This post written by Kirt Shineman.
He is a rebel of sound. In every class, Prof. Douglas Nottingham fires up his students with deep listening. Not pseudo listening, but attuning to the world around us, where we are, and combining those sounds with silence to make music. I wouldn’t say Doug is a music teacher, although he has taught postmodern percussion and electroacoustic music at GCC as a residential faculty member since 2002. Doug is a crafter of sound and silence, space and image. Although he did not come from a family of artists, his parents cherished education, and instilled a strong work ethic in Doug at a young age. His solo and chamber creative performance practice focuses on new and historically significant works for both media and the premiering of new works. He’s worked collaboratively with composers Cort Lippe, Daniel Davis, and Barry Moon, exploring new paradigms of electronic media via abstract, nonlinear performances. Named Phoenix’s “Best New Classical Music Ensemble” by the Arizona Republic, his creative music group, Crossing 32nd Street (an ensemble-in-residence in the MCCCD), strives to increase the awareness and understanding of modern music through an aggressive commitment to performing relevant contemporary works at the highest level. Performances routinely include the music of Steve Reich, James Tenney, and Iannis Xenakis, as well as the exciting new works of emerging composers and presentations illustrative of current compositional trends. Doug makes us listen.
What I find interesting as an educator is how Prof. Nottingham approaches learning. After combing through Doug’s work, seeing his students perform with him, and interviewing him for this blog, I discovered his unique teaching style. He removes explanations and, in so doing, radically transforms the role of the teacher. But how? Within his courses, he utilizes four elements: structure (the division of the whole into parts), method (a novel note-to-note procedure), form (discovering a fresh, expressive content of how we hear), and materials (the sound and silences of a composition). I could elaborate on all four of these elements, but in this space I will touch on the first two.
Structurally, Doug approaches learning by removing any predetermined understanding of his subject, music. He moves away from a predetermined a priori decisiveness of music as being on the page, on a screen, or in an instrument. Instead, he starts with the experience of listening by chance or “that is what that is”- a fleeting moment of music. He returns the student to the experience of listening, and he uses chance at the level of structure to effectively remove the human (whether knowing or ignorant) from the determination of the teaching situation. He starts with students’ experiences and gets them out of whatever cage they find themselves in, be it their previous constraints about what music is, what composition is, what an instrument is, or what sounds we value as noise rather than music. He returns the student to a child-like curious sound purveyor. He doesn’t start with Bach or Beethoven, or Mozart. Instead, he starts with our own experiences of sound and silence, and in doing so, he frees the student from their structures and preconceived ideas of music. He gave a recent student an assignment on synthesizer with a blank start. He instructed the student to find their own start/sound. This is a joyous and scary way to teach and learn, but the students blossom. His pedagogical structure makes the subject more alive and feels less restricted. After all, he teaches the creation of sound and silence. This exemplary freedom allows him, as a teacher, to reveal rather than impose the determination of chance at the level of structure. This revelation is close to the very event of teaching and learning we experience daily.
Doug teaches music composition. Yet, his notes don’t resemble those of Jimi Hendrix or Andrew Lloyd Weber. His method of teaching, his organization of an actual class requires what Maurice Blanchot in The Infinite Conversation called a “mode of progressing,” one that is not absolute, has no absolute to progress toward, but is instead an “incessant” movement that must discipline itself in the absence of a singular goal. Doug makes teaching a conversation. He makes composing and performing music a dialogue. Prof. Nottingham’s method is not absolute, as in right or wrong, but he does show us how to hear (and often even see) sound and silence in a new way. And the singular goal, a recital or a concert, is different every time because of the various elements of chance and who are collaborating in the music. (He loves collaborating with dancers, and he has even danced in the Alvin Ailey Theater in NYC). Education does not take place in Doug’s classroom but in the performed collaboration of the music with the audience. Whether live, in-person, or online, he shows how we, together with the sounds, compose the notes. Moreover, he helps the students recognize creativity is a collaborative process or a copresence of determination and indetermination, making the event of the music exhilaratingly now. His uses a noncompliance form of teaching as much as a compliance form of education.
Why did I choose to highlight Prof. Douglas Nottingham? He is not only a drummer, but a questioner of sound and the experimenter in the traditions of music. If the function of art is to bring us closer to the flow of events or (better) the flow of the event, then the same should also be said for art education. Prof. Nottingham makes education an art, and his approach to learning is one we can all hear. We are fortunate to have Prof. Nottingham as one of our faculty at GCC.