I do two kinds of teaching at Lafayette. One of them is teaching what you might think as traditional classroom courses; the other is leading an early music ensemble.
One of my favorite courses to teach is War and Peace: Music of the 1960s, which looks at the anti-war, civil rights, and women’s movements in the United States during that era, and the composers, singers, and songwriters who made social commentary through their music. What’s really cool is that there are so many different artists today making significant contributions toward protest music.
A new course, Music, Culture, Context, explores the understanding of musical performance in the broader sense. It’s culturally comparative and, for example, might look at musical performances from a symphony orchestra in the Western European classical tradition to Javanese gamelan performance to understand the cultural similarities and differences between the two.
We also look at musical instruments and how they migrated from Europe to places like Mexico, California, or Hawaii, to create a new sort of sound that may or may not have been intended by the people who established the music for those instruments.
The course also offers students a chance to reflect on our life with disembodied music. For so many years, the world has experienced music through live performance, but now we’re able to carry music with us. It had been recorded temporarily in one place and then transported to some other medium. And now, of course, we have all the digital streaming music that we have control over. But conversely, they have control over us. You hear a certain kind of music that’s tailored for a certain kind of clientele. In the Lehigh Valley Mall, for example, the music you hear in a Victoria’s Secret store will be much different than the music from Abercrombie & Fitch, to sort of draw in the customers and get them to pull out their credit cards. Students write a reflective essay about their own lives with disembodied music, which they seem to enjoy, as do I.
The other part of my teaching is directing a music ensemble of students that prepares, polishes, and performs a program of music at the end of each semester. It’s called the Marquis Consort, which specializes in music before 1750 and features string players, guitarists, lutenists, and singers.
This is a treat for me because I specialize in old music and composers who may not be known to many classical music listeners—Matthew Locke, John Banister, John Dowland. The Marquis Consort has anywhere from between 10 and 16 musicians, and meets once a week to practice and learn music that many haven’t discovered before.
It’s a relaxed atmosphere, unlike more traditional ensembles like an orchestra or concert band. There’s no central chain of command where there’s a conductor with a baton. Everybody follows; it’s more like chamber music. It’s a collaborative environment where we talk about things as a group and see what we might do to make the music sound spirited and convincing.
I started out as a classical guitarist, and I learned a bunch of standard repertoire during my undergraduate experience. Guitar repertoire emerged when the instrument’s sixth string was added in the late 18th century, beginning a tradition where guitar players augmented the repertoire by playing music composed for associated instruments like the lute and even transcriptions of harpsichord music. So, a lot of classical guitar repertoire has been transcriptions of music written for another instrument but rewritten or rearranged for the guitar.
Early on, I was playing a lot of music that had been arranged for the classical guitar. My teacher would point to the modern edition by this person or that person and say, “Well, you really don’t know what the real music is unless you go to the original source.” He introduced me to lute tablatures, which are a special form of notation using a six-line system, with each line representing a string of a lute.
Interestingly, it’s a form that’s still used today to notate rock ’n’ roll and popular music for electric and acoustic guitar. I was taught to go to original sources, like the tablatures, to see what was really there and compare it with what was or was not in my arrangement. I learned how to transcribe music from tablatures.
Then I started master’s work, doing a particular genre of early French music, which excited me. I carried that into my doctoral work at Cornell, focusing on 17th-century French lute manuscripts and the broader context of French baroque music in general. I also learned about the social place of the instrument, compared to say, the violins in the early 17th century, where the lute had a higher social status than the violins. Nowadays, we think of violinists as the leaders and highest paid members in an orchestra. But back in the 17th century, fiddlers were sort of seen as servants, the French referring to them as lackeys. Lutes were the noble instruments.
I was so drawn to 17th-century French lute music, which has a melodic and rhythmic style that is so different from German, English, and Italian lute music of the same time. It’s been called “broken style,” an arpeggiated and seemingly irregular style of playing.
Another thing that I wound up doing later on was studying Latin American popular music from the 1920s to the late 1950s, the equivalent of the Great American Songbook. The rumba and mambo became popular in ballrooms in the United States in the 1950s because of this musical tradition. My grandmother would listen to it, and it attracted my interest as a music scholar.
Well, the students primarily. I had been at two previous liberal arts colleges. Their students were either really well adjusted socially or very talented academically, and just a joy to work with. When I visited Lafayette, I found that the students were a mixture of both groups I had experienced previously.
The best students at Lafayette can see eye to eye with the best students at Harvard, or any other place. I’ve always believed that. But yet, they don’t seem to be hung up on their smarts. They don’t seem to be so fragile that they can’t function like normal humans. They’re very talented. It’s a nice environment of students who like to get along.
I spend time with the Lehigh Valley Friends (Quakers) as a member of their social concerns committee. One of the things that we’ve been doing there is trying to find ways to help members of our community work with the local justice system. We started a bail fund, trying to alleviate the pressures, the inconsistencies, and the discriminations of cash bail because so many folks who are in prison right now are in there because of something minor. We collect money for bail, to help get people out of jail before they go to trial.
We’ve also brought in members of Lafayette’s Refugee Action (RefAct) student club to form a partnership and help provide resources to refugees resettling in the Lehigh Valley.
Here’s a link to a bossa nova band that I have been directing for the last several years.