The course I teach at the Kintock Halfway House in Newark isn’t really about music. The guys I work with fit the profile outsiders would expect to find, for the most part; young men from financially stressed backgrounds form the general population. Most of them have little academic training and almost no exposure to cultures that live outside the mean streets they call home.
Current statistics say that the recidivism rate in NJ is about 74%. That means, I tell the class on day one, that we’ll be offering most of you graduate courses upon your return to the joint. Hoping to reduce that rate by just a trace amount I try and extend an inmate’s capacity to relate to people and cultures that seem foreign by asking him to consider the possibility that artists from radically different backgrounds might- at times- express common themes. Stravinsky and Shakur- what does their art reveal about the ways they differ as individuals, and could it also show us that their needs, fears, and sense of joy intersect at a deep, core level? If they can draw a line between Beethoven and Beyonce, might they one day be able to bond with someone sitting across the desk from them who has a good job to offer?
So we start out with the main man himself. A distant figure, for sure, until I tell them about the brutal treatment Beethoven was subjected to by his father. We talk about the Heilegenstadt Testament, the suicide note that Beethoven left for his brothers in 1802, when, overcome with grief at his growing deafness, he contemplated suicide. He was drinking too much at that point- but he was drunk much of the time, for most of his adult life. Somehow he pulled himself back from the brink of despair and wrote the Eroica Symphony. We play the first movement, and the guys take it in. Then we listen to bits of the Pastoral Symphony; the room feels quieter, and when it’s over the men explain to me how Beethoven’s courage led him to a place of greater peace.
THE SHIT IS REAL
This is a story of the South Bronx
where at the age of 14 I was already knockin’ off punks
My moms was on welfare
I knew I had a father, but yo
the nigga was never there
So what the fuck was I to do?
Fat Joe didn’t have it any easier, and he lays it all on the line in this autobiographical rap. What would Joe and Ludwig talk about if they sat down and had a beer together?
Our Broadway unit traverses a fifty plus year span. We listen to “Oklahoma!” “Guys and Dolls,” “West Side Story-” the usual stuff, and end up listening to excerpts from two contemporary shows, “The Light From The Piazza,” and “Grey Gardens.”
Ado Annie, what a wonderful character! The second female lead in “Oklahoma!,” Annie is the bad girl with a heart of gold. Check out these lyrics, from the great song “I Cain’t Say No!” that Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers wrote for her:
I’m jist a girl who cain’t say no,
I’m in a turrible fix
I always say “come on, let’s go”
Jist when I orta say nix!
When a person tries to kiss a girl,
I know she orta give his face a smack.
But as soon as someone kisses me,
I somehow, sorta, wanta kiss him back!
I’m jist a fool when lights are low
I cain’t be prissy and quaint
I ain’t the type that can faint
How c’n I be whut I ain’t?
I cain’t say no!
I’m jist a girl who cain’t say no,
Kissin’s my favourite food
With or without the mistletoe
I’m in a holiday mood.
Although i can feel the undertone
I never make a complaint
‘Til its to late for restraint
Then when i wanna i caint
I caint say no!
“S&M,” a brassy Rhianna statement of sexual liberation, may not reveal the level of craft that Hammerstein was able to conjure, but does the character she’s created have something in common with Ado Annie?
Love is great, love is fine
Out the box, outta line
The affliction of the feeling leaves me wanting more
‘Cause I may be bad, but I’m perfectly good at it
Sex in the air, I don’t care, I love the smell of it
Sticks and stones may break my bones
But chains and whips excite me.
“Yeah,” said one of the guys at our last session. “They’re both freaks.”
Ah, the joy of seeing a student make a connection.