Friday, September 18, 2009

"Music and Human Experience"

Teaching a Fall semester Freshman Seminar at The College of New Jersey on the topic of "Music & Environment." I've noticed, of course, that there's relatively very little scholarly writing on this topic, despite the fact that every writer on music at some time or another points out the love of Nature (with a capital N) exhibited by musicians of all cultures through the ages and to a lesser extent the relationship of a composers' environments to the work they create.

The only actual textbook I've found specifically on this subject is called Music and Human Experience, by Arthur Komar, and was published in 1980. The book attempts a standard survey-of-music curriculum from the perspective of music's functions within society. It's a fascinating approach and handy to have. But it is also hopelessly out of date from a teaching perspective, pointing out just how much our culture has changed in the last few decades.

Given the book's raison d'etre as a substitute for standard intro to music literature texts, its emphasis on Western musical canon and standard repertoire is somewhat understandable. Within that scope, Komar strikes a nice balance of informative and entertaining, perfect for the lay reader. But it's been a long time now since educators have allowed themselves to talk exclusively about the music of Europe in such a course. In that respect, the book simply represents the dead end of an era.

Funniest of all in light of contemporary standards is the unit "The Music of Lands and Peoples" which deals exclusively with nationalist-inspired composers, from Mussorgsky to Copland. Just passing remarks on Bartok and little discussion of the growing ethnomusicology research, let alone its ethical quandaries. No mention of world music influences. No mention at all of African American music or its influences on European repertoire apart from Milhaud's use of jazz and one or two other such. No mention at all of women composers. No mention of environmentalism or soundscapes. No acknowledgement of the power of popular music (barely even a reference to the Beatles).

Even by the standards of the day, the absence of any discussion on minimalism is glaring. The style was still evolving and at the time amounted to an open sore on the body of traditional classical music scholarship. Funny, that so often what we can't see or can't tolerate in the present becomes the central element in our recounting of history.

I would say the '80s were the cutoff point for this particular group of offenses. By the mid-'90s, every music department was at least encouraging scholarship in these overlooked areas--perhaps "overlooked" is too soft. "Ignored" would might be the more correct word. A 1983 article on the absence of women composers in contemporary textbooks uses the diplomatic phrase "benign neglect."

No matter how you look at it, it's hard to believe that such a complete shift in scholarly expectation and emphasis, one that is now so widely accepted, could have occurred so recently.

I've got Komar's book on reserve for my students (that is, they can read it but do not have to buy it). Along with the valid scholarship it presents and its attempt to tie together music with other aspects of life, it offers a time-capsule glimpse of the wildly shifting sands of cultural definition and the simple, yet glaring mistakes that await us in our research.


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