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Posts Tagged ‘jazz’

Crown of Creation

Final jazz composition class of the year, and, no, to be honest I didn’t really want to spend the first part of it discussing creative processes and the things that get in the way of writing. In musical terms, it’s a very interesting question, and I’ve made enormous progress this year; I had not realised quite how much I like being given homework on a weekly basis, but this is not just about having a structured task to complete but also learning the importance of setting parameters – rather than “go away and write something”, it’s a matter of e.g. “go away and write something featuring fourths”, immediately giving a focus for one’s efforts, and that then reinforces the need to set some other parameters for oneself, at least as a starting point. It works both as a learning experience (getting a really good understanding of fourths by exploring the different things you can do with them in the process of trying to produce something that sounds half decent) and as a structure for the process, and I’m going to see how to replicate this in some of next year’s teaching – tricky, since this is about developing skills more than learning content, whereas ancient history courses tend to be more the other way round, or at least the skills are developed in parallel over the course of the year rather than explored one by one, but not impossible… (more…)

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I am feeling tired and useless and miserable, and my nose hurts. The latter is due to being swiped by Olga, who took exception to being removed from the study windowsill where she was happily watching birds; the rest is seriously over-determined, but at least one contributing factor is the effort of trying to take on board the feedback on my latest bit of jazz composition. All this term we’ve been working on a piece based, however loosely, on rhythm changes [note for non-jazz people: the basic structure of George Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm, which formed the basis for numerous other compositions, especially in the bebop era, and interminable jam sessions]. I’ve been struggling to develop something that doesn’t just sound like a pastiche of Charlie Parker or Duke Ellington – there simply don’t seem to be many models for more contemporary rhythm changes, apart from Thelonius Monk, and if you follow that you just sound like second-rate Monk – but had written something that I thought was actually interesting and with a strong melody line. So it was a little disheartening – getting close attention from the tutor is always a double-edged sword – to be told that, while the rhythm is interesting and the bass line is good, and the melody has a good rhythm, my note choices are much too nice and safe, and by implication boring. (more…)

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What I Did On My Holidays

It’s that time of year when I feel even more directionless and dispirited than usual; obviously, as resolutions go, “be less crap and stop feeling sorry for yourself” sets the bar simultaneously too high and too low. I’m honestly not sure whether I should be planning to devote a bit more time and energy to this blog, or swearing off it for at least a couple of months. (more…)

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The Masterplan

I think it’s only appropriate to round off my blogging year – apart from the usual annual review, and unless something else strikes me in the meantime – with a final reflection on teaching inspired by my jazz composition course, which has been the one unquestionably positive experience in this basically rubbish year. This time it’s not about online learning and teaching, but a more general thought about managing seminars; and it’s inspired not by the tutor, but by conversation with other students on the discussion thread where we posted our homework exercises for comment (stifles deep sigh at total failure to get any sort of online discussion going in any of my modules this past term…). (more…)

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This is something of a negative and/or holding post, but it seems worthwhile putting it down as a marker to myself if no one else… As I’ve mentioned before, one of my resolutions for lockdown was that I would finally make some progress on my Thucydides musical project. This hasn’t got anywhere, partly because of the ongoing brain fog issue (in the light of recent scary newspaper reports, I’m trying to take the optimistic view that once again I’ve got off lightly compared to others and so this will pass if I just take it easy, rather than contemplating the thought that this might be permanent), but partly as a result of the jazz composition course I’ve been doing online. As I’ve noted, this has been enormously valuable as an exercise in seeing things from the student perspective (and I really feel for the tutor, as he’s falling into exactly the traps that I would fall into, trying to engage with students in a normal manner although this takes much more time than usual, and trying unsuccessfully to get people to make use of the chat facility between classes). But I have also learnt a lot about jazz composition, especially when it comes to modal approaches. (more…)

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Mourning Heavy Song

I’m in Berlin this week – a quick visit to meet collaborators and a PhD student, and try to get an article written – and, unusually, part of me wishes I could go back home immediately, for the simple reason that the great Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, one of my musical heroes, has just died, and I need to binge on his records. Unfortunately I have just the one out here with me, and isn’t one of my favourites; I have had to fight the urge to buy duplicate copies of a load of cds I already own. (more…)

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European Echoes

OldenburgWhere is Europe? It’s perhaps not the most obvious answer, but one possibility is: sitting in the elegant Kulturzentrum PFL in Oldenburg the week before last with a mixture of academics, activists, trade unionists, students and regular citizens, listening to an elderly trio playing 1950s British trad jazz a la Chris Barber and Ken Colyer as the introduction to a podium discussion on the theme Wo ist Europa? And, yes, I should have got a photo of the band, rather than this rather off-putting one of the panel. (more…)

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What Holds Us Together

This was, to put it mildly, an interesting week in which to find myself offering commentary on the theme of ‘Was uns zusammenhält’ for a “fish bowl discussion” as part of the Berliner Stiftungswoche. The event itself was extremely interesting (for ancient Chinese proverb values of interesting); representatives of six different Berlin charitable projects taking it in turns to give a 60-second summary of their work, followed by me (in my capacity as Einstein Visiting Fellow) hastily improvising some thoughts on wider themes, followed by more general discussion led by the very impressive moderator, journalist and presenter Jörg Thadeusz, who seemed determined to force me to talk more about Thucydides even when I was trying to waffle about ancient attitudes towards poverty instead. (more…)

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The most interesting and provocative comment on Rachel Moss’s wonderful blog post last month on Choosing Not To Giveon the sacrifices that women are expected to make in academic culture, was from Lucy Northenra: “How many women are remembered for their ability to never miss a school run compared to those who manage against all the odds to publish enough to be made professors?” Rachel’s response was equally passionate: “I may well only have one child, and during the week I see her for an hour in the morning and an hour and a half in the evening. Perhaps I might somehow write an extra 4* publication if I gave up one of those hours each day. For me, the cost isn’t worth it.”

Do you want to be remembered as a great scholar but a lousy parent – or not remembered at all except by your nearest and dearest? Why are you mucking about with plasticine instead of changing the world? Why are you wasting time on an article that five people will read with limited attention when you could be making a real difference to one or two individuals who completely depend on you? Such dilemmas go to the heart of academic ambitions and self-image.* Who do I think I really am, who do I want to be, and what to do about all the things that threaten to get in the way? (more…)

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If you haven’t already seen it, head over immediately to Rebecca Schuman’s hilarious and perceptive piece on Slate, PowerPointless, subtitled “Digital slideshows are the scourge of higher education”. Then, if you are a teacher, spend five minutes contemplating those things you have done with PowerPoint that you ought not to have done, for there is no health in you. There are people working on a suitable scale of penances; using the ‘spin’ animation is obviously a sackable offence. Students and other non-academics can, for the moment, start smugly compiling a PowerPoint Bingo card for the next lecture they have to attend; if you have to do PowerPoints they’re probably rubbish as well, but that’s our fault for setting such a bad example. “Faculty who abuse Powerpoint create students who abuse Powerpoint”.

On the whole, I don’t think my practice comes off too badly in terms of the various sins that Schuman identifies; I do at least keep the animation to a minimum, don’t try to cram too many words in tiny font onto a single slide, and have never ever simply read out the words on the screen. On the contrary, I treat the slideshow rather like a jazz standard in small group improvisation (more…)

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