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Nerd time

3 Mar

I currently have THREE academic papers in the works. Well, the ideas are set, anyway. I like to start with a title and then allow that to guide my writing direction.

Here they are.

No Reason to Get Excited: Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” as Myth, Leitmotif, and Metaphor

Free Man in Paris: Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark” as Folk Music Watershed

This last one doesn’t have a title yet, but the gist is that it’s about gender roles in brass instrument development in 19th Century Paris (where all the brasses were refined, thanks to the trend towards orchestral expansion).

Sublime to the ridiculous, indeed.

I actually emailed composer Bear McCreary about the first one, hoping to get 15 minutes to pick his brain about it.


I don’t know how much original research has been done on AATW in recent years, but I’m hoping I’ll be the first to get a paper out on it that also addresses the BSG stuff, the Dave Matthews Band covers, etc.

The Joni Mitchell paper has been on my mind since my undergrad days. I realize it’s a bold statement I’m making, that this album helped kill folk music, but the title COULD be more inflammatory than it is. ūüôā

For a decent piece of scholarship with an EXTREMELY inflammatory title, check out a book called¬†How the Beatles Destroyed Rock & Roll by Elijah Wald. He argues his case. Not sure how much I agree with him, but it’s a fresh perspective.

Any thoughts? I know the first two are sort of mainstream, like rock journalism, and the last one more “New Musicology.”



9 Feb

I have so much to say, but have been avoiding getting into on here because people actually read this blog. No, seriously, I had 200 hits one day last month.

So all I will say for now is this…Living with depression when life is otherwise terrific is like being stuck in an airplane on the tarmac. You could be sky-high; the destination beckons, but you’re stuck waiting for departure clearance from air traffic control – only air traffic control is your warped mind and doesn’t think it’s safe to fly.

If I could get my head right, I’d be having the time of my life.

More later. Got a few cool music-making opportunities heading my way soon, hopefully. No research direction at the moment, which needs to change as the process begins this semester. I’m in one piece so far and loving school. I just can’t kick the fog.

Lining up at the trough

17 Dec

A few weeks ago, I walked into my class engaged in conversation with a colleague. We were discussing potential doctoral schools for him; places he could go to study early music. The conversation naturally (in our field, at least) turned to the Ivy League as not only the pinnacle of academic achievement but also a terrific place for that specialty.

Our professor overheard the tail end of our conversation, right as I was saying, “I thought about going to Yale, but sold myself short and never applied. Not that I lack the intellect.” She looked at me and said, “Be grateful you didn’t wind up in the Ivy League. They tell you how to think.”

At the time that seemed like an unusual statement. I mean, it’s the Ivy League. Aren’t we all indoctrinated to believe that achieving Ivy League admission is the pinnacle of academic achievement? That’s what teachers ram down our throats from the time we’re 6 years old – you have to get good grades so you get into a “good” school. “Good” schools are always implied to be places that carry serious weight on the piece of paper – Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc.

I was toiling under the impression that these schools were some sort of intellectual haven where the big thinking happens. But, puzzled by my professor’s comment, I did some research. Turns out the Ivy League is a great place to be – if you’re already on the inside. There’s an academic caste system in play here, and if you’re born into the wrong caste, tough shit.

I’ve been reading a book lately by a guy named Chris Hedges called “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.” This is the Amazon summary:¬†We now live in two Americas. One‚ÄĒnow the minority‚ÄĒfunctions in a print-based, literate world that can cope with complexity and can separate illusion from truth. The other‚ÄĒthe majority‚ÄĒis retreating from a reality-based world into one of false certainty and magic. To this majority‚ÄĒwhich crosses social class lines, though the poor are overwhelmingly affected‚ÄĒpresidential debate and political rhetoric is pitched at a sixth-grade reading level. In this ‚Äúother America,‚ÄĚ serious film and theater, as well as newspapers and books, are being pushed to the margins of society.

Hedges lays much of the blame for this phenomenon at the feet of the Ivy League machine, which produces elitists of mediocre academic caliber that work extremely hard to maintain the status quo. It is the illusion of an Ivy League education as accessible to anyone with the smarts that really incenses Hedges, and their ongoing effort to keep America complacent and stupid so they can keep walking all over the rest of us.

I mean, this seems somewhat shocking at first take. Really? The Ivy League schools stifle creativity and intellectual initiative? Yes, they do. They rig the system to box out common plebes, because they don’t want you and I knowing what goes on in their inner circles.

Because my professor was right: they tell you what to think, after they carefully cultivate their idea of who and who is not worthy of their prestige. It’s a self-sustaining system. They don’t want serious intellectual inquiry, because serious intellectual inquiry is usually subversive and tries to enlighten the populace about the shenanigans perpetrated by the upper classes. The Ivy League schools are almost entirely populated by people who are already members of these classes. So, shit, why think if you’re already on top?

These schools, writes Hedges, “do only a mediocre job of teaching students to question and think. They focus instead, through the filter of standardized tests, enrichment activities, AP classes, high-priced tutors, swanky private schools, entrance exams, and blind deference to authority, on creating hordes of competent systems managers (89).”

Damn, true that. Harvard MBAs run straight to Wall Street and make up fancy words for ponzi schemes to steal people’s money and gamble with the national economy. Their education is carefully crafted to produce this outcome every time. These universities, according to Hedges, “organize learning around minutely specialized disciplines, narrow answers, and rigid structures designed to produce such answers.” Wow, this sounds exactly like public school!

That’s because it is like public school. I’ve been there. You line up at the trough for your information, and when you’ve had your fill, you just cough it all back up and everyone’s happy. Don’t interpret it – for the love of god don’t do that! Just tell em what they want to hear. And if you can’t do that well, then perhaps you aren’t “college material.” I need several sets of hands to count how many times I was told that. I spent most of high school figuring I was too dumb for college. They’d indoctrinated me to develop a self-conception that was specifically designed to keep me from asking too many questions.

Keep the common rabble from asking questions by keeping them stupid; carefully parcel out the knowledge that they should have and control access to the rest. Teach them that asking questions is bad – just spit back the answer, damn it! Henry Giroux, a longtime critic of the American capitalist culture and the concurrent obliteration of public education, referred to the sad state of academic affairs after 9/11:

“Corporate and Pentagon money was now funding research projects, and increasingly knowledge was being militarized in the service of developing weapons of destruction, surveillance, and death. Couple this assault with the fact that faculty were becoming irrelevant as an oppositional force. Many disappeared into discourses that threatened no one, some simply were too scared to raise critical issues in their classrooms for fear of being fired, and many simply no longer had the conviction to uphold the university as a democratic public sphere.”

This is “moral nihilism,” in the words of Chris Hedges. It relegates voices of common sense and reason to the fringe, making extremism in the service of fat profit the norm. This extremism is the black-and-white version of events that is packaged and sold to the vast majority of Americans. Leave no gray area, no room for questions, and the stupid masses will never question the actions of the people at the top. The education system makes their trade in this approach, particularly in the wake of the disaster that is No Child Left Behind. To take government money, public schools have to tell their students what to think.

Theodor Adorno, ardent cultural critic, wrote in 1967:

“All political instruction finally should be centered upon the idea that Auschwitz should never happen again. This would be possible only when it devotes itself openly, without fear of offending any authorities, to this most important of problems. To do this, education must transform itself into sociology, that is, it must teach about the societal play of forces that operates beneath the surface of political forms.”

Adorno, the Prussian son of a Jew who converted to Protestantism, knew of what he spoke.

By Adorno’s reasoning, we are always one step away from another Auschwitz if we do not make the effort to allow everyone to have an understanding of the forces that move the world. Because institutions like the Ivy League are committed to locking out all but those individuals deemed worthy of being a part of the elite.

They really do teach you how to think and what to think. They really do run the world, from the “ivory tower” that only truly exists in their minds. True academic inquiry goes on at levels considered well “below” that of the vaunted Harvard and Yale addresses, but the dialectical nature of American culture has conditioned people to feel like failures if they wind up a state school. Make ’em feel worthless, knock their intellectual teeth out, and they’ll stay soft and complacent.

As a proud graduate of a low-tier state school, I’m going to try to preach Adorno’s truth to as many open minds as I can.

It must have skipped a generation or two…

14 Dec

In July, I went to upstate New York to visit my grandfather as he was undergoing surgery to have two tumors removed from his brain. The operation went well and he was doing much better almost immediately. He is still undergoing some radiation treatments and has his ups and downs, but the surgery seems to have been a major factor in his survival to this point.

While I was there, we stayed in the spare apartment attached to my grandfather’s house. In that apartment were boxes and boxes of newspaper clippings, family photos and the like. My mother and I were determined to acquaint ourselves with the family heritage, so we dug through the boxes over the course of a day and found some fascinating stuff – we were able to trace one side of my grandfather’s family tree all the way back to 1780.

The coolest find, however, was made by yours truly. The high school yearbooks of my great-grandmother were in one of these boxes. Leafing through the yearbook from 1916, I came across an essay titled “Our National Music.” That, of course, piqued my interest. So imagine my surprise when I discovered who wrote it: my great-grandmother, Loleta Hoxter.

Yes, my great-grandmother was an amateur musicologist. My mind was understandably blown when I made this discovery, and I still get goosebumps thinking about it – not only was my ancestor a budding music historian, but she had chosen to write about American music, and music by American women. I am an American music scholar and study gender in music. It was just uncanny, and I spent the remainder of the trip gushing about the discovery to anyone who would listen.

I would like to reproduce her article here, for the rest of the world and for myself of course. I have both the yearbook and her type-written draft. The paper is yellowed, but it’s in remarkable shape for being close to 100 years old. So, enjoy an article written by my ancestor about American music.


Our National Music

Music was introduced in America in New England during the seventeenth century. It was known as psalmody and originated with the Pilgrims. The puritans soon made an advance in music; and slowly psalmody grew into sacred songs, gathering strength with each onward step until it gradually entered upon new conditions which led to its present high plane of art endeavor and achievement, of universal cultivation and diffusion.

Many writers on American music have sneered at the emphasis placed upon early music but it is nothing to sneer at. The early writers had a very hard and difficult struggle, composing and publishing music. Now, it is for us to contrast the present and the past and to rejoice over the marvelous advancement, which such comparison illustrates. In the preface of George Hood’s “History of Music in New England,” he says, “All things must have their beginning and this, though small, is important.” He adds that at first our music was low and mean; but if we hope to have a history of the art worth preserving, we should not lose the past but carefully gather it up and place it with the future that the latter by contrast may appear the more bright and beautiful.

Of course it would not be just to pass over the composers of this most beautiful art; therefore I shall mention a few of the many writers. The first that comes to my mind and one that was among the earlier writers is Lowell Mason. To this man is due great gratitude for his efforts to found American music and to encourage its progress. He spent his time mostly on church music and did much to promote correct of established church hymns. He began the study of music when a boy; and because of diligent efforts, he was soon master of his great art and a teacher of music. Public concerts were given; and he with a few friends founded the Boston Academy of Music.

Another great composer of music was John Philip Sousa who is known throughout the world for his wonderful bands and band music. Many splendid bands were organized by this man and he also wrote many marches, which are based upon his own experience of the feelings of men who march together on the open field. While very young, Sousa was the conductor of an orchestra in a theatre. At twenty-six he became leader of the United States Marine Band; and this organization under his leadership developed into one of the best military bands in the world. Later, he took leadership of the band bearing his own name.

Another famous writer of music is John K. Paine. He is considered the most classic of our composers. He studied music under a local teacher and then went abroad for three years under Haupt and other great foreign musicians. Having returned home, he was appointed instructor of music at Harvard and shortly afterward was promoted to full professorship; he has held this position ever since with distinguished success.

There is a large number of other male composers; but I shall now turn to the feminine sex. There are famous women composers and writers of music. For instance, Mrs. Julia Ward Howe, writer of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and Mrs. H. H. A. Beach, formerly ¬†Miss Cheney, who is a great concert pianist as well as a composer of music in the largest forms. Not many living men can point to a composition of more maturity and more dignity than Mrs. Beach’s “Jubilate,” for the dedication of the Women’s Building at the Columbus Exposition. Besides there is Margaret Lang, who has written large works. Miss Lang has a harmonic individuality, too, and finds out new effects that are strange without strain.

Such being our achievements, I do not hesitate to match the high-hearted, electric-minded free people of our hills and prairies with the rest of the world, and to prophesy that in the coming century the musical supremacy and inspiration of the world will rest here overseas, in America.

– Loleta B. Hoxter, 1916

Depressed Germans Have All the Fun

13 Nov

There’s a new Lars von Trier film out. ¬†I don’t know if you follow Triers’ career at all, and I wouldn’t blame you. ¬†His films are usually one step away from emotional snuff. ¬†He’s probably best known for Dancer in the Dark,¬†a film featuring Icelandic singer/artist/human freak-out Bjork as an immigrant who is gradually going blind. ¬†She works ceaselessly (and in the end, futilely) to accumulate the money for her son to have an operation that will spare him a similar fate. ¬†She is eventually framed for the murder of the cop who steals her earnings, and sent to the gallows. ¬†Oh, and it’s a musical.

Needless to say, suffering and emotional torture are the binding ties of Trier’s characters. ¬†Subtlety is not really a part of his bag of tricks, so it should come as no shock that his latest film centers on a similarly depressing outcome and is titled Melancholia.

This film is about the apocalypse, and the reactions of a chronically depressed woman and her slightly more put-together sister to the impending doom. ¬†Something about a giant planet that is going to swallow up the earth. ¬†I’m not writing a movie review; instead I’m focusing on one peculiar aspect of the film’s production and score.

That is the link to the first eight minutes of the film. ¬†It more or less gives away the conclusion of the movie right away, so uh, SPOILER ALERT! I guess. ¬†It’s called Melancholia. ¬†It’s not likely to produce feelings of good cheer. ¬†Watch it and come back to my blog. ¬†I’ll wait.

So, what’s that music, you ask? ¬†It sounds vaguely familiar.

It’s the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.¬† It contains harmonic language that completely disrupted the security and foothold of tonality. ¬†Marcel Proust wrote that the Prelude was the greatest work of art of all time. ¬†Music theorists were beside themselves trying to explain how in the hell Wagner could justify using the chords that he did. ¬†In the first 5 seconds of that clip, you hear a solitary string instrument playing three notes, and then suddenly there is a chord that sounds, well, kind of disturbing ¬†– F, B, D# G#. ¬†Maybe not so unusual to modern Western ears, who have soaked up the influences of Wagnerian harmony and Debussian extended techniques. ¬†But to the listeners of Wagner’s day, that chord was WEIRD.

Attempts to analyze the chord using contemporary harmonic techniques were wholly inadequate. ¬†So, they called it the Tristan chord. ¬†Wikipedia (and really, who better to trust on this subject than Wikipedia!) accurately reports that “it can be any chord that consists of these same¬†intervals: augmented fourth,¬†augmented sixth, and¬†augmented ninth¬†above a¬†root.”

So. It’s a tritone with an aug6 and an aug9 stacked on top. ¬†It’s not actually all that unusual – respelling the pitches in the chord as G#, B, D, F# produces a rather pedestrian half-diminished seventh chord. ¬†It’s the positioning of the pitches vertically – and their relationship to the surrounding IMPLIED key – that makes it so freaking weird. ¬†In 1865, this was groundbreaking stuff. ¬†As the melody progresses, it lands on a dominant chord – E, G#, D natural, B. ¬†If you respell the pitches of the Tristan chord using their enharmonic equivalents, or treat the chord as some kind of appoggiatura, you kind of get something resembling conventional harmony. ¬†But let’s be serious – this is a metric ton of chromaticism for music that was only 50 years removed from Beethoven.

What’s most significant is how long the orchestra sits on this unusual chord. ¬†They practically build a parking spot on it. ¬†Dissonances of this caliber, prior to this time, were typically used for color and brief moments of tension. ¬†They were usually resolved rapidly and added a certain juiciness to conventional harmonic progressions. ¬†Tristan¬†is an extended exercise in the rapidly crumbling facade of tonality. ¬†Less than 50 years later, Arnold Schoenberg would drive the final nail in the coffin and people like me would gnash teeth in mourning.

Wagner was kind of an asshole and a basket case. ¬†Today, we’d call him a drama queen. ¬†He was, after all, the harbinger of German Romanticism – the celebration of the dark recesses of the mind and the romance of suffering. ¬†Read up on Hector Berlioz if you want to understand the zeitgeist of Romanticism. ¬†Berlioz was French, but he embodied the characteristics of the cultural misunderstanding of psychology and the celebration of the tortured artist and his unrequited overtures of love.

Why do I bring all this up in connection to the film? ¬†Well, Lars von Trier was quoted as saying, shortly before the release of Melancholia, that he “desired to dive headlong into the abyss of German Romanticism.”

Abyss…diving…melancholy…you get the picture.

I found it rather fascinating that we have a film about the Earth crashing into a giant planet, underscored by some of the most disorienting and fatalistic music of the age, written and directed by a man who makes no bones about the true nature of depression Рof its dank corners and odd moments of implacable calm.  And this is coming during a period in our history where scores of us (myself included) are ingesting antidepressants to keep our heads above the water in a world that we seem to be floating away from Рa world where ceasing to care about living is in itself a form of liberation and peace.

Couple this with the recent spate of apocalypse rhetoric spread by money-grubbing preachers, Mayan hack scholars, and the History Channel. ¬†No wonder we all want the freaking world to end – that’s got to be better than this dreary existence of low-functioning, pill-popping uselessness. ¬†No wonder Trier used the most famous piece of music from an opera where everybody dies.

I’m linking a decent Slate review of Melancholia¬†at the bottom of this entry. ¬†The reviewer seems to take exception to some of the heavy-handedness, but they praise Trier’s depiction of depression as experienced through the protagonists.

It’s fascinating how mediums cross over and infuse each other with meaning, even 150 years apart. ¬†That’s why I do this.

Slate review: