Saturday, June 29, 2013

The unfathomable strangeness of American music Part 1. Academic music

The idea of music schools seems eternal: but I just visited the oldest and nearly first musical conservatory, Complesso San Pietro a Majella, which is by the Piazza Dante in Naples. 
Why are they called “conservatories?” In Naples in the 1300’s, conservatori was a church run home for abandoned children. Many abandoned kids were named “Esposito” for “exposed”.  (Robin Williamson says that British names Hood or Robinson are similar: if you were born from a tryst on May Day, when typical rules were suspended, you were the child of Robin Hood and Maid Marian.) 
Music was a major part of the training in the conservatori in Naples. It remains so. As a student at Michigan State in East Lansing, I was proud that Lansing’s Michigan School for the Blind trained Stevie Wonder in music.
With time, conservatori meant a place for teaching abandoned and orphaned children trades especially music. The conservatori in Naples helped music teachers to make a living and gave jobs to Pergolesi, Donizetti, Bellini, and Scarlatti. Some of the kids became great musicians, like Cimarosa. Over time, other students of music began attend conservatori, but even  into the 1700’s the numbers of orphans and students from families were comparable. For us, the most famous teacher for orphaned conservatory kids was Vivaldi in Venice: those beautiful pieces, including The Four Seasons, were written for the girls in the orphanage.
The majority of my favorite composers did not attend music schools (e.g., Nancarrow, Partch, Satie, Gershwin) but plenty did, particularly the French (Debussy, Ravel, Messiaen). Some of my favorites can’t read music at all (Irving Berlin, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Vassar Clements, Brian Wilson) and even some very favorite instrumental virtuosos are autodidacts who picked up tips where they could (Stephane Grappelli, Stuff Smith, Buddy Guy).  Others didn’t study music in school but learned from their family (Aretha Franklin, Bach). As it’s become improbable to make a living as a musician, it is no longer a way for a disabled or disadvantaged child to prepare to make a living.  We have to teach music for other reasons.

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