The success of my course “Tragedy and Inspiration” spurred me to think of other meaningful ways to group contemporary music in a compelling music appreciation-style class. “Misfits and Geniuses” became my next course. I started with the attractive idea of creative rebels who bucked traditional boundaries and existed on the fringe. Which composers wrote new rules, expanded the space for music, and crossed dividing lines? This course includes Charles Ives, John Cage, George Crumb, John Luther Adams, Philip Glass (focusing on Koyaanisqatsi and Einstein on the Beach), Meredith Monk, Morton Subotnick, Pamela Z, and Frank Zappa. Undergraduates love the idea of a rebel genius. That simple premise invites meaningful discussion of Cage’s ideas on silence, Zappa’s absurd plurality of styles, and Meredith Monk’s use of the human voice as an expressive instrument separate from the restrictions of language. The variety of styles and artistic approaches again makes for a rich menu of great but challenging contemporary music. We get to discuss spatialization, silence, recreating an imagined ancient musical language, the blurred lines between rock and classical music, extended techniques, deep listening, and the Buchla synthesizer.
The course features nine primary composers. The material begins with some introductory lectures I created and continues with video interviews (available for everyone but Charles Ives), articles, and some critical material. We then focus on three important pieces for each composer representing different aspects of their musical language. A trio of pieces gives a solid overview of their work and generates discussion on the many creative threads that make the composer unconventional.
I wanted to increase the level of student engagement as I developed this second music appreciation course. Current ideas about student learning encourage a steady stream of low level “tasks” that should be completed immediately after absorbing material. I created a “listening assessment” that asks each student to answer eight brief questions. They do this for all 27 pieces featured in the course and get full credit for completing the task. The questions ask simple facts about the music (length, instruments), and they require the students to list some descriptive adjectives and offer a short personal response.
- List the performing forces used in this piece. What instruments are voices are used? What non-musical elements are included? Include what you think is most essential to the piece.
- How long is the piece?
- Under 10 minutes
- 10-30 minutes
- 30-40 minutes
- Longer than 60 minutes
- The length is variable (not specifically set from performance to performance)
- How would you describe the rhythmic language of this piece? Please check all options that apply:
- Mid tempo
- With an active pulse
- Without an active pulse
- Constantly changing or evolving
- How would you describe the harmonic language of this piece? Please check all options that apply:
- Beautiful and consonant
- Harshly dissonant
- Moderately dissonant
- Organically unified
- Disjunctive or fragmented
- Abstract or unfamiliar
- Slow to change
- Actively changing
- Pick three to five good descriptive words for this piece. Avoid weak words or vague words like nice, attractive, good, and ugly. Find strong words that offer your unique and specific observations.
- What personal responses do you have to this piece? Offer a few sentences to describe your unique perspective. There is no right or wrong answer, but listen with attentive ears and offer meaningful insight. What emotions does the music elicit? What aspects of the music are most compelling? Least compelling?
- Was this an easy or difficult piece to listen to? Why? Get specific with reasons to support your answer.
- Offer one other thought in response to this piece. Possible items to address: What was most surprising or unusual? What moment moved you? What other artist or genre of music might you connect with this piece? If you had to convince a friend to listen to this piece, what might you say?
In this new course, I often ask the students for their opinions about the music, their opinions about the ideas of the composers, and then ask them to decide which of the three pieces are more compelling. While I often tell my first-year composition majors that they should be sponges and suspend judgment on important composers till further in their education, I encourage strong opinions in music appreciation courses. When the student has to offer a judgment-style opinion, they will listen more closely and seek out the ideas that support their argument. I make it clear that it is fine to dislike a piece of music, but they must know why and be able to support their opinion with detailed observation. I may gently push back on a poorly formed opinion, but I find that even a strong negative reaction paves the way for a growing appreciation of the music. That is my goal.
John Cage generates intense discussion. His ideas are easy to grasp and challenge presuppositions held by most people in the class. We begin with Living Room Music, which suggests that anything can be used to make music or serve as an instrument. (It’s also great fun.) We continue with Sonatas and Interludes and end with 4’33”. The discussion of silence, noise, and “what is music?” is exciting. A good portion of the class embraces Cage’s ideas and examines their own favorite music in a new light. Others dismiss the ideas as nonsense. I’m happy with this disagreement so long as everyone knows why they arrived at their conclusions.
I teach Meredith Monk and Pamela Z side by side. Their highly developed and unique vocal technique has shaped the fabric of their musical language. They are performing composers who embody their music with powerful visual and dramatic components. But their music is quite different: Pamela Z often uses technology and words as a jumping off point. Meredith Monk finds the meaning of words too limiting and wants to create beyond the cultural baggage found in words. We look at Hocket, Dolmen Music, and Songs of Ascension for Meredith Monk, and Bone Music, Gaijin, and Baggage Allowance for Pamela Z. YouTube offers great live performances that allow the students to absorb the important visual components of these pieces.
Morton Subotnick and his early work pioneering live composition with synthesizers resonates strongly with the students. Most of the students either embrace EDM (Electronic Dance Music) or some other music heavily dependent on electronics and looping. None of them know of Morton Subotnick’s work, and they quickly appreciate his essential innovations, which made all current mainstream electronic music possible. We listen to Silver Apples of the Moon, The Last Dream of the Beast, and watch excerpts from Jacob’s Room.
There will always be excellent composers and pieces that won’t find room in a semester-length class. For a final project, I require the students to create a short, NPR-style podcast featuring a composer not included in the main lessons. I recommend they consider Pauline Oliveros, Conlon Nancarrow, Harry Partch, John Coltrane, Joan La Barbara, Wendy Carlos, Alvin Lucier, Terry Riley, Ornette Coleman, Laurie Anderson, or John Zorn, among others. They can also seek permission for a composer of their own choosing. I only require that the composer chosen has a connection to North America and is someone who has worked primarily in the 20th or 21st century. The podcast format allows them to include musical excerpts, which require description and context.
When I talk to my colleagues about “Misfits and Geniuses”, their eyes light up. They each have their own ideas about which great artists could fit into such a class. The pairing of composers and styles is rich with possibilities, and it is exciting to revel in the work of artists who break rules and redefine the musical landscape.