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Roger Bourland Puts a Spotlight on Music?s Wide Arc

December 17th, 2009 · No Comments

One in a series of UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music faculty profiles written by students in a Fall 2009 course (Ethnomusicology 188, Lecture 3) that focused on music journalism

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By Christopher Robinson

It?s easy to understand why Roger Bourland loves being at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. Bourland, the epitome of a well-rounded music lover, chairs the Music Department and is professor of music and composition. With his guidance, the department has worked the past few years to reinvigorate its undergraduate curriculum for students in music, music history, and ethnomusicology, hoping to create a one-of-a-kind learning atmosphere.

Bourland?s unique background is ideal for a university setting that?s changing traditional models of thinking how music works and functions in our lives. Born in 1952, Bourland was interested in music from a very young age.

?When I was in the third grade,? Bourland recalls, ?my father took me out and gave me the choice to get me either a guitar or a sax. I chose the guitar.?

Like many children who grew up in the ?50s and ?60s, Bourland was instantly drawn to both the raucous sounds of rock ?n? roll radio and the unending charms of folk music. ?Before the Beatles came around and hit the scene, I learned to play some folk music on the guitar,? Bourland says. ?But once the Beatles arrived, that changed everything. I would buy all the Beatles records on vinyl when they came out, and I would sit down with my record player and my guitar and would teach myself how to play each song.?

Once he had mastered them on the guitar, Bourland would learn to play them on his mother’s piano. This was the earliest form of training that his musical ear would acquire ? learning how to pick out sounds and separating the various layers of music into its constituent parts from the Beatles discography, some of the finest records ever made. In junior high and high school, Bourland helped form a few different bands that played rock and folk music, further honing his chops as a musician and as a performer.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he entered in 1971, Bourland began as an English major and was interested in writing poetry. All of that quickly changed. ?One day, I discovered Stravinsky’s Petrushka,? Bourland recalls. ?After hearing that, nothing in English was as interesting.?

At the beginning of his sophomore year, Bourland entered the music department to major in composition, but his musical repertoire was vastly split when compared to what was considered academically acceptable at the time. In order to appease what Bourland calls his ?rock ?n? roll side,? he joined and played in a small blues band, and then a bluegrass band, performing in bars.

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he learned composition at the New England Conservatory.. Bourland started focusing on more avant garde compositions and techniques, writing atonal music, and exploring modernism. This phase lasted until about 1978, and he would return to writing tonal music as a form of self-expression. When he arrived at Harvard in 1978, his tendencies to write tonal music were ?rejected a bit by the professors.? He eventually received a traveling fellowship, and moved out to Los Angeles to look into becoming a film music composer.

?I blew all the money they gave me on a synthesizer and a four-track recorder,? Bourland says, laughing. ?That forced me to get a job at the bank while I was out here.?

Deciding he wasn’t interested in becoming a film composer anymore because of the job?s potential instability, Bourland returned to Harvard and finished his doctoral degree. In 1983, he applied for a teaching job at UCLA and was accepted.

Bourland has completed numerous projects since his earliest days as a professor, has taught hundreds of students who?ve walked the halls of the Schoenberg Music Building, and is now an integral part of the construction of new curriculum for music students, which includes those from composition, ethnomusicology, music history, and performance. The newest brainchild of his is the Music M87 class, more accurately titled Music History, Culture, and Creativity.

?The class focuses on being as diverse as possible … I love classical music, world music, and pop music,? Bourland explains. ?We want to break down everything they think they know about music and how their specialty isn’t the center of the universe, and then we want to teach them to see all of these spheres of music as part of a larger musical sphere.?

In a recent lecture on musical compositions that are accompanied by drones, the class studied examples from musicians as diverse as the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, John Coltrane, Bizet, and Moondog.

Professor Bourland is a music connoisseur ? somebody who is willing to understand any type of music that exists, and somebody who shares his enthusiasm with the newest generation of musicians and scholars. Bourland, who writes a music blog that’s widely read, goes beyond the academy to share his unique insights. And isn’t that the surest sign of someone?s humanity ? sharing with others the thing that you love most?

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