Musician Turned College Professor Convenes the School of Indie Rock

Through the daft obscurity of the October 18 installment of the Village Voice’s Best Of NYC series, where “Best Teapots That Look Like Chemistry Sets” is an actual category, Brooklyn has found its latest local Indie-Rock celebrity in David Grubbs, an assistant professor at the Brooklyn College Conservatory of Music.

Voted one of the “Best Teachers for an Indie-Rock Fan to Admire,” the humble Kentucky-born rocker-turned-professor laughs at the thought of pinching the vote.

“The running joke seems to be to come up with an overly specific, overly narrow category,” said Grubbs, who was one of the two that coveted the title. “Am I the best teacher for indie rock fans to admire? It’s not for me to judge! But I will say that I’ve spent years of my life inside libraries as well as years of my life inside rock clubs, so there’s that to consider.”

Maybe it is his irrefutable love of music that makes him so appealing to the Voice – according to the weekly, Grubbs is a teacher that “makes you want to go back to school.” And, despite his inability to vocalize his “lifelong love of music,” the 38-year-old finds teaching just as equally winsome.

“The thing that I like most about teaching music is to try to put it into an interdisciplinary context, where you’re not only talking about the music proper, but also about the sense that people make of it, what it has to do with technology, what it has to do with individual and group identities, and what it has to do with art generally,” said Grubbs. “And whether there is such a thing as ‘art generally.'”

And in the spirit of his philosophy — a Socratic type of thought process that has him questioning and experimenting with things otherwise untouched — Grubbs will be performing as a special guest with Stephen Prina on November 28 at The Kitchen, 512 West 19th Street in Manhattan.

As for imparting his musically acumen on the students of Brooklyn College, it all began, he said, with one person in particular – director of the college’s Center for Computer Music, Professor Amnon Wolman.

According to Grubbs, before coming to Brooklyn College’s Conservatory of Music, he was most familiar with Wolman’s music and reputation for being a “fantastic teacher” – Wolman taught at Northwestern University at the time Grubbs was living in Chicago. So when word was announced that there was a job available at the college where Wolman taught, it caught his attention.

Grubbs otherwise admits Wolman was not the only thing that drew him to the campus. With a B.A. in English from Georgetown University and an M.A. and Ph.D. in English from the University of Chicago, he credits his interest in the conservatory partly to the newly established master’s program in Performance and Interactive Media Arts.

“Because I have degrees in literature, but also experience in composing, performing, and teaching music, as well as a strong interest in contemporary art, I knew that teaching in a multidisciplinary program like PIMA would be a dream job,” he said.

Like the graduate program, Grubbs is multidisciplinary himself – under his belt is his seminar in John Cage for both the Conservatory and the English Department, a radio production class for the Television and Radio department, and his teachings in the new master’s program.

For the spring semester, Grubbs plans to teach a special topics course in Music and American Studies entitled “Popular Music and Technology,” which will discuss the interaction between pop music and recorded sound technologies – a course, he said, similar to “The LP Era,” which he taught in his two years at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

It seems, however, that Grubbs is most elated by the Cage seminar. With his background as a Cage aficionado – including a dissertation and book in the works on the experimental longhair — teaching material that is “near and dear” to him is something fortunate, especially in an interdisciplinary setting, he said, and to hear a music major say they’ve learned something from an English major and vice-versa, makes him “happy.”

“I’m constitutionally drawn to situations such as these,” Grubbs said.

Grubbs has also made a name for himself outside the classroom. Aside from a stint with the Red Krayola, a band built on the “revolving-door membership policy,” he was the founder of Gastr del Sol, a non-traditional band that, founded on the idea of flexibility and open collaboration, played anything from jazz, free improvisation, contemporary classical music, electronic, dub reggae among other genres – once claiming Jim O’Rourke, who has since gone on to play in New York noises Sonic Youth and to produce Wilco.

In 1997, he began recording under his own name, releasing nine full-length albums since then, and much like Gastr del Sol and the Red Krayola, Grubbs tends to play with a different lineup of musicians on each record. After moving to New York in 1999, he began performing music full-time, spending his first six years in the city on tour in the United States, Europe and Japan.

Earlier this year, Grubbs had received a $20,000 grant in Music/Sound from the non-profit organization the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, founded by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and John Cage in 1963. With the grant, Grubbs plans to produce a new album with poet Susan Howe, entitled Souls of the Labadie Tract, which he will release on his Blue Chopsticks label. He will also apply the money to producing his next solo album, which he hopes will be released by next summer. As for the grant itself, he said “it was a surreal experience to receive a check signed by Jasper Johns.”

But, it seems, if it wasn’t for his past – where all musical accumulations began – he wouldn’t be in the position he is in. At just six-years-old, Grubbs began tickling the ivories with classical music, only to pick up the guitar and play in the band at age 12.

“[It] was the early 1980s, when it seemed that the most relevant, most exciting music was new wave and punk, and which meant that you had to write your own songs,” said the musically-inclined professor. “Playing in a cover band was simply not acceptable, so I had to start writing music. The first record that I made came out in 1982, when I was fourteen, and I have to say that I’m happy that you’re unlikely to ever hear it.”

In the spirit of the Village Voice’s Best of NYC series, Grubbs took a stab at some of his best and like Sunn O))), John Cage and the slew of other experimental musicians that are overlooked and underappreciated, his answers include : Best venue – “Tonic.” Best music store – “[A tie] Other Music/Kim’s Underground.” Best instrument and what not store – “Main Drag Music.” Best electronics store – “J&R.” Best live act – “Animal Collective.” Best bar – “Barbes.”

And the best music school? “There’s no comparison. Don’t make me state the obvious.”

David Grubbs plays November 28 at The Kitchen, 512 West 19th Street in Manhattan. Admission is $8. For more information call (212) 255-5793 or visit www.thekitchen.org.

(A version of this article, written by Annamarya Scaccia, has also appeared in Brooklyn College Magazine)

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