How I Got Into College

Or, Gongs, Tamburas and Gambas I Have Known

by Geoffrey Clarfield (June 2012)

Let there be no noise made, my gentle friends,
Unless some dull and favorable hand
Will whisper music to my weary spirit

–Henry IV, by William Shakespeare

Sitting in the bush in central Tanzania I once managed to get hold of a grade B American film called “How I Got Into College”. It is a comedy about a guy who gets into college on the basis of his complete and utter unconventionality. Although I cannot say that is how I got into “college” (we call it “university”) it reminded me of how I got into the Music Program at York University, and how the Music Program got into me.

I was born in “Toronto the Good” in 1953, the child of Torontonians who had been raised just after W.W.I in what is now a great and cosmopolitan city. However, in my parent's days, Toronto's musical life consisted of the oral traditions of immigrant groups and the public music of the British Empire; brass bands, church choirs, and the bagpipes and flutes of the marching Orangemen. Radio, film and dance halls also brought to Canada the Afro-American music of jazz and blues and the Anglo American country and western which together eventually swamped and overcame the fossilized musical legacy of the Victorian British Empire.

I had an unusual childhood, largely because my mother's family was far too involved in the arts for anyone's liking. At five I entered the Royal Conservatory and at 12 left with a Grade VIII in voice and Grade II theory. In Toronto TV, radio and stage life were in their embryonic stages. Before I knew it I was singing in the National Opera, recording radio jingles, and appearing on TV and stage with the likes of the late Jackie Burroughs or the late vaudeville star Tessie Oshea.

The Sixties liberated me from that world of jingles and Schubert. I took up guitar so I could join the growing tribe of folkies and rock-'n-rollers. I threw myself into folk, rock, blues, Latin and Flamenco musical styles, even lying about my age and playing in clubs. But there was no time left for “classical” music (symphonic music from Mozart to Varese).

After Grade 13 (yes, Ontario once followed the British system) the pressure was on. Guidance councilors and family assumed I was off to the University of Toronto to become — what? A classical guitarist?  A singer in the Mendelssohn Choir? Somehow, with the sounds of Jimmy Hendrix and Ravi Shankar ringing in the air, that didn't feel right.

Riding my bicycle downtown on a beautiful day in May, I happened to meet a guitar player who had once taught me the rudiments of Bossa Nova when he was dating  my sister. He asked me what I was going to do. I told him I had no idea, but I knew I would not go to University of Toronto (U of T) –it all seemed so gray down there. He gave me a few names of professors of music at York. At first I thought he meant York in England, but then realized that the University was only a 30-minute drive from my parents' house.

I went up to have a look at York, and was astounded at the informality of my interviews and the amount of time I was given to talk. As I toured their facilities and inspected the sitars, viols and gongs, I realized why these were all part of the York Music program. For this faculty, there was much more to music than Mozart,  Beethoven and Brahms — although those masters were by no means excluded from their program.

Some things in life actually turn out better than you imagine.

My four years at York fit that description. I went to every concert, took all the available world music courses, and like all Fine Arts students took my dose of required Humanities and Social Sciences courses too.  Indeed, since I actually enjoyed that part of my education, I ended up with a minor in anthropology, fascinated by Margaret Mead and even more so the meticulous ethnographies of the British social anthropologists, men like Arthur Edward Evans Pritchard who were trying to make sense of traditional African culture and society.

Anthropologists tell us that cultures can be compared to personalities, that institutions too have personalities and, that these “configurations of culture” (remember Ruth Benedict?) are often unconscious.

My York education in some ways still reflected the ideals of the 18th-century Enlightenment. In the late sixties and early seventies York was a haven for scholars from all over the world, regardless of race, creed, or political stripe.  How that was managed, in the face of today's nationalism and identity politics’ demand for  “relevance,” I do not know, but I hope that some of that spirit still  endures. My own worldview was formed at York under its influence, and I have carried it with me since I left it in so many years ago.

During my days at the Department of Music from 1972-1976, “interdisciplinarity” was the watchword. Cross barriers and question assumptions, we were told. Look at other cultures. Find other ways of doing things, but use the logic of the Greeks to keep your head clear as you go. And, though the conservatives at the Conservatory would never have believed it, York actually enhanced my understanding of the uniqueness and depth of the Western classical tradition. I heard and studied Baroque music played on Baroque instruments, and similarly with Renaissance and Medieval styles. My friends and I must have set a record for faithful attendance at Peggy Sampson's viola da gamba recitals.

When I was at York, the Music Department was young. There were regular debates among staff and faculty on its nature and future and the student body was small. All doors were open. The level of personal  interaction with faculty that I enjoyed at the Department from 1972-1976 boggles the mind of colleagues who were educated at Oxford or Cambridge. They say they could only expect that kind of attention from one person, their Tutor. But in those halycon days I could drop into my professor’s office without appointment and talk shop for hours.

There were often long discussions with my “tutors” and many tapes and 33 rpms changed hands after these sessions. The study of world music at York gave me a desire to see the world. As a result I later spent twenty years in Africa and the Middle East as a musician, ethnomusicologist, anthropologist and development worker.

York is not the University it once was. The social sciences are awash with various forms of dogmatic ideologies oddly mixed in with a rebellious cultural relativism that permeates the non-science departments of that once dynamic place. I left before the Marxist and Post Modern darkness began to descend on the social sciences there.

But my heart goes out the young student who has to read this piece of post modern anthropology which I imagine supplanted the old American and British classic ethnographies that I once studied with such care and which provided me with a deep understanding of the Middle East and Africa when I finally got there as a young adult.

It thus relativizes discourse not just to form — that familiar perversion of the modernist; nor to authorial intention — that conceit of the romantics; nor to a foundational world beyond discourse — that desperate grasping for a separate reality of the mystic and scientist alike; nor even to history and ideology — those refuges of the hermeneuticist; nor even less to language — that hypostasized abstraction of the linguist; nor, ultimately, even to discourse — that Nietzschean playground of world-lost signifiers of the structuralist and grammatologist, but to all or none of these, for it is anarchic, though not for the sake of anarchy but because it refuses to become a fetishized object among objects — to be dismantled, compared, classified, and neutered in that parody of scientific scrutiny known as criticism.

The above was written by an anthropologist after I graduated and ever since then, his colleagues have taken him very, very seriously.

I am now a parent and I shudder to think of hard working people spending thousands of dollars a year to send their children to York to study such madness. There are better ways to spend your hard earned money.


Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.


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