Most Alive

An excerpt of Convocation remarks delivered to the Class of 2017 by faculty member Nick Brooke

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Thank you, President Silver. It’s great to see all these new faces, including you.

I’m going to read from a piece of paper, thereby preserving an august tradition of people who read from pieces of paper at life junctures such as funerals, weddings, scandal inquisitions, royal birth decrees, and your recent graduation, which, like this occasion, are ritual acts of reading on stage—because, uh, you could’ve read this yourself. But I do this hoping that this piece of paper, droned in choppy monotone, might magically make you freshmen, alongside the reams of paper now jammed in the commons inbox of your mind, such as the fire code of Fels, fencing audition times, and handicam loan policy.

It’s odd.  When else do people read on stage?  Karaoke, with its sung subtitles, has waned since the 90s, and in this age of the teleprompter, you need to youtube Harry Truman to get a good dose of public lection. Or, every other Wednesday at 7, go to Franklin living room for literature night, and see Bennington faculty and guests roll out sheaves of prose and poetry.  Beyond that, it’s rare to witness someone reading. And many of you came to Bennington hoping that these are the last few minutes in which someone simply talks at you.

The act of reading paper is often at odds with music. Hence the joke: “How do you get a guitarist to shut up?  Put a piece of music in front of her.”  Musical notation lurks around, in every film score you hear to those synced Bollywood string hits in “Call Me Maybe.”  But reading music in public can be seen as an embarrassing crutch.

Even classical music sometimes hides the fact. In almost every photograph of a solo pianist in the NY Times, the pianist never looks at the score, instead looking straight up, eyes closed in rapture, hands suspended in mid-air.  An alien observer might think one plays the piano without notation, or even without touching, as the pianist’s hands hover over the piano like a theremin or an XBox Kinect.

Other musics do visually relish the often solitary act of reading, putting it on stage.  In Japanese Noh drama, musicians line up in elegant tiers, and the singers often kneel in front of notational calligraphy. Every stroke on the drum is choreographed, and the text is stretched in a kind of song-speech. On the other side of the stage, Noh actors play the drama that the chorus sings, in a way miming the words. It’s the most ritualized lip-sync you could imagine. This dramatic stylization, deliciously unreal, inspired U.S. and European theatre artists of the 20th century, who saw it as an antidote to dramatic realism.

Noh also influenced the U.S. composer John Cage, who maybe you know through his silent piece, 4’33”. Always a maverick, Cage read texts as much as he played his own music. The line between the two wasn’t clear. Armed with a microphone and a glass of water, he read a paper that was as much sound poetry as philosophy. Within a lecture, acts such as coughing, turning pages, and drinking water were written in the score, and at Q & As, he rolled dice to choose the answers he gave. Done with humor, Cage’s ruse worked. It made reading from a piece of paper seem, for once, something questionable, fresh, in the same era that Fluxus and performance art were putting other acts—such as burning a piano, or eating a tuna melt—on stage.

Why make reading from a piece of paper sound exotic? Why make my act, as theorists might say with lobster claws, “legible?”  

Your next four years are a performance. Surprise us. There’s enormous leeway in what you’re about to do. You can read, sing, debate, derive, snorkel, hack, jetée, mux, mig-weld, bisect a fruit fly. The 1930 charter of Bennington cites education as a “sensual as well as ethical experience,” and I love any sentence that uses both “sensual” and “ethical.” Like a good metaphor, I don’t know what it means. But I keep thinking about it. Like a good plan question, we don’t tell you the requirements. We have no idea what you’re about to do. Surprise us.

You don’t have think of performance as artifice, or part of the performing arts. Nor do you have to larp around campus, dressed as Tyrion Lannister, Bennington’s esteemed graduate. But do think of the many modalities that could make up your education. Think of performance as any social choice, in the world, because culture is always a performance. Sociology and psychology have used the concept to useful ends, and the innovative field of performance studies has broken down disciplinary walls by seeing all social acts, including the arts, on one spectrum.

I say this feeling the other stuff—social, personal—that we only glimpse as your academic advisors. In this hothouse of 700 seventeen-somethings, culture becomes strikingly legible, and maybe no time more than this first week. Background, gender, language, orientation, and finances come starkly into view. Advice here seems arrogant, except: please, keep in touch with yourself. And us when you need it. Process this info, talk, think, write journals, walk in the hills, find others who speak your language. I wish you a good passage.

The path through college can only be as bewildering as the term “music,” which also confounds any core experience.  The term “music” has been used to refer to Frank Ocean, Beethoven, yodeling contests, and highly amplified glaciers. I’m delighted by that. It’s why I chose the field. Even the idea that music is about “sound” is breaking down along with the recording industry. Bennington is a microcosm of this musical universe, and the school’s past 80 years show that music can’t be pinned down.

Here’s four stories.

    1952. A reel-to-reel tape recorder is discovered in Germany in WWII, and the newfound technology starts to be commercially available at a few radio stations in the U.S. The composers Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky steal a recorder—for a month—from the radio station at Columbia, and drive up to Bennington, putting the contraption in the Carriage Barn. Over the summer, they record anything they get their ears on. There’s a recording of a cocktail party in the Carriage Barn that sounds like this. “Hey, what are you doing back there?... swwwtvvvt.” They take these sounds, slice up, reorder, speed up, slow down, and reverse them. By the fall, Ussachevsky and Luening finish their collages, and give what’s billed as the first electronic music concert in the U.S., at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Time Magazine heralds it as a new era. Electronic music is born.

    1965. The composer Henry Brant is not someone you want in your kitchen. He takes ANY spices — cayenne, Old Bay, allspice — and just throws it in the pot, regardless of what you’re cooking. His music’s like that. While teaching at Bennington, Brant moonlights for Hollywood, creating splashy orchestrations for Dragonslayer and Cleopatra, but his heart lies in enormous, multi-orchestra spectacles. He wants to “evoke the new stresses, layered insanities, and multi-directional assaults of contemporary life,” and does this by writing for jazz band, several orchestras, a drum corps, chorus, a gamelan—all in one piece. He calls this “spacial music” because hundreds of performers are placed surrounding the audience, as in his Pulitzer-Prize winning work Ice Fields. Later, when you’re in Greenwall, and not registering, look up. This space was built with Brant in mind. There are ramps everywhere, behind you, up in the crow’s nest. The performance can be anywhere.

    1973. Trumpeter Bill Dixon and drummer Milford Graves have come to Bennington, and they bring the illuminati of the free jazz scene. Cecil Taylor and Archie Shepp drop by campus, playing in heated improv sessions in the Carriage Barn. Dance isn’t far off, in collaboration with dancer Judy Dunn. Over a decade, Dixon develops a rich, improvisation-based curriculum called Black Music, with the Carriage Barn at its center. And for years, one of the best places to practice listening was with drummer Milford Graves, who drilled out polyrhythms in an act of miraculous number crunching.

    1990. I grew up a half hour south of Bennington. One summer, home from college on break, bored from cashiering 9-5, I scan the local paper. I find an ad that reads “Experimental Orchestra. Anyone welcome. Sunday at 1.”  I write down the address, then go to Bennington College, third floor of Commons, where I open a door onto an enormous vault, the original theater on which Martha Graham danced. There, in this cathedral-like space are two nine-foot banjos, sixteen triangular cellos, a dumpster-sized zither, bells made from propane tanks, and eight disemboweled pianos. A small, curly-haired man named Gunnar Schonbeck, a long-time teacher at the college, hands me something looking like a kitchen utensil. He simply says “play.” So I play, for hours, with students and townspeople, in a raucous improv.

So, in a word: “play.” The next performance that Bennington will see is your own.  And learning, like jamming on a propane tank, is a curious and dangerous act. Recently, I got a paper from a student that took such risky tacks. The student seemed well-read, diving into dense modernist tomes in his spare time. He walked around with giant headphones and a hard-hitting playlist. His paper on the composer Ravel brought in the heady world of musical set theory, a little-known mathematical approach of the 1960s. As a teacher, I find curve balls thrilling, when well-researched.

I suspected the student had heard of John Cage’s study methods, and he had. During college, Cage had this tactic: if you’re assigned to read x book for x exam, the only rule is, don’t read that book. Instead, read every book above, below, or on either side of the shelf in the library. Read every book in the library, please. Just not that one. Cage aced his exams, after becoming valedictorian of his high school. I’m not sure what to call his perverse study act, but it expresses the creative, generous, and voracious nature of learning. Maybe Cage’s gleeful act can be called discipline. The only thing left when borders collapse between music and reading, dance and biology, is that discipline you call your own. Here, discipline is no longer an established field, but your own, assured practice.

Creative artists—whatever that means—might call this process. As a composer, I find process… idiosyncratic. For example, last week I had trouble writing this speech. So I spilled coffee on the paper, smeared it. It’s what I do when my writing seems set in stone or unrevisable.  You’ll find your own methods. To paraphrase Joyce Carol Oates, when writers ask each other about their process, they’re really just asking “are you as insane as I am?” You’ve come to a small place because you learn differently—everyone does—and you need space to find that.

So as I drone through this last page, I will magically become a student. The College gave me a Studies Leave, so I don’t teach this term, instead hanging around with you at the salad bar as your resident “adult learner.” I can’t wait. Maybe you can.

I am thus legally able to leak secrets about teaching without seeking asylum in Russia. But lest I become a punkin chunker of pedagogical chestnuts, let me say: I don’t think teaching is SO different from studying. Teaching has that restless curiosity. At Bennington, the faculty is told to teach what keeps us awake. Truth is, I’m most alive when teaching what I’m on the cusp of knowing. Maybe you sparked my interest in it last term. What scares us the most can be the most life-changing, and that’s not saying ”be wild.” As a composer, I create strange sampled collages of pop-cultural disjecta, and sometimes teaching a course on fugue scares me.

Teaching is also a form of improvisation, unlike this speech. One prepares endlessly for class, but ultimately class is a moment of listening, one in which your insights could annihilate my lesson plan. I must go with it, and listen. One prepares, prepares, but then improvises.  Take for example the bad-ass improv that began this convocation. In their shredding, Susie Ibarra and Bruce Williamson do not have an innate gene for bad-assness. Susie has tried that elbow-drum gesture a hundred ways, and Bruce was not born on stilts (comforting note to President Silver: less than 1% of babies are born with congenital stilts).

I remember a provocation from a teacher in grad school. It was the confusing, earlier days of computer music, and everybody was making their own software. But no one had time to document it. It was 2 AM, and I was trying to get a program called CMix, written by my mentor Paul Lansky, to do anything. Nothing worked. The program had a help button, however, with a picture of Paul. If you pressed the button, a recording of Paul’s voice played, saying. “You’ll figure it out”. I was so angry. I kept jamming the button. “You’ll figure it out, you’ll figure it out.”  Why spend time programming a button that says “I can’t help you?”

But by 4 AM, I’d figured it out. And the feelings of frustration and challenge probably made the learning stick. It’s part of a give-a fish or teach-to-fish conundrum in teaching new technology. I don’t condone Paul’s shirking of pedagogy, but I also know that teachers are more than manuals. And that learning at its best is like artistic collaboration, improvising not just with data, but with whole approaches to performance, jockeying between modes, and knowing when to take a new tack. In a way, I was being taught to improvise, or as we call it in music, “listen.”

So, as I become a student, I wish you luck. Surprise us. Play. You’ll figure it out.