Steve Charles—On Sunday in Salter Hall, David Porter will play Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata, one of the most difficult pieces in the piano repertoire. He just published a book on Willa Cather. He gave a Classics lecture on the poetry of Horace last night. He’s been president of Skidmore and Carleton colleges, turned out more papers than a forest full of southern pine, and is currently professor of the liberal arts at Williams College.
In the first 10 minutes of our conversation (after graciously dismissing the fact that I was late) he glides through 20th century 12-tone music, the works of Cather, and a little Latin, and when I nod my head he says, “Oh, I imagine you know that one,” and I hope to God he doesn’t call me on it.
So what would you ask this person Professor Leslie Day calls “the quintessential liberal arts man”?
I pull out a question straight from Senior Comps—”Compare and contrast Charles Ives and Willa Cather.” He doesn’t miss a beat. Then, after learning more about these two artists in 15 minutes than I’d picked up in my previous 52-plus years of life, it’s time for another question. Since we’re talking in Trippet Hall, home of The Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash, I put to him the question the Center worked on for years: “Define the liberal arts.”
“Oh my,” Professor of the Liberal Art Porter says.
Have I found a gotcha question?
Then he smiles.
“Liberation,” he says. “Studies that liberate the individual to do things that otherwise would not be possible. Liberating from prejudices and ignorance, and opening doors to things they might never have thought could be interesting.
“I teach a course in Greek tragedy,” he says. “Most of the students have never read any of this, and it’s fun to watch the them because at first it’s frustrating for them—such strange stuff. But it opens doors for them, and they will find things there that will set their own mind free imaginatively.
“Here’s one definition of education: ‘That which remains after you’ve forgotten what you’ve learned.’
“I teach Greek, and we spend untold hours learning 600 forms of one everyday verb. I know that the majority the students in that class are not going to study Classics. Five or ten years out, they will have forgotten most of those things.
“What will remain? They will have learned a kind of intellectual rigor, problem solving, certain organizational skills that will transfer to all things. All of us are dealing in this modern world with huge complexities. So that’s the kind of field that liberates your mind, gives you skills you didn’t know you could have.”
Porter once held a dual appointment in Classics and music at Carleton College.
“They feed off each other,” Porter says. “The writing I’ve done in music has drawn on what I know from Classics, and my work in Classics is very much inspired by what I know of music. The two have been wonderfully cross-fertilizing.”
“I have found that working in a lot of different fields is very liberating because you realize these barriers that are built up can be transcended. And when you do, wonderful things happen. Taking a chance is part of liberation—you must be willing to take big chances.”
And that’s why David Porter is the Professor of the Liberal Arts.
He has a particular fondness for Wabash, too. His uncle was the late Robert Harvey, English professor and director of the Wabash College News Bureau. He recalls stopping by Wabash to visit “Uncle Bob” at least once a year throughout his childhood. And this is the second time he’s played the Concord Sonata here, The first was in the late 1960s, when his accompanist on flute was Mary Lou Mielke.
He plays this “greatest piece of American music” once again this Sunday at 4 p.m. in Salter Hall. It’s a challenging listen, Porter admits. But he’ll talk us through it. “I never play Ives without pre-performance comments,” he says. If he can talk music the way he does Cather and Ives, prepare to understand a piece of music like you never thought you could.
He promises that the final movement, complete with guest flutist, is, appropriately “transcendent.”
In photo: Professor Porter enjoys teaching at Wabash.