Musical Contagion at Wesleyan

This week Sophie and I had dinner in Middletown and ran into a group of Wesleyan students and parents who were celebrating the end of the semester concert by the Mixolydians at the Memorial Chapel. Their laughter was contagious, and they greeted the two of us with verve. I was reminded of the joyful, adventurous singing that sweeps across our campus on a regular basis.

Speaking of joyful, adventurous music…on Tuesday I had lunch with Mark Slobin and Anthony Braxton, longtime professors of music at Wes. I’ve gotten to know Prof. Slobin over the last few years, and I wonder at his endless curiosity about the viral intersections of music with other forms of cultural production and with local traditions. He has written on music in northern Afghanistan and on klezmer, on Hollywood and on folk music, and lately authored Music at Wesleyan: From Glee Club to Gamelan. Mark is tireless in his efforts to strengthen both study and performance at Wes (and was recently appointed as the Richard K. Winslow Professor of Music).

I hadn’t met Prof. Braxton before, but I have heard him play. His pathbreaking work as a soloist, composer and teacher has been attracting audiences and students for decades. He is devoted to Wesleyan, and we spoke about the special “radiance” of the creative students who come to school here. Prof. Braxton’s energy and dedication to his craft are legendary, and I find deeply admirable his willingness to go beyond conventional musical borders. If you haven’t heard him play, you might just check out these two Youtube videos for a taste of what Anthony Braxton has to offer.

One of the joys of my job is getting together with faculty who are enlivened by the work they do. It is contagious for students…and for presidents, too!

Bringing the Sounds of the World to Wesleyan

Wesleyan has long been a center for ethnomusicology at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Many think that the very idea of “world music” began here in Middletown, and our students and faculty have been active participants in playing and doing research on music from all over the world. When I was a student, Javanese Gamelan and African Drumming were very popular among my friends, and it has been wonderful to see how these programs remain vital parts of our campus culture. Over Homecoming/Family Weekend, the Wesleyan Taiko drummers were out in force at the soccer game — a wonderful example of the integrated nature of arts and athletics here at Wes.

This weekend Wesleyan hosts the 34th annual Navaratri Festival. This may be the largest gathering of Indian arts and music outside the subcontinent. There will be world class players, singers and dancers performing from Thursday through Sunday, with concerts by students as well as by some of the great emerging artists in India.

When I traveled in India last year, I heard that a video of some of our students performing South Indian music had been seen by tens of thousands of viewers there. Someone asked me how it was possible that these students in Middletown CT had mastered the intricate melodies and rhythms of this music? Had they really been studying in India, I was asked?

In Mark Slobin’s recent book on the history of the Wesleyan music program, he shows how the infusion of world music and avant garde Western music transformed our curriculum and our culture. This year’s Navaratri Festival continues the tradition with a stirring array of performances in a variety of genres. There’s even a dance party Saturday afternoon at 2 pm in the World Music Hall!

Epicenter of “Brooklyn Surrealist Pop”

I have often marveled at the extraordinary musical adventures offered by the Wesleyan campus. Having helped inaugurate the field of ethnomusicology, Wes has been a home for the most traditional and the most avant-garde musicians for decades. Gamelan concerts are packed, and the environmental sound experiments from students and faculty push the boundaries of how we listen to and discern the sounds around us. Senior theses might involve a rock band performance at which professors expected to give grades can’t help moving their feet and smiling broadly.

Just now I read a link from the Village Voice that declares Wesleyan the “epicenter of Brooklyn surrealist pop.” You know about MGMT, but there’s also Amazing Baby, Das Racist, and Boy Crisis. Wesleyan has clearly been both a home to and a launching pad for creative musicians for decades now. This is a vibrant part of our student culture.

Check out the article at: http://www.villagevoice.com/2009-08-04/music/the-wesleyan-mafia-mgmt-boy-crisis-amazing-baby/

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Musical Competition — Rock On!

Dean Louise Brown tells me that there will be a great musical competition between classes on February 19. Wesleyan has been known for a long time as the “singing college of New England,” and more recently as the fertile soil for adventuous rock bands to grow in. I’m told the acoustics in the bathrooms at West College are particularly good…

So, submit your musical entry and participate in what should be a great evening. The music will be judged by Rob Rosenthal, Barry Chernoff and Sarah Lazare, and there will be prizes! The promised (threatened) opening act is “Lou and the Blues,” and I may join in to see if my harp lessons have worked….

A more detailed description of all this can be found on the entry form at:  www.wesleyan.edu/deans/music.pdf.

Come make some music. Entries are due on Feb 12, so get busy.

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Winter’s Spring Attractions

Although the temperature was below 20 degrees this morning when I walked to my office, what we call the spring semester is now fully underway. The campus is still blanketed in white, but the icy New England weather makes the snowy landscape deceptively slippery.

One of the most exciting bits of news we had over break was the extraordinary number of applications we’ve received for next year. More than 10,000 students have asked for a place in the class of 2013, a surge of well over 20% from last year. As many of you know, our Early Decision Applications were up over 30%, and we’ve now learned than most of our peer institutions are not seeing anything like this spike in interest. It’s a lot more work for the tireless group in the Admissions Office, but the fact that more and more people are hearing about the great things going on at Wesleyan is very good news indeed.

As I look around at the amazing array of courses offered this term, I can well understand why so many want a crack at a Wesleyan education. Here are just a few examples I’ve taken from the catalogue:

The 60s: Henry Abelove
This course will focus on the 1960’s in the United States. Topics to be considered will include: the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the Goldwater conservative movement, gay liberation, second-wave feminism, pop art, the New York School poets, Judson School dance, the new journalism, tendencies and developments within American Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism, student movements, the Black Power movement, the rise of Asian American and Latino/a cultural nationalisms, electoral politics, environmentalism, Phyllis Schlafly and the Eagle Forum, the Cuban missile crisis, the counter-culture.

Developmental Neurobiology: Jan Naegele
Near the top of the list of unsolved mysteries in biology is the enigma of how the brain constructs itself. Here is an organ that can make us feel happy, sad, amused, and in love. It responds to light, touch, and sound; it learns; it organizes movements; it controls bodily functions. An understanding of how this structure is constructed during embryonic and postnatal development has begun to emerge from molecular-genetic, cellular, and physiological studies. In this course, we will discuss some of the important events in building the brain and explore the role of genes and the environment in shaping the brain. With each topic in this journey, we will ask what the roles of genes and the environment are in forming the nervous system. We will also discuss developmental disorders resulting from developmental processes that have gone astray.

Zombies as Other from Haiti to Hollywood: Liza McAlister
The Afro-Creole religion of the Haitian majority is a complex system of inherited roles and rituals that Afro-Creole people remembered and created during and after plantation slavery. Called “serving the spirits,” or “Vodou,” this religion and cultural system continues as a spiritual method and family obligation in Haiti and its diaspora, and draws constantly on new symbols and ideas. A small part of Vodou mythology involves the zonbi: a part of the soul captured and forced to work. Vodou, and especially the zonbi, has also captured the imagination of Hollywood and television, and the entertainment industry has produced numerous films and television episodes, and now computer games, with “Zombie” themes. …What constitutes the thought and practice of Haitian zonbi? How is the Zombie represented in American media?…

Of course, I could list dozens of other classes from various parts of the curriculum that I would love to take, or others that are rather intimidating.  From the most traditional to the most experimental, you can find it all. I make my own small contribution to this list. After giving a seminar on photography and philosophy in the fall, this term I have my large class, The Past on Film.

A small selection of classes and lectures from Wesleyan can now be found on iTunes. If you look at the iTunes University section of the store, you can search for Wesleyan and see our first group of lectures (all free downloads). We are adding more regularly, so please check back often.

Before long on iTunes and on Wesleyan’s YouTube site you will also be able to find many student performances featured along with faculty presentations. There are auditions going on almost every night on campus at the beginning of the semester. Dance, music and theater are gearing up for performances that will be perfected before finals week. Much to look forward to as winter turns to spring!

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Ives, Ives, Ives!

When Wesleyan’s Professor of Music Neely Bruce told me about his plan to perform all 185 songs of Charles Ives over the last weekend of January 09, I thought he was kidding. Silly me. Neely Bruce doesn’t kid about music, unless, that is, the music calls for a wink and a grin.

Today through Sunday Neely and and a fine group of musicians and scholars will be exploring the vocal works of Charles Ives, that enigmatic yet quintessentially American composer. Ives seemed afraid of nothing in the world of sound, and he drew on it all to make challenging, delightful and thoughtful song. Tonight, Thursday January 29 at 8:00 pm in the Chapel, Kyle Gann will give the keynote address: “Must a Song Always be a Song?”

Much music will be made through Sunday. Check out the website: http://www.ivesvocalmarathon.com/

Sing! Sing! Sing!

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Happy Frenzy

As we move into the final days of the semester, the level of activities on campus steps up to an even higher level of intensity. On Friday night after a great introduction to Skull and Serpent, I visited with the Wesleyan Christian Fellowship, which was holding an evening celebration to honor its seniors. WCF has grown over the years, and it is engaged in a variety of civic and spiritual activities. The seniors have clearly made the most of their Wesleyan years, and they have contributed mightily to our campus culture.

On Friday night I also had the chance to hear the thesis project of Zach Fried, whose rock band played at Eclectic. This was my first Eclectic visit this term, and it was amazing. The music was raucous and alive, and the crowd was really into it. I think Zach’s band is opening for Spring Fling. A parent came up to me to say, “That’s my boy playing guitar in his underwear. The one with the tattoo!” While the band was cooking at Eclectic, there were other fine musicians doing their thing all over campus. Here’s how Wesleyan parent Myra Berkowitz described it:

I was lucky enough to visit my daughter this weekend and attended the final concert of the Wesleyan Concert Choir and Wesleyan Orchestra on Friday night. What a special musical event–and congratulations to all the families and students who participated! The concert featured the three winners of the annual concerto competition at Wesleyan, who soloed in the first movements of three different pieces. These students performed beautifully, with great musicality, personality, feeling, and skill, backed by a wonderful orchestral sound. It was a delightful evening.

Even more astonishingly, I witnessed myriads of students busily attending and participating in many performances of all kinds–theater, dance, klezmer, a capella, you name it, this all in the context of the busy year-end schedule of papers, exams, presentations, etc. I’m so impressed by many students’ ability to balance their own academic work, preparation for performing, and attendance/support of their friends’ events. It seems like a happy frenzy (versus the frantic feeling I know I experienced at those times in my past). One common theme might be…lack of sleep.

While everyone can’t do everything all the time, it’s certainly great to see the rich variety that Wes students have available, even at this crunch-time of the semester.

While all this art activity was going on, the Wesleyan Women’s Softball team was making a great run to the NESCAC finals (winning three games on Saturday!), and track meets, baseball and lacrosse games, and regattas saw Wes athletes competing with all their hearts. After watching dance classes yesterday afternoon and hearing the beat of drums from the World Music Hall at night, I was reminded again of how exciting and diverse this place truly is. Happy frenzy indeed!

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Dance, Democracy and Devoted Service

As we move into the final week or so of classes, the pace of work has picked up markedly. Among the many great performances that come toward the end of the semester, this weekend we were able to attend the faculty dance concert. Dance has always been a key part of the arts at Wesleyan, and this weekend I was reminded of why that’s the case. I was particularly struck by the boundary-crossing nature of the work presented. Nicole Stanton performed a piece, “Castle of My Skin,” in collaboration with Gina Ulysse (what a voice!), a recently tenured professor in Anthropology and African American Studies. And Katja Kolcio worked with composer Julian Kytasty to create a “living archive” of Ukrainian music and dance. Katja’s students performed the piece with dynamism and sensitivity. The creative collaboration of teachers and students is one of the most exciting aspects of a Wesleyan education.

Another exciting aspect of the Wesleyan experience is the practice of politics. Our student chapter of the Roosevelt Institution will be holding a conference on that subject on Saturday, May 3. The Roosevelt Institution challenges chapters to consider “how to restore government of the people, and for the people.” How can students play a role in creating a more effective and equitable democratic political practice? There will be a series of workshops on Saturday, and I am looking forward to hearing Richard Berke, Assistant Managing Editor at the New York Times, close out the afternoon.

On Tuesday of this week there will be a reception to honor of the service of Peter Patton to Wesleyan. Peter, a professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, has worked in various administrative capacities for many years at Wesleyan. As I look back over the history of the last decade or so, I can see that whenever there was a strong need for a capable, sensitive leader, Wesleyan turned to Peter. Whether it was to be the Dean of the College, or, to help create the Green Street Art Center, to direct the improvements to the central part of the campus (and the construction of the Usdan University Center), or, more recently, to oversee athletics and public safety, the university was able to enlist Peter’s vision and hard work. Over the years of administrative service, Peter continued to teach his science classes, and our reception this week in no way signals his retirement. On the contrary, Peter will now devote his energies full time to teaching and research. A grateful university community will express our gratitude to Peter at reception in his honor this Tuesday, April 29, from 3:30 to 5:00 in Beckham Hall.

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Multi-Sensory Wes Weekend

 

At the end of the week I was privileged to hear an established scholar and an undergraduate full of enormous promise. The distinguished sociologist Richard Madsen was on campus to help the Freeman Center for East Asian Studies celebrate its 33rd anniversary. He gave an interesting lecture on contemporary religious movements in China, with special consideration given to their connection to economic growth and social mobility. The Freeman Center was packed with students and faculty. The next day I went to Hartford to hear Wesleyan senior Noah Hutton talk about a contemporary art exhibition he and some other students of John Paoletti’s had curated at the Wadsworth Atheneum. Noah gave a lucid and thoughtful description of some very challenging works. We’d met before because he is also a gifted jazz musician who plays at different Wes events.

Busted RosesThis has been an exceptionally busy weekend on the Wesleyan campus. Friday night started off with a graduate students’ retreat, at which I just stopped by to escort one of the main speakers, Joshua Boger ’73 (a Wesleyan trustee, scientist and CEO of Vertex Pharmaceuticals). Later that night Kari and I went to hear the Wesleyan-based geezer rock band, BUSTED ROSES, which was playing down at La Boca on Main Street. Dean Louise Brown was in great voice, and the rest of the band was cookin’!!

After a week sitting behind desks, I decided to spend as much of Saturday as possible out of doors. This meant that I would miss Social Justice Day, which the WSA had organized for Saturday. The program looked strong, and I hope those who chose to attend found it worthwhile. Out on the fields there were plenty of athletic contests at which one could cheer on the red and black. The men’s baseball team split an exciting double-header against Amherst. After watching Wes mount a great comeback rally in game one, I saw the mighty men’s lacrosse team have a wild second half against a tough Bowdoin squad. It became a rout. Sophie and I headed up to watch the Cardinal women overwhelm the softball team from Hamilton. It was cold out there on Long Lane, but watching softball made me feel that spring must be on the way.

While I was enjoying the sunshine and cheering on the home teams, a group of scholars were gathered together to consider multi-sensory art experiences and their history. Smith College and Wesleyan organized this art history conference with some leading scholars from around the country. I was lucky enough at the end of the day to hear Professor Katherine Kuenzli discuss her exhibition on Wagner and the visual arts, currently on display at the Davison Art Center. It’s a fine example of how our print collection can support and enhance innovative scholarship.

Last night Kari and I had a delightful dinner with some colleagues and Hayden White, who had been a teacher of mine some thirty years ago here at Wesleyan. Hayden is the most important philosopher of history in the United States, and one of the most original thinkers in the humanities that I have ever encountered. I was so pleased to be able to tell my former teacher that the university he remembered as a hotbed of new ideas and deep community was still inspiring great work in a context that is challenging yet deeply humane.

This week I have office hours Monday at 4 p.m. Students who don’t want to wait should call extension 3500 to sign up for a time.

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Sounds of Early Semester

It was great to be back in the classroom this week, although the word “classroom” hardly does justice to the state-of-the-art facility that is the Goldsmith Family Cinema. I have taught “The Past on Film” for many years, but never with the support of a projection and sound system that makes the viewing experience as compelling as possible. There were about 250 students in attendance, and the film we watched (Night and Fog) was as intense as I remember it being the first time I saw it 35 years ago. The sound system is extraordinary, bringing the viewers deep into the work. The students made great comments and asked good questions. I am looking forward to Tuesday mornings! (And remember: open office hours for students February 4, between 4:00 pm and 5:30 pm. I’ll be scheduling this every other week afterwards.)

The Film Studies Department is one of the jewels of the university. The new facility and the archive are an enormous resource for the exploration of the movies, and each week a student board has chosen a group of films that are open to the entire campus. The choices are thoughtful, eclectic, and fun. I only wish I could go more often.

For generations, Wesleyan was known as the “Singing College of New England.” Apparently, students would burst into song whenever Mrs. Butterfield (whose husband Vic was president from 1942-1967) would enter a room. The musicality of our school remains vibrant. Professor Mark Slobin recently sent me an article recounting the development of world music and ethnomusicology at Wesleyan over the last 40 years or so. This week we welcomed a few hundred Connecticut area alumni on campus, and after I asked them to support our financial aid initiatives, we all joined in singing the old college songs. May the singing increase generosity for scholarships! A cappella groups on campus (there are many), sing with spirit and precision on all kinds of celebratory occasions. This week we had a celebration of Martin Luther King. After listening to talks Dr. King gave at Wes, Bernice Reagon (of Sweet Honey in the Rock fame) delivered a singing and talking lecture that filled the chapel with joyful, hopeful sounds. A group of women faculty and staff known as the Roadies led the group in a rousing spiritual.

But for me, the most powerful music I’ve heard thus far were when the Wesleyan Spirits, a group of young men who usually sing with infectious, antic joy, brought their music to the memorial service for Chase Parr. Chase herself was a singer, and the Spirits paid her tribute with dignity and love. I will long remember how their voices captured our community’s sorrow and affection in song, and how they transformed that sadness into something else – a music we could share.

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