Anthologies and the Problem of Pre-Fab Teaching

Anthologies and the Problem of Pre-Fab Teaching

booksIt’s easy to see anthologizing as the first step on the road to canonization. When a contemporary piece is placed in a collection of the type to which Rob Deemer has by now famously contributed, it gets transmitted as a stable, printed score, and finds itself positioned adjacent to music that traditionally qualifies as monumental—large-scale, orchestral, German—and at the end of a perceived narrative of progress, decadence, decay (and rebirth?). It becomes a Work, and might as well be stamped with a morose likeness of Beethoven and brushed with a patina of dust and sauerkraut.

The anthology, in this view, is deeply problematic, and much of the criticism of Rob’s choices operates from this position. Those who remark on the dearth of European composers on his list, for instance, project a sense of indignation that a whole category of artists might not be considered worthy of immortalizing. Those who complain about the lack of improvised music (more on that below) and examples of other techniques betray a concern that nonstandard creative approaches will not be recognized as skillful.

More problematic than the anthology, in my view, is what this kind of critique assumes about the activity of history and theory pedagogy. The unarticulated assumption is that the anthology will be used in the service of a narrative of great works and geniuses, a kind of chronological tour of the Classical Music Hall of Fame, and that those contained inside the paper walls are proven masters, while those without aren’t worthy of attention.

One way to soothe the outrage is to recognize another function of the anthology, to view it as an aid to a particular type of teaching: as an outline of a context-driven narrative. What if we take anthologies as the beginning of discussions, not the ending? I don’t mean, exclusively, the kinds of discussions happening on NewMusicBox; I mean discussions in the classroom. Anthologies provide examples of trends, and provide students—and, more importantly, educators—with starting points on various topics. They will always be inadequate representations of musical praxis, and their inadequacy should be a regular source of conversation: Why does the collection contain so few women composers? So few non-European composers? Why isn’t there more organ repertoire? More saxophone repertoire? More kazoo music? Why is there only German art song? Why is there so little popular music? So little non-Western music? Some of these questions are easier to answer than others, but they—and many more—are all worth articulating in the classroom. Moreover, I venture to guess that every anthology compiler wishes desperately for this type of inquiry to take place.

card catalogThis is the crucial connection between anthologies and another of the controversial topics explored in previous NewMusicBox columns (Rob’s included): when probing questions are not encouraged, those types of voices that are typically absent from the telling of history—the non-male, non-European, queer, or generally unprivileged—will only continue to be absent. The more we teach history and theory as a study of great musical works and discrete moments of genius, the less satisfied those who raised objections to Rob’s post will be, and the more we all stand to lose.

Take the complaint about the lack of improvised music among Rob’s choices. This is a fair criticism, particularly as improvisation has a long history. In fact, it’s fair to say that, in the very long tradition of social music-making, strict notation is the exception. Yet, ironically, examples of improvised practices do not often grace the pages of anthologies, in part because of logistical difficulties. Though a significant part of Mozart’s and Bach’s musical activity, for instance, we can only guess at the exact form of each composer’s on-the-spot larger-scale creations. Furthermore, when printed in an anthology, even the music that would have been improvised, like a cadenza or operatic embellishment, ends up looking fixed, for the anthology, in subsuming everything under one heading, problematically suggests that all music approaches the printed page in the same way.

If a history teacher doesn’t take the trouble to situate works in the context of the performance practices, institutions, nations or courts with which they are associated, students are deprived not only of broad cultural knowledge, but of an opportunity to be informed about non-musical reasons for certain parameters of musical style. (An example might be John Cage’s famous anecdote about the reasons behind the piano preparations in Bacchanale.)

Not to put too fine a point on it, but to teach only the composers discussed in someone else’s textbook, chosen by someone else’s narrative, would surely be an impoverished and lazy approach to pedagogy; anyone who knows enough to run a history or theory course knows more repertoire than that which is contained in an anthology, and could formulate valid objections to the contents of any textbook.

It has been articulated in the comments to Rob’s piece, but it’s worth saying again: bravo to Mark Evan Bonds for attempting to keep the anthology so current, and bravo to Rob for being so open about the reasons for his choices. It’s up to the rest of us to do the real work: to place these pieces in context, and make our complaints into curricula.

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NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

4 thoughts on “Anthologies and the Problem of Pre-Fab Teaching

  1. Susan Scheid

    I’m so glad you’ve written this, such a sensible way to think about using anthologies, in the classroom particularly. I travel among teachers (though not of music), and some of the very best have dispensed with anthologies altogether, for just the kind of reasons you summarize here and that cropped up in response to Rob Deemer’s post. I Rob Deemer took a thoughtful, considered approach to making his choices, and though I had questions about it, I felt badly when such a firestorm of criticism seemed to erupt. You offer here a wonderful way of thinking about the uses of such books, so that they have a chance to be a force for the good: “What if we take anthologies as the beginning of discussions, not the ending? I don’t mean, exclusively, the kinds of discussions happening on NewMusicBox; I mean discussions in the classroom.”

    1. Andrew Strauss

      There are some good ideas in this article; especially about putting the rather facile contemporary notion of improvisation into historical context. It would be interesting to contrast this debate with its parallel in the world of literature, where the very concept of a canon has taken on unsavory political connotations. But I like the gesture of compiling a canon. I’m so tired of playing the game “Can You Top This? Relativism Edition”(TM) that political correctness requires.

  2. Phil Fried

    “…but to teach only the composers discussed in someone else’s textbook…”
    “ place these pieces in context, and make our complaints into curricula…”

    I’m sure your not trying to be high handed, but you don’t seem to have considered the possibility that some of us are in no way connected to a college or University or will ever be. So my point of view is not as teacher but as a artist/composer trying to define myself; to find my own context. What curriculum do we represent? So for me this can never be a “professional” discussion.

    Its personal.

  3. Elaine Fine

    I teach at a community college in a rural area, and my students, for the most part, know nothing about music when they arrive in class. The textbook that all the music teachers use has been “dumbed down” over the years, and is finally at a state where there are too many important composers who are left out to make any kind of plausible case for any kind of continuity. The recordings that come with the textbook are also a problem. Great performances sometimes get dropped in favor of performances that are not so good, and it is difficult for students to get access to the recordings because the college has a textbook rental system. There is one copy on reserve at the library, and the library computers don’t have optical drives.

    My solution to the problem is to keep a class blog with YouTube links and links to articles. That way students can have access to the material we cover in class wherever they happen to be. I also include far more than we cover in class, so students who want to explore something further can do so.

    People do come to my class blog from other places, which doesn’t bother me in the least. The more we can teach about music, even to people we don’t know, the better it is for all of us. People who have taken the class (I call them “lifers” because they continue to listen to music after the class is over) come back to hear pieces they remember from class.

    This, as far as I am concerned, is the most effective way to teach a music appreciation class. Have a textbook for some reference and follow its material up to a point, but deviate wherever it is possible (and/or necessary). I always make a point of letting the students know when the textbook writer is wrong about something, or if there is something I don’t like about a performance of a particular piece, I demonstrate what it is I don’t like by comparing it with something better.

    The catch is that students have to come to class in order to learn the material I expect them to learn.

    Here’s the address of my class blog, if you are interested.


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