Thursday, December 10, 2009

Really Playing with History

At the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC, Sting recently gave a concert of Christmas music through the ages, to support his new album If On a Winter's Night.... I suppose this is a good example of what Butt, Taruskin, et al call the romance of otherness in historically-informed performance, perhaps gone horribly wrong.

From Jon Pareles's review:
Sting looked like quite the 19th-century Victorian gentleman when he performed a concert of winter songs at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine on Tuesday night. He wore a long frock coat, a white shirt and an antique-style tie. Much of the music originated from even earlier times: 15th-century carols, songs from Purcell operas, traditional English ballads. Sometimes Sting played a lute.


He delved into European early music, old carols and lullabies, odd crannies of church music, Schubert’s “Winterreise” and his own songs (to remake the melancholy “The Hounds of Winter”). He added lyrics to a Bach cello sarabande. And he ended up with a collection of songs that was somber verging on bleak: winter with the King of Pain.

The faith in the carols was humble and awestruck, not celebratory. From the 16th-century poet Robert Southwell, Sting chose the grim imagery of “The Burning Babe”; from Henry Purcell, whom Sting called “England’s first pop star,” he chose “The Cold Song,” about an unwilling resurrection: “Let me freeze again to death!” He pointed out the dire lyrics of lullabies, and he found a 20th-century composer, Peter Warlock, who brought chromatic anxieties into worshipful songs.

Weird. Although I will say that his outfit looks more seventeenth-century Puritan than Victorian, although the Puritans didn't allow beards as I recall. I don't know, I shouldn't be judgmental. We talked about Sting in my med/ren class last semester, apropos of John Dowland. The general consensus was that although his reverb-heavy approach to interpreting Dowland left something to be desired for my (newly educated about lute music) students, they were in favor of anything that brought the repertoire to a wider audience

I hope at the very least he makes a nice donation to the Revels.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Assigning Music

I have a question for the musicological internets: what would we think of using iTunes as a vehicle for our students acquiring required music for class?

Back when I was first taking music history courses as an undergraduate, my professor lo those many years ago carefully made cassette tape mixes which were available on reserve in the library. To be perfectly honest (sorry Peter!) I can't say that I often did the listening assignments. It was a pain to go to the library in the first place, and sitting on a hard wooden chair with headphones on is just not how I like to engage with the music. As an alternative, some of my courses made use of CD compilations associated with a textbook like Grout/Palisica, which we bought at the campus bookstore with the rest of our required books for the semester. These CDs were pricey, but then you could listen to them at home.

Since then, technology has obviously made great strides in making music available for required listening assignments. At UCLA, both the Music Library, and, separately, a Digital Humanities initiative thingy both had systems whereby recordings chosen by the professor were streamed via web pages. That way a student could listen at home, but copyrights weren't being violated, at least as much. The downside to that, I've found since leaving UCLA, is that creating systems like those take time and money, and I have yet to teach at another school that has made that investment. Another common option is that many of us put recordings on Blackboard sites, and students then just download the files. Totally illegal, of course, and the large files are unwieldy, but it does have the important advantage that students are much more likely to do their listening if it is available in a format that they can put on their iPod.

For standard survey courses there is often a CD compilation available, but they are super-expensive, and lock you into certain musical works that might not be ideal. And if you are doing anything outside of a standard survey--oh, let's say a course on American music during McCarthyism, hypothetically--that doesn't work.

Enter iTunes. If you click here, your iTunes store will open up to a sample iMix I made based on some music I recently assigned to my minimalism seminar. You make these by simply assembling a normal playlist in iTunes, and then choose "Create an iMix" under the "Store" menu. Apple thinks about it for a few hours--I'm not sure exactly what is happening, but it isn't instantaneous--and then spits out a link like that above. In assembling your mix, you theoretically aren't limited to tracks you purchased on iTunes originally. On this list, for example, I had bought Failing Kansas through the Amazon MP3 download store, and iTunes was smart enough to find the same album in their catalog.

1. I'm not entirely comfortable having everything go through one corporation, even a better one like Apple. Enterprising students can of course buy most of these recordings through Amazon or whoever else on their own, but I'm just not going to make the effort to assemble a similar mix through competing sellers.

2. Not everything is available on iTunes, and when it is, sometimes Apple has made it so that you have to buy an entire album just to get the track I want. I imagine that I will still have to put some tracks on reserve, and maybe alter the music I choose a little bit if it makes it easier to buy.

3. For a big survey course--I'm thinking using this system for my Music of the United States course in the spring--it's not entirely cheap. But at the same time, I think it is cheaper then a compilation, or at least comparable. The CD set for the Crawford textbook, for example, runs about $60. I will, however, probably still put CD mixes on reserve on the library in addition to using iTunes.

So what do you think? I'm inclined to give it a try this next semester. Copyright is not my most important concern as a teacher, but especially when it comes to contemporary music or smaller-scale performers and labels, I do care a bit. And more importantly, I do have a desire to instill an ethic in my students that listening to music takes some care. You need to think about what recordings you are listening to, not just find a YouTube video of the piece in question, or take whatever BitTorrent gives you. It's not so much about the money, but the idea that music matters enough to seek out a specific recording for its quality, and sometimes that requires money. At the same time, I want to use a method that works best with contemporary listening habits. So barring any unforeseen issues, I think using this iTunes iMix system, while still putting CD mixes on reserve in the library, is the way to go.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Stop Procrastinating

Why are you reading this? Shouldn't you be grading?

That's what I'm doing.