December 3, 2007
Bloch meets Hendrix
in alternative universe
By carol clark
Hello, darkness, my old friend, I've come to talk with you again."
"The Sound of Silence" fills Angelika Bammer's freshman seminar, "Good Worlds, Bad Worlds: Utopian and Dystopian Visions." The soulful harmonies of the classic Simon and Garfunkel anthem bring half smiles to the students' faces, although the message of the lyrics is grim.
Davis Burgess chose the song for an assignment to find examples of utopian or dystopian music. But where does "The Sound of Silence" fit? For Burgess, it belongs in the "Bad World" category, while Bammer, who came of age in the 1960s, classifies the song as "Good World."
"It's so beautiful," says Bammer, associate professor in the Institute of Liberal Arts. "And for my generation, this was one of the songs that we loved. It connected us and gave us a sense of community about the things we were working to change. For me, it embodies the impulse of getting out and doing something, rather than just saying, 'Yeah, whatever.'"
Burgess concedes that the song holds a note of hope. "It's a timeless idea," he says, "that before you even think about how to make the world better, you have to listen to what's going on in the world."
The "Good Worlds, Bad Worlds" class grew out of another freshman seminar that Bammer taught called "Regarding War." The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed by the United Nations in 1948, was part of the syllabus. "The students read it and their reaction was, 'This sounds good, but it's totally unrealistic.' They were inclined to dismiss it as pie-in-the-sky," she says.
Despite her 1960s idealism, Bammer saw their point: Should utopian visions be dismissed because they don't mesh with practical, on-the-ground difficulties? She decided to develop a class to explore modern expressions of alternative worlds by philosophers and artists, and compare those imaginary blueprints to the real worlds envisioned by political treaties and constitutions.
The extensive reading list includes Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Adam Smith, Philip Roth, Plato, Jurgen Habermas, Margaret Atwood, George Orwell and Ayn Rand. To Bammer's surprise, the students embraced the ideology of Rand's novel "Anthem" — to strive to become powerful while not worrying about the fate of others.
"That was a vision they didn't find shocking, but inspiring," Bammer says. "I suddenly realized just how much we were at odds. I come from a generation where we believed in socialism and liberation movements. The students were born after the Reagan era, when trade unions were pretty much gutted. Collective action is a strange term for them. So the vision of this guy in ‘Anthem’ who strikes out on his own kind of fits their world view."
The students also studied "The Principle of Hope," written by philosopher Ernst Bloch in 1959. A German Jew who fled the Nazis, Bloch washed dishes in a New York restaurant to support his family while writing the classic treatise on the history of hope. Bloch argued that while there is no such thing as a perfect world, people have utopian impulses that are expressed through books, music and our day-to-day choices. He calls this notion of caring about the future "dreaming forward," and says it is essential because it makes life meaningful and change possible.
Bammer asked her students to find examples of utopian — or dystopian — impulses in the music they listen to. "I believe in focusing on the small things and going from there," she explains. "I want the students to be aware of how everything we do — from voting or not voting to the music we listen to and the pictures we hang on our walls — expresses the direction we want to go. All of those things together define who we are as individuals and as a society."
A ‘60s revival
Student Josh Drapekin and teaching assistant Emiko Soltis downloaded the 17 songs selected, ordered them into a playlist, and burned a CD for use in the class. Oddly, only three songs from the past decade were chosen. Bammer was astonished to find her students' selections rife with anthems from the late 1960s and early '70s.
"A lot of the current music isn't deep or meaningful, it's just rap/dance music," explains Julia Cox. "It seems like right now there's not really a collective voice for what should be done about the world's problems."
Cox, who is a Joni Mitchell fan, selected the singer-songwriter's "Big Yellow Taxi" for the "Bad World" section of the playlist. She says the 1970 message of how commercial interests encroach on peoples' ability to live autonomously remains relevant.
David Elkins chose an instrumental of "Star Spangled Banner" performed in 1969 by Jimi Hendrix. Some students squirm and squint as the chaotic chords of the rocker rattle the classroom.
"That's quite disturbing," Ethan Stern says after the song finishes.
"Then why were you smiling the whole time?" Bammer asks.
"I think it's really cool," Stern says.
Elkins notes that the frenzied distortion of the guitar chords climaxes when the music reaches "the bombs bursting in air," including sound effects for mortar rounds. Then Hendrix returns to the melody. "There's no more violence going on in the song and he ends it with a flair," he says.
Ian McCall, a veteran of the Marine Corps, says he could hear "Taps" amid the Hendrix riffs, which he interprets as an homage to fallen soldiers.
Burgess does an Internet search on his laptop and finds an article about how music scholars are still arguing whether Hendrix was making a powerful political statement or just gave a bad performance.
"Actually, he's a god," Elkins says, ending the debate.
The class playlist ends on a "Good World" note, with a version of "Over the Rainbow" by the late Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, selected by McCall. He explains that the characters in "The Wizard of Oz," who were seeking qualities that they had all along, remind him of today's society. "There's no perfect road devoid of lions and tigers and bears. We've already got what it takes to make a better world — the brains and the heart, and we're going to have to collectively find the courage," he says.