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“Hearing Modernity” at Harvard


Milton Babitt programs MK-II
Milton Babitt programs RCA Mark-II

Are you ready for “acoustic meta-narrative,” “paralogy,” and the three categories of modern knowledge “chaos, complexity and order?” Xenophobia, and, I expect, a number of the latest cultural swings will be deciphered, in nine sessions beginning next Monday, in Harvard’s “Hearing Modernity.” Perusing some of the information already online [here], I conclude we may very well find sound as well as meaning in the spoken word—listen to the jumpy rhythm of  “acoustic meta-narrative” and the melodic rise and fall of the voice with “paralogy.”

Will one book end be one of the first characteristics associated with modernism, nihilism, or the rejection of all? Will Nietzsche’s concept of the “I” as the precursor of post-modernism in some way suggest the other book end? Much music making—sounding—has reverberated since modernism’s earliest beginnings in the later 19th century. Was Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun the first modern composition, or was it Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, or a composition embracing Luigi Russo’s “Art of Noise”?

Ever since receiving the announcement for “Hearing Modernity,” all sorts of questions have been going through my mind. If you are like me, one who has been fascinated with the oodles of diverse musical outpourings from the 20th century on, you may also want to know more about what the Harvard Department of Music has up its sleeve.

One description may best sum it all up: “John E. Sawyer seminars at Harvard University [are] funded by the Andrew W. Mellon foundation. During the eight discussion sessions and concluding event that make up the seminar series ‘Hearing Modernity,’ we will give ear to the significance of sound in modern society and the cultural, historical, and scientific contexts in which it resonates most strongly.”

Note the phrase, “give ear.”

This unusual seminar consisting of nine sessions over the coming academic year could prove to be, at the very least, curious. The big question might very well center in whether we be carried into an intellectual realm far removed from the very sounds of modern music or will there truly be a focus on hearing?  We will see. What, in part, suggests this question is the parallel series of practitioners and sound artists, Intonarumori/Noise makers, hosted by the School for the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston).  More information on that series is said to be forthcoming.

Inklings of what is to come in “Hearing Modernity” may spring from the names of the very organizers themselves: Alexander Rehding (Music), Laura Frahm (Visual and Environmental Studies), John Hamilton (German/Comparative Literature), Ernst Karel (Anthropology), Ingrid Monson (Music), Jeffrey Schnapp (Romance Languages and Literatures), and Sindhumathi Revuluri (Music).

Some modern music aficionados may remember hearing the “mesositics” of John Cage at the 1988-89 Norton Lectures. During each lecture the crowd thinned. Somewhere into the third of the four randomized lectures, syntax appeared briefly—an agreement of noun and verb—a moment someone compared to that of a Wagnerian climax. Harvard University Press went on to publish the book length “sound readings.” Some years later, still no stamp showed the book had been taken out of the Kuhn Library.

I cannot wait for “Hearing Modernity” to get underway.

The first session takes place at 4:15 pm on Monday, September 16, Holden Chapel, Harvard University. For more information visit website here or visit the Facebook page here.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.

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