Read an Excerpt
Quarter Note tales #4
An Axel Crochet Trilogy
By Arthur Wenk
iUniverse LLCCopyright © 2013 Arthur Wenk
All rights reserved.
The music department at Monongahela University—composed of historians, theorists, composers, and ethnomusicologists—offered constant support for the hypothesis I had formed in my previous positions at Chihuahua State College, The Cloister, and Brook University: academia attracts people too bright not to be in a profession but too socially challenged for productive interaction with other people. (Nobody in academia considers students to be people.) The concept of the ivory tower as an enclave for intelligent social misfits has no inherent contradictions. The problem comes with the notion of departmental autonomy and self-governance, an idea whose fatal flaws emerged each month at the departmental faculty meeting.
Not only did the four components of the department turn every discussion into a turf battle, but even colleagues within each division had difficulty finding common ground. When you added the perpetual tension between the tenured faculty (mostly dead wood jealously guarding their privileges) and the untenured faculty (full of unbounded ambition for the coveted assurance of lifetime employment), it was a wonder that the department ever achieved anything at all, and indeed the most common fate of any proposal was extended, often acrimonious, debate followed by permanent consignment to parliamentary limbo. In my second year as a musicologist at Monongahela I was still the "new man," and therefore assigned to record the minutes of faculty meetings, the departmental secretary having better things to do with her time. A typical notation in the minutes would read: Proposal, moved by X, seconded by Y, discussion, tabled.
The music department at Monongahela University occupied the former studios of WQED, the country's first radio station west of the Alleghenies. An historic marker outside the building attested to that status until the radio station uprooted the sign and transplanted it in front of their current headquarters, a typical example of public relations trumping historicity. Department meetings took place in a windowless room with blackboards along two walls and a conference table inherited from the university administration when they upgraded their office furniture. Most of the chairs had seen better days—one tended to sit forward to prevent the rough edges from snagging pant legs.
On this Monday afternoon in the fall of 1976 the meeting was led by Professor Sawtooth, the chairman, whose appointment, I was told, had followed the pattern I had observed elsewhere: interview three candidates, squabble over their respective qualifications, then hire a fourth candidate whose credentials nobody understood very well. How else explain a man with degrees in mathematics and psychology as chairman of a music department?
Despite his peculiar background, Jason Sawtooth offered a welcome contrast to the reign of terror under the previous chairman—a mad Machiavellian medievalist—in which actual fisticuffs among formerly phlegmatic department members required the presence of campus security guards to prevent bloodshed. Sawtooth, prematurely gray and hatchet-headed, endeavored to combine conciliatory democracy with enlightened despotism.
This afternoon we witnessed another semi-coherent tirade by Leroy Bluenote, a jazz trumpeter of some note who continued to pursue a professional career while carrying out his modest duties as director of the university jazz ensemble and token black man. (How Bluenote ever achieved tenure remained one of the department's most impenetrable mysteries.) The worthy trumpeter rose in defence of Chief Uganda, an elderly African reported to be an actual tribal chief knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, and originally brought to Monongahela to chair the Afro-American Studies Department. After one year his black brethren in the AASP turned upon the Chief and cast him out. The Dean of Arts and Sciences, knowing a soft touch when he saw one, persuaded the inexperienced new chairman, Jason Sawtooth, to take the Chief into the music department and give him shelter, tenure, and an easy teaching schedule. After one year the music faculty had complained bitterly, but no one dared force the issue because the Chief was a black man and the music faculty were all white liberals. Now, the good Chief having reached the mandatory retirement age of seventy, the faculty hoped he would simply fade away. Then came Professor Bluenote's request that the faculty plead with the dean to keep Chief Uganda on for another year. With bated breath and gnashing teeth, the faculty listened to the jazzman's powerful oratory.
"Well, first of all, I want to say, quite frankly, that I hope the members of the faculty will put aside memories of past issues, because while I don't want to get personal and name names, you know there is a certain amount of politics involved with Chief Uganda, and to be perfectly honest and straightforward, and Professor Sawtooth can back me up on this since he was there when we were talking about it (although I must confess, I really intend to lay it on the line) and even though Chief Uganda has been accused of not taking an interest in this department because he never comes to faculty meetings, I checked with him on that and he said he never received an invitation, but the main point, the main point that I want to make, is that nobody, not once, asked the Chief how he felt about this, whether he intends to turn seventy just because his seventieth birthday comes next month, and furthermore, and here I want to be completely candid, I checked with the dean about this and he thinks it may be true, so I urge you to vote in secret ballot, because sometimes people vote without understanding the whole situation, and while I don't want to get personal, it would be better not to vote at all than to vote without really understanding the whole situation, and by whole situation I mean talking to the Chief personally, talking with his students, and understanding their point of view."
Professor Bluenote the jazzman concluded, sort of, and all who heard him were confused. But they had heard the words "secret ballot," and this called to mind the last previous secret ballot, which had taken place during the reign of terror preceding the overthrow of the previous chairman. An associate dean, running the faculty meeting with the assistance of an armed guard, had instructed everyone to write his vote secretly, and then to sign his name. The ballots had been secretly collected and then the associate dean had announced each vote and the name of the person casting it.
This time, if we were to have a secret ballot, it had better be really secret. So Professor Sawtooth the chairman instructed each person to write his vote on a slip of paper, unsigned, and give it to the department secretary. But, he continued, as an added precaution, the results of this secret ballot would remain forever a secret. And that is how we succeeded in pasturing Chief Uganda.
The pride of the Monongahela Music Department was the music library, fiefdom of Jebediah Fletcher, a thin man with thinning hair who would have seemed more at home in a Dickens novel than in the academic world. Nobody knew quite why it was the pride of the music department: the book holdings were totally inadequate, the record collection ridiculously outdated (the only recording of the Verdi Requiem was the Toscanini version, recorded in monophonic sound in 1952), the listening facilities just plain hopeless (three cassette recorders, two of them broken, two wind-up record players with stainless steel needles). Monongahela subscribed to fewer than three dozen current periodicals, including Downbeat and Billboard. Surely we were the only music library in the country to boast a complete run of The National Geographic Magazine. There was also one microfilm viewer, but the librarian kept an "Out of Order" sign on it "to keep people from meddling," he explained. Yet the inscription on the library door plainly read, "The Music Library, pride of the Monongahela Music Department, Jebediah Fletcher, Proprietor."
Shortly after my arrival, the university libraries announced that the library budget would be reduced by 2% each year for the next five years. "And yer costs are goin' up by 18-24% a year with inflation," cackled Jebediah Fletcher, reporting the new policy at a faculty meeting. Fletcher's ultimate goal was to close down the music library. He complained regularly to the chairman about the number of people using the facilities. "How do you expect me to get my cataloguing done with all these students and faculty members running in and out, asking questions and taking books off the shelves?" He kept a record of every book used and every person entering, so that he could support his requests for shorter hours with compelling statistics. "Lookee here, in the past three months there's been a 32% decline in the number of people using the facility between 2:30 and 3:30 on Sunday afternoons. We could close down the library on Sundays and save a bundle." Fletcher had the full support of all the undergraduate music majors, who loved to come to class unprepared, insisting that the library had been closed so they couldn't listen to records, follow scores, or look up sources.
When a faculty member informed Fletcher that he would be using certain books with his classes during the coming term, the librarian wouldn't put the books on the Reserve shelf, but would re-catalogue them and hide them in the Locked Press. "Too many people using those books means extra wear and tear. It costs us $3.75 every time we bind a book. Of course, if you want to increase the binding budget and cut the record budget ..."
Some faculty members agreed that the music library was in a dreadful state, despite being the pride of the Monongahela Music Department. The chairman, ever responsive to the department's needs, formed a Library Committee. As chairman of the newly-formed Library Committee I had to inform the faculty that we had not yet found an opportunity to meet. A more active department might have censured this lack of progress. Monongahela had a different perspective: since the committee couldn't be expected to deal with the problem anyway, what difference did it make whether we met or not?
The previous spring, my first at Monongahela, Jason Sawtooth had taken me with him to the University of West Virginia, about an hour away, to hear John Kirkpatrick perform the Ives Concord Sonata. During the drive the chairman had emphasized the urgent need to revise the undergraduate music major curriculum, beef up the program, give it some academic rigor. Thrilled at the prospect of playing Robin to Jason's Batman, I listened intently, drew up a draft proposal, and ran it by the chairman, who corrected a few minor points then urged me to present it to the faculty. Like Charlie Brown, perpetually naïve in his belief that Lucy would really hold the football as promised and not pull it away at the last moment so that he landed unceremoniously on his backside, I brought the proposal to the October faculty meeting. I suppose I should not have been surprised that instead of considering the ideas on their merits, each professor focused solely on the effect the changes might have on his own teaching schedule.
Professor Roscoe Biedermeyer, the counterpoint teacher, began the attack. Round-faced, balding, with tiny round glasses covering tiny porcine eyes, he began politely enough. "Axel, there seems to be an omission here. I don't see counterpoint listed anywhere in the program."
"We thought it would be better to combine harmony and counterpoint into a two-year consolidated music theory strand." I looked vainly to the chairman for support.
"In other words, you want me to abandon a course that I have honed to perfection over two decades?"
"Current thinking favors a linear Schenkerian approach to music theory," I offered weakly.
"I never could make sense of Schenker," said Biedermeyer, "and I'm too old to start now."
Clement Nazard, the overweight university organist and teacher of the undergraduate music history survey, took up the assault. "According to this document, students have to slog through two years of music theory before they can take my history survey."
"That's right," I said. "This way they'll have a strong theoretical background that will enable them to study historical works in greater depth."
Nazard, who taught the history survey as a series of anecdotes about composers, performers, and their love affairs, failed to see the advantage of such an approach. "You're saying I'd have to completely rewrite my course. And what happens if a student drops out in the middle of your 'rigorous theoretical preparation?' Why, he'll miss out on history altogether!"
Before any of the others could get their weapons in place, chairman Sawtooth got me off the hook by suggesting that we send the proposal to the Undergraduate Program Committee for further study. The motion carried, and we departed for the afternoon.
I've always found movies to be an effective antidote for frustration, and "Network" filled the bill. I left the theatre fantasizing of the day when I might stand up in the middle of the faculty meeting and declare, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to put up with this anymore," before stalking out of the room. I didn't really mind going to the movies alone, although I would have welcomed some female companionship.
"Publish or perish" might be considered the unofficial motto of academic life. I hated to imagine that one might actually accomplish both ends, but I recalled the words of my Chihuahua State colleague: "If they like you, they'll find a way to keep you; if they don't like you, they'll find a way to get rid of you."
I had secured my appointment at Monongahela with the acceptance for publication of my manuscript on Debussy. Now, along came a heavy box of page proofs from the University of California Press, demanding proofreading and an index. I had already corrected the galley proofs, which rolled along sensibly only to erupt sUDDENLY INTO CAPS FOR A LINE OR TWO OR Swing insensibly into italics without warning or else an entire line would be repeated like this without warning or else an entire line would be repeated like this. I began to work on the index, inserting page numbers as I went along, the goal being to produce an index so detailed that nobody would have to bother reading the rest of the book. Naturally the longest entry came at the composer's name:
Debussy, Claude (1862-1918): born in log cabin, 3; drowns family cat to obtain gut for cello strings, 7; joins motorcycle gang, "Les Anges de l'Enfer" (see separate entry); brief career as professional soccer player, 19-25 [no other book on Debussy included this little-known chapter in the composer's life]; sets Verlaine's poetry to music, 30-33; challenged to duel by Verlaine, 34; sexual exploits, 34-57; their influence on his music, 58-74; visits London peepshows, 69; attempts opera on subject, 70-73; sets Louÿs' poems to music, 74-87; end of friendship with Louÿs, 88; conceives La Mer while floating boats in bathtub, 92; sets Mallarmé's poems to music, 93-101; death of Mallarmé, 102.
The book appeared in the new publications list from the UCP, but at the price they demanded, I doubted whether there would be many takers. The publishers seemed to have discarded the supply-and-demand principle of pricing in favour of the Arab oil producers' principle, which says that if demand declines prices must be increased in order to maintain profits.
During my first year at Monongahela I had written a textbook on nineteenth-century music for the External Studies Program, under the supervision of an editor who insisted that I adhere to the protocol of telling students what they could expect to read, giving them something to read, and then telling them what they had just read. Thus the chapter on Beethoven began with instructional objectives:
After reading this chapter you should be able to:
1. Identify the classical and romantic elements in Beethoven's musical style.
2. Describe Beethoven's use of form (especially as compared to classical conventions) and rhythm.
3. Describe Beethoven's approach to composition.
4. Summarize Beethoven's intent in composing the Pastoral Symphony and the internal and external ways through which he achieved his intent.
Six pages of text, composed in strict outline form, were followed by two pages of exercises including terms (ranz des vaches), questions (e.g., In what respects can Beethoven be considered a Romantic?), and an essay (Reread Beethoven's Heiligenstadt Testament and point out examples of romantic attitudes). A suggested answer was printed upside down at the bottom of the page.
Lisa, my editor, while insisting on strict adherence to the ESP protocol, had managed to convey a sense of complicity. If she and I had been conversing privately, she seemed to hint, I could have taken shortcuts in my explanations, but external students could never raise their hands in class to seek clarification, so I needed to anticipate and respond to their problems.
Excerpted from Quarter Note tales #4 by Arthur Wenk. Copyright © 2013 Arthur Wenk. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.