Sustainable Music


Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Music Sustains People

     I’m writing from Minneapolis, where I traveled to take part in an event on music, sound, and climate change. A year and a half ago, Aaron Allen, Denise Von Glahn and I met to give a plenary “trialogue” on sound and sustainability at a conference in Nashville, and afterwards we were invited to do a reprise at the University of Minnesota. This is the event that came of it, in celebration of Earth Day, a week later than the actual day but nonetheless the time when it could be arranged for all. The event takes place later today, but I flew in from Maine two days ago, and had a chance to walk around the university yesterday.
Vincent Hall, Univ. of Minnesota, April, 2015
Much of its appearance has changed. The grand old buildings remain, including Northrup Auditorium, with its imposing Greek columns, and Vincent Hall, with its, where many of my classes were held. Much new modern architecture, quite out of keeping with the old, has been erected throughout the campus, forming blocks of high-rise steel and glass and concrete and granite, with massive faces and few windows, in some ways looking like vast parking garages, but reminding me most of the Soviet-era buildings I saw in Beijing five years ago. One of the professors planning the event, Mark Pedelty, confirmed that impression when we had supper in Dinkytown last night, calling it Stalinist. At that point I began to couple the architecture with the ubiquitous strategic planning that has been going on at colleges and universities over the past fifteen years or so, doubtless also reflecting their transformation from educational non-profit institutions run more or less at a loss, funded by philanthropists and state legislatures, into corporations run to break even, still dependent on donations but less and less so on government funding, while the expenses of maintaining them, pro-rated on a per-student basis, have increased enormously. I’ve blogged about this before; there’s no need to repeat it, except to say that even though I wasn’t surprised to see it at my graduate alma mater, my spirits did not rise as I’d hoped they would.
    In some ways it’s surprising that I’ve been back only once before, and that was around the early 1980s, when one of the professional societies I belong to met in a downtown Minneapolis hotel, and I managed to skip out for an afternoon visit. At that time the campus had not transformed so. Today, it seems much more a model of efficiency. Buses and light rail transport students who crowd the streets, making the sidewalks look like Manhattan during rush hour. The streets and roads of the campus itself are curved, well landscaped, and do not have the look of a city; yet on the outskirts the city is clearly there. Dinkytown has upgraded and yet it was still recognizable in shape. I could see the ghosts of old shops and restaurants like Valli Pizza, where our blues band performed weekends in the “Grotto Room” in the cellar. Of course, the Valli no longer was there.
But on Washington Ave. still stood Stub and Herbs [always missing the apostrophe], now a sports bar and tavern. Stub and Herbs, or Sturbs as we used to call it, was our favorite bar on the east bank of the river, and my old friend Cameron Nickels forever burned it into my memories by deciding he would have a fiddle recital there.
    Cameron, like me a graduate student in American studies but a year ahead of me, shared my love of music and rekindled my interest in old-time and bluegrass. He was a fine singer and guitarist, and joined me as an instructor in the Scholar Music Workshop (attached to the Scholar Coffeehouse), and later in the Mill City School of Folk Music. He decided, about 1968, that he was going to learn to play the fiddle. Aged 27 or so, starting from scratch on the violin is difficult even for an experienced musician with a good ear, which he was and he had. He set himself the goal of a public fiddle recital after six months, and he asked me and another friend, Charlie Angermeyer, to accompany him. We ran thru a set of old-time songs and tunes that Cameron had learned from old hillbilly 78s, some of them recycled by the New Lost City Ramblers. He felt that bluegrass fiddling was too difficult to learn in six months, but that old-time might be possible. It turned out to be possible, barely.
    Listening back to the recording he made of it, I realized that there’s a difference between what a musician hears while performing with others, and what the audience hears. I’m not talking about a need for monitor speakers so the band can hear itself coming through the PA system, if any, but rather a difference between listening while making music and listening back to it afterwards. Listening while making music, I was intent on playing what I had in mind to play, and constantly listening to what I was playing as feedback. Of course, I also heard what Cameron and Charlie were doing, and tried to keep time with them (and succeeded); but mostly I was listening to myself, partly because I had just learned the tunes and songs. If I had known them a long time, they’d have been second nature and I could have, and would have, listened more carefully to the others rather than mostly to myself blending with them.
    Listening back, of course, I heard myself as an accompanist, while the fiddle stood out—as it should have. Now I heard the marks of a beginning fiddler, the same kinds of issues that arose when a dozen years afterward I, too, started playing the fiddle. The fiddle’s timing wasn’t always where it should have been, sometimes a bit late and sometimes a bit early. Whereas in guitar and banjo repetitive motion can set up a regular pulse beat, on the fiddle the bowing motion usually doesn’t do so except for brief periods of shuffle rhythm lasting perhaps only a second or two. Besides rhythmic issues, playing in tune is another. Precise intonation is notoriously difficult on the violin or any of the stringed instruments that do not have frets; and when a musician used to playing a fretted instrument such as a guitar takes up an unfretted one, the results can be even more problematic because intonation has not been troublesome on the earlier instrument. Worse yet, a musician usually has a “head tune” in mind—that is, an ideal melody is heard silently in the brain while its approximation is executed on the instrument. A beginning fiddler tends to confuse the two, and hear the head tune as if it’s sounding aloud; or, the musician hears them both and they blend, the melody in the mind masking the problem of playing out of tune, so that it seems more in tune than it is. But listening back to a recording, a beginning fiddler is without that head tune in mind, and hears how far out of tune the playing was.
    Of course, I don’t mean to be critical of my friend here; my own struggles on the fiddle were just as difficult, if not more so. When I began fiddling, our cat would not stay in the same room. Soon he learned to leave as I started to open the violin case. I supposed that some high-frequency squeaks beyond my hearing range were painful for him. But after a couple of years of playing, the cat no longer left the room. I don’t think it was because he was becoming hard of hearing, but because I was no longer making painful sounds. I know that even after two years I was having trouble with accurate intonation, and that for anyone who starts late in life, it’s a continuing problem—one that diminishes but never leaves entirely. After warming up, intonation seems to get better—and no doubt it does, but I think that, also, the ear adjusts. Again, listening back to recordings—this time, my own—showed that to be true.
    All those memories came back with a rush as I recalled Cameron, Charlie, and me standing up in the front of a narrow, rectangular space, on a small stage, performing for family and friends at his fiddle recital about 45 years ago. I can visualize the others—Charlie with his uncombed, long hippie hair; Cameron’s neat as always, his body stretched to its full height as he tucked the fiddle under his chin and played short, sawing bow strokes and as we all sang, and played, not especially well, but competently enough for the occasion, considering. And it was a success in the sense that we got through it, and Cameron could say that he had his fiddle recital, and then—. Well, for whatever reasons, he continued to play the fiddle but only from time to time, never progressing far enough to his satisfaction, while his singing and guitar playing continued strong. After he moved to take up a teaching job at Madison College, later James Madison University, in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, he fell in with several music groups singing and playing old-time and bluegrass music over the years, spending many of them in bands with “Two-Gun” Terry (whose last name escapes me), a fine fiddler who was kind of a local legend. Possibly because his music was more involved with rehearsals and performances than jam sessions, Cameron didn’t play the fiddle as much—there were others who could do that better, and so he stayed with what he could do well. I am speculating some here, because I know he enjoyed a good jam session too; but perhaps he felt that even there, he didn’t want to play the fiddle very much, as it would impose some on the others.
    Cameron left the University of Minnesota and found a teaching job the year before I left to do the same. We’ve kept in touch over the years, seeing each other from time to time. He had a fine time as an English professor, somewhat of a curmudgeon in his community as I understand it, an early champion of women’s rights (unusual for a man at that time and place), and a specialist in the literature of humor. He wrote several essays for academic journals and published two books on the subject, one on New England humor and the other on Civil War humor. Now retired, he is still reading and writing—and enjoying music. I’ll tell him about this visit, and send him a picture of Stub and Herb’s. Music and sustainability isn’t only about how culture workers can partner with people in musical communities to achieve goals of sustaining the integrity of music cultures in the face of inevitable change. It is not only about how people may sustain music, but also about how music may sustain people.