Monday, May 18, 2020

Musicology Now on Hiatus

A note from Executive Editor, Andrea F. Bohlman

Musicology Now is undergoing construction until the end of 2020. We will return in early 2021 with a website redesign and a new mission to share and broaden the work of the American Musicological Society with audiences of educators, musicians, and listeners internationally. We will broadcast our relaunch widely when it occurs.

Please feel free to contact the editorial team with questions via email amusicology-now@ams-net.org.

Monday, March 16, 2020

So You Need To Teach online: Music History and Music Theory Edition

by Emily H. Green and Megan Lavengood


Update: The authors acknowledge that the work to migrate courses online might simply be impossible in this situation, given that many of us are or have family in risk groups and/or have children now off from school. The semester may simply be over. If it’s not, we hope these strategies are helpful.

So, there’s a global pandemic, and you need to teach online! Ack! Ack for so many reasons!

Let’s all take a deep breath (not in front of a snotty person) and talk about strategies. I (Emily Green, EG) have some experience with online teaching and thought it would be helpful to start a conversation. I would rate my experience level at about a five out of ten: I’ve taught one hybrid course and one online course. I think that limited experience could be helpful, though, because the courses were discussion-oriented and for graduate students—a type of course that is less straightforward to put online. One can’t simply record lectures or post slideshows and expect students to get anything near to the usual graduate school experience.

My colleague, Megan Lavengood (ML), has more experience, is more tech savvy, and teaches in a different field (music theory), so I’ve asked her to chime in as well. Most of the technology advice below is hers. We are both writing from teaching positions in the United States. My hope is that those with more and different experience might join in the conversation with their own ideas through other communication channels of the AMS.

Here’s the good news: you already teach partly online. Think about how you already work with platforms like Blackboard or Canvas. Or using streaming services like Spotify or YouTube. Or through course materials, as in the case of the latest edition of A History of Western Music (Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca). Much of your listening and reading are already online—and maybe even some of your grading. What we’re talking about here is expanding your use of those resources.

If you’re skeptical about online learning, you’re not alone. But here you are, getting ideas about how to teach online. . .online. These comments are meant for someone of approximately average technology skills who is apprehensive about online instruction. (This basically describes me about a year and a half ago before I talked to ML and other colleagues.) 

Before you start: Intellectual property (IP)
Check with your university about the intellectual property of what you will create and post. This is good to know anyway. Who owns the IP of your Blackboard content, for instance? Here’s the message I wrote to our AAUP representative—you could write a similar message to the appropriate person on Faculty Senate or similar: 

“I have a question as we transition to online teaching because of COVID-19. Who owns course content on Blackboard? I assume we do, as faculty, but I wanted to ask that we could see some reassurance from the university that the administration understands the intricacies of intellectual property with respect to this new online content.”

The AAUP has resources available on this subject.


Sharing course content

If you didn’t have your course materials online before, consider making the switch now. Even if you have a required textbook, do all your students have it with them where they are? If students stayed home over spring break, they may not have brought everything with them. Try to be forgiving if students don’t have access to the books they’re supposed to. 
In any case, you may need to do some extra scanning and/or sharing of your own resources.

 Strategies

Don’t reinvent the wheel. There is often a huge amount of information publicly available online, and much of it is designed with pedagogy in mind. You might not want to use Wikipedia as a “reading,” but there are many other options. Here is a list of good open-access resources for music theory and musicology education.
Quick tip: You don’t need to post everything on your school’s learning management system (Blackboard, Canvas, etc.). It may be easier for you to collect your documents in a folder on an easier-to-use platform—Google Drive, Dropbox, etc.—and then share the link to that folder with your students. This can bypass the learning management systems altogether, which might be useful as those websites are notorious for going down when under heavy loads.

Recording mini-lectures 

Strategies

This is probably the first thing you think when asked to put your course online. I (EG) highly recommend mini-lectures (like 5–15 mins) over long ones, no matter the course: the files are more manageable, and students are more apt to sit and watch in one sitting. 
I recommend crafting a slide show first, making an effort to economize content: few slides, minimal bullet points on each slide. No fancy transitions or animations. The fancier it is, the harder it can be to sync it up with your lecture. (That’s my experience—others may disagree here!)
Mini-lectures are great for lots of purposes: introducing readings, explaining concepts, wrapping up subjects, jump-starting discussion in a wiki or discussion board (see below). We all tend to do these things in quick succession when we teach in person. Now you’ll just do them iteratively.

Technology

  • Blackboard works fairly seamlessly with an app called Kaltura, a simple screen recording and video editing software. There is a learning curve, but I (EG) was able to learn within 1–2 days, and I consider myself only moderately tech-savvy. You can sync your lecture to PowerPoint by uploading it after you record it.
  • You might also consider using screen recording software of any kind. On Mac, the built-in tool is Quicktime. For PC, their screen recording software is branded for video games, but really it will work for any sort of content.
  • If you’re using an iPad or similar to create your video (e.g., to annotate a score, or draw things on staff paper), the iPad also has built-in tools for screen recording
  • If you need to illustrate topics on the staff from your computer (e.g., not using a camera or iPad), you can use whatever notation software you’re familiar with while you record your screen.
How to play music in a lecture? It’s not a good idea to simply play any pre-recorded audio through speakers, then record it back through the microphone, as you’ll get significant sound distortion. I (ML) wrote a blog post explaining the relatively simple process of combining two inputs into one. EG, here: If you’re making a video quickly and/or aren’t comfortable with some of these tools ML suggests, you can simply tell students to pause your lecture and stream/play a particular excerpt on their own. They can keep your lecture paused on a particular slide to keep in view whatever listening parameters you suggest. You can give them time stamps for particular events, like: 0:07: heterophonic melody, 0:15: call and response, modal collection, 0:20: tutti theme.

Recreating discussion

Wait, what? How is that possible? Well, it is, especially in smaller groups or between pairs of students. 

Strategies

Peer review is very easy to implement online using discussion boards, chat, or just email. You have students post work and then comment on each other’s work—very straightforward. I (ML) like to give my students guidelines for their comments that are similar to those you would get from a journal on how to conduct peer review, but modified to refer to the grading rubric.
Quick tip: Create a file of comments that you give your students. You’ll give the same comments over and over, and it helps to cut and paste. Now there’s something you can’t do by hand on paper assignments!

Technology

For Blackboard: wikis and discussion boards 
  • Wikis have advantages over discussion boards, which can get unwieldy with larger groups. I (EG) like putting students in groups—Blackboard can do this randomly or you can do it manually—and setting them loose to interact only within that group. I use the wiki function quite a bit. I will write an assignment of sorts with a variety of types of content (defining terms, finding primary source quotes in the reading, and good old-fashioned discussion questions). Then, the students can fill it out individually while also encountering what someone else writes. They don’t even need to coordinate if they don’t want to. Quick tip: The default with group wikis on Blackboard is that one group can’t see another group’s wiki, so you don’t have to worry about confusion or cross-fertilization, as it were.
  • Discussion boards are similar to wikis. Give them a prompt and require them to respond to some set number of other posts. Quick tip: More than two or three starts to get a bit hairy with the format.
  • For grading, you can read all of them and then send the whole class general comments—correcting misreadings and anything else. You can also write in directly to the discussion board or wiki. Quick tip: Wikis are less cumbersome. 

Slack is a text-based chat app that gets used in professional contexts. I (ML) use it. It’s free to sign up for both you and your students. The advantage over something like Facebook chat (besides the professionalism aspect, of course) is that it’s a hierarchical organization: your entire space is called your “workspace,” and within that workspace you can create separate “channels” for different purposes. For example, within my workspace for my graduate seminars, I have a #general channel for announcements or other class-wide notices, #homework-questions for … homework questions, #partner-responses for their one-on-one discussions, and #random for off-topic discussion (recital announcements, memes relating to class, etc.). Getting everyone signed up properly for Slack can sometimes be a challenge, but once everyone is on board, my students have said they find it much easier to use than a Blackboard tool. The disadvantages are that there would be no built-in grading structure, and also that because you can enable notifications, it can give the impression of needing to be always on. Quick tip: Encourage yourself and your students to set Do Not Disturb hours and other reasonable expectations.

Video conferencing: this is another thing you probably think of right away with online teaching. So far everything we’ve mentioned has been asynchronous. Coordinating schedules can be tricky, and there is a learning curve for the technology. But you can dial in multiple people to a conversation. And you’ve done it before—whether professionally or personally. Use Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, whatever works for you and (hopefully) is supported by your university. Video conferencing works very well one-on-one. Quick tip: If it’s a smaller class, replace a week of teaching with individual video conferences on projects. You can optimize your use of that technology by taking advantage of chat functions to share relevant links and resources while talking.

Exams

It’s best to keep it simple here. You don’t need to use the on-board exam functions in Blackboard/Canvas. Rather, I (EG) recommend using the same document you usually use and set it to be available only at a certain time. Then also set a deadline that recreates the usual amount of time students have for such an evaluation in class plus a little extra for technological difficulties. If your class is 75 minutes, give them two hours. Edit your text to make directions even clearer, as you don’t want them to be confused or need to ask you questions. (Still, it’s a good idea to be available over email in that time.) They’ll then upload the document when they’re done.FAQ: But what about online plagiarism? Well, yes, that’s a possibility, but we all have eagle eyes for it. The more you ask them to respond to particular primary sources the less likely plagiarism is—and the more obvious it will be if it shows up. I (EG) have done this kind of exam many times with few glitches.

It’s all one big learning opportunity


Try to see the positives as well as the negatives to this jarring change in format. Yes, teaching will not be the same. There will certainly be bumps along the road, and nothing will be perfect, especially given the time crunch all of us will be under. The dopamine charge for you and the students is definitely less than with in-person exchange, and the online interaction does often feel like a constant stream of writing and grading. 

However, you get to hear from everyone in depth on every topic. Absolutely all students in the class. That never happens in person! What does that quiet student think? How about that person who’s shy because of a language barrier? Now you know—and I’m guessing you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Second, it’s a great lesson in loosening the reins as an instructor. By its very nature, this format lets students drive discussion. And they often do a great job. 

These are just our own thoughts. Others will have different suggestions; we hope more advice shows up in the comments. Thankfully, even if online interaction might disappoint your social needs in the classroom, we can still use it to support each other as instructors in this challenging time.  

***



Emily H. Green is assistant professor of musicology at George Mason University.


Megan Lavengood is an assistant professor and the area director of music theory at George Mason University, where she teaches undergraduate core theory and graduate courses in advanced theory topics. Her research primarily deals with popular music, timbre, synthesizers, and recording techniques. Her dissertation is titled “A New Approach to the Analysis of Timbre.”



Friday, December 20, 2019

Christmas is a Musical


By Jake Johnson

These days, you can’t bump the radio dial without Angela Lansbury’s matronly voice commanding we haul out that holly, just this very minute. The song is familiar enough, but its origins are probably not. “We Need a Little Christmas” is part of a scene drawn from the 1966 Broadway musical Mame. When the fabulously wealthy Auntie Mame suddenly loses her fortune in the stock market crash, she turns on a dime and starts unpacking the tinsel and singing a tune. “We need a little Christmas,” she cries. “Right this very minute.” 


Scene from Mame, Angela Lansbury singing "We Need a Little Christmas"

If the scene sounds excessively cheery, welcome to musicals—welcome to Christmas. 

“We need a little Christmas” joins a robust list of holiday tunes drafted at one point or another from the musical stage. What would Christmas-time be without that Great White Way, I wonder? Would we ever know the dreams of white Christmases—or how about merry little ones?—without first invoking the charmed sounds of musical theatre? Would it even begin to look a lot like Christmas if we didn’t hum along with (and then cancel) “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”? <1> 

Musicals and Christmas go mitten in mitten. Musical theatre, like religion—like capitalism draped in religion—is uninvested in the world as it is. Few would mistake the real world with the one where song and dance routines come unannounced. It’s often the job of a musical, after all, to clown away the problems of this world and invite us into a better one. Oscar Hammerstein once defended his cheery stories with, I imagine, a Santa-like twinkle in his eye: “I don’t deny the ugly and tragic—but somebody has to keep saying that life’s pretty wonderful, too. Because it’s true. I guess I can’t write anything without hope in it.”<2> Maybe this is why musicals are so invested in the Christmas season, and the season in them. I get it—Toni Morrison appreciated “constant unreality, steady illusion” no less than the rest of us.<3> Between the show tune’s bell-tone and button, life can seem wonderful, too.

I for one feel a bit like Auntie Mame these days—a little leaner, a little colder, a little sadder, a little older. Given our world’s slumped shoulders, are Auntie Mame’s demands for a happy ever after all that unreasonable? What’s the matter with lying to ourselves anyway? So what if the world burns around us, Auntie Mame, let’s surround ourselves with familiar trappings of consumerism and be happy. Escapism is one way to describe it, but it’s more than that. My work shows how communities large and small, near and far from Times Square, engage in musical theatre to reframe the past to better fit their present.<4> Musicals offer a classic alternative facts platform, and we love them for the fictions they afford us. No less than the Trappist monk Thomas Merton summed up theatre with such toothy devastation. “This sort of thing cannot make anybody happy,” he writes, “but it is a way of saying, ‘I wish you were happy.’”<5>

Well our stock market isn’t crashing (to the contrary, it seems) and Christmas creep has been at full throttle for weeks now, but I sense the set up for a happy ending (a musical!). Not that many of us can really avoid being part of the show. Sound bites of flops—the presidential, the Broadway—dominate the news cycle, the radio waves, the shopping mall. Climate change assures our world may soon be the abandoned trash heap of WALL-E’s imagination—that 2008 Disney Pixar film where a blue-collar robot learns to be human by salvaging, of all things, scenes from the musical Hello, Dolly! Meanwhile, musical theatre’s cheerful delusions spill out of tiny speakers hidden inside holiday cards. Of this season, Merton’s not unkind “I wish you were happy” weaves Orson Welles’s wet blanket reminder that happy endings of course just depend on where you stop the story. 


Scene from WALL-E (Disney-Pixar, 2008)

This is how musicals enable our season of inattention, our scene of festive purchase. Christmas is already so much a pageantry of pretend, a story paused on a happy moment. The deception is genuine enough; musicals just sweeten the deal. Star in your own show. Freeze the frame, print the negatives, and live as if “happily ever after” was as cheap as the paper it’s printed on. Musicals teach us that one strategy for surviving a pervasive post-truth world is to purposely live in its fictions. Haul out the holly, sing your blues away—right this very minute, before you realize the illusion, while you still can.

Christmas is a down payment on a better world. Christmas is a tidy ending. Christmas is a musical. But are we happy? I wish

***
<1> Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” from the 1954 film White Christmas; Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” introduced in the 1944 MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis;  Meredith Wilson included “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” in his 1963 musical Here’s Love, though it had already become a holiday staple with Perry Como’s 1951 recording; and Frank Loesser’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” achieved acclaim in the 1949 film musical Neptune’s Daughter.
<2> Quoted in Ian Bradley, You’ve Got to Have a Dream: The Message of the Musical (London: SCM, 2004), 73
<3> Toni Morrison, “On to Disneyland and the Real Unreality,” The New York Times, Oct. 20, 1973.
<4> Jake Johnson, Mormons, Musical Theater, and Belonging in America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2019), and Lying in the Middle: Musicals and the Heart of America (University of Illinois Press, forthcoming). Also see “Post-Secular Musicals in a Post-Truth World,” in The Routledge Companion to the Contemporary Musical, ed. Jessica Sternfeld and Elizabeth L. Wollman (New York: Routledge, 2019): 265-272.
<5> Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, fiftieth anniversary edition (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1948 [1998]), 380.

***

Jake Johnson is assistant professor of musicology at Oklahoma City University's Wanda L. Bass School of Music.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Harnessing the power of sound and music to inspire positive ecological action.

By Geoffrey Cox

In the summer 2011 edition of JAMS, Ralph P. Locke ruminates on what he describes as musicology’s recent concern with the idea that music exists ”in and for a ‘community’ of practitioners and listeners.” As an example, the journal dedicates its discussion section to a series of short pieces that address community in the emerging field of “ecomusicology.” Aaron Allen defines ecomusicology as a “socially engaged” musicology that studies “musical and sonic issues . . . as they relate to ecology and the environment;” it is a form of ecocriticism, a field that studies cultural products (music, film, text), “that imagine and portray human-environment relationships.” This essay looks at one such product, Tree People, a 45-minute documentary film I made that portrays the efforts of a local community-based group to plant trees in the valley they live in and, as much as image, uses music and creative sound design to not only convey its message, but to give life to the audience’s imagination. The film is part of my on-going research as a composer of acoustic and electronic music, filmmaker and writer, investigating the use of sound and music in documentary film. This has resulted in several solo and joint film productions (with Keith Marley) since 2000. The work focuses on how sound, especially creatively treated, can be a powerfully emotive signifier in documentary, perhaps even more so than image, and thus emphasises the potential of the form’s aesthetic aspect.


 
Autumnal oak tree. A still from Tree People.

If concerns about the environment fuelled interest in ecomusicology in 2011, then in 2019 such concerns have reached fever pitch. As I write, France has just recorded its hottest ever temperature of 45.9°C and a recent report suggested that, due to climate change, it is “highly likely” that human civilisation will come to an end in 2050. Meanwhile, in April, environmental protest activists, Extinction Rebellion, staged “die-ins” across the globe (and continue to do so), highlighting this all-too-serious doomsday scenario. Such events and research often lead to the couching of ecologically-focussed literature and film in what Alexander Rehding describes as ”apocalyptic” terms: “this orientation toward crisis makes sense, as it endows the literary products with political relevance, powerful realism, and—in a very literal sense—sublime terror. The earth needs to be saved, right now.” Timothy Clarke asserts the value of ecocriticism with a similar call to arms: “the new artistic and critical task is to make ‘real’ or make felt on the human scale all these alarming but also boring statistics on the planet’s condition.” The problem with such approaches, understandable as they are, is that, instead of serving as calls to action, they lead to a hopeless inertia, since the enormity of the task makes personal and individual action seem fruitless while also engendering fearful paralysis. Communication strategist Nicky Hawkins suggested recently that “we’re stuck in a climate disaster movie—and it’s not even a very good one… Our response is predictable: we switch off.” Instead we should move on from “chastisement and detachment” and focus on stories that suggest possible ways to save our planet, telling and retelling them “in ever more interesting and inspiring ways.” Tree People adopts this approach, appealing to the power of hope and memory, since ecological action is often driven by the nostalgic imagination and, as Hawkins suggests, stories of real and inspiring efforts to make change. In the service of such positive ecological consciousness-raising, the penetrating, enveloping presence of sound and its capacity to almost “touch” us only to explode a multitude of responses, is an all-important tool. Motivation to act positively (or even act at all) in the face of such daunting events and predictions requires something more than information and “instruction;” it needs a positive, emotive, even transcendental power, and as Steven Connor has said, sound comes towards us such that “we cannot listen without taking into ourselves the sounds we hear” and so has a very real physical power, while remaining “mysterious.” It is, of course, the ineffable power of musical sound that can potentially “move, shake and touch us” most of all.

Tree People’s account of 50 years of tree-planting by the Colne Valley Tree Society (CVTS)—at the edge of the wild Pennine moors, West Yorkshire, in the north of England—and the consequent transformation of a once relatively barren and scarred post-industrial landscape is a positive story. It reveals and charts the change to a quite heavily wooded valley in its lower reaches, and a lush “green lung” for its    increasingly densely-populated surroundings. Though not explicit in the film and not part of the original vision of CVTS, tree planting is now widely recognised as helping in atmospheric carbon dioxide reduction—recent research suggests that it is “by far the biggest and cheapest way to tackle the climate crisis.” The film draws on nostalgic memories of the valley’s vibrant industrial past, of the teeming, smoke spewing woollen mills (early carbon dioxide contributors of course) and bustling villages, but also on the pre-industrial era in which myth has it that a squirrel could travel the seven miles down the valley, leaping from branch to branch without touching the ground. The film’s focus is on the natural landscape, planters’ testimony, society history and actual tree planting activities. It shows that though the laying to waste of woodland in the industrial revolution put paid to the squirrel’s journey, concerted, long-term and completely voluntary effort in planting 400,000 trees since 1964, has made it almost a possibility again.



Winter CVTS planting scene above Butterley Reservoir, Colne Valley, Huddersfield, UK.
Documentary film has many modes, from propaganda to “factual” to impressionistic, from didactic mainstream, to art-house experimentation. Though wedded to truth-telling, Tree People is, in a sense, propaganda—a celebration, even—but its mode is largely impressionistic, with music and sound playing a prominent functional role. Its basis is not in telling but in showing and making the viewer feel something, as much as understanding it. As far back as the 1930s, in documentary films like Night Mail (1936), with its score by a young Benjamin Britten and poetry by W. H. Auden, pioneers like John Grierson realised the power of artistically-driven evocation aided by the use of music, rather than word-heavy “telling.” Also drawing upon Auden, Coal Face (1935) goes beyond conventional music in its depiction of coal mining in Britain, with Britten scoring an ensemble of noise-making instruments to mimic and enhance on-screen events. I have written how this foreshadows, both practically and theoretically, Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrète, where a sound’s source becomes secondary, or even irrelevant, to the timbral aesthetics of the sounding “object” itself. In the 1960s, promotional films about Scottish industry continued this tradition. Scores were commissioned by the likes of Iain Hamilton and Frank Spedding and, in a series of later edits, Grierson reduced the footage of films like Seawards the Great Ships (1960) and The Heart of Scotland (1962) to image and music alone. For him, the “magic” of documentary is not in its discussion and verbal instruction but in its aesthetic capacity to inform and inspire through appealing to what he described as the “imaginative life of the people.” The way the music of Hamilton and Spedding (and intriguingly, the services of Alfred Hitchcock) are used to this end is discussed in my article on the output of Films of Scotland. This musicological research into the highways and byways of the British documentary movement has had a deep influence on my own practice. Beyond Tree People, Mill Study (Cox and Marley, 2017), is a short film also made in Colne Valley about Spa Mill, one of its few surviving woollen mills, which aided by spoken poetry by Andrew MacMillan, explores its sights and sounds.


Milnsbridge, Colne Valley, 1930s. Very few woollen mills are active today.

Tree People strikes a balance between informing the viewer and inspiring them through artistic representation, driven by sound and music. The balance between more conventional exposition and artistic expression was a fine one to strike and quite subtle audiovisual manipulation proved very important in creating convincing juxtapositions and a satisfying temporal flow. The sonic strategies employed proved especially important and range from traditionally scored music (piano, and brass band), to electronic drones derived from piano string resonances; from vocal fragments naming tree species and locations (taken from participant interviews) randomly manipulated by complex software processes, to location recordings employed as much in the spirit of musique concrète, as realistic depictions of the events and environments seen. The sounds’ functions are multiple: the conjuring of a sense of place by location recordings, and musical contours that mimic the hilly landscape, recorded by Slaithwaite Brass Band in a band room overlooking the valley; the suggestion of the longevity of the planters’ task, the evoking of the slow growth of trees and the momentous history of the valley, by extended atmospheric drones; and the poetic abstraction of the spoken word by the erratically rhythmic naming of trees and places. Even the interviews to camera with the tree planters themselves are chosen and juxtaposed with a musical sensibility and attention given to complimentary vocal timbres, accent, and in the case of an archive recording, the nostalgic grain of the recording medium itself. By the end of the film, the story of the Society and its efforts is told and hopefully understood, but the lasting impression is engendered by sound, as much as image—sound that encompasses commemorative and relatively accessible music, as well as cutting-edge electronic abstraction and the affective grain of the voice, its penetrative powers engaging the audience in an emotive rather than cognitive sense.

The film seeks a local as well as an international audience, its themes both parochial and outward-looking in its search to find the universal in the particular. In ecomusicological terms, as Rehding suggests, “the commemorative and community-building powers of music in the service of ecological approaches, offer exciting prospects” and the use of a local brass band in the score is aimed at such community building and commemoration. The sound of the band also inspires the nostalgic imagination: Slaithwaite Band, formed as a wind band in 1819, was probably the first in the area and has been in continuous operation ever since. It is thus a living tradition and joins the electronic and abstract timbres and software-driven techniques that speak more to worldwide contemporary musical creation, in uniting past and present to offer a positive ecological vision of the future. The slowly evolving main brass theme that occurs at the midpoint of the film (and played on piano only at the start), suggests a dirge-like doggedness, rooted in the past. But its searching, restless harmonies, dramatic dynamic shifts and gradually increasingly dense and dissonant textures suggest forward if slightly unsettling motion: this is not just about what has been but what is continuing and what will be—an increasingly wooded and verdant landscape.


Original piano score of the opening of the main theme from Tree People.


Page 1 of the main theme from Tree People scored for brass band.

Media researcher John Corner has spoken about how sound and music in documentary can help “connect knowing to feeling and hearing to viewing” as part of the “continuing exploration of the role of art in the quest for understanding,” suggesting that “knowing” is not simply found via information, generally conveyed through words, but that such felt understanding can be gained through emotional connection conveyed in artistic terms. Tree People strikes a balance between Corner’s idea of documentary’s capacity to be “sensual and intellectual, referentially committed yet often possessed of a dreamlike potential for the indirectly suggestive and associative,” Grierson’s desire to tap into the “magic” of the “imaginative life of the people” and Hawkins’ call in the time of climate crisis, for “stories that bring to life our capacity to dream big and get things done.” Trees take a long time to grow so the endeavours of CVTS’s past are only now becoming fully apparent. The film emphasises these visionary pioneers but also the continuing autonomous, voluntary effort, working outside of any official bodies, and shows what can be achieved in this way.



Tree People still: looking west down the valley to Marsden village showing summer tree cover, much of which has resulted from CVTS planting since 1964.

***

Geoffrey Cox is a Senior Lecturer in Music at the University of Huddersfield, a filmmaker, and composer of both acoustic and electronic music with a focus on its application to documentary film sound; he is also an inveterate tree planter.

For a more detailed exposition of Tree People see ‘Planting Sounds: re-framing the acoustic environment in Tree People (2014), the story of the Colne Valley Tree Society


 

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Lil Nas X, the “Old Town Road,” and the (f)utility of genre labels

By Jeremy Orosz

“Old Town Road,” a country-trap<1> hit by 20-year-old rapper Lil Nas X, has become the unofficial soundtrack of 2019.<2> The song has held the coveted top spot on the US Billboard Hot 100 for the past 13 weeks—a feat no other hip hop or country single has achieved<3>—and it is on pace to become the first song this century to reach Diamond certification (10 million sales and streams) while still a #1 hit.<4> Consumer demand for both the original version and the remix alike seems insatiable:





Given the recent headlines surrounding Lil Nas X’s decision to come out publicly as gay, it may now seem a distant memory that mere months ago, the song’s rise to fame reignited fiery debates surrounding race and genre in contemporary music.  In late March, as the song was gaining in popularity, the powers-that-be at Billboard decided to remove “Old Town Road” from the country charts—much to the artist’s dismay, who had marketed the tune as a country track. Rolling Stone noticed the song’s quiet disappearance from the charts, and reported on March 26 that, according to an anonymous Billboard executive,

“upon further review, it was determined that ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X does not currently merit inclusion on Billboard‘s country charts. When determining genres, a few factors are examined, but first and foremost is musical composition. While ‘Old Town Road’ incorporates references to country and cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.”<5>

On the one hand, this decision should be uncontroversial, at least as far as OTR’s sonic elements are concerned; although Lil Nas X insists that his song is both country and trap—not one or the other<6>—Billboard is perhaps correct that, despite the eclectic mix of generic signifiers in the song, it is more of a hip hop/trap tune with country topoi (in both text and music) than the other way around.<7>  We might use the same “it’s more blueish-green than greenish-blue” reasoning to argue that Run-DMC’s “Rock Box” is a rap song with prominent rock elements while Rage Against the Machine’s “Testify” is rap influenced rock.  Yet conflating genre with style is of course a mistake; genre labels are notoriously unreliable at grouping music into coherent stylistic categories. True, if one uses historical style markers like the use of steel guitar and fiddle as a barometer, “Old Town Road” seems a poor fit for country radio.  But the same can be said of songs by Sam Hunt and Florida Georgia Line, whose recent hits are indistinguishable from contemporary pop.


This song held the top spot on the US country charts for 34 weeks:



And this was #1 for 50(!) weeks:




Although Billboard maintains that race was not a factor in the decision to remove “Old Town Road,” recent history belies this claim.<8> In this past decade, autotune, electronic beats, and even rapped vocals have been regular features on the country charts in the music of white artists;<9> Lil Nas X, however, faced unceremonious exile from the genre for including the very same elements in a nominal country song.  If the music of Darius Rucker is any indication, black artists—until quite recently—were most likely to find success on the country airwaves by producing songs that do little to push the boundaries of the genre. Rucker’s top-performing country hit is his 2013 cover of Appalachian favorite “Wagon Wheel;” none of his original tunes, have reached higher than #30 on the country charts, and even this modest success is likely a residual benefit of his previous life as the singer of Hootie and the Blowfish.


The historical racialization of genre in American popular music is hardly a story that needs re-telling at this late date. Countless episodes, both recent and distant, attest to the singular importance of race in genre assignment. Compare two crooning ballads that became major hits some two decades ago, Brian McKnight’s “Back at One” and Lonestar’s “Amazed:”




 
These songs have plenty in common stylistically with one another, yet the former was classified as R&B, and the latter as country. This categorization seems all the more arbitrary when we consider that Mark Wills’ cover of “Back to One” achieved nearly equal acclaim as a country song, and that “Amazed” has enjoyed several chart resurgences through various R&B covers.10> Such cases demonstrate that the very same song can be repackaged for a different listening public with only minimal modification to the music if it is sung by an artist who looks the part for their genre. None of this is to deny the role of sonic signifiers in genre identification, yet if style were the only factor considered, there would be no such category as “Blue Eyed Soul.”<11> It is equally telling that there is a well-known euphemism for “white soul artist,” while—to the detriment of Lil Nas X’s career—no comparable designation for “black country singer” exists.


Regardless of how “Old Town Road” sounds, had a song with the same stylistic components been recorded by Jason Aldean or Cole Swindell, there seems little chance that it would have been banished from the country charts. Even if the remix of “Old Town Road” featuring Billy Ray Cyrus had been released a few weeks sooner, perhaps Billboard would not have been so hasty to deem the song inadmissible for mainstream country radio.  The controversy over Lil Nas X makes it clear that the now-abandoned chart categories of “race” and “hillbilly” music are hardly a quaint vestige of an earlier time; the racial and stylistic presumptions underlying these now passé monikers still inform the genre divisions in operation today.


Billboard nevertheless seems to have learned their lesson from mishandling of “Old Town Road.”  Remarkably, two songs by black artists currently hold Top-10 spots on the country charts: “Good As You” by Kane Brown (by now, an established country star) and—more significantly—“The Git Up,” an ironic (and perhaps parodic) treatment of a Western line dance by new artist Blanco Brown.  The latter is a truly remarkable earworm that will surely become a fixture of wedding-party playlists:


 "Old Town Road” of course paved the way for the meteoric rise of “The Git Up,” and the enduring popularity of both songs suggests that more black artists will try to catch lightning in a bottle by adopting the same cowboy aesthetic. Whether our genre system is prepared to accommodate it, however, remains to be seen.

***
<1>Thanks are due to the many students of mine, who brought the song “Old Town Road”—and the controversy surrounding it—to my attention. Trap is a sub-genre of rap associated with the American south, most especially Lil Nas X’s hometown of Atlanta, GA.  The music of Jeezy (formerly Young Jeezy) epitomizes the trap style.
<2>The story of Lil Nas X’s sudden rise to celebrity is provided in several journalistic venues.  See especially Joe Coscarelli, "‘Old Town Road’: See How Memes and Controversy Took Lil Nas X to No. 1.” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/10/arts/music/old-town-road-lil-nas-x.html
T<3>he previous record for a hip hop song was 12 weeks at #1 on the Hot 100. See https://www.goldderby.com/article/2019/lil-nas-x-old-town-road-billboard-history-record-news/
<4>Lil Nas X celebrated the Diamond certification of his single prematurely:  https://revolt.tv/stories/2019/07/05/lil-nas-town-road-diamond-070085bc94
<5>Elias Light, “Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ Was a Country Hit. Then Country Changed Its Mind.”
 
https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/lil-nas-x-old-town-road-810844/
<6>When asked about the song’s sudden removal from the country charts, Lil Nas X told Time, “The song is country trap.  It’s not one, it’s not the other.  It’s both.  It should be on both [charts].” https://time.com/5561466/lil-nas-x-old-town-road-billboard/
<7>Consider also Caramanica’s view that “‘Old Town Road’ isn’t quite fully country or hip-hop, at least not in the ways those genres taxonomize themselves. It’s something far more slippery, slithering between the two spaces and arriving at pop novelty.”  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/11/arts/music/lil-nas-x-old-town-road-country-rap.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article
<8>See https://genius.com/a/billboard-removed-lil-nas-x-s-old-town-road-from-its-hot-country-songs-chart
<9>For more in-depth discussion on the influence of hip hop on country music, see my forthcoming article on this topic: “‘Straight outta Nashville’: Hip-Hop Allusions in Contemporary Country Music,” Popular Music and Society, 43.
<10>Most prominent, perhaps, is Boyz II Men’s 2009 cover. Of note, while serving as a judge on The Sing-Off, Boyz II Men’s Shawn Stockman reported that “Amazed” was first offered to his group to perform before Lonestar recorded it. This claim is certainly plausible, though little evidence corroborates it.
<11>This term is associated with artists such as The Righteous Brothers, Hall and Oates, and Sam Smith.

*** 

Jeremy Orosz is Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the University of Memphis