Friday, September 30, 2016

Lake Wobegon, be gone?

       Long-time listeners of the popular public radio show "The Prairie Home Companion" know that, this fall, there will be a new host. Originator Garrison Keillor bid adieu to the show last July. And it has been announced that his replacement as host will be mandolin-playing Chris Thile. Earlier this week, I heard an interview on Colorado Matters with Thile (the Colorado "connection" is that Thile has appeared multiple times at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival). Thile's taking of the reins of PHC has caused a lot of speculation.  Will he be able to woo millennials to the show? Will faithful listeners (or radio stations) continue to be faithful (apparently some stations are giving the Thile-PHC a one-year tryout). The question raised in the interview that most captivated me, however, was whether or not Thile would retain some of the sketches made famous by Keillor (e.g., "Guy Noir, Private Eye" or "It's been a quiet week at Lake Wobegon, my home town")?       Thile's answer was, "Yes, and no". Certain of the "sponsors" would be retained, such as "Powdermilk Biscuits" (probably because they're so expeditious!). But some of the features have been so much identified with Keillor (or his voice) that they will be left in the archives. Thile's task, along with that of the producers of the show, is to walk the fine line between preserving a hallowed past (PHC is over four decades old!) and a changing listener-base.  In other words, they have to decide whether to curate or create . . . or something in between.
      This artistic dilemma was also pointed out by Guy Mendilow a week ago at his on-campus lecture "Myths, Lies and Truths:  Romanticizing Traditional Culture". Mendilow works with Ladino songs -- songs of the Sephardic Jews, who trace their background to those who were expelled from Spain in 1492, and who made their way across North Africa and through the Middle East to settle in the Balkans. . . . before being largely exterminated in the Holocaust. Some of the songs exist only as texts; others as scratchy field recordings. Most were originally womens' songs. None were accompanied by instruments. Yet Guy and the Guy Mendilow Ensemble perform them with female and male singers, as well as with amazing instrumentation. And Guy raised the dilemma about curation vs. creation: "Do we simply hold tight to, and repeat, the performances of the past? Or do we take their lead into a new future?" The Guy Mendilow Ensemble clearly believes that carrying the past into the future is the best way to honor the past itself.        This dilemma is only a small part of a very much larger debate in our world. Whether it is in the world of religion ("always be literally faithful to the literal sacred text" vs. "be faithful to the spirit of the text in the current situation") or our current political debates (boiled down to the question of whether or not there was some golden age in our history to which we need return), we are torn between holding on to our past while recognizing that our future demands a different response. This response is, what I believe, lies at the root of our university enterprise. Even in (religious) history, or museum-curation, courses, we honor the past by situating the products of those times within those times, while leveraging the messages contained therein to a much different world. This is, I believe, a process of co-creation, and the mission to which I believe we are truly called.
       (By the way, I'll be interested to hear how Chris Thile accomplishes this mission!)



PS:  In preparing to write this, I've learned that the dilemma between creation and curation is being pointed slightly in the other direction (i.e., towards curation, albeit with a twist) in the social media world!  See for example, this article.

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