Wednesday, October 07, 2015

ML410.C13 A15 1995

I'm not sure this worked. Our final "Arts as Social Research" session was on sound, and we read parts of Aaron Copland's What to Listen for in Music (which started as a course at The New School) as well as two of the dialogues in For the Birds (where John Cage describes studying and teaching at The New School, along with his experiments with sound and chance); for the last part of class we heard about our college's innovative major in Contemporary Music, currently in its third year. The room was stuffy, though, and the students were tired; I think classical music is off-putting to many of them, experimental music no less so. I anticipated it might be a tough class, so I planned an activity for us, adapted from something Cage describes in For the Birds (89).
On little cards I had students write

(1) a number between 1 and 5
(2) another number, between 50 and 150
(3) an arrow pointing either upward or downward

These cards were collected, shuffled and redistributed. Next, students had to sprint down to the library (three floors below us), and look around for a book that appealed to them, touch it. Then they were supposed to consult their card, pulling out a book as many books to the right or left as the first number, open to the page indicated by the second number, and copy out, depending on the arrow, the first or last full sentence on the page. For good measure, they should write down the book's call number. And then hurry back to class.

Our first activity was for each person to read out her/his sentence, as if she/he meant it, followed, seamlessly, by another sentence; they could choose however or therefore as the transition. This flowed better as people got the hang of it, so we had a second go around, this time using the transition they hadn't used before. (Turns out however improv is easier.) The content, from books on many subjects (the Nevada State legislature, the publishing history of a comic book, Macy's claims that it had the world's largest store, statistics regarding incarceration, tonal characteristics of the clarinet, the caption to a photograph of some forgotten person, and several scenes from fiction among them), started to seem familiar even as each sentence opened out in a (not always very) different direction than before. Somehow we were all contributing to a discussion of a complicated interdisciplinary something.

Our other activity was a little more conceptual. Students were to address each other by name, but speak only the call number they'd written down. Not everyone had remembered to do so, but there were enough to go around. Call numbers were pronounced as assertions, posed as questions or suggestions, laid down as challenges serious and ironic. "John, BL175 .A4 1990!" "Sandra, GN1558 .R46?" "Federico, PQ3 .C87 1987a...!" "Colleen, HM14 ... G7 ... N411!!" "JG50 .S1919, Sandra."
I suppose the exercise was as much Yoko Ono as John Cage but it got the juices flowing, at least a little. I'm not sure the students have enough experience of seminar discussion to notice how not-unlike some such discussions our activities were (which may be for the best!). We didn't get a chance to reflect on it, as our class visitor - the Director of the BA in Contemporary Music - came in as the call numbers were bouncing around. Cool as a cucumber he said "6 E 16, 1106" - our room number. Did anyone have an M, he asked? That's where he's at home.

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