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by Brandon Farnsworth

“We have created a parody of these austere rituals which didn’t exist in the past”: Revisiting Music Education

[1] The project Revisiting Black Mountainat the Zurich University of the Arts brought together projects addressing the historic art college from all departments of the school. I conceived and curated the four projects from the music department that would be presented over the course of the school-wide initiative. The following text will present my curatorial approach to managing these projects, and use it as a way to speculate on a possible new direction for music education more generally.

Higher education in music today continues to put a strong emphasis on the value of technique, and with it refinement, perfection, and quality. Musicians spend hours per day honing the current interpretation of canonic repertoire, and composers pore meticulously over their scores, note by note, often in isolation. The best results of these working processes are performances that present highly dense, considered, and well-thought works, a result of established lines of communication and production. The worst results are when these ways of working prove to be unable to produce performances that are relevant to today’s audiences—which in my opinion make up a majority. Let me explain.

The foundations of what we today think of as classical music can be traced back to the early 19thcentury. Philosopher Lydia Goehr argues that this era saw the emergence of the concept of Werktreue, and the ossification of musical performance into commodifiable “works,” manifested as scores.[2] This same period also saw the formalization of music pedagogy, which became centered on the exact reproduction of canonical works. In the new “German-style” conservatories, musical education became less of a holistic practice of music-making, and was instead broken up into separate courses on music theory, music history, ear training, and instrumental or compositional tutoring sessions with one’s professor.

This structure formed the basis for musical education as it still exists today in many conservatories. Examining, for instance, the Zurich Conservatory’s curriculum at the turn of the 20thcentury shows that by then this division of music education had not only already occurred, but also that this educational programme has remained basically the same in the intervening 117 years (!).[3]

The effect of this process of formalization continues to have an understated effect on the current state of classical music-making today. As historical musicologist Joshua Navon argues, the result of this formalized educational model has been the production by conservatories of students skilled in the high-fidelity reproduction of canonical scores, to the detriment of other possible qualities of music making, such as experimentation, risk-taking, or engaging critically with the site of performance (more than just adapting to its acoustics).[4]

This work-centered, modernist/rationalist approach to music education is ideologically far from the model of the historical BMC, which was an example of a school where the dividers between forms of practice (artistic or not) were meant to be as porous as living itself. Students did not learn art, but rather artistic practice, meaning that the school’s focus was on the forming of experience, and on an open-ended model, rather than one based on discrete works and inculcation of a canon.

Many of BMC’s early teachers were exiled from the Bauhaus, providing an important link between the American and European avant-garde movements. Important for these Bauhaus artists was the concept of experimentation understood as a process of constant searching that creates a knowledge unique to art. The emphasis of the BMC lay on realizing the individual autonomy of students, as well as their ability to collaborate with their peers — a kind of processual knowing-how rather than work-centered knowing-what.[5]

Within the Zurich University of the Arts, revisiting the working methods of this now-historical college arose out of an interest in examining what being an arts school today means. This self-reflexivity came as the result of the school’s 2014 move into a new facility housing all its different departments under one roof. Sharing spaces unleashed a flurry of reflection on the direction and values of the school as a whole. In a hope to give some perspective to these debates, BMC, often the subject of contemporary debates around arts education, logically became the subject of one of the school’s first collective projects. However, it soon became clear internally that the reality of being part of an increasingly transdisciplinary arts university presented a particular challenge for the music department and its operation within a conservatory-model that arguably predates even the historical BMC, at least in its focus on a work-based aesthetic.

Therefore, the intention of my curatorial work for revisiting was to develop projects with students that challenged them to
experiment and think creatively, but at the same time it did not totally reject the rigorous technical training most of them possessed on their respective instruments, or as composers. The aim was thus to understand the specialized musical training of the students not as a bulwark of conservatism to be dismantled and rebuilt, but rather as a tradition that is explicitly chosen and maintained by its proponents. I wanted to work withthe tradition, not reject its qualities outright.

This work happened on two levels. The first was that I developed projects together with students whom I approached because I felt that their existing ways of working could be molded and amplified to fit into the concept of revisiting. Together with them and their four projects on different topics, a second level was that these projects were opened for all music students to participate in and were finally presented to an audience. The point was to experiment with the internal organization of these projects, as well as to present to audiences a different way that the music department could sound.

An example of this was the working process with a student music theatre group, Kollektiv Totem. The group usually presents a mix of self-developed compositions and idiosyncratic interpretations of existing music (theatre) repertoire by composers like Aphergis or Shlomowitz, often mixed together into concert-length collages of their own devising (akin to a kind of Regietheatrefor music). It was decided that Totem’s project would be a performative museum tour of the Revisiting Black Mountainexhibition in the Zurich Museum für Gestaltung. The intention was to use their music theatre approach to re-read the exhibition of mostly historical photographs and documents. In early conversations with the student group, though, it became clear that their curriculum did not cover BMC, its historical significance, or even much of the work of John Cage, who would be the most prominent link between BMC and Totem’s present-day musical practice.

The first step in working with the group was that I organized a series of dinners where—like a book club—we could discuss texts about BMC in an informal setting. We also looked at the work of Andrea Fraser, and her Museum Highlights (1989), in order for them to know about a similar exercise in the visual arts. These helped the students discuss and think through the topics they would be dealing with, which had previously been totally foreign to them. The intention of the informal setting was to help get over the hurdles to understanding academic writing, mainly by allowing them to also express their frustration with the task as a legitimate part of the discussion.

They then wrote a script, and began the rehearsal process, blocking and coordinating their movements and that of the tour group through the building, while also relating it back to the ideas they had learned about. Rather than rehearsing a canonic score, it was e.g. rehearsing how best to adapt Cage’s Water Walk (1959) to a handicapped bathroom stall, or composing the most suitable music for eliciting a certain mood in a tour group walking up the stairs (they decided to make it into a kind of aerobics class).

The performance itself showed a kind of humorous irreverence for the exhibition that Totem was purportedly giving a tour of: rather than being escorted through the museum, participants were taken instead on a tour of the school’s campus in medias res, interrupting a rehearsal, or being lectured on Cage’s 4’33”, before finally ending up in the Revisiting Black Mountainexhibition. Their idea was to project the experimental spirit of the historical BMC onto the current-day Zurich University of the Arts and to see how well the comparison held up, addressing also the hard reality of their precarious careers after graduation. The performances were then advertised alongside the “regular” tours of the Revisiting Black Mountainexhibition from the museum, and so could be easily visited by the public.

Taking the Totem example as a point of departure, the question then becomes how to describe this approach to music-making that exists between experimentation and technical know-how. I think the best way to describe this way of working is to look at some recent arguments on the shifting concept of musical practice.

One promising term, “The New Discipline,” was coined by the Irish composer Jennifer Walshe in a text of the same name. She argues for a form of composition, which she herself also practices, that reimagines the relationship between composing and performing. Rather than an emphasis on the completeness of the score as a kind of standalone, a total world, composers use any and all tools at their disposal in order to realize a performance that they are usually also part of, shifting the weight from the score as the locus of meaning towards the moment of performance. What is “new” in the New Discipline is this opening to a diversity of references from other arts, internet culture, or working methods borrowed from theatre, dance, or installation. What remains of musical practice for Walshe is a “discipline,” or as she describes it, “the rigour of finding, learning and developing new compositional and performative tools.”[6] The New Discipline puts a strong emphasis on the event of performance, and on heterogeneous references from across the spectrum of contemporary life, while at the same time reaffirming the emphasis on meticulous preparation for the performance that has become a characteristic of conservatory training. In this way, it maintains its relationship to the conservatory training that still defines the majority of music practitioners but applies its meticulousness not to canonical works but to determining the nature of the forms of cooperation that a particular project requires.

Walshe’s approach is similar to what Shannon Jackson calls “dedicated amateurism,” which is “dedicated” because of the emphasis on practice and on concentration, and “amateur” because of its commitment to starting from zero with each new project, and every new constellation of people and places. Jackson argues that this concept, seen increasingly in the interdisciplinary performing arts, is the result of a combination of two different approaches to performativity. The first is from the visual arts, which since the beginning of the 20thcentury have moved away from objects and towards events and concepts. The second is from theatre, dance, and music, where since the likes of Cage and works such as 4’33”(1952), there has been a rejection of the virtuosity of the spectacle, seeking instead new forms of relating to reality.[7]

The approach described as the New Discipline, or as dedicated amateurism, fits well with our example of Totem’s practice. The thorough, meticulous planning of the route the tour would take, the careful timing of its various sections, composing contrasting moods, while also taking a larger artistic positioning, all show that the group produced the performance in a similar way to how they would also prepare a traditional concert. The amateurism, or the newness, was not just in choosing the unconventional medium of exhibition tour. Rather, it lay in the decision that the tour was the format best suited to the project at hand, as well as in the group’s ability to quickly adapt to this different way of working.

A conservatory training that takes this dedicated amateur approach seriously would do three things. It would firstly be able to maintain its core principal of discipline and rigor that has sustained it since the inception of this system, allowing for existing skills to be repurposed. Second, it would be able to reconnect with a history of music that puts emphasis on creating a uniquely interesting performance event, rather than a spectacle of virtuosity. This is a lineage that goes through Black Mountain College, performance art, and a kind of shadow-history of spatialized music in the 20thcentury.[8] Third, pursuing this approach allows for musical practice to get out of its self-made ghetto and participate in a vibrant and rich inter-arts field. It establishes a framework for understanding the musical production of European conservatories as only one tradition among many others in Europe and elsewhere.

Pursuing this approach would enable music to better interface with its neighbors in the arts school, many of whom are already in the process of grappling with similar questions. My position on music education does not advocate for throwing out the distinctiveness of music; it entails music departments finding their own way to what transdisciplinary collaboration could mean, on their own terms and in relation to their own history (also their history asconservatories), rather than from external forces or imported discourses acting upon it. This should not diminish the urgency with which such changes in musical education should take place: the conservatory model is desperately outdated, and its foundational belief in Werktreueno longer compatible with contemporary society. Music students are starving for the creative skills they will need to be successful in a shifting arts landscape, a responsibility that relatively few music educators currently take seriously.[9] My hope is that sketching my approach to this project at the Zurich University of the Arts will contribute to the growing discussion around building a roadmap for this change to occur.

Brandon Farnsworth is a doctoral candidate at the University of Music Carl Maria von Weber Dresden, and associated researcher in the doctoral program Epistemologies of Aesthetic Practices at the Collegium Helveticum. He is currently researching forms of curating in contemporary music.



[1] The titular quote is taken from a yet-unpublished interview between the author and New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, September 2016.

[2] Lydia Goehr, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992),205ff.

[3] Markus Müller, “Über Musikerziehung und Berufsausbildung am Konservatorium,” in Das Neue/Alte Haus: Zur Einweihung des renovierten Konservatoriums-Gebäudes,ed. Markus Müller (Zurich: Konservatorium und Musikhochschule Zürich, 1987), 35ff.

[4] On the development of the German conservatory model, see Joshua Navon, “Music Conservatories and Nineteenth-Century Music Historiography: Pedagogy, Transformation, Reproduction” (conference paper, Fifth Sibelius Academy Symposium on Music History, Helsinki, Finland, June 6 – 8, 2018). 

[5] Anette Jael Lehmann, Reenactment Impossible?Lecture at the Zurich University of the Arts, March 8, 2018.

[6] Jennifer Walshe, The New Discipline, Borealis Festival, accessed August 22, 2018. http://www.borealisfestival.no/2016/the-new-discipline-4/

[7] Shannon Jackson. “Just-in-Time: Performance and the Aesthetics of Precarity” in The Drama Review56 no. 4 (Winter 2012) p. 17.

[8] See Christa Brüstle, Konzert-Szenen: Bewegung, Performance, Medien. Musik zwischen performativer Expansion und medialer Integration 1950-2000(Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2013).

[9] Interesting exceptions include the research project at the Norwegian Academy of Music, The performing musician in the 21st century (2015 – 2019), and the Musician 3.0 Bachelors program at the University of the Arts Utrecht. The Association Européenne des Conservatoires, Académies de Musique et Musikhochschulen (AEC) is also currently running a research project entitled Renew: Reflective Entrepreneurial Music Education Worldclass[sic]. Their understanding of “entrepreneurship” is similar to what I refer to here as “creative skills,” though the former has been avoided in this context because of its too-strong economic overtones. See https://www.aec-music.eu/projects/current-projects/renew

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Issue 43

Revisiting Black Mountain
Cross-Disciplinary Experiments and Their Potential for Democratization

by Dorothee Richter and Ronald Kolb

by Ronald Kolb with Bitten Stetter, Brandon Farnsworth, Dorothee Richter, Jochen Kiefer, Martin Jaeggi, Paolo Bianchi

by Daniel Späti

by Steven Henry Madoff

by Mieke (Annemarie) Matzke, She She Pop

by Susanne Kennedy

by Olga von Schubert, Caroline Adler and Boris Buden

A collaborative exercise by Sascia Bailer, Lucy Bayley, Simon Fleury, Gilly Karjevsky, and Asli Uludag to reflect upon our shared experiences at Un-Learning Place at Haus der Kulturen der Welt

Interview by Ronny Koren

by Raqs Media Collective