Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Don Giovanni Goes to Prison: Teaching Opera Behind Bars

Ed. Update: Comments for this Post are Now Closed. Please continue the conversation on social media, or in the posts elaborating on these issues by William Cheng and Bonnie Gordon. -- 22 Feb. 2016 8:15 AM EST

By Pierpaolo Polzonetti

When Bard College asked me to teach a three-hour class on Haydn’s Creation at Eastern Correctional Facility, I did not know what to expect. I accepted out of curiosity. Eastern Correctional Facility is a massive neo-gothic maximum-security prison built in 1900 in rural New York. Crossing into the prison’s mighty walls and passing through the security checkpoint can be intimidating. Encountering the incarcerated students has an even more powerful effect, but in a positive way. To me these men seemed to have dissolved the prison walls, thanks to their intellectual curiosity and their eagerness to learn. They opened their minds and ears to music that sounded exotic to many of them. Eighteenth-Century oratorios and operas can appear meaningless or dull to listeners mostly accustomed to the blatant lyrics and pounding beat of rap music. Classical music and opera, like rap, are acquired tastes and their value is both intrinsic and contextual. Fortunately they had already carefully read the texts I had assigned, including passages from Milton, Ovid, and the book of Genesis. This allowed us to engage with Haydn’s Creation on the basis of a shared intellectual background that made the oratorio somehow familiar and approachable.

The experience was so enlightening that I decided to teach an entire opera history class for inmates entitled “Opera and Ideas.” I taught it at the Westville Correctional Facility in Indiana during the Fall semester of 2014.

Thus far, most of the debate on education in prison has focused primarily on the issue of whether it is ethical to make educational opportunities available to criminals. Many people resent the idea of a free education being offered to offenders while it is being denied to honest taxpayers. Advocates of educational programs have therefore conducted statistical studies to deploy data proving that education initiatives in prison are good for society at large. The most recurrent argument can be summarized this way: considering that a person in prison spends tax money, while a person out of prison, when employed, pays taxes, education for prisoner, as long as it is not heavily funded by tax money, is cost effective because it reduces recidivism and helps ex-prisoners find jobs. In 1764 Cesare Beccaria, in his influential book Crimes and Punishments, addressed this issue in equally rational, but simpler and less materialistic terms. Beccaria wrote, “the most difficult but also most effective method to prevent crime is to perfect education.” To explain why he takes this position, he refers to Rousseau’s Emile, claiming that education has the power to “lead to virtue through the easy road of feelings” (“spingere alla virtù per la facile strada del sentimento”).

A page from the manuscript of Mozart's Don Giovanni.

The humanistic study of opera (or music in general) may not provide job opportunities to ex-offenders but it may be more effective than computer science or economics to help former criminals understand – and therefore control – human emotions, and to reflect on ethical issues. Lorenzo Bianconi, in his essay “La forma musicale come scuola dei sentimenti,” writes that “the secret of vitality and longevity of opera is that it has represented a powerful school of feelings.” But musical forms do convey feelings with immediacy only when understood, structurally, historically, and contextually. To make them work one needs to know how they work. To help people figure this out should be an important mission of professional musicologists.

When Don Giovanni entered Westville Correctional Facility during my opera class, the prisoners gave him a very warm welcome. Their previous study of Metastasian opera equipped them with a powerful tool for understanding the differences, similarities, and influences between opera buffa and opera seria. For example, when confronting Donna Elvira’s entrance aria, “Ah chi mi dice mai,” the students were able to detect similarities with rage arias in heroic opera. However, the presence of interjections and asides by Leporello and Don Giovanni, seemed to them to belong to a different genre, for seria arias are typically impenetrable to other characters who can only listen to them in silence. Compared to rage aria in Giulio Cesare this one also displays a limited amount of coloratura. One man commented that we are supposed to laugh at the betrayed stupid woman in the presence of her cunning seducer. A second student, an African-American man with a long beard, immediately pointed his finger at the first, shouting that it is never funny when a woman suffers. “Never!” he repeated three times in a frightening crescendo.


Hoping they would chill out, I encouraged them to look closely at the score and analyze Mozart’s dramatization of emotions. As in Handel, for example, the orchestral introduction provides information on the primary affects and dramatic situation represented in the aria. What do the first four measures mean, with their fragmented descending groups of three-note legato scales played piano? Why is this followed by the detonation of a loud ascending octave leap? Why hold on the highest note before precipitating into a descending rapid staccato scale? Learning to address these questions empowers students with the competence to use the appropriate terms to describe melodic contour, phrasing, dynamics, orchestral and vocal texture, and so on, and thereby reflect on their meaning and expressive value. Without an understanding of the formal elements of music, opera can trigger emotional responses, but cannot be a school of feelings.

Mozart’s Don Giovanni gave these students a chance to better understand real-life emotions that, when repressed or out of control, can be destructive: fear and fearlessness, guilt and remorselessness, sexual passion leading to compulsion, sexual abuse, even to rape and murder. It became obvious to all of us, all the more so in prison, that our world is full of Don Giovannis. There is no other place than prison where, even when played through small portable speakers, his hymn “Viva la libertà!” resounds with more power than in an opera theater, amplified by emotions that can break the heart, but heal the mind.

NB: A longer version of this text will be published in Musica docta vol. 6, in production. 

Pierpaolo Polzonetti specializes on opera and eighteenth-century music. He is the recipient of the AMS Lockwood book award and the Slim and Einstein article awards.

109 comments:

  1. I'm disturbed the tone of this piece, as well as some of the specifics. We can begin with the assumption that all incarcerated males listen to rap. Do none of them listen to pop, rock, country, jazz, or other genres? Is the author making assumptions about his student population? And are those assumptions based on race?

    Next the author dismisses rap as having "blatant lyrics" and a "pounding beat." Does "blatant" mean sexual? violent? speaking a truth? Does opera not exhibit these same characteristics at times? Are there no examples of so-called classical music with a pounding beat?

    Next, why does the author feel he has to point out the race of the student who shouts "never" three times, with a frightening crescendo no less, thus associating the race of this student with frightening.

    The assumption that opera can "heal the mind" reduced inmates of the correctional system in a way that suggests that the author never bothered to understand the complexity of their stories and life experiences.

    While there are so many other points I found racist and elitist and entitled, I'll point out this last one--why, in the 21st century--do certain musicologists believe that an understanding of formal elements of musics trumps a visceral emotional response, that you cannot truly understand the music and your response until you know what a descending rapid staccato scale or loud ascending octave leap is? I thought we were so over that.

    That the AMS continues to support this kind of rhetoric is shameful.



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  2. Building on the previous commenter, I was also disturbed by this essay, and the assumption the author seems to bring that his interpretative strategies involving "an understanding of the formal elements of music" are inherently more desirable than the "emotional responses" he assigns to his students in the correctional facility. I found myself agreeing most heartily with his nameless commentator that it is never funny when a woman suffers, and no analytical consideration of musical detail could be more important to me than that message -- I would consider it very sad indeed if I replaced indignation at the treatment of Donna Elvira in my students' minds with considerations of "fragmented descending groups of three-note legato scales played piano". Were I to have the opportunity to share my insights about music and culture -- and the way that music has and still does signify sonically, and why listening to musical detail indeed does matter -- with prison inmates, I would not presume to know about emotional signification of music or sophisticated musical culture more than they do, at least not to the degree that I were attempting to bring civilization to brutes, as this essay strongly implied.

    Prof. Polzonetti may not be aware of the deep institutionalized racism that underpins the US prison-industrial complex, which his essay perhaps unwittingly reinscribes through its metaphorical language and "salvation through high/European art" narrative. As a native of Italy, like Prof. Polzonetti, I am well aware of how substantially less sensitive many Italians are to institutional racism -- not because we don't have racism in Italy, but because we've long been able to ignore or deny it with the excuse of maintaining an imperative of high-cultural homogeneity. While I find Prof. Polzonetti's apparent unawareness of the classist and racist undertones of his narrative troubling, I can understand it because he may not realize how problematic it is within contemporary American social politics (though I hope he considers such implications as he works to finalize the expanded version, since I believe readers of the important Italian online journal that is due to publish it deserve better). I am, however, extremely puzzled that the editors of Musicology Now did not perceive publishing this essay as a potential setback to the very public musicology they have been working to cultivate, with what I consider some success. Any individual -- scholar or otherwise -- who reads this paean to elite art soothing the savage beast might well think of musicologists as self-congratulatory champions of art-for-the-sake-of-art helping violent brutes finally understand what it means to have well-controlled emotions. I'm saddened that our professional society would choose that public face.

    Andrew Dell'Antonio

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    1. Thank you for this well-considered comment; this is a disturbing, essentializing, and tone-deaf piece of writing, indeed.

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    2. 'I would consider it very sad indeed if I replaced indignation at the treatment of Donna Elvira in my students' minds with considerations of "fragmented descending groups of three-note legato scales played piano". '

      What an idiotic comment. If you knew anything at all about musicology, or literary criticism for that matter, you would understand that one does not 'replace' an emotional response when one analyses a text, one deepens the listener's or reader's emotional response by showing how it is produced by the composer or writer. The admiration for Mozart's craftsmanship enhances and complements the reaction to the character's situation.

      Or at least that's what I do when I teach a text. Perhaps you're such a poor teacher that you can only teach one thing or the other, not both. Either way, you're an elitist pig if you want to deny greater knowledge and understanding to people, just because they happen to be in prison or of a lower social class to yourself.

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    3. 'What do the first four measures mean, with their fragmented descending groups of three-note legato scales played piano? Why is this followed by the detonation of a loud ascending octave leap? Why hold on the highest note before precipitating into a descending rapid staccato scale?'

      So this is tone-deaf? Wow.

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    4. Get a grip. Let a thousand flowers bloom. If you've got the stones and the heart, why don't you go into a maximum security prison like Prof. Polzonetti and then you can teach anything you want. And by the by, if you don't think it's valuable to listen to, think about, and teach music to other people, why don't you get out of the way and open up a faculty position to someone who actually enjoys what they do?

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  3. Dear Andrew and Sparkey’s Host,

    I am really taken aback by your reading of Professor Polzonetti's blogpost. Perhaps because I know him and have talked to him about his work, indeed, perhaps because I encouraged him to write something about his work and post it to Musicology Now, I read his post with admiration. In no way does he presume to teach that his music is the preferred path to a better life. Indeed the reason he has been successful is precisely because he has been able to connect to his students behind bars as one human being to another. I find that remarkable and unusual. His service has not been a onetime visiting lecture, but sustained and repeated visits to a class full of students who could at any time they wish easily decide not to return. If they felt that what they were getting was elitist BS, I cannot imagine they would return.

    What makes any classroom work is that teacher and students connect. So I wonder if you are suggesting that anyone other than scholars who work on rap should not bother attempting prison teaching. I cannot imagine that this is what you mean. But if so, then what is an opera scholar with the desire to do this kind of service to do? Here we have a scholar of music venturing into a classroom situation very few of us can imagine, and evidently doing so with some success. It seems strange to me to ignore that in order to subject his report to the kind of reading you are giving it. The point is not really the music, but the desire to make a human connection. Music, any music, is just a means to that end.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. Reading as somebody who doesn't know Polzonetti, I was impressed by the article. I would like to see Andrew and Sparkey's Host try teaching prisoners, if they feel they could do it so much better. Have some humility.

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    3. Absolutely. Give every human being mentioned above some credit. Pierpaolo has a genuine desire to share his perspectives on some beloved music with persons in the Eastern Correctional Facility. Don't you think that if many of the participants thought Pierpaolo acted like an elitist egghead, from start to finish, that he would get a mixed or dismissive reaction? There are millions of incarcerated persons all across our globe, and this man is bringing something to THEM, for free. All you folks, give attention where attention is due, and stay humble, I ratify and second pgidyf!

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    4. Indeed. What a bunch of elitist shits we have on here.

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    5. Humility??
      My friend you are an optimist.

      For those who know what is best for us all, who are True Believers in the sacred texts of Social Justice, there is no need for humility, only obeisance and in-step conformity to the Larger Dogmas of Structural Racism, Endemic Sexism, Twisted Cisgenderism...the list is endless. Such Believers read not for Truth but for Offense. As they do here.

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    6. Humility?

      You, my friend, are an optimist.

      For the True Believer, for the acolytes of the religion which is Social Justice, there is only Dogma and the Heretics who do not demonstrate the proper obeisance before the gods of Structural Racism, Endemic Sexism, and twisted Cisgenderism (to name but a few of the major deities).

      To see the world as anything other than a collection of Victims requiring indemnification, is to commit a mortal sin -- one requiring the kind of excommunication we see here. It is nothing but pathetic.

      Humility would certainly help; but we don't speak humility these days

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  4. Some additional point / counterpoint for interested readers:

    http://www.kendraprestonleonard.com/2016/02/17/on-musicology-now-and-issues-of-privilege/

    http://dialmformusicology.com/2016/02/16/scholar-teaches-behind-bars-is-sent-to-woodshed/

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  5. Andrew,from the way you describe me, without actually knowing me, it sounds as if I just crossed the border hidden in the trunk of a truck. You are saying that I do not understand your culture because I am a foreigner who has no knowledge of the problems of this country. I am an American citizen who has spent twenty years in this country and has contributed to civil and political life in many ways, including knocking at every door in poor neighborhoods to ensure that people who had never voted before would finally cast their ballot. The views you express seem not to care that I volunteer in prisons, in elementary schools were there are mostly impoverished African American children and Latinos, or in retirement places where the elderly are sent to die. In fact these activities appear as acts of aggressive cultural imperialism.

    I believe that musicology should not only be practiced in the libraries but also in the streets, in schools, and in prisons. All of this suggests that poor blacks (who, in my experience, often love opera) should not be taught what we teach to wealthy white kids (who often prefer to listen to rap). You think they are only capable of emotional responses but not of rationalizing them, and for that reason it would be unfair and cruel punishment to torment them with music theory and the grammar of operatic conventions. Several responses to my posting imply, along those lines, that we should only offer musicology for dummies to the unprivileged and culturally segregated. The assumption is that opera belongs to educated white people of European descent. This is as absurd as claiming that Greek tragedies only belong to the Greeks.

    In prison I met a lot of profound and refined thinkers without the education they deserve. They are presently locked up while they could give a positive contribution to our society. Opera and Greek tragedy, and much more, including jazz and, yes, rap, belongs to them as much as to me and anybody else.

    Like the first emotional and anonymous commentator, you overlook what I really say and only see what you believe a European musicologist, a foreigner, must have said. I write that “Classical music and opera, like rap, are acquired tastes and their value is both intrinsic and contextual,” but you want to construe that to mean that I am there to bring civilization to the unfortunate or consider rap less valuable than opera. I describe my students in prison as they appear to me, because I respect their identity. Would you prefer I obscure who they are? That thought pains me. They are real people to me. Individuals. It is sad to see that politically correct empty rhetoric is being deployed to attack the work of people who are trying to bring hope and change reality, to eliminate walls rather than build new ones.

    So I reject your invitation to adopt a cleansed rhetoric that erases difference of culture and race. Walls are built by erasing difference. We must respect and value diversity to bring those walls down. Maybe I do not understand your America, but the country I have come to believe is one where we can love people for what they are, also for their right and ability to understand and actively shape all culture, including opera.

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    1. The statement you make about not coming to America in "hidden in th trunk of a truck" is indicative of a thought process that reflects a hierarchy of desirable and undesirable foreign influences. One that is dangerously correlated to race. This is exactly the kind of assumptions that commenters had issues with in the original article.

      Asking geniunely here: do you truly find that characterization inoffensive? To my ears it's patronizing and insensitive and only digs the hole deeper on the issue of language as defining and reflecting thought.

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    2. I find it ironic that you are lecturing Palzonetti about being patronizing.

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    3. Mr. Polzonetti, I fully agree with your comments. Your essay, no doubt, will make rather uncomfortable those defenders of a "cleansed" or "empty political rhetoric," as you so well put it, for it simply prevents them for finding any sort of intellectual shelter from what must be denounced as a silent ideology which does not, or perhaps simply refuses to, realize the degree to which it unwittingly perpetuates the very prejudices it claims to combat by refusing to acknowledge any sort of difference for what it truly is. It is not by thoughtlessly remaining blind to difference that we can honor it. The main problem with political correctness is that, underneath its superficial veneer of social progress, it remains an extraordinarily conformist and self-congratulatory intellectual discourse that in the end is terrified of intellectual honesty and of truly confronting the real. It amounts in the end to a form of intellectual tyranny and thought censorship in that, most paradoxically, it ever stands at the ready to severely admonish those who might possibly think otherwise or who might advance a position that does not necessarily fit into its prevailing narrative. I compliment you for your noble initiative as well as for your intellectual courage -- qualities which are unlikely to be met by your detractors who, despite their superficial embrace of all difference, are unlikely to ever step out of the thick walls of academia or privilege -- ironically, prisoners themselves of an intellectual prison of their own.

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    4. 'The statement you make about not coming to America in "hidden in th trunk of a truck" is indicative of a thought process that reflects a hierarchy of desirable and undesirable foreign influences. '

      And you're so far up your politically correct behind that you can't understand humour and irony.

      It's quite clear that the only non-racist here is Polzonetti himself, as he has the gumption and bravery to try improving the lives of these people, regardless of their race or past history.

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  6. I admire Prof. Polzonetti for making those repeated trips to present to some inmates at Eastern Correctional Facility a sphere of musical creativity with which many of them were probably not familiar and to engage with them in lively discussion.

    I found intriguing his point that, when, at one point, the discussion became emotionally intense, he was able to restore a sense of intellectual discovery by drawing attention to specific features of the music: features that might arguably help explain why we (not just prison inmates) respond so intensely to the opera’s characters and their interactions.

    I am grateful to the editors of Musicology Now for posting this essay here, and I look forward to reading the longer version in Musica Docta.

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  7. To me the intent of this piece is the exact opposite of what the negative readings suggest. I'd say that any view that holds that we shouldn't 'impose' 'high culture' on prison inmates (homeless etc,) is the ultimate put-down and contempt. Let the people taking the course be the judge of that.
    If these works of art have the power still to speak to us, they can speak to all of us; if a mode of a more technical analysis can teach new insights, they can teach all of us--precisely not merely an elitist minority. It's not Prof. Polzonetti's piece that reduces the inmates to the uncivilized.
    In his blog this line stands out to me: 'Classical music and opera, like rap, are acquired tastes and their value is both intrinsic and contextual.'

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    1. didn't know how to add my name/identity: Gretchen Reydams-Schils

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    2. one afterthought: my department does quite a bit of outreach, also, for instance, in a local Center for the Homeless, and one recurring testimony by the people taking those classes themselves is pretty vocal indignation and dismay about others' judgments and decisions, in their past, that such art works (books, music) were 'not for them.'

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    3. I didn't think what commenters were suggesting is that we should not "impose" opera on the prison population. I too get tired of people thinking I should work in an area related to my minority background rather than the dead-white-guys discipline in which I work. Along with the idea that it is "not for me" what I hear is often surprise that I am interested in my dead white guys field that is largely comprised of nearly-dead white guys. And there's the rub in the piece.

      So, some of us wonder about the author's idea that this population will find Opera music "exotic"or that they need to be taught by Opera or musicology how to recognize and control their emotions. The idea that people who end up in prison are not quite fully human, savage, emotive rather than rational, is a trope. It is a way of talking about groups of people in a way that explains, rationalizes their disenfranchisement, their lack of power. They don't have power because they don't deserve it ...yet. For some they can't possibly change. For others, educating the savage allows for the human to evolve or break free.

      This is a popular narrative type. Even if one doesn't necessarily buy into the whole structure, It is hard to break free of these narratological templates, especially when trying to do a non-academic, piece for a wide public.

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  8. I can’t see this as an either/or.

    Prof. Polzonetti’s effort to take his work out of the academy, and to connect with extremely disadvantaged groups who he could quite comfortably have avoided, is laudable. Few of us can claim to have done as much. But whether we like it or not, the heritage of the colonial civilizing mission hangs over the whole enterprise as it is detailed here.

    Prof. Polzonetti is right to suggest that deep study and thought will reveal more of a work’s subtleties and meanings, and that issuing a challenge to do so is a compliment to any student’s potential to learn and understand. But he seems to have made no such effort to understand rap, with its ‘blatant lyrics’ and ‘pounding beat’; an opportunity for classroom dialogue seems to have been passed up in favor of a familiar hierarchy of knowledge and power. (A shame: given the complex of thought, persona, text, and sound present in both, the step from ‘Opera and Ideas’ to hip hop and ideas might not be all that great).

    Through learning of the kind attempted here, people can reach profound understandings of cultures and experiences previously foreign to them. But to claim that all forms simply ‘belong’ to everybody is a piece of universalist rhetoric that can only be employed from above, which forgets what happens when you’re on the bottom and try to take without asking – something some of these prisoners presumably know about – and which disavows the extremely complex processes of identification and tradition that are always at play in music.

    You could multiply these apparent paradoxes ad infinitum. Personally, I applaud Prof. Polzonetti’s sincerity and drive to enrich other people’s lives. And I don’t think that blanket censure helps illuminate the dynamics in operation. Nevertheless the piece only underscores how the privileges and powers accrued and enacted through whiteness and class position are always real, even for us avowed egalitarians.

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  9. Dear Tom,
    thanks for your posting. I am sure you are aware that white musicologists writing about and teaching African-rooted music to white privileged scholars and students can be seen as perpetrators of imperialist violence which, as you beautifully define it, is "the heritage of the colonial civilizing mission." With good reason, white musicologists specializing in African-rooted music and culture, like yourself, have been and can be accused of cultural appropriation. I am being accused of imposing imperialistic culture to people who do not and shall not be allowed to share what many still consider highbrow culture (I don't). If we let this ideology prevail we are on the same sinking boat. More positively we can be both recognize that we do what we do because we simply believe that by granting opportunities to all people to be exposed to different cultures and cultural differences we promote and enhance human dignity and freedom.

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  10. Prof Polzonetti's report opens new vistas on the significance and role of opera in composing an education worthy of our self-understanding as an integral society rich in differences. "Musicology Now" at its best! The quality of his response to his critics in this thread-- in which he insists on dealing with difference on both sides of walls, whether these be the physical walls that segregate incarcerated people from those who are not or the conceptual barriers that unduly separate rational learning from emotion or one 'race' or 'class' from another--provides a glimpse of the kind of engagement and substance that must make him a valuable teacher in an unusual setting. I look forward to reading his longer reflection. Bravo!

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  11. Tomorrow.
    UCLA's Tamara Levitz.
    "Decolonizing the American Musicological Society."
    FAS Department of Music at New York University.
    Silver Center, Room 320.
    5:30 p.m.
    http://music.as.nyu.edu/object/music.colloquium.levitz

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    1. I'm so pleased this is happening.

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    2. Dear Bob,
      Thank you for the support. I appreciate it. But I also want to make it clear that when I speak I represent only my own opinions, and not those of UCLA. Professors in Musicology at UCLA have very different opinions and research interests, and do not as individuals cohere into a monolithic political or intellectual whole. I so much appreciate what you wrote, so thank you! I write this only to make sure that those who read this blog not get a false impression of UCLA, or of me.

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  12. Prof. Polzonetti, a penny for your thoughts on this excellent piece, "Classical Music and the Civilizing Mission Ideology":

    http://schenkeriangangsigns.blogspot.cl/2015/11/classical-music-and-civilizing-mission.html?m=1

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  14. I'm going to be blunt, but I think the discussion -- and the Society -- can handle it. In 2016, referring to rap music as "blatant lyrics and pounding beats" is the musicological equivalent of using the N-word. It has the effect of invalidating anything else you say.

    Never mind the casual racism. That's been a staple of musicological discourse from the beginning -- how could it be otherwise, given the canonic politics we've inherited? (I wince on behalf of the tweedy prep school classical snob I once was, enthralled with Mahler and dismissing disco as repetitive trash.) But if a writer for the Musicology Now blog were to refer, offhandedly, to the fact that the sunny Italian disposition does not lend itself to counterpoint, or that atonal music bears the imprint of a crabbed Jewish sensibility -- someone, I hope, would suggest that dismissing a whole repertoire of music with a pair of superficial racialized clichés is not musicologically respectable.

    I propose this in the spirit of one of Bill Maher's "New Rules" -- going forward, can we agree to forgo such tired tropes?

    (And if you want blatant lyrics and pounding beats, may I suggest Beethoven's Ninth Symphony?)

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    1. Robert, I was hoping for some blunt comment but this is quite dull. You are obviously not a rapper. There is a difference between Schiller's lyrics and rap's lyrics. I personally listen to both rap and symphonic music and I like them both, but not because they are the same, as you would like me to profess, but because they are DIFFERENT. Rap is different from Beethoven. Rap songs use the N-word, and the F-word. They do it with poetry and lyricism sometimes, sometimes not, but they do. Schiller doesn't. Metastasio doesn't, nor does Da Ponte. Beethoven deploys sonic violence,you are right about that, not through beat though, not at least to the extent of rap music. It's a matter of difference, not of aesthetic quality. But I can see you are still enthralled with Mahler and dismissing disco as repetitive trash as you refuse to acknowledge difference. In difference you perceive aesthetic value and that is the problem. In aesthetic value you fear one could see moral value. And that is your problem.

      There is no causal racism in what I say and saw with my eyes because I respect people for what they are and look like, and the way they sound like. I respect difference, so I don't need to pretend that Beethoven sounds like rap to give an impression of being respectful. Yes, the sunny Italian disposition does not lend itself to counterpoint. So what? There is more in life than counterpoint. But there is also a dark, far from sunny Italian disposition (Busoni or Frescobaldi maybe). There are different kinds of Italian people. There are people of all kinds in every place I visited, and it's a lot of places. Read the comments to my blog posting and you will see a small sample of how many different American people you can possibly encounter. My words are the same, but they all hear them differently. Embrace difference. Beauty is everywhere. Even in rap, even in Mahler.

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    2. Well put Bob. And might I also just suggest that we stick to what we know here? For hip hop scholars the idea of "blatant lyrics" is simply proof positive of the author's ignorance of the breathtakingly fresh and nuanced wordplay in the art form.

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    4. So, since you mentioned Beethoven, let me ask, are the words in rap never blatant? Is the rhythm never pounding? Or do you mean to say that blatant can't be beautiful? Or that pounding cannot be expressive? It seems a matter of different expressive tools for different objectives. Professor Polzonetti is right, in my opinion, about the intrinsic and the contextual in art. I also think he is very generous to share what he loves and knows a lot about beyond conventional academic circles. We forget he may have received creative insights from his students, because the act of teaching goes both ways. He shared the gifts of opera and its ability to map human emotion, and I dare speculate that he received a lot of insight about rap in return.

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  15. Oh, dear God; reading some of the comments here is painful.

    The Professor was invited to teach this course. I assume that the inmates have a choice of the courses that they can attend and that they singed up for this course? If so, I cannot see what the problem is here.

    Stop off-loading your white guilt on all and sundry. Music composed by white men is not, by necessity, racist and sexist. Describing rap music as having blatant lyrics and a pounding beat does not make you racist. I wonder whether, if you asked Chuck D what rap should be, he would answer along the lines of a strongly-worded, articulate message, set to an emphatic soundtrack.

    The Professor enjoyed teaching this course, the students seemed to have enjoyed taking it. So what's everyone's problem, here?

    Well done, Maestro. I hope your work continues for many years to come.

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    1. Thank you for your reasoned reply.

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    2. What you said. The negative reactions to this article are ridiculously absurd. I would like to congratulate and thank Prof. Polzonetti for spending his own time trying to help improve the lives of those in prison. I'm sure he's done far more to help others than many of those here lambasting his supposed racism.

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  16. "They opened their minds and ears to music that sounded exotic to many of them. Eighteenth-Century oratorios and operas can appear meaningless or dull to listeners mostly accustomed to the blatant lyrics and pounding beat of rap music."

    First of all, I'm not a musicologist. I'm Public. So I don't know any of you, or have very much of any knowledge about Opera, except for the fact that I've attended one or two of them in my life. Also, I've been on both sides of debates like this. I worked for three years at a school for at-risk African American boys, and we dealt on a daily basis with how to be sensitive to power differentials, how to not be paternalistic, etc. It's hard. We got it right sometimes and we got it horribly wrong sometimes. But at all times, it was intensely personal.

    So when someone comes out with conviction and concern to criticize the thing we're most proud of having done, which we are presenting to the world as a victory, it can sting. A lot. But the fact of the matter is that this is when we most need to be humble and open, and to listen. Because when we are in the thick of it, we have to be focused. And focus gives rise to blind spots. And blind spots is where dragons lurk, waiting to turn our victories into losses.

    I resonated with the first commenter. And I appreciated Andrew's comments as a follow on. And I was saddened at the defensiveness of the author and his friends. I think you folks are missing an opportunity to have a productive conversation, here. But sad as that is, it's even sadder that I'm willing to wager that there are many many many people reading this thread who feel excluded and for a host of reasons won't speak up, either because they don't have the energy to wage battle, or because they are afraid of professional censure.

    I'd ask the author and his defenders to take a step back and at least be open to the criticism, take it on board, ruminate on it, and hopefully arrive at some more productive and balanced position. Because let me tell you, guys, lines like the one I quoted at the beginning of my comment are incredibly laden with all kinds of problematic language. It might not have been intended, but it's there.

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    1. A well-written and thoughtful response. Thank you.

      You bring up an incredibly important point about the nature of this post and comments. It's public, and the conversation going on here paints a picture of the field. Some aspects of this picture are ugly.

      For me, as well, it's incredibly disheartening to see the discussion come to these grinding halts. It could be a great teachable moment.

      Personally, I feel the need to respond, because I want people who are reading this blog to know that the troublesome language used in the post and comments by the author and his defenders is not universal to musicology. For many of us, it does not go unnoticed, and we don't consider it acceptable, even if intentions are good. And I think it's important to show that there is a space in this discipline for criticism and disagreement, for varying viewpoints, and fruitful conversation.

      There are many people that are not responding, for exactly the reasons that you stated.

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    2. Thank you for this reply. This could be a really interesting conversation about how to talk to people who don't know us. We do well to check and recheck our language to learn what we may be harboring inside without noticing. It is also helpful to read the responses of others, the readings of people from different backgrounds. The line you cite is one of the lines that pricks a reader working in academia, in the humanities today. Do non-academics see what is in that particular sentence? Would someone who works regularly with people of color? Would someone who works on the subject of prisons? or PoC? the language of Racism?

      Those who can feel the discomfort should point it out to the author or speaker; those who can explain whence the uneasiness should clarify it for everyone.
      It really does help.

      And when treading into sensitive territory it is good to ask a lot of different people's opinion on a text. In my area of work friends/colleagues actually explicitly ask, "Hey, I just thought this thing,with these words. I wonder if I'm exoticizing? being orientalist? being Euro-centric" or whatever.

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  18. Isn't the issue not so much (or not solely, since it clearly matters) *who* is doing the teaching, and what is being taught, but *how* it is being taught, i.e. based on different kinds of values and principles? I'd (also) cite your 'blantant lyrics and pouding beats' flourish as indication that the 'how' is, perhaps, a little skewed here. (Robert Fink pointed out something similar below but you ignored his point, concentrating instead on some flattening straw-man blind to difference.)

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    1. (This was supposed to be a reply to PP's response to Tom Perchard, but the hieratic comments system swallowed it up.)

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  19. I am outraged by this article — disgusted even! No, not by the supposed casual racism of the prose — frankly, the outrage is a little over-the-top, IMHO. But this line here just boils my blood: “But musical forms do convey feelings with immediacy only when understood, structurally, historically, and contextually.” As an ethnomusicologist, I think this is an outrageous claim! Really? Have we learned nothing from the Meyer-Keil debate on participatory discrepancies, pleasure, and form? Who among us really believes that opera can only be immediate and feelingful through sustained study? As an opera-fan, this assertion is deeply offensive.

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    1. Seriously --you're "deeply offended" by the "outrage" of someone being on the wrong side of an academic theory? What emotion is left to experience when someone calls you an ignorant !@#@$@!$#$@#!?

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    2. Actually, O Oblivious One, I think maybe I misread your post -- you're being sarcastic and ironic, right? Please tell me I'm right.

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  21. The level of blind political correctness in some of these comments is beyond satirical. On a different but related subject, do you know that the first recordings Louis Armstrong purchased after purchasing his first phonograph ca. 1920 were by the singers Galli-Curci, Tetrazzini, Caruso, and McCormack? And that when perhaps the greatest improvising musician our country has ever known performed the National Anthem at the conclusion of his concerts, he played the melody completely straight, without bending, crooning, or embellishing a single note? People who think this comment is off the topic need to think again--i.e. BEFORE you tell me that Armstrong must have hated his own people and the words "our country" is a racist canard.

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    1. As a jazz scholar, I find your use of Armstrong as a symbol of colorblind patriotism a bit odd. He was outspoken against American racism, especially later in life and in his work with the U.S. State Department.

      And I'm shocked, frankly, that "political correctness" is being used in this way by educated musicologists. Are you still getting your cultural perspective from 1950s jazz magazines?

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    2. I was not "using" Armstrong as a "symbol" or for anything really, save for the meager hope of providing a larger perspective (as his being and his music always did). As Duke Ellington put it, he was "beyond category" and hence beyond categorizing. Most completely human (and thus highly complex) people are. For the record, I am not a "musicologist", educated or otherwise.

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  22. I know nothing of opera, but I do teach at a prison; thus I found this exchange interesting. The voices missing from the discussion are, of course, those of the men who were in Prof. Polzonetti's classroom. I suspect they would have far more interesting things to say on these issues than any of the rest of us. And even if they share some of the criticisms, I'm sure they deeply appreciated the opportunity to take Prof. Polzonetti's course. One of the things I love about teaching in a prison is the way my students get me to see my own biases--which, almost by definition, are hard for me to see on my own--especially in regard to race, culture and class. I hope others of you on this list will consider teaching in prisons as well.

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    2. So very well put, Kelsey! Thank you.

      Reading through both the article and the comments, it occurred to me to wonder where this particular train, having started off with so much promise, went off the rails.

      A cursory rhetorical survey suggests that the trouble begins with the author's initial generalizations contrasting rap and 18th century oratorio and opera. Terms that were perhaps meant to be concise instead end up reading as reductive - about both rap AND the classical repertoire. At this point, the actual voiced opinions of the incarcerated students about what they are in fact accustomed to listening to and their initial feelings about the course's topic of exploration would be far more meaningful and effective in establishing the background and context the author seems to wish to establish. On a related note, the long-bearded student's apostrophe about the suffering of women in the context of a discussion about Donna Elvira reads like a missed opportunity in this text. No doubt the professor writes candidly. However, the allusion to this episode is disappointingly cursory.

      The trouble is compounded (perhaps) by the author's occasional departure from referring to his students *qua* students - a choice which I submit is entirely his to make. However, candid references to his students by gender (“the men”) and race (“an African-American…”), whether collectively or individually, will make readers sit up - especially in the broader cultural context of the author's primary audience for this article: the *American* MS. This being America — where the demographic trends in incarceration catalyze and inflame long-standing debates about the unsettling correlation between racially skewed marginalization and a dysfunctional justice system — to dismiss the spontaneous negative reaction of readers to discourse even tangentially alluding to this dynamic as merely PC is to be willfully tone deaf. Now, had the professor meant to excite such passions, then surely he should be prepared for the uproar… perhaps with both heart and mind open and eager to promulgate the lessons the “school of feelings” that he professes opera has the potential to be…

      Lastly, on that note, I find that the most unstable element in the responses of the most impassioned readers (on both sides of the evidently pro and con divide) is [A] ad hominem attacks on the professor and [B] ad hominem counter-attacks on readers expressing their strong feelings.

      It’s all quite operatic, come to think of it!

      I do sincerely hope we might one day hear the voices of the incarcerated students and discover whether they, too, believe that "Without an understanding of the formal elements of music, opera can trigger emotional responses, but cannot be a school of feelings." It would especially be fascinating to hear whether their experience with opera and oratorio enriches their reception of the other types of music they enjoy… and vice versa.

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    4. Here are the voices of my incarcerated students. In their Course Evaluation forms at the end of the semester, the students answered the question “What were the best things about this class for you?” by providing some answers that are worth mentioning: 1. “Being able to understand the opera music and have intelligent conversations about the music.” 2. “Learning about the history of opera because I never thought I would be interested.” 3. “Learning opera! It is awesome! The technical side is complex and wonderful.” 4. “Exploring a world I knew nothing about.” 5. “Opening the world of opera and finding how it applies to so many other faces of life, even politics and religion. [...] I think I would speak for all the students saying this is our favorite class. Also, it is the most difficult one.” 6. “It broadened my cultural views.”
      When asked, “What could be done to improve this class the next time that it is taught?” all complained about the limited access to audio and video recordings. Here is a selection of their feedback: 1. “Having access to the music.” 2. “More access to the music [...]. I want more opera!” 3. “Ability to listen and study the operas more often and more easily. More study halls!” 4. “We need access to the operas!”

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    6. Thank you, Professor Polzonetti, for sharing the students voices.

      Hearing them offer their assessment of the course and demand more of something they found challenging and eye opening is quite exciting.

      Their voices are far more eloquent advocates of the beauty and value of your course and anyone else's could ever be. The most fascinating effect of turning up the volume on what they have to say makes it clear that this is their story to tell, about a choice that they made.

      I find that in this new narrative context, the ethical necessity of your role as facilitator in their formally objective and aesthetically subjective exploration and discovery of opera and oratorio is more clearly apparent.

      Thank you and congratulations and a role well played.

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    10. Need we say more? The sterility of all that PC stuff is surely swept aside by the incarcerated students' responses.

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    15. I wonder about the possibility of actually producing a small (chamber) Opera with your students? I think it would be immensely therapeutic.

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    16. Thank you for the reply Professor, and to Curio for the wonderful summation. As someone looking to enter the field of musicology, it's less about the research and more about education moments, and your readiness to both teach (both those in prison and those in this thread) is refreshing.

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    17. Very valuable added information. From all I have read, your work in teaching opera in the prison was most valuable and appreciated by the students. I always assumed that they, like most humans, could appreciate BOTH emotional content AND formal aspects of the art. And I always thought you assumed that also. I think you do a valuable service by your teaching.

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    1. For those seeking a contrasting discussion:

      http://brownamsavenger.livejournal.com/

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  25. As I think more about this it occurs to me that this "learning moment" offers the author a chance to further his essay's conclusion, namely that if we take the time to understand the sonic and rhetorical structures of music, that we can add to (not replace, but add to) our immediate emotional responses a more nuanced understanding of form, context, etc., and gain new perspective. Assuming that some of his students are indeed hip hop fans, he now has a great opportunity to learn something from them. I personally, think the author is doing great work and this would make the work even more rich and rewarding. I'll look forward to the outcomes.

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  26. A few years ago a friend of mine was visiting a public grade school in Los Angeles. He had walked into a classroom – it was evening and there were no students or teachers around – and he was looking around at things posted on the walls such as student papers, pictures and so on. He noticed that there were also 'grammar tutorials' at various places. These tutorials were professionally done & so he assumed were provided or made available to other schools throughout LA & probably beyond. Then he noticed one that he found so amusing that he snapped a picture of it. He later shared it with me, and I've shared it with others. Now I'd like to share it with all of you. I can't see a way to post an image here, so I'll just quote the contents:

    "conjunction
    A word that connects words or groups of words
    [example:] I enjoy rock, hip-hop, _and_
    jazz, _but_ not classical music."

    I'm not at all certain those so outraged at Dr. Polzonetti here will make the connection. It is, after all, a little on the subtle side. But I'm not willing to go any further than adding a vague reference to specks and logs.

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  27. I read this conversation with great interest. As a white scholar who works on African-American music, I figure it's only a matter of time before I get called on the carpet for some misstep. I only hope that when it happens, it's a small goof and not a big one, and that my correctors will be kind.

    Some years back I heard a white friend get schooled, in the Q&A after he presented a conference paper, for repeatedly using the word "assimilation" (to talk about a black musician's stylistic versatility) without understanding the baggage that term brings with it. Although it was a tense discussion, it was a productive one; the criticism was given and received with a constructive spirit.

    I greatly admire Dr. Polzonetti's courageous, time- and energy-consuming, and meaningful work teaching in the prison. I found his essay very interesting and honest. I also found it deeply problematic, both in its basic argument that the rigorous musicological study of opera makes prisoners better people and in some of the tone-deaf particulars (e.g., specifying the race of the man whose strongly empathetic response to Donna Elvira elicits fear and a diversionary tactic). I don’t necessarily disagree with the first point, and I can’t blame Dr. Polzonetti for his reaction to the inmate’s anger, but there are a lot of things we believe and feel that we should think twice about before committing to print.

    These issues are worth talking about, in a constructive spirit, because sooner or later we are all constrained by the limits of our own experience and knowledge. If we can't count on our colleagues to help us notice and navigate our blind spots, then we'll just keep blundering about. In the case of us white scholars, we'll end up cluelessly working against the very goals many of us hope we're working towards, in society as well as in the AMS. I am grateful for the time, energy, and emotional work that colleagues expend in the generally thankless project of handing out a clue when needed.

    That said, I feel great sympathy for Dr. Polzonetti. To my mind there should be a distinction drawn: whereas he (like the rest of us) can benefit from some frank feedback, he shouldn't be made the scapegoat for the AMS's sins.

    Gwynne Kuhner Brown

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  28. There would be some very fine Opera "Censors" on this posting if the musical world ever needed them again.

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  29. Where can I sign up for this professors course? Seriously. My education in classical and operatic music is seriously lacking and I want to better myself. This man sounds like an incredible teacher and a wonderful face for the American Musicological Society. What a wonderful piece.

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  30. I thought "political correctness" did not exist, was just a right-wing canard. Now I see that it does and the musicologists exemplify it in their tone-deaf responses to this wonderful article.

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  31. I wholeheartedly welcome and support your music/opera education program in this particular corrections facility. The immediacy of education, in all its forms, is expedient to the enrichment of society as a whole, and our prison systems should be the first place to begin the road back to educational reform.

    "For in the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will only understand what we are taught."- Baba Dioum

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  32. Pierpaolo this is wonderful work, indeed. I have been going to Haiti for 12 years and teaching and conducting at a music school there. Your human approach and respect for the intellectual abilities of your students is admirable. I have found that in teaching in Haiti, the hunger is for the musical content, and in my case, the "how to" in order to convey the content. Music has a transcendent quality, despite any cultural issues attached to it. When you teach the human emotion and the musical content that creates it, you are indeed nurturing the spirit and mind, as music does.

    Don't listen to the people who haven't been there and haven't done what you and I do. They truly know not what they are saying. Truly. Which doesn't stop them from arrogantly pontificating on the latest version of political correctness - the extremely arcane academic edition of it.

    My background is 100 percent conservatory. Those of us who perform know very well that what moves the spirit is the actual music, the content of which you speak. The culture aspects are interesting. They might even have merit. But they need to stay out of the way of real people's experience of music.

    If prisoners, Haitians, poor people, whomever, want music, give them music, not a load of arcane theories from the "chattering class."

    We need more music in more corners of society. Thank you for your work.

    Cynthia Katsarelis

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  33. Has no one thought to ask the prisoners themselves what they got out of the experience? It seems presumptuous to speak for them, as so many here seem to be doing - and with such venom.

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  34. Ok, I've really been resisting wading into this comments thread, but I feel like I have to say something. Much of the back and forth has surprised me, frankly. I don't think the critical issue is whether the O.P. is doing a good thing teaching in a prison or not, or whether it's good to teach opera in such a setting or not. The problems for me are rhetorical, and I was dismayed that the O.P. and his defenders in the comments were not able or willing to hear that critique from, among others, Andrew Dell'Antonio. I hope as he considers a longer version of this piece he will think seriously about the ways his rhetoric perpetuates discourses of power and oppression.

    Here's my personal response: to write about an incarcerated population as one that needs analytical approaches to classical music to help them control their emotions, as you do in this essay, suggests that in fact it is a population whose problem is emotions that are out of control. Now, that may be true for individuals in that population, but it's probably not a valid theory of the current state of crime and punishment in the U.S. At the very least, it's insufficient--it makes an overdetermined, structural issue into a problem of self-control. Your analysis really needs to at least acknowledge the fact that crime in the U.S. is often a matter of structural inequality, the carceral state, and the growth of a prison industry that profits from such things as the war on drugs, and law and order politics. To not do so is to do a real disservice to the community with whom you are doing research.

    --Gabriel Solis, Professor of Music, African American Studies, and Anthropology, University of Illinois

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  35. Also, speaking as an ethnographer of musical aesthetics, I would note that the quotes you provided from your students class evaluations are interesting, but they don't really support the main thrust of your argument about why it is good to teach opera in prisons. They clearly liked your class (good for you!) And they like opera (right on!) And want to hear more (again, right on), but they really don't relate to its role in affective control. This will be an important thing to deal with in more detail in your longer piece about the class.

    --Gabriel

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  36. Similarly, I just wanted to observe the discourse but . . . . The problem I see is one of "assumptions" that are not properly "owned" by the author, but, rather stated as fact. Note the following statement, "They opened their minds and ears to music that sounded exotic to many of them. Eighteenth-Century oratorios and operas can appear meaningless or dull to listeners mostly accustomed to the blatant lyrics and pounding beat of rap music." I question if the assumption that they are accustomed to rap is due to race - or was a survey (informal or formal) taken to gain this information? I do apologize if this was discussed in the longer version of this but I only had access to this version for the moment. I have no issue with Polzonetti's efforts and find them laudable. But I am African-American woman and when I read his account, that one statement struck a nerve. In academia and as a musician, assumptions are made about the musical genres I study, the music I perform, and the musical spaces I should occupy because of my appearance - and sometimes this has gotten confrontational. I was almost thrown out of a conference luncheon where I was the lone African-American because it was assumed I did not belong! Admittedly, I had left my name tag in my hotel room, but so did the majority of the other attendees who were mostly white. So some of you will ask, how do you know it was about race? I answer because I was comparable in status to everyone else in the room with race being the differing factor. So while the critiques in this case appear to some to be political correctness gone amok, or at least the issues raised have little or no legitimacy, please remember there are people[I am struggling with how to express this] that have to "walk these issues out" in their daily lives - it's not a rhetorical or intellectual exercise. By the way, SEM has its issues also.

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    1. Oh, no question, the music disciplines in general have problems. I have generally found ethnomusicology as a disciplinary framework more congenial to the kinds of critiques I think we need and that are common in other parts of the academy, but the society itself has many of the same problems that you see embedded in the discussion here. Honestly, one of the things this whole exchange (the original post and the comments thread) has made me think about is the following: this is why although there are LOTS of scholars of color in the academy today who work on music, very few do so within the musicology disciplines (historical, ethno, and theory). Our disciplines have been profoundly conservative and hostile to difference.

      --Gabriel

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    2. Also consider . . .and I am speaking somewhat from my own life experiences and some empirical observations . . .I learned to play initially by ear. I grew up in the black Baptist church and this was my first musical conservatory - your "ear" is your tool. In the academy, I've encountered many students with similar musical training. But the academy does not value this sort of musical education and this has turned many students away from advanced ethno/musicological study who may benefit from the disciplinary framework and discourse that they offer. However, I offer the HBCUs as an exception because at some universities, the marching band program has no "printed" music but relies simply on the "ear" with section leaders learning new music by ear on a weekly basis and teaching it for the field show at the game that weekend - it's quite something. Another example, post-Katrina New Orleans - some schools in predominately black and lower socio-economic neighborhoods were struggling to find music/band teachers. Some of the band directors and music teachers had relocated to other cities. So music teachers (some TFA) were recruited to fill the empty positions but became frustrated because they could not teach these students who were trained to play by ear. They had nothing written. Even when band directors did leave notes or charts - they were indecipherable to the new teachers - one even remarked - "what am I suppose to do with this." We simply do not address how narrow understandings of music pedagogy and learning may limit access.

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  37. Thanks for going to a prison and trying to make their lives better through music. Why don't the rest of you go to prison, see what it is like, and then comment. Most of this conversation reflects privileged folks trying to show how much better they are without going into the trenches. Opinions are one thing and always welcome, but attacks simply close discussions. Get out there yourself!

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    1. Very well said! I hope this encourages people to go and see what community can be created between people in prison and those who live outside where difference in the classroom is obvious.

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    2. Since I wrote my short post, three people have written to me privately, and the dialogue has been productive. Now I am going to speak out for the untenured professors and graduate students. You understand that when the dialogue gets explosive like this and nasty things are said, all this does is silence those without power who have a lot to contribute. Members of this unprotected class are afraid of possibly saying something that will hurt their career. So tenured faculty, let’s set the example for open, intellectual dialogue without the nasty stuff!

      As for my point of view, I have taken students to Sierra Leone several times, and we listened to many very different dialogues. It is good to get out and listen to people who are unfairly oppressed. Again I say bravo for going into a prison and teaching them music. I am SURE that these guys in prison can speak up if they hear things they do not like!

      I will spend spring vacation in the South Bronx working with school-age kids who sleep on the street. I expect once again, I will understand, judge less, and hopefully come back with their point of view.

      Maybe in the end, it was good this happened because there is some great dialogue here too. Graduate students and untenured professors, please join in without fear. We, tenured faculty, promise to behave ourselves.

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    3. Prof. Elias, you write thoughtfully:

      “Now I am going to speak out for the untenured professors and graduate students. You understand that when the dialogue gets explosive like this and nasty things are said, all this does is silence those without power who have a lot to contribute. […] So tenured faculty, let’s set the example for open, intellectual dialogue without the nasty stuff! […] Graduate students and untenured professors, please join in without fear. We, tenured faculty, promise to behave ourselves.”
      Prof. Elias, I agree with the first two-thirds of your post wholeheartedly. I trust your good intentions and I believe you set an excellent example of listening and reaching out to junior colleagues who hesitate to voice their concerns publicly. But perhaps, together, we can also recognize that, when you say, “We, tenured faculty, promise to behave ourselves,” there is no way for graduate students and untenured professors (whom you’re encouraging to speak up) to bank on such promises. Unless you sit on the tenure committee or search committee of a particular commenter, what assurances can they have? Just as neither you nor I can presume to speak adequately for our collective peers, so you cannot speak on behalf of all tenured faculty who are reading this. Petty retribution may well be an exception rather than a norm among our community (or so we should like to believe), but the risk remains. Recognizing the discrepancies in such burdens of risk (depending on one’s status and privilege) may be the first step toward confronting the inconvenient realities of inequality.

      Respectfully,
      - Will

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    4. The issue for me is not with what he did, in fact, I like the idea. For me, the issue is his perception and beliefs about the people he was teaching as expressed in the essay - that is what I found offensive. I am an African-American female ethnomusicologist - I don't know what you consider privileged - admittedly I am in some ways, but race is not one - and for me his assumptions about this population based on race were problematic. I don''t know him and I am not calling him a racist. I would have been more at ease with this if the tone of the essay was, "My assumption was that this demographic would not be receptive to me because I believed that since they were black, they were mostly accustomed to listening to rap, etc., but I found out it was not true". Instead to me it reads, "these were black prisoners and all they were accustomed to hearing was rap and I am here to open their minds."

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  38. As a conductor and composer, I have, on several occasions, performed for kids in a juvenile correctional institution, including an abridged version of my own opera. I can tell you that the inmates that are permitted to attend really must earn the privilege through attitude and good behavior. So the fact that Professor Polzonetti found an eager audience of prisoners in the first place, suggests that they are in fact striving to rehabilitate themselves. He is taking part in a vital, very constructive process. That this is not immediately apparent to his critics is quite remarkable. Stephen Mager, Saint Louis

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  39. For a good bit of background reading on race, class, and power in prison, see Piper Kerman's "Orange is the New Black" - the book meditates in several places on these issues.

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  40. I enjoyed this article very much, and I admire what you're doing with this course. This comments section, however, is bewildering. It's sad to see professional musicologists behaving in such a disrespectful and sanctimonious manner. I can sort of see how an incredibly cynical and uncharitable person, combing the internet for micro-aggressions, might find a reason to be offended by, say, the phrase "the blatant lyrics and pounding beat of rap music," but that person would be wrong to hypostatize those feelings. Rap has long been defined by blatant lyrics and pounding beats, which is a good part of why I love it (n.b. I also love opera, and I teach courses on both). The world of music scholarship is riddled with serious problems, including longstanding dependency on systemic and institutional racism. But if we are to combat such issues, please let us now not be distracted by such sophomoric grandstanding. Your students comments are inspiring; please keep up the good work!

    Paul Chaikin
    Los Angeles, CA

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  41. Grow up. You probably couldn't handle music theory and now you have a beef with those who can.

    Your arguement boils down to a poor student complaining that physics isn't how you feel about physics.

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  42. We should all be praising this teacher for going into the prisons but the SJWs have to call it a bad thing. SJWers are as dangerous as communist.

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  43. To all of you who have been writing with such passion in criticism of Pierpaolo Polzonetti’s “Don Giovanni” posting:

    I have been stunned by this discussion, stunned as much as anything by my inability to have foreseen what the problems in wording were, and upset also by some of the posts countering your views, both on MN and Slipped Disc. To Sarah, who was/is upset about conversations being “shut down”, I’ve assumed that your comment partly referred to my lack of response, and for that I am sorry. But I’ve been literally speechless as I read the accumulating posts. My original motivation was to come to the support of someone I admire both for his scholarship and for his strong desire to make a difference. As I indicated, I admire him for his work in prisons, which is only one dimension of his non-scholarly work. I know him to be a wonderful, caring human being. My motivation the evening I wrote my post was to come to his aid. In so doing I wrongly dismissed the concerns you all have been voicing, and for that I am deeply sorry.

    But I am also stunned by your view of the AMS, which is so very contrary to my own. The desire of people I have known on the Board (including Andrew dell’Antonio) to improve the openness of the Society was inspiring to me in the four years I got to serve on the Board. That our field has too few scholars of color is absolutely true. The process starts with undergraduate populations in which that is often the case, and then the numbers decrease at each step up the ladder. As I have been digesting your posts, your anger, and your pain, I’ve been wondering if the problem is then initially a problem of our undergraduate curricula. That must play a role. Please don’t laugh at the obvious naivete of this realization – when I went to graduate school, people took a risk if they wanted to work on Tchaikovsky, and Puccini was beneath consideration. We have made light years of progress since then.

    How then is the AMS supposed to effect massive curricular change in music departments across the nation? To some extent, the diminishing role of classes about European music has already been taking place over the last 30 years thanks to the rise of ethnomusicology and the advent of popular music studies. There have been some assertions in postings the past few days that musicology is particularly bad in this regard. I would dispute that, but perhaps there are statistics that could answer this question definitively. My impression is that in this regard musicology is doing significantly better than composition, and no better or worse than many departments in the humanities. That is to say, I think the problem is bigger than studies of music.

    I pray that this discussion will result in the progress we all desire for a more inclusive AMS, a Society (and more importantly, a profession) that looks more like our society, but that is much more open to others.

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    2. Dear Professor Reynolds,

      I am very glad to see your follow up comment to the discussion on this thread. I count myself among those who can claim the privilege of having been your student — of learning to enrich our intellectual lives under your exacting guidance which you always tempered with patience and compassion. You hold a place of honor in my mind among the great teachers, especially since I always admired your ability to empathize even with the most troubled students (among whom I was perhaps the worst) and to discern the true meaning behind the veil of even their most emotionally inarticulate outpourings.

      Because this is my experience of you as my teacher, and because having such a teacher inspired and fueled my efforts to learn how to formulate my ideas more clearly through words, through music, through drawing, I am among those readers who may have been somewhat nonplussed upon reading your first response which, as you surmised, appears to turn a deaf ear to the deeply felt meaning behind the clearly very emotional ad hominem attacks on this article.

      Having said that, let me offer a young scholar's perspective on the questions you raise about the demographic profile of Musicology [in America] and the role that curriculum reform in the field might have in mitigating any real or perceived problems of cultural hegemony or marginalization.

      I believe that the most effective and meaningful shift musicologists — yea Humanities scholars in general — can make is to conceptually universalize the research and teaching of music as art (however it is produced and by whomever) rather than persist in maintaining its nationalistic, cultural, or ethnic segregations.

      Allow me to expound: It was in a course you taught on 20th Century Music, many years ago at Davis, and specifically during a lecture in which you introduced us to and played Stravinsky's "Elegy for JFK" that I first realized the power and beauty of music as a means of representing the ineffable, subjective experience in a way that transcends time, place and culture. I date the beginnings of my conception of music, arts and poetry as articulated below to that moment hoping that it might prove useful to other readers on this forum.

      I start with the premise that art (verbal, non-verbal and visual) is the concrete, objective* representation of the abstract, subjective [human] experience.** I then proceed from the observation that this subjective experience [of faith, of joy, of love, of wrath, of woe, etc.] is, at its core, universally recognizable in and for human beings irrespective of nationality, ethnicity, or race.

      On these grounds, I submit that a curriculum reform in musicology based on exploring and articulating the ways in which human beings craft the myriad varieties of objective representations of otherwise ineffable subjective experiences would be an ideal way of mitigating the cultural constraints of nationalistic or ethnically defined curricula and the way this compartmentalization contributes to marginalizing students demographically, whatever the category in question.

      Were I more eloquent I might be able to state all of this more clearly, more plainly. I hope you will receive it as a respectful response to the important questions you raise here.

      __________
      * By ‘objective’ I mean the empirically observable and accessible work of art made using words, tones, images, shapes, etc.
      ** Aristotle says it best regarding the distinction between History and Poetry in the Poetics.

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  44. Prof Polzonetti said yes to an invitation to teach a college course to prisoners. He offered musical subjects rich in emotional, human and technical complexities. He is positive about this teaching experience and so are his students, reporting their new insights important to them in their courde evaluations. Volunteering time beyond the obligations to his own university Prof Polzonetti is a leading first responder in a prisoner-initiated movement seeking higher education for transformation and growth while serving time. For more context on why his quality reflections--in the prison classroom but also in the exchanges on this blog--are ground-breaking, see this call for college courses from leaders of Insight Out based in San Quentin Prison on "Incarceration and the Path to Reform: A Conversation with author Baz Dreisinger, SF DA George Gascón, Jacques Verduin of Insight-Out and GRIP, and former inmate and GRIP graduate Terell Merritt."

    http://www.milibrary.org/events/incarceration-and-path-reform-feb-17-2016

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  45. And this fresh NYT editorial on the same movement:http://mobile.nytimes.com/2016/02/16/opinion/a-college-education-for-prisoners.html?_r=0&referer=https://www.google.com/

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  46. Please allow me a final posting. I thank you all for this heated debate. As I first saw the reactions to my text I thought, to quote Don Giovanni when the ghost knocks at his door, “I would never have believed it, but I’ll do what I can”(“non l’avrei giammai creduto, ma farò quel che potrò”). I now hear the voices of those who may expect from me an apology and, like the dead Commendatore, may now be exhorting me, “Péntiti, scellerato” (Repent! wicked man!). Like Don Giovanni I say, “No, vecchio infatuato,” or, in blatant lyrics, “No way! You’re nuts!” One cannot repent for sins not committed.

    My original posting had the purpose of shaking our consciousness. And it did because it exposes our discipline’s vices, vices that fester when they remain unspoken. The fracas it caused is due to its nature as a piece of writing. It is not in the realm of ‘research’. My text is not based on any form of systematic investigation grounded on collection and analysis of data and it is not designed to contribute to generalizable knowledge. In other words, I do not make any claim of objectivity. My personal impressions were meant to serve the sole purpose of launching a desperate invitation to social action.

    Words alone are not enough but are also important because they can have a constructive or destructive effect on action. I invite you, once more, to analyze and reflect on the accusations of “microaggressions” and “racism.” The people who made these claims silenced both my voice and the voice of my African American student. They isolated the speechless sound of his “frightening crescendos,” erasing his words, which I recorded. They isolated the sole image of the color of his skin, but censured his ideas and his voice by not taking into account that he was defending, most passionately, the dignity of women. They silenced his voice because of stereotypes that still prevent many people from recognizing that incarcerated black men are capable of having high moral standards, are capable of saving us from the vices of our society. The risk of deploying PC language irresponsibly is to devise a new technology of power through the control of heavily policed language. It looks ‘liberal,’ but is in fact reactionary in the way it attempts to police thought and language. It appears to combat institutionalized racism, but it perpetuates a culture of apartheid by limiting communication through an encoded language that only permits the expression of certain ideas. As Umberto Eco wrote in “On Political Correctness,” in _Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism_, “politically correct decisions can represent a way of avoiding unresolved social problems.”

    To me the most interesting and constructive dialogue we had involves the idea of what kind of music is “exotic” and to whom, and what musics can be shared without perpetuating an imperialistic agenda. We passionately disagree, but our common goals are to eliminate injustice, discrimination, and to give to every human being the same dignity and freedom to express their identity.

    One position claims that the music of dead white men becomes an imposition to anyone who is not a dead white man. I claim that the music of dead white men – indeed, the music of anyone – can and should be shared by all humanity. Culture is not in anybody’s blood, but travels lightly through the ideas of the people who do not reject it, but embrace it.

    Some of the most passionate confrontations are the result of territorial conflicts and clashing boundaries. The resolution of such conflict can only come through an openness to share territory. This is where we need to practice social action, visit the prisons, the nursing homes, the inner-city schools and redefine Van Wyck Brooks’s idea of “middle-ground culture” in terms of “common-ground culture.” I certainly do not see this as some kind of civilizing mission, but as a way of breaking down our social and intellectual boundaries.

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