my own little rumspringa

Brent Reidy

Kyle Gann, over at Post Classic, has emerged from the end-of-term chaos for his first post since last month. In the post, he discusses his writing a book on Cage's 4'33". He has so far enjoyed getting "hip-deep" in Cage knowledge, as Gann says:

"In my teens I became too overwhelmed by Cage's influence and had to finally get away from him. Now I've got a much stronger artistic backbone, and can pick and choose, criticize and admire, whatever I fancy. He wasn't a philosopher, and any musician who calls him that just doesn't know what philosophers are or what they do. But he was an innovative composer with an original personality and an incredibly elegant and memorable flair for words, which latter did a tremendous amount to promote his career."

This philosopher/composer divide is a bone of contention with many Cage scholars. Most music history surveys cast away Cage as a thinker and ignore what he actually did: as James Pritchett says in the introduction to his The Music of John Cage, Cage is remembered as a philosopher, not composer, despite his having written "hundreds of compositions that are published by a prominent music publishing house, have been recorded, and are performed regularly worldwide.”  Or, as James Tenney wrote in his essay John Cage and the Theory of Harmony: “some of Cage’s critics (even friendly ones) seem to think that he is primarily a philosopher, rather than composer…I believe, in fact, that it is primarily because of his music—his very substantial credibility as a composer—that we are drawn into a consideration of his philosophical and theoretical ideas.”

But that's neither here nor there. Gann's post resonated with me not because I'm very much devoted to Cage, but because I can recognize in myself what he now acknowledges in retrospect: I am easily overwhelmed by other's influence. In my last few years of grad school, I have seriously considered half-a-dozen different lifelong devotions to various musicological topics. Often, periods of intense crushing followed inspired studies with inspirational thinkers.

The topics I've bounced to-and-from are closely related, but disparate enough to sometimes worry friends and mentors. An in-course-work graduate student is not expected to have a dissertation topic nailed down completely, but he is also not expected to radically change topic ideas from term to term.

What's a boy to do? I don't feel like waiting 30 years until I have enough artistic backbone" to better handle influence. I'm reminded of one of my favorite ballads:

The life of a young scholar is a strange one. Four years of college lead to another four-six year term. In this graduate school phase, one is expected to interact with and learn from the greatest minds around, in print and in person. One is also somewhat expected to develop an independent voice, outlook, way of thinking. And, like red wine, one is certain to get better with age, but one best be palatable by 28-30 years, or there's little hope of acquiring that important-first-post at some-school-somewhere.

I watched a documentary on the Amish Rumspringa last night. This rite of passage (literally "running around") is a period from age 16 onward in which an Amish youth is freed from the constrictive rules of his faith. For the first time, he might wear "english" (ie: non-Amish) clothing, go the mall, drink liquor, drive a car, not go to church, or smoke crack (no, really, watch the documentary).

The point of this period is to give one the chance to see what the other side is like. Then, one can choose to be Amish and whole-heartedly devote oneself to the traditional life without a doubt as to how things might have been different. Most youth eventually come back to the church, are baptized, and spend their life Amish. Some, however, do not. (particularly the crack smoking ones, I would think.)

Could young scholars need the same period of freedom? Maybe it should be expected that after finishing our coursework we will do everything non-academic for a year or two. No work past 5pm, no notes in the margins of books, not visits to libraries daily, spend more time outdoors than in, no making really bad music puns, and so on. Perhaps a year or two of running around will only strengthen our academic ties. Only after a year in the "normal world" might we more confidently confine ourselves to the ivory tower.

And, maybe, after this Rumspringa, a youngin' like myself might feel more comfortable sorting out individual ideas from those overwhelmed by influence. Or maybe I'm just a little sad that my summer ends next week and I'm back to teaching daily!—my  month-long Rumspringa  is almost at an end.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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4 Responses to my own little rumspringa

  1. I had a half-Rumspringa of sorts; after I finished my coursework and got my topic approved, I didn’t do squat on the diss for about 18 – 24 months. I was still making a living as an academic, teaching and whatnot, but no further research, no writing, nothing. Finally, I got it together and am now within six months of finishing, but it took a while.
    (There was also an earlier period, post-MM but pre-PhD, where I did non-academic musical things; I taught general music at two elementary schools and conducted church and community choirs, as well as cranking out marching band/drum corps arrangements.)

  2. Jonathan says:

    I had a four-year period of ballet accompanying and trying to be a free-lance pianist in between my masters and entering the doctoral program; Debbie had six years. We were both conscious of being “older”–probably foolishly–but I couldn’t help noticing that our motivation level and independence were different from those of our younger colleagues, some of whom seemed tired by the end of their first year.

  3. Nobody you know says:

    Crack-smoking breaks from the diss sounds pretty good to me at this point. Be prepared to bleed the music out of your eyes, whatever topic you stick too. I think it must be worse than being Amish. If they offered us the rumspringa too many would never come back.
    No one cares about your artistic spine vis a vis your dissertation. We your readers care, but I mean folks signing that bad boy and then other folks hiring you, they don’t really care. It’s better to be done and spineless than a crack-smoking, strong-spined, unemployed philosopher.

  4. You can in-fact drop off the musical planet and get a desk job where life begins at 5 and you see the otherside. Of course this has a negative side as well as life can seem a bit more meaningless (I might suggest Notes From The Underground).
    As for the Cage debate, the philosphical implications of his music are important and the musical implications of his philosophy are important but in the end (and begining) he is an artist. How words like music and philosophy come up short in describing his work is an important first step in recognizing that his works use words and sounds not to convey direct meaning but to ask the larger and important questions about the mystery of existence.

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