Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Layout Room

At some point soon I’ll write a nuanced description of the Sound in Early America exhibit that my grad students are curating. The team includes the two first year grad students Amy Coddington and Gretchen Michelson.  We also have Courtney Kleftis, Stephanie Doktor, Emily Gale and Winston Barham helping out.  Winston is the resident expert on old books.  My official description will explain the ways in which we have tried to remind everyone that Early America was a noisy place and that we want to animate the archive by turning its usually silent stacks into sonorous echoes of the past.  After all it’s only we moderns who think of Reading as a solitary and silent practice.  For now I’ll just say that I hope the chaos of today will be delightfully invisible to the millions of visitors who will troop into the UVa Special Collections Library when our exhibit opens.

Yesterday’s class project was layout.  That means apparently that you turn layout the goods on a mock display to make sure they all fit. It gets pretty punchy when you’re in a windowless room with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of precious documents including a civil war era valentine, some printing tools that look like toy soldier weapons, and a picture of the lovely Jenny Lindt. Most rare books rooms only let you look at a few things at once, and they have very strict rules about not talking, not sharing, etc.  We had a good 36 items floating around.  Old paper gets dusty fast and we learned that all of us scratch our throats in unladylike ways that gross out our boyfriends/husbands.  And yes, other than Winston who is holding down the man fort, we are all women—a formidable bunch of women I might add. The  whole process works like corralling kids. I think I said “use your inside voice” at least five times.  (the room is not soundproof and other people were actually doing SCHOLARSHIP)  I’m also pretty sure there was throwing. I’m not mentioning names, but those cute little bean bag things that hold pages open definitely flew.

The first of six cases took us a good forty minutes to deal with, which I’m pretty sure left the library wishing they’d never asked us to do this.  Petrina and Anne (the excellent librarians who have been working with us) have been remarkably patient and helpful. I, for example, have not had time to get my e-services password to work, so any time I need a book I go old fashioned and write it on a paper slip. I feel totally 1990’s.  In terms of the Music Department crew, I am thankful that Amy took over and acted as drill sergeant and book gatherer. I think she was really hungry and thought if we got it done she could get food faster…  But it worked. I realized about ten minutes into the process that I’m a terrible person for this sort of thing; archival exhibits are completely inaccessible to the visually impaired since they prevent my usual stick-my-nose-quite-literally-in-the-book pose.  In addition, my lack of fine motor skills makes writing labels and quickly moving around fragile things treacherous.  Before Amy took over I heard phrases like “uh oh, I think we just made something up.” And, again I’m not naming names, but someone put a song from 1824 in the civil war section. We plan to upset (we hope) some visitors by deliberately placing the Civil War in the Patriotism section and presenting some of the more abhorrent Confederate materials as examples of what happens when Patriotism goes wrong.

My low point during the initial warm up was picking up Thomas Jefferson’s edition of Der Freishutz and watching the title page fly off—yes, fly off.  I’ve been drawn to this particular edition for a few years.  This piano reduction has a beautiful cover illustration.  It’s a really simple reduction; much easier to play than most.  And it doesn’t really fit in with anything else in TJ’s collection.   Jews believe that if you drop a Torah you have to fast for forty days, and I’m sure the retributions for dropping anything Mr. Jefferson put his hands on are harsher around here. I promise that part of my Decentering of TJ project does not involve consciously dropping his stuff.  (though in my opinion we could all stand to rough up a little more of his stuff…)

It got pretty brutal down there as we had to make choices about which documents would actually get to spend some time in the display cases instead of languishing in the bowels of the library. The most crushing omission was probably the tiny books.  We all fell in love with these little miniature books that measure about three inches.  You could easily fit three of them in your jeans pocket.  After oohing and awwwing every time, we were finally informed by the librarians that “they are cute but...”  As in, “Get over it ladies.  These things are too small even for people who can see.”  We also ran into space problems and had to evict Jenny Lind. The sweetish nightingale became famous in the States after an extremely successful concert tour organized by PT Barnum in 1850.  It felt a little like a cross between a sorority and a job search as we had to eliminate her because she simply did not meet our needs and her delightful little program was falling apart and decrepit.  With her, unfortunately, went Willa Cather’s Song of The Lark.  As someone said “we gave her the boot even if she was the first woman to win the Pulitzer prize or something like that.”  We had to move all kinds of things around because the precious wax cylinder is considered a security risk. 

We’ve divided the exhibit into six major categories.  I’m not going to write them here because I want EVERYONE TO COME SEE IT, and I know that you are all dying to know exactly how we’ve organized the goods.  We’ve been most fascinated by, and had the most trouble with, the sections of the exhibit that deal with musical representations of Native Americans and African Americans. We first categorized this as “stuff white people like to transcribe”.  That seemed not quite right, so we moved onto a Guyatri Spivak style “can the subaltern sing?”  We settled on musical ethnographies. Wordplay aside, writing about Race is always hard, and it’s particularly vexed at UVa, which has its own ugly history of racism; a history that is with us today in countless ways.  That means that, in addition to Frederick Douglas’s speeches, we have a Steven Foster minstrel song.  Frederick Douglas was disgusted by the idea that the songs of enslaved people reflected their happiness and insisted that they told a “tale of woe in tones loud, long and deep.” And minstrel songs stand as an egregious example of a white celebration and appropriation of the Black Culture it attempts to oppress. And we also have the earliest printed collection of music of the enslaved people published in 1867.  We also have Death Song of the Cherokee Indians” from 1786 that claims to be “An original air, brought from America by a Gentleman long conversant [sic] with the Indian Tribes, and particularly with the Nation of the Cherokees.”  The gentlemen that brought back those original airs also participated in a process of genocide.  These are very tricky issues for graduate students to navigate in two sentences of text.

I did notice that we’ve all sort of fallen in love with old books.  I’ve always been disparaging of the kind of opera or literature scholarship that acts like the author is about to have lunch with the character.  But I’d say we’ve all crossed a line with these books.  We worried about finding them a home, giving them room to breathe, finding them a safe space to be, etc…  I’m not sure what the students actually think about the process.  When I promised them all A’s in the class they seemed to relax a bit... But I am pretty sure that I’m not the only one in  that room who gets a kind of visceral pleasure out of touching old books.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Arts Engagement

I was asked a few weeks ago to write a brief update on my Mead endowment project.  This is a small grant I have from the University that I am using to pair UVa students with third and fourth graders for a series of Arts events over the course of the year.   In the Charlottesville public schools, kids can start a musical instrument in fifth grade. They can also begin to take extra art and drama.  Kids who experience the arts are more likely to want to make art. There’s a lot of talk about the achievement gap in academics but there also exists a very real artistic gap, which to me feels just as tragic.  Like every parent in the Charlottesville schools, I’ve seen the achievement gap happen. Some kids who started kindergarten coming out of Head Start reading better than either of my children now read below grade level.  This is not because my kids are smarter.  Likewise, my kids consider the UVA Lawn their playground and have been going to concerts since they were literally a week old; they assumed they would play musical instruments, and they do. My daughter thinks she might be an artist because she knows some.  The kids in the Arts program go to the elementary school that Rebecca and Jonathan go to but they come from different worlds. They live predominantly in two underserved communities in Charlottesville, both of which are bussed to the school.  Many of the kids have never been on UVa’s campus, even though it’s a fifteen-minute walk from their home.  Many have never been to a live concert or an art museum, even though Charlottesville offers plenty of both for free. They do not play instruments and they do not have a cabinet of art supplies in their homes. Things change slowly, and the Arts and UVa remain inaccessible and alienating to much of the city’s population, especially to people of color living in poverty. 

I’d been asked to do this progress report a few weeks ago and, although this project has consumed more mental space than Music 101, the task stumped me.  For a few days I considered just sending them some really great pictures that a history faculty member and documentary photographer took of the group at the Bill T Jones open rehearsal.  Eventually I sat down and wrote a few bland sentences; the kind that can go on brochures.

A brief update about my Mead project. I had a tremendous amount of interest from the undergraduates and, in fact, had to turn many students away.  We've had two events so far.  The first was a photography show and jazz concert at the Bridge. The second was a bit more ambitious and involved taking everyone to see a Bill T Jones open rehearsal.  Below are a series of pictures.  John Mason from the history department took the second set. It's been a blast to get to know these undergraduates. About half of them are from my music 101 class or other things I've been involved with on grounds and about half are brand new to me. The best part is probably exploring the project of arts engagement with these bright and enthusiastic students. The University as a whole seems to be struggling with community engagement and it turns out that if we ask our students they have some pretty good hunches. The undergrads and little kids are keeping journals together and a few pairs have been on WTJU. This gives them a sense to experience live radio and give me a chance to hang out with them more. There have of course been some mishaps.  For example just because you can have a group of 200 music 101 students completely under control and enthralled doesn't mean you can effectively control 12 third and fourth graders on a bus. That University Transit driver may have quit. It's a learning experience for all of us.  On Saturday we're headed to a step contest at the Paramount. The UVa students came up with this plan. I haven't been to a step event in a good twenty years and it's out of my comfort zone but I'm sure it'll be an experience for all of us!

While all of the above is true, beneath that surface lies a much more complicated truth, most of which I think wouldn’t be appropriate for the kind of upbeat positive spin that donors want to read.  It turns out that taking a small group of UVa students and a small group of little kids to some events is not as cute as it sounds. And I’ve spent a lot more energy on logistics and crowd control than on thinking deep thoughts about Arts engagement. For starters, I can’t even control my own kids, so I’m not sure what made me think I could control ten extras.  When putting together the proposal for this project, I thought of those moments when my own children sat angelically moved by some performance, not the ones where they kicked the person in front of them, threw up on me, or cracked up at a moment that an artist thought was sublimely moving. (and those ARE things my kids have done). Also, it turns out that while on good days I can soemtimes make an assignment clear to a graduate seminar, I can’t do it for third and fourth graders. My student Lauren, who has been a real school teacher, and without whom this whole thing would fall apart, informs me that when talking to groups of children I need to limit the information to three things.  And she suggests I get the most important safety and logistical information out there before opening up the floor for questions.  So that, for example, everyone knows what time they will be picked up before discussing what happens if you bring money for ice cream but you don’t quite have enough money for ice cream and if one person has to go to the bathroom will the other person wait before buying the mythological ice cream that I never said we’d buy.  Next time we speak to the group of kids, she talks. 

The most complicated part of this project is, not surprisingly, moving twenty people around.  Despite the fact that they have smart phones that they check every three seconds and that I think I’m crystal clear, the UVa students are always confused and some chunk of them go to the wrong place. The University doesn’t want us driving kids around—it’s a liability nightmare.  So they suggested we get a University Transit Service (UTS) bus.  We did this for our trip to the Bill T Jones rehearsal at UVa.  It seemed to make no sense to have the UVa kids on the bus because this would take about an extra hour of their time, cost more etc.  So this left me with twelve kids on giant bus.  The low point came on the bus ride home, during which I realized that the bus driver didn’t know where he was going and, because I don’t drive, I had no clue how to get there either.  Since I was sitting between three fighting ten and eleven year old boys, I dispatched an eleven-year-old girl to give directions. When I heard her say to the bus driver “Oops, we missed it. Can you just back this thing up a bit?” I knew we were in trouble.  In order to back the thing up, a bit he turned the lights of which enticed all of the kids to scream their heads off.  (Don’t worry everyone was safe and got home in one piece).  We’ll all be enrolling in Harry Potter magic school before this weekend’s event so that we can magically appear in our location without worrying about vehicles or directions.

Our events have thus far been rather heady—jazz, photography and the Bill T Jones rehearsal.  Bill T, though he gave the kids a great 10-minute audience, did not do a lot of dancing. This extravaganza turned into a classic case of things not going quite as I imagined. His residency here came as part of a project called Story Time in collaboration with Ted Coffey a composer and friend of mine in the Music Department.   The open rehearsal I saw with this group about a year ago still stands as one of the most arresting performances I’ve ever seen. I found Bill gorgeous to watch, and he captures an entire room even he is just sitting in a chair.  This experience immediately incited liberal music professor fantasies in me about bringing this particular group of predominantly African American kids to see an African American Artist. He’s one of the most innovative and powerful dancers of this era and has shown a profound commitment to experimental arts and to community engagement. With Arnie Zane his dance company has merged with New York Live Arts to become one of the most innovative arts engagement projects in the country. I’m not naive enough to think that a few arts events can bridge the achievement gap or provide role models.  But I do believe in exposure, and I believe in giving kids the opportunity to see grownups who look like them do great things. The UVa residency wasn’t really aimed at those sorts of goals.  Nonetheless, I’d been trying to bring at risk kids to see one of the Bill T events for about two years and got nowhere.  For last year’s events, I was told that kids couldn’t come. This year the events had more seating, and I decided with the UVa students to take the kids to see a rehearsal. They, like me, saw this as a unique opportunity to expose kids to UVa and to the Arts.  A rehearsal seemed like it would suit our needs as we could talk about the process of working hard to get good at something and see first hand the process of making art.

This particular rehearsal focused more on concept than action. The dancers spent a lot of time moving stage equipment and did a few dance like small movements.  The kids asked variations of  “so is modern dance where you stand still” and “why don’t they just move the couch if it’s in their way.” Some of the ten-year-old boys informed me that the dancers just weren’t any good and that they just kind of looked weird.  The boys, predictably, got restless after 45 minutes, so I took them out into the lobby told them they cold quietly show me what they thought dance should look like. They did a series of very quiet back flips and step dancing which got us all in trouble with the undergraduate hall monitor.  (they were in fact very quiet)  Back in the auditorium some of the kids found the moving of furniture complexly fascinating.  But about halfway through I wondered if I’d managed to kill dance for a group of kids that love to dance. However, when Bill T spoke with the kids, it was a pretty phenomenal moment.  They asked engaging questions, suggesting that while I was doing crowd control they had actually gotten quite a bit out of the experience. This was not easy art to experience. So the real progress report is a giant question mark. I know that all of us have seen a few very cool things that we hadn’t seen before.  Beyond that I don’t know if this is working.  I don’t know what the UVa students or the little kids are getting out of it. And it may well be that my impulse towards exposing at risk kids to the arts is misguided.  Maybe they need too many other things. Perhaps the UVa students need more training and more guidance than I can give them.  And on a personal note perhaps this takes too much time away from my regular job and my own kids.  But, hopefully, the twenty-five of us involved, and those twenty five include my husband and kids, will make some sense of it by the end of the year.