Attending Texas Lutheran College (now it's TLU--it looks better on my resume, too) from 1973-77 helped me grow in so many ways. As a freshman, I recall splitting a bill for pizza with some guys in my dorm and being annoyed at not getting every cent of my change back; that's the kind of uptight person I was. I "taught" myself to like beer in college, starting a decade of drinking that I'm not especially proud of. On the plus side,
I made a few lifelong friends, got to write about music for the student newspaper (all four years), perform music with friends (once in a little gig at one of the women's dorms, sometimes in coffeehouses) and pour out my rebellion.
As you can guess, in terms of behavioral standards at least, this was a conservative college. Young men had to "check in" visitors of the opposite sex to their dorm rooms and only during designated times. The rule at Knutson Hall (and elsewhere) was to keep your door slightly ajar if you were entertaining a woman! That seemed ridiculous to me, so I installed a chain on my dorm room door in case someone decided to push my door open were I lucky enough to have a woman there--the door would then open a bit more, but not much. Let's just say that purchasing that stupid chain was a waste of money.
I had a handful of truly great courses at TLU, but none so enlightening or as joyous as a one-month, interim class between my fall and spring semesters. It was January 1976,
the start of the bicentennial year, and the class was in appreciation of music created during those 200 years, 1776-1975 (most of the classical music we covered did not originate in the United States, of course, but fit into the time frame). The class was taught by Dr. Sigurd Christiansen (1942-2012), and I bring this up because I was saddened this week to learn that Dr. Christiansen passed away in January. He was the music department chair, the college's choral director and developed their Christmas Vespers; TLU's alumni publication, The Torch, calls the professor "a legend."
Since I didn't know Dr. Christiansen like those majoring or minoring in music at TLU,
I had no idea I'd learn so much, or that he'd be so kind and funny, so open to many different kinds of music. It was simply a blast to put on headphones along with 30 other people and really listen to music every day.
Did I ever learn! I came away appreciating the majesty of Stravinsky's "The Firebird," and the dissonance of his "The Rite of Spring" (the punk rock of classical music, causing all sort of nasty reactions about a hundred years ago). I fell in love with compositions both extended (Arnold Schoenberg's "Transfigured Night"), and shorter (Charles Ives' "The Unanswered Question"--which in some ways resembles a classic rock album cut).
We got into experimental music (Harry Partch, and the John Cage/David Tudor piece,
"Indeterminacy," which might have been the album's title) and then to early rock'n'roll and electric blues--by then, I was in heaven. I recall Dr. Christiansen saying that he was not a fan of early rock but bought several albums, somehow knowing that it was important. Occasionally, the students would put on records for each other, so I remember bringing in Howlin' Wolf's "Sittin' On Top of the World" and Buddy Holly
for the professor to spin. In a college classroom!
One day, Dr. Christiansen played us a Thelonious Monk composition, and then something by Blood, Sweat & Tears, where they mixed their own music with the same Monk piece. It was probably the first time I really articulated my musical point of view aloud, because I told the class that I found BS&T's track to be cold and pretentious.
One thing Christiansen said he could not grasp was the popularity and the critical esteem
awarded to Hank Williams. I attempted to counter his assertion, but I just couldn't effectively explain why Williams was so good. (Someone who did express that in 2012 is Bruce Springsteen, as his South By Southwest keynote address in Austin on March 15-- please look up the speech on YouTube if you haven't already--is a mesmerizing account of Hank Williams, early rock'n'roll, the Animals in the '60s and moving all the way to the punk explosion of 1977.)
Finally, as part of my presentation--I think we all had to be part of a team project--during the last week, I played Springsteen's "Jungleland" (at the time just four months old) for the class. Christiansen called it a "very impressive" piece of music; I was thrilled by his reaction. I had an extra copy of the double LP Chicago Blues Anthology (much of it from the Chess Records catalog) and gave it to him a week or so following that magical month of January to show my gratitude. Perhaps it was the start of my young self losing that "attitude" that all teens and young 20s have.
I can't thank Dr. Christiansen enough for exposing me to music and new ways
of thinking that I wouldn't have traveled to otherwise--he also played a role in helping me figure out how to express myself in a classroom setting. Sigurd Olaf Christiansen's family undoubtably has an idea of how many lives he enriched. Add mine to the list. That incredible class was a learning experience I will never forget.