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January 08, 2017

Syllabus for a New Day

“Beauty is a basic service.” (Theaster Gates).

“But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.” (James Baldwin).

Just when fostering creativity became even more essential to the American economy, we let the arts languish in primary and secondary education. The STEAM (science/ technology/ engineering/ arts/ math) movement is right: let’s not only re-insert the arts into K-12, let’s integrate them across the curriculum. Doing so would help us return to the ethos of — to name just two of many — the Benin bronze smiths and the builders of Renaissance Florence, re-uniting use and beauty for optimal design. Not coincidentally, we would also be modeling a strong sense of community, the sorts historical Benin and Florence represented in their various ways (precursors to our modern definition of citizenship).

I would start by making music part of every lesson, or at least of every school day. Riffing on what I have written elsewhere about hip-hop and project-based learning, I suggest that young learners explore how digital technologies have influenced music…and vice versa.

Let Derrick May’s words guide us:

Being a techno-electronic-futurist, high-tech musician, I totally believe in the future, but I also believe in a historic and well-kept past. I believe that there are some things that are important. Now maybe this is more important like this, because in this atmosphere, you can realize just how much people don’t care, how much they don’t respect — and it can make you realize how much you should respect.”

And those of Nona Hendryx:

That’s me doing a duet with a robot. My friend, Chris Konopka, who’s not here, who generates video using frequencies. I wanted to do a performance with a robot, so he built a robot that also has a Tutu head, Mini Tutu head. The Tutu head, at different points, would say things to me and I would respond to it. This song is called, ‘I Was Barely Breathing, You Were Hardly Living.’ It’s kind of like who created who? Did I create the machine or did the machine create me? It’s a futuristic view, at some point.”

And also those of Carla Scaletti:

The invention of software in the mid-20th century was as big a breakthrough for modern humans as the mastery over fire was for our prehistoric ancestors; the addition of cognitive fluidity to hardware has resulted in an explosion of experimentation and creativity (which also poses some challenges). As is the case with any new technology, humans immediately set about using software to connect with one another and extend our networks of distributed cognition. Computer musicians are uniquely positioned to predict the future by composing it and coding it, because as a group we combine the imagination and daring of artists with the technology that can make the imaginary real.

Singing along to “Wir fahr’n fahr’n fahr’n auf der Autobahn” or “Rock, rock, to the Planet Rock, don’t stop,” we are inspired to create our own music, and to contemplate the craft and science behind the sounds. As we immerse ourselves in the process, we are demonstrating competency in the 21st-century skills now required for economic success: computational thinking, critical inquiry, historical consciousness, source criticism, deftness with ambiguity, teamwork, strategic goal-setting, and so on. We can splice, merge, transfer, sample, remix, to create not only new songs but new hybrid genres altogether, which means new tools, new services, new markets.

standard interface will be by voice — will Siri and Alexa sing, and will we sing back?

Artificial intelligence (for instance, here is Alex Da Kid talking about his collaboration with IBM’s Watson; disclosure: Mouse, the organization I lead, is supported by IBM), virtual reality, augmented reality, haptics (feel the beat!) will quickly come into play, along with age-old patterns of storytelling and games-making. Soon our standard interface will be by voice — will Siri and Alexa sing, and will we sing back?

Above all, we can adopt a DIY approach, making our own art, which means finding our own solutions to challenges we have framed for ourselves, which ultimately means making our own fate in concert with others (a strong definition of shared responsibility within a commonwealth).

So, let’s bring MIDI to kindergarten and drum machines to middle school, time to put music at the heart of K-12 learning.

Resources. I am keen to receive recommendations from readers, as I suggest the following. First and foremost, the music and writing of the musicians themselves, particularly those who have delved deeply into use of digital technologies, for instance Janelle MonaeVijay IyerHerbie HancockTim Mosley/ TimbalandDavid ByrneRobert Glasper, Autechre, Missy ElliottJosh Davis/ DJ ShadowRekha Malhotra / DJ RekhaSnarky PuppyBjorkRichard David James/ Aphex TwinKamasi WashingtonTyshawn SoreyAnoushka ShankarPaul D. Miller/ DJ SpookyJohn ZornKarsh KaleFrancis BebeyRobert FrippNasheet WaitsThe NeptunesEsperanza Spalding, most of the musicians on Warp, on Ghostly, on ECM

, … the list could go on for pages.

If I were making a school-wide curriculum anchored by music, I would seek guidance from colleagues at (among others) the Savannah College of Art & Design, the Berklee College of Music, NYU’s ITP, the MIT Media Lab, RISD, Parsons, Jazz House Kids, DreamYard Project, AS220, the Boston Arts Academy, the Pittsburgh Science & Technology Academy, and the Urban Arts Partnership.

General resources for STEAM are extensive at this point. Edutopia has a good list. See Anna Feldman’s essay in Slate, also Helen Soule at the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, and the work of Nettrice Gaskins. The bipartisan Congressional STEAM Caucus, founded in 2013, succeeded in getting STEM expanded to STEAM for funding eligibility in the ESEA reauthorization of 2015.

By Daniel A. Rabuzzi
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