There are three words I've frequently used to describe what's covered in the parts of Time Out New York that aren't about arts and entertainment. Two of these words are "eating" and "shopping." The third, another "-ing," didn't strike me as suitable for use in a classroom full of undergraduate journalism students on Monday morning. I coined a new term on the spot: "conjugal recreation."
The class was a journalism colloquium at the University of Richmond, in which I was asked to spiel for roughly 15 minutes about my so-called career path, then take questions from students who'd been armed in advance with my resume. It wasn't originally on my agenda -- Dr. LP had initially booked me to speak to her arts journalism seminar, a tidy little bunch of some 16 students, on Tuesday afternoon. The colloquium, by contrast, found me in front of something closer to 50 students. The group was attentive, and well prepared with pertinent questions about shrinking space for arts coverage, recreational blogging, public relations writing and more. I was appreciative of their interest, and they were certainly appreciative that I'd gotten them out of their usual current-events quiz.
Mindful that I'd read the complete New Yorker essays of Andrew Porter, start to finish, on something of a dare two years ago, Dr. LP originally asked me to come talk about my career and Porter's work for her seminar. When I also agreed to do the colloquium, we decided that talking about my own work again would be redundant. But confronting a small class full of mostly non-music students with a pile of Porter's toothy prose seemed like too much, so instead I gave them three Porter essays and two by Alex Ross, as a means by which to discuss their differing approaches and, by extension, changing tides in arts criticism.
I assigned three Porter essays: "Bouleversement," about Pierre Boulez as the center of new music in New York circa 1972; "Proper Bostonian," about Sarah Caldwell's pioneering Opera Company of Boston production of Verdi's Don Carlos, which restored excised passages that Porter had uncovered in Paris; and "At the Right Time, in the Right Place," an essay on audience etiquette (or lack thereof) at the Met. I also included his "Autobiographical Preamble" from his second anthology, Music of Three Seasons. Ross was represented by "Handel Time," a May 2006 essay on that composer's current prominence, and "Fascinating Rhythm," about the Steve Reich celebration held in New York last year.
My hunch was right. A student named Amelie volunteered that on first encountering Porter's work, she glazed over. It was hard work, she said, and had she encountered it in a magazine, she most likely would have flipped past it. As much as I deeply admire Porter, I knew what she meant: as edifying and vital as his work is for the music devotee, it's not especially friendly toward (or even tolerant of) the lay reader. Dr. LP chipped in with the interesting note that in consulting not only scores but original manuscripts, paper stock and watermarks, what Porter was doing was the work of a musicologist; she pointed out that when Porter had begun his critical career in the 1950s, the music PhD had only just been born with the generation of Lewis Lockwood.
Ross, on the other hand, was a hit; students commented with admiration on his vivid use of colorful descriptive metaphor rather than a surplus of technical jargon. And honestly, upon encountering this opening passage...
There is nothing in music more unstoppably beautiful than a Handel aria moving in slow, regal splendor. It is like a godly machine, crushing all ugliness and plainness in its path.
...what sensitive reader wouldn't be inspired to investigate the veracity of the claim? Dr. LP found this passage especially illuminating:
The prior century made a cult of Bach, whose music takes the form of an endless contrapuntal quest. Perhaps, in an age of information overload and ambient fear, we have more need for Handel's gentler, steadier art. At the same time, though, this composer appeals to the permanent hunger for high-class melodrama and psychological theatre.
And I made a point of emphasizing this line...
He does not want to save the world, only to make it better for a little while.
...in order to suggest that Alex's writing has precisely the same effect.
(Incidentally, I went to Richmond stocked with copies of the latest issue of Time Out New York to hand out. I'm sure it must have impressed at least some students to see page 121, on which my review of a fine new CD by Viktor Krauss, II, appeared directly below a review of the latest Rickie Lee Jones disc, Sermon on Exposition Boulevard, penned by Dr. LP herself. A nice little coincidence, that.)
Those who read my last post already know that the JetBlue crisis prevented me from leaving town on Saturday. What I learned later was that it had also cost me an excursion to the Gospel Chicken House in nearby Montpelier, VA. Sigh. Another time, perhaps. I arrived on Sunday afternoon, just in time for a fine faculty recital by Antonio J. García, who teaches jazz classes at Virginia Commonwealth University. The concert included a handful of standards in crafty arrangements for trombone and percussion, which García played simultaneously. Also on the bill were a number of García's original compositions, handsome vehicles for the high school and college musicians who performed them. The Great White Lie, a quirky piece of chamber music scored for soprano, flute, clarinet, violin and bass trombone, recounted the true story of a young García's attempts to convince an iron-deficient female friend that Geritol was yummy.
After my colloquium on Monday came another treat: I got to observe the "Music Scenes" class team-taught by Dr. LP and the remarkable new-music ensemble eighth blackbird, currently in residence at the university. The lively, engaging quality found in their concerts definitely extends to the classroom. The blackbirds performed and discussed excerpts from works included on the concert they are presenting at the school as I type this on Wednesday night: Franco Donatoni's Arpege, David M. Gordon's Friction Systems and Carlos Sánchez-Gutiérrez's Luciernagas. Students did a good job of answering questions the musicians presented ("Is this in duple or triple meter?" "Which players were working together in that section?"). On Tuesday afternoon, just before my seminar, I hung around in the hallway and eavesdropped as they rehearsed bits of Lukas Foss's Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird with soprano Lucy Shelton.
Despite the delay (and a dearth of finger-lickin' gospel), this was a fine excursion. It was also a real confidence builder to learn that I could handle myself in front of student groups big and small, offering something organized, informative and -- I'm assured -- reasonably entertaining. My thanks to journalism faculty members Tom Mullen and Steve Nash, and to the students, for making me feel welcome. And, of course, to Dr. LP, who was determined to show me just what it's like to do what she does -- day after day. Mission accomplished.
Grateful Dead - Download Series, Vol. 4: Passaic, NJ 06/18/76 (Grateful Dead)
Dimmu Borgir - In Sorte Diaboli (Nuclear Blast, out April 24)
Jorge Drexler - 12 Segundos de Oscuridad (Gasa/Warner Music Latina)
Thomas Quasthoff - The Jazz Album: Watch What Happens (Deutsche Grammophon)
Joseph Haydn - Symphony No. 22, "The Philosopher"; Charles Wuorinen - Symphony No. 8, "Theologoumena"; Johannes Brahms - Symphony No. 4 - Boston Symphony Orchestra/James Levine (WCRB webcast)
Grateful Dead - Dick's Picks, Vol. 20: Landover, MD 09/25/76 (Grateful Dead)
Marillion - Somewhere Else (MVD Visual, out April 24)
Johann Nepomuk Hummel - Der Durchzug durchs Rote Meer - Simone Kermes, Veronika Winter, Hans Jörg Mammel, Ekkehard Abele, Wolf Matthias Friedrich, Rheinische Kantorei, Das Kleine Konzert/Hermann Max (CPO)
Huang Ruo - Chamber Concerto Cycle - International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE)/Huang Ruo (Naxos)
Nicky Skopelitis/Sonny Sharrock - Faith Moves (CMP)