temps perdu, Hoosier-style

Phil Ford

Or is that À la recherche du temps Purdue?*

No, Bloomington, where I lived for six years. I’ve written briefly about this before. I studied piano at Indiana University School of Music (now called the Jacobs School) in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and I’ve always remembered it as a golden, Arcadian time — a time when I really had nothing much to do all day but play music, go to concerts, go to operas, cook with friends, drink with friends, listen to records with friends, and just basically live la dolce vita. I did go to the odd class, but for my first couple of years there I was kind of a bum, weaseling out of as many courses as I could. My introduction to musicology was the first History of Western Music survey that Peter Burkholder taught at IU. The class met at 8 am, and, like many slacker students I have since had to deal with, I had some difficulty making it on time. So I slept right through the midterm exam, and had my first personal conversation with Peter shortly thereafter — me all babbling contrition and resolving to mend my ways and please, help a dude out, man, PLEASE, and Peter’s all like no. In the nicest possible way. And much to his credit. I had to study very hard to make a B+ in the class, but it kind of sparked my interest.

When I saw Richard Linklater’s film Slacker a few years later, I thought, finally here’s a movie that COMPLETELY captured what life back then felt like. Slacker was shot in Austin, but Bloomington was a lot like Austin back in the 1980s: a quiet, tolerant, cheap place to live. It was a little cove sheltered from the hard winds of practical existence, a place where people would start out at the university, develop some peculiar interests, and spend several pleasurably rudderless years after graduation (or in an extended penumbral zone between taking classes and graduating) pursuing them. That description didn’t really fit me; I was on a foreign student visa, so I couldn’t drop out without having to go home, and anyway I was always too guilt-driven to slack in real style, though I knew a lot of people who did. In the popular imagination, slacker types are always hanging out in lowdown dives listening to noisy bands with dramatic hair, but bohemianism is a hardy and adaptive plant: there are classical-music bohos too, and Bloomington, being a small town with an unnatural proportion of classical musicians (a town with a collective professional deformation, like Stunt City), you might see archetypal hipster-slacker scenes play out, smokin’ and drinkin’ and listenin’ to music well into the night, but maybe with (say) obscure Dino Ciani records.

The most archetypal hipster-slacker types I knew were Joe and Bart, a couple of guys I met my freshman year in the Collins dorm. For a few years in the early 1990s they filmed a TV show in their house called J&B on the Rox, which didn’t really have any particular theme, except usually at some point Joe (a percussionist at the SOM) would mix a drink and pronounce it “potable.” I liked to watch it in part because people I knew would show up unpredictably. It remains a perfect evocation of that particular time and place. Now, I’m a nostalgic guy anyway. I can be nostalgic for things that are happening to me right now. So finding the old shows archived on the internet delivered a massive, toxic, near-lethal dose of nostalgia.

Nostalgia is the melancholy awareness of the passing of time: I look at the old clips of J&B on the Rox and mark the distance between then and now; the beauty of the floating world is in part its transience. The critical sensibility opposes nostalgia, believes it to be mere regression, a desire to return to a simpler, safer, more comfortable time (which may in fact never have existed). But it seems to me that nostalgia is marked above all by the sense that you can’t go back; it is, at bottom, an awareness of transience. Nostalgia is the organism’s way of registering the press of passing time. Mircea Eliade proposed that the modern sense of time is linear and unidirectional, an arrow pointing to the future, while premodern cultures understood time as a cycle, an endless loop. If your experience of time is cyclical, do you experience nostalgia? Maybe nostalgia is a necessary complement of modernity, a way we have of accustoming our bodies to its rhythms.

These reflections, however random-seeming, actually have a point, of sorts. I’m going back to Bloomington —  I accepted a job on the musicology faculty at Indiana University, and I’ll start teaching there in the fall. This was a hard decision to make: it means leaving friends and colleagues at the University of Texas, where I’ve been very happy, and it means uprooting my family, again. But it was in the end the best move for us, for many reasons. None of which have to do with nostalgia, I hasten to add. Though I would be lying if I said that my early experience in Bloomington played no part in my decision to take a job there — it’s a nice town any way you look at it, a place I want to raise my kids. But it’s a bit odd to go back there at a completely different stage of life, a prof instead of a student, a mortgage-holding, kid’s-soccer-attending bourgeois instead of a bohemian. (Although, as Jerrold Seigel has argued, a bohemian is simply a bourgeois with training wheels.) I suspect I’ll be too busy to think about it much. But anyway, there it is, my Important Announcement, wrapped up in swaddling clothes of abstract self-reflection.

*My GOD what a horrible pun. A horrible pun even by the already abysmal standards of puns generally.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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7 Responses to temps perdu, Hoosier-style

  1. temps perdu, Hoosier-style

  2. Kyle L says:

    Congratulations on the new job.
    Oh, and that pun wasn’t too bad. It’s clever and I actually chuckled. Believe me when I say that I have groaned and shuddered at much worse.

  3. Jeannette says:

    That rocks! (or is this an opportunity to describe the situation as “cop show”)
    Congratulations! Wishing you all the best!

  4. Ann S says:

    Congratulations and glad to have you heading our way.
    You might be pleased (or disturbed) to know that J&B on the Rox still airs regularly on BCAT.

  5. Richard says:

    Hey, Phil, that’s great! Congratulations!

  6. Welcome back to Indiana! We should get together the Indiana contingent of music bloggers to celebrate.

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