"Music creates order out of chaos: for rhythm imposes unanimity upon the divergent, melody imposes continuity upon the disjointed, and harmony imposes compatibility upon the incongruous."
MR. GEIB'S MUSIC CHALLENGE
Glenn Gould plays his famous 1956 recordings of "The Goldberg Variations"
by Johann Sebastian Bach.
"Music, the greatest good that mortals know,
And all of heaven we have below."
Mr. Geib believes strongly that one cannot teach a proper class in the humanities of any era without seriously addressing the poetry, prose, painting, and music of that time. As George Jellinek has asserted: "The history of a people is found in its songs." And so Mr. Geib has made a concerted effort to introduce music from the historical periods we have studied from American history. So his students have witnessed.
But Mr. Geib is more than a bit nonplussed by the music of contemporary America, the era we are fast approaching in this class. Frankly, he thinks almost all of this music is horrible. In fact, Mr. Geib thinks almost all of popular entertainment is horrible.
And this is not the "old man-who-doesn't-get-it" dynamic: Mr. Geib purposely turned his back and devoted himself to scrupulously ignoring the omnipresent noise of popular culture when he was just out of college. At the time Mr. Geib was in danger of becoming an "angry young man." He would look at all the valuable time and precious attention these incredibly inane television shows and insipid pop music hits would garner, and he would shake his head in disgust. He would look around astounded and conclude there must be a conspiracy afoot to make his country dumb. "Who stole my culture and gave it to MTV?" Mr. Geib took his television out to the desert, in an event much discussed by his students, and blew it up with his shotgun. It was a ritualistic cleansing. Mr. Geib did not own a TV again until he got married twelve years later, and he has never had cable access.
Mr. Geib felt much better thusly. He has absolutely no regrets. (And he is not the only one!) Contrary to what some of his students believe, watching television is not akin to breathing oxygen. One can live without it. Mr. Geib does not get angry over scandalous reality TV shows that humiliate their participants and insult their audiences, or tear his hair at mindless pop singers who sell five billion albums yet are completely forgotten by the time they turn 25-years of age. At one time everything around Mr. Geib seemed tawdry, trashy, and disposable, and so he turned his face away from his age intellectually, while he engaged it practically in teaching his students. This was a good mix that worked for him. Mr. Geib lived his life looking at the positive he could find in the world, and he steadfastly ignored the ridiculous and the absurd. This often meant, in practice, that Mr. Geib lived in his imagination (the only place it really counts) almost entirely in the past, even as his students kept him grounded in reality and feeling young.
What does this mean? Where does Mr. Geib "live"? He lived, by choice, amidst Mozart's piano concertos, Byron's colorful histrionics, Johnson's dry witticisms, and through the confessions of St. Augustine, the dialectics of Thucydides, and the enthusiasms of Emerson. While Mr. Geib steadfastly refused to devote any attention to who won the Oscars, the Grammies, or the Super Bowl, he gave full flight to his imagination to wander across the centuries to where he found true inspiration and brotherhood. It is in the past where Mr. Geib found his heroes. There was probably a reason an artist or thinker's life work is still popular hundreds of years after their death, and Mr. Geib only wanted to study the best ideas and the best art. Life is short; he would soon be dead; and there were so many old masters Mr. Geib knew only skin-deep. He had not read any of Pliny's histories of Rome, for example. His understanding of the Provenšal poets was tenuous and superficial at best. He knew next to nothing about the fascinating neo-Platonists and their influence on Christianity. His unpolished and utterly amateur appreciation of almost all great painters caused him shame. Mr. Geib often feels as if he has used his God-given years poorly, squandered time that will never return. So many others know so much more than him... he would die half-learned, a failure when compared to so many others.
And there seemed so little time, after all the cares and attentions of the day, in which to learn more! As Ben Franklin stated, "Dost thou love Life? Then do not squander Time; for that's the stuff Life is made of." How true! And so, esteemed reader, why in the world would Mr. Geib waste a full hour of incredibly valuable free time at night watching "The O.C." on TV? (Even as he grew up in the "O.C"!) Mr. Geib believes rap to be a most execrable collection of noise, and almost everything else blasting out of your average teenager's car to be almost as bad:
"...imitation Afro industrial music; music to assemble Mack trucks by. Slave-labor music. Music to hammer out fenders by."
- as Edward Abbey decried it. But this is Mr. Geib the curmudgeon, and he tries to avoid that aspect of himself. It avails not, serves no good, and only poisons himself. So he keeps his mood and thoughts positive by avoiding that which spoils it: pop culture. This has been the story of much of Mr. Geib's adult life.
Some complained that in abjuring pop culture Mr. Geib has cut himself off from his neighbors and his time. Pop culture is what links Americans together and gives them some common frame of reference. But students, by this advanced stage of the semester, know much better the deeper ideas that links Mr. Geib to his country and past. (Or at least one would hope so!) And Mr. Geib's identity as an American is only a part of his identity as a human being that has had a long and glorious history; and today, and the United States, is a very small part of recorded history. Mr. Geib would prefer this pure kinship of shared values and learning over time to the false feelings of connection that come from merely watching the same TV show each week or rooting for the same basketball team.
But then Mr. Geib has second thoughts. He doesn't really know anything about pop culture, and that would seemingly disqualify him from making any informed judgment. And has not all great art come out into the world, at least initially, surrounded by mediocrities that did not survive the test of time? Were not Shakespeare's plays produced in London amidst a great mass of other forgettable Elizabethan plays? How many artistic geniuses died with their art unrecognized as genius? Was not Mozart considered not much more than a servant of the Viennese court of Joseph II? Was not jazz considered initially "nigger music" (excuse the vulgarity) fit only to be played in New Orleans brothels? These articles nicely frames this idea -
or these two diametrically opposed points of view -
- Can't Fight This Power "From Baghdad to Baltimore, Big Boi, Young Jeezy and countless upstart rappers are changing the world." by Ryan J. Smith and Swati Pandey,
- Don't Believe the Hype -- Rap Anger Isn't a Meaningful Message, by John McWhorter
Opinions are clearly divided.
And van Gogh? The weirdo who cut his ear off, never had any money or enjoyed acclaim, and would have been unable to pursue his art if his brother had not bought him canvas and paint? Where are such geniuses today? Herman Melville, whose magisterial "Moby Dick" is said to be the great American novel, died ignored as a writer in 1891 - and remained ignored until the 1920s. The fact that Melville died unrecognized and unappreciated in his own land does not lessen his true genius as an artist. Surely there must today be diamonds in the rough, real genius amidst the mindless mediocrities (or worse). But it is so hard to separate the genius from the mediocrities, the great art from the merely popular and trendy.
This is where Mr. Geib would like to challenge his students. Mr. Geib will introduce his lectures on jazz with a lesson on why Mozart's "Fantasia in G Minor" and Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues" can be considered "genius." Mr. Geib will show brief videos showing the art demonstrated by musicians. He will also explain what he considers to be great art, loosely speaking. Then he hopes students will volunteer to do the same with contemporary young artists that, in their opinion, will be judged as "geniuses" similar to those of the past. To bring us to now:
- J.S. Bach (1685-1750) Prelude and Fugue #2 in C Minor (1740; 1.12 mb)
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) Fantasia in D Minor, K 391 (1779; 8.32 mb)
- Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) West End Blues (2.61mb; 1928)
- and then what? Who will we put next on that list? Where are the geniuses in America today?
Students, here is your chance! Prove Mr. Geib to be an elitist, know-nothing by showing him an instance of contemporary artistic genius that he has not had the sense yet to appreciate. Show him that there exists art today that is as great as any previously created. Believe it or not, Mr. Geib hopes to be converted.
Mr. Geib will devote a portion of the whiteboard to those who want to sign up for a day where, at the beginning of class, they can persuade Geib that contemporary music is not so much sound and noise signifying nothing. Presentations should be from 5-7 minutes long with an oral introduction followed by a video of the musician performing their art; ten minutes is the maximum time for the entire presentation. Use Mr. Geib's presentations on Mozart and Armstrong as a model.
NOTE: Mr. Geib will not be persuaded by carnal displays of flesh that appeal more strongly to hormonally drenched adolescents. For instance, when Mr. Geib asked his class last year for one reason why he should pay any attention to Brittany Spears and her music, student Zander Carbajal replied: "I'll give you two!" Artistically, at least, that does not impress. Mr. Geib has already seen a dozen Brittany Spears arrive and depart off the stage of pop culture. Mr. Geib is, in Shakespeare's words
Not so young, sir, to love a woman for singing, nor so old to dote on her for any thing; I have years on my back forty-eight.
Mr. Geib is 38 years old, so keep this in mind. And when Mr. Geib means a "contemporary artist," he means don't bring anyone in who is older than him. That is right: no artists over 38-years of age!
FINAL NOTE: Listen to the above music clips of Bach, Mozart, and Armstrong and then listen to a piece of music you might plan to present to Mr. Geib. Does this music really measure up to the standard of "great music"? Will other people objectively see in it what you see it? Reasons akin to the following:
- "This song reminds me of the first time I kissed a girl in middle school!"
- "It has a really good beat and it just makes you wanna dance!"
- "I just kind of like it - it makes me feel good!"
are not enough. Focus on the music, and make sure the music itself is strong; and then make sure through your presentation that your audience understands exactly why the music qualifies, in your learned opinion, as "great art." Use your words and the subsequent video presentation. Plan carefully how it will go and what you will say. Again, use Mr. Geib's presentation as a model.