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Garrett Schumann: Embracing the New

Editor’s Note: Garrett Schumann is a regular contributor to UMS Lobby.


Photo: A tandem bicycle.

My summer has been full of new experiences. By the second week of June, I was newly married, a recently minted Doctor of Musical Arts, and — only in the most nominal sense — had become an internationally recognized scholar of heavy metal music.

Over the subsequent months, I visited several new places, my wife, Shana, and I rode a tandem bicycle (and, yes, we are still married), and, while in Helsinki, Finland, I drank a licorice-and-sea-salt liqueur for the first — and, likely, last — time. These experiences, and the rest of the season’s discoveries and upheavals, have been spontaneous and inevitable, challenging and euphoric. I have found it hard not to celebrate everything I’ve done this summer, happy or otherwise, because my life has changed irreversibly. I will never again be a student, for example, which has been my primary occupation for over twenty years, and now, with Shana at my side, my life, and the way I make life decisions is, wondrously and beautifully different.

Weddings and transformation

We had a Jewish wedding ceremony, so we broke glass to punctuate our entry into the world as a newly married couple. My family is not Jewish, so, in the weeks leading up our wedding day, I looked into the meaning of the glassbreaking so that I would better understand it, and be better equipped to explain this ritual to my friends and family. One interpretation I was familiar with is that the broken glass serves to remind the couple, and everyone at the wedding, that life is full of happiness and sadness, good things and bad. A different reading of the glass’s symbolism, which my mother-in-law directed me to, is that breaking the glass represents the fundamental transformation the couple’s experience; the glass is irreparably altered, changed from a solid, singular object into a collection of many pieces. The wedding also transfigures the couple: our lives are no longer wholly individual, but united by love and commitment.

To be strictly literal, breaking the glass represents the opposite effect of getting married – unlike the light bulbs we stepped on, marriage has not shattered my wife or me, but has made us stronger and more connected. Nonetheless, I am fond of what the ritual symbolizes.

Music is like weddings…

Our stepping on the glass signaled simultaneously the end of one interval in our lives and the onset of a new period, marked by the unknown promise of the future together. I suppose many points in life can be described in these, or similar, terms. We happen upon countless events whose endings dually serve as closure for what has passed and the initiation of something new. According to Christopher Hasty, a music theorist based at Harvard, we also perceive music, and musical time, in this way. In the most abstract sense, he argues we can only understand a sound’s duration once it has ended, and such endings also operate as the beginnings new, indeterminate, sonic durations.

Practically, however, Hasty notes the characteristics of past musical events impact how we interpret the present. In a way, we are biased towards the hope that what is newly becoming in a piece of music will reproduce elements of what has already come to pass.

And then there’s heavy metal…

I discovered Hasty’s theories on musical time while researching a new paper on meter in heavy metal music I will present at the Ann Arbor Symposium IV, a popular music conference organized by the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, and Dance.

Surprisingly, I find his philosophy is applicable to the new period in my professional and artistic life. Now that I am out of school, I face the new challenge of structuring my time so that I can fulfill the potential of my scholarly work and my ever-present drive to compose new music. Outside of the University of Michigan’s institutional framework, I must pursue and secure new opportunities for myself as a composer, researcher, teacher, and so forth. So far, I have succeeded in each of these arenas. I am presenting at the aforementioned Ann Arbor Symposium, I secured a performance of my song-cycle Bound at New Music Detroit’s Strange and Beautiful Music marathon concert in September, and I will continue to teach aural theory for the University of Michigan’s Musical Theatre department this coming school year, as a lecturer. However, each of these opportunities will eventually terminate, and, like with a musical event, that conclusion will mark the beginning of a new, indeterminate, period of finding out what will happen next.

New kinds of freedom

As daunted as I may be by this projected future, I find it exciting to embrace the new. The last nine years of my life — from the day I matriculated into my undergraduate degree on the quad of Rice University, to May 1, 2015, when I was hooded as a new Doctor of Musical Arts on the stage at Hill Auditorium — have been dominated by classes, exams, and lessons. The constant newness of my present may be riddled with uncertainties, but it is also replete with freedoms. I may be in an uncharted professional/artistic place, but being in Ann Arbor, teaching at the University, working with UMS, and having my wife and friends whom I have known for years in my life means I am also surround by enormously supportive continuities. The future is, perhaps, not too different from the life I have known; and, newness, after all, is just a natural byproduct of time’s passage. To paraphrase the final pages of Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain: time, we say, will go on, in its furtive, unobservable, competent way, bringing about changes.

You can too: Just listen to new music

The excitement of embracing the new I find myself immersed in is, of course, available to all of you without needing to undergo major life changes. Just listen to new music. As the philosopher Suzanne Langer wrote, “music makes time audible.” So, when we listen to music we do not know, we experience the newness of the future just like we do in life. On the other hand, you can escape the perception of time’s newness – to an extent – by listening to music you know well, as a familiar piece of music can be uncannily predictable.

If you find yourself intrigued by this notion, test it out during UMS’s upcoming season. Look at UMS’s concert schedule and select something new and something you know. During the performances, consider how your experience of time changes because of the music; and, once you have attended both, think about how this perception differed between the two events. This experiment will work best if you choose to compare listening experiences that are as different as possible. So, if you have a history of subscribing to the Choral Union Series, plan to hear Pinchas Zukerman play Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major on January 11, but first attend the renowned Japanese Butoh dance group Sankai Juku’s performance on October 23. Likewise, if you love the contemporary offerings of UMS’s Jazz series, circle The Bad Plus’s concert with Joshua Redman on April 23 in your calendar, but also plan to hear the world-class early music ensemble Apollo’s Fire perform Bach’s St. John’s Passion on March 15.

Music makes time audible

Paying attention to how we experience time through music is just one of the wonderful ways we can learn about life by engaging with art. I believe that music, more than any other artistic discipline, provides us with a conduit to connect with the furtive flow of time that ensures every experience we have is new, if only temporally. I believe listening to unfamiliar music exposes us to perceptual obstacles analogous to the challenges inherent to the constant newness of life’s unfolding. A new piece of music can be a self-contained simulation for facing unexpected moments in time; and, though we cannot be fully prepared for what the future will bring us, it is interesting to consider our experiences listening to music as practice for life’s inevitable uncertainties.

Music can teach us that an indeterminate future can be equally as beautiful as it can be intimidating, that the unknown is also full of splendor. There is something ineffably glorious and stunning about the moments when a piece of music surprises you in a manner that seems inevitable. A related serendipity occurred at our wedding, when my wife’s procession to the chuppah lined up with the accompanying music exactly as I had dreamt it would. I was overwhelmed by incredulity and assurance, a calm wonder that, with my wife, any changes the passing of time may bring will now be so much more beautiful to experience. Three months later, I recognize I am excited for my life’s newness thanks to moments like this, the continuity of my family and community, and the way my years of listening to music – unfamiliar and otherwise – has helped me practice embracing the new with vigor and optimism.

Do you often listen to unfamiliar music? Do you notice a difference in your experience of listening to the new and familiar?