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The Language of Experience

Image of a big city with word the language of experience on it

2014 James Barker award winner Gregory Clark, associate dean and English professor in BYU’s College of Humanities, explains how language strives to express experience and how jazz music exemplifies a possible solution when words fail.

PROVO, Utah (November 6, 2014)—As humans, we try to find words to share our experiences, and for 2014 James Barker award recipient Gregory Clark, jazz provides wordless experiential learning when words fail. At the 2014 Barker Lecture, titled “The Language of Experience,” Clark shared some of his own experiences with the power of experience, and, in particular, the power of jazz.

When words fail to illustrate a lesson, experience can stand as a mighty teacher itself. “Experiences, shared, can communicate much that is important and sometimes they can communicate what can’t be shared any other way,” said Clark.
When philosopher and education reformer John Dewey came to lecture in College Hall at BYU in 1901, he argued for experiential learning. “As John Dewey suggested in our old College Hall, what we understand often begins in experience and then, to make what we know practical, we work from that to find the words,” Clark said.

On September 11, 2001, Clark, like the world around him, sat in awe of the footage and stories of the national destruction from terrorist attacks. The following day Clark and his wife were in the kitchen preparing dinner and listening to the radio. As NPR returned to the local jazz radio program, there was a moment of silence. Then a piano played a sequence of chords, slowly leading into an uncertain harmony. As drummer and bass came in, the music came together in a jubilant version of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” that brought “the first sense of order and meaning to a flow of frightening and confusing events, as well as a suggestion of hopeful conclusion,” said Clark.

On another occasion, jazz again reached through life’s events to form a learning experience. On a late-August day, on a lawn overlooking the Colorado River, Clark and other enjoyers of jazz, gathered together to hear the Marcus Roberts Trio and banjoist Béla Fleck perform for the Moab Music Festival. As jazz and bluegrass collided in a tent near the banks of the river, a storm suddenly broke through the sound of the performers.

Torrential downpour and heavy winds made listeners cram into the crowded area enclosed by tent flaps. As the storm got louder and the wind shook the tent, the audience and even the musicians were anxious until the leader, Marcus Roberts, guided them back to the music. Soon the music became the focus again for the players and the listeners. After the storm died down, “the quartet continued to play,” said Clark. “As we continued to listen we were thinking about that when, in the worst of the storm, the music they made called us back from our fears.”

Image of Gregory Clark at BYU

Clark related a final experience: at a two-week summer workshop for aspiring jazz musicians, the instructors – six leading jazz performers – couldn’t play together without clashing. Modern and traditional clashed until the workshop ended in an instructor performance. Neither the students nor instructors thought the show would be a success, but, said Clark, “the sextet stayed together for an hour of music and when they finished the students were on their feet cheering. For their students, this was the most exhilarating jazz they had ever encountered. What they had seen and heard had communicated to them more clearly than any words during the past two weeks what their common ground as professional jazz musicians would be.”

He concluded by saying, “I hope that we’re at a place where we can understand that words themselves, like those in the stories I’ve been telling you, are sometimes the very materials from which experiences are made.”

—Stephanie Bahr Bentley (B.A. English ’14)

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