Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Pop Music Professing and Consumption

Just a few hours ago I finished my very first lecture at my very first post PhD job. And it was exciting, let me tell you. I have the rare privilege of teaching the very stuff that matters most to my research. It's great!

In the past few weeks I've been culling together my materials for this class and a few things occurred to me about the nature of teaching pop music classes, especially those classes that rub up against the present. At a certain level, we must consume pop culture at an accelerated rate approaching hyper-consumption. Those of us who work in that vague temporal period known as "Music of the 20th Century and Beyond" must somehow keep up with the ever-changing pop cultural landscape through consumption. This is a pop cultural landscape increasingly characterized by ever-changing niche markets and sub-sub-genres where the mainstream isn't as central as it was just five or ten years ago (let alone what it was during Michael Jackson's hey-day). Those of us who work on music from different parts of the world have an even greater challenge of keeping up with pop culture shifts in multiple places. It can be a bit dizzying.

Some of us are really savvy at navigating this new cultural landscape. We read music blogs, twitter and what have you. We pay attention to what we hear on our favorite TV shows and we keep up with our students' tastes as much as possible. Some of us are also pop music producers/performers and through that practice, we are always involved in what's going on. Or we try to be. It's a talent that I very much wish I had, but alas, I do not as of yet. As a blogger (and twitterer) and active user of the internet, I consume and listen as much as I can. But as an academic and a specialist, I often feel pressured to turn on that giant fire hose of pop culture at specific times to be as efficient as humanly possible. It's a common dilemma: there just isn't the time to hear all the great stuff that there is out there.

So how do we do it? Where do we set our limits? Apart from the basic ethical dilemmas of piracy (and a legal system that treats file-sharing as a very serious crime), I always feel myself turning into a hyper-consumer in the weeks leading up to a new class. (All of this doesn't even begin to approach the problems of making these examples accessible to students... but I digress.) I don't want the examples I cite to be dated or "played out," but I also don't want to compromise the arguments I wish to craft over the course of the term. It's a serious dilemma. Any ideas from the peanut gallery of professing pop scholars?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Attempting a Thematic History

As Phil Sr. says, happy academic new year! Since both he and my co-blogger Kariann are talking syllabi, I thought I would pitch in as well, especially since I could use some advice.

One of my classes this semester is a three-fold challenge:

1. It is a one semester history of western music. That's a lot of history.
2. It is required for music majors, and in fact is the only history requirement--we offer the whole sequence of course, but those courses are electives. So this is one chance to make sure the music majors know their history.
3. At the same time, it is open to all students in the school, regardless of musical training, and fulfills various general education requirements. So there is a big chunk of people with no musical experience.

You see the challenge--conflicting needs, and a surplus of material. But it is also an opportunity for me to rethink how I've been teaching history sequences. We all face the challenge of wanting to teach our students how to think critically about music, when in reality they usually don't yet know the basic facts of its history, facts that are necessary to know before you can do much else. I've seen approaches that take both sides of that coin--for example, just plowing ahead with advanced stuff hoping that they have learned history and repertoire somewhere else or will do it independently on their own, or the opposite approach of just sitting down and going through Grout, chapter by chapter.

I've decided to bite the bullet and attempt to find a middle ground by doing a history thematically, rather than chronologically. So instead of starting with Charlemagne and plowing on through the next millenium of music, we're having units on specific topics, like "notation" or "colonialism" or "classicism" or "sexuality." In the "notation" topic, for example, we'll look at early chant notation, ars nova, an example of common period music, and end with Earle Brown's graphic scores in Folio. Obviously there will be lots of interesting notation we won't look at it, but I think that's enough to get one thinking.

What makes this possible, I hope, is that the first unit, taking place over the first two weeks, is grandiously titled "Organizing Sound." In this unit we'll do a little philosophical "What is Music?" stuff, but mostly it will be a quick overview of the major periods and their stylistic characteristics. It will necessarily be a quick, glancing overview, but hopefully it will them a context into which they will be able to fit everything else we're doing.

The semester has started, the syllabus distributed, so no turning back now! Any advice is welcome. On the plus side of all of this is that my students are very smart, and work very well independently. And although it might at first seem like a lot more work for me, in reality it more closely matches how I tend to think about music in the first place, so I'm hoping it won't be so bad.

I'll let you know how it turns out.