Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Musical Conservatism and Curriculum

Last week I dug out an old box of cassettes and found an early document of my flute playing. What caught my eye was a tape with James Newton’s “Axum” on the B side, and an A side labeled as “Impressions of Europe.” No, it wasn’t a Brubeck album, but rather a live recording from the Ockenburgh campground in the Netherlands from July of 1992. It featured two Dutch guitarists and me and my girlfriend playing flutes. We were on a Eurail tour of Northern Europe for two months, culminating with a week-long flute course in Belgium with Wil Offermans. I distinctly remember one of the Dutch campers calling out to me, “Deutsch?” I said, “no, American,” to which he replied, “you’re a long way from home.” Soon after, the four of us found ourselves jamming on the campsite’s sands (you can occasionally hear the wind blow over the tape recorder from the North Sea.) The set started with a jam on what sounds like Ravel’s “Pavane,” followed by an extended blues jam (with me on blues harp), continued on a progression reminiscent of “Dust in the Wind,” and reached a fever pitch with Herbie Mann’s “Memphis Underground.”

Reliving this experience, twenty years later, made me think about how important it is to encourage students to experiment with and pursue music in ways that they feel closest to. For me jazz and rock vernaculars (especially blues-rock and free jazz styles) were what inspired me to keep making music as a young flutist. Unfortunately, many music students are not encouraged to follow paths outside of defined curriculum. This is especially the case for flute students. Traditional classical repertoire is stressed to the exclusion of jazz, folk styles, or many other forms of music. In light of this, I feel lucky that my teacher at Portland State was accepting of my non-classical flute adventures. On the other hand, I view much of my undergraduate education (as well as some of my graduate work) as having been overburdened with musical conservatism, with most of my credits for graduation falling under a strict, classical cannon paradigm.

I was talking with a friend of mine the other day about how the job description for classical musicians in the twentieth century became synonymous with being an orchestral player and classical chamber musician. Whenever I say I am a musician that plays the flute, most people ask me, “are you in an orchestra?” My friend is a fine classical oboist and, like me, holds a doctorate in music (this means we talk about this kind of stuff way too much). We both agreed that in the distant past classical musicians were much more of the multitasking sort than the austere specialist. Sure, rendering of composers’ works was important for the 18th and 19th century musician, but so was composing, arranging, improvising, teaching, finding financial assistance, and booking one’s own concerts. That sounds strangely similar to how a lot of the modern-day working musicians I know actually make their livings, and it has have very little to do with playing orchestral excerpts perfectly, or analyzing thousands of measures of Mozart’s chord progressions.

On the days that I occasionally view job postings on the Chronicle of Higher Education website, I see this institutional musical conservatism well at work. The majority of postings for flute positions require that applicants have several years of orchestral work under their belts, a documented recital history (of classical music), and recordings of classical music performances. What seems to matter in most job descriptions is that candidates have played repertoire that is largely known and therefore easily judged. Original compositions, improvising, chamber groups that perform original compositions (including jazz), working with artists in other disciplines (dance, technology, etc.), and experience with electronic music, are rarely part of the equation.

I understand that my viewpoint overall in the arts is influenced by my ultra-liberal, New York University education, and those many years I spent riding subways to see or participate in performances that ranged from the daring (my work with Andrew Hill and my musical relationship with Will Redmond), to the ridiculous (dancers, naked with hamsters, or guys with amplified hoses wearing haz-mat suits), but I really imagined in 2012 that academic job descriptions and departmental duties for flutists might be different than they were in 1992.  If the flute is to continue to be an active participant in 21st century music (with musicians able to make a living and find joy in their profession), it needs to be taught from an expanded consciousness of what it means to be a contemporary musician, both in the private lesson studio, and in our educational institutions. The flute (and other traditionally orchestral musical instruments) must not be boxed in by twentieth century musical conservatism. If this trend continues, the flute will continue on its course as an elite hobby, only furthering the glut of classical technicians who graduate from universities and conservatories only to compete for chairs in fewer and fewer financially solvent, well-paying orchestras.