1.Time moves irreversibly forward. Situations evolve from previous situations, and this evolution goes on continuously. The meaning of each such situation is given by its place in progressive linear time.

2.Thus, past ideas and events are nothing more than the products of political, economic, and social forces within the cultures that give rise to them. Consequently, there can be no such thing as “timeless wisdom” or a “perennial tradition” of metaphysical truth. Indeed, there are no human universals, only “cultures.” (“Always historicize,” as humanities academics like to say.)

3.Mind is a human property, and private property at that. As Taylor writes, “the only locus of thoughts, feelings, spiritual élan is what we call minds; the only minds in the cosmos are those of humans … and minds are bounded, so that these thoughts, feelings etc. are situated “within” them. [Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 29-30.]

4.Mind is a function of the brain. When my brain stops functioning, so too does my consciousness. Death is the end of all “thoughts, feelings, spiritual élan” — the end of me.

5.Likewise, all immaterial things have material causes: love is an evolutionary mechanism, aesthetic beauty is a construct of the political economy, a vision of God is something funny going on in your brain, etc.

6.Chance is random. If I draw a tarot card from a shuffled deck, it cannot correspond with anything meaningful in my life, except by accident.

7.What is “real” is what can be reliably recorded, measured, and quantified. This is what is meant by “objective reality.”

8.Subjective experience is an imperfect reflection of objective reality: it is the latter, not the former, that compels our trust and respect.

9.Reductive explanations (e.g. “Love is just evolution’s way of getting us to reproduce”) are automatically more plausible than the alternatives.

10.The fact that such explanations are depressing is proof that they are probably correct. Optimistic notions are convincing only because they are “comforting” to those who favor them.

11.Meaningful connections are causal connections. A non-causal connection — for example, a dream that foretells a death in the family — can only be a coincidence or something you are “reading into” a situation.

12.If I testify to an experience that contradicts any of these rules — telepathy, an encounter with a demon or a UFO, a successful magical working — I am either crazy, lying, or duped.

We can call this “the naïve construal of modernity.” And if you read some or all of these propositions and think “those aren’t cultural scripts or metaphysical assumptions, they are reality,” well, that’s what people tend to say when confronted with the axioms of their naïve construal. That’s what makes it a naïve construal.

Actually, it’s more complicated than this, because it’s possible to be confronted with the axioms of one’s own naïve construal, question them, know their provenance and history, know them to be contingent … and still hold to them in every important respect. Or maybe it’s truer to say that they still hold onto you. That’s certainly true of me. It doesn’t matter if I “believe in” them; I act on them.

In listing the axioms of the modern naïve construal, I’m not trying to convince you to believe their opposites. I couldn’t do it if I tried, and why would I want to? Weird Studies isn’t about believing or convincing. The ideas contained herein are (as the old arcade tokens used to say) for amusement only.

Which doesn’t mean they don’t matter, or that we’re not serious. They matter a lot, and we’re serious as a phone call at 3:00 a.m. Amusement is serious business. As Oscar Wilde said, “We should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.”

*Hipness “is like an operating system—a code, running largely below the threshold of conscious thought, that constellates habits of mind and patterns of taste; orders our everyday perceptions of what is meaningful, true, and beautiful; and shapes individual acts of artistic creation.” Me, Dig: Sound and Music in Hip Culture (NY: Oxford, 2013), 20. “Constellates,” indeed. Nothing is so irritating as your own writing from several years ago.

Posted in Podcasts, the cold war never ended!, Weird Studies | 3 Comments

Conventional Wisdom: Classical Music Edition

This afternoon I had the pleasure of hearing our university’s early music group, the Ursa Consort, at a nearby church.  It was an all-Vivaldi program: two arias with excellent student soloists, “Winter” from Four Seasons (with flames and blue smoke coming out of the soloist’s violin), and the Gloria, well-sung and realized.  There was a superb theorbo/Baroque guitar player from Boulder, a faculty member (the one I’m married to) playing harpsichord continuo for the concerto only, and a close faculty friend playing viola throughout.  Everyone else was a student, graduate and undergraduate.  The trumpet parts were nailed by one of our trumpet students, playing on a Baroque trumpet (four-hole system), the oboe soloist similarly nailed her part.  It was a very diverse group, and one of the things that most struck me was that when certain singers retreated to the back of the altar during pieces in which they weren’t involved, they could not help rocking out.  The students in the pew in front of me were likewise rocking out.  Well, of course, you say; Vivaldi rocks.  Yes, he does, but the way everyone was lapping up this performance put me in mind of a recent article I read.

My brother had sent me a link to a recent Notre Dame study reported by WQXR (which I guess is a classical station in NY?) that supposedly “found” that classical music more disliked by young people even than it was before—especially “high status” young people, who apparently associate it with their parents or grandparents.  Or something.  O Tempora, O Mores, yet again.  Pardon while I rend my garments and importune the heavens.  Whose responsibility was it to educate Those Young about classical music and how to correctly answer stupidly worded surveys??

Actually, aside from those studying music, wasn’t it the schools (music in the schools continuing to suffer a focused onslaught, since it’s a frill of no importance and we just can’t afford it but here’s the new sports facility)?  And after them, wasn’t it classical radio?  Offhand, I can’t think of a more spectacular long-term failure than classical radio: “curated” by the usual suspects—squeaky adolescents, wallflowers, and morticians, to my ear—in general, those who take being out of touch to a hitherto unimaginable level.  The classical stations that began in the 1940s and ’50s inherited a body of listeners drawn from the huge immigrant populations, mostly from Europe, and…did nothing with them beyond a safe, limited diet of pop tunes. Same repertoire, over and over, same operas, same Sol Hurok-driven star-worship, same culture-vulturing, same eat-your-broccoli-it’s-good-for-you expectations.  Occasionally there would be patrician music-appreeshing, but it is the rare young person who will suffer condescension for any length of time.  And as the European-born populace waned, conventional wisdom (always conventional; never wisdom) advocated—instead of actual education, programs aimed at exposure and explanation—an even more limited program of pop hits: Mostly Mozart, yet another Beethoven Symphony cycle, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti, etc. Nothing against those works, of course, but this strategy…of course, it failed.

Then in the 1980s, the (still) conventional wisdom was that classical people were so stuck-up; just loosen up, y’know?  So, announcers were hired who—presumably so as to “relate to the audience” and meet them where they were and so on—trivialized the music they were playing.  “Well, Chopin…I mean, this guy was so romantic he wanted his heart buried in Poland, know what I’m saying?”  (That’s close to a quote of something I heard on a Denver station.)  There was an announcer in Los Angeles (I’ll spare you her name) who sounded like she would have fit perfectly on Fox and Friends—she sounded simultaneously stoned, angry, whiny, entitled, and above all stupid.  And still interest in classical music flags! How could that be?

I may have told this story already: between two and three decades ago, at a national AMS meeting, there was an evening session on teaching about performance practices? Predictably, it soon devolved into please-like-early-music (which is something very different from performance practices), with predictably weak, please-don’t-hate-us suggestions (“tell the students this piece came from the time of Columbus, so then—hopefully—they’ll be curious…”), and I was about to give up hope.  One of my old professors (well, one of my very few Rabbis) got up and said, “No.  Just hit them with this stuff when they’re falling in love with the world, and the music will take care of itself.”

Write this down: high school, college, and graduate students are ripe to fall in love with the world.  The saps of spring are flowing, they’re gradually gaining more and more independence (with all its risks and rewards) from parents and expectations of obedience, and they are ready.  This was today’s lesson.  My university is a regional state university with a very strong School of Music but with plenty of first-generation college students; we’re not an Ivy, and in my building, at least, I don’t see a lot of the Privilege and Entitlement that fusty op-eds love to decry.  What I see is what I saw today: young people who, when you hit them with the goods, belong to Vivaldi (or Monteverdi, or Bach, or Du Fay, or Brahms, or Chopin, or Beethoven etc. forever.  They’ll still enjoy their own music (as we did). But today I heard a high-energy group of young’uns diving in deep, and they work extra jobs and God-knows-what for the privilege to do so, and to earn the profound professional insecurity that will follow.

Standing ovation, you-all.  See you tomorrow morning.

Posted in Academia, Education, Uncategorized


Here’s a bit of fun.  The opening unit of this semester’s Music History Pedagogy class was devoted to teaching Introduction to Music (or Music Appreciation, or “Appreesh”), which is likely to be a pre- or early-career teaching assignment.  We survey the available college-level textbooks, identifying their philosophical differences, comparing the web resources and costs. We also spend a good deal of time evaluating the authors’ choices of repertoire.  After a certain number of these books, one intrepid graduate student, RJ Gassner, was moved to create the following. I share with his permission:


Now, as a first-year music major at Cal Poly, Pomona in fall, 1976, I took what was essentially a music appreciation course, and our text was Roger Kamien’s Music: An Appreciation, a chronologically organized text. A bit of chant, an excerpt from Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame, Thomas Weelkes’s “As Vesta was from Latmos Hill descending,” “Dido’s Lament” from Henry Purcell, Bach’s “Little” G Minor organ fugue, some excerpts from Handel’s Messiah…you get the idea.  This was in fall, 1976, so I don’t know how many editions of Kamien ago that was.

RJ’s Bingo card points to the number of shared repertoire choices the various competing textbooks, such as Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique. Given the breadth and depth of the traditional western repertoire—speaking for the moment only of the texts based on it—is there any excuse for that much duplication?  I happen to love the Berlioz, but I will forever believe that his mention of opium in one version of his written program for the work led people decades ago to think they could interest The Youth on that basis.  (In recent years, I gave a pre-concert lecture for the Bravo! Vail summer festival on that piece.  “We’re calling the lecture “The Symphony Fantastique: Music’s First Acid Trip,” they E-Mailed me.  I E-Mailed back, “Either we change the title, or I’m not coming.”  “Acid trip” indeed—not relevance, but the worst kind of condescension.

What is more, it so happens that a new textbook is currently being marketed, and it too includes the three works listed above, along with other familiar pieces. Although the publisher’s publicity blurb seeks to describe what makes this book different from all the others (a standard feature of the description of all such books), it also assures us that many of the selections are familiar—what you-the-teacher are used to—so you needn’t change much.  Great; we can continue to teach the exact same way, even with a new book!  It would be easy to blame the publisher for this, but I think it’s on us—that strategy suggests very strongly that many faculty members insist on teaching the same pieces, year in and year out. For the publisher, venturing too far from the inviolable playlist means that your new book won’t get adopted, and your investment will have gone down the drain.

So let’s review.  The majority of Appreesh texts take a Great Works approach, and there is a great deal of repertoire held in common between them, but the goal of such classes is to introduce students to the world of informed listening, to gaining some kind of understanding of the art music repertoire (or at least, not to fear and avoid it), but the prevailing model is a Classical Top Twenty with a couple of more recent, band-aid-type choices like one piece by a female composer and one Jazz piece.  When we talk about the future direction of the discipline, this really does illustrate a way in which we’re stuck in 1950.  “Jonathan, these are the future supporters of our symphony orchestras and arts organizations,” I was earnestly and patronizingly told about my Appreesh students in 1994., “You must reach out to them…”

Yes, I am channeling a former administrator who objected to my having even minimal academic standards in an Intro course almost as much as the students did, but Manfred Bukofzer made the same point in his survey of American Musicology in the mid-1950s.  Opportunities for higher education were open to a smaller percentage of the American public, then, and it was assumed only people of, or who aspired to, certain socioeconomic classes would have interest in higher education and the things to be found there…and yes, they would be the ones sitting on symphony boards in the future, assuming custodianship of our arts institutions.  A college degree was not considered a necessity for economic survival at that time, which it really is now, and the idea that products of higher education might not be interested in the great works of European art music was probably inconceivable.

To return to my anecdote: in fairness, the students had been told in Academic Advising (which was clearly neither) “all you have to do is listen to music.”  Then they walked into my class. A bloodbath ensued, and that was the last section of Appreesh I taught here.

(A parenthetical observation: There are texts that take a different approach. One we examined this semester was organized around the different roles music plays in our lives—a very plausible idea. Music and Religion was one section, and it had six or more examples…all of which were from Christianity.  There was no implication in this section that other religions had music, or even that there were other religions at all.  Next.)

I am well aware that Appreesh is not a high-status teaching assignment; whenever I’ve offered to pick up a section (say, when one of my own classes didn’t have sufficient enrollment) I’ve gotten the brush-off.  Still, this isn’t on The Administration, The Man, The Canon, The Discipline, The Senior Faculty, or any other such.  This is on us.  Publishers would change their offerings rather quickly, I’m sure, if we—musicians, academics, individuals with a lot of musical experience—were to take different approaches, and if such classes weren’t routinely offloaded on the most hapless adjunct performance teacher, stretched to the breaking point and grateful for the teach-by-numbers guidance.  There was a large lunch-time meeting at a national AMS, some years ago, in which people were grousing that music history teaching assignments were given to non-Ph.D.s, how only Ph.D.s (I mean, D.M.A.s?!  Really!) were equipped to teach such courses, and so on.  Of course, I stood up, proclaimed my D.M.A. and did my usual sound-and-fury-signifying-nothing act, and got the predicted response—a pained “Jonathan, please, of course we didn’t mean you, you’re not who we’re talking about”—but the question remains: is it important responsibility or not, and if it is, why do teachers continue to phone it in?  There’s a discipline-wide complicity in that.  Do we have more important things to get to?  I wonder. One view is that opening the doors of our world to non-majors, some of whom are probably devoted listeners to a wide variety of musics, is central to our mission in higher education.

Were I to be given an Intro course, I think I would teach it without a textbook.  I’ve got youtube, I’ve got iTunes, I’ve got readings.  Textbooks are very expensive—no news here—and I’ve never seen any web add-ons that are worth the time, trouble, and effort…and, more importantly, the additional cost.  Shouldn’t each version of this course differ, according the interests and preferences of the teacher, and isn’t that a good thing?  With oversight, of course.  No, you can’t devote an entire Intro course to the Roman de Fauvel, however fascinating you find it, or to Sun Ra.  (No, I am not dissing the Roman de Fauvel and Sun Ra.  No bonus points if you contrive to get offended.)

Whether or not less experienced teachers would use a textbook, though—few things are as mystifying as a lack of pedagogical creativity in an arts discipline.  Too often, blandness is a foregone conclusion, and predictable textbooks the default (and highly expensive) guides.  Given how many Appreesh classes are offered every year in the U.S., and how willing we are to fight about virtually anything else, I wonder that the traditional flaccidity of Intro curricula hasn’t produced more pushback among us, even outrage. Reaching non-specialists in a meaningful way is both a responsibility and a necessary investment in our discipline as a whole, because it is not musicologists who will argue for its continued presence, ultimately, it is the community of all those interested in education in general.  There is much talk about the future of our discipline as it stands; the general standard of Music Appreciation curricula highlights, it seems to me, an area of great need.

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