Talkin’ Music With Father Grimes

FCLC’s Dean Likes Springsteen, Shuns Headphones


Published: April 17, 2008

So what if he doesn’t have an iPod? When it comes to music, the Rev. Robert R. Grimes, S.J., dean of Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) knows what’s up. Music has always played a vital role in his life: at the age of 10, he was performing Mozart on piano. He’s since learned tons of other instruments: he studied trumpet with jazz legend Pee Wee Erwin and taught himself guitar when he was in his 20s. Grimes has written and recorded his own compositions, been aired on public radio, taught high school band at St. Peter’s Prep School in Jersey City and, of course, taught music courses at Fordham (his faculty appointment is in music).

With a Bachelor’s of Music from Manhattanville College and his Ph.D in music from the University of Pittsburgh with a concentration in ethnomusicology (the study of music and culture), it’s no wonder our dean is such a music-oriented guy with eclectic tastes. His last concert was at Boston Symphony Hall, but don’t let that fool you—Grimes is a Springsteen fan and even saw him in concert a few years back. The Observer sat down with Grimes, just talkin’ music.

Talkin’ Musical Interests

It’d be very hard for me to say what my favorite genre of music is. I have an incredibly diverse musical collection. If you saw my CD collection, it ranges from East African to West African to Chinese; I’ve got Classical; I love Beethoven; I love Bach; I love medieval music; I love various types of national folk musics.

Talkin’ American Tunes

I also have most of the Springsteen albums. I probably have a representative of almost anything. I don’t listen to that much rock anymore, to be quite honest. I studied with jazz musicians. Most of my jazz albums are old LPs. They were made by teachers of mine. I studied trumpet with Pee Wee Erwin for a number of years.

Talkin’ College Years

I went to Fordham [in the early ’70s] and was absolutely taken by the fact that there was so much live music available to me. I would say five nights a week I was at a concert of some sort. I often went to standing room at the Metropolitan Opera, often went to standing room at Carnegie Hall, but I was also going to concerts down in Soho, where a number of people who later became famous were just starting out. I’d rather stay away from [who they actually were].

Talkin’ Tastes (again)

There’s no way in the world I’d limit [my tastes] to classical music or say everything should be classical and let’s get rid of everything else—no, not at all. But if you ever go to Carnegie Hall, imagine you’re an anthropologist discovering this thing for the first time. Carnegie Hall is a temple. You enter in through these doors, and you rise up some steps through more doors and more steps until you’ve come into this great hall—all white everywhere and red and plush—and you’re attention is focused on the sanctuary, the stage. And all the people come out in the orchestra, and they’re dressed in ritual garments. They look to us just like tuxes or evening gowns, but in a sense, they’re ritual garments; they’re not their everyday street clothes; they put them on especially because they’re doing this event, and there are all sorts of etiquette that you have to follow when you’re in the concert hall. You have been taught what your role is and how you act when you’re in that concert hall—now that’s very, very different, that’s a very, very refined type of thing. It produces some wonderful music, but compared to the vastness of music, its just this tiny little blip on the screen.

Talkin’ Pop Music

My biggest opinion on popular music today is that you’re all going to go deaf. I’m astonished when I hear people with earphones on in the elevator and I find the level uncomfortable and I don’t even have the earphones on.  I have to admit, I don’t like listening to music through headphones. There should be a physical presence of music; you should feel music as striking you, as not just in your head. Music is fundamentally a communal experience. And what’s happened through technology is we’ve made it into a solitary experience. And that’s really sad. One of the things that I love the most is seeing a large group of people joining together and singing. I love that. It’s such a wonderful expression of solidarity. My discomfort with a lot of contemporary music isn’t the music itself; it’s the loss of the communal experience and it becoming this interior thing, this selfish thing.

Talkin’ Functionality

We have an extremely limited notion today of what the function of music is. And we think it’s for our entertainment. Yet music is a profoundly powerful human activity that people are losing sight of. Whether it be from a religious perspective, whether it be from a political perspective, a protest. I mean, we’re just at the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death. The impact that “We Shall Overcome” had on the Civil Rights Movement was absolutely profound, and I tried to suggest it in class one day and someone said, “Ah, come on, that’s not real.” An African American man who was registered for the class interrupted and said, “No, no, I was there.” He said, “I had never broken the law before. We were all terrified of this protest and what was going to happen to us. None of us had ever been in trouble with the police. None of us had ever done anything we weren’t supposed to do. And it was only when we linked together and started singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ that we had the nerve to do what we did.” So, there’s so much power to music that is lost, I think, to people today—forgotten, maybe, and not lost.  Because it’s become such a big industry, and it’s marketed.