An Alternative Pedagogy for the 21st Century Musician

Student group - Fara Enclave (photo by César Alvarez)

In 2008 I was asked to teach a single course in the Music Tech division of the Creative Arts and Technology Department at Bloomfield College called "Digital Audio Engineering 1." I approached the class as a composer, producer and sound artist assuming that most of my students would be primarily interested in figuring out the studio tricks to make their tracks sound radio loud, compressed and commercial. I was right to a certain degree but what I did not expect is that they were hungry for a set of fundamentals around which to build a mature and unorthodox artistic practice. What sets the students in this program apart is that most have not been through traditional high school music programs but arrive at the practice of music making through their home computers. They are an entire crop of computer musicians that are from diverse backgrounds and musical tastes, and have little in common musically with the experimental electronic musicians that for decades have owned the title "computer musician." Home computers are enabling a whole generation of young people to make music without access to traditional musical instruments (much as the turntable did in the 1980s). Now a lot of these musicians are looking for a way to pursue that interest as part of their higher education. These musicians are the future of the music industry.

After seven semesters and 100s of classroom hours at Bloomfield I've started to identify an emergent framework for undergraduate study of "studio" music as a combination of creative and technical practice with historical and cultural study. The music industry is undergoing a cataclysmic transformation right now. and from what I can tell (looking at job postings and course offerings) many music departments at colleges and conservatories are stubbornly resisting the uncomfortable questions that this transformation raises for their curricula and pedagogy. I believe that creative and cultural workers will be highly sought after in the 21st century economy yet many of our music majors are being given a seriously dated education that ill-prepares them for this exciting yet dangerously uncertain field. Furthermore, many musicians are being excluded wholesale from the serious study of music because they lack the traditional pre-requisites (instrumental training, knowledge of jazz or classical music, ability to read music, etc) or because they are interested in popular music. My students have many careers open to them and most will wear several hats in order to collage together a respectable living as an artist. They will be performers, composers, recording artists, engineers (recording, mixing, mastering), sound designers, producers, bloggers, DJs, venue owners, bookers, teachers and live sound engineers. They will work at record labels, game design firms, post-production houses, event companies, marketing firms, radio stations, studios, internet start-ups, and even for sports teams. And their musical training will serve them in all of these roles.

Below I've begun to document some of my observations and classroom experiments in order to start a dialogue about non-conservatory non-traditional undergraduate music education, both to document them for myself and hopefully to initiate a dialogue about the future of the music industry through the lens of some its youngest participants. I've also included a resource list at the bottom of the post.

Here are some of the basic concepts and distinctions that I employ in my classes along with brief explanations:


Occupy Oakland - Eyewitness Account

From friend and mastering engineer in Oakland Myles Boisen:
"I first noticed the constant whine of helicopters at about 4 pm today. Checking the news I learned that the Occupy Oakland camp in downtown Oakland had been cleared by police in the middle of the night, and a series of afternoon protests had been called in the nearby area. With plans in place to go downtown later that night, I searched the internet with a mix of curiosity and anxiety for news of what was happening. A flurry of twitter messages at the www.occupyoakland.org site detailed a few non-violent marches snaking throughout the downtown area, all headed for the disputed encampment that had become known in recent weeks as "Oscar Grant Park". An Oakland teacher's brigade led the march (see photo.) As phrases like "unlawful assembly" "tear gas" and "bring gas masks" began popping up in OWS feeds, I knew I had to head downtown - camera in hand - to see for myself. (more photos after the jump)


Stop the Virgens - Impressions of Karen O's Opera

I am not a reviewer I am a musician. And it was as a musician that I went to see Karen O's new opera "Stop the Virgens" that debuted last night at St. Ann's Warehouse. Anyone who is taking non-mainstream popular music and putting it in a theatrical setting has my attention and I applaud the work for walking that very tricky and unfriendly territory.

The biggest critique that I anticipate hearing about StV is that it isn't in fact an opera. I happen to think that whether or not this is the case has little bearing on its value as a work of performance, but the question still looms. I looked up the word opera after coming home from the performance (which is already 1 point on the board for Karen O) and I found this:

1. a drama set to music and made up of vocal pieces with orchestral accompaniment and orchestral overtures and interludes. (source)

For the most part the piece lives up to this broad definition. For all intents and purposes StV is a staged concept album, but I'm sure no marketing department would ever agree to call it that. So in short: Who cares if it's an opera? For me the music didn't tell the story, but I didn't need it to. The bodies lights and costumes did tell a story in their own fragmented and psychedelic way. But the lack of substantial connective tissue between the narrative and the music is why it really didn't feel much like an opera. But I happen to think music does better in theater as extra-dimensional to the story. So it didn't bother me. The music seemed to draw its own emotional plot in parallel.

Here are some things I noticed while watching...

1. It felt more like a 70 minute live music video than anything else. And isn't the music video the most viable and popular dramatization of music for our time?

2. The piece was about virginity, innocence, being devoured, corrupted, commodified, abused, cannibalized. And then ultimately about drinking the kool-aid. It wasn't offering any help or advice. It was just trying to draw you in and remind you of these traumas.

3. It is no longer enough to make an album. That is too easy and commonplace. A new metric for a musician is the visual and performative language they employ.

4. There were two main characters in this opera: Karen O's voice and Karen O's costumes.

5. The outlandish costumes will be inevitably compared to Lady Gaga and even Bjork. I have nothing else to say about fashion.

6. There were about 30 chorus members (presumably the virgins). They were all young females in chalky white makeup, choppy white wigs and what looked like cut up white graduation gowns. 7 Dancer/Chorus members who writhed and cavorted for most of the piece and then two Dark Queen archetypes who lorded over the "virgens."

7. There was a suprising doo-wop feeling to much of the music which came through when the 30 chorus members were all oohing and ahhing. (there was even a 6/8 ballad)

8. I was struck by how few people I saw taking photos, texting or tweeting. That was what made it really not feel like a rock concert. (this was by decree of the theater)

9. One of the most compelling moments was when Karen O's voice cracked ever so slightly towards the end of the show. This and the curtain call were the only moments where some of her endearing vulnerability peeked out from behind her carefully crafted ice virgin/mother/queen/angel character.

10. I missed Brian Chase's drum set playing. He mostly played tambourine and snare drum.

11. Even though there were close to 50 performers on stage Karen O sang the lead vocal part on every song. This made it really feel like a Karen O concert and not an opera.

12. Karen O's voice was exquisite, the vocal arrangements in the chorus were elegant and the momentary cacophonies were pretty interesting. Most interesting was the beginning when the chorus members are all singing antiphonally. Admittedly I'm a sucker for big groups of singers using their voices as texture and singing off mic.

13. I just read in Scott Miller's history of musical theater that he thinks rock music is too repetitive and lacking in complexity to work well as a conduit for high drama. Perhaps concert music isn't repetitive, distorted and overstimulating enough to reflect the changing architecture of our brains in the information age. There was drama happening in this piece. It was just going on in relationship to its own particular form. If you looked for plot and character where you typically find them in opera or musical theater you might've left sorely disappointed. If you looked for the story in the dusty faces of the chorus members wandering through the audience or in the layered fabrics of the costumes you might find something to hang onto.

14. I'm happy that she took the chance on doing this show even though she might have to bear the slings and arrows of the skeptical. People get mad when you take a great big label like opera and bend it to your will.


Cumberland Gap

I found this song in an old Pete Seeger songbook that belonged to my Dad. I love how the shape of the melody mirrors the topography of a valley. I rewrote some of the words and added a bridge so that it would fit into my musical, which coincidentally is set right near the Cumberland Gap in and around Whythe County, VA.

IMAGE CREDIT: Hunt, S. V. D. (Samuel Valentine), engraver. “Cumberland Gap,” 1872. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-52628


3 2's or AFAR by Mac Wellman (The Devil's Butthole)

I've been collaborating on a piece with Mac Wellman and director Meghan Finn. This has been a wild ride. Part japanese tinged puppet theater, part philosophical absurdist performance art, and then I added the childlike musical theater earnestness.

Devil's Butthole (DEMO) by musicisfreenow

"His script is a meditation on Heidegger’s Dialogue on Language Between a Japanese and an Inquirer. The Japanese philosopher in the dialogue, named Kuki Shūzō, spoke and wrote about iki, the concept of coquetry which influences Japanese culture on many things from architecture to the clothing of geishas. 'It’s basically teasing, like parallel lines that never meet,' Wellman says. 'It’s not about consummating anything, it’s about always maintaining that type of tension.' "
From an article in the Brooklyn Rail about the piece.

The play opens October 6 at Dixon Place.

UPDATE: New York Times Review



Thank you to all the protesters occupying Wall St. right now.

We are a country built on shared sacrifice and civic duty. We are a nation of immigrants. We are a nation which, at our best, thinks flexibly about problems as they happen and works through them with the messy and slow process of democracy. These protests are voicing the myriad arguments for equitable economic reform and against the dismantling of corporate regulation, the dissolution of the social safety net, and the elimination of workers rights.

Our economy is careening off course in part because Wall St. was bailed out without any major rethinking of the 21st century economy and what it will actually take to reinvent our workforce and get people back to work.

We are so connected right now through technology, but seemingly helpless to sustainably reinvigorate our economy. We are not in fact helpless. We can correct the course of our economy through political reform, personal responsibility, and ingenuity. The issues raised by this emerging movement are clear:


Keep Marching. Keep fighting. Keep talking. Keep working and we will change the course of history.