Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Don't Know Much About...


Actually, I do know a thing or two about art; certainly not as much as my art major brothers, but enough to appreciate the good stuff, even the stuff that turns off casual museum-goers who prefer even a mediocre Norman Rockwell to anything by Jackson Pollock. I know enough to realize how much I don't see when I stand in front of a masterpiece: how the colors work together to achieve the overall effect, the role composition plays in it, how even the brush strokes matter to the final product. I know it would take me years to develop an eye for these things, years that would be well spent, but which are not part of my plan for the rest of my life. I walk around museums considering great works, sometimes being entranced by what I see without being able to put in words what has drawn me to this abstraction or that photo-realistic work, just savoring the experience, taking it in the same way I look up through trees at sunlight filtering through and feel my soul stir. My senses are ignited by the photons bouncing off my retinas, and I bask in it, delighting in the way it nourishes my soul. That's what aesthetics is all about: knowing that art affects us in different ways, and seeking to understand why it does.

So no, I don't really know much about art; I just know I like it. What I do know is music.

I enjoy the rich sunniness of a symphonic major chord as much as the next guy. Much of the music I listen to is harmonically simple, and fits neatly within the pop, rock, and jazz idioms. But I have discovered something in the thirty-five years since I began studying music at the college level: I like music more if there's some dissonance in it. This is a quality that is not often appreciated by casual listeners looking for something soothing to put in the background. Dissonance can give one the impression that a mistake has been made, that a wrong note was played--much as a Jackson Pollock painting can remind one of paint spatters on a dropcloth. But if the spatters are intentional, if the dissonance is neither a misprint nor a misreading of the key signature, then one must consider the possibility that it is an intentional artistic choice.

So why would anyone want to create music that sounds ugly? Or, for that matter, visual arts, architecture, dance, theater--why intentionally make art that clashes with the eyes and ears?

This seems as good a time as any to bring in Charles Ives. Ives may have been the first truly American composer of serious classical music. Prior to Ives, American composers were almost indistinguishable from their European counterparts, who, for the most part, considered American folk music to be too coarse for use in serious works. Ives reveled in the roughness of American music: badly tuned saloon pianos, competing marching bands colliding, patriotic songs intruding over a serene soundscape. Much of his music is eerily prescient, foreshadowing the harshly intellectual sounds of serial music and the avant garde of the 1960s, but with better humor and more heart. At times, it sounds like chaos, but in so doing it better reflects the American frontier ethos than the lush, sophisticated sounds of the European late romantics.

Here's what Ives had to say to the perennial question of why envelope-pushing artists insist on creating things that people find hard to like: "Is not beauty in music too often confused with something which lets the ears lie back in an easy-chair? Many sounds that we are used to do not bother us, and for that reason are we not too easily inclined to call them beautiful?"

Challenging music is not everyone's cup of tea. I happen to enjoy it, whether it's rhythmically complex, unusually dissonant, harmonically unpredictable, or whatever else causes casual listeners to find it startling, unsettling, even ugly. This doesn't go for all such music--I'm no big fan of free jazz, and aleatoric music usually leaves me cold--but I can usually find something to appreciate in any music that doesn't cause me physical pain (as extreme high pitches on overdrive can do for someone with partial hearing loss).

Here's an analogy: I enjoy food with plenty of seasonings. Cajun, Mexican, Thai, Indian, Ethiopian--they all intrigue me. I like food that's got a bit of a bang to it, as well, that amps up the pepper quotient beyond what most Americans can tolerate. I didn't get there overnight. I had to train my taste buds to appreciate such food. It took me about a year of living in Texas to discover I enjoyed the "afterburn" of a truly hot salsa.

With that said, I must also acknowledge, as a Texan friend once told me, "There's hot, and there's hot that tastes good." I've found that some over-peppered dishes give only a sensation of heat so extreme that it drowns out the interesting flavors, or causes such pain that I can't enjoy the dish in any way. My first experience of vindaloo, a curry popular in Britain, was like this. A couple of drops of "Death Sauce," made from jolokia peppers, even diluted in an entire bowl of soup, has on a couple of occasions made my throat contract almost to the point where I can't breathe. So I've backed off from my pepper enthusiasm; but I still enjoy food with a kick.

Dissonant music is an acquired taste for most people. We like our musical easy chairs. We have to be coaxed out of them, given time to appreciate the added colors that come with major sevenths, diminished ninths, mixed meters, suspended seconds, cluster chords, odd timbres, and all the other seasonings composers and performers may throw into the stewpot of a single piece of music.

And that is where the advocacy comes in. It should come as no surprise to anyone reading this that I am a music educator. I trained in the early 1980s to be a band director, acquiring my taste for "contemporary" (meaning mid-to-late twentieth century) music. I then spent fifteen years in the United Methodist ministry, acquiring other tastes, including rock and pop, but never losing my love for the fascinating sounds on which I had cut my aesthetic teeth. In 2003, I returned to teaching music, this time in an elementary classroom. Training in Orff Schulwerk brought me fully into the world of improvisation, and my last year as a full-time music teacher was devoted entirely to jazz education.

Then the bottom dropped out. My school district cut back music from three full-time teachers to just one. There was no longer any music education in the elementary school, and just one teacher doing band and choir in the junior and senior high schools. Two years later, even that position was cut in half, and I was called back when that teacher sought full-time work elsewhere.

For two years, I've been teaching two bands and one choir. The lack of elementary music education is taking a toll on my younger students. The older ones--the juniors and seniors--have had constant music since kindergarten, but the younger ones come to me with an ever-expanding gap in their training. This year, for the second time in a row, my efforts at creating some kind of beginning band program for fifth- and sixth-graders was rebuffed by the administration. I was also unable to continue last year's experiement with after-school jazz in the high school. People just don't have the money to spend on music as an extracurricular activity. If it's not part of the school day, very few kids will be in it.

Next year's seventh grade band and choir members (we cut the junior high music class in half, to accommodate those who'd rather sing than play) will be arriving with a four-year gap in their music education. Many may remember learning about jazz from me when they were second graders, but much of the substantive training will have fallen away. All the experiences they could've had, all the incredible diversity of music I could have exposed them to, never happened. Those formative years were devoid of any music but that which they found for themselves on Youtube or Pandora, and was very likely heavily weighted toward top 40 pop music and country-western.

And this music gap will continue to grow. In two years' time, the beginning band/choir will be true beginners, never having had a single music class in their lives. The 30-40 students a year who take band and choir in the junior high will be the only kids in town receiving regular music education in a classroom setting.

Banks is, I hope, an extreme case, but I'm aware that districts across the Portland area have been making harsh cutbacks to music and art classes. Portland's arts tax is, hopefully, going to restore some of those classes in the coming year, and as the economy improves, we may see a recovery happening in other districts, too. Let's hope it's not too late. There's been a lot of damage done across the United States.

If you are, in fact, an afficionado of great music, and you wonder why the stuff you're hearing on the radio (if you still get your music there) or coming out of your teenagers' bedroom sounds like crap, consider this: it might just be that your children never learned to tell the difference between good music and junk, because they didn't have the same opportunity you had to be in music classes in school.

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