New Cac Post: Communicating Awareness

My recent post on Read it in shiny original here.

Krista Tippett, the sharp and empathetic host of NPR’s On Being, recently interviewed the singer and composer Meredith Monk. While Monk isn’t one of the artists included in my dissertation, she’s of the place and of the period– 1970s, downtown New York– and it feels appropriate to have her compositions as my soundscape as I churn out the pages. If you’re not familiar with her work, she’s a dynamic artist who has worked in a range of forms over the past decades, best known for recording haunting melodies encased in vocal experimentation. Here is a video of her performing “Gotham Lullaby”:

Back to the interview: there’s much to love about this wonderful exchange (listen here), which delves deeply into Monk’s philosophies and development as an interdisciplinary artist. Early on the conversation, Tippet asks Monk about her notion of the audience as a kind of congregation:

Ms. Tippett: You’ve even talked about the audience as a congregation, which is interesting.

Ms. Monk: Yeah. I mean, I feel like a dinosaur holding out: “A live performance, live performance. Not the screen, live performance,” because I think that there is something about it that’s so unique and it’s so necessary to remember again.

Ms. Tippett: I always see you also insisting that music is about waking up. I mean, I don’t know if those two things have to be in tension, but I sense that, if you had to choose between transcendence and waking up and being right there in that moment, you would choose the latter. Just saying, I mean, live performance is as direct and awake and experience one hopes as anything we do.

Ms. Monk: That’s also, again, so interesting because actually I don’t see those two things as opposites. I actually think that, when you are that present and you are that awake and the audience actually experiences themselves, you know, the deepest part of themselves, then the whole situation becomes transcendent because we’re not — the way we live our lives is not necessarily with that level of presence.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Ms. Monk: And also certainly in this society, we’re taught to actually be distracted and diverted all the time from feeling, in a sense, you could say the pain — the good pain, you know, the pain as in openheartedness and rawness of the moment, the pain as well as the pleasure, everything in one in that moment.

The idea that we’d prefer waking up in the moment to transcendence is an appealing one; most of us who have had experiences in the classroom probably recognize the hope of the live performer: we are not necessarily seeking to deliver our students to transcendence, but just a few moments of awake. More relevant to those of us who think about communicating (and teaching) with our “audience” on a daily basis, is Monk’s articulation of a phenomenon of teaching people to be distracted and diverted from the moment. Just a few days ago, I was in a yoga class where the voice of the teacher was nearly drowned out by the songs of Kanye West blaring from the apartment upstairs; we could hear Kanye’s every syllable as the music pulsed throughout the building, making our Krishna Das seem like a mild sigh in comparison. As the teacher remarked, the “distraction” was like a taunting provocation: you actually think all you need to do to focus is to show up? The external elements stand in the wings, waiting.

A yoga class is one thing, and a college campus is another. On a morning in the first week of Spring semester, 25th Street had been blocked off, and DJ tables and speakers were set up. There were balloons, free hot chocolate, and Rhianna songs playing so loudly that the police horses at the end of the block were vibrating. As the deep bass ricocheted throughout the street, I commented to an acquaintance– a security guard at the college– that it seemed like a strange reason to block the street to traffic. Winter break had just ended, and students were milling around near a food truck. Someone had set up a basketball net, even though it was about 40 degrees outside. The thud-thud of the bass continued. The security guard answered me with weary tone: “I guess they had extra money.” I guess so, I concurred. “It seems strange,” he continued, “that they would do this right after break. Shouldn’t the students be focusing?”

It was a good question. When do we teach students to be distracted? And when do we create even further obstacles to communication? Baruch students are a scattered breed; the ones I come into contact with are rushing from jobs as far away as LaGuardia airport, some are juggling childcare needs, others just haven’t yet figured out how to organize their time post-high school. One of my students works all weekend at a hair salon in Astoria (eleven-hour shifts) and has the work of six classes to contend with Tuesday through Friday. I wondered about her– when arriving on campus, what might help this student excel and make meaningful connections with those around her?

Some days, in the lobby of the Vertical Campus, club hours at Baruch literally become “club” hours. There is a cacophony of distractions– a DJ surrounded by cake-selling student groups, with the dance music turned up to blast-off. Some students might enjoy the rush of it all, but it seems to actively repel faculty and administrators, who race towards the elevators like it’s an old-school game of tag and they see base. A shy student who might want to actually talk to a peer is left to do the awkward bend-close-to-the-ear move that’s normally perfected in frat basements and rock concerts. Just last week, as I hopped off the escalators, a row of male students awaited me, stacks of flyers in their hands. I took one. A blond in a Hooters tank top holding a pitcher of beer smiled back at me from the flyer. “Come join the brothers of Alpha Phi Delta for HOOTERS: Eat, Drink, and Meet the Brothers.” The thud-thud of the bass continued; I could hear the music even from my destination on the seventh floor.

I mention these two incidences not to be a curmudgeonly grouch, but to question some of the elements shoved into the frame of our every day communication. Do we create the environment for a whole range of interactions, or do we just create innumerable moments of distraction? Many of us profess to be on the hunt for increased calm and time for breathing; how do we model this for our students? As is frequently remarked upon, communication boundaries are changing. Our students don’t see an email to a professor as being qualitatively different from a text message to a friend. Students check facebook in class, and they remain so plugged in to other things at all times that it’s hard to get a refuge. Does the university have a responsibility to teach them how to find one? The VC provides them with one big building where everything happens; they need to learn to shift the rules of propriety everywhere they go, between a mid-day club to mid-day clubbing to economics class to the weight room. While this hopefully builds great fluency and flexibility, it also might be downright dizzying.

There’s no one-size-fits-all picture of academic focus and rigor. And I’m not suggesting that “play” should be absent from the daily equation of student life– certainly college experience operates on multiple planes. But we also need to recognize the carelessness with which we load distractions into the sightlines of our students. And “playfulness” comes in many guises, including being focused moment to moment. As Monk explained:

Ms. Monk: …I think that sense of playfulness is the sense of being alive; that’s another aspect of being awake and the fluidity. It’s really about fluidity, about being so in the moment that you are in pinpoint focus, but at the same time, you’re completely open to what the moment has to give you or to tell you. And I think that has to do with the playfulness and people can feel that. You know, I think that that’s what you’re giving an audience is that spirit of the give and take that playfulness implies.

I can’t end on a prescription or a conclusion here– 20 minutes of enforced meditation a day in the VC?– since these questions are all open for debate, from the concern about our own inattentiveness to the distractions that we facilitate (and even in the relativity of how we each perceive different kinds of music). Maybe one path to continue thinking about this is a merging and a meshing.  If you’re interested in further collisions between Meredith Monk and club music, check out this track from “Monk Mix,” remixed and interpretations of Meredith Monk’s music by folks like DJ Spooky, Arto Lindsay, and Ghostlover:

Postscript: I was excited to see that a former colleague of mine in the public school system, writer Diana Senechal, has a new book, The Republic of Noise, that tackles this very topic. My next post will take a look at some of the ideas in her book. Find out more here.