Unique Programs in the College of the Arts

The “Cloud Chamber Bowls,” suspended from a redwood frame on ropes, is one of the instruments invented by maverick composer and instrument builder Harry Partch. The Partch Instrumentarium inspired a unique program offered by the John J. Cali School of Music.

One of the many opportunities afforded to students in the College of the Arts is the chance to encounter unique courses and programs that foster alternative points of view. These include interactions with guest speakers and visiting artists to campus, study-abroad trips, and most importantly, innovative, progressive experiences in the academic classroom.

Following are examples of distinctive courses and programs in the College that are not commonly offered at other institutions, many of which are one of a kind.

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Unique Offerings in the John J. Cali School of Music

Perhaps the most unique program offered by the John J. Cali School of Music is its minor in Microtonal Studies, focused on an extraordinary set of instruments invented by maverick composer, inventor and theorist  Harry Partch (1901-1974.)  Parch was heavily influenced by Greek mythology, Asian and Native American music, as well as his experiences living life as a hobo. His treatise, Genesis of a Music, explains his overall philosophy and theory of intonation.

Partch built his instruments in a new microtonal tuning system for the performance of music dramas, dance theater, multimedia extravaganzas, vocal music and chamber music. Some of his instruments include the “adapted viola” -- a viola with an elongated bridge, played like a small cello, held between the legs. The fingerboard is marked with brads to facilitate playing Partch's signature 43-tone scale. The “adapted guitar I” is played by sliding lead-weighted Pyrex rods to desired locations on the strings.  The “cone gongs,” fashioned from the nose cones of airplane fuel tanks, mounted like mushrooms, are played with gong mallets.  Then there’s the “cloud chamber bowls.” sections of 12-gallon “Pyrex carboys,” suspended from a redwood frame on ropes. These difficult-to-find glass gongs are played very carefully by a percussionist—the originals of which were found at the Radiation Laboratory of the University of California, used as cloud-chambers to trace the paths of sub-atomic particles.

The inventor's unique instruments provides the basis for the 18-credit Minor in Microtonal Studies and exploration of the 43-tone musical scale.  Available to music majors only, course work includes in-depth study of Partch’s tuning system  and compositional applications as well as his life and work.  The course also focuses on Partch’s concept of “Corporeality” and an introduction to his notational system.  Students receive private composition and instrumental instruction and also learn about instrument repair.

The Harry Partch Instrumentarium, the largest collection of Partch Instruments in the world, has been housed at Montclair State University since 1999. Students in the program, who comprise “The Microtonal Music Ensemble” will perform the works of Partch and other microtonal composers, including their own compositions, on April 25 (performance open to the public).

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The Cali School also added a new course to its offerings this year. African Drums, taught by Prof. Robert Levin, officially debuted fall 2013.

Levin said he teaches students how to play traditional West African music, which includes the inextricably woven elements of drumming, singing and dancing from a variety of ethnic groups who live in Ghana and Togo.

Levin noted that he was first approached by two colleagues to teach this class.

"I was contacted by Professors Marissa Silverman and Lisa DeLorenzo, who have been teaching about world music in their Music Ed classes, and who wanted to bring some more exciting and extensive world music content to Montclair State's music curriculum," he said.  

In fact, Silverman and DeLorenzo are among three professors who are also taking the class. Silverman said her reasons for taking the class were multifold.

"First, I am a classically trained flutist who had little experience performing music that is not classical, so, I wanted this experience," Silverman explained. "Second, and related to this, I teach my music education students to embrace multiple genres of music…so I wanted to practice what I preach . . . And, perhaps most importantly, I love the whole communal aspect and ethos of African drumming. It is a spiritual music that embraces all. It is a music that welcomes and invites. And it feels good to belong to each other in this way during the process of making music together."

Silverman said the class had more than exceeded her expectations.

"The professor of the course is extremely enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and embodies the very essence of this music," she said. "I look forward to the class all week long. It has taken me out of my comfort zone and allowed me to express a part of myself that I don't get to otherwise."

Music education major Chris DeCesare, a junior, agreed.

"This class has far exceeded my expectations," DeCesare said. "Every time I come to African Drumming, it's like a stress release from my entire week. We really have an authentic experience with the drums, songs and dance moves."

"All of the students take part in singing, dancing, and playing the different instruments of the ensemble, listening to each other and really connecting through the music."

The course has become so popular that 18 of the 24 students who took the class in the first semester are repeating the class at a higher level this term, joined by 22 new students, according to Levin.

"The class is at full capacity this term and, as far as I'm concerned, so is the enthusiasm and musicianship," Levin added.

He added the course has had an impact on many students in the class, although they are from different majors including music education, music therapy, performance, composition and theater.

"One student is programming one of our pieces on his Senior Recital in April.  He is learning to play the master drum in that piece to lead our ensemble," Levin said. "Another student is planning to record one of our pieces for a radio-recording project. And one student is trying to plan a trip to Ghana."

DeCesare has already planned how to incorporate the course teachings in his career.

"I hope to use everything I learn from this course in my future classroom to promote cultural awareness to my students, and possibly even start an African Drumming ensemble of my own," DeCesare said.

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Collaboration between Music and Media

The Cali School also launched a “Live Recording” course  taught by Prof. Adam Bell -- an interdisciplinary venture with the college’s School of Communication and Media. Bell said he teaches "the art or recording."

"This entails producing and recording live musical performances and mixing these performances live to air on campus radio. It's an interdisciplinary class, anchored at the delta of music and technology," Bell explained.  

Bell credits Television and Digital Media (TVDM) Prof. David Sanders, his mentor in the New Faculty Program, for coming up with the idea for the course. 

"David and I had been discussing how it would be great to have TVDM and music students work together and he worked out the details with Prof. Dick Hinchliffe, general manager of WMSC-FM [the campus radio station], to make it happen," he said.

The course is a hit with students, according to Bell.

"The reaction has been fantastic and we're bulging at the seems," he said. "It's an experiment gone incredibly right -- the result of a great collaboration between TVDM and the School of Music."
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Opportunities in the Department of Theatre and Dance

Students in the Department of Theatre and Dance are also experiencing unique opportunities, in part through the offering of its “Danceaturgy Workshop.” Offered every spring, the workshop is focused specifically around the Dance Division's chosen repertory, said Prof. Lori Katterhenry, deputy chair of dance.

Danceaturgy, a term coined by Prof. Neil Baldwin, director of the college’s Creative Research Center is an observational strategy invented at Montclair State as a variant of dramaturgy in the world of theatre.  

"As a pedagogical process, selected dance students/writers are chosen from repertory classes to examine the works in which they are performing, and given the task to develop a critical analysis of the works by 'stepping out' and looking at pieces objectively," Baldwin explains. "The key is to capture the emotion and intent of the choreographers and their creations and...find out how a dance work came to be."

Since officially offered as a course in 2011, the Danceaturgy workshop has gained a lot of momentum. As an outgrowth, The Danceaturgy Archive debuted this semester, offering an annotated, catalogued, keyword-searchable, hybrid-text and multimedia record and repository of choreographic interviews, presentations and performances in the Dance Division. (Read more about the genesis of Danceaturgy here).

Dr. Baldwin will be teaching another innovative course next semester entitled “The Entrepreneurial Imagination.”

Baldwin said the course offers a unique opportunity for students to explore and exploit their entrepreneurial capacities through teamwork and creative expression.  Students will explore the nation’s rich history and landscape of “imaginers,” which will, in turn, empower them to see the possibilities in themselves for creating a new product, starting a business or organization or finding solutions for social or environmental problems.  

“After investigating the very best examples of American imagination and entrepreneurship in small groups, students will prepare a personal plan for realizing their own innovative dreams and aspirations,” Baldwin explained.

The course is presented by the Creative Research Center and The Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship.

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Continuing the University's Mission...The New Tradition Bearers

All of the faculty members interviewed agree that offering unique courses, such as those described, is at the cornerstone of Montclair State University's mission.

Levin said his African Drums course helps to fulfill that part of the mission in which "The University will play a role beyond the campus community,... to make positive contributions..., to enable students to experience their ability to use knowledge in constructive ways in the world, and to share the rich array of intellectual and cultural resources of the University with the people of New Jersey."

"In keeping with the University's mission, the music we play is community music, which [is less meant] for an audience, but [more] for building unity through weaving our musical spirits together by drumming, singing and dancing together, and actively and positively engaging all the spirits we encounter," Levin said.

Bell credited his Live Recording course with addressing another core element of the mission, specifically, "All University programs will develop in students the ability to discover, create, evaluate, apply, and share knowledge in a climate characterized by tolerance and openness in the exploration of ideas."

"I think this course creates a context in which we use music to experience this ideal for a few hours every Wednesday night," Bell said. "In the midst of the process, it's a bit messy, but the music always comes out sounding great. I liken it to a Jackson Pollock [the American painter known for his drip-painting style]: The process is a bit chaotic, but the product is serene."