As our Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman mentioned in her Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) Conference Round-Up post from this past Monday, this weekend will be action packed for those interested in media studies and popular music studies. This year is the first year the Experience Music Project Museum (EMP) POP Conference will take place on the East Coast—sponsored by New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. In addition, the EMP POP Conference will be jointly held with the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (US) Conference (IASPM-US for short). With that in mind we have brought two conference round-up posts this week. (Speaking of blogging about conferences, don’t miss IASPM’s blog coverage of EMP POP Conference 2012, where they are previewing several papers that will be read at the conference.) Even though our editorial collective is still working on the technology to enable us to be in several places at once so we don’t miss out on these awesome opportunities, I will be Sounding Out’s eyes and ears at EMP POP Conference. I will also attempt to live-tweet the panels I am attending. You can find me at @literarychica, or you can follow the conference tweet stream at #PopCon
The EMP POP Conference has been bringing together academics and non-academics alike, musicians and non-musicians alike, music writers and non-music-writers to discuss the direction of popular culture–especially popular music. The theme of this year’s POP Conference is Sounds of the City, and what better location for these cross-disciplinary conversations than New York City? From the conference website:
Presenters will pay particular attention to what urban environments have meant for race, gender, and sexuality. Jazz, rock, indie, country, metal, electronic dance music, roots, disco, and Broadway music are but some of the sounds that will be the subject of entire panels.
The city becomes the place to explore how sound is constructed but also how the city helps construct sound—and its counterpart, noise. Detroit, Berlin, and New York City, among others, take certer stage in this year’s program. Many of the panel topics show an interest in thinking about how sound influences our notion of urban space, which brings to my mind the “cities of feeling” that Carlo Rotella talks about in his book October Cities: The Redevelopment of Urban Literature. If, according to Rotella, “literary writers are in the business of imagining cities,” here at the EMP POP Conference there is an impulse to consider how do sound and noise participate in that imagining, and how gender and race play a role (3). The conference offerings illustrate an attempt to think about the sounds of the city in a broader sense, not just limiting it to music. Although the EMP POP Conference stands out for its critical focus on everything related to popular music, this year’s panels are more sound-studies oriented.
Another indication of the sound studies influence at this year’s EMP POP Conference is a focus on listening. There seems to be a an inclination not just to think about the sounds within the city but how we listen to those sounds. Listening is an important factor in how sound is constructed; in other words, an analysis of sound is not limited to the sounds themselves, but how those who listen interpret those sounds, or how listeners themselves are perceived. From the Feminist Working Group‘s Friday panel titled Turn It Up! One: Listening to Difference to Gustavus Stadler’s “Aural Drag: Warhol as Pop Listener” to the Sunday panel Urban Ears, listening is part of the conversation taking place at NYU this weekend about sound and urban space.
Our regular readers will see several familiar names in the program. Gayle Wald is presenting on the Marvelettes Friday morning on the Afro Imaginaries panel. Gustavus Stadler is moderating the Lonely Subcultures panel on Friday and presenting on Andy Warhol in his paper “Aural Drag: Warhol as Pop Listener.” (Insider tip: keep an ear out for Eric Lott, who will be presenting on the same panel as Stadler; you can expect a blog post from Lott in the upcoming months.) Karen Tongson, who blogged for us on The Voice, will be presenting a paper titled “Drive and Sounds of the ‘80s Metropolis.” Scott Poulson-Bryant will be participating in the Saturday afternoon roundtable on Whitney Houston titled “Newark’s Finest: Reflections on Whitney Houston.” Last but not least, Regina Bradley, one of our regular writers, and myself will be presenting together on a roundtable on Sunday titled “I Pledge Allegiance to the Block: Cityscapes, Hegemonic Sound, and Blackness.”
The conference will take place at New York University’s Kimmel Center, and is free of charge. To find out more about the presenters or to read about all the other outstanding panels at the conference, please visit the conference website. So if you’re in the New York City area Thursday through Sunday (or if you’re considering hopping on a train from Boston to check out some panels–wink wink), the conference will be well worth your while!
Please comment to let SO! know what you think–both before and after EMP PopCon 2012. If I missed your panel in my round up, please drop me a line: email@example.com
Liana M. Silva is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out! She is also a PhD candidate at Binghamton University.
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THURSDAY, March 22
Thursday, March 22, 2012
Thursday, March 22, 2012 7:00pm-8:30pm
Conference Opening Keynote: The Artist in the City: with Angélique Kidjo, Esperanza Spalding, Santigold, and Himanshu Suri (aka Heems)
Room: Eisner & Lubin Auditorium KC 401
Writing about how jazz in the mid-20th century reflected lived experience in New York city’s tenements, the scholar Shane Vogel quoted Duke Ellington’s description of his swing symphony, “Harlem Air Shaft”: “So much goes on in a Harlem air shaft…You hear fights, you smell dinner, you hear people maing love. You hear intimate gossip floating down. You hear the radio. An air shaft is one great big loudspeaker.” In the crowded city, the musician-composer becomes a living receiver, distilling a static field of sounds and sensations into an evocative whole.
This keynote event gathers together four prominent artists whose work reflects a cosmopolitan worldview, with each artist rooted in his or her particular urban home. Grammy winning Beninoise singer-songwriter Angélique Kidjo has truly had a global career, having recorded albums in a staggering array of languages, styles, genres and cities; her recently-released live album Spirit Rising is a career retrospective featuring diverse guests like Ezra Koenig, Josh Groban and the Kuumba Singers. Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding is about to release her third album, Radio Music Society, a border-crossing blend of jazz, soul, funk and pop that reflects the cities she loves: New York, Barcelona, and her birthplace of Portland, Oregon. Philadelphia-bred, Brooklyn-based Santigold (Santi White) is one of the brightest lights of the East Coast bohemian underground; her upcoming second album, Master of My Make Believe, takes her incendiary blend of hip hop, indie rock and dance music to a new level. On his recent mixtape Nehru Jackets, Himanshu Suri (Heems) of the Queens-identified hip hop group Das Racist drops wit and wisdom about the ups and downs of life in Gotham’s five boroughs. Discussing their new work and how they’ve formed their own sound and vision in relationship to the urban spaces where they thrive, these artists consider what’s changed and what remains consistent in the half-century plus since the Duke found heaven in the clanging multiplicity of the air shaft.
Moderator: Ann Powers
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FRIDAY, March 23
Friday, March 23, 2012
Friday, March 23, 2012 9:00 am-11:00 am
Room: KC 804/5
Moderator: Banning Eyre
Gayle Wald, “‘Deliver De Letter’: ‘Please Mr. Postman,’ the Marvelettes, and the Afro-Caribbean Imaginary”
Emily J. Lordi, “Moving Out: White Flight and Sly and the Family Stone’s ‘Stand!’”
Koushik Banerjea, “Cities of the Dead: Soundscaping Race, Memory and Desire in a Forgotten London”
Wills Glasspiegel & Martin Scherzinger, “Beyoncé’s Afro-Future: Power and Play in “Run the World (Girls)”"
Repositioning Urban Pop
Room: KC 808
Moderator: Barbara Browning
Rustem Ertug Altinay, “‘In Konya she would marry a regular dude, but Serife from Konya is now a Lady’: Power, Sexuality and Cities in Gungor Bayrak’s Autobiographic Songs”
Erin MacLeod, “‘Layers and layers of not-so-dope synths’: Listening to the Music of Addis Ababa”
Mark Lomanno, “Surfaces and (archi)Textures in Canarian Jazz”
Room: KC 406
Moderator: John Melillo
Patrick Deer, “‘The Cassette Played Poptones’: Punk’s Pop Embrace of the City in Ruins”
Jessica Schwartz, “Conform or Die: Composing the City as National Security Threat, 1945-1962″
John Melillo, “Revenant Frequencies: Destructive Sound from “The Waste Land” to NYC Ghosts and Flowers“
J. Martin Daughtry, “Evocative Objects and Provocative Actions on the Acoustic Territory of War”
Friday, March 23, 2012 11:15 am-12:45pm
Turn It Up! One: Listening to Difference
Room: KC 808
This panel is sponsored by the Feminist Working Group. Since 2008, we have organized panels, get-togethers and networking opportunities for all feminists who participate in EMP. For more information about our activities, and to get involved, please visit http://feministworkinggroup.blogspot.com
Moderator: Lucy O’Brien
Summer Kim Lee, “‘Singin’ Up On You’: Queer Intimacies of the Sonorous Body In ‘The New Sound Karaoke’”
Daniel Sander, “Girl. Reverb. Notes on Queer Tactics of Sonorous Difference”
Kyessa L. Moore, “(Sub)Spacialized Urban Sound, Expressive Communion and Identificatory Dislocations”
Cairo and Athens Spring Up
Room: KC 405
Moderator: Katherine Meizel
Banning Eyre, “Cairo Soundscape: Revolution and Cultural Renaissance”
Maysan Haydar, “Wild in the (Arab) Streets: Songs for the Revolutions”
Hypatia Vourloumis, “Bad Athena: Crises, Syntheses and Sounds of a European Other”
Room: KC 406
Moderator: Gustavus Stadler
William Hutson, “Abrasive Nostalgia: A Noisescape of Deindustrialization”
Vivian L. Huang, “Not That Innocent: Britney Spears, Laurel Nakadate and Strangers”
Julia DeLeon, “Dance Through the Dark Night: Distance, Dissonance and Queer
Friday, March 23, 2012 2:15pm-3:45pm
Memory, Music, and the Metropolis
Room: KC 804/5
Moderator: Charles Kronengold
Tracy McMullen, “In the Beginning, You Are There: Cloning Genesis and the Return of the Urbane”
Tavia Nyong’o, “Shame and Scandal and Zombies”
Karen Tongson, “Drive and Sounds of the ’80s Metropolis
Room: KC 808
Moderator: Caroline Polk O’Meara
Raymond Knapp, “The Sound of Broadway’s Mean Streets”
Jacqueline Warwick, “‘Bigger than Big and Smaller than Small’: Child Stars, Street Urchins, and Little Orphan Annie”
Elizabeth L. Wollman & Susan Tenneriello, “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark and the Ambivalence of Spectacle
Turn It Up! Two: Making Community
Room: KC 405
Moderator: Elizabeth Keenan
Rachel Devitt, “I Love a (Pride) Parade: Queer Community-Building, Temporary Spaces and Politicized Kitsch among LGBT Marching Bands”
Evelyn McDonnell, “The Roads to Ruin”
Matthew Carrillo-Vincent, “Ears to the Streets, Peripheral Beats: The New Social Map of Backpack Rap”
Friday, March 23, 2012 4:00pm-6:00 pm
Roundtable: “Do You Want More?” The Time and Space of Alternative Sonic Blackness
Room: GC 95
The migration of sounds and ideas across time and place encourages synthesis; giving rise to avant garde, radical, and futurist voices. What (other) worlds open up and what (outer) spaces are formed? How do regional sites remix global flows? What factors/forces enable or prohibit certain voices from finding an audience in the national, global or cyber scene? How do we reconcile organicism of sound, as musicians produce out of particular worlds, with the reckless and restless ways music circulates?
Moderator: Jayna Brown, Daphne Brooks, Tavia Nyong’o
The work of Barry Jenkins
Location Location Location
Room: KC 802
Moderator: Fabian Holt
Keith Negus, “Making it in the Big City: Small Town Boys, Country Girls and Suburban Dreamers”
Jennifer C. Lena, “The Ground on which the Race was Run: Careers in Pop”
Carl Wilson, “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful: The Death and Life of Great North American Scenius”
Kembrew McLeod & Loren Glass, “Killer Apps Play the Sounds of the Cities”
Detroit: Foundation, Eclecticism, and Memory
Room: KC 808
Moderator: Marlon Bailey
Rebekah Farrugia & Kellie Hay, “‘The Foundation’ in Detroit: Challenging Conventional Ideologies about Sex and Gender in Hip Hop”
Denise Dalphond, “Eclecticism in Detroit: Diverse Dance Party Scenes in Electronic Music”
Carleton S. Gholz, “Remembering Rita: Sound, Sexuality, and Memory”
Back to menu SATURDAY, March 24
Saturday, March 24, 2012
Saturday, March 24, 2012 9:00 am to 11:00 am
Metal Studies Rising
Room: KC 808
Moderator: Jeremy Wallach
Esther Clinton, “The Gothic Menace, Then and Now: Gothic Literature, Heavy Metal Music, and Moral Panics”
Eric Smialek, “How Does Metal Mean? Ways that Musicology Can Contribute to Metal Studies”
Amber R. Clifford-Napoleone, “Hell Bent for Metal: A Study of Queer Fans of Heavy Metal”
Nelson Varas-Diaz & Eliut R. Rivera-Segarra, “Heavy Metal music in the Caribbean Setting: Social Practices and Meanings of Music at the Periphery”
Saturday, March 24, 2012 11:15am-12:45pm
Street Dreams: Blackness on the Move
Room: KC 802
Moderator: Alexandra T. Vazquez
Adrienne Brown, “Rehearing Hip-Hop Automotivity”
Sonya Posmentier, “City Streets, Country Roads: Zora Neale Hurston’s Moving Sound”
Francisco Robles, “‘This bitter earth may not be so bitter after all’: Political Promise and Sonic Geography in Killer of Sheep and We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite”
Sexuality and the City
Room: KC 405
Moderator: Franklin Bruno
Philip Gentry, “The Erotics of Chance”
Emily Tartanella, “‘A Country Mile Behind the World’: A Smithsian Sense of Place “
Elias Krell, “Singing the Contours of the City: Transvocality and Affect in Lucas Silveira’s Toronto”
Room: KC 406
Moderator: Laura Lavernia
Matthew Hayes, “Preserving America’s Endangered Soundscapes: An Emerging Field in Historic Preservation”
Barrett Martin, “Preserving Musical Memory: Physical Space and Socio-Economic-Cultural Identity”
Devon Powers, “Writing Music (Into) History”
Saturday, March 24, 2012 2:15pm-3:45pm
Warhol’s New York
Room: KC 914
Moderator: Jonathan Flatley
Gustavus Stadler, “Aural Drag: Warhol as Pop Listener”
Eric Lott, “Andy’s Mick: Warhol Builds a Better Jagger”
Bryan Waterman, “‘It’s Too ‘Too Too’ to Put a Finger On’: Tom Verlaine’s Lost Lisp and the Secret History of the New York Underground”
Losing It in the City
Room: KC 804/5
Moderator: Ken Wissoker
Carolina González, “DomiNegro turf: Whose Uptown?”
Keith M. Harris, “‘I don’t care anymore’: Deep Soul, Doris Duke, and the Allegory of Migration”
Michael B. Gillespie, “We Almost Lost Detroit: Sonic Historiography, 9/11, and Theo Parrish”
Saturday, March 24, 2012 4:00pm-6:00pm
Roundtable: Feminist and Queer Studies of Race in Sound
Room KC 804/5
This roundtable convenes two fields of scholarly inquiry—critical race studies and feminist theory/queer studies—to explore the following interrelated questions: How does sound construct racialized and gendered meaning and/or prompt processes of racial subjection? How might various hermeneutics of sound enrich and/or expand current ethnic and gender studies approaches to the study of racial formation? And how might we collectively forge a feminist, queer analytic for the study of racialized sound and sonic processes of racialization?
Moderator: Kevin Fellezs
Saturday, March 24, 2012 6:15pm-7:30pm
IASPM-US General Membership Meeting
Room: Rosenthal Pavilion, 10th Floor
The general membership meeting of IASPM-US is the organization’s opportunity to gather together and discuss the accomplishments of the past year, any concerns or issues that have arisen, and plans for the coming year. All IASPM members are welcome. We would also like to invite any interested regular EMP participants who might be interested in joining IASPM. Beyond our normal business, the general meeting this year will feature the announcement of the first winner of the Charles Hamm Memorial Award in recognition of lifetime contribution to Popular Music Studies. In addition, the David Sanjek Award for best paper by a graduate student at the meeting will be announced.
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SUNDAY, March 25
SUNDAY, March 25, 2012
Sunday, March 25, 2012 9:00 am to 11:00 am
‘Silver City Bound’: Black Women Musicians & the Urban Avant Garde
Room: KC 905/7
Moderator: Imani Perry
Daphne A. Brooks, “‘One of these mornings, you’re gonna rise up singing’: The Secret Black Feminist History of the Gershwins’Porgy and Bess “
Farah Jasmine Griffin, “Playing through the Changes: Mary Lou Williams’ Manhattan”
Salamishah Tillet, “Bethlehem, Boardwalks, and the City of Brotherly Love: Nina Simone’s Pre-Civil Rights Aesthetic”
Jayna Brown, “After the End of the World: Afro Diasporan Feminism and Alternative Dimensions of Sound”
Room: KC 802
Moderator: Tom Miller
Jeremy Morris, “Hear, Here: Location-Based Music”
Van Truong, “Distant Sounds”
Mark Katz, “Analog and Digital: A Love Story”
Karl Hagstrom Miller, “I am Sitting in a Room: The Private Pop Experience”
Sunday, March 25, 2012 11:15am-12:45am
Utopian Spaces in an Accelerated Age
Room: KC 802
Moderator: Eric Lott
Wayne Marshall, “Music as Social Life in an Age of Platform Politricks”
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, “Cunt Music: When Vogue House Dips Meet Dipset”
Max Pearl & Alexis Stephens, “New Jack City: Frenzied Cultures, Transitory Spaces (or, how I learned to stop worrying and embrace the hype cycle)”
Sunday, March 25, 2012 2:15pm-3:45pm
Room: KC 905/7
Moderator: Greil Marcus
Sonnet Retman, “Muddy the Waters: Other Stories of Love and Theft in the Making of the Delta Blues”
David Suisman, “The Urban Ear of Tony Schwartz”
Franklin Bruno, “Who Put the Arrow in ‘Cupid?’: Hugo and Luigi’s Schlock ‘n’ Soul”
A Girl’s Guide to the Urban Imaginary
Room: KC 914
Moderated by: Jacqueline Warwick
Elizabeth Keenan, “Out in the Streets: 1960s Girl Groups and the Imagined Urban Space of New York City”
Sarah Dougher, “Making Noise in the Safe Space: How Girls’ Rock Camps Make Place in the City”
Diane Pecknold, “The Spectral Cityscapes of Tween Pop”
“Beat Street”: New York City Hip-Hop
Room: KC 804/5
Moderator: Oliver Wang
Patrick Rivers, “Rumble in the Concrete Jungle: Beat Battles in NYC and Their Impact on Hip-Hop Production”
Shanté Paradigm Smalls, “‘Voices Carry’: Queer Dissonance and the Travel of NYC 1980s Hip-Hop Sound”
Chris Tabron, “‘Boom It in Ya Jeep’: Low-end Theories of Black Aurality in 90′s NYC Hip-Hop”
Roundtable – I Pledge Allegiance to the Block: Cityscapes, Hegemonic Sound, and Blackness
Room: KC 808
Whether a homesite for protest and resistance or, as Alain Locke suggests, an escape from the ‘medieval’ south, the city serves as both a muse and haven for black American cultural expression. Although city-scapes are heavily represented in African American music and popular culture, more discussion is needed about how the city is often a hegemonic space of black cultural expression. In other words, how does an urban setting dictate power and blackness in the (African) American community?
Moderator: Guthrie Ramsey
Matthew D. Morrison
Sunday, March 25, 2012 4:00pm-6:00pm
Room: KC 808
Moderator: Devin McKinney
Julia Sneeringer, “‘I’d Never Even Been to Manchester’: Liverpool Musicians in Hamburg’s Entertainment Economy, 1960-1965″
Leonard Nevarez, “How Joy Division came to sound like Manchester”
Lucy O’Brien, “Can I Have a Taste of Your Ice Cream? (Post punk feminism and the Yorkshire Ripper)”
Gillian Gower, “Riot Culture: Beats, Banksy, and the Bristol Sound”
What caught my eye about the article was Twilley’s description of what it was like to listen to LAPD’s radiofeed:
“To listen to it is to be plugged into the pulse of the city; lost in fragments of someone else’s story. Urgency alternates with frustration and low-level routine; some incidents are reported while others are resolved; and jaywalking tickets are issued in the same breath as lives are lost.”
I like her idea that the site allows you to tune into “the pulse of the city.” The feed is a sonic representation of what is happening on LA’s streets. I had the feeling that I was listening to some subversive channel of LA life, narrated by a police dispatcher. However, there are two things that come to mind: a) the sounds of urban life are being filtered through the police department, and b) what are the sounds we hear on the feed telling us about the sonic dimensions of cities?
This online radio station of sorts mashes up city sounds with background music, but once you pause the music what we get are conversations between police officers. The result is that those sounds (voices, codes, numbers, addresses) filter the soundtrack of the city. When we click on youarelisteningtolos angeles.com we are actually listening to the keepers of peace and order on the city streets. The city has already been distilled for us through a radio dispatcher and officers.
The sounds are haunting. Interestingly, what attracts some listeners is the fact that they can eavesdrop on the police feeds, like we’re tuning into what our neighbors are doing. Others point out how soothing the sounds meshed with the dispatcher feed can be. However, the site serves as an example of how city sounds are filtered to us. We don’t hear the actual people who the dispatchers talk about, but the stories of their actions. In that sense, what we hear about them is really a narrative of order, chaos, authority, and traffic violations. Who is stepping outside of the lines?
But…can we ever really listen to The City? This is why audio projects such as soundwalks are important, because they make that aural experience multisonoral. The same way we must reject single stories (like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie pointed out in her TED talk) we must also bring to light different soundtracks of the city around us, lest the radio feed of a police dispatcher become the one that stands out.
This brings me to my second concern: what are we actually listening to? What was initially problematic for me was that we don’t actually hear urban sounds. We hear voices talking about citizen activity on the streets. Once you mute the music, what you get are voices narrating what is happening on the street level. But then I realized that I was be limiting what sounds are classified as city sounds. In that sense, youarelistening.to is opening up what it means to listen to cities. The citizens also make sounds; their voices are part of the soundscape of the city.
I’d love to hear from our readers from these different cities, see what their reaction to listening to the transmission is.
By the way: can we get a youarelistening.to/kansascity?
Here is Soul Coughing’s “Screenwriter’s Blues,” whose line “You are listening to Los Angeles” provided inspiration for the title. (via laist.com)
J. Stoever-Ackerman’s recent exploration of the complicated relationship between classical music and social class in America raised some provocative questions for me personally. I am a professional classical musician with a doctorate in voice, as well as the daughter of two working-class white ethnics who became professional intellectuals. My family’s origins, curiously perhaps by today’s standards, did not place classical music out of reach on the far side of the class barrier: my father played in the legendary Hempstead High School Orchestra on Long Island, while my mother, a single teen mom, took herself to the Philharmonic for a Christmas gift every year while she worked in a factory and attended college at night (this was, however, before music instruction was gutted from the public school curriculum in the 1970s and 1980s). As a result, classical music was a very present part of my early life, and, without overstating things too much, I can realistically say that it has helped to form me as a person, and has provided me not only with bread for my body but also, and more importantly, with breath for my soul. I feel like the study and practice of classical music gave me not only my career, but even my life. Coming from this position, then, Stoever-Ackerman’s slighty gulity bemusement at her pleasure in the orchestral concert she attended, and her assertion that “where listening is concerned, resistance and subjection can never be easily separated,” sat uneasily with me.
Stoever-Ackerman’s objections to longhair music are based not only upon class affinity, but also, perhaps unconsciously, in her standpoint as a twenty-first-century American intellectual. As UCLA musicologist Richard Taruskin has noted, it has been au courant since the 1960s for intellectuals to eschew classical music in favor of the various genres of what he calls “commercial music:”
and they often seem oblivious to the very existence of other genres. Of no other art medium is this true. Intellectuals in America distinguish between commercial and “literary” fiction, between commercial and “fine” art, between mass-market and “art” cinema. But the distinction in music is no longer drawn, except by professionals. Nowadays most educated persons maintain a lifelong fealty to the popular groups they embraced as adolescents, and generation gaps between parents and children now manifest themselves musically in contests between rock styles.
If, as has already been discussed extensively at this site, pop and its various genres make up the (only?) legitimate musical repertoires of the American working classes–both white and of color–I believe it’s time for a word from the trenches of musical praxis: this is not necessarily so, nor should it be.
While earning my doctorate at the City University of New York, I taught for two years as a graduate assistant and for another two as an adjunct at two of CUNY’s senior, i.e. four-year, colleges. In the heart of an urban metropolis, I taught studio and class voice, that is to say both individual lessons and singing classes en masse. My students, with very few exceptions, were from the outer-borough working classes, traveling long distances on public transportation to attend college while working and in some cases parenting, and they represented a variety of races and ethnicities, with whites solidly in the minority. Most of my private-lesson students were older than I was, returning students who had been sidetracked by life and various dead-end jobs from finishing their bachelor’s degrees at a more usual age. Since I am a classical singer, I taught everyone the same thing: classical singing. My voice students studied classical musical practice and classical music repertoire not only because I believe that healthy classical technique is the basis of good vocal technique across genres — that is, if you can sing well in the classical style, you can sing anything well — but also because I know, in the depths of my being, that the experience of making classical music is healing and transformative for the person who undertakes it, an experience that should be denied to or refused by no one. In this sense, classical music praxis was, in my studio, a tool for self-transformation, self-empowerment, and self-expression that ignored distinctions of class and race. This might suggest that classical music is in fact a subversive practice for the working classes and people of color, and perhaps it is, though I see it more as a human right.
In teaching these diverse classes, I tried very hard to discern what sort of a person each of my students was, and to choose the right repertoire for each based not only on vocal characteristics but also on everything the student presented to me: his or her ethos, if you will. The truth is that I loved and respected my students, and I felt a heavy responsibility for making their experience as fledgling classical musicians one that would enrich their lives. They were, as I mentioned, from wildly divergent backgrounds. One was the daughter of a famous Puerto Rican bandleader who had discouraged her from a career in music, her true love; she made a living selling gloves and hats from a table outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One was a Haitian Seventh-Day Adventist, a highly intelligent, spinsterish woman who spoke German as well as French, and whose singing revealed hints of a magnificent natural instrument — if only she had been physically and psychically free to the point that she could have accessed it. Another was T., a shy, socially-awkward man in early middle age who worked as a paralegal, and who confided after three lessons that he was a recovering alcoholic. Many of my students, I perceived, were profoundly wounded and heartbroken people. Though occasionally they spoke of their traumas and difficulties, words were not really necessary; the dynamic of the private voice lesson is so transparently revealing, and the rough areas in the voice provide such an accurate mirror of the catches in the soul, that I didn’t need to look hard to grasp their woundedness, if not always the nature of their wounds. This is why, as every classical singer and voice teacher know, tears are a commonplace in the voice studio. And this is why it is so essential that a voice teacher be compassionate. The voice — that intangible, ethereal instrument played by the passage of air over two threads of gristle in the throat — can be not only a diagnostic gauge of the inner singer, but also, ideally, a means of healing for both the singer and her audience.
T. surprised me in our first lesson by bringing in a song he was working on on his own. Occasionally students did this, the song generally being from the Broadway repertoire. T.’s choice, however, was Robert Schumann’s “Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden.” This piece is number 5 of the Op. 24 Liederkreis, a song cycle based on poems from the Buch der Lieder of Heinrich Heine, the greatest poet of German Romanticism (and also a notable Jewish convert to Christianity, who famously declared on his deathbed in Paris: “I know that God will forgive me my sins: c’est son métier“). This was an ambitious choice. I usually started my students on one or more of the shopworn Twenty-Four Italian Songs and Arias from the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. But T.’s German was excellent, and he even directed me in how he wanted me to accompany him in the piano part; he had rather well-formed ideas and opinions about how the piece should sound, one of the hallmarks of a true musician.
“Schöne Wiege” starts off as a gently-rocking lullaby-like song (what we in the biz call a “strophic berceuse”), then turns quickly into a rhapsodic, though brief, through-composed quasi-operatic number (a “scena”), with the off-kilter rhythmic phrases and the melodic angularity typical of Schumann. Its subject, and the subject of the song cycle in which it is the pivot, is that great theme of German Romanticism: unhappy love that forces the wounded lover on a journey which, in some treatments, ends in death or madness. My translation follows:
Beautiful cradle of all my sorrows, beautiful tomb of my repose,
Beautiful city, we must part: “Farewell,” I call to you.
Farewell, you holy threshhold where my beloved wanders;
Farewell, sacred spot where I first saw her.
And had I never seen you, beautiful queen of my heart,
The wretchedness I now endure would never have befallen me.
I did not wish to touch your heart; I did not seek your love –
I wished only to live a quiet life near the place where your breath flutters.
But you yourself drive me from here; your mouth speaks bitter words.
Madness takes hold of my mind, and my heart is sick and sore.
And I drag my weary, weakened limbs away, leaning on my wanderer’s staff,
Until the time I might lay by tired head in some cool, far-off grave.
I was astonished by T.’s innate feeling for this difficult piece, and we quickly came to the point where I felt like I was serving him badly by accompanying him on the piano myself. I hired a student accompanist, an excellent pianist from Sweden, to come to our lessons, paying her out of pocket. Once out from behind the piano, I could work with T. more intensely on his breath and his phrasing. This ushered in one of the most thrilling times I’ve ever had as a teacher. Working on “Schöne Wiege” in the studio with T. and the accompanist, I felt as if we were riding a cresting wave together as three musicians. T. achieved moments in which there was a synergy between his vocal line and the equally important piano part, and when not only the melody and the meaning of the text, but even the sounds of the words themselves created multiple layers of meaning in his performance. Especially stunning was the way that he was able to sing each repetition of “Lebewohl!” (farewell!) differently, drawing one out with rubato, clipping another. I would leave these lessons feeling elated, as if I had finally found what I was meant to do with my life.
T. wanted to audition for the B.M. degree at CUNY, a more prestigious program than the B.A. he was pursuing, so we started working on an audition program. I gave him an Italian piece, a piece by French late-Romantic composer Gabriel Fauré, the aching tenor showpiece “Lonely House” from Kurt Weill’s 1947 American opera Street Scene (often performed by university music departments because of its plethora of ensemble roles), for which Langston Hughes wrote the libretto:
And, finally, “Der Lindenbaum,” the best-known piece from Franz Schubert’s great song-cycle Winterreise. “Der Lindenbaum” (The Linden Tree) also treats the theme of being made to leave home forever, driven on by the unforgettable pain of love gone wrong, and it has become a kind of folk-song in the German-speaking lands:
In one stanza of “Der Lindenbaum,” the narrator describes how, in the course of his journey, the cold wind has blown his hat away, and yet he does not stop. T. mentioned something that I hadn’t considered: that in Europe in the 1820s, a man outdoors without his hat would have been committing an unthinkable social transgression; the fact that the narrator doesn’t turn back for his hat, T. suggested, showed the desperation of his plight, and was a clear foreshadowing of the madness into which he almost willfully descends at the end of the song cycle. I realized that T. was the kind of student I had dreamed of teaching, one who gave serious thought to the meaning of the text and the music, and to the reasons composers might have had for writing as they did.
When the time for T.’s audition came around in the spring, he clutched. I had instructed him to start the audition–at which I was not allowed to be present–with one of his best pieces, the Weill or the Schubert, but he second-guessed the audition committee and decided that they would probably want to hear the Italian piece first. A mistake. He wasn’t admitted, and the following year switched his major from voice to music composition.
Near the end of the school year, I organized a recital for my students. T. was to sing “Lonely House” and “Lindenbaum.” He rushed in just as the recital was starting with an etiolated, sickly-looking man whom I realized was his boyfriend in tow. He told me at the intermission that he almost hadn’t come. His beloved cat was near death, and he was beside himself. He got through his pieces, though he didn’t shine.
This made me think about all the dreadful times in my life when I had kept on singing. There was simply nothing else to do; many times singing had seemed the only thing left to me. In our next lesson, one of our last, I mentioned obliquely some of these occasions in my own life, which included abortion and divorce. An artist, I explained, has to be cool-headed even in the face of great personal suffering. C’est son métier. It’s her job to sublimate her suffering into a balm that might touch those who hear her, and give them the healing that she seeks for herself. Arising out of our nonetheless-shared western cultural heritage, classical music is a gift to us twenty-first century Americans across race and class, and, in some small way, those who practice it can use this gift — the gift of beauty — to transform our own suffering, as well as the suffering of others.
I never saw T. again after that, except once by chance, as I was heading to a pub in Midtown to meet my boyfriend. He still had a CD I lent him, the wonderful Tryout, which features recordings of Kurt Weill singing and playing his own songs in rehearsal for the Broadway shows he wrote.
For a final treat, here’s an excerpt from that CD, Kurt Weill singing a snatch of his famous song “Speak Low” from the 1947 musical “One Touch of Venus,” for which American poet Ogden Nash wrote the lyrics. In Weill’s performance, the great tradition of the German art song — the tradition of “Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden” and “Der Lindenbaum” — meets the race-and-class-fraught American popular music scene; the song became a beloved standard, and was sung by the great jazz triumvirate of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan, among others. Here, Weill’s fragile-sounding vocal delivery and heavy German accent embody the world-weary European composer (Weill was a refugee) delivering himself into the capable and vital hands of a musical culture built by immigrants and former slaves.