If Bard College is not the birthplace of interdisciplinary study, it is at the very least one of the idea’s most enduring and serious laboratories. Bard was among the first schools to offer student-designed, faculty-guided programs of study that traversed the philosophical (and brick-and-mortar) boundaries between the traditional departments and divisions. Bard was among the first colleges institutionally to recognize the primacy of writing and critical thinking across the disciplines, the common glue of the entire academic enterprise and not a beleaguered subdivision of the English Department; its world-famous Institute for Thinking and Writing continues to headline in that arena. Bard handles interdisciplinary studies with the business-as-usual assurance and cool of the old hand. It has been a very long time since the college has had to make a case for it; Bard is the brand itself.
Interdisciplinary learning is sometimes accused of fluffery: the eager forfeiting of the depth, rigor and granular focus enabled and encouraged by the intentionally narrowed purview of the disciplines. In the old days, you could get your PhD in the inchoate themes of gender fluidity implied by freshwater imagery in Herrick’s juvenilia, if there were any. Three years in that hole! Interdisciplinary programs, on the other hand, might have seemed principally concerned with one broad subject: interdisciplinary programs. It could sometimes be said that they were all revolutionary meta-critique and no proven practical prescription. We flailed and gurgled a lot once we started thinking outside the fancy old boxes. The boxes – and volitional confinement in general – have their purposes, it turns out.
Here again, Bard stands out, alone at the top. It seems to have been Bard’s purpose from the outset to ensure that its alternative learning programs be executed to the highest professional standards – a step up in seriousness from the old model, not a relief from it, and anything but a soft landing place for wealthy Dartmouth flunk-outs. Perhaps the founders of Bard’s daring and experimental programs realized that, like the nonviolent resistors of Gandhi and MLK, they needed to be impeccable and better than their critics.
Rigor: It’s a Bard thing. Just look at how they party there! The Bard Summer Music Festival is another exemplary walk of the interdisciplinary talk: two weeks of musical programs and panel discussions in multiple venues dedicated to a three-dimensional, aesthetic, historical, theoretical understanding of a single composer and his/her world, drawing academic experts and the best players of pianos and cellos to Annandale-on-Hudson in August like the (beautiful but ephemeral) moths (of art) to the (undying) flame (of the indomitable human spirit). Party Down, M*th#ef*ck@rs!!
This year’s subject is the great Chopin – Frédéric or Fryderyk? I’ll side with Bard, of course, and go with the latter, the Polish spelling. In context, Chopin’s life and work are rife with extramusical meaning. He is practically synonymous with the blossoming of the piano as the primary axe of Romanticism, so there are two themes for the plucking straightaway: Romanticism and pianistic traditions. His concert-hall performances numbered fewer than 50, but he was a superstar of salon culture, playing his exquisite miniatures in the smallest venues. His cultural/national/ethnic identity was a wonderfully complicated concoction in a time of revolution: French stock, but a proud Polish national who spent the last two decades of his short life famous in Paris without ever (it has been suggested) fully learning to speak the French language.
The vast majority of Chopin’s works are for solo piano. There are a few piano concerti, a sampling of chamber works and a handful of songs, notable mostly as the exceptions to the rule. Chopin often wrote in dance forms, with a strong Polish nationalist bent: the waltz, the Polonaise, the mazurka. He was a virtuoso and his works can be dazzlingly grueling for performers. Many of his most beloved pieces, however, are his most reflective and ambient: the extraordinary nocturnes, some of the saddest waltzes you’ve ever heard (Leon, I have a really folksy and dumbed-down electric guitar adaptation of Waltz no.7 in C# minor that you might want to hear. It might play well in the Spiegeltent!) and outliers like Prelude no. 15, the “Raindrop Prelude,” a piece composed during Chopin’s brief and difficult romance with the female novelist George Sand and one that, to my ears at least, anticipated New Age music and academic Minimalism by about 130 years.
If you associate Chopin with the more florid, expressive excesses of Romanticism, think again. That perception has more to do with the way he has been performed historically: showy, with all kinds of license taken with time, expression and phrase, all of which Chopin ardently opposed in his own lifetime. His music has more than its fair share of virtuosic squiggle, but when you learn to really hear into it – like when you use digital vari-speed to slow down the solos of Charlie Parker – you’ll be floored by how much real music lives in those squiggles. His sense of melody was ultra-high-resolution. Chopin heard all the notes between the notes. His melodies handled like Maseratis. (Wait…are Maseratis known for their handling? Help me out here.)
Bard will take the man and his work and illuminate it from every angle: predecessors and followers, Polish musical history (August 12), pianistic and harmonic innovation (August 13 and 18), the burden of virtuosity (August 13), the aesthetics of miniatures (August 17), French salon culture (August 19) and much more. And yet, when it comes to explaining the otherworldly beauty, complexity and alien delicacy of Chopin’s music, even Bard willingly waves the white flag. There are places academic inquiry cannot go and experiences it cannot account for.
Bard can’t explain it the beauty of Chopin; but it can languish, bathe and drown in it in a ten-day immersion with extraordinary players in extraordinary venues. And when you have had a few boutique microbrews in the Spiegeltent (and they may have caught you off guard with their ABV of seven percent or higher – not your fault; It can happen to anybody), and the music of Chopin dances with the multicolored lights of the colorful and surreal environment of the traveling Weimar-era venue that parks on Bard’s campus every summer, you will realize that this whole thing really is a party after all, of a rare and high kind.
The Bard Summer Music Festival, “Chopin and His World,” runs from August 11 through 20. For a complete and startlingly well-organized breakdown of all its programs and panel discussions with prices and locations, visit http://fishercenter.bard.edu. Bard College is located in Annandale-on-Hudson.
Some of the pieces to be played
(All different performers)
Chopin Piano Concerto in F Minor, Op. 21, performed in Program One: The Genius of Chopin, Friday, Aug. 11 at 8 p.m.
Chopin Preludes, Op. 28, performed in Program One: The Genius of Chopin, Friday, Aug. 11 at 8 p.m.
Chopin Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat Major, Op. 61, performed in Program One: The Genius of Chopin, Friday, Aug. 11 at 8 p.m.
Chopin Trio for Piano, Violin, and Cello in G Minor, Op. 8, performed in Program Two: Chopin and Warsaw, Saturday, Aug. 12 at 1:30 p.m.
Chopin Polonaise in B-flat Minor, performed in Program Two: Chopin and Warsaw, Saturday, Aug. 12 at 1:30 p.m.
Chopin Impromptu No. 4, Op. 66, performed in Program Six: Virtuosity and Its Discontents, Sunday, Aug. 13 at 5 p.m.
Chopin Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23, performed in Program Eight: Chopin and the Salon, Saturday, Aug. 19 at 1:30 p.m.
Chopin Waltz in C-sharp Minor, Op. 64, No. 2, Performed in Program Five Jews in the Musical Culture of Europe, Sunday, Aug. 13 at 1:30 p.m.
Chopin Sonata in B-flat Minor, Op. 35, performed in Program Seven: Chopin and the Piano, Friday, Aug. 18 at 8 p.m.
Chopin Etudes, Op. 10, performed in Program Seven: Chopin and the Piano, Friday, Aug. 18 at 8 p.m.
Hector Berlioz Grande Symphonie funèbre et triomphale, Op. 15 – performed in The Romantic Wind Symphony Friday, Aug. 18 at 5 p.m.
Chopin Ballade in F Minor, Op. 52 – Performed in Program Five Jews in the Musical Culture of Europe, Sunday, Aug. 13 at 1:30 p.m.
Stanislaw Moniuszko Halka, performed in Program Nine: The Polish National Opera, Saturday, Aug. 19 at 8 p.m.
Chopin Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 65, performed in Program Eleven: Chopin’s Influence, Sunday, Aug. 20 at 1:30 p.m.