Establishing the Beat
Everyone who has ever taught writing must know this student—the music geek. I know it’s a stereotype, but it’s one that hits with quadraphonic clarity; I was one too. Nowadays, of course, I no longer arrive to class with headphones and tour date t-shirt. Instead, I’m a conductor who doesn’t play so much as reveal the silence between the notes for others to fill. Like Count Basie’s “less is more” piano playing, I play with my ability to not-play. You see, I am less interested in debating the finer (i.e. “geekier”) points with students about musical taste and trivia, even if it is on music that we all share; instead, I try to allow something new to emerge from encounters with music that neither the students nor myself can entirely predict. I do this by coupling student interest with music with the various academic discourses that the university charges them with. My goal is to re-charge these academic pursuits with the same enthusiasm that drives their interest in music so that they become—in the best sense of the term—a respected geek in their field.
The Sound(Career)Track Project asks that students take a quadraphonic engagement of their music. Drawing on Gregory Ulmer’s four-fold invention strategy—or what he calls his “quadripodes of discourse”—students write about 1) their family narratives, 2) their entertainment interests, 3) their cultural history, and 4) their disciplinary/theoretical knowledge (1994, 195). Rather than focusing solely on music's obvious entertainment value, Ulmer’s methodology encourages writing that stretches across these four quadraphonic bandwidths. He asks to “write an intuition” by engaging one’s “distributed memories” across various discourses, rather than focusing on the “formal, abstract logic” of one (1994, 36-37). The goal is for writers to become “active receivers” who experience the “full paradigm of possibilities through which a multitude of paths may be traced” (1994, 38). Opening student work to the quadripodes-cum-quadraphonics of discourse allows students to re-mix the language from their music and their careers, more than merely cover either. Through re-mixing the language from each of these, students may broaden their understanding of their personal narratives and increase their engagement with disparate cultural histories.
Bear in mind, however, that as students start to generate music of their own, even a big band sound can become complicated by unexpected shifts in rhythm and instrumentation. Even Count Basie—that master of swing, known for his affable, curbside squat with Harlem youth during a formal portrait with his peers—may, nevertheless, need to adjust even further so as to allow for the unaccountable fusions that often emerge in music, no less than in composition. What I like about Art Kane's 1958 "Great Day in Harlem" portrait (see above, and home page) is not only the Count's willingness to get down with Youth, but also the unexpected humor of Dizzy Gillespie, standing there on the far right-hand side--in the youthful joy of the moment--sticking his tongue out.
Tuning up the Bass
The Sound(Career)Track arose out of a Learning Community section of first-year composition at Purdue University that I team-taught with an academic advisor assigned to help undeclared undergraduates. One of the goals of this class was to give students an opportunity to explore the academic literature of a given career. My project initially emerged out of the following question: What if students were given permission to play with language that is ostensibly defined as “academic” and “career-oriented” across the language and iconography of the music they already love? Riffing off Will Smith’s popular 1998 hit, “Gettin’ Jiggy With It,” the question is really one of how to allow students to “Get Geeky With It” when it comes to thinking of their current career path. The goal? A fusion of academic aims with the music that motivates them.
Given that my curriculum prior to the Learning Community assignment owed much to the invention strategies of Greg Ulmer, developing a project that could share in entertainment discourse was not difficult. Ulmer’s strategies draw upon hypermedia literacy, or “electracy,” that encourages “navigating an ocean of information” by exploring personal, pop cultural, historical, and disciplinary fields of interest (30). Ulmer does this by allowing writers to experiment with various lexicons, rather than merely analyzing or interpreting them. By making a move from “linear indexical” thinking to “network associational” thinking, Ulmer’s work operates through a “connectionism” that spans from discovery or “attunement” to our state of mind (2003, 58-59). As I will show, in my fusion of Ulmer’s composition theory with music theory, even a minor fusion—with a word like “fusion”—affords an opportunity to become attuned to networks of Jazz Fusion. The result? Musicians and their music may inspire students to read and write with personal, playful and professional (i.e., “geek”) acumen.
One of my favorite musicians is music/composition theorist, Michael Jarrett, whose attunement to Ulmer’s invention strategies is something of a rhythm guitar to Ulmer’s bass lines. In Jarrett's work, I hear an effort to move rhetoric/composition (R/C) to a sense of music/composition (M/C), wherein students might become, through reading-writing-listening about their music/careers, their own MC’s--their ownmost Masters of Ceremonies.
Enter Rhythm Guitar
Michael Jarrett’s Drifting on a Read: Jazz as a Model for Writing is an effort that Ulmer considers a “heuretic masterpiece.” Ulmer draws attention to Jarrett’s ability to perform, through "rhetorical tropes he invented out of jazz,” a discussion of music that touches the quadraphonic bandwidths detailed above. Jarrett’s work reveals that the time of “music geek”—with all the passion for sound, trivia, and technical know-how—has finally arrived to composition studies. As Robert Scholes both laments and celebrates in his backcover blurb, “[Jarrett’s work] makes me wish I were at the beginning of a teaching career rather than the end of it.”
Very briefly, the heuretic project that both Ulmer and Jarrett share an interest in is a “preparation for the design of a rhetoric/poetics leading to the production of new work” (Jarrett, 4). More than merely providing a space for an extended metaphor of music alone—a move that would neglect the multimodality of the quadripodes of discourse—a heuretic approach encourages the use of existing rhetorical and theoretical paradigms to produce new paradigms. As Byron Hawk frames this innovative heuretic style, Ulmer’s idea (and by extension, Jarrett's) allows students to “become producers as well as consumers of theory” (833). Ulmer and Jarrett do this by encouraging the stylistic play of language such that it taps into conductive logic, a logic that they locate along a continuum of abductive, deductive, and inductive logic (Ulmer, 215-219). While rhetorical invention has heretofore given itself to argumentative strategies, Ulmer’s conduction, as Jarrett notes, taps into “tropes,” which in musical terms are “any interpolation of text, music, or both into a liturgical chant” (Randel, 523; quoted in Jarrett 3). Playfully, yet seriously, we might refer to heuretics in terms of “Big Willie Style” to emphasize how re-mixing names and titles can cross the divide between prose and poetry.
For heuretics, the question “what’s in a name?” is, in part, answered through the Will Power of “Getting Geeky” with the signatures themselves. Indeed, between these two simple notes—titles and signatures—heuretic or conductive stylistics possess the capacity for generating dizzying melodies. Becoming-attuned to such Dizzy-ness, when playing, say, Dizzy Gillespie's signature and album titles, means allowing all sorts of inflation in the language of names and titles, even if they appear, at first, to be but puffed up cheekiness. And let's face it, Dizzy's cheekiness (as evident in his sticking his tongue out at Roy Eldridge in Art Kane's portrait) has sometimes appeared perversely strange. And yet, the be-bop that Dizzy's cheekiness let be, Shaw Enuff, allowed music to be and more so—variously!
Let me re-begin this tune up by shifting, as the students often prefer, from my own preference for Dizzy and Jazz to Weird Al and Pop Music. (If there's a difficulty in using music as a site of invention, it is in resisting one's own tastes!) The folds of Weird Al's accordion are uniquely suited to convey to students their role in producing their own Sound(Career)Track.
Weird Al’s re-mix of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” to “Like a Surgeon” is a good example of the “geeked out” language I am advocating. What is important is invested less in Al’s clever rhyming (virgin-surgeon), and more in the selection-specific insider-medical language such as “scalpels,” “forceps,” and “retractors” that he uses as details to flesh out his song. Throughout his work, Weird Al draws on this insider-language, and it doesn't take long for students to give examples of how these details shape his songs as much as his videos.
That Weird Al performs his pastiches with dizzing/geeky speed should not preclude what is paradoxically normal—that is, Norm Al—about his approach to writing. Namely, that Weird/Norm Al relies heavily on insider language of a particular lexicon to extract language that he later re-motivates. Insider-language drawn from building construction management (e.g. “Axial force,” “Ductility,” and “Section Modulus”), actuary science (e.g. “Absorption,” “Actuarial Present Value,” and “Attribution Rule,”), and nutrition (e.g. “Bioflavonoids,” “Glycemic Load,” “Retinol Activity Equivalent”)—or any career path whatsoever—can have musical encounters that may lend a sense of lyricism to one’s impending career.
Getting a Little Phunky Now
… And yet, though Weird/Norm Al serves as an important analogue for a classroom application, his work does not, alas, open the implications of music/composition wide enough. Thus, before I share a Weird Al Sound(Career)Track application, I want to pass through Michael Jarrett’s largely Be-Bop driven work to what I will describe as the Modal-Fusion terrain of Miles Davis. Davis, unlike Dizzy or Weird Al, cultivated a sense of music that many struggled with, particularly as Davis developed an alter-ego for himself by reversing his signature to "Sivad Selim" on his Live-Evil album.
In Davis's various iconoclastic we might pause and remember that allowing “music geek” interests to enter an assignment means to open up what is revolutionary--and what some may consider “dangerous"--in allowing music into the classroom. Ozzy Osbourne, for example, takes us to very origin of the term "geek" when he notoriously bit the head off a bat in front of music executives. As Leslie Fielder reminds in his freak history, carnival geeks, who were outsiders of the Big Top, were known for performing similar acts with chickens (28). This shocking gesture on Ozzy's part is precisely what some music feeds on, and as such, the introduction of potentially subversive dimensions of musicians and their music into an academic curriculum is not without risk. As Diane Davis says, in Breaking Up [at] Totality, “EXPECT SOME LEAKSsss” when it comes to the “crisscrossings and sideswiping” of language/laughter/music that sets “you in mmmmMMotion,” (5, emphasis Davis).
To be drawn to the dark side of the moon of any Sound(Career)Track is to be reminded that introducing music into the classroom is to unleash the prospect for hitherto unexpected fusions between academics and AC/DC.demics. It is also to be reminded of NOISE. To be sure, many students will not be drawn to “noisy” music; nevertheless, in developing this application, I am obliged to theorize some of the difficult dimensions of this conception. As Victor Vitanza once said on behalf of what he perceives as the dangerous, if not monstrous in music, “The sliding implosion of opposites, collapsing into crashing Noise! It’s so, so, so, inventive” (http://enculturation.gmu.edu/2_2/vitanza.html).