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First-Year Research Seminar: The Sounds Beneath Your Feet: Downtown Music and Downtown Memory

Semester and Year SP 2020
Course Number FIRST-UG819
Section 001
Instructor Ben Ratliff
Days Tue Thu
Time 3:30 PM - 4:45 PM
Units 4
Level U


Open to Gallatin first-year students only.


In the book  Here  by the artist Richard McGuire, one ordinary spot—a corner of a living room like the one where McGuire grew up—is pictured through time. The images are juxtaposed across the pages with multiple insets, portraying that same spot in hundreds of moments, as if McGuire were using magic glasses: 1949 (a mother cradles an infant), 1993 (a teenager dances), 1624 (before there was a house), 10,000 B.C. (before there were any houses: a bison sits in marshland). McGuire’s point, or one of them, is that history doesn’t need monuments—we walk on its layers everywhere and at all times. The musical history of the 20-block radius around NYU has been historicized a lot—particularly the history of the same few places in the late 1970s, and particularly CBGBs. But longstanding New Yorkers look at the whole area with McGuire glasses. It doesn’t matter how many Duane Reades have masked the sites: things happened here, in hip hop, jazz, Afro-Latin music, experimental music, punk and no wave, opera, and onward. This class will research specific events and sites in downtown music history, including the Roxy, the New Rican Village, the Five Spot, the Paradise Garage, the Mudd Club, and the Cantonese opera houses on the Bowery in the 1920s. We will learn how to determine what is reliable and what is yet to be understood in a subject as volatile and often misrepresented as urban nightlife. Our materials will include books; oral histories; newspaper accounts; photographs, flyers and ephemera accessible at NYU’s Fales Collection and other special New York-based collections; and on-the-ground interviewing and research. Aside from readings and writing assignments, we will write about musical happenings that define downtown New York now, and create our own layered musical map.


All Syllabi

Course Type

First-Year Program: Research Seminars (FIRST-UG)