Perhaps faithful readers of this blog, if such there be, might wonder if my last post heading ("Paranormal Activity") was a subtle signal that I'd been abducted by aliens - that seems as good a reason as any for why I just stopped blogging for a couple of months, but I've never intended to quit blogging. (I won't confirm or deny whether or not I was actually abducted, although there is a pretty cool mashup culture emerging in the blogosphere of Sector 12 on Planet 23 in the...whoops, I've said enough.) Aside from the general resistance of inertia, I've also been struggling with how best to articulate the many thoughts I've had about classical music culture since some exchanges with Greg Sandow back in late May.
So, I've set myself a couple of goals, aside from just resuming normal blogging activity. I'm hoping to start spinning out a series of ideas about "classical music culture," its strengths, weaknesses, etc. I'm also hoping, at long last, to create something more like a website to house the many multimedia creations that have sprung up as part of my blogging. As I've mentioned many times before, a problem with the blog format is that it tends to focus all the attention on recent posts, whereas I think many blogs out there ought to be seen not just as ongoing journals but as archives of interesting material that deserves to be revisited.
I'm not sure what the future of blogs is anyway, given that many of my favorites have virtually ceased activity. The guys at the wonderful Dial M for Musicology have literally stopped blogging; the amazing Soho the Dog (Matthew Guerrieri) has also been virtually silent while working on a book project, and one never is sure when the great Jeremy Denk will materialize in blog form again. Those were probably my three favorite blogs back in the day, but it may be that the blogosphere doesn't sustain its lifeforms as well as was once thought - which is why I'm determined to continue blogging, but in a way that also becomes something like a big, ongoing, easily searchable book. We'll see.
However, today I've come not to promote my own multimedia creation, but to cite some outstanding work by some students from one of my summer classes. The class is called "Analytical Techniques" and it serves as a 3rd year theory class in our 3-summer Masters program for public school music teachers. Coming back to theory can be rather intimidating for some of these students, many of whom are teaching general music at the elementary level, where the subject of Augmented Sixth chords doesn't come up all that often. Thus, teaching the class has been a good exercise for me in thinking about the practical side of theory, and especially in thinking about how developing good listening/analytical skills can make our students better at communicating to their students about how music works, why it's worth paying attention to, etc.
The first project the students do is a fairly standard, comprehensive analytical graph of a long-form piece (hint: Excel spreadsheets are wonderful for creating such graphs), but the second project is designed to focus both on presentation skills (talking intelligibly and winsomely about theory stuff) and creative approaches to analysis. Each of the projects includes some sort of "creative" component that links ideas about how the music is composed with extra-musical accessories (visual, narrative, movement-based, etc.). My ideal is always that the "extra-musical" component serve as a catalyst for deeper listening - in other words, rather than have the music become background to something new that becomes an end in itself, the best project would serve to get us listening more attentively.
The video below is one of the best such projects I've seen. These students had the idea of presenting Charles Ives' famous "America" Variations as a B&W, silent-film style story about a conductor trying to get his charges to behave. Right off the bat, that concept jibes nicely with the idea of Ives tackling this sober and dignified tune with his peculiar brand of adolescent (literally, since he was 17) musical wise-cracking. Because the video has a low-budget vibe as well (using stills in stop-motion, etc.), it does a great job of getting us to think about what's going on in the music, while also being consistently entertaining. After watching it, I believe any student could easily have developed a better sense of how the music is structured and how it develops, which is really the goal.
I should add that the students also presented a more detailed analysis as part of their presentation, but as I've already remarked on Twitter, I like that this video wears that analysis lightly. We're reminded that music is fun, entertaining, diverting, etc. and though there may be all sorts of sophisticated reasons that Ives was successful in putting this music together, those details are not ends in themselves. One of the convictions I have about classical music culture as it now exists is that we tend to take ourselves much too seriously. There are all sorts of reasons for why this might be the case, and some of them are very good reasons. But, in a nutshell, it's important that the academic culture that's built up around music not distance us too much from why music exists in the first place. I think this video sums that up much better than all the words I've just multiplied: