I often say that one of the great things about my job is the way I get a new bunch of students each year and a new opportunity to try out different ways of exploring Geography with them. Sometimes I find an approach that seems to work well and I use it year after year, tweaking it a little each year as I learn from the experiences of each group of students that try it out. And so it has come round to October again and here I am trying new versions of a couple of my old favourites: the “through the window” exercise and the “If Geography were music…” exercise.
Part of the reason that it’s so handy getting a new bunch of students each year is that it enables me to do the exercises again myself. People talk about “lifelong learning” a lot nowadays, and I encourage students to carry on doing these sorts of exercises after they finish the course, but I must be an extreme example, doing these Geography-stretching exercises for myself again and again year after year and finding that they turn out a little differently each time. I have been reading Peter Franklin’s (1997) description of Theodor Adorno’s work on Mahler, in which he writes that “Adorno’s dialectical method relied on what he called a “constellation” technique, where ideas and images spiral around their subject matter, creating almost three-dimensional intellectual structures that are best grasped as totalities. Readers impatient for signposts and clearly stated goals may understandably find his writing cryptic…” Increasingly I find that my private approach to Geography, out of sight of the easily-frightened 1st-year students, is a little like that: things build up year after year into an increasingly multi-layered three-dimensional cloud or constellation of ideas, and I start to understand what I must have meant many years ago when I wrote “reality is a bundle, not a list”. And so the repeated playing of these same exercises with different students and different versions of myself creates a thick impasto palimpsest in which I can take different paths each year and look across at earlier versions of myself taking sometimes a path now less well travelled! In fact (and you will see now why I referred to the Franklin / Adorno / Mahler reading) my early steps along this year’s path into the “If Geography were music” exercise are diverging very little from those of last year. Perhaps my constellation of ideas is starting to succumb to its own gravity. Last year I used Mahler’s 2nd Symphony as my example of a piece of music that could serve as a theme tune for Physical Geography, and I gave the students a YouTube clip of Bernstein conducting Mahler 2 to help explain where I was coming from. Last night I was looking back on an online discussion that I had with the students last year, and reading one of my posts again it makes so much sense to me that I think I’ll say it again, here!
The question we are discussing is: If Physical Geography were music, what music would it be? Here’s what I wrote last year: “You’ve demonstrated that you do indeed have some interesting things to say, and a couple of you have strung together some good threads. Most of you have focused on music that has characteristics (particularly in structure) that remind you of the characteristics of Phys Geog. That’s great, but you haven’t given me many alternative ways of looking at the question. One very simple alternative approach would be to focus on music that has a geographical topic to it or has been specifically inspired by a geographical feature or landscape. For example I like this little song “Geodes” from “The Geography of Light”, or you might like Elgar’s Worcestershire compositions. Always try to see a question from several different points of view. A couple of you have asked me about my own answer to this topic. Well, I agree with most of the ideas you’ve all put forward and I don’t want to offer anything too concrete to limit the discussion, but I do lean towards the classical symphony in this context. As I said in my show-and-tell, landscape is like a symphony and a symphony is like the world. Here are some reminders about that. If you want my “choose just one” offering for this year it’s the following (YouTubeClip) (it takes a few seconds to warm up so give it a chance). In the video, watch the conductor’s face: that’s the “physical geography” face – the face of somebody who really sees and really feels the world. See him at about 2.50mins. This is the closing of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony. It’s a massive symphony, about 2 hours long, finally reaching this point with a huge orchestra and a massive choir. Try to hear all the instruments that are going into this: there are even cow bells in there. (In another symphony Mahler calls for a sledge hammer in the percussion section!) A symphony should be the world, and the conductor here has it running through him. Watch this. Turn up the volume. For me, this is the music that Physical Geography would be (this year, at least). “
Well, it’s early in the exercise so far this year, as I give the students a few weeks to think about it, so we’ll see what the students can teach me and what new ideas (and music) they can introduce me to, but for now I’m still with Mahler 2, this year as last. Another year, another symphony, but it’s Mahler 2 again!
PS – If you want to join in with the discussion there’s a Twitter competition for suggestions @KeelePhysGeog.
PPS – Reference: Franklin, P. (1977) “‘His fractures are the script of truth.’ – Adorno’s Mahler.” in Hefling, S.E. (ed) Mahler Studies (Cambridge).