Thursday, November 28, 2013

Steve Reich vs My Junior High Music Teacher

I've been thinking about my junior high music teacher.  I don't think she did much for anybody's love of music and I don't think she was very bright.  She relied heavily on filmstrips and commercial lesson plans so honestly I don't know how much she knew about music.  What I do know is that she did not like Steve Reich's tape music.

I learned some interesting and valuable things in this teacher's classes, some of which I know she didn't intend.  She had no way of knowing that I was in the early phases of becoming consumed and obsessed with music and music technology or that making music would be a life-long and extremely serious hobby for me.  One film strip she showed us over and over[1] was about recent advances in music technology.  Because of this film strip I had a basic understanding of the inner workings of electric pianos[2], early digital delay effects, early synthesized strings and the fact that in German, "h" is a note name.

There are a lot of other random things[3] I remember from junior high music class but our brief visit to the land of "new music" is what's bugging me.  One day she pulled a 7" record out of the teacher's guide of whatever packaged lesson plan she was using and started telling us about "Come Out" by Steve Reich.  I'm thankful that I grew up in a time and place where we even had music class in junior high, more so that I was actually exposed to Steve Reich at the tender age of 12.  Between the radio, the operas, operettas and musicals my mother took me to and my accidentally-informative music teacher I was getting the message that the universe of music was a very strange and wonderfully varied place.

The shameful part of this story for my teacher is that she made no attempt to hide her rejection of Come Out as music.  The record with the lesson contained three short excepts from the piece.  Her presentation of it to us went something like this.

"In the Twentieth Century some people have tried to push the boundaries of what is considered music.  For example somebody took a tape of a prisoner talking about an injury, made it repeat different ways and calls it music.  It's way too long[4] to make you listen to the whole thing so here are what three parts of it sound like."

She played the record and lifted the needle part way through the third excerpt.

"I think we've heard enough of that."

What a terrible message to give young people about experimental and avant-garde music.  She could have told us she didn't like it, that it didn't do what she thought music should do, but that's not what she did.  She told us it wasn't music and that none of us should be made to hear any more of it.

She never gave Steve Reich's name or the name of the composition, Come Out.

Of course, I wanted to hear more.  How was the tape manipulated?  What's the real story behind the source recording?  What happens later in the piece?  I don't know that this experience directly lead to my experiments slamming on my car's breaks so that a running tape recorder flew into the dash board or making a tape saturated recording of my alarm clock going off, but I suspect there is a link of some sort.  This momentary expression of disapproval from my teacher had a subtext; experimentation could be transgressive, threatening and therefore powerful.  There was a status quo that might just need disrupting[5].

Probably not what she had in mind.

Later I would learn that she was not held in high regard by our other teachers, but considering what a mixed bag they were I don't like to give the fact much weight.  My memories of her teaching speak for themselves.  My school system had a weird mix of fantastic, useless and worse than useless teachers in the 80's.  My high school English and journalism teacher did more for me than she could ever know.  She truly enriched my life in a permanent way.  I'll go to my grave thankful to her.  So did this music teacher, but in a smaller, backhanded way, and it seems, by accident.

NOTE: This entry originally ended with a joke about invading my teacher's privacy and exposing her to ridicule by using her name.  I've realized that isn't funny.

[1] Why? I don't know.  I'm guessing she didn't have any other lesson plans.  I am quite certain we watched it no less than five times.  She also seemed to leave the room a lot, especially during film strips.
[2] Specifically, the Clavinet.  I don't think they called it an "electric piano" in the film strip, just "the Clavinet."  Perhaps they thought we would be confused by the fact that it doesn't sound like a piano.
[3] The smash disco hit "Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band" is slower than the cantina scene song on the Star Wars soundtrack.  This was my first lesson in the power musical density.  Motion, variety and additional instruments can have a similar impact to increasing tempo.  Random?  Yep.  Good thing to know?  Fuck yep.
[4] The one and only thing she was right about.  At 13:09 (at least, the version I own) there was no playing the whole thing for a room full of 12 year olds.
[5] It has been suggested that there is no longer any musical status quo.  The extremes are all being explored and expanded all the time.  Nothing is shocking.  Nothing is new.  I don't buy it.  The human mind will always be in need of expansion.  We all have hidden blinders we need other people to rip off from time to time.

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