Let the Music Play as Classes End

On this last day of classes, the campus is really singing. Tonight the Wesleyan Spirits will hold their annual Fall Jam in Memorial Chapel. The concert begins at 8 p.m.  Rumor has it that some alumni spirits may float in…

If a cappella isn’t your thing, but you like to move your feet, you may want to check out Contra Dance in Beckham Hall — also at 8 p.m. And if you like to watch other people move their feet, there’s the Dance Department’s Winter Concert in the CFA Theater (also at 8).

At 9 p.m. in the World Music Hall, students of David Behrman, visiting assistant professor of music, will be performing their new compositions. Professor Behrman has been making experimental musical for more than 40 years, and he has inspired students throughout that time.

Finally, tonight (9-12 p.m.) is the last Late Night Music of the Week for the Semester! Featuring….Thread Count  Here’s what the organizers say:

ThreadCount is Wesleyan’s premier R&B Fusion Band. Comprised of your favorite jammers on campus, ThreadCount has everything you need for a fun and funkadelic night. Come out and enjoy the vibes as we perform originals and covers spanning Rock&Roll, Rap, R&B, Soul and Jazzy influences. You don’t want to miss this!

Tonight, Friday December 5! 9 p.m. – midnight West Dining Bay, Usdan

Musical catharsis before reading and finals week!



Sam Friedman and Friends Making Beautiful Music

Had the great pleasure today to hear Sam Friedman’s ’13 concert, “Just Breathe” at Russell House. Sam was joined by Howe Pearson ’12, Derek Frank ’15, Zack Rosen ’11 and vocalist Jackie Soro ’14 (Sam Wagner, who hung out here without picking up a diploma, joined on drums). From blues to more experimental polyrhythms, Sam led a magical hour of music.


Singer Jackie Soro '14
Singer Jackie Soro ’14

I first met Sam when he played piano at our holiday parties in the President’s House. His astonishing senior recital was a display of harmonica virtuosity and musical imagination. These were on display today. His teacher (and wonderful jazz musician) Noah Baerman wrote, “Wesleyan isn’t thought of as a place to get an undergraduate education that directly relates to a performance career in music. However, the resources are vast for someone with the right mix of discipline and broad-mindedness. The poster-boy for this in recent years is Sam Friedman, a multi-instrumentalist and multi-genre powerhouse.”

From now until the end of the semester there will be several opportunities to hear and watch amazing performances. I can’t write about most of them, but I am so glad they are happening.


Sam Friedman '13 breathes music
Sam Friedman ’13 breathes music
Sam Friedman '13 plays the blues
Sam Friedman ’13 plays the blues

Music Will Set You Free — MASH and a review

Friday, September 5 is Wesleyan’s music festival, The Mash. Student performers and bands, with some faculty and staff also pitching in, will be taking to the stages near Olin Library, in front of North College, and in the Butterfield Courtyards from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. A final stage on Andrus Field has food and even more music from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. I’ll be playing keyboards with some friends in the Smokin Lillies (go Dean Brown!) at 2 p.m. near the library. The schedule is here.

This summer I had the great pleasure of reviewing Greil Marcus’ The History of Rock ‘n Roll in Ten Songs. I just learned that Mr. Marcus had wanted to go to Wesleyan back in the day but fate (and the Admissions Office) conspired to send him to UC Berkeley. The rest is history.

I’m cross-posting the review from the San Francisco Chronicle.


"The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs," by Greil Marcus / ONLINE_YES

Greil Marcus writes about music as if his life depended on it. Maybe it does, and as you read “The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs,” it may feel like yours does, too. I bet you’ll want to interrupt your reading of this book to listen to Etta James, the Five Satins, Buddy Holly, Joy Division, the Beatles, Cyndi Lauper or Robert Johnson. You’ll then go back to the book and remember when music made you recognize that it was time to change your life, or when it simply brought you such pleasure, such joy, you thought your heart was on fire.

Marcus has told rock ’n’ roll histories many times in his distinguished career. In this short, wonderfully alive book, he eschews the straight arrow of chronology and instead wants to “feel one’s way through the music as a field of expression, and as a web of affinities.” For Marcus, “rock ’n’ roll may be more than anything a continuum of associations, a drama of direct and spectral connections between songs and performers.” He’s not that interested in what songwriters said they intended, or what singers and other musicians thought they were doing in studios or onstage. Instead, he is interested in how music comes alive and reverberates in different times and places, creating meanings that radiate into the future while also changing the ways we imagine the past. Marcus’ historical moments have the intensities of a great song, coming together in ways that are both satisfying and appetizing.

Marcus’s 10 songs are anything but obvious: “Shake Some Action,” “Transmission,” “In the Still of the Night,” “All I Could Do Was Cry,” “Crying, Waiting, Hoping,” “Money (That’s What I Want),” “Money Changes Everything,” “This Magic Moment,” “Guitar Drag,” “To Know Him is to Love Him.” The book even has what the author calls an “instrumental break.” Later performances of songs reveal the truths of earlier ones; the future sometimes seems, according to the epistemology of Neil Young, to cause the past.

Marcus is looking for moments “when something appears as if out of nowhere, when a work of art carries within itself the thrill of invention, of discovery.” Or as the Who’s Pete Townshend put it: “It’s the bloody explosion. …. It’s the event. That’s what rock and roll is.” What seemed impossible before now seems inevitable.

After reading Marcus, listening to Etta James and Beyoncé singing their versions of “All I Could Do Was Cry” becomes revelatory, as it was for him. “You could imagine, as you listened, that as the singer changed the song, the song changed the singer, and you could imagine that both would change you. Nothing would be left the same.” Marcus explores how James’ singing became utterly devastating, with the first words of the song not really being sung as much as “let out, stones hidden in her lungs for twenty years.” “James was twenty-two; she could have been sixty, or have lived a dozen lives without reaching twenty-three and remembered all of them.”

What a different path led Beyoncé to “All I Could Do Was Cry.” Marcus is no great fan of the singer who has become a brand, but he can’t help being bowled over by her performance of the song as she portrayed James in the film “Cadillac Man” — a rendition so intensely powerful that it “can make the rest of her career seem like a cheat.” Or, as Marcus says of the great Arlene Smith, Beyoncé went into that ballad “like a maiden sacrificing herself to volcano gods.”

Marcus wants to reawaken in his readers the capacity for surprise, or an intense anticipation that doesn’t diminish our ability to register something completely new. This was the climate the Beatles inhabited and permanently changed in 1967, as did Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, “even the Beach Boys.” This climate change is re-created in each of the songs Marcus discusses.

It was that sense of anticipation commingled with surprise that Marcus remembers hearing in records like the Beatles version of “Money (That’s What I Want).” As a kid in San Francisco, listening to the song over and over again, Lennon’s singing “so full of hysteria you can see the words bursting into flames as they leave his mouth,” Marcus began to understand that the song is “about nothing but freedom.” Or, as he writes about “Money Changes Everything”: “The story we’re telling is about imprisonment, but the music we’re making is about freedom, the tiny moments of freedom you steal from a life you don’t own, that doesn’t belong to you, that you have to live.”

And that’s the thread that runs through Marcus’ history, the thread of a promise of, and even an anticipation of, freedom. Writing of “This Magic Moment,” he notes: “By 1959 it was the ruling question of national life: would America live up to its promises, or deny that they had ever been made.” The history of rock ’n’ roll makes it impossible to deny the fact of these promises, even as it also reminds us that outside of our songs, they have yet to be fulfilled.

Marcus writes “unsatisfied histories” because he tells tales that remind us of what we have yet to do. The point is not to chastise. Instead, he wants his readers to do what his musicians have done: draw on “whatever new social energies and new ideas are in the air — energies and ideas that are sparking the artist … to make greater demands on life than he or she has ever made before.” That’s what Greil Marcus has done in his potent, inspiring book.


The History

of Rock ’n’ Roll

in Ten Songs

By Greil Marcus

(Yale University Press;

307 pages; $28)


Music, Theater, Athletics This Weekend!

This weekend the senior theses shows keep coming. I missed the opening this week because of NESCAC meetings, but I’m eager to see the work of the studio art seniors at the Zilkha Gallery (up through Saturday). There are recitals (e.g., Simon Riker’s ’14 musical in Beckham, Jeffrey Berman ’14 and Molly Balsam ’14 in the CFA) and plays (Lily Whitsitt ’06 production of Vatzlav), and I hear a rumor about a great musical in the 92 Theater. And I’m sure there’s more!!

There’s also plenty of sports action. The baseball team has been on a tear. Last weekend there was a very exciting sweep of Middlebury, and this weekend the Williams team comes to town on Friday afternoon. The softball team has been lead by pitching ace Su Pardo ’16, who was named Player of the Week by NESCAC after heroic efforts. In track, Kiley Kennedy ’16 has continued her record setting ways in pole-vaulting, while Sierra Livious ’14 set a school record in the hammer throw. The Women’s lacrosse team is on the road this weekend, and they are getting stronger as the season progresses. The men’s lacrosse team has excelled, and they defend their first-place record this weekend against Bowdoin. The mighty crew teams will be up at Tufts, showing how pulling together really works.

It’s such a busy time of year, and I know I haven’t listed anything like a full report on goings on. But let’s cheer on our Cardinal mates wherever we find them: on the fields, stages, galleries or vaulting with a pole!

And congratulations to all those thesis writers who finished up today. THESISWHY!


Theater and Music Theses Enliven the Campus

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing one of the many fine student productions presented by the Theater Department at the Patricelli ’92 Theater. Claire Whitehouse ’14 adapted Matilde Mellibovsky’s Circle of Love Over Death and created A La Ronda, a play that focuses on the Madres de Plaza de Mayo. Claire spent months in Argentina and was deeply impressed by the women who refused to forget “the disappeared,” and showed amazing resilience and courage in their struggle for social justice. The ensemble (Connie Des Marais ’17, Helen Handelman ’16, Grace Herman-Holland ’15, Aileen Lambert ’16, and Dominique Moore ’14) was terrific in this moving portrait of the will-to-remember and the effort to turn individual mourning into collective action. The faculty, Stage Manager (Alma Sanchez-Eppler ’14 — who recently presented her own production) and production team must be very proud. Bravo to all! The play continues through Saturday night… And stay tuned for great thesis theater through the rest of the semester.

Nathan Repasz ’14 will be giving a recital tonight at 7 pm as part of his senior thesis. Drums will be at the core of the concert. Throughout the semester there are powerful recitals by our amazingly talented students, and I only wish I could attend more of them.

This weekend performances are waiting for you! Don’t deny yourselves the pleasures they bring!! THIS IS WHY.

Artful Wesleyan Weekend

What a weekend of arts activity at Wesleyan! Pam Tatge, Director of the Center for the Arts, continues to combine campus energies with amazing performers from around the world. For me, it started out at a faculty social event at the Zilkha Gallery at the end of the day on Friday. Have you seen the alumni exhibition there yet? It’s terrific. The work repays reflection, and it also made me laugh and squirm (those rats!). The show runs through early December.

Speaking of running, there were packed houses for Abraham in Motion at the Patricelli ’92 Theater. Kyle Abraham is a force of nature, and he brought that force to Middletown big time for three sold out performances. Speaking of sold out performances, Kari and I had the great pleasure of seeing the Theater Department’s production of The Seagull. Directed by Yuri Kordonsky, the show was brilliantly staged, and we saw inspired performances by the talented cast. The show had energy and conviction, passions and ideas.

While we were taking in the Chekhov, more than 300 gathered to hear the rejuventated Wesleyan orchestra. I only wish I’d heard what I’m told was a lovely and thoughtful musical program. Congratulations to Nadya Potemkina, the orchestra’s new director.

Many of these events are the result of faculty/student collaboration, one of the great features of our artful campus. Whether pondering Kyle Abraham’s moves or Chekhov’s moods, it’s been a weekend of creativity at the highest level on campus. I just have to figure out how to be in more than one place at a time.



All Honor to Anthony Braxton!!

A few weeks ago I read that Anthony Braxton, John Spencer Camp Professor of Music, was recognized for lifetime achievement in jazz by the National Endowment for the Arts. This is “the nation’s highest honor in jazz,” and it comes on the heels of the Doris Duke Foundation’s recognition of Prof. Braxton’s uncategorizable gifts and achievements. He is no stranger to honors, having already received a MacArthur “genius” fellowship. He has been a devoted teacher of Wesleyan students in small and large ensembles, and he has mentored countless young musicians in his many years of teaching. Professor Braxton has announced his intention to retire in January, and so it is fitting that national organizations, faculty colleagues, staff, students and alumni join in celebrating the music he makes, teaches and inspires.

Here is one of my favorites, an old clip of Anthony playing John Coltrane’s “Impressions” at the Woodstock Jazz Festival (1981) :


And this quotation from Anthony is from the NEA’s Jazz Master’s interview:

For me, the recognition of my place in creative American music is quite a surprise–welcome surprise, that comes at the right time in my life. To be named an NEA Jazz Master recipient opens the door of reconciliation to the whole of my musical and cultural family, and completes my “inner nature and balance” in the most positive way. This is so because no matter the nomenclature, I have never separated myself from the great men and women whose creative work changed and elevated my life–and reason for wanting to live. The NEA Jazz Master family has profoundly shaped the dynamics of American and world culture–it doesn’t get any better than this family. The story of creative music is the story of America and the story of composite human vibrational dynamics. The discipline of creative music is one of the greatest gifts that the cosmic forces have given us.

Anthony Braxton has been a great gift to Wesleyan students for a long time. The vibrational dynamics he has inspired will joyfully resonate for a long, long time.


It’s Reunion Time

The alumni are coming! The alumni are coming! Starting today, many Wesleyan grads will be coming home to connect with one another and with that special campus vibe. The fiftieth reunion class of 1963 is connecting with the about-to-graduate class of 2013, and alumni from across the decades will be connecting with old friends and making new ones. There are many special events (like the super cool concert with Amanda Palmer Friday night), culminating in Commencement on Sunday.

Wonder why you should make the trip to Middletown? Check out the program. THIS IS WHY.


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Rethinking the Enlightenment with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

While the Spring Fling bands were heating up the Freeman Athletic Center, the Freeman Center for East Asian Studies began hosting a remarkable group of scholars from China and the United States to discuss a comparative approach to the Enlightenment. My Wesleyan teacher, Hayden White, the most important theorist of history of the last 50 years, helped to get things started with a talk that focuses on the intersection of history, science and aesthetics in the modern West. We also heard a provocative, important paper by Professor Gao Xiang on the the intersection of Chinese traditions with European Enlightenment thought. Both papers addressed the shadows produced by a systematic, rationalist approach to society and culture.


The seminars continue today and tomorrow with our distinguished group of scholars. We all have problems of translation, and one of the most interesting aspects of our exchanges with the the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences is teasing out the subtle meanings in our different approaches to what at first seem like common research topics. At our first meeting in Beijing in the fall of 2011 we discussed the status and function of tradition, and the papers for this meeting are all the more interesting when seen in the context of the Enlightenment’s battle with an attachment to the past.

There are several scholars of great distinction presenting their work today and tomorrow, but I can’t help but single out our very own Vera Schwarcz, Freeman Professor of History & East Asian Studies, who has been working on the Chinese Enlightenment for decades. Her historical work has earned her international distinction, as her teaching has garnered her the lifelong appreciation of her students here at Wesleyan.

Speaking of students, one of the most impressive parts of the day yesterday was the performance of our student translators. Through their efforts, we all overcame the language barriers!



Education, Public Life…Freedom and MUSIC!

This morning the New York Times ran an opinion piece I wrote on education as freedom. Earlier in the summer I’d posted on Jane Addams, and on the debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. All this comes from the book I am writing, Why Liberal Education Matters. I believe more strongly than ever in pragmatic liberal learning, and it’s good to have a chance to kick these ideas around in the public domain.

This year Wesleyan continues the “Creative Campus” initiative we got underway some years ago now. We believe that our form of education stimulates innovation and develops habits of mind that lead to regular participation in (and appreciation for) creative pursuits. Pam Tatge, director of the CFA, and Provost Rob Rosenthal are in New York today to discuss how our work in this area might be helpful to other colleges and universities.

I’m particularly excited about one of this year’s Creative Campus initiatives, the Music and Public Life program chaired by Mark Slobin. There are many great events, and tomorrow (September 7) we start off with The Mash — lots of campus bands performing with time for open, spontaneous performance. It all kicks off at noon in the Huss Courtyard (behind the Usdan University Center) with The Mattabesset String Collective — Barry Chernoff, Marc Eisner, Rebecca McCallum, Gil Skillman and Kevin Wiliarty.

Marc is away from campus presenting a paper, and I will have the great pleasure of sitting in with the group. They are actually going to let me play some guitar, keyboards, and harmonica. I even get to sing a little Dylan!  Later in the afternoon there will be performances by great student bands in front of Olin, WestCo, and… I hear Bear Hands is playing at Foss Hill late in the afternoon. It should be quite a day!!!