Monday, August 12, 2013

August and the Dead CIcada

August is the biggest most overwhelming Sunday night on the planet.  It’s possible that other academics actually finish their books, the extra articles, and plan their classes all by mid August.  I always mean to do these things. I mean to do them while making the hundreds of piles of clutter in our house disappear and  re-connecting with my kids who, by the end of a season of school wrap up events, I’musually ready to give away. This summer I did not do about 793 things.  To begin with; the Cicada article.  On a very loud morning run out in the country one Sunday in May my mind wandered to Galileo and the fable of sound.  I’m not making this up; I really did go to Ridge Road for a long run.  And in the midst of a crucial conversation about soccer tryout drama a crucial point almost went by the wayside thanks to the incessant cicadas.  Wow!!!! I know why Plato, Galileo, Darwin and others couldn’t get this irritating sound out of their heads. I’ve had a thing for the fact that Galileo’s fable of sound ends with the death of a Cicada for a long time, and one of the summer’s unfinished task involved finishing a book chapter featuring said dead cicada.  But suddenly it seemed like the silly interest of a music historian might actually matter to millions of listeners up and down the East Coast. So it seemed time for the popular press.  The witty article about the Cicada in a well read national media turned into yet another unfinished summer project.
For starters, I mostly deal  with events that happened hundreds of years ago.  Even if they relate to current issues of racial justice, gender imbalance, etc., my text almost always centers on a person or thing that is long dead.  So I dawdled; took care of some administrative business at UVa, survived fourth grade graduations, signed kids up for camp, finished an essay for a festschrift, etc...  My fabulous research assistant Emily Gale did her magic with 19th century newspapers and came up with a more recent stuff than Galileo or Plato.  Then I spent a while thinking about an argument.  I thought about the local paper because I love the reading the Cville Weekly each week and I’m deeply committed to print media. But somehow I was persuaded to aim for a larger audience.  I finally sent the piece to an editor of an online newspaper whom I’ve worked with before and had shown interest.  He said it was great but didn’t quite have the angle he hoped for.  The Washington Post loved it but said I’d missed the boat by a week—the bugs were done and had been journalistically beaten to death.  I got really excited when a musicology colleague turned me on to a forthcoming Vanity Fair issue on timepieces.  I figured I was one of few musicologists who have actually read that magazine. It turns out they had someone more famous and much less likely to ever read their magazine in mind. So in the interest of checking SOMETHING off my summer list here it is the old fashioned way; the blog!!!!!  And the message to academics who try to send something beyond the ivory tower.  If it seems even remotely timely, do it super quickly. And if you think you will be disappointed by having spent tons of a time on a piece that never sees the light of day forget the whole idea!

            The seventeen-year cicadas last appeared in 1996, when Dolly became the first cloned mammal, Billboard named the Macarena its top tune, and clubs resounded with electronica.  Once again the noisy sex starved adolescents are crawling out of the earth.  The males make a racket trying to attract females and if she likes it she clicks her wings. Shortly after sex they die.  This deciseptennial return has fascinated humans for thousands of years.   Their sound, while remaining biologically the same (at least in cicada terms), sounds different every time. These little summer bugs remind us that sound has no universal objective truth.
Plato heard the same sounds that have been blanketing much of the East Coast and that Charles Darwin heard when he said, “The females are mute; as the Grecian poet Xenarchus says, 'Happy the Cicadas live, since they all have voiceless wives.'”    In Plato's time writers described the tiny little drums in the bellies of the male bugs as musical expressions. That would be the Charles Darwin who was so captivated by his pianist wife that he worked music into his theory arguing that music emerged for the purpose of charming the opposite sex. By the late 19th century the terminology centered around animalistic machines. When thousands of them hang out together, their clicking sounds amplify and can reach somewhere between one hundred and one hundred twenty decibels, the volume of a stadium rock concert or an airplane. In the time before trains, car alarms, and electronic amplification, such decibels hardly ever resounded in the world, and they seemed mysterious and mythical. For a sense of what this sonic relativism says about how humans inhabited the earth, think about lightning: before Ben Franklin flew his kite, educated people thought that the thunder and lightning were God’s wrath and that the damage came not from the fiery lightning but from the noise of thunder.
When Plato, hanging out with his male students in the sun,  heard the repetitive noise that seems almost not to come from nature, he associated it with music and crafted a myth around it. In Plato’s early dialogue Phaedrus, the cicadas provide a soundtrack for the conversation between Socrates and Phaedrus.  Socrates manages to tie together cicadas, the birth of the muses, and the invention of singing: “They were so busy singing that they didn’t bother with food and drink, so that before they knew it they were dead. They were granted the origin of the race of cicadas, whom the Muses granted the gift of never needing any food once they were born; all they do is sing, from the moment of their births until their deaths, without eating or drinking.”  This musical hearing of cicadas reached its apex in the story of Euonymus of Locri, who needed a cicada’s help to win the Pythian games when a string on his cithara broke. The cicada heard the faltering harmony and jumped onto the string to offer the missing note, singing himself to death in the process. 
We also know that Galileo, of the inclined plane, telescope and heliocentric solar system, listened to their buzz when on papal lockdown outside of Florence. Keep in mind that musically this was before Vivaldi, Corelli and Bach—the kind of baroque music that comes with a repetitive rhythmic bass. The most famous composer of Galileo’s time, Monteverdi, was only beginning the move from vocally dominated music. Galileo used the bugs to explore the relationship between musical instruments and natural sounds and to use this exploration as an opportunity to subtly criticize his captors.  The son of an important musician, he studied lute as a child, and often-used music as a springboard for broader philosophical points. The cicada made the punch line for a story Galileo wrote about a hermit who raised birds and the search for knowledge.
One night the hermit heard a song near his house; assuming it was a bird, he set out to capture it. The sound turned out to be a shepherd boy with a flute. The hermit then set out on a quest to understand more sounds. The cicada stumped him: “He failed to diminish its strident noise either by closing its mouth or stopping its wings, yet he could not see it move the scales that covered its body, or any other thing. At last he lifted up the armor of its chest and there he saw some thin hard ligaments beneath; thinking the sound might come from their vibration, he decided to break them in order to silence it. But nothing happened until his needle drove too deep, and transfixing the creature he took away its life with its voice.” The hermit never figured out how the cicada worked, and from then on he understood that the world contained infinite “unknown and unimaginable sounds.” The Pope at the time liked this story because it suggested that humans just can’t understand everything God created, and that the quest just ruins the pleasure. Galileo, not surprisingly, meant the story to show that the questions are more important than the answers.
Jumping ahead two hundred years and across the pond to the United States, we find the cicada had become an object of science for its own sake. A year before he wrote the Declaration of Independence and during the time when Mozart was writing piano sonatas, Thomas Jefferson noted in his garden book that he was expecting their arrival. As the Industrial Revolution rolled across America, descriptions of the cicada went from musical to mechanical. Music went towards the mechanical, too.  By then instruments dominated musical practice; that meant that, instead of vocal music dominating parlors, emergent concert halls featuring symphonies, pianos, and violins (all of which celebrated human-made sounds) became the locus of ‘Music.’   In June of 1864 The Wisconsin State Register called the cicada a musical instrument, observing that “the male Cicada is furnished with a pair of bellows, one on each side of the body, consisting of two large oval plates, formed of convex pieces of parchment, and placed just behind the wings and thorax.” By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the bugs were heard in machine-terms. Given the quick love-sex-death- cycle it was clear to everywhere that the cicadas had no use for the newly mass-produced rubber condums made possible by rubber factories.  That was the Industrial Revolution talking. Factories, railroads, and other machines introduced continuous, repeating sounds that gave the bugs a whole new sonic context. The Bismarck Daily Tribune reported that “…[t]he sights and sounds of 1885 in Indiana were among the most remarkable I ever witnessed. There was a continued monotonous roar, or rather a rattle, like many thrashing machines at a distance.” 
It was only a few hundred years ago that the loudest repeated sounds came from musical instruments.  As we learned to harness fossil fuels and electrons to make machines and instruments that could blast repeating sounds that exceeded even the cicada, it is little wonder that our ears began to hear them as extensions of our mechanical world rather than our musical one.  And because we so frequently hear sounds that emanate from machines not humans and animals the cicadas incessant song has lost it’s association with it’s very life. For the Greeks and for Galileo both the song and the cicada’s strange life cycle remained mysterious. And the song and efforts to understand it turned murderous very quickly. Thanks to Darwin’s evolutionary biology and Edison’s recording technologies we know why they sing and we can push play to hear their love-death any time we want.  But they like so many sounds don’t have quite the same potency.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

On Blogging

I was into blogging and then decided that the mommy/academic blog had become a self-indulgent cliché.  Women in their mid 40’s trying and mostly failing to get lots of scholarship done with quirky kids and regressive Universities breathing down their neck are a dime a dozen in my world.  Kids are naturally precocious and hilarious; if you listen and take a few juicy quotations, it makes for good writing. If only the dead people I’m actually paid to write about were so talkative. Where are you castrati? Come on Queen Christina just spek to me through a ouije board and tell me what you were thinking when you hired that weird castrato and I admit it I do want to know who you slept with so please share that too…The university as an institution now seems ridiculous to many and mothering has become a word. Can you imagine any of our grandmothers spending this much time talking about mothering? Mine was too busy hanging out with leather designers, and I gather that my great grandmother had to make gefilta fish swim in the bathtub. Neither of them had time to worry about whether the apples they tossed at their kids were locally grown or not.  And they definitely did not email the kids teachers to discuss transition issues.
If the women in my little running group took our emails that combine University gossip with the antics of our children and slapped them into book form we might be able to make a best seller. Of course we’d get fired,  infuriate everyone we know, and find ourselves sent out to an ice rock by our kids before any of us turn 50.  Ms. Mentor is practically old school, and we all have dozens of unwritten emails. “Dear Sexist Colleague, thanks so much for mansplaining the piece of music that was, in fact, the subject of my first book.”  “Dear Entitled Undergraduate, thanks for making me aware of your very very busy day and I’m sorry that your greek rush, intramural sports, and founding of an NGO got in the way of coming to class or office hours, but if you think there was electric guitar in a Bach cantata we really do have a problem here.”   Husbands are good fodder for blogs but of course they don’t tend to like that. My husband anyway is better than most; he’s pretty clueless but he knows it and doesn’t pretend to be a sensitive new age guy. Plus he puts up with all kinds of indignities from me including being known in some spaces as “Miss Bonnie’s husband”
Even the purely academic blog seems overdone.  Give us hip early modernists a current event, and we can find a pre-enlightenment parallel or relevance. Those of us who went through grad school in the 1980’s and later learned the beauty of the new historicism anecdote understand the importance of taking the seemingly archaic and making it new. A little prince was born today and it buzzed on iPhones.  This is the disembodied post-modern echo of the fabulous fire words that marked the birth of even minor royalty in early modern Europe. The ghost of Princess Diana rendered in photos on every cable chanel reminds me of the glow of the gods rendered in thousands of candles every time someone fancy emerged from some poor woman who had to labor before the world.  And at graduation, as hundreds of gorgeous UVa female graduates traipsed across the rainy lawn in cork platform shoes, all I could think was they looked just like the shoes worn by Venetian courtesans and patricians.  Did the richer sorority girls wear higher heals? Do the shoes reclaim an erotic creativity?
Despite all of this I’m back to the blog. This fall I will be co-teaching with the fabulous Vanessa Ochs a cross college interdisciplinary seminar on writing.  The course focuses on writing for the public about the public. Our seminar starts with blogs.  Our theory is that we know that our grad students spend a good deal of their time writing and reading blogs, and we know that blogging is in the future for many of their classes.  So we might as well all do it well.  And if I’m going to make my students do a blog I better rejuvenate mine. And like just about everything else about being 40+, something I can happily admit is that, “Yup, I’m a cliché…”  So this week, when I’ve shipped my eldest children off to a Waldorf-inspired camp where they drink hemp milk and feed pigs, seemed like as good a time as any to start it back up. My youngest child, whose reaction to the place was “what the hell is this place” and I are at camp Aunt Pami (my sister) for the week. She is making me green smoothies, which she promises will change my life and giving me lots of time to write.  I’m hoping she’ll teach Eli to swim and get him to stop shooting.  Ideally, I’ll also finish a long overdue article on sound in early modern Italy. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


We buried my grandfather yesterday to the tune of a New Orleans jazz band and three generations of loved one.  Thanks to my uncle we did just about everything he would have wanted; even playing a tune basically about syphalis at an Orthadox Jewish guy's funeral.  We did not as he requested bury him butt up.  And he will I think come back to haunt us for that...  Below is the text of what I said...  My uncles, cousin, children and niece also spoke.  It was a celebration of him and all of us including  the many cousins and lifelong friends who were there with us.

My grandfather has been threatening to die for 45 years.  He supposedly imagined my mother’s pregnancy with me as a death knell since no one in his family had ever lived to see a grandchild.  He made it through five grandchildren and ten great grand children. For at least the last 20 years he’s been reminding us all that he could die any second. He was the last of his generation.  Mom, Uncle Michael, Uncle Earl, Dad, Aunt Lynn, Aunt Randy, you are the grandparents now and ladies we the five granddauhters are the parents.
Beau was not easy to love.  But he was fun one of a kind. As children we dragged him out of bed at 11 so he could start seeing patients. He grunted and told us to go away.  He often threw back a stiff drink before heading out to dinner with his family. He painted lovely watercolors for years and then switched to painting naked people whom he gave to all his family members.  He yelled at me for not putting his naked ladies on my wall. In his 80’s we feared he’d get arrested for stalking as he sat in Central Park drawing women.  He was creative and curious. He read more of my scholarship than almost anyone else and kept my books in a ziplock bag by his perch. He shared hair dye with my grandmother and once made my sister wait an hour while he trimmed it before he would walk across the street to the diner with her.  He flicked my sister’s bra and taught her to do judo—not me. He loved women and his flirtation bordered on harassment. He told terrible jokes, most of them inappropriate.  He had a wicked temper and let it rip with loved ones of all ages, including my nephew who didn’t talk to old people for a year. I saw him three weeks ago and did not that he knew me until he told my mom the next day she should really take me to the theater because I might like it. It was past time for him to die.
Beau loved his work more than anyone I know and was deeply disappointed that no one in his family wanted to pursue medicine. He was a brilliant diagnostician. In the early 80’s before AIDS  became a big story he warned and then diagnosed his nephew Jonathan, saying that something strange was happening to gay men and that he should be careful.  Jonathan died of AIDS in 1986.  He knew that every other doctor was wrong and unfit to care for anyone even remotely related to him. At the birth of each of my three children he did a stealth examination of them, For the last few years we have all missed having that diagnostic ability around; not to mention the prescription pad.  At least one granddaughter got a birth control prescription from him. Given the tenuous relationship between my mother’s birthday and my grandparents’ wedding he could hardly object. But I’ve kept with me one of his mantras that one must always know the difference between a medical inconvenience and a medical crisis.  This is the key to sanity as a parent.
He had a wild imagination; we all went fishing in the bathtub and like my six year old son he regularly fought Vikings.  We were told that we were related to Eljah the Vilna Gaon—the genius of Vilna. And supposedly the birthmark on my check reflected our Spanish ancestor. He drew, painted, and made sculpture for most of his life. He always had a sketch book and we loved to watch him draw. My children did too. He tried to teach us al to draw saying that what you do, you need to draw. Jonathan wants to go to the met today because of a book Beau gave him called warriors and something.  EVERY OBJECT IS IN THE MET. One of his many dying wishes was for Rebecca to have art lessons she did it many times.
Beau loved a good fight and took special pleasure in baiting his granddaughters with racist and sexist remarks. And we all took the bait; sometimes crying or storming out.  Those fights might have been one way he showed love.  He spent the bulk of his career serving the Harlem community. His patients loved him and stuck with him long after he could really hear what they were saying; hopefully he mostly referred out. We had an exciting Passover seder once where we saw him encounter a real racist.  It was ugly.  And he was convinced that his wife, daughter, and five granddaughters were brilliant and more brilliant than most men he knew.
He and my grandmother had a whirlwind romance and the pictures of them in their 20’s are truly breathtaking. He loved her until the day she died and when he spoke at her funeral that was clearer than ever. They were the cool parents, the cool aunt and uncle and then the cool grandparents.  My kids called them Mammy/Beau as in one person. But this was no smooth marriage.  They worked, fought, and played hard, and about five years ago my grandmother called up to say she’d had enough. She stuck it out… They could not have been more different.  My grandmother loved parties, people, music and theater.  He was a misanthrope who cared deeply for humanity.  They did their own thing long before that was fashionable.  He took art classes, and she hung out with cabaret singers.  She woke up super early, and he ate breakfast while everyone else had lunch.
Family mattered more than almost anything else to Beau.  It thrilled him when Stephanie developed a connection to his brother Stanley.  This, despite the fact that I could never keep track of which family members he was or was not talking to. He loved his grandchildren and loved that they all had children.  I showed him a picture of Maggie’s baby Sabine a day after she was born, and he totally tuned in and knew exactly what it was. The baby looks just like him.  And he wanted us all to be close.  He told me to call my cousins and kept me apprised of their doings.  He said we needed a relationship because he wouldn’t be around to connect us forever.  He was right: there will be no more grandparent birthdays, no more weddings, no more rushing to the city to see one or the other of them before they die.  It’s up to us now.  
My uncle, who delivered a twenty minute toast at his daughter’s wedding, reminded me to keep this short.  But I want to take an extra minute to say something about the next generation of grandparents. Thanks to my grandparents’ and parents’ precocious reproducing I remember my uncles in their twenties and my grandparents in their fifties and I had them all to myself for a few years. Your parents were crazy and sometimes hard but they obviously did some things right.  They fostered in you a closeness that my sister and I grew up emulating and that I hope my children have into adulthood. They encouraged connection among all of the misbucha; connections that were some times claustrophobic but that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Some of my earliest memories are with my uncles and aunt Lynn and aunt Randy.  My grandmother loved to tell the story of her pushing my pram down the street and my uncles each holding one hand.  I have no idea if it’s true but I do know that as a little girl Uncle Earl used to buy me long dresses and take me out to dinners where he told me about his court cases.. His apartment and our morning coffees were sanity savers in my 20's and 30s.  Uncle Michael with his fro pushed me on the swings and played with my dolls.  He and Aunt Lyn were the kind of Uncle and Aunt who just played whatever you were playing. When I started running cross country he ran with me everywhere we went and he lets me drive his vehicles!  I’m going to guess that in this my uncles and parents modeled their parents.  You are all grandparents now and it looks like our kids are going to have pretty fantastic grandparents too.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Chamber Musc and Roller Skating

Last weekend we had the second event in an Arts mentoring program that involves UVa undergraduates and elementary school children from underserved communities.  I asked the undergrads to reflect on the two events and promised I’d do it too in the form of my blog.  Sorry kids, I haven’t had time to reflect in any responsible way. Below is a little talk I had to give at the banquet for the tiny grant that allowed me to start the program last year.  (This is also part of the put things out somewhere that take reflect some thought, took too much time and will never be publishable…) In effect, we are calling this a second pilot year.  And when I say , I really do mean WE.  One of the things that’s more and more clear to me is that community engagement requires team work and collaboration.  So this year it’s not just me; it’s my friend and brilliant co-conspirator Julie Carrucio from Student Affairs, Rachel Savoy who taught my son’s third grade class last year and is amazing with the kids, and a team of three stunning grad students, Emily Gale, Liza Sapir and Lauren Hauser.  If you’re counting, that’s a lot of woman power—five women for twenty seven little kids and twenty seven college students.

The talk was written predominantly for donors, so it is somewhat sugar coated. The program is gritty in good and bad ways.  And those donors weren’t entirely thrilled with it when I proposed it.   The grant is one that gives faculty a small amount of money to spend on interacting with their students. It’s an “honor” of the  kind of my husband says I specialize in—no money or professional capital but more work.  And I’m inherently mistrustful of a grant that comes with a requirement to go to two semiformal dinners, the second of which your spouse is not invited to. But it did give the resources to start something cool.

These last two photos are courtesy of John Mason

Last week we had an orientation session for the second year of the arts mentor program. This year twenty-seven students will pair up with 27 underserved kids for a variety of arts events.  The students were eager to reminisce about fun and funny moments from last year. They told about relay races on the lawn with third graders outrunning college students and me landing in the mud in an unseemly mess of undergrads and kids.   And they recounted with pride an African American third grader who had not heard of Shakespeare but after we saw A Midsummer Nights Dream in Stanton he went to school the next day and drew a cartoon rendition of the first act. We also remembered a bus ride from the Westhaven Community to the UVa Art Museum; where neither the kids nor the UVa students had ever been. As we drove on Rugby Road a fourth grader said “Watch out it’s really dangerous; college kids get murdered here all the time.” We all laughed uncomfortably and a music student whispered that one of his friends had told him to be careful on Hardy Drive because people get murdered there. 
            The students’ memories reflect some of what this program allowed me to do that’s different from what I already do as a music professor.  In music departments we tend to interact with our students frequently anyway; we all make and experience music with our students, and you just can’t teach about sound without intimate engagement. I was most moved by learning with the students just how difficult community engagement can be. We were all forced out of our comfort zones but were in it together. And I was moved by learning with them how to move from righteous indignation to actually doing something.
            Perhaps the most valuable thing about the program for me and the students came from those moments when we failed.  When you do something new and you take risks; like taking seventeen kids who have never been to a theater where there is not a single other African American person in the audience and every other child, including my two who were with us, has a Shakespeare coloring book and a fancy dress; it’s tricky in all kinds of ways… Our students, like most of us, are used to doing well and used to coming up with innovative projects that work.  But they also need to see that doing some kinds of work is very hard and uncomfortable and that it doesn’t always succeed.  And it turns out that doing uncomfortable things that don’t go as planned is about as bonding as it gets.
            To go back to last week’s orientation. One student said that in many ways the project had made her sad.  It wasn’t seeing children living in poverty.  The students who want participate in a program like this know all about that.  For her it was the fact that so many of her friends simply didn’t know the community we live in.  The undergrads had a poignant experience that they will take with them when they leave Grounds and that without the Mead foundation could not have happened.  None of us are naive enough to think that making and experiencing Art can fix the problems, but we all found the Arts to be a powerful way to feel the dissonances and consonances between communities.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Call The Dad!

The Mother of All Grizzlies (Dahlia Lithwick) -->
I admit it; I signed Manuel up to serve as parent of the week in Sunday School, and when he, with proper warning to the teachers and school director, had to withdraw, I, the mother, did NOT step in and do it.  Note that we asked other parents until we found a substitute. Liz, who also has a kid in the class, substituted for us while her husband John got up at 3:30am to take their older daughter to a horse show. I hear the class did a killer performance of Samson and Delilah.  Rebecca played Samson, and Jonathan played a fairy (middle school may be tough for them), and Liz says she enjoyed observing the children in their natural habitat. I’m struck, however, by the multiple emails from teachers, administrators, and other parents that went around about this near parenting-atrocity, almost all of which were addressed to me and insinuated my inadequacies as a parent. This is the usual pattern—when they say parent volunteers they assume mother and blame the mother even if the father did whatever it is they are blaming about.

So here’s a question that betrays my socioeconomic status—I’m talking about families where at least one parent has a well paying job and where you don’t get fired from that job for taking a couple of hours out of the day to attend a school function or take a kid to the doctor (and, furthermore, you have health insurance so you can take your kid to the doctor). It’s 2012; can we not all realize that men do some these things and that they can be expected and asked to it? Even my own Dad made the occasional appearance in the classroom in the 70’s. Ok, he taught us how to fill out income tax forms, and I think Richard Taylor tried to figure out at the age of 10 how not to pay taxes.  (Sorry to out you here Richard, but it’s a story my Dad loves to tell…..) In other words Dads in the classroom are not new.

As a side note, UVa is crawling with men who can’t attend meetings during the day because of ‘child-care’, and we even have paternity leaves. But Dads seem rarely to be asked explicitly to do anything and, in fact, are given giant medals for showing up at all All moms know that the consequences of pleading childcare or school function work out differently for him than for a her, but often even the most sensitive of new-age dads aren’t aware of this fact.

Now I’m the first to call all men idiots, and much of what I say along these lines is not fit even for a blog but has gotten my running group through hundreds of miles.  When I want to set up playdates or organize logistics I don’t even bother dealing with most Dads because I know they can’t keep it straight and do not possess the brain cells to read even their family calendars.  And, it’s true that, like most of my friends, I do the bulk of the “volunteer” things that come with being a parent.  I go to the PTO, show up in the classroom, organize their extracurricular activates, deal with doctors, etc. And when I go out of town I leave elaborate handouts for everyone in the family hoping that everyone gets where they need to go. But my husband does his bit. I figure that if he can manage a really big science grant he ought to be capable of chaperoning a field trip or volunteering in a class.  And if my cell phone is off he even talks the school about a problem with the kids.  Most of the time he rises to the occasion..  The problem is not ONLY that Dads don’t do things; the problem is that no one expects them to do anything.  And the irony is that if Mom’s take time out of their work to do something at their kids school, it’s often frowned upon, whereas a Dad’s getting involved gives that Dad extra credit.  (And as a mortifying personal aside my boy/girl twins model this pattern to a T.  Who do you think walks the little one to his class and checks on him at lunch more often?)

The problem here is that in so many spheres things that might be called volunteer, extracurricular, or emergency-cover activities relegated to women. When it became possible for women to join the army or be a supreme court justice, they should also have given men the right to show up at their kids school without it seeming radical, and they should have given women who work inside and outside of the home the right to say no to various activities without any bad-mom-stigma.  Yesterday I woke up with a vague memory of Justice Ginsburg talking about her son’s school never calling her husband when there was a problem. I remembered it because my friend Dahlia Lithwick, whose husband is a mighty fine parent of the week, wrote about it in a way that stuck with me.

I have to admit I’d forgotten most of the characteristically brilliant points about  Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s delivering a speech meant to be given by her husband. I remember the last paragraph and I’ll just quote it here.  It’s Dahlia quoting Ginsburg. "One day, I was particularly weary," she explained, and so when the school called, she said, "This child has two parents. I suggest you alternate calls, and it's his father's turn." She said calls from the school came much less frequently after that, because the school was" much less inclined to take a man away from his job." Ruth Bader Ginsburg doesn't growl and doesn't issue threats, and she rarely eats small forest dwellers. But she is still the mother of all grizzlies to me.”

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Music and Politics Riff

I don’t know about other professors, but these days I do the bulk of my work in short talks that will never be published.  As one hits the saggy days of middle age and mid-career, the calendar fills up with little riffs.  “Can you talk for a few minutes on Opera and Emotion?” “Can you say something about Venice?”  “How about a pre-concert lecture on a little known and in fact very boring piece Brahms wrote when he was 15?” It’s the academic equivalent of, “Hey I’m getting married in a few weeks.  Can you just play this very specific tune for me that you’ve never even heard?”  Often these gigs turn out to be really fun; ideas for the sake of ideas. You don’t really need a rock solid argument or footnotes, and the prose can be a little more creative, i.e, fuzzy.  And often these sorts of gigs present the opportunity to talk to those outside my usual minuscule musicological circle.  But still they take at least ten times as much time as you thought they would and usually, for me, involve massive amounts of cursing and swearing which is sometimes repeated by my six year old. (and some of that behavior from my otherwise supportive husband).  After each one I tell myself that I’ll say no to everything for the next decade. I then say a snappy no to one miniscule task only to say yes to ten things a few days later. 
            I thought this blog might be a good home for some of these nuggets.  So here’s the first one:  Over the summer one of our grad students asked if I’d participate in a round table on music and politics for a Technosonics New Music concert. It sounded cool and seemed like it should be easy, especially after a summer where, among other things, my children and I played in the Transparency Band while protesting on the lawn at UVa. Along the way I found myself reading, Plato, Nietzche, and Du Bois.  I listened to Louis Andreissan’s De Staat, based on the parts of Plato’s Republic where the master outlaws various sounds.  And I listened to some great local hip hop.  Much of the trippy little field trip I went on in my head to write this thing didn’t make it into the five minute talk and the talk won’t make it into print...  But here it is anyway.

When I was asked to participate in a panel on music and politics I thought it would be easy. Any musician ought to be able to riff on music and politics; I thought. After all, I grew up singing protest songs and fell in love with Rage Against the Machine in their early years. My scholarly work centers on early modern Italy where every bit of cultural expression was about promoting some political end. In seventeenth century Rome the reigning Barberini suffered through a plague, a war and a lot of bad press generated by the conviction of Galileo as a heretic. They handled it by arranging a grand procession, an Opera, and other events that displayed their greatness, conflated them with gods, and used musical performance to reinforce the dominance of church and dynast.
But as I began to prepare my comments it got complicated and intimidating.    There’s a tendency towards a level of abstraction that defies any practical application and eschews real bodies. It’s easy to talk about the kind of politics of music in Barberini Rome where music was used in the Machiavellian performance of power. But it’s excruciating to think through politics of music, sound, and noise as they play out on real bodies in real places and especially in this place where politics always comes back to race. This is a place built by Thomas Jefferson, a man whose commitment to liberty went hand and hand with the subjugation of black women and men. That would be the TJ who imagined blacks as incapable of creating real music. This is a place where, despite a lot of talk about diversity and equity, music is shockingly segregated; classical music concerts frequently have not a single African American person in the audience. It is hard to think about why in this very building undergraduates are still told that Beethoven’s ninth symphony is a universally great piece of music but if you ask most children living in poverty who Beethoven is they likely wont know because no one has bothered to tell them. And many of them will have never experienced live music outside of school programs which are dwindling by the year.
This will seem like an odd modulation, but I’m going to retreat for a moment to Plato. He explicitly connected music and politics. What’s important is that he understood that music had a physical power to do stuff. He outlawed sounds that he thought would damage the morals of listeners. He muted sounds understood as dissonant and clamorous and thus made what is now understood as a distinction between music and noise. For Plato passion-inflaming music incited massive injustice, conflict and an explosion of laws that futilely attempt to control the masses: “they have inspired the multitude with lawlessness and boldness, and made them fancy that they could judge for themselves about melody and song.”  
Jacques Attali puts Plato’s ideas into a modern capitalist context when he explains the process of marking music off from noise as a matter of consolidating community. “Listening to music is listening to all noise realizing that its appropriation and control is a reflection of power, that it is essentially political. More than colors and forms it is sounds and their arrangements that fashion societies. With noise is born disorder and its opposite, the world.”
In this country it has most often been the sounds of African Americans that get marked as noise. Plato’s words sound a lot like those of critics of jazz and hip hop. Saidiya Hartman and Stephanie Bests write that “Black noise represents the kinds of political aspirations that are inaudible and illegible within the prevailing formulas of political rationality.” Or to put it differently, music cannot be separated from race. Certainly, not in this city where the legacy of slavery, jim crow, segregation, and massive resistance still reverberates through the public schools, the housing market and music making of all sorts.  
And yet despite the fact that to use Harman’s terms Black Noise represents inaudible politics Jazz and Hip Hop have been read as sonic embodiments of democratic theory. Many African American critics have explicitly linked musical forms and cultures to politics. Ralph Ellison famously posited jazz as the soundtrack to democratic ideals. And Cornel West explains, “ The interplay of individuality and unity is not one of uniformity and unanimity imposed from above but rather of conflict among diverse groupings that reach a dynamic consensus subject to questioning and criticism. As with a soloist in a jazz quartet, quintet or band, individuality is promoted in order to sustain and increase the creative tension with the group--a tension that yields higher levels of performance to achieve the aim of the collective project.” Writing about hiphop, Imani Perry explains  that “ideologically, hip hop allows for open discourse; Anything might be said, or for that matter contradicted. The reunion marks a democratic space in which expression is more important than the monitoring of the acceptable, a space, rather that suppresses the silencing impulse extant in various segments of America popular culture, both within and outside black communities.” To be sure the politics of jazz and hip hop are complicated and where some hear democratic ideals, others hear misogyny and commercialism; claims that can not be dismissed. But that tension reminds us that the distinction between democratic and repressive politics is as fuzzy and conditioned as that of music and noise. And all of these critics are talking about the experience of making and feeling the music.
Perry uses Hip Hop to think about racial inequality as reflecting the tension between what we say and what we do or put differently the space between the abstraction and the reality. To begin with, many African Americans in Charlottesville have never set foot in this building. No matter how many free events we offer, many people will never feel comfortable enough to come on these grounds which are still often referred to as a plantation. And this building constructed in 1898 closed off the lawn and in the process blocked off a small African American community known as Canada. That name marked a geography of political alternatives that began with a free Black woman named “Kitty” Foster who purchased land for a house in 1833.
That’s the distinction between what we say and what we do. It’s easy to say we are working towards equal access to the arts, but it’s really hard to put it into practice. It’s hard to think about why a sound ordinance that has mostly gotten press for keeping down frat noise on rugby road is also used to silence some of the venues in town that are actually working towards promoting hip hop. It’s hard work to think about why the free music programs in the public schools remain largely white and affluent. And it’s even harder work to change it.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Let us TEACH!

I’ve been off the blog bandwagon for a bit.   In part because after spending last summer blogging about being an Earth Mother in remote rural China it seemed like most of what I’d write would be boring.  But I’m going to try again. This entry is inspired by a conversation with my kids in the flame van on Friday night while I was on the verge of a bad infection and so not my usual perky self.

Eli: mommy are you in college?
Me: no
Eli: mommy you DO go to UVa.
Me: no I don’t
Rebecca: Eli she doesn’t go to UVa she works there but she’s pissed off all the time.
Eli: what’s pissed off?
Jonathan: yea what’s pissed off. 
Eli: pissing is peeing.
Manuel: Pissed off is a not nice way to say you are mad. Peeved seems to be more polite, but I don’t understand why.

And it went down hill from there.   But here’s the thing.  My daughter is right. I am pissed off all the time; in fact every time I open my email I develop a new string of curses.  Certain minions of the deans can set me off just when I see their name in my inbox.  These are people who apparently have been hired since the summer and every few days summon all of us to some sort of town hall meeting or issue a command that ends in more results. And if one more person writes back to a request telling me they are too busy I might just start bringing a water gun to grounds—WE ARE ALL BUSY. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that this fall has pretty much bit the big one at UVa.  To be perfectly crass, we had a great moment of solidarity and saved the President’s ass on a national stage, and it seemed like it might even set us up as a model for protecting public education.  But, instead, it may even be worse than before.  About every two weeks a new command is issued from on high, some portion of the faculty becomes agitated and before, action is taken, another command comes down.  Meanwhile the gender climate is worse then ever as far as I can tell.  I’m pretty sure my female grad students will enter more difficult world than I did; at least when I came out of grad school music departments felt that they had to hire qualified women.  I’ve taken to bringing undergrads and grad students to meetings just so I don’t have to be the only woman in the room. Oh, and despite the fact that I’ve long understood that I don’t command the respect of my male colleagues, I wasn’t actually groped until this year.

Part of the problem is that since the summer we’ve all been talking about what is wrong with higher education, what is wrong with UVa, what we need to do to enter the 21st century, and what we need to do to fix and save public education.  We are reforming the curriculum, the administrative structure, the library, development, etc… We are restructuring and restrategizing, but:  Some stuff we do WORKS JUST FINE and has been working JUST FINE for a couple of hundred years. In fact, it works REALLY WELL. Our students still get a great education for a comparatively low cost.  And for the record, Darden, the Med School, the Law School, etc. all depend on students’ learning the basics in college.  Even online learning assumes student can read, absorb information, and synthesize information.  I’m not saying we don’t need to fix lots of things; I protested for living wage last spring, we do need to figure out what to do with digital media, we need to continue to push hard on diversity, and we continue to make the education we offer more accessible.  And I am all for new innovations; I’ve spent the better part of the last two years banging my head against a wall about arts and community engagement at UVa and in Charlottesville.  There is plenty of work to do. But I repeat we do some stuff well. 

This sense of we do some stuff well and it’s really cool that we get to do it smacked me in the face last week.  Wednesday afternoon I went to the Woodson Institute for African African American Studies to attend their Meet the Fellows afternoon.  That’s where the Woodson Fellows introduce themselves and their projects.  For about 90 minutes I listened to a group of pre-doc and post doc fellows talk about a stunning array of projects from the religious practices of a religion I’d never heard of to an ethnography of gay black communities in neighborhoods I grew up hanging out in.  All of these people are, in theory, young enough to be my children, all of them gave fabulous presentations, and all of them even in these lean times get the privilege of two years to simply do their academic work.  And if some of these projects are half as good as they sound they may well change the way many of us think in profound ways.  In other words, we still have moments where it’s all about ideas and it’s all about giving young people the space to develop the ideas that may just make a difference. 

Thursday I walked to school and watched a group of students very carefully and deliberately laying out hundreds of empty backpacks on the lawn. It was a striking sight, and I later learned that it was a piece of public art geared towards suicide prevention and awareness.  It stopped me in my tracks.  I don’t think there’s a single person in higher education who hasn’t been touched by student suicide. And if you haven’t, then you haven’t probably paid enough attention to your friends and students.  It happens every year at every college. And here in the midst of everything else on a gorgeous Friday before fall break our students asked us to think about that for a moment.  I watched all day from my office windows as students walked by, read personal stories, and stopped to take it in. Way to go kids!  I listened as they talked about those stories. And BOV, you need to hear this:  the way they took all in had nothing to do with strategic dynamism.  It had everything to do with being in a place that gave them the luxury to think and to practice empathy.

I’d say at this point a shockingly small portion of my day goes to teaching and scholarship. If I could publish my emails the second book would be long done by now. Indeed, the only thing causing teaching to take a front seat again this semester is that for some dumb reason I assumed I’d taught an early music survey at some point in my career and assumed I could teach it in my sleep.  I did zippo to prepare. As it turns out, I’m teaching tunes I haven’t thought about since grad school.  And sometimes it’s pretty intoxicating.  In a week where I, like my colleagues, have been asked to come up with revenue generating masters programs, rethink the undergraduate distribution requirements, justify why we need a music librarian, and come up with new technological initiatives it’s a pleasure to just teach the old fashioned way.  For example, go into class with a copy of a letter that the 16th century courtesan Veronica Franco wrote to a mother who wanted to make her daughter a courtesan and ask the undergrads why she’d so vehemently oppose her own profession. And watch the students become completely enthralled with the details of a document.  And, turn off the ipod, itunes, power point,  and put an Archadelt Madrigal in front of a group of  17 music majors and figure out they can make music out of it and they can love it.  And they can from that experience start wonder about what it was like to learn music in the 16th century.  So I guess what I’m saying is, “Dammit BOV, President Sullivan, and Dean Everyone; leave us alone and let us do our jobs!”