Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Fie on Brandeis

This is extremely dispiriting.

Brandeis University is home to the Rose Art Museum. Not only did the Rose provide the title for a well-known piece by John Cage (Rozart Mix), the museum is one of the great university-based collections of modern art in this country. And not only are its holdings excellent, it has long supported up-and-coming young artists thanks to a series of excellent directors.

And now, Brandeis is going to whole-scale shut the place down. Sell off all the art, turn the building into something else. All because the school is facing a $10 million budget shortfall.

Taylor Green has more. (God love the man, he is often annoying, but he does outrage better than most.)

I actually have a degree from Brandeis, a quickie one-year MA. So I know firsthand about the school's tremendous artistic heritage, and also how the school in recent years has seemed determined to destroy that heritage. If you think this move is just a last-ditch response to the economic meltdown, know that the school has also for years been trying to push the Music department's much-vaunted composition program--home over the years to Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and many other greats--over the brink into extinction. And now this. One could be forgiven for thinking there is conspiracy at work.

What particularly strikes me is the short-sightedness. By all accounts, the museum is financially self-sufficient, not costing Brandeis a dime to operate beyond heating the building. What are they going to do, sell off a major asset or two every year until the school is either solvent or gone?

ETA: Also, this had better not be a publicity ploy on the part of the board of trustees--you know, announce the closure, watch fundraising pour in, then call it off. I wouldn't put it past them.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Inaugural Music

I brought a real camera to the inauguration, but then managed to leave it at my mother-in-law's house--thus, this grainy iPhone snapshot is all I've got for the moment. Still, it gives an accurate representation of my inaugural experience: it was crowded, it was cold, and we were a long ways away from the action. Great to be there though.

I feel like I should give my two cents on the John Williams music. Alex Ross has a compendium of reactions, and here in the musicology blog world, the Dial M Crew liked it, while Elizabeth Morgan defends the musicians against claims of Milli Vanilli-ness, usefully pointing out that the quartet was actually playing for real, it just wasn't being amplified.

Myself, when it comes to the composition itself, I mostly agree with Anne Midgette, the (still newish, right?) critic at the Washington Post, who asks if the world really needs another Americana-esque arrangement of "Simple Gifts." (No. No it does not.) But as an eyewitness musicologist, I also want to point out that it failed rather badly as a live piece of music. Not John William's usual forte, of course, but it wouldn't have been hard to predict that the inaugural ceremony was going to be a gigantic noisy spectacle with millions of spectators, and therefore a soothing little long-lined chamber work, probably best heard in the intimacy of a small hall, might not be the ideal format. For those 1.8 million of us out on the Mall, it was hard enough to hear the speeches, let alone Yo-Yo Ma noodling along quietly. I'm all for quiet meditative moments, but as others have pointed out, this just became a moment for television broadcasters to talk over the music, and for those of us on the mall to stamp our feet against the frostbite.

I'm trying to think of what might have worked better. A big brassy symphonic piece? Well no, you already had the Marine Band doing plenty of that. Some energetic solo pieces? Aretha already provided that. So come to think of it--why did the Inaugural Committee feel it was necessary to have a classical music moment in the ceremony? I honestly can't figure it out. Once upon a time, that sort of gesture might have had a nationalist impulse, showing that the United States was capable of greatness in the Western Art tradition. But that kind of rhetoric isn't heard much these days, and I don't imagine that Obama (or rather Senator Feinstein, who was in charge of the ceremony) cares much about what Germans concertgoers think of us. And if she did, John Williams was a poor, poor choice.

So why this music at this moment? Any thoughts?

Monday, January 19, 2009

Off to the Inauguration

This is the Catholic church on the corner of my block. Sure it's the school building and not the church itself, but still, it's quite something.

In a few hours, Mary, Mabel and I are taking our life into our own hands and driving south. We'll spend the night at my mother-in-law's apartment just outside of Georgetown, and in the morning we (minus Mabel) will make our way to the Mall. I imagine we'll have to walk most of the way, but we're going to see if the D6 bus can get us part way there. I had tried to get tickets the day after the election, but my three Congressional representatives were already out by that afternoon, so we are going to join the other million-plus ticketless folk crowding the dead grass. I have the feeling we'll end up on the back side of the Lincoln Memorial staring at a Jumbotron in the distance.

Still, it feels worth it.

As someone noted on the AMS-l today, there were two musical moments at yesterday's concert that were particularly special for a student of music and McCarthyism. The first was the performance of Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait, a patriotic piece of treacle Copland wrote in 1942. We know it, however, as the piece of music that Eisenhower pulled from his own 1952 inaugural concert because Republican congressmen objected to the presence of music written by a fellow-traveler.

The other moment was of course Pete Seeger's performance of "This Land is Your Land," with Woody Gutherie's original overtly left-wing lyrics in all their glory, grinning ear to ear:

Pete's nephew, Tony Seeger, teaches in the Ethnomusicology department at UCLA. I was once telling him about my project, and he remembered well the fear his family felt during the early 1950s, even in his own more apolitical wing of the Seeger clan. Tony was only a child then, but he remembered once putting some old labor song on the family record player. His father heard the music and rushed over and pulled the record off--the windows of their house were open, and he was afraid their neighbors would hear the lefty music.

McCarthyism was a long time ago, and the Obama movement has other concerns. If nothing else, Obama's plan to cut taxes for the wealthy shows that the Seeger/Gutherie vision didn't quite penetrate. But for whatever small failures, I'm glad I'll be able to tell my children that I was there on January 20, 2009.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Robinson Saves the Day

One of my post-election resolutions was to not be disappointed in the Obama presidency until he was actually president. Certain cabinet appointments and rhetorical strategies sorely tested my resolve, but I remained steadfast. Then came Rick Warren, and I joined the ranks of the "outraged left wing of the Democratic Party" who were appalled that a homophobic anti-choice jackass was asked to be the nation's spiritual figurehead.

So I find this news to be rather thrilling.
I am writing to tell you that President-Elect Obama and the Inaugural Committee have invited me to give the invocation at the opening event of the Inaugural Week activities, “We are One,” to be held at the Lincoln Memorial, Sunday, January 18, at 2:00 pm. It will be an enormous honor to offer prayers for the country and the new president, standing on the holy ground where the “I have a dream speech” was delivered by Dr. King, surrounded by the inspiring and reconciling words of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It is also an indication of the new president’s commitment to being the President of ALL the people. I am humbled and overjoyed at this invitation, and it will be my great honor to be there representing the Episcopal Church, the people of New Hampshire, and all of us in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.

+Gene [Robinson, Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire]

I still find the presence of Rick Warren at the inauguration to be offensive, and Obama's defense of Warren both weasely and troubling. But I had worried that Obama thought it enough to simply have a few mildly pro-gay ministers sprinkled around, rather than an actual queer human being. Bishop Robinson is an effective and outspoken representative of the gay community, and is by no means a safe choice--he's used to being a symbolic figurehead, and doesn't shy away from the challenge. So, bravo, Mr. President Elect. (For now.)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Music History Group Work

The spring semester is finally upon me this week, and despite having coming down with a plague that has lasted a week (and counting), my syllabi (syllabuses/syllabantes) are finally coming into their final form. One challenge this semester is that each school I teach at prescribes a different textbook: Bonds at one, Burkholder at the other. Then to confuse things further, I am teaching one course that covers 1750 to the present, and then another that covers 1800 to the present. And the former is for non-majors, and the latter is for majors. We'll see if I can keep this all straight, or if by April I am in a hopeless mire accidentally teaching the mechanics of set theory to hapless non-majors who are expecting a lecture on Tchaikovsky. Cross your fingers.

I have a query though: one of my goals this semester is to incorporate more small group work. I have never done any before, largely because when I was an undergraduate I hated such things. Looking back, I think I hated it partly because I was shy, and it always involved awkward social dynamics. And I also hated it because if one was a good student (I wasn't always, but sometimes I was), one might be paired with a bunch of idiots. And that's unpleasant. Plus, a lot of group work feels like it is slightly condescending busywork, which drove me nuts.

That said, I'm trying to experiment on weaning myself from straight lecture-and-discussion teaching, and so I'm wondering if anybody out there has ideas. Have you incorporated group work in a way that was useful for you, and the students?

Thanks in advance!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Public Radio Gone Bad

You know who's really annoying? David Dye. He's the host of World Cafe, a moderate-to-somewhat-less-than hip daily interview show with pop musicians, syndicated nationally on NPR and recorded here in Philly at our beloved WXPN. The man gets credit for having some great acts come through, for giving them a forum to both talk about and perform their music. It should be a musicologist's dream. But...this man....his questions...are the most utterly inane drivel I have ever heard. And they are intoned in this soporific yet slightly nasal voice. The combination somehow makes me picture that annoying student who really wants to talk to you about his favorite band after class but is so deathly dull that you try to avoid eye contact as you run out of the room. (You know the type.) I recently heard the man interview the great MIA, one of my favorite musicians at the moment, and it made me ashamed to be an American and/or a Philadelphian and/or a man.

Oh, and why does the theme music for the show make it sound like it's going to be a National Geograpic special? Anyone?

Yours in drive-by blog flaming,


Saturday, January 3, 2009

Honey, I Shrank the Job Market

It's almost been a month since my last post. C'est la vie. Phil Sr. and Ryan both had some excellent posts awhile back about the state of musicology (non)blogging, branching out into some interesting terrain. I'm a little behind, but I promise to join the conversation soon. One of my New Year's resolutions is to put blogging back into a more central location in my life. Really.

What else is in store for the year, he ponders?

*Teaching a lot. I'm teaching two sections of one course (1750-present for non-majors) at Widener, and two separate courses (Med/Ren and 19th/20th for majors) at the University of the Delaware. Luckily Widener is Tues/Thurs, and Delaware is Mon/Wed/Fri, but it does mean I am teaching five days a week. When I whine to friends and family that I have to "work five days a week," they are remarkably unsympathetic. There's an idea for a post: how to acquire adjunct work, since I seem to be getting better at its acquisition, if nothing else.

*Beyond the hectic schedule though, I'm really excited for all this teaching. I'm looking forward to the challenge of teaching more advanced upper division courses for majors, and also for the chance to teach twentieth-century music, my putative specialty. And having survived my first semester of teaching outside of my graduate institution, I'm looking forward to refining various pedagogical things.

*Another plus is with all that teaching, I know longer need to prostitute my appointment-scheduling and corpse-freezing skills at the veterinary clinic. Another post in the works is a compendium of pet related advice I have accumulated these past six months.

*Writing writing writing. Delaware doesn't start until February, so I have a month of fairly light teaching to catch up on a variety of projects. Watch out world.

*Cleaning. Oh dear god is our little apartment a wreck. The holidays were great, but exhausting. We managed four Christmases on the one day: morning in Philadelphia, with my visiting parents, late morning with mother-in-law in Washington, DC, afternoon with larger group of in-laws in another part of DC, then evening with father-in-law in Northern Virginia. Then a day later, up to the Poconos for a Gentry family reunion. Halfway through the reunion, Mary and I drove back to Philly to celebrate our one year anniversary. Mary then had to go back to work, so I drove back to the Poconos for the rest of reunion accompanied by her identical twin sister. This is beginning to sound like a bad sitcom, so I'll stop there. Suffice it to say, apartment is a wreck.

*The unmentionable. Rough year to be on the market, folks, rough year. I'm glad to have recourse to adjuncting for hopefully as long as I'd like. But the siren call of stability, well...she calls.