Opus Colorado Article

Saturday, February 20, 2021

This is a favorite article that I’d like to share, from a defunct blog called Opus Colorado.

The Fragility of Our Cultural Inheritance: Part I

By Robert McNeil

January 7, 2012, 1:22 pm 

Every now and then, if I think about it too much, I can get very upset about the fragility of our cultural inheritance.

The other day I was listening to NPR, which I basically like very much, when I heard a review being given by Ken Tucker of a new piece of pop music. I do not remember the name of the piece nor do I remember the person who was singing, but Tucker was describing it as one of the most profound and moving pieces of music he had heard for quite awhile. As I listened, I noticed a few things about this piece which were absolutely inescapable: 1) I could not understand the words, except very randomly; 2) There seemed to be a four line stanza of text, which seemed to describe the singer’s despair over his unrequited love, and his frustration at being treated in a poor way by the object of his affections; 3) Each sentence, and each word of the text, were all sung on the very same note. It was quite similar to an aria because the notes only appeared when the rhythm of the text changed. If there was a long syllable, the note was held longer, and, if the syllables were fairly short, then the notes occurred more rapidly. It was simply one note repeated in the rhythm of the syllables until the end of the fourth sentence, when the notes changed and usually ascended by one or two steps. Subsequently, this wonderful song that Ken Tucker found thrilling was, in actuality, almost monotone; 4) The instrumentation of this song was fairly sparse, but a relatively driving rhythm, provided by a drum set, forced the piece along and gave it some direction; and, 5) The harmonies which were used only changed at the end of every fourth sentence of text. The singer stayed on the same note for all four lines, and the same chord all four lines until the last couple of words of the fourth sentence, and then the harmony changed. One group of four lines was based on the tonic chord, one group of four lines was based on the sub dominant, and one group of four was based on the dominant chord. Then the harmony started all over again using the same pattern. I’m sorry if many of you readers aren’t aware of what a tonic chord is, or dominant or sub-dominant, but there isn’t room right now to explain, except to say that the tonic chord is a triad based on the first note of the scale, the sub dominant on the fourth degree of the scale, and the dominant on the fifth degree of the scale.

What upset me about this review was that Mr. Tucker was describing it in the most glowing terms, and, as I said above, the word profound was used more than once. In addition, there was nothing in it that to me, at least, indicated any kind of sadness or frustration. In fact, I wanted to shout to the singer, if that’s the most emotion you can muster, then get on with your life and stop wasting time. Quite often the person who was singing this was so inarticulate – or so loud – that the words simply could not be understood, except for an occasional “sorry, sorry, sorry.”

I have no idea what musical qualifications Ken Tucker possesses, because when I looked him up, I could find no bio statement, except that he had received some ASCAP Awards for his music reviews, and that he appeared on NPR’s program, “Fresh Air.”

I freely admit to the possibility that when Ken Tucker goes home, he may listen to Mozart quartets or Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, but I really don’t think he does. His enthusiasm for the piece that I heard him review was boundless, and the lack of art in this piece was as startling as the abundance of art in the Mozart quartets. Perhaps I need to listen to Fresh Air on a more regular basis, but I don’t think I have ever heard any of the Fresh Air hosts talk about serious music. My lament is that it seemed that Mr. Tucker may be close to my generation, and yet he seemed unconcerned about proselytizing music that had such minimal content. The problem with that is that we are passing on a piece of music that requires no thought and no imagination. Since it requires no thought and no imagination, it automatically advances the idea that any music can be listened to without any thought and that means understanding as well. I have heard many students explain to me that they listen to pop music because they don’t need to think about it; and, conversely, they do not listen to serious music, because every time they do, they have to think about it. The dangerous impact this is having on our cultural heritage is that the understanding of serious music, and its accompanying appreciation of the art, is beginning to dwindle. I have met adult students who don’t know how to listen to music or think that it is necessary, and indeed, seem to be almost fearful of listening to it, because they have not been accustomed to it throughout their lives.

I also become worried when someone outside the discipline of music writes reviews about it, and at the same time, demonstrates a total lack of knowledge about serious music. It seems to me, that if one is going to make a career writing about music, some evidence about musical knowledge must be in place.

There are times when I hear reviewers extol the art and profundity of Ziggy Pop, and when I am told that a concert in a “sterile concert hall is filled with well-heeled old fogeys in tuxedos,” and when I hear that Mozart and Beethoven and Mendelssohn and Schumann and Cage are just some “old dead guys,” I wonder who will keep the candle burning.

The Fragility of Our Cultural Inheritance: Part II

January 7, 2012, 3:21 pm 

I recently wrote an article on Expressionism in Music, in which I quoted two experts in the field of Expressionism in Literature. One of these individuals had written a fairly extensive article on Expressionism, but it seemed when he compared it to music, which was the thrust of his article, that he either omitted some points, or brushed them off. In reading the article, he seemed to state some common misunderstandings of what to listen to in expressionistic music, so I opened the gates for a response to my article at its end. I will quote my last paragraph:

“In Doctor Lea’s article, he comes very close to stating outright that Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern wrote without implying any social commitment, except to say that they were concerned with the reform in the arts and in the quality of life. My question would be of Henry A. Lea: Why is it so startling that Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern considered traditional harmonies exhausted? Art to be art must always progress. And how does a new art affect the quality of life?”

No one has yet responded to, or answered, the last two questions of the above paragraph, and I point out that the study of comparative literature is certainly an art. I wish that Dr. Henry A. Lea would respond because I think that we all know how art affects the quality of life. If Lea answered it, he would, by necessity, have to concede that some of his previous statements were at least vague, if not unsuitable, because of their implied prejudice.

By not being as complete as possible, the responsibility of thinking things through is abrogated. That is an aspect of inheritance that we all pass on to the next generation.

It also has the effect on our younger generation of keeping their attention span very short. A few years ago, I was startled when one of my students and I were discussing recordings made by great pianists in the past. The student had no idea what a record was, as she was only familiar with CDs. More recently, a student seemed perplexed that in the studio where I teach privately, I had so many books, including a 31 volume encyclopedia. Not being sure of how an encyclopedia was organized, she asked why I didn’t just look up the information on my telephone. While I freely admit that all the new technology, e-books, iPods, iPhones, and iPads, are amazing to use, and while I also admit to publishing an e-book, there is something amazingly comforting about holding another portable device in your hands that has paper with words printed on the paper. But, as Jack Kessler (bibliophile and author of the newsletter FYI France) has pointed out, the new electronic marvels have possibly saved books from spills, fingerprints, banana peels, and what have you. But it also has eliminated the reverence for the printed page. Like Mr.  Kessler, I, too, have gone to university libraries which now seem to be social centers where books are used mainly for propping up the new electronic devices so that the new generation of students can tweet and text and beep to their hearts content.

There are times when I feel like taking a stand against Google, as the French did, at least for a while, because they feared that Google’s digitizing every single book in the world would destroy their culture. It does, however, have a big advantage because it does preserve all of our precious books, and protect them from students who use a strip of bacon for an impromptu bookmark.

There is also a university here in Denver that is now instructing its faculty to take “advantage” of all the new electronic technology as they lecture to their students, because the students are convinced that the faculty is comprised of old fogeys who know nothing about technology, and thus, probably don’t know anything at all. So the professors now have to (required) use PowerPoint, tweets, and YouTube in their lectures, so they can “remain current and relevant to the student body.” In some manner, the student body has convinced the administration at this university that traditional approaches to teaching, while tolerated, were not sufficient in enabling a meaningful and interactive educational environment. What this means, of course, is that the administration has succumbed to the entitlement of the students to demand how they be taught. That university faculty is more knowledgeable than the student body seems to have no bearing on the fact that students come to a university to learn. In addition, some of the students apparently complained that coming to lectures which were not recorded, or pre-recorded, using the new technologies available, has made class attendance mandatory. That is an astounding thought indeed! Why on earth should students, who pay for tuition at a university, and their education, be forced to come to class? My immediate response is to ask, “Why don’t the students take notes?” I can remember, back in the “old days” when I was a student, without today’s technologies, that there were things called pens which you held in your hand (which is connected directly to your brain) and you could write down on paper everything that the professor said, and keep it forever if you wished.

Imagine, if you will, that you are teaching a class on medieval French literature, for example, the Gospels of Lothar, which were written between 849 and 851 (they were a gift for Charles the Bald, who was Lothar’s brother). This gift represented the end of their territorial feuding, and was completed by the monks at Saint Martin’s Abbey in Tours. How would you use twitter to teach the significance of this work?

If I am teaching a class in music theory (which involves the study of chords, their structure, their sound, and their movement) how would I use PowerPoint? A chalkboard is much more flexible, and a student’s embarrassing errors can easily be erased. A chalkboard has a much more intimate environment than a laptop computer screen. It does not have to be a page. Everyone in the classroom, assuming they still attend class, can see the changes the professor is making, and there is no constraint on fitting it into a paradigm.

I worry when I learn that university professors are being told what kind of technology to use in their lectures, aside from their brains, because the students have such short attention spans. Students come to a university to learn. They do not come to university to tell faculty how to teach, what kind of technology to use, just because they pay for their education.

Our culture has always depended upon the fact that older, and therefore experienced individuals, know more than those they are teaching. Part of the process is learning how to think. In addition, part of the process in learning, is learning how to work.

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