Professors' Pods: Scholars Share Their Soundtracks
English professor Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky explains why music should not stay in the background
Published: Friday, September 10, 2010
Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 01:11
In this recurring feature, The Kenyon Collegian explores the musical tastes of various members of the Kenyon faculty, sharing five songs chosen by a professor each week. This week, it's Professor of English Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky.
Lobanov-Rostovsky perennially teaches classes on Shakespeare, so it was surprising that he chose only one song with lyrics to list in his top five. "That probably reflects the way I listen now, and the fact that music can serve an important function for a writer; it sets internal rhythms and a sense of drama, but words - especially when they're as unoriginal as most song lyrics - can get in the way of that process," he said. "My taste is pretty weird: everything from Bach to The Bad Seeds, Charlie Parker to nuevo tango."
Lobanov-Rostovsky said his tastes haven't always been this way, and he said that the way he listens to music has changed significantly over the years. He said, "Like many people, I used to keep music on in the background as I worked, but lately I find myself impatient with the way we treat music as wallpaper in every Starbucks and Kroger," he said. "I want music to surprise me in the same way that a poem or a painting does. That means letting music take hold of you, instead of just playing it in the background."
Although he was ultimately able to settle on five selections, Lobanov-Rostovsky mentioned another ten songs that could have made the list. These songs ranged from jazz to classical to Irish fiddling to "Anna Sun" by Walk the Moon. "Really, how great is that?" he said.
Here, the professor meditates upon his top five tunes.
Keith Jarrett, The Köln Concert
"Imagine listening to a man build a cathedral using only piano keys and his own ecstatic moans. One of the great solo jazz performances - part lyric structure, part improvisation, part rhythmic exploration - with its own soaring drama. For me, this is the sound of Saturday mornings when I was in college, rain falling, while I read my way though everything I could get my hands on: Neruda, García Márquez, Günter Grass, José Donoso's The Obscene Bird of Night. It's the soundtrack of my real education, the hunger for words that made me want to spend my life reading, writing and talking about books.
"John Coltrane, "My Favorite Things," My Favorite Things
"Two brief statements of that old familiar Richard Rogers melody that we all know from The Sound of Music, and then Coltrane on soprano sax and McCoy Tyner on piano take off, breaking the melody apart and exploring its harmonics for 14 minutes. Listening to it is a meditative experience, like watching a Sufi ritual, a prayer wheel spinning or ice melting on a bright winter day. I sometimes make my classes listen to this song to show them how an artist can make something intricate and beautiful out of even the plainest materials."
Calexico, "Black Heart," Feast of Wire
"If Nick Cave and Lou Reed started a mariachi band, this is what it would sound like: as if you've just woken up in a filthy bar in Nogales to find the narcotraficantes flashing their knives. I discovered Calexico when they released The Black Light back in the late '90s while I was directing the Exeter program. That album sounds like a Tarantino film showing in your brain, and part of what I loved was the strange dissonance of walking through London with this border noir music as the soundtrack."
Yo Yo Ma, "Libertango Tango Suite," Soul of the Tango: The Music of Astor Piazzolla
"Over the years, I've come to love tango, with its combination of languidness and intricate rhythm. Astor Piazzolla created a new kind of tango music by bringing in jazz harmonies and the kind of intricate counterpoint you expect in classical music. Yo-Yo Ma's cello lifts these tangos out of the milongas and brothels of Buenos Aires and makes them soar, even as it retains the complex rhythms of the dance. When this track finishes, I let it roll on into The Gotan Project's 'Amor Porteño' (featuring, conveniently, Calexico), where you can hear the interesting things happening to tango in the last ten years as artists start to blend it with electronic beats and samples."
Stevie Ray Vaughan, "Little Wing," The Sky is Crying
"One of the great covers of a song that every great guitarist has to play, revealing just how simple and haunting that song can be. Stevie Ray's version is laid-back and soulful, where Hendrix seemed to be playing with four hands and singing at the same time, and unlike the original, there's no hippie record producer saying, 'Hey, man, let's throw in some glockenspiel!' To be honest, I'm not exactly sure why this song follows me everywhere, but it does. I guess it's one of those recordings that feels to me like an artist stripping everything unnecessary away to find the heart of his gift, and catching a glimpse of that, whether it's in music or painting or writing, is inspiring."