Cycles in history and the perfect musical journey with Morgan Roe Kelley
Welcome to Zeitgeist Radio. I'm your host, Morgan Rowe, founder of the Zeitgeist Academy. Zeitgeist means spirit of the times, and it is the collection of cultural forces that all contribute to what it feels like to be alive and part of a dynamic culture. Every episode I speak with someone from a unique musical subculture.
We dig into their passion and explore how music is a powerful force that brings people together. If you're like me, you come out of these interviews with all sorts of questions. Each week, after speaking with one of our amazing guests, I dive into something they introduced us to that I find interesting or important.
I write a blog post about it and email a nice tidy bundle to your inbox. Every two weeks, never miss an exploration of an awesome musical subculture. Join the academy and sign up for my free firstname.lastname@example.org slash radio.
Hey, everyone. I got married this last week, and I didn't have the time to put a full episode together for you. However, I didn't want to leave you hanging. I thought I'd take this week to share my story. What's my musical background, and what is this whole zeitgeist thing anyway? I started my musical journey pretty young.
My mom played French horn long before I was _around_, so that was always with me. When I was about two years old, I joined Kinder Music, which is a program for young children. Great program. Uh, and did that all the way through until I was about eight. At eight, I graduated from Kinder Music, started taking piano lessons.
I continued with piano all the way through college, but in high school, I also joined choir. I had incredible experiences in high school. I traveled to San Francisco, New York, saw Broadway shows, went on tour, and really got my first feel for what a choir experience is like and how closely you can bond with other people in a musical ensemble.
In college, I wanted to continue those wonderful experiences, so I signed up for piano lessons and choir. I was actively not going to major in music, but I did want to take some classes and minor. I fell in with the crowd in the music department and made my closest connections in college there. While in college, I was also introduced to the word zeitgeist.
Now remember, I wasn't going to major in music. It was my minor because it was fun. My real major was anthropology. I am fascinated by why people do what they do. And cultural forces seemed more powerful in driving behavior than individual psychology or neuroscience, both of which I also considered.
Humans don't exist in a vacuum. They exist in context. We are all influenced by what's around us, and understanding what those forces are can shed light on why people are behaving the way they are. So the word zeitgeist really stuck with me, and because my original exposure was in the context of music, it was easy for me to realize that plugging into the zeitgeist that created a piece of music brought that music to life in a way that is far more powerful than listening alone.
People say music is a universal language, but I would argue that it's actually the making of music that is universal. Music structure and form is often specific to culture, technology, and zeitgeist. I was lucky that my department had some Awesome music history teachers. I don't remember a single bad or boring class.
And they tied the history curriculum in with the theory classes too. So you'd be in music history watching each era be brought to life by the professor, and then go to your theory class and dig into exactly how they accomplished it as the ages went on. It was here, watching the history of the Western classical tradition unfold over the course of four years, that it became clear that Everything cycles.
Youth create dynamic new music. Youth grow into adults and start refining their craft and creating works of genius. Meanwhile, new youth come on the scene and look at the prevailing music with disdain and revolt against whatever structure it is at the time, and the new youth create dynamic new music.
Meanwhile, the original generation, still proud of what they've done, looks at the new music with horror and bemoans the downfall of society. This happens in every single era, in every generation. History is a constant push and pull of generations inventing themselves. Thus, history is also basically a constant repetition of kids these days.
I'll give you some examples. As the 1790s ticked away into the 19th century, people in France were in the street in protest. The proletariat were fighting for their rights. The French royalty was involved in a huge scandal. You've probably heard something about eating cake. Young folks were revolting against violence imposed by their government on its citizens.
And as the Napoleonic Empire began to emerge, Beethoven came on the scene in neighboring Vienna and shattered the strict classical musical form of the previous generation using rhythm and harmonic development that no one had ever seen. The older generation was horrified and called him vulgar and his music intolerable.
But he kept writing, got old, and Napoleon's empire eventually collapsed. The monarchies of Europe returned, along with new composers who called Beethoven the old deaf one, and said that his musical form had become obsolete. For his part, Beethoven and others of his generation dutifully played the part of the crotchety old man and called the new music frivolous.
In the U. S. in the 1860s, civil war was raging as folks were revolting against violence imposed by their government on its citizens. Women and minorities were fighting for their rights. The U. S. president was involved in a huge election scandal, and music was not only a political tool, but literally led Black people out of the human trafficking and slavery of the South.
Those historic spirituals you think are nice? Half of them are maps and timetables created by the Underground Railroad. In Europe, Gustav Mahler and his epic symphonies reigned supreme and Franz Liszt became the world's first superstar with women literally having orgasms and fainting in the audience.
But eventually, the war in the States ended. Arnold Schoenberg rejected the very nature of tonality, despising the formal structure and complexity of rules of Mahler's tradition. And for their part, the older generation looked at his music as confusing, vulgar. In the U. S. in the 1970s, boomers were at the height of their cultural influence.
Rock music rebelled against the homogenous sound of the 50s and 60s and took a more active role in shaping culture. People were flooding the streets in protest, using music as a political tool. Women and minorities were fighting for their rights. The U. S. President was involved in a huge scandal at Watergate.
And young folks were revolting against violence imposed by their government on its citizens in the Vietnam War. And as for that generation becoming crotchety and bemoaning kids these days... We're seeing how that story's playing out. I've definitely heard the words vulgar and intolerable used, especially when it comes to hip hop and rap, the music of today.
This pattern is in every country, in every era. And when you plug into those broader elements, who was in power? What were the struggles? Who was involved in a scandal? It's always someone. What were the fashions of the day? Because they informed what got put into dance music. Much as I'd like to see someone in a hoop skirt twerking, the music just wasn't meant for that, so it wasn't written that way.
I love this stuff. I love using music as a cultural medium for exploring not just different styles of music, but why they got made in the first place. Something that seems old fashioned now was once radical and made people angry. What do you do with this knowledge then? Well, first and foremost, it provides a much more comprehensive listening experience.
I don't necessarily enjoy Schoenberg, but when you look at the broader era he was living in, where the world was in chaos and the logic and reason and structures of the previous generations hadn't solved a damn thing, I can kind of see his point. Secondly, it puts behavior in context. It also allows you to question said behavior.
For example, do you see why it's a little confusing why boomers are so cranky against millennials and Gen Z? There are so many cultural parallels. Today, it's Trump instead of Nixon, police brutality instead of Vietnam. And, well, unfortunately, it's exactly the same battles for women and minorities. And guess what?
Someday, the aging millennials will be scowling and complaining about Generation Alpha and how they are hitting the streets, protesting a corrupt and violent government, and fighting for the rights of minorities and women. History proves the cycle is unavoidable. But knowing that, I hope that at least I will stop myself and think twice if I ever hear the words kids these days coming out of my mouth.
I hope I will be inspired to instead look with curiosity at their experiences and see how their music reflects their vibrant lived experiences. So that's one soapbox. There is another part as well. Let's go back to my own story. Spring semester senior year, as I was finally choosing my final classes in college, My piano teacher and mentor looked at me and said, Morgan, you have a lot of credits.
I had taken all the required classes for a minor, but since my friends continued on with the advanced history and theory classes, and I liked learning the stuff and hanging out with my friends, I had also taken all the required classes for a major. In fact, I was only one class plus an independent study away from a double major in anthropology and music.
And it just so happened that that one semester, there was an ethnomusicology class that counted for both degrees. So I signed up, figured out an independent study, and bam, double major. When I say this, I really don't mean to dismiss the work any of my colleagues did to get their music degrees. It really is a lot of work to major in music.
The thing is that to me, music didn't feel like work. Practicing and doing the listening and the analysis homework were ways for me to unwind from the stress of my other classes. The music department is where I went to chill out, to ground myself, and to find my creative expression that made me a better student elsewhere.
So yes, I put a lot of work in too, it just didn't feel like the same kind of work as in my anthropology classes. But here's the thing, I graduated with this degree in music with a focus on classical piano performance. I could make Debussy melt. Beethoven exploded from my fingers and came to life. I painted vivid pictures of the Spanish coast when I played albanez, and my trills in Grieg brought images of birdsong.
But then I graduated, I felt like I got thrown immediately from competency into failure. See, most people don't play classical music. Most people play pop, rock, jazz, or blues. My lovely piano technique meant nothing when I didn't know how to join an open jam, or play a blues progression, or turn the same four chords into country style versus rock.
If music truly is a connecting force, I was only able to connect via piano, With a very tiny subset of the population. I admit it was very humbling the summer after graduation, going home and trying to jam with my younger brother and his friends, and being completely unable to play anything without a lead sheet of some kind.
I was extremely dependent on sheet music and had developed almost no ear for improvisation or even following basic pop structures. When people would learn I had a degree in music, I would see respect in their eyes, along with an expectation that I almost always couldn't hit. I didn't have the piano skills to join in on most of the places people make community music.
It was a major blow to my ego. Meanwhile, I joined a choir. I had been in choir non stop since high school, and I just kept going. Again, it didn't feel like work. I sang everywhere. Large classical groups performing in the grandest halls in the city, groups that performed in assisted living facilities for seniors, small women's groups singing 40s jazz and barbershop, a folk ensemble, early music chant, blues and rock, and basically anything I could get my hands on.
I sang in the chorus, on stage with Andrea Bocelli, with Amber Wagner, and under the baton of the great and exacting conductor Carlos Calmar. My voice got strong and versatile. I started teaching and found a great love for working with adults. I capped out my capacity for students and built an online course so people could still learn the basics of singing.
And because I have a love for the universal act of making music, I started this podcast to expand my horizons, and hopefully yours, to all the spaces people intersect with music. And the Zeitgeist Academy was born. It's gone through a few iterations so far, and will probably continue evolving for a while.
Its current purpose is to be a place where people who are interested in the music of the world, at any level, can come and learn a new thing or two, and have interesting conversations with people who do cool things with music. The goal is to learn about, and from, artists from all different kinds of backgrounds and ethnicities, or moments from history all over the world, to break down stereotypes and build compassion for each other.
At this point in 2023, this is not my full time job. This is a project I feel an existential need to create. I've deeply felt two sides of the musical coin, the feeling of incompetence and not being capable of rising to the expectations of others, and the feeling of owning my perfect musical journey, one full of possibility and incredible experiences.
People talk about the college transition into the real world. I actually wrote an essay on this for my alumni magazine, because it's very real, but not in the way most people usually talk about it. Here's the thing about the real world. The hard part isn't having to pay bills, or work an 8 to 5, or think about your career.
The hard part about the real world... is that no one is interested in anything. In my college days, I could sit down at any table in the cafeteria and hear people talking passionately about their interests and the research they were doing on some subject that intrigued them. In the real world, there are no cafeteria tables.
It's up to you to find people you like, and having interests is either a cute hobby or you're obsessed and intense, neither in a good way. There is no space in the real world to discuss, for example, the impact of music on the creation of American labor unions or the awesome and complex tonality of Arabic music theory compared to the Western tonal scale.
People back away, afraid of complex thinking, or maybe they'll let you talk for a bit and then laugh it off and say, wow, you're really into this. Which is usually your cue to stop talking. I did eventually find some friends who like to engage in this way, and they are my lifeline. Many of them you've heard here on this podcast.
So I know we're out there. People who love to think about the world and what makes people do what they do, who are open minded and celebrate the human capacity for creativity. If this sounds like you, I would love to hear from you. I want to know your story, your relationship with music, and what music speaks to you.
I'd also love to know what type of content you enjoy. Because I have limited time to spend on this project, I want to spend it on the things that are most valuable to you. Because like I said earlier, people don't exist in a vacuum. I don't exist in a vacuum. Zeitgeist Radio and the Zeitgeist Academy don't either.
They only exist if people are on board with the mission and care about the content. I love hearing from you. It absolutely makes my day when someone reaches out because they were listening to the podcast and thought of something they wanted to tell me. I carry that joy with me literally all day. So thanks for hanging out with me on this shorter episode.
I know it was a different format and we'll be back with another awesome interview in two weeks. Take this time to catch up on any episodes you might have missed and let me know which ones you liked and why. And my zeitgeist moment for this week? Dancing with my wonderful new husband at my wedding. We chose a gorgeous fiddle waltz called Twin Rivers by Larry Unger and Ginny Snow.
As we spun and twirled together, I felt like we were flying. It was wonderful.
Thanks for tuning in to this episode of Zeitgeist Radio, to uplevel your musical journey and become a music student for life. Join the Zeitgeist Academy by signing up for my biweekly newsletter. You'll get exclusive content, blog posts, and behind the scenes insights. I love putting it together and you'll love reading it.
Head over to zeitgeist academy.com/radio. That's Z E I T G E I S t academy.com/radio.