Even Orpheus: A North Carolina Group Ponders Music’s Meanings

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On Saturday, March 24, 2007, composers Jennifer Stasack, T.J. Anderson, Stephen Jaffe, Rodney Waschka, and myself were joined by two-dozen colleagues gathered to talk about the state of music in society at the National Humanities Center in lovely Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. Billed as one of eight pre-symposium events across the country leading towards Tanglewood II, a 40th anniversary congress of the nation’s leading music professionals gathering in the Berkshires in Summer 2007, the North Carolina event paralleled similar gatherings at UCLA, Columbia, Minnesota, and other centers of music.

When Tony Palmer, national co-chair of the Tanglewood II symposium, called me around Christmas, he recounted a history I didn’t know. In 1967, the Tanglewood Symposium, a collection of 34 professionals, met in the Massachusetts Berkshires and examined music in American society. Tanglewood II will again meet in the Berkshires this summer with an international rostrum of educators and presenters, scholars and composers to examine how far we’ve come and where we have yet to go.

As Tony explained it, eight campuses across the country were giving pre-symposium events and one of the larger East Coast institutions had “hit a snag”: could North Carolina State host this? I explained to Tony that while NC State was big—a campus of 32,000 and a music department (which I began chairing only three years ago) that serviced nearly 2,000 of those students every year in 80-plus academic courses and 18 ensembles—we have no music major!

It was then that Tony told me the subject he needed covered: “The Value of Music in Society.” “Sign us up,” I said, and suddenly NC State got thrust into the Big Leagues. I immediately turned to my colleague, ethnomusicologist, and the closest to a musical bon vivant that exists in the world, Jonathan Kramer, to coordinate the effort. After New Years, Jonathan and I drafted the letter, wrote the news release, fashioned a tasty quote from Tony, and hit the ground running. Kramer contacted the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park—equidistant from the three powerhouse schools of the region, Duke, Chapel Hill, and NC State—and the Humanities Center leapt at the chance to bring us all together.

March 24 arrived and we anticipated a couple dozen participants—but boy did they have something to say! Bill McManus from Boston University welcomed the gathered from the national Tanglewood office and with that, the NASCAR checkered flag came down, starting the race. The talks proceeded throughout the day—a mixture of prepared papers and extemporaneous musings.

Jonathan Kramer, the event coordinator, punctuated every hour with the sounds of world music and readings. Scientist Patricia Gray from UNCG’s BioMusic offered response right away, offering that lab mice sing thirds but in the wild sing octaves and fifths—the physiological preference for the grounding of the overtone series. References to harmonizing mice raised their furry heads the rest of the day!

The first paper of the day was perhaps the best—when does that happen? Composer Rodney Waschka from NC State brought laughs early in the proceedings with his “Six Roles of Music in Society.” In short, music supports: advertising, religion, group identification, mating, clan history, protest. What can music do? He concludes: Do no harm. Try to be charming. Use craftsmanship to do good.

I followed Waschka—a tough act—by introducing five borrowed philosophical words and a method, repeating what Wittgenstein always said, “Art shows us the way we should live our lives.” My words? Hetereological (the study of music is not musical), Hermeneutic (interpretation is all), Qualia (we should study the phenomenology of experience), Praxis (the application of theory in experience), Maieutic (the Socratic method of questioning). NC State began with a good one-two punch, but yeah, I, too, think Waschka’s was better.

After the break and a Kramer video of New Orleans funeral music, the second session began with composer Jennifer Stasack extemporizing on one’s own musical culture. She grew up in Hawaii and thought herself Japanese as a child; her first music was Hawaiian chant. Only once her education was completed did she reconnect with her ethno roots and incorporate that into the college curriculum.

After three composers, musicologist Evan Bonds from Chapel Hill spoke of Orpheus going to hell. Music is what moves things to happen, he told us. In Monteverdi, it is the new form of recitative that causes things to happen. But in the original tale from Ovid, Orpheus lacks faith and turns around to look; even Orpheus doesn’t believe in music’s power. Music is very much like a religion, he concluded. We should have more faith in the power of music.

With another Kramer tangent into World Music, composer T.J. Anderson, the dean of African-American composers who retired from Tufts to Chapel Hill fifteen years ago, spoke up passionately about the divergences of music in America. “Start in your own backyard and work out to the world,” Anderson cautioned. “Don’t look outside your community. Link that diversity of cultures to your music.” It was an America First argument for music.

Ciompi Quartet cellist Fred Raimi thanked Evan Bonds for being emotional, stating that if was often hard to find the common ground between performance and musicology. “We’re all listeners,” Bonds responded.

Kramer then played a snippet of an archival YouTube video of Glenn Gould and Leonard Rose to preface Raimi’s comments. Rose once told Raimi, long ago at the latter’s audition into Juilliard, “You’re one fucked up cellist,” and thus Raimi began his talk illustrating the question posed with three musican-idols “doing the right thing through music”: two cellists—Casals and Rostropovich—and the singer Paul Robeson.

Patricia Gray followed Raimi. Senior research scientist of biomusic in the UNCG Music Research Institute, Gray brought a refreshing scientific slant to the day’s proceedings, beginning with looking at definitions of society and how we tend to focus on the human aspects, as opposed to animals. “Biomusic” Gray defined as linkages between musical sounds in all species, musical sounds as non-verbal communication, as well as the double-edged sword of the music of nature and the nature of music. “Both science and the arts have to inform the whole,” she repeated.

Gray showed video of the Bonobos of The Great Ape Trust of Iowa in Des Moines who improvise a D dorian melody over a drone provided on the video by pop musician Peter Gabriel. As a result of this example, Gray wants to define Music in ways that can incorporate apes, including getting a Bonobo an ASCAP affiliation. Others have gotten the association for less, some of us note, unconvinced by what we saw; others in attendance are impressed by the curiosity displayed. Gray concludes by pointing out current research on music and nanotechnology, brain, wellness, evolution, ecology, law, culture and philosophy.

After a splendid lunch provided by the National Humanities Center kitchen, we were back with a special session on textbooks. Textbooks, we were told by Prentice Hall editor Richard Carlin, can be paradigm-shifters but “you guys need to encourage students to read more.” A plea more than a presentation, but his lament fell more on the choir than converts.

Young musicologist Andy Flory, fresh from his doctorate, discussed the disciplines in the way of “intra” versus “inter” from a musicological perspective. “Interdisciplinarity has been a part of the American Musicological Society since its founding in the early 30s,” he told us. While the Society for Ethnomusicology “defines itself as multidisciplinary.” Post-Musicology is the future, he thinks: the unification of the disciplines.

The final Kramer connector was perhaps the most effective, echoing the Waschkian “group identification” mode in a way that proved his point that music can be used for harm: military cadence songs which use music to inure soldiers to violence. Frightening!

Session Three, and the final stretch began with Victor Hebert of Fayetteville State, the first of four to speak to the preparation of musicians. “How do we connect with our communities?” he asked us, and no one had a satisfactory answer.

W.E.B. DuBois talked of the Talented Ten in his The Souls of Black Folk. Well, Jim Ketch of Chapel Hill spoke of the talented two percent that ever do anything with their music education. Many of us, this author included, have always believed that only ten percent of our students in graduate schools should be there. Ketch produced evidence that the number is far smaller. But, he reminded, “we are educating both professionals and future patrons,” ending his presentation with some exciting developments in entrepreneurship and music taking place at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Diane Phoenix-Neal, also of Fayetteville State, continued the dialogue on preparation of musicians with her talk on the importance of interdisciplinary arts. “Art is a catalyst for critical thinking” was her primary topic, and, she tells us, we must start younger with our students.

Composer Stephen Jaffe of Duke closed the day with a personal history of growing up in the shadow of Tanglewood itself: early memories of attending performances and his first experience with new music and the Ivory Tower. Separate from “that rarefied air,” he questioned, bringing it home, “what of public schools, universities, and symphony orchestras preparing young musicians?” Creating places for new music to be heard and assimilating technological change were two successes he felt from the last forty years.

But, he warned, technology should be a part of an education and technology that fits the formalities and shaped by it (“the computer made me do it” syndrome). But “a little of this and a little of that won’t get us there.” The fellows who inhabit the offices of the National Humanities Center, Stephen posited, could easily name three contemporary authors, and three contemporary architects, if we put the question to them, but would be hard pressed to recognize the names of our contemporary composers. We are still not in the nation’s consciousness. His point hit home as the perfect punctuation to a great day.

The gathered rose and shook hands, the videographer cut the lights and assembled the tapes that will go to the national Tanglewood II symposium in June, and we, at NC State, felt we had done a good thing—made a good start—in bringing neighbors together to talk one Saturday in the North Carolina woods about the future of music and its value to society.

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J. Mark Scearce

J. Mark Scearce, Director of the Music Department at NC State, is the composer of sixty instrumental works and over a hundred text settings. He has won five national/international music competitions, and is the recipient of five advanced degrees in music and philosophy. His music has been commercial recorded for the Delos, Warner Bros, Capstone, Centaur, and Equilibrium labels