Wednesday, August 29, 2012

'Music and the Natural World'

Tomorrow my Fall semester class at The College of New Jersey begins. I'm teaching a Freshman Seminar titled "Music and the Natural World."

The idea for this course came out of a discussion on the Society of Music Theory email list about five years ago. Some on the list were interested in whether a music theory course could somehow work in ideas related to sustainability -- a hot topic at the time, as the academic world was reacting to mounting pressures to address climate change and environmental issues. The thought was that sustainability was one of the most important issues of our age and we had a responsibility as educators to reflect that concern to our students.

I was among those theory teachers who said, No, it can't be done. The theory curriculum is already demanding for the students and time allowed for that curriculum is far too brief. Moreover, the link between theory and sustainability is flimsy at best. We can recycle paper. But that's about it. In one way or another, most of theorists agreed with that assessment.

Out of that discussion, however, the idea arose that a separate course could be designed that focus on repertoire and environment. Composers throughout history have been inspired in many ways by the beauty of the natural landscape and composers today are examining that relationship in everything from traditional "musical landscape" scores to computer models of natural systems and chaos theory.

My thought was that, in a framework like that, students would be naturally sensitized to issues of sustainability and human responsibility for our changing environment. Putting it in a freshman seminar seemed perfect, as it allowed for a more broad-ranging discussion.

TCNJ's freshman seminars are intended give students an introduction to scholarship by presenting them with a subject of study, much like a graduate seminar, and then guide them through the process of research and scholarly discussion. The first two years in college are generally spent on required courses, with little other opportunity for this kind of personal scholarship.

By now, I've taught this particular course three semesters and I grow from the experience each time. We gambol around music history and the musicological spectrum, touching on other disciplines like philosophy, physics, sociology and biology. Since the course is open to students of any major, there are a jungle of approaches popping up in each classroom. Each voice adds to bigger picture.

We will start with an nature-themed trip through the classical repertoire, introducing some writings of Goethe and others along the way, and then head off into ethnomusicology and topics in semiotics before getting into soundscapes, musique concrete and John Cage. And we wind up with a look into the not-so-distant future of virtual environments -- what of nature, or of ourselves, do we take with us into the wholly digital city?

It's a mash-up dance, a rough-and-tumble idea playground.

So here we go. I'm excited. It's going to be a great semester.

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