by Anna Nisnevich, Music
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2004
When we finally get to discuss musical genres that involve some kind of a story or picture, singing or dancing in Music 27, an introduction to Western art music for non-music majors, a sigh of relief is usually heard in the auditorium. Having traversed through a wild forest of rather abstract musical means (such as rhythm, melody, texture), the students eagerly embrace the more secure grounds of narrative, visual representation and theater. An easy analogy between music and word, music and image, and music and gesture, however, often proves deceptive and, paradoxically, tends to constrict the students’ imagination rather than bolster it. Ever-tempted to “translate” music into a discernible language, the students easily get under the spell of the familiar and end up telling stories and drawing mental pictures, instead of trying to address the subtler ways in which music interacts with other media.
After reading another pile of papers about operas and ballets, which recount the plot or offer personal opinions of characters’ motivations and actions, engaging musical detail only insofar as it matches the sentiment wished to be projected, I decide to conduct an experiment.
Several provocations emerge in the course of the team presentations a week later. Even though all six versions are, obviously, different, the presenters cannot but notice conspicuous correspondences transpiring from their distinctive “hearings” of the musical excerpt. Two choreography teams, for instance, disagree in their pacing: one group envisions wide heavy leaps while another proposes a series of rather restricted footsteps. The discussion, however, reveals that they both respond to the excerpt’s disturbingly irregular rhythms, one team intensifying the dismay, the other resisting it. The stage designers’ similarly dystopian settings seem to deepen the impression of dread, although only one team claims to respond to the rhythms while the other insists they render the excerpt’s crude orchestration. The most bizarre correspondence is between the two sets of costumes: menacing monks, their faces hidden behind the hoods, meet aliens. The uneasy relationship between the ideas of facelessness and dehumanization catalyzes a heated discussion that goes far beyond any musical or theatrical means. The first performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring ended (in)famously with a riot of the audience enraged with the ballet’s defiance of pleasure. Having grasped better music’s power to generalize and to generate the most particular associations simultaneously, the students are now ready to think historically, to seek the roots and explore the implications of the ballet’s reception.
I know that no more will I receive unreflective papers, yet the benefits of creative listening are already in evidence. A very articulate electrical engineering major also turns out to be a talented artist; a shy MCB major, usually so quiet during discussions, finds herself demonstrating and explaining the balletic pas with extraordinary fervor; the lone music minor, always a bit condescending towards her less musically literate classmates, seems astonished to learn that there is so much more to music than notes. Most importantly, the students discover for themselves how thin the line is between imagination, historical inquiry and critical thinking.