Thursday, February 19, 2009

I was recently sent this image of myself from late December of 1992, in Lucknow, India. I think my friend Paul Brians took this photo, and somehow it languished on a WSU image database for years until a friend happened to see it and sent it. "Is that you?!"

I heard the musician on the left for awhile before I found him. I kept hearing bits and echoes of soaring melodies fading into the hum of the streets. And suddenly there he was, walking through the streets of Lucknow selling bamboo flutes (whistles, really) by playing very lovely improvisations on bhajan (Hindu hymn) tunes. So I bought one and finagled a lesson on the spot. Our lesson immediately attracted the attention of kids in the area who began pressuring parents to buy flutes and for a few minutes this fellow did very good business, but it was clear that he feared attracting too much attention and soon made a quick exit. I have always been drawn to this sort of Indian music that thrives under the radar of "classical" music, which, while wonderful, is also burdened by the rigorous hierarchies of British India as well as its own aristocratic heritage. Competitions, grades, judges. But there are plenty of musicians like this fellow, who played soulfully and beautifully without those institutions, whose improvisations may or may not correspond with classical ragas, but follow the rules of a more human raga.

This photo also serves as a cautionary tale to me, growing my hair long again...In six months I will look as scruffy as I did in this photo, except with a lot more gray hair.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

This is a blog about a musician (me), putting music into the world after almost two decades in a kind of seclusion. This first post is about my history in getting to this point, so read on if that interests you. I made the decision to focus on music in my life while in college (though I had played piano since I was eight, composed music since then, and had picked up several instruments in high school), as I became obsessed with trying to bring out the music that consumed my insides. I wasn't very good at this, but I was persistent. My training was nearly useless, even though I was good at all that stuff. I had gotten a little record deal with Flying Fish in the 1980s, doing somewhat-peculiar projects (the 5-string banjo as a "serious" instrument; minimalist music for folk trio), but my real "voice" (in a metaphorical sense) took much longer to emerge. As a matter of fact, part of that was about a year resurrecting my actual voice with an incredibly-gifted voice teacher, Kim Scanlon. Bringing that out was transformative to me, and I should write about that at some point. At about age 30 I decided to go to graduate school in Music Composition at UCSD, while I started work on my opera and recognized that I needed an entirely different set of musical skills, and needed to begin serious study of a bunch of things in order to bring my music to life, even if this work was going to take a very long time. I had to play the guitar. I had to reinvent, design, and build the guitar. That sort of thing.

I had the idea to start this blog on January 1st, 2009, as it was just at the end of 2008 that I decided to change my path significantly. Since 1990 I had been teaching at Washington State University, working on my music mostly in seclusion and slowly (I have been rebuilding an old house during this period as well). While teaching has been very stimulating in many ways, working with college students is consuming too. I also realize that struggling with the anachronistic Eurocentric agenda of music in academia has taken a toll. Here's an example: a student who did not do well in my course reported to another faculty member that I had said in class that I didn't like European classical music. That wasn't true, actually, but it doesn't matter. The funny thing was that this faculty member stormed into the chair's office demanding that I be confronted with this. More disturbing was that the chair actually called me in and said this had been reported and what did I have to say about that. I said that I didn't suspend my first amendment rights when I enter the classroom, and that it was a sad thing that we were even having this meeting.

I wasn't tenured or anything; I had always been in the crosshairs whenever budget cuts were threatened. In fact, I think my MA in Music Composition from University of California, San Diego is not even officially a terminal degree. The way I had gotten a teaching job was serendipitous...I had finished the MA, and been accepted into the PhD program at UCSD, but I had enough of that pretentious crowd and I longed to return to making my music without those demons looking over my shoulder, and when my wife at the time was recruited by the WSU English Department, I saw it as deliverance back to the Pacific Northwest.

I didn't have a position at WSU, but a much-loved music professor had just died suddenly and they were desperate for someone to teach a music appreciation course. I was hired on the Friday before classes started in August, 1990. I had team-taught a World Music course at UCSD, and was stunned that WSU had no such course, and so, in addition to teaching the Dead White Guys course (for which I felt qualified, being a future dead white guy), I was able to design an entire curriculum in World Music. For eleven years there was a substantial budget to produce two "World Music" concerts every summer (between $3-4K each summer!) and since no one at WSU seemed all that interested in what I was doing, I brought whomever I was interested in. A kind of state-sponsored ethnomusicology education--it was wonderful, actually.

Eventually "diversity" fell off their radar screen, and my budget evaporated. I should say that I poured my heart and soul into designing a course that empowered every student to explore whatever music moved them, in a context of exploration of the soulful languages of music from throughout the world, and allowed them to add their own heritage or one they chose to borrow that semester. It was the only place in any academic community I have been in where musicians could study whatever they wanted to study, exploring a personal path into the musical knowledge they determined was most important. It is a sad comment on music in academia that to treat an 18-year-old musician as an artist is a revolutionary act. The World Music course I developed was the only critical-thinking student-centered musical undergraduate course I have ever heard of. I didn't see it in graduate school either, honestly. Anyway, the course was extremely popular and there was considerable pressure on me to expand past the 150 students I taught in two sections. Because I insisted on essay exams that I could read myself, along with research writing, I refused to be pressured into expanding into huge sections with mechanical right-answer exams. They were making a serious profit on the 300 students I taught each year. They stopped funding the World Music curriculum in 2004 in budget cuts. The dying gasp was just this year, when the administration eliminated the course from the catalog along with other courses that had not been taught for three years. Sigh...

This experience has made me powerfully aware of my own musical creative process, seen in a kind of relief against what seems to me to be a soulless landscape of the corpse of European music. I have been trained in this tradition, but always as an outsider acutely aware of the dwindling number of musicians working entirely within the European classical tradition in a climate of intense musical creativity outside that tradition. I have been equivalently "trained" in traditional Irish fiddling (on the whole, a much more delightful journey), and self-taught in the traditional American manner on the banjo, guitar, and so on. Preservation of European classical music is not threatened, of course, but as an outsider it was obvious that the music theory and history I was required to study explained virtually nothing of value in most of the music I was drawn to. Once, when I was given the 20th century music theory course at WSU, I was required to teach that stuff, and I also got in trouble for throwing out Stockhausen and replacing him with Robert Johnson--come on, people, who is really the more important 20th-century musician here?! European music theory works fine for Beethoven, of course (though not for explaining what I find miraculous about his music), and there is much to enjoy in the European classical tradition. And this approach to music guarantees mastery of notation (a problematic way to represent music, but very useful in crafting performances), and detailed thinking about very subtle aspects of music. This discipline of awareness is absolutely important, though I think I could better teach it in a recording studio than in analysis of the resolution of Neapolitan sixth chords. I learned more in the studio with Micheal O'Domhnaill than from all my teachers in my academic work. As much as Bach was inspiring, there were any number of vital threads of music that moved me that were entirely out of the scope of serious academic inquiry, much of it more closely related to American musical roots in the music of West Africa and the traditional folk music of Western Europe. It is still common for my classical colleagues to dismiss actual American music, "popular" music, as beneath them.

This blog is going to explore my musical work this year (and maybe later, who knows), as I emerge from my self-imposed musical exile. At age 50. Better late than never. Maybe. Anyway, I also want to capture my thinking about my experience training young musicians, since the system seems to be such a miserable failure, and the discipline appears to be hopelessly unable to reform itself. The reason this needs to be done is because generations of creative young musicians can get virtually nothing in support or useful training and education from undergraduate music programs. The investment needs to be spent in a far more productive way. What could be done to help musicians connect to a path with a heart? Maybe even a path with a soul.