Tone Deaf or Just Atonal – Sensing Change

From Rites of Spring, ” Part 1_ Adoration Of The Earth_ Dance Of The Young Girls”
Igor Stravinsky
Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic

Tone Deaf or Just Atonal – Sensing Change

When Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rites of Spring was first performed the audience rioted. The ballet evoked a pagan ritual celebrating the coming of spring with a heavy emphasis on percussion instruments and using conventional instruments almost as though they were percussive instruments at times. Needless to say the change was greater than most in the audience were prepared to accept.

Part of the problem is that we have to retrain the way we absorb a thing when something about it changes. Part of the problem with Stravinsky’s music was, I think, that people did not know how to listen to it. Their reaction certainly suggests they did not get it. With time, though, the music has become a part of the mainstream and is appreciated and enjoyed by many who enjoy and appreciate classical music.

Arnold Schoenberg’s music also provoked profound disinterest when his music was first performed, though there were no riots that I am aware of. He developed a twelve-tone compositional system that many found intriguing and many others to this day find almost unlistenable. His composition courses, though, were very popular. It is said that many hoping to write music for the movies, especially for horror movies found his twelve-tone system (a form of atonality) well suited to film where music is used not so much as a stand alone item but as something to underscore or add emphasis to what is happening on screen.

Schoenberg’s method could be used effectively for creating mood and atmosphere, though I am told that those composers that employed this technique in the movies lacked Schoenberg’s skill and artistry. I think that hints of Schoenberg’s atonality can be heard in the work of some jazz composers, especially those, like John Coltrane, whose compositions are often dissonant and not always overtly melodic. Listening to John Coltrane and other jazz composers like him also requires a bit of retraining for the ear.

Abstract painting by Jackson Pollock,,_1948.jpg
No. 5, 1948
An abstract painting by Jackson Pollock, taken from Art Market

The painting by Jackson Pollack does not look like much of a painting to many and it too requires the viewer to learn a new way of looking if the work is to be appreciated. There is depth and texture to the painting but identifying what its about may suggest more of Rorschach and his inkblots than art. Art is supposed to move the viewer at some level and many find themselves responding emotionally to the painting. Because it is not representational it can suggest many things, but it is the viewer’s job to establish this meaningful connection. I think it is worth the effort to seek the artistry in this and other paintings like it (like it in the sense that they defy traditional forms of observation).

These thoughts about music and art and the difficulty with which a culture often reacts to change were provoked by attitudes toward change in schools. It seems at times that the reaction to some of the new technologies and less traditional classroom strategies are met with a reaction not unlike that which confronted Stravinsky and Schoenberg. I teach in a school that is a bit standoffish to some of the newer technologies, especially some of the more social technologies, like YouTube. There have been plenty of examples of the misuse of this technology in the media, but does that justify closing the door on it. We do not deny our students access to libraries because they may contain books that we would rather they did not read.

It can be argued that a school library is different than a public library and that it is prudent to keep some books of school library shelves. Still, no one advocates closing the school library altogether. At worst this is an argument for opening the door to some of the things these technologies offer while putting in place some safeguards to make it difficult to access their less savory side. In this Sunday’s Boston Globe (11/2) there is an article (“U Tube“) about how these new technologies are being used to make lectures, interviews, and other educational materials available for free to any who want to learn from them. Prominent people in various fields of study have developed these materials and they offer much that can be of value in the classroom.

YouTube on Grimm’s and Verner’s Laws

The YouTube video is a discussion of Grimm’s Law and how he codified the transitional steps between the Latin branch of the Indo-European language group and the Germanic Languages that do not resemble, at least not superficially, Latin. As an English teacher I find the evolution of language fascinating and I find this video fascinating for understanding how that branch of the English language that has its origins in the German Languages of the Angles and the Saxons and the Jutes, came to look and act the way it does. Whatever one thinks of this particular YouTube video, the point is still the same; it serves and was designed to serve an educational purpose, a purpose that has a place in the modern classroom.

I think that over time the nature of the book is going to change. There are already technologies available that could make the book of bound paper pages obsolete. It is not unlikely that books of the future may be multi-media in their presentation. Essays and stories that are published online already incorporate images, film clips, and music to add additional dimensions to the writing and to reinforce points in their arguments. The rise of the graphic novel suggests that a visual component is finding its way into the work (though the work of Arthur Rackham and John Tenniel suggest that this is not an entirely new idea).

The culture changes even if we do not and change is not always comfortable, but it is necessary. What more can be done within the traditional art forms. Music, painting, and the written word do not pass away because there does not seem to be much left to do with them. The novel evolved in part because the epic no longer served as an effective way to tell stories, or so it seemed to those that wrote stories.

I think the same is true of the classroom. It, like any other form, must evolve and grow to fit the times in which it lives or it ceases to be effective, it ceases to be alive. I am not sure changing the way the desks are organized is enough, though it may be an effective place to start. Living things change. We can speak with greater certainty about the meaning of a Latin word than an English or German word because no one speaks Latin anymore and therefore its vocabulary is no longer fluid. Living things change, that is in part what it means to be alive.

The best that can be said of a classroom that operates in much the same way classrooms operated a hundred years ago is that it is in a state of suspended animation waiting to be revived. It is also possible, I think, to use twenty-first century tools and techniques within a nineteenth century classroom structure; to use, for example, a web text in the same way we use a traditional textbook. I am not sure this is enough either. The greatest argument in favor of changing the classroom, not just to incorporate the new technologies, though certainly they should do that, is to keep it healthy and alive. It is difficult to excite the mind with an old idea or an old way of looking at the world or even of looking at new ideas. As our world and the arts and ideas that shape that world change so must our ways of looking, listening, and learning change.