Category Archives: Models

Examples we can productively study

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Is Music Translatable?

Rogers assumes that all of us have music “sweet spots” that come from causes that can’t be fully explained

A book published this year by record producer Susan Rogers raises one of the great conundrums when writing about the arts.  Her book, This is What it Sounds Like (co-authored with Ogi Ogas and published by Norton) is a valiant attempt to assess what it is we love and we hear a favorite piece of music.  What, exactly, is going on? It can be hard to wade into these dark waters that conceal unseen holes that can pull a writer way out of their depth. As one critic put it, when writing about popular culture it’s hard to not sound like a jerk.” But Rogers has produced albums for Prince and a host of other bands and singer/songwriters. In addition, she regularly takes the pulse of modern listeners as an instructor of Record Production at Berklee College of Music.  She’s a professional listener at a school that has a reputation for helping students who want to get foothold in the mysterious commercial music business.

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In the book we learn that she and her co-author share very few of the same musical passions.  Her tastes run to grunge rock, for example: preferring the rougher style of the Rolling Stones to the more polished playing and production that was common with the Beatles.  But she also acts on the premise that there is little point in pressing one’s case that a certain song or album is superior to another. She wants to build an understanding of why we have such different tastes, without dwelling on the weaknesses of individual talents. That’s what music critics do, and sometimes very well.  But music is a phenomenological experience. Studies of neural mechanisms of hearing will only get you so far. That’s as it should be, but I can attest to the fact that it makes life difficult for academics if they venture beyond the safe tropes of the social sciences.

So, challenges to write sensibly and clearly about popular music are enormous. Music is its own language. A writer must translate feelings and the attributes of specific sonics into verbal forms that range from barely adequate to very clumsy. Needless to say, analogies abound: everything from discussions of auditory “circuitry” to “whispers” of sound, and even to tactile terms like “harsh” and “cold.” Sometimes these conversions work, and at other times they surely distract us from the difficult task of communicating more nuanced features of music. If you assume that a composition is wonderful because it exceeds what can be explained in ordinary language, then it is easy to see how the whole enterprise of musical dissection can be a fool’s errand. But Rogers is aware of this problem. At many points in her book she is candid enough to admit that nothing can replace the experience of listening to a specific effort.

Rogers assumes that all of us have music “sweet spots” that come from causes that can’t be fully explained. We may have a preference over, say, acoustic rather than electronic sounds, syncopation over straight rhythms, broad melodies in lieu of more obscure ones, and so on.  She rightly assumes that there’s no sense in trying to find a neurological reason to prefer one attribute over another. For example, some of us get hooked on a particular timbre, never able to hear enough of the kind of sound produced by an instrument or singer. The sonics of any piece always have their own unique features. And for true “sound centrics,” hearing particular timbres is reason enough to go back to the source again and again. The organ-like tones coming from a steel band work for me. Others of us prefer the distortion or the “on the beat” music of a rock song with the out-front thud of bass coming from a drum machine locked into the same tempo.

Throughout the book Rogers takes the musicianship of those she works with seriously, noting at one point that even the best often have to hold back to make a particular tune fit with the rest of a band. In our era, and for most listeners and record producers focused on pop music, virtuoso playing is hardly the point.

I can’t say that I have spent much time with the kinds of music Rogers likes to record. But I admire he ability to maintain a panoramic view of music.  And it is indeed helpful to try to identify some musical “sweet spots” that make listeners swoon and a handful of musicians unexpectedly rich.

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Cherishing Study in the Humanities

The pendemic, and now the bean counters, are coming for the humanities. 

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Recent news reports have asserted that students in the fields of language, the arts, the social sciences and history have come through the pandemic with less enthusiasm for their studies, at least in relation to those in STEM sciences and vocational majors like accounting. But can there be any surprise that the pandemic’s disruption of learning communities would take a big toll on learning that is usually collective, intimate, and interactive?  The humanities thrive on direct engagement. Now it appears that the inadvertent theft of these forms by COVID has been devastating.  As with a recent piece in the Washington Post, bean counters seem to be taking particular pleasure in seeing American universities become trade schools.

But surely it will take time for the wounds of COVID isolation to heal. We have been missing what was once the vast array of classroom discussions, plays, concerts, and travel that survived, if at all, mostly in the truncated form of video facsimiles. Of course, the first task through this pandemic was to save lives and keep individuals healthy. But for those Americans who were on track to delve into deeper understandings–through live performance, the discussion of history and ideas and personal mentoring–the inadvertent loss of direct engagement has predictably yielded greater caution. It has lowered the horizons of students to “focus on courses that are practical.”

The humanities—fields of inquiry ranging from history to languages to literature and the arts—thrive when open and eager minds can share the same space. It’s our birthright to be with others. For students this means being in the presence of a wonderful instructor in any field that creates insight about what is possible and what’s at stake within human communities. The humanities remind us where we have been and where aspirations made visible can still take us.

Seminar Bard College Berlin 2013

Living among a community of scholars offers the gift of shared experience with perhaps 10 or 15 students, all beginning the voyage of a semester-long conversation about the work of groundbreaking creators of ideas.  We may never get a better chance to be connected to big ideas that that matter than participating as student with a writer or thinker with revelatory insights. There may be ways to electronically simulate a meeting of minds. But most of these efforts are more performative than enlightening. Communication works better when folks share the same space and time, and when small things like momentary non-fluency or uncombed hair doesn’t matter.

Disturbingly, stretched parents are having second thoughts about spending money on any undergraduate curriculum that offers a palette of experiences larger than is required to do a single job. Their concerns are abetted by nearsighted reporting in our media, with headlines like “College Majors With The Lowest Unemployment” or “College Majors With The Worst Return On Investment,” and the Post’s recent “The most Regretted College Majors.” So we have the pandemic-hastened conversion of higher education into vocational training.  It is sad to see universities close programs in writing, philosophy, performance studies, history, foreign languages,  music, dance, theater, journalism and rhetoric. Never mind that they have missed the more subtle point that a degree in history or philosophy may cultivate wonderful skills needed for innovative work. Writer Julie Schumacher reminds us what her English students can accomplish: “Be reassured: the literature student has learned to inquire, to question, to interpret, to critique, to compare, to research, to argue, to sift, to analyze, to shape, to express.”

In these times, we should worry when electoral losers brood over dark ways to return to power.  Weakening the humanities is akin to disarming voters who need to put up a full defense of democratic values.  Among many other things, they would benefit by knowing why Plato and his great student Aristotle parted ways on the usefulness of public opinion. We can’t afford to not have the humanities, which collectively help us understand why we should want to be part of a great and ethical society.

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