Monday, June 30, 2008

And we wonder why academics have a bad rep....

I begin, as usual, with a link:

This, from today's Chronicle of Higher Education. The present post will not easily fit into my proposed format for this blog; it does not address an aspect of popular culture, or a certain musical performance that I find invigorating and rewarding, or anything of the like. Instead I find myself dragged right into the muck which Mr. Reeson inhabits: self-reflexive meta-commentary by academics on academia. (I usually save the putrid stew of bitching, self-evaluation, armchair-professoring and plain old ranting that all fit under the rubric of this "meta-commentary" for in-person, voiced conversations--i.e., shooting the shit with friends who are also in grad school.)

It is not the first time that something published in the Chronicle has raised my ire, or inspired me to fits of condemnatory logorrhea (--case in point), though again, those usually manifest in the spoken, rather than written, word. However, Mr. Reeson's comments compel me to use a blog post to weigh in on his editorial. My initial reaction was to believe that his piece was a ruse of some sort, a practical joke meant as a send-up of the self-importance many professors feel. But I must remind myself that the views and opinions expressed in the Chronicle under cover of pseudonymity often border on the surreal and absurd. Reeson is in all likelihood sincere in his musings.

Although Reeson seems to be at pains to alert the reader that he does not condone selfish, anti-social, and childish behavior on the part of humanities faculty members, his essay as a whole serves as a sheepish apologia for the kind of antics experienced by most people who serve on or are in contact with such faculties. If it were simply a matter of a room full of PhDs trying to stir up the dull waters of their professional lives by creating a bit of office drama, Reeson might have at least half a point. Yet he reveals his cloistered perspective in his failure to mention how faculty dysfunction negatively affects non-faculty members of an academic department (...yes, them...remember?). When brilliant professors get cranky--either because of spats with other profs, or for whatever reason--administrative coordinators, program administrators, assistants to the chair, in short staff, are often the ones who must weather the storm. Even when conflict is not brewing, staff may have to put up with random tantrums, sudden requests (orders) to stop what they were doing and assist a faculty member with a dire task like showing him or her how to make double-sided copies. (Needless to say, the occasional graduate student can also get caught in the crossfire of departmental politics). So, issue #1: Reeson is a classist. Academic departments would not exist were it not for the staff. So to lament that faculty "only hurt ourselves" by being mean and selfish is to discredit the labor and humanity of our colleagues in the main office.

I also find Reeson's version of structuralist analysis of faculty infighting as a form of ritualized sociality to be unpalatable in its false logic. This paragraph in particular is a gem:

"Now I'm not trying to normalize or sanction conflict. What I am trying to suggest is that conflict must have a certain practical value for us. We professors are a relatively intelligent bunch. But by refusing to be nice to one another, we poison our work environment, effectively peeing in our own pool. Why would intelligent people do that unless it served some purpose? Couldn't it be the case that academic conflict — even as it creates certain problems — might also solve certain problems, problems that are particularly acute for academics?"

Normalizing conflict is precisely what Reeson tries to do in this piece. It is insulting on multiple levels. Firstly, since when has intelligence ever precluded aggressive or unethical behavior? Secondly, why does intelligence necessarily lead to "rational" or "practical" actions? Did intelligence prevent "great minds" like Dostoyevsky or Charlie Parker from doing something impractical like hitting the bottle or needle? Thirdly, and perhaps most distressingly, Reeson suggests a quantitative approach to interpreting and analyzing faculty behavior where a regularly occurring action must serve some positive, beneficial, or productive function. The more something happens, the more likely it is that there's a good reason for it to happen. Extending this logic further suggests so many harrowing examples of how it could be (and has been) employed that I need not even cite specific instances.

I must also take exception to Reeson's thoughts on the special problems that academics face: tragedies of the moderately-affluent intelligentsia such as boredom, ennui, wanderlust. The agony of teaching courses in a field you consciously chose, year after year, earning a comfortable salary. I respect boredom: it is a powerful human emotion which can lead to or coincide with others such as depression and anger. But I will not place the charge of boredom on the profession; instead, I place it on the person. (If Reeson wants to experience boredom, he could work the night shift as an office building security guard night after night. If he wants to know repetitious labor, he should try working in an automobile assembly line for 35 years.)

So, to conclude I return to the thoughts of Mr. Reeson's non-academic friend, who reiterated the proverbial wisdom that though professors learned many things, how to interact with other humans was not one of them. While it is a simplistic and prejudicial statement that cannot serve as a general theory of academic social conflict, I do believe that it lies somewhere near an accurate explanation of this conflict. I think that those academics who do not get along with their co-workers are not so much socially inept as unwilling. The job of university professor does not emphasize social skills; the highest premium is placed on "brilliance." Even the non-superstars in Reeson's own department were once starry-eyed graduate students who worked hard to get into their graduate program, then worked hard while in it, and were sure that their dissertation would shake the world. The job training most academics received was in how to write well, how to develop critical thinking skills, how to develop and market a research project. Nobody told them that once their dissertation (or article, or book, or job talk) got them a seat at the faculty meeting table, they would have to interact with their co-workers. I suspect that those faculty members who interact with peers in a disrespectful manner view those interactions as a distraction from the "real" work at hand. To them, faculty meetings and collegiality are just not a part of their jobs, even though they are.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Free jazz blog!

I submit for your approval a blog I just discovered, but which, as far as I can see, has been around for at least 2 years (don't I feel like Rip Van Winkle...):

It's a wonderful resource for those interested in getting into or keeping up with music containing a high degree of flexibility and improvisation, variously known as "free jazz," "free improvisation," "creative music," "the avant garde," and back in the 1960s, "the New Thing." I especially admire the page entitled "Beginner's Guide to Free Jazz" which not only offers some ground rules about this much maligned (and even more often misunderstood) group of musical idioms, but also gives the reader a diverse list of mp3s to get their sonic feet wet.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Regarding Sean Bell

I haven't really formed my thoughts on the disgrace of Sean Bell into a coherent interpretation, but the following two blog posts speak pretty well to the issue, and I submit them for your consideration:

There's a phrase spoken by Jimmy Breslin at the beginning and end of Spike Lee's Summer of Sam: "New York--the city I love and hate equally." This always struck me as a completely comprehensible statement, especially in its self-centered logic. I'm willing to grant the stereotype a degree of veracity: New Yorkers can be a self-absorbed lot. But NYC comes by its "center-of-the-universe" status honestly; New York is the place where a lot of the shit (good and bad) goes down. "Love/hate" for Breslin, and usually for me too, but right now it's more "shame/disappointment."

Post scriptum:
The title of my April 8th blog post now carries a bitterly ironic ring, doesn't it?

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

NY Ain't So Bad, Is It?

So I recently got this CD reissue of a 1975 Rashied Ali album entitled N.Y. Ain't So Bad in which Ali & co. play the blues. Yes, free-jazz stalwart and once-drummer for John Coltrane Rashied Ali, playing the blues. The straight-up, down-home blues. Kind of.

What is so arresting about this album is the way avant-garde cracks give texture to the mostly smooth, polished surface of this set of blues. This really is a blues album--heavy on groove, finely-burnished melodic and harmonic turns of phrase (i.e. great stock licks), and that elusive but crucial ingredient--"feeling." Nestled between and tucked behind singer Royal Blue's straight-ahead (and soulful) shouts, "free" elements turn up erratically: one of the saxophonists (Jimmy Vass on alto and Marvin Blackman on tenor) might play a background phrase whose harmony intersects perpendicularly with the harmony articulated by Charles Eubanks on piano and Benny Wilson on bass; Ali might expose his free-jazz roots, playing a fill that is a bit too busy, clattery, and all-out rowdy to belong in a Chicago-style blues band.

[I'm sorry I can't provide sound files here, but you check out the album on iTunes. Listen to "Everyday," the band's cover of the B.B. King standard. Towards the end of the 30-second sample you'll hear Ali taking things "out" on the drums. Also check out Ali's hip polyrhythms on "Moontipping."]

Listening to N.Y. Ain't So Bad reminded me that the album was recorded around the end of a period in US jazz when African American musicians from the "progressive" end of the (jazz) musical spectrum articulated a strong sense of a black music continuum--both in their words and their music. This pan-African musical sensibility of course arose along with (I don't really think it's accurate to say "out of") the Black Nationalist and Black Arts movements. Musicians such as Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, and Albert Ayler, who had pushed very hard against musical-aesthetic boundaries during the mid-60s to create high-energy music that confronted the listener with extremes of timbre, pitch, and rhythmic density, began to change direction by the late-60s and into the early 1970s. I wouldn't characterize this change (evidenced by albums such as Ayler's New Grass, Sanders' Thembi and Shepp's Attica Blues) as a "reigning in" of musical vanguardism so much as a spreading-out of its impetus. As in numerous prior moments in jazz, these musicians sought ways to connect what they were doing to a deeply-felt experience of an inclusive black musical tradition: one linking gospel, blues, R&B, soul, funk, jazz, etc.

While I've often thought of the notion of a "black music continuum" as a distinctly post-Civil rights African-American construct that casts an essentialist light on the musical practices of African Americans, the music created by Ayler, Shepp, Sanders, McCoy Tyner, Frank Lowe, Clifford Thornton, Rashied Ali, et al. was nothing if not eclectic. These musicians used elements of jazz (from various sub-styles and periods in that idiom), blues, funk, West African, and Caribbean music, freely borrowing and mixing together bits and pieces as they saw fit (Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp strike me as especially voracious in their eclecticism). If they were guided by essentialist notions of blackness, then it was an essentialism that seems to have undermined itself, allowing for a diversity of musical expressions that challenges the very notion of a common, underlying essence. If essentialist understandings of black expressive culture usually reduce the multi-faceted, myriad forms, styles, and aims of African-American art to a monolithic body of work with a single, driving force of "blackness," the essentialism of Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, and, on the basis of N.Y. Ain't So Bad, Rashied Ali, was perhaps something of an oxymoron: a reductionism that resulted in variety, a narrow-minded investment in race as the basis of culture and consciousness that allowed for an expansive musical vision.

I venture to guess that it was Rashied Ali's investment in such a notion of a black music continuum that allowed him to record N.Y. Ain't So Bad without any qualms. His other recorded work from the mid-70s belongs more clearly to the post-Coltrane avant garde bag. Arguably, it took courage for Ali to record a relatively straight-ahead blues album (vis a vis his standing in the avant garde community). I would say it also took musical courage for his band to inject these blues with piquant touches of free music--and to let the two musical poles, down-home blues and heady free jazz, coexist in a delicate tension in sonic space without attempting to reconcile them with one another.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Classical Music with Soul?

Submitted for your approval:

Look toward the right-hand side of the page, a bit of the way down. See the "Surprise"? Witness the thumbnail photo included--small, but large enough for one to perceive what appears to be an afro worn by this woman. Notice the caption: " Measha Brueggergosman’s debut DG recording makes classical music feel like soul!"

Let's keep going. Click on "Read more", that'll take us here:

Surprise! It's an (at least part-) black woman! It was an afro, then. Let's follow the next link to her actual album website. As we begin to explore this page, observe Gramophone's seeming approval of Ms. Brueggergosman's "big hair" and her "rich, dark" voice which is "an instrument of endless fascination." (Let us pause to note some of the choice verbiage: endless fascination, rich, dark...)

Moving along, then, let's click on the "Insights" tab at the left-hand side of the page. We learn more about this young singer:

"What's in a name? In the case of Measha Brueggergosman, plenty. Should you be wondering (and you will be), it's an amalgam of her married and family names."

Should we be wondering more about Measha (and we are), let's go to her own website:

Scroll down a bit (you can skip all the typical artist hype) and find the link that will tell you "how to pronounce Measha's name." So now we know how to pronounce that curious first name. We also have two ways--one Anglicized, the other properly Germanic--of how to pronounce that unnerving last name. We also now know the nationality of Measha's husband--Swiss.

Now that we've compiled our evidence, let's let it percolate in our minds a while.

big, dark dark chocolate...endless fascination...fascinatin' rhythm...jungle rhythms...heart of darkness...

See where I'm going with this exercise in free association? In pithy bits of racially-encoded language, the Deutsche Grammophon website reassures the consumer that there is nothing to fear. What, besides the fact that some portion of her ancestry could be traced back to somewhere in Africa, makes Measha' performances of songs from the classical repertory sound like soul? To my ears, nothing else--the mere fact of her phenotypical blackness apparently will suffice to guarantee that a certain quantity of soul will come through when she sings the (ostensibly) soul-less songs on the Surprise album.

While DG assures us of Measha's blackness, her own website seems to grapple with the identity gauntlet thrown down by her name/phenotype combination using a different strategy. Here the defense focuses on explicating her names. The pronunciation guides might be taken as a way of legitimating her names, as if to say, "Yes, these words do exist. The existence of a viable way to pronounce them also proves their reality." Her husband's ancestry seems to serve as a kind of apologia: the impossible reality of her surname is accounted for by his Swiss heritage.

I would not blame Ms. Brueggergosman for the way that DG has decided to market her to an (overwhelmingly) white and wealthy classical-music consumer base. Nor would I blame her for the way she (or her management) markets herself on her website. "Blame" isn't the right word; moreover, I think that whether or not Measha possessed any agency in the matter is beside the point. A strain of race ideology seems to be driving DG's strategy: injecting soul into classical music, inciting fascination in the listener by means of her dark voice (and skin) and her obscure heritage.

Brueggergosman is of course not the first black classical singer to come to prominence by a long shot: Leontyne Price, Grace Bumbry, Jessye Norman, and Kathleen Battle immediately come to mind (one notices that Measha is conveniently likened to Ms. Norman in a number of the press reviews quoted by DG). The insensitivities of DG are of course not the first committed by the classical music industry against black musicians: Price and Bumbry were part of a generation of African American singers who fought to make their way into the classical scene during the 1950s and '60s (in 1953 Price broke the "opera" color line at the Met to be the first black singer in the company's employment); in 1994, Norman filed a lawsuit against the magazine Classic CD for racial stereotyping (see: Yet all of these women could be called "unequivocally black": all were born in or near the American South, in locations historically inhabited by African Americans (Price in Mississippi, Bumbry in St. Louis, Norman in Augusta, GA, and Battle in Ohio); their Anglo-Saxon surnames would dissuade one from questioning their African American heritage (i.e., the presence of slavery in their families' pasts). Brueggergosman's name, however, offers no such assurances. Nor does her Canadian citizenship ( Canadians do exist).

I will allow for the possibility that Brueggergosman is proud of her mixed ancestry (she has no reason not to be--no one has any reason not to be!). Perhaps she feels there is nothing to hide about her ethnic make-up; or perhaps she would rather be up front about it than have critics, fans, etc. constantly and incessantly wondering, "What's Up with Measha's Name?" But the sharing of this information seems eerily like a confession. And why did Measha (or someone in her employ) think it so necessary to disclose both her and her husband's nationalities? Could it be that deeply-situated notions and anxieties about race dictated that Measha and her management must "speak the truth about herself," as if she had been "incited to discourse," to use Foucault's formulations? We are being given all these answers, and the question that DG and Brueggergosman seem to have anticipated is that classic inquiry about ethnic identity: "What are you?" (As in, "Somoroff, what is that? Russian?" [It's Ukrainian...I think])

On DG's website, Edward Seckerson writes: "What's in a name? In the case of Measha Brueggergosman, plenty." What's in the explanation of a name? Even more.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

I Heard It Through the Rock

My initial posting will be appropriately modest in scope. Here goes:

So last night the wife and I made our occasional excursion down to the local shopping mall, at the southern end of town.

This place has been giving me the creeps for the past 2.6 years. I'm not going to rehash the usual lefty, anti-capitalistic schtick about what horrible places malls are...well, I kind of am, but with a slight twist. The mall has an indoor part (which looks much like any large, over-engineered, too-bright-and-shiny mall across the US), and an outdoor part. My real beef is with the latter. It has been skillfully (?) constructed to resemble an urban space--a small commercial district of an anonymous city, a bit too perfectly-arranged and ultra-clean to ever resemble an actual commercial district, though.

Now I'll probably reveal my age, my parochial worldview, and my snobbery: before moving down to D-ham from the Big City, I'd never experienced this type of faux-urban outdoor section of a mall. I had been in plenty of large, posh indoor malls, as well as the older, venerable form of outdoor strip-malls, but never a city-ulacrum like this one. The first time I'd encountered "the Streets" (the mall's name), the street-signs mocked me; the aura of "town square" taunted me. But it was the music that was most chilling, and still is.

Walking around the "streets" that first time, I heard music in the air. I looked up to find the speakers hanging from walls or storefronts...but I couldn't see any. Then I realized that the music in the air was not coming from just above my head, but rather from below--around my ankles, actually. The rocks play music; the fake rocks placed in strategically-located chunks of nature (trees, fountains, sometimes maybe just small rectangular patches of dirt?) pump out music. What kind of music? Usually black music, in my experience. I'm talking about soul, funk, R&B.

Last night, it finally dawned on me: how appropriate! Black music, the *idea* of "black music," has been a prized and fraught entity in US history. To state the oft-repeated and now-obvious: black music is one of this country's most valued commodities and biggest exports. If the shopping mall has become the most "real" space in the increasingly unreal landscape of the US precisely because of its unreality, we could say (a la Baudrillard) that the mall
is now the postmodern American locale par-excellence. If shopping is the most American activity, and the one that most Americans are best at (I probably need to include myself in that last charge), then black music *would* make the best soundtrack for our shopping experience. What would the average wedding reception (another great American consumer experience) be without Motown, James Brown, Kool & the Gang, and some Philly Soul (and maybe a bit of Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald thrown in for the "classy" moments)? If black music looms large in the US historical and racial imagination, both articulating and forming phantasmal desires and expressing a vague feeling of realness, then why shouldn't it form the sonic "wallpaper" (that's from Adam Krims for all you fellow nerds out there) for our shopping experience? Most US citizens desire black music; most desire things at the mall; most desire desire--why not bring them all together?