Apr 27, 2017
by Robert Feuer
Over 60 years ago, rock n’ roll was a battleground between generations, with entrenched bastions of puritanism and racism doing their best to pull the plug on a “new” musical style. None suspected it would one day be taught in college.
John Palmer, Associate Professor of Music at Sonoma State University, organized a rock music seminar there in 2011, which led to an experimental ensemble titled the SSU Rock Collegium.
Currently, they perform publicly every semester, with the next show occurring on May sixth at SSU’s Schroeder Hall in the Green Music Center. The approximately 70-minute show will contain a more hit-oriented array of rock numbers than previously. Selections will be from the 1980s, some performed exactly as on the record, some adding improvisation. There will be several complete songs, a medley of ‘80s tunes, and a medley of Christmas songs. Noting the unusual timing of the latter, Palmer says “there’s a joke to that,” but he’s not telling. “There’s a surprise in it. It will turn into an ‘80s kind of thing.”
Three new songs, composed by students, will be delivered. Expect music from the Eurythmics, the B-52s, Rush, and King Crimson. Spicing up the show will be some Red Hot Chili Peppers.
“We’ve performed music from the 1950s to yesterday,” Palmer says. “Many of the students don’t like the pop music that’s coming out now. Rock music has more of that real performance esthetic to it. Pop is made more by producers using electronic manipulation, than by musicians.”
Palmer, who plays with the ensemble, on keyboards and electric bass, expresses amazement that so few general education students have ever heard live music. “Every day I hear actual voices and instruments. For most people, everything they’ve ever heard is recorded. MP3s sound terrible, with their the little speakers and headphones.”
“Individuality is part of my ensemble,” he adds. “I take input from everyone, on arrangements, song selection, and the way rehearsals go. It’s a mutually creative process.” Since the ensemble consists of five groups, Palmer is constantly running around between practice rooms, where a wide array of instruments are available.
“Technology can be helpful, but there’s no technological substitute for people being able to hear and make music with their hands.” Laptops and phones are not permitted in his classrooms. “It’s an old way of teaching composition. They learn more taking notes by hand. People who read music always have an advantage.” Most rock songs have no scores,” Palmer says. Students must learn to “hear music and be able to write down the notes or play them back on an instrument.”
Music education leads to a teaching credential, he says, after which students become eligible to teach in California. “Ninety-five percent start a job within a year. All the music graduates I run into are working, some playing in multiple bands, and teaching. It’s a very interesting life.”
Tickets at sonoma.edu/music/concert
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