Connecting the Dots

Connecting the Dots
Stephen Jablonsky (2010)

On my way home after my first day of teaching in September of 1964 I thought a great deal about what had transpired in my Introduction to Music class earlier that day. What was most apparent was the fact that I did not know as much about music as I had previously thought. There I was, a cocky 22 year-old with a BA in music from CCNY, a master’s degree from NYU, and a year in between at Harvard. As I lectured to my students that fateful day I was cognizant that, having never taught before, I had no experience explaining anything to anyone with any degree of depth or precision. There were moments in the class where I realized that I was not absolutely sure of what I was talking about. More significantly, I began the see the gaping holes in my knowledge of a subject I had started studying fifteen years earlier.

The scene shifts forty-six years to the present. As chair of the Music Department I rarely spend a leisurely hour breaking bread with colleagues at the faculty dining room because there always seems to be too much to do back at my office what with 300 majors and 64 faculty members counting on me for guidance and counsel and so much bureaucratic minutiae that needs my attention. So, I usually microwave my lunch from home and spend ten minutes eating while reading Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. What struck me early on in this ritual were the myriad characters described in Slonimsky’s tome as “significant,” “prominent,” “eminent,” “outstanding,” and the like and I had never heard about these people. How is it possible that musicians this accomplished had flown below my radar? In a moment of clarity it dawned on me that the world of music was so vast that one could easily spend a lifetime believing that you actually knew something about music and all you had done was scratch the surface.

Case in point: earlier this week I came upon the entry for Leon Dudley, otherwise known as Kaikhosru Sorabji. His entry began with the word “remarkable” so I continued reading with great interest. Upon finishing I got up and went to my computer to YouTube this fellow to see just how remarkable his music might be. Well, the music that I heard was definitely arresting and challenging. I am not sure whether this fellow was a genius or a lunatic, which begs the question, “Is there a difference?” Regardless of the final judgment, it is obvious that this fellow’s music is worth a listen. I checked for his name in my sixth edition of Grout/Palisca and he is absent. He did not make the cut. Not surprisingly, he is not alone. I have read about, and then researched, dozens of Baker denizens and they have all seem to have disappeared into the fog of history.

Thinking about this situation prompted me to envision my understanding of music as analogous to the Connect the Dots drawings of my youth. If I remember correctly, you open to a particular page and you see nothing but dots and perhaps a few line drawing hints to help you get started. If you stare long enough you realize that if you connect the dots correctly you can create something that looks like a horse or a schoolhouse. Well, that is how I now picture my understanding of music—as a widely spaced collection of intellectual dots that I connect only in my imagination. The intellectual magnetism that connects these dots gives me the appearance of solidity much like the particles in the subatomic world but, like those particles, they are not really solid and seem to jump around a lot when I look at them closely. In attempting to quantify my knowledge I realize that most of my education, both formal and personal, has been devoted to a relatively small number of greatly talented composers and performers, mostly American and European, who are truly only the tip of the iceberg.

Much of what I know of music has been determined by the path I have traveled. After graduating from CCNY I went to Harvard where I met Pierre Boulez and Leon Kirchner and got to know them and their music quite well. One of my classmates went on to study at Princeton where he worked with Earl Kim. I mention Kim in particular because I did not know his music until recently. He was a Korean-American of prodigious abilities and wrote some really lovely music that escaped my purview until recently. My second wife is Korean-born and the son of her best friend is a conductor who performed some of Kim’s songs at a concert last year and, by doing so, shone a light in that little corner of the musical universe for me. Thank you, Yoon Jae.

One of the saving graces of having lived almost seven decades is the comforting awareness that I know almost nothing. I seem to know just enough about myself that I am no stranger to my foibles and shortcomings, and I know just enough about people and life to enjoy the daily gifts that fate bestows upon me, and I know just enough about music theory and composition to be able to write some charming pieces that pose no great threat to the masters, but I know almost nothing about music—barely enough to call myself professor. In truth, I continue to be more of student than a professor, and I am grateful that my career as educator has allowed me to be both to the fullest possible measure. In my youth, my arrogance allowed me to believe that I could know music just as some astronomers believe they can wrap their minds around the universe or some theologians believe than can comprehend God, but I am in a more realistic place now that allows me to enjoy my role as explorer, not conqueror.