More iPoddery

Phil Ford

The pointy-headed music blogosphere has risen admirably to my random iPod challenge on Thursday. It’s neat to watch a meme spread. Read the posts of Barnet Bound, Caleb Dupree, Soho the Dog, Scott Spiegelberg of Musical Perceptions, Tears of a Clownsilly, and Opera Chic.
Barnet Bound’s list doesn’t have any classical music in it, but he points out that classical music isn’t well-served by the iPod, so this might skew the pop-heavy sample represented in the various lists. (Only Opera Chic’s list has more classical cuts than pop ones, so far as I can see.) iTunes and the iPod mess with classical music in a number of ways. Mr. iPod seems to disfavor tracks longer than 20 minutes, so most of the Bruckner on my iPod never comes up on shuffle. And opera doesn’t work all that well either — it’s annoying to have the iPod on shuffle and have it constantly turning up 0:50 of recitativo secco. And, as Barnet Bound points out, the iTunes track information interface doesn’t work very well with the kinds of information you need to search a classical library effectively — or at least it doesn’t work as well as it does with popular music.
But people don’t generally put music they don’t like on their iPod, so, technical glitches or no, a lot of people in the classical biz are listening to a lot of pop. Which puts the recent AMS-List debates in perspective. Some of the folks posting messages on the List wrote that they thought there was still some lingering anti-pop bigotry behind academic hiring decisions. This may be true in some cases, but I suspect it’s getting rarer and rarer. Almost everyone in the biz who’s roughly my age listens to a lot of popular music. Although we might think of an anti-pop ‘tude as the property of age, the people who make a big deal of listening only to classical music tend to be young — like in their teens or freshman year in college, when kids are most apt to try fashioning an identity for themselves through over-enthusiastic participation in some sort of music-defined group.
Stefan Kac of My Fickle Ears Dig It didn’t write down a list of iPod-generated tracks, but instead offered a challenge of his own:

Ostensibly, the point of this game is to uncover unexpected results. But is anyone surprised to see that all of these “classical music” bloggers have so much non-classical music loaded on their iPods? I’m not, so speaking of Musicology, I hereby dial “M” and issue a follow-up challenge for everyone who responded (or even those that didn’t). Consider the following scenario:
You are a Musicology professor in a respectable public university music department. You are teaching the final course in the undergraduate music history sequence, which deals with music from the late 19th century through the present day while placing particular emphasis on the American 20th Century. Topics for the final paper are to be chosen by each student individually, but must be approved by you, the professor. A student approaches you to ask if he/she may write their final paper on Thelonious Monk.
Do you approve or reject this request? Why or why not?

Maybe I’m getting it wrong, but it seems as if the point of this challenge is to get professorial types to confess that, while we might make token gestures towards accepting non-classical music, we don’t, at the end of the day, make accomodations where it counts, in our classrooms. (This reminds me of the “but would you let your sister marry one?” line meant to show up the hypocrisy of pro-integration white liberals back in the 1950s.) Or else perhaps we’re all selling out the Western art tradition? Whatever it is, Mr. Kac tells us it’s “more than you bargained for.”
I taught the 20th century installment of the UT history of western music sequence last semester, and some of my students wrote papers on topics like this. To me, the question of whether you deal with jazz or rock or any other kind of music from outside the western art tradition in a class like this comes down to whether you can frame these disparate repertories in an intellectually justifiable way. This is what I wrote in my syllabus:

MUS 330L is a history of Western art music throughout the past century. Notice that it is a history, not the history—one way of telling the story, but not the only way. In the 20th century, the definition of art music becomes muddled, the boundaries between it and popular music increasingly come to seem arbitrary, and even the meaning and value of art itself comes in for some hard questions. And it is difficult to be objective about a history you’re living through right now. No course could claim to offer a definitive history of music in the last hundred years. At best we can offer a guide to the questions and quarrels that have come up again and again throughout the 20th century and that continue to come up in our own time: “classical” vs. “popular” music, noise vs. sound, improvisation vs. composition, live performance vs. electronic reproduction, West vs. East, art vs. commerce, art vs. politics, art vs. life, art vs. itself. Our history of Western art music in the 20th century will be based on two assumptions: first, that there is no way to tell the story of Western art music without accounting for popular music; and second, that there is no sure way to tell them apart. This course covers the ground on which the two meet. It is about music that does the “art thing” in the 20th century, whatever that music might be.

Yes, it’s Gerald Graff’s “teach the conflicts” thing. (It’s too bad that the Intelligent Design people got their hands on this useful notion.) I teach Stravinsky and Schoenberg and Bartok and Carter, but I also have my students listen to Ornette Coleman and Brian Eno and Public Enemy and the Beach Boys. I don’t feel like I’m doing popular music any favors by including it — it’s doing quite nicely without me — and I’m not trying to be that most loathsome of all campus types, the hipster professor. It’s just that I think that the story of 20th century music is the story of certain basic problems of art (how it’s defined, what its audiences expect from it, what its creators want to do with it) which manifest themselves across multiple traditions. From this point of view, then, it doesn’t matter that Charlie Parker and Milton Babbitt emerge from different traditions; they are caught up together in the same broad sweep of cultural and intellectual history. They are two guys “doing the art thing” in the 20th century, which is not the same thing as saying they’re two guys from the same art tradition, which they’re not. If your point is to teach the western art music tradition as a tradition, with its own lines of influence and its own internal debates and crusades, then you probably wouldn’t have any jazz, and you’d be justified in telling your Monk-loving student to get a new topic. And I don’t think there’s be anything wrong with this — it’s just a different approach, and a totally justifiable one at that. But I’ve been doing something else.
That’s my answer; I’d be curious to hear others.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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4 Responses to More iPoddery

  1. This reminds me of a debate played out at Crooked Timber on the publication of Taruskin’s 5 volume history – “A history of Western music, and there’s no rock, pop or jazz at all????”. It often comes down to the expectations of the student. On the whole, students will recognise that ‘history of Western music’ has a silent ‘art’ in the middle, but quite reasonably plenty want to push the boundaries of what might be included under that banner – and thus question a whole lot of other things too. I think it’s good for the discipline, and if you’re going to turn away a prospective essay on Monk you need a pretty good reason (“But the module is called ’20th century classical music'” isn’t a bad reason, of course).
    I’m interested in the fact that Monk is used as the example here, though – a great innovator, with leanings towards the experimental that can easily be accommodated into a classical storyline (eg somewhere near Cowell, Nancarrow, Cage). Would we respond in the same way to a student who wanted to write about Britney Spears?

  2. kac attac says:

    Full disclosure: I picked Monk because this happened to me (I was the student, not the professor). “If your point is to teach the western art music tradition as a tradition, with its own lines of influence and its own internal debates and crusades, then you probably wouldn’t have any jazz, and you’d be justified in telling your Monk-loving student to get a new topic.” I can only assume that this was exactly the situation, and the reason that my proposal was rejected. “…a great innovator, with leanings towards the experimental that can easily be accommodated into a classical storyline (eg somewhere near Cowell, Nancarrow, Cage) Therein lies the source of my animosity toward this particular professor’s line of thinking, especially considering that in this class, the study of the American 20th Century was framed as “the search for a uniquely American form of musical expression”, or something to that effect. Like, duh, I wonder what it is?… Not worth losing sleep over, but I still think about it from time to time and thought it might be worth discussing.

  3. Phil Ford says:

    Hi Stefan —
    I’ve cited Gerald Graff a couple of times on this blog, and right now I’m thinking in particular of his fine book “Clueless in Academe,” which I recommend to anyone interested in general curricular issues in higher ed. Among other things, Graff argues that academics tend to focus on *what* they’re teaching — the content, that is — but fail to make clear *why* they’re teaching it. Your experience would seem to reflect that. I can only guess the professor’s motivations, but yeah, probably s/he did want to stay within the western art music tradition. And, as I say, there’s nothing really wrong with that, but it seems to me that part of our job is to make our own decisions as professors a bit more explicit. It’s hard, though. I tried to get meta in this way in this 20th century class, and I think some of the students didn’t see the point — you know, get on with the class already! I don’t need to know what you think! Still, it’s a useful exercise, because at least this way you are getting across the idea that history is something people fight over, and that there are stakes to this fight.

  4. kac attac says:

    Thanks, Phil. I’ll try to locate the book.

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