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!”