My Favorite Works to Teach in Music Hum

My colleague and fellow Core Lecturer Alexander Rothe published a Top 5 List of Favorite Works to Teach in Music Humanities back in March, and I promised I would do the same, so here goes:

1) Luca Marenzio, “Solo e Pensoso”

This is the most beautiful piece of music from the entire semester, no contest. This Renaissance madrigal opens with a textbook point of imitation that also word-paints the “echoing steps” of the protagonist of Francesco Petrarca’s poem. The uppermost voice doesn’t participate in the imitation, however, instead embarking on a painfully slow chromatic climb-and-descent for a good third of the piece. The way I teach this piece, as a setting of Petrarch’s (already rhythmically interesting) poem, is wholesale ‘borrowed’ from a teaching lecture by Columbia Professor Giuseppe Gerbino but hey, if it works…

2) Klaus Nomi x Henry Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament” from Dido and Aeneas

Probably the saddest piece of music I cover. First, I teach Purcell’s aria: we talk about musical meaning and the Baroque notion of affect, and listen for the orchestra’s sorrowful chromaticism. We also think about the difference between the written opera and its production, and consider the role of onstage bystanders to Dido’s suicide, the role of Belinda, the absence of Aeneas, and so on. Then I show Nomi’s song, introducing the countertenor voice type and explaining the context of the AIDS crisis in New York. With Nomi’s imminent death from the disease, the repeated line “remember me, but forget my fate” reclaims a different kind of taboo, so we discuss how recontextualizing music can be really powerful.

3) Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 9, IV

“Some of you might recognize this.” Voices in a symphony collide with the primacy of the symphony and absolute music in Central Europe. What does “not these tones” refer to? What do we make of the long, dramatic introduction to the movement? Who is and isn’t part of the brotherhood? And, the favorite, how can we get at the meaning of Beethoven’s work when the “Ode to Joy” has been used for so many political, ideological, cultural, and commercial purposes? There are so many rich discussion questions about this one. Sometimes I throw in Wendy Carlos’ cover version for vocoder, sometimes I save it for the class on electronic music.

4) Ruth Crawford, “Chinaman, Laundryman” on a poem by H. T. Tsiang

This class is about the history of immigration and the history of labor. It is also about the failure of the idea that workers could use more avant-garde music. These are big current topics that students want to talk about so it’s good to have a short piece of music anchoring the discussion. In this song for voice and piano, Crawford uses a nine-tone row, a declamatory singing style that privileges intelligibility over pitch, and melodic character markers for the characters in the poem. I remind students that they are already familiar with this instrumentation from studying Lieder and already familiar with serial procedures from studying European Modernism, so they are fully equipped to discuss this one. 

5) Ikue Mori (laptop electronics) and Zeena Parkins (acoustic and electric harps)

Most semesters, I teach one of the improvisations of Mori and Parkins on the album Phantom Orchard. I love teaching this music because it is a collaboration between two women, and teaching in New York makes it doubly special to teach the Downtown scene. Students generally welcome the laptop as a musical instrument more readily than the musical academy writ large, which lets us move on to discussing computers as the introduction of new compositional logics and new aesthetic interests. All semester, I push against the common falsity that jazz is always improvised and other music is never ever improvised, so covering a laptop-harp improvisation fits into that project, too.