Monthly Archives: July 2011

Music and Rhetoric: Making it Matter

I’m listening to Philip Glass’s score to the classic 1930s Dracula, and this track seems to represent the thoughts bouncing around in my head right now. Hit play and listen as you read along.

I opened up my Google Doc “Dissertation Research Journal” and started to write this out there as a freewrite to figure out some thoughts, but then I decided this was as good a place as that to think “out loud.” (Auditory metaphors are unavoidable, no?) I feel that sense of scholarly unease that often leads to good things; someone (who?) once wrote, “I always wake up in the middle of the night and realize that my current project is completely uninteresting, but by figuring out my way around that terror I get to the really good stuff.” I feel like I’m getting there now.

Here’s the thing: musicologists write about rhetoric all the time, but it’s generally boring. Here’s what I don’t mean by that:

  • I don’t mean that musicology is boring.
  • I don’t mean that exploring the intersection of music and rhetoric is boring.

Still, this stuff (which I’ll politely not cite in this informal space, I think) is often boring:

  • It’s boring because rhetoric is interpreted as a series of techniques. (“Here is how you arrange a speech. Here are figures to make your style effective.”)
  • Building from that, it’s boring because musical rhetoric is described as a series of techniques. (“Here is how you arrange a sonata. Here are musical figures to make your style effective.”)
  • Building from both of those, it’s boring to read a technique-driven analysis of any text. (“Then, Cicero/Bach moves into the confirmatio section of the speech/piece, which has x effect. Then, Cicero/Bach uses anaphora, which has y effect. Then . . . .”)
  • It’s also surprisingly boring to read the original manuscripts of 17th- and 18th-century musical theorists (mostly German) who loved listing every single way that rhetoric and music seem to be similar.

So. As I’ve been weighed down by this boring-ness more and more in the last few weeks, I’m increasingly led to a deeper question: how do I view rhetoric? Is it just a compilation of techniques that can be roughly categorized to help people invent, arrange, embellish, memorize, and deliver arguments? Or is it something more? I felt this desire for the ineffable recently when I was writing a fun, student-friendly piece called “Why Study Rhetoric? or, What Freestyle Rap Teaches us About Writing” (which I’ll post here one of these days). I kept talking about why rhetoric mattered, but suddenly I realized I hadn’t actually gotten specific about what rhetorical techniques actually look like, and in the end that section is what I’m least happy with.

Maybe this is the heart: one of my dissertation readers emphatically said to me once, “How can anyone in other fields know what rhetoric is? We don’t even know what it is!”

But that’s not how it sounds when you read musicologists, past or present, write about rhetoric. They seem to know. Rhetoric is always a set of techniques. It’s depicted an art, a techne, a set of technical knowledge about what’s most likely to move a crowd. Certainty all around! And in some ways, they’re right. Rhetoric is indeed an art and a series of techniques. It really is. But it’s more, too. Right?

When I was writing that piece about freestyle rap, I asked a question on my Facebook wall that now feels particularly apt:

A screenshot from Facebook

Did I ask these people for permission to post this? Nope.

Marc mentions Corder’s article, and here’s how it ends:

Rhetoric is love, and it must speak a commodious language, creating a world full of space and time that will hold our diversities. Most failures of communication result from some willful or inadvertent but unloving violation of the space and time we and others live in, and most of our speaking is tribal talk. But there is more to us than that. We can learn to speak a commodious language, and we can learn to hear a commodious language.

Musical rhetoric can work the same way, and it’s even better suited to this kind of “commodious language” than words are: music can be carefully crafted to “hold our diversities,” to be loving, to honor the inherent “violation of the space and time” that music brings as it insistently attacks our ears and minds.

And did you see Corder’s sudden move to the auditory in his 4th-from-last word–his request that we “learn to hear” this new, connection-bridging model of rhetorical communication? Maybe he hears it too. . . .

So what does this have to do with my dissertation? It means that I’m not just “interpreting musicology’s work on rhetoric in terms that the rhetoric field will appreciate,” which I always say is one of my many goals. Instead, it means that I’m coming at that work–again, both historical and contemporary–with the new lens of pointing out how our view of rhetorical music can be so much broader, so much lovelier, so much more engaging, than a simple study of arrangement and figures. And there’s nothing boring (to me) about that.

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Spotify: Joy, Wariness

As their unbelievably happy video attests, Spotify is here:

I’ve been waiting for this for a long time, reading about how this legal stream-all-the-music-you-want service is changing the face of music all over the world. So when I saw it was here I signed up for an invitation right away and got my “Step right up!” email in the next day or two.

I’m not going to go into all the features, because you can read about that elsewhere. Suffice it to say that it really is as easy as it sounds. I downloaded the program, logged in, searched “harry potter and the deathly hallows part 1” and instantly began streaming the soundtrack. (Part 2 isn’t up yet, as far as I can tell–but it’s on Grooveshark!) This morning I thought, “Oh! I haven’t bought the newest R.E.M. album yet! I’ll stream it now!” It’s going now, and I really love it.

Quick interlude: before I got married, I listened to music while falling asleep every once in a while–say, 2 nights a month. I would put on a CD, and I’d almost always be asleep before it ended. When I got my first mp3 player, I made awesome “fall asleep” playlists, because I love playlists. But I found that when I listened to the playlists, I would never actually fall asleep with them on. It wasn’t the headphones–when in college, I fell asleep plenty of times to Björk’s Vespertine through headphones.

I finally decided that I couldn’t sleep to the mp3s because there were too many of them. I always wondered, “What’s coming up next?” or I thought, “Oh, I don’t want to hear this one, so I’ll just skip it–there are dozens more!” That little bit of mental engagement kept me from sleep. I’ve nostalgically felt somewhat similar feelings about cassettes sometimes: when your friend makes you a mix tape, you get to know every song on that tape, because you don’t want to bother fast-forwarding to the songs you know you like. And in the meantime, you often begin to like the songs that you initially didn’t appreciate as much. With a mix CD, there’s nothing stopping you from plowing ahead. In both cases, there’s something about the bounty and ease of the new technology that had an unexpected, negative side-effect on the human element. (Call it the epistemology of the cassette, if you like words like that.)

Back to Spotify. Now that I have it, I hear this little, eager voice in my gut that moves from one possible future listen to the next, with somewhat alarming speed: “Oh! And I could listen to Paula Abdul later! And then Cyndi Lauper! And Depeche Mode! And The Cure! And Phish! Do they have live Phish? Live Pearl Jam? Live Death Cab? Rare Death Cab? Rare Smashing Pumpkins? Rare Björk? Club-remix Björk? Club-remix Delerium? Old-school Delerium?”

And on, and on, and on.

So while I’m excited at what Spotify can offer me, I’m wary about anything that makes me think so much about me and my wants, and allows me to fill those wants so easily, with no hesitation at all. I’m afraid that too much bounty puts me into a me-focused, jittery mindset that doesn’t include room for living within boundaries, or sleep. No, I’m not anti-Spotify. I’m pretty sure I’m going to keep using it for a long, long time. But I’m also trying to pay attention to subtle changes that new technologies want to make in me, and I want to be the one who decides which changes are allowed to happen.

Am I over-thinking this?


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Copyright and Education

Photo of a copyrighted rock

James Glover, "Copyrighted rock," available under a CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0 license at

In a recent meeting for our First-Year Composition program, I volunteered to find 4 recent readings on the topic of copyright and education. Easy, right? I’ve got tons of pages on copyright, IP, and fair use bookmarked on Diigo, and I try to keep up with scholarly conversations in the field on the stuff.

Of course, it took longer than I expected. But I’m not complaining–I was reminded of awesome stuff I had saved and promptly forgotten. So after wandering through a few options, I landed on the following four readings.

(Note: these lists of resources are shared with students in a printed textbook, with the idea that students who choose to begin researching this topic will look up the articles themselves, so at least one had to be un-Google-able, available only through our library databases. Thus the MLA citations.)

McDonald, R. Robin. “Copyright Suit Over University’s Online Reading Room Could Set Academic Use Standards.” ALM, 9 June 2011. Web. 21 June 2011.

A well-done news story of a yet-to-be-decided case that could seriously affect the way educators can distribute digital copies of readings.

McGrail, Ewa, and J. Patrick McGrail. “Copying Right and Copying Wrong with Web 2.0 Tools in the Teacher Education and Communications Classrooms.” Contemporary Issues in Technology and English Language Arts Teacher Education 10.3 (2010): n.pag. Web.12 July 2011.

A free, online, long, and Google-able scholarly journal article that walks through a number of complex issues that come up when teachers give assignments that ask students to do multimedia projects from found materials. Long, but good stuff.

Gardner, Traci. “Mixing or Plagiarizing?NCTE Inbox. National Council of Teachers of English, 17 Feb. 2010. Web. 12 July 2011.

A short piece describing a young novelist’s defense of her plagiarism as simply what this generation does. A great discussion-starter, especially when students can apply the ideas from the previous resource to this one.

Dubisar, Abby M., and Jason Palmeri. “Palin/Pathos/Peter Griffin: Political Video Remix and Composition Pedagogy.” Computers and Composition 27.2 (2010): 77-93. ScienceDirect. Web. 12 July 2011.

A scholarly piece that needs to be accessed through the databases. Full of interview data and excerpts from the work of students doing politically active remixing–so it seemed more applicable to a list of sources on copyright and education than some of the other (and super-awesome) work on IP in recent-er issues of Computers and Composition.

Remaining, wriggling thoughts:

  • I continually wondered how one-sided to be when selecting resources. I mean, I’d love to convince these students to use their fair use rights all over the place,  but this didn’t seem like the place for too much propaganda. A perfect balance would have been to include 2 really conservative and 2 really liberal views on copyright in the classroom, but the sources I had bookmarked didn’t really lend themselves to that kind of thing. But I’m not sure I made the right choice.
  • It seems obvious now, but I should have included some video demonstrating some of these principles. (Everything is a Remix, anybody?) I didn’t because I wanted to focus on education (and I only had 4 slots!), but I’m increasingly unhappy with the choice. Oh well!
  • Um, why didn’t I crowdsource this? I sent nary a tweet asking for advice. Sorry, friends; I know it would be a richer 4-item list with your help!

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