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Rock, Sex, Rebellion


During the performance a floral artist will arrange flowers and other objects live on stage in response to music that he's hearing.

Britney Spears, Nirvana, Outkast, The Who -these are names we associate with sold-out concerts and faded t-shirts, but not so much with lectures and term papers. 

Yet that is exactly the material that makes up the coursework of music professor Mark Applebaum’s popular course “Rock, Sex, and Rebellion.” As a music scholar, Professor Applebaum is best known for musical experimentation such as converting live brainwave data into MIDI music, or composing music for an avant-garde live floral arranging performance, of which he has an event coming up on May 15th. 

Applebaum admits to being primarily a composer, but says that rock music inspires his experimental composition on occasion. “You are what you eat,” said Applebaum.  “Each domain [rock and experimental music] influences each other.  I incorporate ideas from rock music into my compositions, but not in an overt way.  You won’t hear sound bites of pop songs in my music, but the weird, complex proportions of the timing of the second vocalist in [Outkast’s] ‘So Fresh, So Clean’ might influence the way that I arrange my music.”

When asked about his motivations for creating the class, Applebaum replied, “Most institutions of higher education have classes on musical analysis of rock and popular music. Stanford didn’t have one, so I wanted to shed some light on something that wasn’t being covered.  This is also music that most students know, and from a pedagogical perspective, you begin with what students know and work your way out.  If you start with the Beatles, you can have more fruitful conversations about pitch and other musical parameters more quickly.”

Sensitive Listening

Applebaum’s class encourages students to engage in “sensitive listening” and asks them to pay attention to the details and complexities its musical elements.  Even in the industry of rock and pop music, where many artists rely on formulaic structures to manufacture hits, he points out many songs that surprise listeners with unconventional choices. 

In a recent class, he used Pink’s song “Get the Party Started” to illustrate how a full measure of four cowbell beats makes listeners expect four more cowbell beats in the next measure, and intrigues listeners when there are only two beats. This type of analysis is making an impression on Applebaum’s students.

“Rock, Sex and Rebellion was one of my favorite classes at Stanford. It changed the way that I listened to music. I would be listening to something and think, "Hmmm this is derived from 12-bar blues,” said Susie Saxten ’09, who took the class the previous year it was taught, in 2007.

While Applebaum’s coursework seems disparate from his experimental compositions and musical research, he says that he is delighted to have students in his class because they are constantly sharing examples of musically-related information that he is not aware of, or even examples of topics covered in class exhibited in their favorite songs. During the course Applebaum’s students examine the musical attributes, structures, and stylistic choices in popular music, as well as the historical and cultural underpinnings of how these forms of music originated. 

He especially enjoys pointing out complex and unusual choices that musicians make in songs like Rihanna’s Top 40 hit “Umbrella,” where the chorus lyrics seem simple, yet Rihanna’s repetition of the nonsensical syllable “eh” follows an interesting progression of notes that changes subtly with each line; or the ways in which bands like Ozomatli (a Latin hip-hop, funk-inspired band with a large brass section) and Gogol Bordello (a Ukranian gypsy and folk-punk metal band) straddle and confuse genres, refusing simple categorization. Applebaum hears something special in these seemingly incongruent arrangements,  “I love when strange things collide and there is a genre confusion.  Things that fit into a system are boring.  People are more complex than just A or B.  I’m interested in the subtleties of genres.”

Flower Arrangements Inspired by Music

Such an exploration of the fusion of unexpected domains is the basis for his “Concerto for Florist and Ensemble,” a live event taking place on May 15th in the Cantor Art Center courtyard. During the performance a floral artist will arrange flowers and other objects live on stage in response to music that he's hearing. In other words, the floral arrangement will represent the artist’s interpretation of the music.

Most of what the musicians will play will be improvised but based on music cues composed by Applebaum. The premise for this unique performance came about when Mark Applebaum met James DelPrince, head of the plant and soil sciences program at Mississippi State University while he himself was a professor there.  Upon meeting DelPrince, Applebaum had an idea for a concerto that involved a floral arrangement performance art element.

“That’s the point when I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if a floral artist responded to music in real-time?” and ‘What would it feel like to watch the intermingling of music and floristry?” and ‘You know what I haven’t seen?  A concerto for a florist.’”  He explained his idea to DelPrince, who expressed interest, and the two embarked on the collaborative project.

The upcoming performance will be the third time the concerto has been performed.  Applebaum says that he rewrites it each time it is performed, retaining only the basic premise of a florist and an ensemble.  His unconventional score does not indicate which notes to play, but instead who should play with whom at given times, how they should inter-relate, and when they should be playing in response to the floral activities.  The musical ensemble will be comprised of a large all-star cast of improvising musicians playing conventional instruments as well as invented sound-sculptures.

Meanwhile, the floral artist DelPrince will construct an arrangement out of not only conventionally pretty flowers, but also found objects such as long-stem artichokes, local prairie grass, skewered green apples, barbed wire, and police crime scene tape.  He will work with shears and a glue gun, embellishing forms that will be developed on site prior to the event, like stanchions arranged across the stage, or a fallopian cornucopia of chicken wire.

Applebaum’s score also instructs the musicians to perform various unexplained activities such as handing out hot towels to the audience, mixing a tray of martinis, and transferring the idiosyncratic contents of a red suitcase to a blue suitcase.  These unexpected actions are meant to provoke the audience to think about how art can defy dominant artistic paradigms in the style of the Dada school of thought.  The musicians and the floral soloist are synchronized via stopwatches, ending precisely after a given duration.

“I think the concerto is a strong and interesting idea.  As and experimentalist, I aspire to succeed, but I’m prepared to fail.  I’m glad to be part of an institution that not only indulges, but requires this sort of experimentation,” said Applebaum.  He hopes that his Rock, Sex, and Rebellion students will attend the concerto and that it will further influence and affect the way that they engage with music in the future.

Mark Applebaum’s “Concerto for Florist and Ensemble” will be performed on May 15 at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center Auditorium at 7pm.  The performance is free and open to the public. 

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