Sunday, June 12, 2011

On (not) writing

I took last summer off for a little perspective in terms, and also to refocus energies elsewhere. And coming back, I'm not sure either of those panned out in the ways I thought. There were several times I started writing something, but couldn't quite get it out in a way that made sense for me, or that I wanted to write something but just got busy. And these I suspect will be continuing problems for me, but for the mean time I'm back largely in part to a) my missing this and b) the feeling that it's worthwhile beyond me.

There's been a lot of discussion lately on the AMS listserv (and echoed nicely over at amusicology about the place of blogs. I don't imagine I get much draw outside of people I already know, but it's a way of disseminating even in small steps some thoughts. I could also be a better self-promoter, I suppose. But modest aims are fine, I think, for where I am. It's nice, honestly, to feel like I'm communicating more with these folks more than the once-or-twice-a-year conference or trip.

Instead, I think the broader goal for me is pedagogical, self and otherwise. Taking this teaching writing seminar underscored how much I value that sort of daily, low-stakes writing (an added bonus of where the free time went, I did more fiction reading, and intend to continue this trend!). It's hard to square the publicness with the lack of a really public readership, meaning that ideas occupy this nebulous space of inquisitive working through and digested and eloquent. I'm the kind of writer who likes a space to sort of see it on paper or hear myself talk it out, hence I'm back. But I've also seen a lot about blogs in the classroom. We had listening blogs in one class, but the class was too large (in my opinion) to really make it a space for much discussion to erupt and, in a fitting parallel to Ryan's post students managed to spread the rumor that they didn't need to actually do it and it was a losing battle. I like the idea of blogs though, as a space for working out ideas, sharing perspectives, continuing exchanges and collaboration beyond the classroom, and I expect to continue this in the fall when I teach freshman writing. Blogs are good for just practicing writing, doing it daily, letting students get feedback on their ideas, learn how to make and support arguments, how to provide commentary, and to realize that their ideas participate in a broader conversation.

All of this is to say that if we want to make musicology active in the public domain, keeping that in mind in the classroom is a good idea. We encounter students who will become musicians, medical researchers, administrators, psychologists, whatever- the people who will become potential readers of our words. But if the classroom is just a place to learn about musical form, concerts attended just so they can write 3 pages rehashing it, music and its teachers seemingly cut off from the modern world, they won't go into the world expecting to see musicologists playing an active role. They may very well appreciate what they learned, they may remember us fondly, but they won't see us as a missing part after they get their diploma. Which would be a shame, because what I love about my work and my colleagues is how they make me feel connected to a larger world, and hope that my presence in it will be of use to someone.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


So, somehow my summer vacation away from blogging turned into a year. I've had a lot happen in the interim, but nothing terribly earth shattering. Some dissertation got written as well as a couple conference papers and a side project article that's in final editing before submitting it, I got to try my hand at teaching film, took a job applying prep seminar, and I think the biggest was taking a seminar on how to teach writing. This summer we're getting ready to teach freshman writing in the fall, and the new assignment is SYLLABUS. It's getting scarily concrete.

I'll write more on that and a few other topics that have been brewing (some, like this one, in response to AMS listserve activity). But I want to launch back into this on a more gut level topic, specifically being stirred by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's season-closing performance of Mahler 9. They were great about providing me with an apology pair of comp tickets after last year's concert replaced Nielsen 5 with Rachmaninov's 2nd symphony (which I'd just heard two weeks prior) without my being notified. I was disappointed (as a friend and I agreed, it's like being promised a ride in juiced up rare car only to get a ride in a really big minivan).

The concert was absolutely amazing. Bernard Haitink had a perfect rapport with all the musicians, who were actively into it, and just nuanced control of all the disparate parts. I'll also put this forward: Mahler 9 is my vote for favorite/best symphony. Here's some musings on what grabs me.

The first movement starts out in little fragments, a note here, a rocking motive in the harp that recalls immediately the adagietto of Mahler 5 (and less immediately "Beautiful" from Sunday in the Park With George), and ultimately reaches this lovely three-note motive that never resolves to the tonic. It just hangs there, but somehow inflects a gentler yearning than what I'd expect. Like it's content to rest there on the second degree, and so are we. It's hard to summarize this movement most of all; it's like reading a novel that covers so much territory without getting lost. The orchestra kicks into high gear with the brass charging forward in a heroic effort that again doesn't get resolved, the mood darkens, then sweetens as the opening motive comes back, building back up again. And here's the thing: this movement struggles on and on, it's quixotic, it's weird. The melodies end abruptly, the orchestration turns on a dime, the harmonies are muddy and indistinct. The concert sold out, but maybe it's the name because late Mahler isn't really an audience pleaser. 90 minutes of this without intermission. Anyway, the first movement has the most marvelous ending- everything sort of peters out into a sweet chamber music moment built around that opening motive that hangs on the second scale degree until a harp and flute resolve it in the upper register. It's like magic, really, not just fulfilling that which you've been striving for for so long, but exceeding it with sheer simplicity of that one note that feels both attained (at last!) and unearthly, out of reach. Perfection, held just long enough to stop your breath.

The second is just the opposite: silly, earthly, bizarre. A folk dance burbles up through the orchestra but only for so long. Soon another dance tune intercuts it, then another and another, like a comic traffic pile-up. Then Mahler has fun with this wealth of ideas: the tunes get chopped up. They start answering each other in wrong keys, sliding around like dizzying musical banter, or maybe even like a cream pie fight. And since I work on collage, that's what this is: a collage of these various dance tunes, remixed in ever-changing ways and positions. I find it interesting that the folk dance movement provides the impetus for Mahler's release like this- maybe there's something to the physicalness of dance that allows this sort of musical embodiment of spinning out of control, fumbling around. And intercut with the dances are moments of rest, these echoes of that first movement motive. And then it ends like the first movement, hanging unresolved, then resolving in this cute little ripple of notes- different effect, similar means. I half-stifled my giggle.

The third movement is something of a march that can't quite decide on its character. A little overly self-serious at times, chipperly dysfunctional at others. Haitink caught, I think, the perfect tempo- there's a danger of letting it run away with itself, which undercuts the pomposity of it. The middle section is another statement of what will become the opening 4th movement theme, presented at first half-formed, harmonized in and out of tune, starting to blossom into the tenderest moment yet once the strings take it up, but that thought is left hanging, and the theme simply asserts itself again inquisitively, plays around a bit, before the clarinet takes it up in a mocking tone a la Till Eulenspiegel and the march theme inserts itself in playful counterpoint. This is something I love- the themes get treated in practically every way. They're comic, they're sweet, they're bombastic, and Mahler nails every mood just right.

I love the fourth movement most of all. It's the only one that doesn't feel like it's fighting against itself. It's the most harmonically triadic and grounded. Also, we've been introduced to the themes in more parodic fashion in the third and second movements; what's surprising is how straightforward it is and how effective it is just to let them unfold. The tone is incredibly hard to pin down. It's happy, but in a sad, irrevocably lost way, or maybe it's sad in a warm, accepting sort of way. It yearns but it doesn't feel directional or unfulfilled. More like it's about yearning than it isyearning. There's a climactic moment where the tension builds until the opening unison string gesture bursts in and the horns solidly affirm the main motive. But then the ending enriches it by reducing the orchestra to just a few instruments, in quiet, uncertain, dark counterpoint. The two different impulses are never really resolved; what we get is a rich but intimate string texture at rest, very fragile stability: a tonic chord, but with oscillations up and down in the violas that threaten to break it at any moment but by the end haven't.

If I seem overly anthropomorphic here, it's only because I want to emphasize how this symphony feels natural. Music seems to unfold in a logical but free way. It makes sense in ways that make sense when you hear it. And you should hear it (live, if possible).