For many of us, Conservatory students or not, music theory is not the most exciting of all subjects. For Associate Professor of Music Gene Biringer, however, the joy of music theory comes from discovering how and why music works and from developing a more intimate relationship with the music.This expert in Schenkerian theory began his college career at Rutgers University, where he originally intended to pursue a religious studies major. He found the area to be “too narrowly academic, not experiential enough for my tastes at the time.”
Then he took a music theory course. “I discovered a Rosetta stone about how music works,” he said. He toyed with the idea of composing after getting his master’s degree in composition from the University of Illinois. “But I found I liked writing about music better than writing music,” he said.
He changed direction again, and received his doctorate in music theory from Yale University. “20 years later I have less of an idea of how music works,” he said, explaining, “I’m more open to the mystery than I ever was.”
Professor Biringer is nearing the end of his work in Schenkerian theory with the completion of a textbook. At this point in his career he is exploring ways to combine his love of music and his interest in meditation.
Previously, this interest was “in the closet,” so to speak, but now he feels it is time to bring it into an academic setting. “It is so important to me,” he said, “not only in how I live my life and how I do my job, but I also think contemplative practices like meditation have the potential to transform us in ways that are perfectly consonant with the aspirations of a liberal arts college.”
Recently he attended conferences in the growing academic area of contemplative studies, which seeks to bring “the practice and perspective of meditation the academic world.” Biringer’s hope is to eventually create an interdisciplinary contemplative studies program, which would allow students and faculty to explore human consciousness from different academic perspectives.” More focused attention and better concentration are only a few of the benefits of such a combination.
He is working on this goal by first teaching an upper level music history course called “Music and Mystical Experience” during spring term. In this course, students will examine many different kinds of music, read mystical literature from around the world and do sitting meditation along with other sound-based contemplative practices.
Meditation, after all, is something Biringer knows a good deal about, having practiced it since his college days. While on sabbatical in 2002-2003, he entered an intensive meditation retreat in Burma where he was ordained as a Buddhist monk. For two months he slept only four hours a night, ate only two meals a day, and meditated for 16-18 hours a day, alternating between an hour of sitting meditation and an hour of walking meditation. In the summer of 2006 he returned to Burma for another retreat. He explains that these were “the most challenging experiences. but also the most rewarding in terms of life skills.”
His interest in combining meditation with his love of music recently led Biringer to learn overtone singing. A meditative discipline, this technique entails singing more than one tone at a time.
Biringer is also interested in the healing powers of music, and spent time in June in the Peruvian Amazon studying “the use of sacred songs called icaros in helping to induce the transformations of consciousness required for local healing practices.”
In addition to meditation, Biringer loves to cook, especially Indian cuisine, and he reportedly makes delicious sourdough bread. While he mostly reads books on meditation and psychology as it relates to meditation, he is currently reading Hermann Hesse’s Magister Ludi.
For those musicians, his favorite piece of music is the slow movement in Bach’s Third Gamba Sonata in G minor, which was used in the film “Truly, Madly, Deeply” — one of his favorites. He also likes popular music including “Universal Soldier,” the 1960’s protest song by Buffy Sainte-Marie, which ends “so defiantly on a supertonic triad. How’s that for a nerdy music theorist’s response?