Sunday, September 7, 2014

Music and Memory, Back to School Edition: Artificial Pearls

The music department at the community college where I teach moved to a new building over the summer. This is a good thing, even an excellent thing, since, up until now, the music department has been housed in a building that was apparently designed as a bomb shelter. All the classrooms in the old building were in the basement, and all their carpets were mildewed; I stopped reminding my students not to bring drinks to class, because the odor of stale spilled coffee was a marked improvement over what it could have been. The large number of linoleum tiles missing from the ceiling gave it the appearance of a menacingly-grinning, upside-down clown-smile, and the choir couldn't rehearse in the building, because so many of its members were stricken with mold-induced asthma attacks during practice.

Last week, before the semester began, we music-department adjuncts (who make up, incidentally, around eighty percent of the music faculty) converged upon the new building to clean it up and make it ready. It was a beautiful late-summer day, and my heart did strange things when I stepped outside the cinder-block building to make a phone call. The Soviet-bunker-style campus is nestled in a depression in the achingly-green northern foothills of the Appalachian mountains, hills that look so gentle, so kindly somehow. I thought about Wallace Stevens's "Anecdote of the Jar," about how the jar on the hill in Tennessee "made the slovenly wilderness/Surround that hill," and how, here, the anecdote was turned upside down: how here the hills surround the makeshift slovenliness of the college, but the artifice of man does not add order to or impose mastery upon those surrounding hills. I thought, too, of Emerson noting that

The God who made New Hampshire
Taunted the lofty land
With little men.

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I've been asked to give a paper at a conference being held in honor of my dissertation advisor, an important musicologist now retired after many years of teaching, an Italian-American woman from Brooklyn with whom I became, during the time we worked together, somewhat uncomfortably enmeshed in a sort of artificial mother-daughter relationship. She remarked to a friend at my wedding that she hoped I wasn't going to take my husband's name, because I had worked so hard to build a scholarly reputation under my own (Italian) name. When my dissertation voice recital was approaching, she, apparently worried over what I would wear, confronted me awkwardly in the hallway of the university, where she was a full professor and I an adjunct, and anxiously enquired how I was planning to do my hair. When my first son was born, she said something I wasn't sure how to interpret at the time about how some people thought you should change your life for your children, and others thought you should fit your children into the life you already had; to this day, I don't know which camp she, a mother as well as a scholar, fell into. I still worry that I'm disappointing her with my hair, my life, and my scholarship, and I still don't know what my paper in her honor is going to be about. But I felt like hanging my head when I saw the website for the conference, and saw my name (the version of it that's trotted out for performance and publication purposes, Italian maiden name first, followed by married name) and my affiliation (northern-Appalachian-county community college) next to the names of well-known musicologists who teach at Case Western, The City University of New York Graduate Center, Harvard, and Yale. I recalled how I wanted to be something great, to do something important, and yet, here I am.

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Someone once said that teaching is casting artificial pearls before real swine, which, to the extent that it's true, does not make the thrower of pearls any less swinish than his intended audience. How am I supposed to do this job -- to teach music to my students at northern-Appalachian-county community college? I want to do it, I burn to do it, because, as William Carlos Williams wrote (about poetry, though the same can be said about music):

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die every day
for lack
of what is found there.

I turned on the radio the other day while driving through my ramshackle post-industrial town, and I heard the adagio movement of a piece I know well, Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 27 in B-flat Major. I know it well because, when I was seven or eight years old, my mother had an LP of it that I would play over and over again. We had bought it while out grocery shopping; I had seen a display near the exit of LPs on sale for something like forty-nine cents, and this one had an image on the cover of one of Marc Chagall's designs for The Magic Flute -- Papageno, the birdcatcher -- though I didn't know this at the time. I begged my mother to get it. While driving the other day, I found that, though I hadn't heard the piece for years, I could sing every note of the piano solo and the melodic orchestral line. I noticed that the performance on the radio was actually played on the fortepiano, a forerunner of the modern piano, and that, delightfully, the soloist interpolated a fragment of Mozart's song "Komm, lieber Mai" into the cadenza in the coda of the last movement.
While singing along to the radio, I saw a shabby-looking, morbidly obese man with dirty legs riding in a self-propelled wheelchair in the oncoming lane. I thought about my mother's LP. Where would I be, who would I be, if my mother had not had it? Classical music is not salvific by any means (I remind myself), but, for me, it's always been anodyne, palliative, hallucinogen, and opiate all in one. It dulls pain, it comforts, it heals, it confers vision. Without it, I would be a miserable worm of a person, even more than I am now. And I wonder if this is true for everyone: if everyone, had he had access to my mother's record collection, would be a better person.

I thought about my wonderful voice teacher and mentor, A.B., who grew up, as it happens, in rural Tennessee. His parents were mountain people; his father was a self-taught singer who worked for a biscuit-flour company. The flour company would send out a string band to drive around the rural counties in a flatbed truck, from which they would play music, and then give a baking demonstration with a portable oven. A.B. told me about how, as a child, he was given a recording of the Nutcracker on 78s, and he listened to it until the records, as he put it, literally dissolved. He later found a recording of La Bohème at the public library, and played it, too, into the ground, memorizing every word and note of Rodolfo's Act I aria, but -- as he found when he got to conservatory -- memorizing it wrong, because the record had a skip in it that obliterated part of one measure.

Classical music, discovered as a child, taught me how to live, how to breathe. It did the same for A.B. I wonder if it might do the same one day for one of my students. I think of a recurring dream I've had for years, in which I am walking certain streets in New York that I know as well as I know the Mozart Piano Concert no. 27, but finding them slightly and ineffably altered, and looking for something as I walk -- something that, while I can't quite remember what it is, I know to be the key to everything. There's a beautiful children's book by Barbara Helen Berger called Grandfather Twilight, in which the twilight is personified as an old man who each night takes a pearl from an endless strand and walks with it to the sea, while the pearl grows larger and larger, eventually becoming the moon. I hope that the artificial pearls I offer to my students this semester -- not out of perversity, but because they're all I've got -- might be able to change into something real and beautiful for them, too.


Anne Kennedy said...

When I was very small, in Africa, we had only a few cassette tapes--Classical guitar, and Shaharazad, and the Lark in the Clear Air. And then, when I was a teenager, and we had a little CD player run through the solar power charged car batteries. Carefully preserved recordings of Mozart's Requiem, and Von Williams and a few others. And yes, they hold body and soul together.

Pentimento said...

Oh, I love this story.

I read that when Dame Nellie Melba toured southern Africa at the turn of the 20th century, at one stop the Zulu audience sang "Home, Sweet Home" to her, in her honor. It must have been beautiful.

GretchenJoanna said...

I will be musing on that pearls/swine quote for a long time, I think.
It speaks of the love of our Father that He gave you this gift of music...and how wonderful that you are able to offer it to your students.

Enbrethiliel said...


Your story about your dissertation adviser reminds me of a similar relationship I had with an old family friend. But my mentor was a lot pushier and more direct: when I finally disappointed her (which didn't take long, people's high expectations of me making me prefer to bomb badly than to achieve only 99.99%), I knew it.

What I had liked about the short golden period of her favor was knowing that someone believed in me, when most other people seemed not to. But at the same time, I chafed under her vision of what my life should be. It took me a long while after our falling out to be able to answer directly when people asked me what I do for a living. Even now, I have to consciously remind myself that if they, like her, think my perfectly decent job is "beneath me," that's not my problem.

The twist is that at the moment, I'm considering going back to teaching--something I had thought I would never do again. My first teaching experience had been like casting pearls (both real and artificial) before the entire cast of Animal Farm; my main takeaway was a sense of the absurdity of it all and the ultimate futility of my actions. But I keep running into things like Mrs. Darwin's post about reading Jane Eyre for the first time with her daughters, in which she writes about the safe space she has created for them to experience what it is like to deal with some terrible examples of humanity, and I remember old ideals that I hadn't even realised I had forgotten. I don't know if I will ever be able to do, in a classroom setting, what she is doing in her home . . . but I suddenly long so much to try.

Oh, by the way, I'm studying German these days! I'm still very much a beginner, but I think I can definitely get more out of Komm, Lieber Mai now than I would have been able to last year. =)

Pentimento said...

It's good to hear from you both, GretchenJoanna and Enbrethiliel. I honestly don't know how much good I do my students, and I'm painfully conscious every day that I'm not only casting artificial pearls, but that I have poor aim and throw like a girl. I think a lot of teaching is putting your game face on and faking it. It certainly is for me.