John Cage
John Zorn
J-S Bach


To Give A (Music) Lesson

[1] What does it mean to teach music? What does it mean to give a music lesson (and this can be something altogether different from giving a musical lesson, or giving a lesson musically, even from giving a music lesson musically)? To give a lesson. Does it occur to you that what I am talking about here is a gift? A gift. Not a present. Not an object. The lesson is the gift. The gift does not exist before the lesson is given. It is not (a) present. The gift takes place in the lesson; the lesson takes place in the giving. In Given Time, Derrida writes about different gifts. 'There would be, on one hand, the gift that gives something determinate (a given, a present in whatever form it may be, personal or impersonal thing, 'natural' or symbolic thing, thing or sign, nondiscursive or discursive sign, and so forth) and, on the other hand, the gift that gives not a given, but the condition of a present given in general, that gives therefore the element of the given in general. It is thus, for example, that 'to give time' is not to give a given present, but the condition of presence of any present in general' (Given Time, p.54). This page is about what it means to give a (music) lesson. What does, what can, what should, this giving mean with respect to teaching (music)?

[2] Let's start with the question 'How innocent is teaching?', for example. How generous, how unconditional, is the gift of teaching? Don't harbor too many illusions, too many expectations, about this. 'To give' means, in fact, 'to exchange'. I give a lesson, and in return I get paid. (How many lessons would I give if I was not paid to give this present that is not a real present?) The educational institution, the state government, maybe the students (or their parents) directly give me money in return for my gift, my teaching.
But I ask more. I ask the students to pay me back for my efforts. I ask them to reproduce correctly what I teach them, for example, during exams or (public) recitals. I ask them (unconsciously) to accept and confirm my authority. Sometimes I am longing for compliments and status. In Thinking Again: Education After Postmodernism, Nigel Blake, Paul Smeyers, Richard Smith, and Paul Standish mention another aspect of this 'economy of exchange', another possibility. 'Teaching and learning must be determined in accordance with learning outcomes and objectives ... The efforts of teacher and pupils are directed by these outcomes. What is to be learned is made clear to the students while these processes must in turn be transparent and available to scrutiny ... What is learned is quantifiable. The teacher is a transmitter of learning content ... Efficiency and effectiveness become eminently rational criteria in this smooth-running system of circulation' (Blake et al., p.81-2, my italics). My gift, the gift of a teacher, is incorporated into an economic circle. Viewed in this way, my expenditure remains within the circle of calculation of the economic system, an economy of retribution and exchange (the re-merciement).

[3] How can giving be different from delivery? How can giving be free from reciprocity or exchange? Is this at all possible? In Given Time, Derrida enters at length into these questions and encounters a paradox, i.e., he leads his readers into the realm of a paradox. He tries to rethink what it means to give, what a gift means. For Derrida, the gift is annulled each time there is restitution or countergift. The real gift, truely giving, is annulled in the economic odyssey of the circle as soon as it appears as gift or as soon as it signifies itself as gift. As soon as giving a lesson is regulated by institutional rituals, it is no longer a pure gift; it is no longer gratuitous, purely generous. It becomes prescribed, programmed, obligated, in other words, bound. And a gift must not be bound, in its purity, nor even binding (cf. Given Time, p.137). If I give a lesson because I am required to do so, then I no longer give. 'If there is a gift, the given of the gift (that which one gives, that which is given, the gift as given thing or as act of donation) must not come back to the giving ... It must not circulate, it must not be exchanged, it must not in any case be exhausted, as a gift, by the process of exchange, by the movement of circulation of the circle in the form of return to the point of departure. If the figure of the circle is essential to economics, the gift must remain aneconomic. Not that it remains foreign to the circle, but it must keep a relation of foreigness to the circle, a relation without relation of familiar foreigness (Giving Time, p.7). Not that it remains foreign to the circle. An important nuance. Derrida immediately admits that it will be impossible to stay out of the economic circle once and for all. What he wants to investigate is how this circle can be kept open to 'something else', to the other, by disturbing the path of the gift. In reconsidering what it means to give a (music) lesson, one does not need to look outside the lesson. Derrida's proposal: The gift must not present itself as a gift; it must not be a present. For this to happen there must be unawareness so that gratitude does not reciprocate for the gift. There must be a radical forgetfulness, not only on the part of the donee, but on the part of the donor as well, so that there remains no sense of pride or debt.

[4] But what would giving a lesson be, if it does not appear as gift, a gift without intention to give? After all, to give seems to presuppose that the gift arrives and becomes present. Isn't it useless to deal with a gift that denies this possibility? This is the paradox. In the best kind of giving (a lesson, for example), what is given must not be recognized as a gift because recognition returns us to the circle of reciprocity. But neither the demand nor the gift it elicits can be foreign to calculation. 'The gift is not pure of all calculation or all parade' (Given Time, p.142). Once again, although the teacher or student must not perceive or receive the gift, the gift of the lesson, as such, this does not (and maybe cannot) mean that one must forget completely that one is teaching. Derrida calls attention to something to which one must not pay attention (one is requested to forget). But, more important, he calls attention to something that always already escapes notice and intention, in the case of giving a lesson, the notice and intention of the teacher. What is the teacher presenting to her or his students? What exactly is (s)he giving to them? The teacher offers her or his students texts, whether oral or written, whether discursive or musical, whether by directly informing or through questioning, whether verbal or in tones and in notes. And with texts and the textuality of texts we are entering the realm of what Derrida calls dissemination, the play of differences in writing, in and between books or verbal and musical utterances. In almost all his work, Derrida shows how words have multiple meanings, meanings that always exceed what a writer or speaker (teacher) intends or can even imagine in advance. The text will almost surely 'say' things the teacher did not expect, perhaps what (s)he would not even choose or want the text to say. This dispersal of meanings is an irresistible force, which cannot be repressed. In Given Time, Derrida calls this a 'dissemination without return'. Whatever return the text could have made or whatever return the teacher might have counted on, the structure of dissemination of a text, of a lesson, surpasses the phantasm of return and marks the non-return of the legacy - and, therefore, a certain condition of the gift - in the lesson, in text, in writing itself. 'We are unable to do otherwise than take our departure in texts insofar as they depart (they separate from themselves and their origin, from us) at the departure' (Given Time, p.100). Derrida emphasizes, however, that this does not imply that the teaching subject is a giving subject or that writing is generous. Both the one who teaches and his or her writing never give anything without calculating, consciously or unconsciously, its reappropriation, its exchange, or its circular return. But throughout and despite this circulation, there, where there is dissemination, a gift can take place, along with excessive forgetting that is radically implicated in the gift (cf. Given Time, p.101-2).

[5] Where do these thoughts bring us? First, that to give, in fact means, to forgive. In truely giving, one releases the other from the debt for which (s)he is responsible. Second, true giving is not embodied by the manifestation of a transcendental embedded ability, but by a more radical movement handing itself over to a certain inability. The gift has to do with the impossible, with what does not present itself. The gift is not a present. It is a tout-autre which does not allow itself to be domesticated or appropriated. Third, giving confronts us with a certain indefiniteness or unpredictability of reality. A (impossible) submission. By being at the mercy of the other, one loses control of the gift as something reliable or presentable. I am talking about an anonymous and pre-subjective process of writing in which effects are disseminated without any traceable intentional control. In her or his dedication to texts and textuality, the teacher shows the readiness to risk herself or himself as an intentional subject, to lose herself or himself without controlled exchange value in the différance of meanings that her or his teaching, her or his texts implement. Dissemination is that which does not come back to her or him. It means breaking with exchange as a simple form of reciprocity. It is a giving without reserve, a dissemination with no clear outcomes or calculable returns. Giving a lesson is a dissemination in which effects go beyond what could ever be seen. The nature of the gift is excessive in advance, a priori exaggerated.
On the page called Intermezzo, I make a proposal for a teaching material, for a musical language and musical exercise that draws the obvious conclusion of this dissemination. 'My composition', Intermezzo, goes beyond controllable outcomes, beyond the economic circle. It vexes any controlled exchange and explicitly jeopardizes any intentional control by a music teacher or by its 'origin' (the composer). Perhaps, one could call Intermezzo an open text, like so much poetry, open to the play of dissemination. Of course, even relatively closed musical texts cannot escape this dissemination. But Intermezzo is not so much about a multiplicity referring to several different interpretations, a pluralism of signifieds, as it is about the irreducible plurality of signifiers. It is not a solidly constructed edifice that would rather not admit any infringements. With Intermezzo, I hope to have given a writing, a 'composing' that is open, that invites further 'composing'. Is not the gift first of all Intermezzo, precisely to the extent to which it would be incapable of speaking adequately of the gift?

[6] 'The event of the gift must always keep its status of incalculable or unforseeable experience, without general rule, without program, and even without concept' (Given Time, p.129). An unforseeable experience. What does that mean for knowledge, the heart and legitimization of education? In Jacques Lacan and the Adventure of Insight, Shoshana Felman tries to open a space for a different kind of knowledge, a knowledge that is not authoritative, that does not have a mastery of itself, a knowledge 'that does not know what it knows and is thus not in possession of itself' (Felman, p.92). She sees this kind of knowledge in the works of Freud, especially in his recourses to poetic texts. Freud bears witness to poetic knowledge, Felman explains, because he recognizes that, like the poets, he cannot exhaust the meaning of his texts. He, too, partakes of the poetic ignorance of his own knowledge. As far as signs are concerned, man is always mobilizing many more of them than he knows, Freud declares. This Freudian pedagogical imperative can be called a poetic pedagogy. Poetic in such a way as to raise, through every answer that it gives, the literary question of its nonmastery of itself. In pushing its own thoughts beyond the limit of its self-possession, beyond the limitations of its own capacity for mastery. In passing on understanding that does not fully understand what it understands. In teaching insights not entirely transparent to the teacher herself or himself (cf. Felman, p.96). Freud and Felman are taking us here to the realm of the unconscious. I would rather call this the gift of writing, of text(uality), the unconditional gift of a lesson.

[7] An unforseeable experience. In Thinking Again, the authors quote with approval Simone Weil who considers waiting for truth against active pursuit and planning. Weil writes that we do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them, but by waiting for them. We cannot discover them by our powers, by our knowledge or by our mastery. And if we set out to see these gifts, we will find instead counterfeits. Weil opts for a move from receptivity to creativity in which we do not acquisitively seek, but go by the way of dispossession (cf. Blake et al, p.84). But of course, to defer planning, to enter a different side of pedagogy and knowledge, carries a risk, the risk of failure. Educational policy and practice have generally suppressed this risk, seeing only its unruly side. Where learning outcomes are safely predetermined, a circle of calculation can be sustained. Blake, Smeyers, Smith, and Standish rail against a strong preoccupation with outcomes; it is the beginning that one must attend to. One should teach and learn without predetermined results and to occassionally renounce the claim to know. An education apart from the perfectability of the smoothly functioning cycle of economy is also a resistance against totalizing claims. The awareness of the workings of dissemination in teaching provides a sense of home as a place with dispersion within (and hence, the familiar as the uncanny). It opens the possibility of a teaching without reserve (cf. Blake et al, p.154-5). (Where could this ideal become more real than in art education, and especially art education for amateurs? In Of Jazz Education, I will make clear that this is often not the case.)

[8] Finally, an unforseeable experience has something to do with responsibility. Can a pedagogy that wants to explain or map everything (Is this at all possible?) that leaves no space for the gap of undecidability - can such a pedagogy appropriately hand down responsibility? To be responsible presupposes to decide without legitimization, without the ability to fall back on knowledge and prevailing standards. Responsibility means a submission to an act that is neither controlled, nor calculated. With that, it breaks through the circle of the same and demands a sacrifice (a gift) from the economic; oikonomia, the law of the own oikos, the own and safe home, is cancelled out. The gift of a lesson represents a different economy, an aneconomy that more deeply engages otherness and responsibility. This different economy makes way for different ideas, different teaching, different teaching materials.
We have to be aware that the phrase 'to give someone a lesson' already opens into fields of undecidability. To give someone a lesson means both to teach and to punish. To teach is to initiate, but does that include indoctrination or enlightenment, conformity or freedom? In this undecidable space, any conscientious teacher must determine her or his practice. In part, what is given in teaching, in the initiation into a culture, is a gift that cannot be refused. What students come to know in this way precedes the possibility of their autonomy (cf. Blake et al, p.88). It is precisely the space between indoctrination and enlightenment, between conformity and freedom, where the responsibility of both teacher and student must be situated.