Face the Music

  Jerome Shea       December 23, 2009      Weekend Wonk

I wasn’t even sure I wanted to write this wonk (the first line on my note pad reads, “Is Techno Guy worth it?”). But this week the UNM Chorus, the Dulce Sueno Chorus, and the UNM Orchestra, under guest conductor Stephano Miceli, performed Brahms’ German Requiem, one of the masterworks of the Western world, and the contrast was just too stark to ignore. At the risk of compromising my modesty—faithful readers know that I have sung in the UNM Chorus for years—I will tell you that the performance was truly professional-grade, a stunning and transcendent experience for all. I am still sung out and wrung out but profoundly grateful to have been a part of it.

Against that background, I will now describe a recent flap on the UNM campus, chart the fallout from it, and add your wonker’s sagacious reflections.

Four or five years ago I was walking to class on a fine September morn when music—loud music—assailed my ears. It was what I would later learn is called “techno music.” I stopped, turned, and beheld this rather tall and nattily dressed young fellow standing beside a big boom box and bopping away, swaying and tapping his feet. This was not some kid with a guitar strumming softly and hoping for tips. You could hear this din fifty yards away. And Techno Guy* was not looking for tips, which, come to think of it, would not have been appropriate. No, we would later learn that he was actually proselytizing: he saw himself as an evangelist for this techno music, bringing it to the yearning masses! After that I seemed to come upon him once a week or so. The students were unfazed. Some seemed to like the music, jiggling a bit themselves; others just went about their business. I was nonplussed. I really didn’t know what my reaction should be.

An aside. I stopped listening to “popular” music back in the early ‘70s when I was still a twenty-something. For most of my generation, good music died (as Don McLean put it) with Bob Dylan, the Mamas and the Papas, Simon and Garfunkel, Three Dog Night…you get the idea. I cannot tell you the difference between heavy metal and punk rock (or techno music) to save my soul. I am not proud of this ignorance—I think one should try to keep up with things, even strange new things. But I do suspect that I would not be able to distinguish Heavy Metal from Strangled Cat, should I make myself listen to it.

Anyway, Techno Guy finally got challenged early last month by a faculty member whom we will call Professor Killjoy. Prof. K. asked Techno Guy to tone his music down. Eventually the case got to the Dean of Students and it was decided that Techno Guy should crank his amp down to a third of what it had been. Killjoy was happy, Techno Guy not so much, but resigned for the time being.

Then the students got into the act, via the Daily Lobo letters page. To my surprise, the respondents were pretty much split on the issue. I would have expected them to pile on Prof. Killjoy. Some did, of course, saying that he came off as arrogant and on a power trip (oddly, and to their credit, I don’t think the word “fascist” ever came up). Others saw this as a free speech issue (music as free speech?), so that Techno Guy was being denied his right to expression. Others, though—even some who enjoyed Techno Guy’s music—saw a difference between freedom of expression and aural assault. These people backed Prof. Killjoy, even if reluctantly.

An issue that didn’t come up but seems obvious is the generational divide. Prof. K. and I are products of the ‘60s (see above: Bob Dylan, etc.) and the older generation has always seen the younger generation’s tastes—in music, in dress, in language, in anything—as a cultural travesty and the Death Knell of All We Hold Dear. But I guess because Prof. K. never said that he objected to the quality of the music (just that it was too loud), that whole issue was happily skirted.

Another issue is that of venue, this being, after all, a university campus. I don’t just mean that it is hard for most people to study or hold serious conversation with music drowning everything out. I mean that a university setting should promote a certain gravitas, and music blaring on the campus is an assault on that gravitas. This lays me open to a charge of old fogyism, I suppose. UNM isn’t Oxford, my critics would reply, and I should join this loud and vulgar new world.** Well, I’m willing to be called an old fogy, a mossback, a fuddy-duddy. Let Techno Guy find a street corner or a city park and blare away the livelong day.

All in all, Techno Guy handled it pretty graciously, and I find it oddly charming that he saw himself as being on a cultural good will mission. Far less do I respect the jerk next to me at the red light who thoughtlessly assaults all of us around him with his hip-hop music or, worse, that bone-rattling bass sound that is now so pervasive. I often fantasize that I have a concert quality sound system crammed into the trunk of the Little Red Beast and that I can blast back with, oh, Rossini’s Stabat Mater.

But (OMG! as the kids twitter) suppose Jerko likes it? What then?

*His real name is no secret, but he quickly became known as Techno Guy, so we’ll stick with that. Same with Professor Killjoy, a name I made up.

**Even Oxford isn’t Oxford these days, I’ll wager; surely today’s Oxford is far from the romantic, sepia image that most of us have always had of it.

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