Monday, March 16, 2009

Paper-Less Musicology

Kyle Gann's recent post on his paper-less teaching got me to thinking about how much technology has changed my teaching, even in these few short years I've been in the business. Musicology, like pornography, is often on the leading edge of technological developments. I still remember when, as a sophomore in an electronic music composition class, I was blown away when our professor had the clever idea that we could "burn" our pieces to a CD-ROM. There was one solitary CD burner in the music lab, and we all waited our turn each week the night before our assignments were due. Then in one of the first classes I was a TA for, I remember frantically burning and re-burning CDs for the professor to use each day. By the end of graduate school, many of the professors I TA'd for would simply use a laptop or iPod hooked directly into the sound system.

Today, like Kyle I lead a largely paper-less teaching existence. I do hand out a paper syllabus at the beginning, but gone are the days of keeping a stack of extras around for those who lose them. I don't use handouts, preferring to just project things off my laptop. If I am being organized (which is not that often), I will rip a clip from an opera and put it into a PowerPoint presentation so that I don't have to fiddle around with the DVD player. I think the one thing I would like to be do is play music off of iTunes while still showing a PowerPoint slide. I'm not quite smart enough to figure it out, so if I need to show a score or a text, I will play the music off my iPod while using my laptop for images or text. I suspect there is a better way to do this!

IMSLP, the open source score project, is also a godsend for me, as it is for Kyle. I'm teaching a symphonic literature seminar right now. Rather than require them to buy a bunch of Dover scores or make costly handouts, I can just tell them to have a score in class, and most of them will just bring in a laptop with the PDF file downloaded from IMSLP. The downside, or course, is that it is difficult to make notes on a PDF score, and I, with my romantic attachment to print culture, still buy scores myself, and lovingly annotate them with analytical gibberish and timings from recordings. But using PDF scores allows one to have a course based primarily around musical texts without having to worry about costs and the environment--definitely worth it in my book (so to speak).

The other problem, of course, is that pretty soon my symphonic lit class is going to leave the public domain era behind, and enter the twentieth century. Cage's Atlas Eclipticalis is certainly not on IMSLP! Which is actually too bad. In the 1950s, Cage explored quite seriously a project whereby public libraries in the United States could all have free copies of his works. In a letter to the New York Public Library, he wrote "I, personally, feel very strongly the obligation to get my own music out of my hands...Satie said somewhere that Beethoven was the first to give his music to a publisher. It would be a pleasure to establish another means appropriate to another time."


6.54 said...

I dunno how different it is to take notes on a score, but I like Skim a lot when it comes to marking up PDFs.

Dan B. said...

You know I teach in a room with no sound system, so it's all computer based. This is especially nice for the days when I want to reference something (because we've gotten off track, or I have a flash of brilliance- I'll leave it to you to guess the ratio) I can just pull up the audio (if I have it). Especially gratifying in a mixed class of performers, aficionados and students completely new to the subject.

Dan B. said...

Oh, but the flipside is no powerpoint. I photocopy a lot of lyrics (and sometimes scores) for class. And paper tests (now graded thanks to the distance of Denver from Ann Arbor!)

PMG said...

Just told my students about Skim!

Yeah, I love having all the music of the world at my fingertips. I started doing that when teaching a history of rock and roll class a few years ago; UCLA had a good collection of pop music CDs in the library so I spent a happy week ripping the entire history of popular music to my computer!

I have yet to do something similar with classical music, as I hate the iTunes interface for classical music. This year I've just been ripping things as needed, and so unless something is on one of the big compilation sets (Bonds, Burkholder, etc.) I often come up short. Just today I really wanted the Gaelic Symphony, and publicly failed.

See you in Denver, I hope for similar grading success on the plane myself!

johnsonsrambler said...

Do you have full reference for that Cage quotation? It's fantastic!

PMG said...

Hi Tim,

It's from a Dec. 31 1959 letter to the head of the American music division at the NYPL, John Edmunds. It's in the Cage papers at Northwestern; if I took accurate notes (which I don't always), it's in folder C6 (Correspondence 1950-1959), and is document #136. I haven't ever seen a published reference to it.