News & Publications
The College Magazine - Fall 2008
Music in the Key of Life
It's only rock n' roll but Annapolis tutor Henry Higuera likes it.
Each Friday afternoon, after the last class ends, Annapolis tutors Carl Page and Eric Stoltzfus join with seven students to sing sacred music. From the Pendulum Pit, the voices of Primum Mobile send the beautiful sounds of Palestrina's "Missa Papae Marcelli" resonating through Mellon Hall, a gift to everyone else within earshot.
Around lunchtime on the Fishpond Placita Santa Fe tutor Cary Stickney (A75) may be found opening his guitar or banjo case, ready to play and sing with any music lover who has the time and inclination. Spontaneous dancing is always welcome, too.
Just as conversation spills out of the classroom at St. John's College, music enlivens and unites our college communities beyond the bounds of freshman chorus and sophomore music tutorial. Many talented tutors help make it possible: through formal groups and polished performances, community sing-a-longs and Collegium, jam sessions, and musical mentorship to students. The college is fortunate to have gifted pianists in Elliott Zuckerman in Annapolis and Peter Pesic in Santa Fe. On Wednesday evenings in Annapolis, Peter Kalkavage leads a community chorus of students, staff, and tutors emeriti that practices all year for a spring performance. In Santa Fe, Phil LeCuyer and John Cornell collaborated on "To Strike the World," a performance of orchestral music and spoken word that brought together musical tutors and students last December.
Among the tutors profiled in these pages are individuals who found their passion for music later in life and those who had early and extensive training. Several perform regularly as part of professional music groups. Some compose, one won't sing, but all consider music one of the great passions of their lives.
Long Live Rock
In tutor Henry Higuera, a rock star lurks beneath the surface. Just watch him strum his Fender Telecaster, even when it's not plugged in, and you'll get a hint that here is a man on the verge of rocking out.
In 1966, Higuera bought a bass guitar. (His first instrument was a ukulele.) With his neighborhood friends in Evanston, Illinois, he formed a garage band called the Knight Lords. They played songs like "Louie, Louie" and "Gloria" on second-hand instruments and with amplifiers held together by duct tape. After listening to Beatles songs on his transistor radio, Higuera learned that rock music opened up to him in a whole new way when he first heard songs from the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane on a good stereo.
"The songs to me sounded a million times better, and what made the difference was the bass," Higuera explains. "The bass sings underneath the melody. It's not obvious, but it gives the song its structure."
In junior high, Higuera invested $300 in his first quality bass, a Gibson EB-3. The Knight Lords never made the big time, but they played teen clubs, parties and junior high dances. They were an enthusiastic group, Higuera remembers. "But we would have made a lot more money if any of us had been able to sing," he says.
Music followed Higuera to Cornell, where he earned his undergraduate degree. He joined a band of hippies that played in Ithaca's most popular bars, and Higuera was good enough to consider pursuing music as a career. But watching musician friends eke out a meager existence and traveling from gig to gig made it all seem less romantic. "It was really part of my identity, and I had to rework that," he says. "After junior year, I wasn't playing, but I always had the bass with me."
At the University of Toronto, as a doctoral student in political philosophy, he played music for fun with housemates and friends. One of his professors was Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind. "That book was based on an article he wrote for the National Review, and I was his 'big expert' on rock," says Higuera.
Higuera tried to make a case that rock 'n roll was about more than just sex and drugs; it could play a powerful role in political reform. But by the time Bloom began working on the book, Higuera was "dethroned" as Bloom's rock expert.
Higuera was teaching at Dickinson College when he bought the Telecaster, a six-string that lets him play lead guitar on some of his favorite rock songs. When he came to St. John's, he sometimes joined up with students who put on loud concerts in the Coffee Shop. Marriage (to tutor Marilyn Higuera, current director of the Annapolis Graduate Institute) and children (Adam and Helen), along with the busy life of a tutor, meant his instruments were often at rest in the basement.
Having a steady group of musicians and singers at the college (with various membership over the years) has given him more opportunities to play, and he's always eager to strap on the Gibson or the Fender for a concert.
"There's this tension between the intellectual and this wacko rock bass-playing side of me that's just been something I've decided to negotiate all my life," says Higuera. "It's so intense, it's so loud. The only thing more exciting than being at a concert is being on stage five feet in front of your own large amplifier. You can see how it can get in the way of other more refined pursuits you have in your life."
By Rosemary Harty
Santa Fe tutors David Bolotin and Christine Chen have performed together several times at the college,
both as a duo and part of a trio, in works from Bach to Shostakovich.
Fantasy for Violin
Santa Fe tutor Christine Chen's proclivity for music became evident when she was quite young. Her instrument of choice was a Quaker Oats cereal box and her bow a ruler. "It was in the key of granola," she says of her makeshift violin.
Equipped with a more responsive instrument, she soon embarked on a 13-year journey through the competitive world of adolescent classical musicians. Under the tutelage of Eudice Shapiro at the University of Southern California School of Music, Chen seriously considered a career in music. "I thought long and hard about conservatory, but I decided I'd rather have a liberal arts degree," she says.
While Chen earned undergraduate and graduate degrees at Wellesley, Harvard, and Yale, her music remained a central part of her life. She played in the first violin sections of the Yale Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. Her teachers included Nancy Cirillo of the New England Conservatory and Sidney Harth, former concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony and professor at the Yale School of Music. As a doctoral student at Cambridge University, Chen helped found the Rusalka String Quartet.
When she spotted an ad for St. John's tutor positions, Chen thought, "this is really perfect for me." That was more than three years ago, and Chen has successfully fit music into the challenging work of being a tutor at St. John's. Weaving in the musical context during seminar discussions is "a way of connecting disparate parts of learning," Chen suggests, adding with a laugh, "I probably [do it] to an annoying extent."
Chen has discovered that a surprising number of tutors play an instrument, including a group that regularly plays bluegrass music. Ensemble playing involves the "necessity of being better attuned to the other musicians," she observes. Along with colleagues including David Bolotin, Chen played the violin in the 2007 performance "To Strike the World." Bolotin introduced her to a 70-year-old cellist in town, which led to the formation of an all-female string quartet with seemingly unbounded energy for music. In addition, Chen will soon appear with The Serenata of Santa Fe, a professional chamber music group.
In a setting where the emphasis is on the mind, Chen finds it refreshing to be able to step into the realm of music. The college, she adds, has given her the encouragement and support to perform in addition to teaching. "Music reminds me that there's something else besides what I'm doing," she says. "It is deeply important that a college has a sustained musical life."
By Deborah Spiegelman
When Santa Fe tutor David Bolotin talks about music, his voice is unmistakably reverential, which might have something to do with his recent reunion with music after a hiatus of nearly 40 years.
"I always told myself that I'd return to the piano," Bolotin says. He began piano lessons at age 6. Music followed him to college, but slowly receded to the background as lessons became increasingly sporadic. Engaging with academia more fully, Bolotin thought his piano-playing days were over.
Born and raised in western Pennsylvania, Bolotin earned a doctorate at New York University and lectured in classics at Yale before joining the Annapolis faculty in 1974. In 1981, he transferred to the Western campus.
Four years ago, music reentered his life. "I saw an ad for a digital piano, and then suddenly I had one," Bolotin says. He played casually for about eight months until a student showed him a book of 17th-century songs. While Alexis Segal (SF05) set about mastering the vocals, Bolotin accompanied her. Thoroughly hooked, he resumed his long-discarded practice of regular lessons and loved it.
Musical performance also found its way into a seminar on Chekhov. When the discussion focused on a passage the class found depressing, a student suggested that "in a musical, this would be the cue for an upbeat song." Bolotin challenged the young man to write the piece. The student not only wrote it, but also found a fellow student to present the song.
Bolotin has been taking lessons for more than three years from Jacquelyn Helin, an internationally known classical pianist and teacher who lives in Santa Fe. Since the auspicious digital-piano purchase, Bolotin has acquired an upright piano as well as a grand. "Two years ago, we remodeled our house to make a soundproof piano studio out of our former one-car garage," he adds.
What Bolotin really enjoys about music is the intimacy of performing with others. Ensemble playing—collaborating with both students and fellow tutors—is a source of deep satisfaction. He was Segal's accompanist in a recital this spring. "She wouldn't take 'no' for an answer," Bolotin recalls. Most recently, he joined tutor Christine Chen and recent graduate Susanne Ristow (SF06) in July in a performance of Brahms and Haydn piano trios in the college's Great Hall. "I'm so lucky to have a community to make music with and a hall to do it in," Bolotin says.
By Deborah Spiegelman
Like jazz, the seminar moves along on interpretation and improvisation, says Santa Fe tutor T. Andrew Kingston.
T. Andrew Kingston
Four years ago, while awaiting the arrival of his moving van and family from the East Coast, T. Andrew Kingston occupied himself much as any new musician on the scene would: he found a blues club in Santa Fe and became a fixture there—at least until it was time to unload the truck.
Raised in Chicago and Washington, D.C., Kingston came to music through classical training on the piano and his parents' influence. Both amateurs, his father favored the church organ and his mother lyric opera. In high school, Kingston played various instruments in school bands.
He credits two people with bringing him to jazz: Miles Davis, whom he heard in concert in 1981, and a teacher at Kenyon College who was a jazz pianist. Resuming regular piano lessons, Kingston began exploring what many jazz musicians insist is true American classical music. During his junior year abroad in Padua, Italy, he traveled with a local blues group. At Boston University, his graduate studies in an interdisciplinary program combining the philosophy of aesthetics and music were largely financed by his blues and jazz gigs around town.
While at BU, Kingston learned of a pianist and teacher proficient on a wide range of instruments. Three years after putting his name on Charlie Banacos's waiting list, Kingston began lessons. "He is a great jazz educator," Kingston says, and in a month of lessons, "he changed my life."
Ultimately, the hard life of a full-time musician wasn't for him. Instead Kingston returned to Kenyon to teach before becoming a tutor at St. John's in Santa Fe, where his musical and teaching lives are well integrated. "The seminar is like jazz interpretation," Kingston notes, sharing an observation made by a fellow tutor. The greatest jazz musicians are those who can listen and work with others, similar to seminar in that individual contributions create a whole piece. Like jazz, the seminar moves along on interpretation and improvisation.
Musical expression is a regular feature of campus life, including both scheduled performances and spontaneous jam sessions. Kingston offers piano lessons informally and has helped form a number of jazz groups, alternately composed of students, tutors, and local musicians. "There is a chance to work with the students who are here," he says, noting that an instrument that might not fit, strictly speaking, into an ensemble presents an opportunity for some innovative arranging.
Kingston has kept his hand in the music scene in Santa Fe (his latest endeavor: salsa gigs), and is grateful for the freedom to play music at his own pace. "Music is a way of talking about being human."
By Deborah Spiegelman
Even if she wanted to, Judy Seeger couldn't keep from singing.
Judy Seeger is always singing.
The Annapolis tutor sings at home, she sings in the car, she sings with colleagues and students in formal groups and impromptu gatherings. When she gave the Commencement speech in 2006, it was natural for her to urge everyone to join her in a chorus of "The Water is Wide," even though she was struggling with laryngitis. There is no occasion, Seeger believes, that can't be made more joyful by adding a song.
"My mother tells me that I sang before I talked," says Seeger. Her earliest memories are of singing in her family's Pittsburgh home with her father, a Gulf Oil executive who loved to play the piano. Seeger sang while her father played music from Schubert, Schumann, Beethoven, and others from a collection of songs stashed in the piano bench. "Not Bach," she says. "My father was not a fan of Baroque music."
As a child, she studied the piano, but like her father, she always preferred to play in accompaniment to a song. A love of music brought Seeger together with her husband, Tony, a member of a musical family (folk singing legend Pete Seeger is his uncle). The two met as youngsters in New York City, and in their teens, they both attended the Seeger family's Camp Killooleet, where campers sing folk music and traditional songs all summer long. Seeger also learned to play the acoustic guitar at the camp.
"Music was one of the things that brought us together, and it's one of the things we keep on doing together," she says.
Seeger earned a bachelor's degree at Harvard and master's and doctoral degrees in Romance Languages and Literature from the University of Chicago. Her husband became an ethnomusicologist. Together they spent nine years in Brazil living with the Suyá Indians and studying the role of music and song in their culture. In 1989, Tony joined the Smithsonian Institution as Curator of the Folkways Collection and Director of the Smithsonian's Folkways Recordings, and Seeger joined the St. John's faculty.
The place of music at the college, both in and outside the classroom, was one of the factors that drew Seeger to St. John's. "The whole college is a musical community," says Seeger. "Where else do all the freshmen sing?"
With Annapolis tutors Jon Tuck, Henry Higuera, and Chester Burke, and Santa Fe tutor Cary Stickney, Seeger is a part of a continuing tradition called "Begone, Dull Care," a musical gathering meant to brighten the winter doldrums. The event started at the behest of Eva Brann, who was looking for an event to brighten the dark days between winter and spring breaks. After a few experimental years—including a performance in the Pendulum Pit with Seeger, tutor George Doskow and then-music librarian Tina Davidson, the gathering found its home in the Great Hall. A folksy, high-spirited community sing-along that takes place every winter in Annapolis, "it lifts people's spirits," Seeger says.
A song has the unfailing power to get people to put aside their individual pursuits and come together. "We do music at St. John's the way we read books," she says. "You read the book by yourself, but that's not the end of it—it's when we come together and talk about it that the magic happens. It's the same way with music."
By Rosemary Harty
Annapolis tutor Chester Burke (A74) plays flute for the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra,
but says the guitar is the hardest instrument he has tried to learn.
Galloping on the Guitar
Chester Burke (A74)
Playing the pedal steel guitar takes more than just musical ability, says Annapolis tutor Chester Burke (A74). It's a feat of coordination and concentration. Burke was first drawn to the challenge by the sounds he heard in country music: a happy twang, a mournful wail, a nameless longing, all produced by masters of the steel guitar. But there's great risk involved: when played poorly, the steel guitar can produce some of the most wretched sounds known to the human ear.
The pedal steel guitar has two necks, each with 10 strings. It has seven pedals and five knee levers, which control the volume and pitch of the string. With his right hand, Burke plucks the strings with two finger picks and a thumb pick; the left hand (instead of pressing against the fret on a guitar) moves the steel "bullet" up and down the frets to raise and lower the pitch of the notes he's plucking out on the strings. "It's many instruments in one instrument, and it takes longer than most instruments to master," he says.
Burke has been a serious musician since childhood, starting with the violin, cello, and piano before settling on the flute as an object of serious devotion. After graduating from St. John's he studied music and performed in Paris. He returned to the states to earn a master's degree in performance at the University of Michigan. Since 1982 when he returned to the college, initially as lab director, he has played the flute professionally as a member of the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra.
The steel guitar began to intrigue him, especially when he became the temporary custodian to colleague Walter Sterling's treasured collection of classic country music. "In the country venue, the steel guitar is the instrument that best accompanies the singer," Burke says. "It best imitates the emotions."
Determined to play the difficult instrument, Burke took lessons from one of the best in the business, Buddy Charlton, who played with Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours. He invested 12 years in lessons and practice before he was comfortable performing before an audience, but he began carting along the instrument along with his flutes for concerts and special events.
Burke is now turning his efforts to the acoustic guitar. So far, he's not producing the sounds he so admires in Andrés Segovia, but he'll keep trying. "The sound of the guitar intrigues me," he says. "But it's much harder to play than the flute, and I feel I'll never get very good at it."
At St. John's, every musician is fortunate to have receptive audiences, whether it's Purcell in the Great Hall or Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young on the quad. "As audiences go, the St. John's community listens very well—we make a practice of listening to one another with respect and appreciation, and it's a pleasure to perform here," Burke says.
And while he's game to try almost any instrument, Chester Burke will never sing. "I'm terrified of singing," he says.
By Rosemary Harty
Practice Makes Perfect
Santa Fe tutor Stephen Houser routinely powered his habit of practicing the guitar into the early morning hours with peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches—but that's getting ahead of the story.
Growing up in Lakewood, Colorado, Houser started taking piano lessons at the age of five, received a guitar for Christmas at ten but "didn't do much with it," and played oboe in the junior-high band. A high-school friend with an electric guitar was his first musical influence. Together, they bowdlerized several guitars to create their Frankenstein, dubbed "the Astrocaster."
Houser later upgraded to a better electric guitar, with which he dutifully annoyed his family. During his first semester at St. John's in Santa Fe, he met a fellow student who played classical guitar. "I was mesmerized," he recalled. "He helped me choose a classical guitar to buy, and I practiced my brains out."
Houser saved up money from a job with the U.S. Postal Service and invested in a steel-string guitar, a 1943 Martin. He dedicated his summer after freshman year to music, practicing 10 hours every day, and made a habit of daily practice through college and after graduation. Returning home in the evenings from his day job as a paralegal, he would eat his sandwiches and practice until he couldn't keep his eyes open.
But Houser "had an itch" to pursue music more seriously. So he enrolled in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where he studied, took master classes, and played in a bluegrass band until the money ran out. Returning to Santa Fe, he taught guitar and "on a lark," applied to the college as a tutor. He joined the faculty in August 1983.
Houser has been at St. John's ever since, except for sabbaticals and the 1987-1990 academic years, when he pursued his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Virginia. He tried to keep up practice, but it became too difficult as he became more involved in extracurricular obligations at the college.
Music, however, continued to play a role in class discussions. "I rely on the common experience that students—sophomores, juniors, and seniors—have with music," he says. "Music was a very important part of my St. John's experience [as a student]. It was natural and easy for musical things to happen."
Houser has collaborated musically with students and tutors, including playing the lute with young singers and accompanying a tutor who played the recorder. More recently, he has been concentrating on the violin-guitar repertoire and currently is partnering with a violinist from Santa Fe Pro Musica on "enough pieces for a concert." He is hoping to reach beyond the St. John's audience to make a contribution to the community.
Houser also understands the soothing quality of music, having in the past played guitar for the residents of nursing homes and, most importantly, for his mother as she battled a form of bone-marrow cancer. When his mother moved to Alaska to be cared for by Houser's sister, he sold his 1943 Martin and bought recording equipment to make CDs of his guitar music for his mother's solace.
After 25 years at St. John's, Houser consciously integrates music into his life as a tutor. "I want to make some space for my music," he explains. On sabbatical for the 2008-2009 academic year, he will be doing just that.
By Deborah Spiegelman
Johnnie Song Book
When a group of St. John's tutors performs for special events, these two Johnnie classics are showstoppers.
Tutor Henry Higuera wrote the "Battle Hymn of the Republic of Letters" in the early 1990s, after someone announced a contest for a new St. John's anthem. Although the contest never materialized, Higuera's muse took over. "I was idly amusing myself with various joke anthem ideas when all these great lines from specific books started occurring to me, all set to the tune of the 'Battle Hymn of the Republic,'" Higuera explains. "After about a year of this I showed it to some seniors, and the rest is history."
Tutor Jon Tuck's "The Western Canonball" was inspired by both Harold Bloom's The Western Canon, published in 1995, and a lively song about a train. "There was a certain pomposity about the book that I found amusing," says Tuck, who has always liked Roy Acuff's "The Wabash Cannonball." "I put the two of them together, and just started fiddling around with it. My words are funnier when you know the original lyrics of the song."
Audiences love his booming, Opry-inspired delivery of the song, but Tuck remains modest. He loves performing for college events, big or small. "It's a wonderful fringe benefit of being at St. John's," he says. "You don't have to be any good. I'm always invoking what I call the Pyramus and Thisbe principle: the worse you are the better you are."
The Western Canonball
From the great Atlantic Ocean, from that European shore,
From Athens and Jerusalem come the authors we adore.
They're dead and white and masculine, they're known and loved by all,
They're the regular combination of the Western Canonball.
[Chorus:] Oh, listen to the Logos, and listen to your heart,
As you glide through all the authors, through every lib'ral art.
Hear the mighty rush of the Freshmen, hear the lonesome Seniors call,
"I'm traveling through the jungle on the Western Canonball."
They came from old Chicago U. some sixty years ago;
As they rolled into the Program, you could hear the whispers go:
"There's Homer, Hobbes and Hegel, there's Plato and St. Paul,
They came with Scott Buchanan on the Western Canonball." [Chorus]
Now the Eastern books are dandy, say the folks in Santa Fe,
From the Vedas to Confucius, and Lao-Tse by the way.
But we won't give up Plotinus, till the darkness round us fall,
No changes can be taken on the Western Canonball. [Chorus]
Here's to our daddy classics, may their name forever stand,
And always be remembered, and taught throughout the land.
Though their earthly race may falter, in the West's decline and fall,
Still we never study history on the Western Canonball. [Chorus]
The Battle Hymn of the Republic of Letters
My mind has seen the glory of th' Idea of the Good,
That it's not the same as pleasure I have firmly understood,
And I wouldn't take a tyrant's power even if I could,
I'm marching from The Cave!
Marching, marching towards the sunlight,
Marching, marching towards the sunlight,
Marching, marching towards the sunlight,
I'm marching from The Cave!
The Fool conceives of God but thinks the faithful are deceived,
BUT a "Greatest Being" whose reality is not believed
Is a being than which something greater still can be conceived,
Which contradicts itself!
Faithlessness will ever scuttle,
For it contradicts itself!
The State of Nature's character we know from good report
To be very solitary, nasty, brutish, poor and short,
So let's give the Sovereign all our rights and every gun and fort,
And then we'll all survive!
Ratify the Social Contract...
Deterministic limits on my freedom are erased
By the transcendental ideality of time and space,
So my atoms are determined but my will's a different case,
It's pure autonomy!
Hail the Transcendental Ego...
I've been through all the steps in my phenomenology,
So it's Master, Slave or in between it's all the same to me,
I'm Unhappy and I'm Conscious so I'm absolutely free,
I'm fully synthesized!
I've undergone the Dialectic...