An Arts Education Symposium

RICHARD KESSLER: It’s a very interesting thing that the new music field, to a great degree, feels beleaguered, and that they feel a tremendous degree of misunderstanding, and in fact, I’ve heard Milton Babbitt say: “People think we’re a subculture but, in fact, we’re a superculture.” Milton has many very clever lines like that. But the great irony here is, while the new music field may have questions about how it’s embraced within the classical genres, I think when you talk about entry points, when you talk about possibilities, worlds to go in, that the schools represent a remarkably fertile environment, that no one has mined. No one’s turned off to what this composer’s music is or will be that particular day; there’s not even a question of it. And that I do find it to be somewhat unfortunate that the greater part of the new music field has not really entered into education.

MAXINE GREENE: What about music of different cultures? I was thinking about Philip Glass learning to play an African instrument, you know, is that really important now in what goes into the schools? The different cultures, you know, like Dominican music, somebody was telling me, is entirely different than salsa, or Puerto Rican music

POLLY KAHN: I think that it’s important that we approach music in the larger rather than the smaller way. There are skills we can develop as listeners that can enhance our pleasure in music no matter what the particular medium may be. That educational objective may serve the narrow purpose of new music but it also serves the purpose of every other kind of music.

MAXINE GREENE: I went to the Brooklyn Museum to hear Arab music. When you listen to Arab, Lebanese music for the first time, it’s almost impossible. Terribly difficult; it’s like Japanese music. I had a student, fortunately, who had tapes and came in my office for about 3 hours and got me at least listening…

FRANK J. OTERI: …Did he bring in tapes of Fairuz?

RICHARD KESSLER: To a great degree, I think it’s about connections, making connections.

HOLLIS HEADRICK: Right. And that to me, the making connections, and the context of the work, whatever it may be, and how that context is then linked with the experiences of that audience, and whether that audience is a group of students, whether those are adults, whether that’s an audience that comes for a performance, it’s the context that provides the linkage that then helps people make meaning. And, unfortunately, arts in certain instances, in certain ways, have tried to take that meaning out and have put the context in the realm of the individual. That it’s because Picasso was a certain kind of artist, or because Coltrane was an artist, or because Mozart was a child genius, whatever that is, that it resides in the individual, that we somehow have to deal with this individual. What you were saying, Frank, is that people are told that there are masterpieces, there are people that we have to aspire to. And I think trying to create a context that provides that entryway for whatever the audience is, is the most important thing. And you can do that in a variety of ways, as long as it has integrity.

POLLY KAHN: At the Philharmonic in November we have a week which has on it 5 new commissions – “Messages for the Millennium” – and we saw that as a wonderful educational opportunity. What I’m going to describe is just a self-contained unit, if you will, it doesn’t describe a long-term relationship. We created a teacher’s guide around this, which has to do with musical messages, which has to do with kids asking their parents what music had special meaning for them in their lives, what kind of message there was in that music…

MAXINE GREENE: Oh, that’s good.

POLLY KAHN: And then gave the kids the same commission that [Kurt] Masur gave to these 5 composers.

FRANK J. OTERI: Oh, wow.

POLLY KAHN: Write a piece of music that contains your hopes and dreams for the millennium. Now connected to that, first of all, are all sorts of other extra-musical things which involves kids in thinking about the future and thinking about what might the world a better place, and a great invention that might help, and then moves into having them create musical messages. It also hearkens back to Beethoven’s 9, another musical message that still has meaning. What could you create for the future? And here’s a little snapshot. We only know a little bit about these 5 new works, and we have each composer with a one-line sentence: “What I was trying to do in my piece was x,” and setting up a listening assignment for the kids and their parents. This went out to every music teacher in the country, people in all 50 states. The kids have written messages. So who knows what this music is like? Nobody’s heard it! But what we were trying to do, as we’ve been talking about all evening, is create a receptivity. What we tried to break down is “It’s new, I never heard of any of these people, I’m not listening.” “I made music, I made my own musical message, I did exactly the same thing that these 5 people were supposed to do, I have the same job; the same person even gave me the same job. Let’s see what they did.”

MAXINE GREENE: See, that’s imagination.

POLLY KAHN: And so there, you know, as I say, it’s a very contained kind of thing. But we set for ourselves exactly the goals that we’re saying: how do we break down the barriers, make it engaging, use kids, if you will, to create more receptivity in the adult world than they might otherwise bring to it. And develop the habit of listening. How often do we sit down and listen to the radio, and certainly as families. It’s part of an ongoing effort.

MAXINE GREENE: How will you know?

POLLY KAHN: Well, we have little research groups in all 50 states that are going to get back to us on this thing.

MAXINE GREENE: You do? Oh boy.

FRANK J. OTERI: Wow. This is really interesting to me because it’s topic-based rather than structure-based.