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Teaching soul and soul music
When religious studies professor Norman Cornett saw The Purple Rose of Cairo by Woody Allen, in which a movie actor walks off the screen and into real life, he had a teaching epiphany. "I said to myself, what would happen if musicians walked into the classroom?"
PHOTO: Owen Egan
Cornett set to designing one of McGill's more unusual and creative courses. Soul and Soul Music is taught in the summer around the time of Montreal's Jazz Festival. Roughly 40 students accompany Cornett to at least three free-to-the-public concerts a day during the fest. "I like to call it jazz boot camp," Cornett says. After the 10-day music extravaganza is over, they meet for two-and-a-half-hour classes four days a week for a month.
"Music is the aesthetic threshold to the spiritual realm," Cornett says. "We explore how music allows us to access that realm." Inspired by the notion of transitional space and scholars as diverse as psychoanalyst D. Winnicott, theologian Karl Barth and writer Saul Bellow, Cornett sees music as creating a concrete relationship between the spiritual and physical. He adds, "There are so many ways we can come alive to what we study." Soul and Soul Music aims to "get beyond the one-dimensionality of life, bringing together mind, body and spirit. Meeting musicians brings it all home."
Students never know whom to expect to walk through the classroom door. Cornett takes advantage of the musicians in town for the festival and arranges for them to vist the class to talk about their music. "I start contacting them a year in advance."
This past summer, Belgian Toots Thielemans, best known as the composer of the Sesame Street tune, popped into class. The legendary 80-year-old was in town to close the festival with Dave Brubeck. German blues artist Peter Finger came by and shared his initial musical-career qualms with the class - how could he be a blues musician and be German? "This was a model for students to find their own ideas, to articulate their own voice so it resonates in their soul," Cornett says.
Other visitors included singer Kristi Stassinopoulou, who describes her music as "Balkan ethno-trance"; McGill graduate, Rhodes scholar and jazz singer Diane Nalini - a physicist with a voice to die for; jazz guitarist Ryo Kawasaki (another physicist); Canadian poet Erin Moure; the Canadian jazz instrumentalist Jensen sisters; and composer David Amram, who jammed with beat poet Jack Kerouac and is collaborating with author Frank McCourt (Angela's Ashes) on an ecumenical mass.
To keep the students' reactions fresh, Cornett plays them music without telling them who the artist is, a "blind audition." With Nalini, he says, "We listened for two days to her recordings. Then I said okay, we'll take a break. In 10 minutes, the musician walks in." The students' responses are spontaneous and unfettered by a preconceived notion of the artist.
David Amram talked with the Reporter by phone from Willie Nelson's tour bus. He was fresh from conducting the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra two days before, and a reading at the St. Petersburg, Florida, book festival the previous night. That evening he was performing with Nelson in NYC. The busy musician says he was happy to share with the students what so many have shared with him.
Amram says Cornett "called me up about 11 times and finally inveigled me to come to his class. He was so nice and so enthusiastic - I liked his spirit.
"It was a wonderful class, I really enjoyed it. I was very impressed with the students - they're eager to learn and sincere. Like I do, they see university as a gateway to knowledge, not the end."
Amram was happy to "dispel the myth of beat poets as a bunch of untalented charlatans." He was impressed with how Cornett drew on people outside of his field and called him "a true academic" for his interdisciplinary spirit.
Cornett says, "Jazz musicians love nothing more than a good rapport. Here's a space where we can have a meaningful dialogue." True to unconventional form, there are no exams - students are required to work on a creative project for the class. These can be photo essays, writings, poetry. One group of five students spent a week filming Hide & go seek, loosely based on Kerouac and Amram's Pull My Daisy, an improvisational film.
During the day they went to class and wrote, and, using a digital camera rented from ICC, filmed at night in humanistic studies student Adam Kaufman's apartment. Dance, percussion, globalization and bacon all make it into the punchy film, which uses world music, soul and a dose of humour. They made creative use of the "Earth from Above" exhibit's walk-on map of the world on lower campus, and filmed the Sunday tam-tam drum sessions on Mount Royal. The film was shown publicly in October, and three of the film-makers were present.
Kaufman said they were inspired by the improvisational poetry in Pull My Daisy, and wanted to express their questions of identity from the local to the global and gender issues.
"Nothing was planned," film-maker Omri Ben-Avi emphasized. "Music lets you discover your soul. We're made up of layers and we'd peel these layers back."
Kaufman says, "The class was great because I'm really into music." His parents raised him on the arts, bringing him to blues concerts at age eight, and when he was in high school, writing notes to his teachers excusing Kaufman from class for "religious commitments" while they followed Bob Dylan tours.
Fellow film-maker Hannah Weinstangel, a psychology and humanistic studies student, took Soul and Soul Music because she heard it had an "interesting structure and a passionate teacher." She wasn't disappointed. "We were exposed to so much great art that everybody was inspired to create their own - it brought out the artist in all of us."
A pianist himself, Ben-Avi was impressed by Quebec pianist Lorraine Desmarais. "She's a small woman, but she has so much force when she plays." He also admired Dan Behrman's attitude - the Montreal Jazz Festival free-show scheduler "believes music is something everyone should enjoy. He's an exception in this profit-making world." Of all the visitors, Ben-Avi says, "They weren't only artists, they were creative and original, they were exceptions in the face of mass media and the Britney Spearization of society."