Complicated Composition and the Path with Art by Robin Milne for EDU 5260 Introduction to Curriculum Studies

Complicated Composition and the Path with Art by Robin Milne for EDU 5260 Introduction to Curriculum Studies


With 5 minutes to spare and frantically pushing through the excited bodies on our way to the front, my girlfriend and I found our spot; I couldn’t believe how close we were. I was just about to turn to her and explode with excitement when the lights went out and the ambient murmur of the crowd was completely swallowed by the booming sound of the bass. The reverberation penetrated right through to my heart as every hair stood up on end and waves of chills ran through my body. I had never heard sound like this before. My neighbours wasted no time getting into the right frame of mind as they lit up and released an herb-like odor that diffused up my nose. Without needing such outside influences, I was already naturally high. The smoke escaped their mouth and blended with the smoke that was rolling off the stage and onto my feet. I slowly looked up to the stage as the lights began their ascent revealing the iconic silhouette of mouse ears swaying back and forth to the beat. The music began to build and build until all of a sudden it cut out and the entire stadium went dark. My heart was racing with anticipation. Then, without warning, an explosion of pyrotechnics, lights, lasers and sound pierced through the auditorium in perfect clarity as the artist was revealed from behind a dropping veil. The crowd roared with fists in the air as we all began our trip through a show that redefined reality. A battery of explosions, psychedelic visuals, lasers, and lights made the music almost secondary to the show. Nothing was more impressive however, than the DJ booth – a center-stage gigantic cube composed of over 2800 LED lights capable of displaying any colour and image imaginable. Upon this platform stood Canada’s home born electronic dance music legend, Joel Zimmerman – better known as Deadmau5 (Pronounced “Dead Mouse”).

As I looked across the excited faces of the mob exiting the stadium after the show, I saw people of different age, gender, and race all unified through the shared experience. People were making friends with those that they otherwise may not have stopped to talk to. The show was an encounter with art unlike any I had ever experienced before, and it seemed as though everyone was in unanimous agreement. Although labeling music as art is nothing revolutionary, some feel that electronic music is unworthy of such a title as it is generally created and played without traditional instruments and much of it lacks lyrics or vocals. While I could argue that computers and synthesizers are the instruments of such artists, the real art is found in the complication of the composition – the process of bringing together each element that contributes meaning to the overall result. Like a painter that intricately adds each colour and brushstroke to a canvas, the musician thoughtfully complicates his or her composition with each added voice. It is within the process of complication that a composition becomes art (or not) and the artist receives such a title (or doesn’t). With this in mind, electronic music is art, and Joel Zimmerman is a masterful artist.

Like the poetry that matters to a poet, or the paintings that matters to painter, the music that matters to me connects me to truth more than any other expression of the heart – the music that matters to me must have heart. Whether it is complicated in verse or layered within the voices, it is the heart that enraptures me. It has elicited every emotion in me from pure elation to reflective sorrow; it gives me physical goosebumps and chills that run up and down my spine; it can make me explode with energy and recede into ultimate relaxation; it allows me to intimately look inside myself and connect my heart with mind, body and soul. Despite my best attempts to articulate the true impact that music has on me, much is still lost in translation. But my love for music is the path with art that I journey down and every musical element complicates the composition that further connects me to an understanding of real. As it is this realness that I seek to find in all aspects of my life, my real connection to music forms the lens through which I attempt to connect to the real in others and it forms the lens through which I introspectively search for branch points in my path as I attempt to further complicate my own understanding of myself – It is through this lens that I search for my path with art in education.

For the same reasons I believe music to be art, teaching is an art as well. As I search for my path with art in education, I find myself wondering if contemporary students are meaningfully connecting to their learning. Do teachers really know who their students are and what they need? Is the curricular discourse allowing teachers to find the art in teaching? Are our governments and curriculum designers building adequate complication into curriculum to keep education an art form? As I blindly venture off the musical path I am so familiar with, and embark on the journey to find my path with art in education, I turn to both Cynthia Chambers (2004) and William Pinar (2011) for a framework that will hopefully give me some footing. It seems as though dominant discourse and the increasing pressures of standardization continue to simplify and restrict the composition of the art in education. The conversation between policy makers, teachers and students is becoming dangerously simple and marginalized groups find themselves holding the short end of the stick. Educators need to find and follow the path with heart if they are to become the artists we need to paint curriculum as a complicated conversation.


Eloquently crafted and seamlessly layered within her own autobiographical account, Chambers (2004) follows her own path to finding and defining the path with heart. Finding heart requires us to dig deep beyond superficiality to establish a truthful and intimate connection with ourselves, and it requires an awareness of the needs of others. While “having heart” evokes notions of truth, compassion, generosity and courage, Chambers (2004) asks researchers to find what matters to them and for others. This is where the heart is and to get there, we must learn to listen. As with music for me, listening for heart moves well beyond perceiving sounds; it requires “the capacity to attend to others with full awareness and to give due consideration to what is being heard” (Chambers, 2004, pp. 7). As we turn our focus to curriculum, it is important that we not only establish what matters but we share and listen to what matters with both open ears and open hearts. To communicate and connect in this way is what begins and maintains the complicated conversation necessary for heart in education.

To Pinar (2011), curriculum is a complicated conversation. It is a conversation through the efforts of understanding through communication and it is complicated considerably by the fact that students and teachers are individuals (Pinar, 2011). Each individual brings with them unique prior knowledge, interests and disinterests that form the perspective through which their contributions are made. Add to this the region where curriculum is enacted and it becomes quite easy to see just how intricate conversation about curriculum is, can be and must remain (Pinar, 2011). But while conversation about curriculum as planned is important, it is within the verb form of curriculum – currere, the running of the course – that we find the heart in curriculum. It is through the lived experiences of curriculum that we may privilege the individual and move our focus from the end to the journey. By focusing on the passage our students take, we realize that the consequences of learning are ongoing and can’t be limited to end-objectives that are in isolation from each other. It is through the concept of currere that curriculum becomes a path defined through educational experience (Pinar, 2011), and this is a path that requires heart.


I suppose that I get much of my appreciation of music from my dad, who often expresses similar notions of music’s ability to inspire. I would describe his taste as “stuck in the 80s” as he is quick to dismiss the playlists of my generation as “lacking artistic ability”. While perhaps this notion is an overgeneralization, it is not an uncommon one, often stemming from the “success formula” that many contemporary artists apply when manufacturing their music. The industry is undergoing rapid change under the influence of capitalism and many artists are being forced to adapt. As music becomes de-commodified, distribution and control becomes centralized and it is the entrepreneur who prioritizes the bottom line that comes out on top. As many artists are forced to shift their attention to the demands of industry expectations, both creativity and heart is compromised from their art. But musicians are not the only artists feeling the influences of capitalism, centralization and industry standards – teachers are as well.

As our leaders feel the competitive pressures of capitalism and globalization, they look to education to produce the necessary players that will contend with the rest of the world. As such, designed by ‘experts’ at the top, curriculum is beginning to embody a business-like model with a universal set of expectations and standards. Here Moll (2004) weighs in warning us that standardized tests are being used more frequently and carry more weight – in terms of curriculum design and implementation – than ever before. Additionally, Apple & King (1977) consider the implications of standardization in social and economic norms through the hidden curriculum in schools. With a general increase in emphasis on standardization and the results of standardized tests, educators are seeing a shift in power from their local institutions to centralized organizations. As a result, teachers are forced to focus on the end – curriculum expectations – rather than the path – the lived experiences of their students (Kanu & Glor, 2006). As schooling becomes increasingly autocratic at the behest of ministry standards and expectations, the heart in education is restricted, thereby simplifying teachers’ conversations as educators and their compositions as artists.

Structured by guidelines, focused by objectives, and over determined by outcomes, current curriculum struggles to remain a conversation complicated by the individuality of teachers and students (Pinar, 2011). Kanu & Glor (2006) warn that as curriculum discourse simplifies, we see the de-skilling of both students and teachers. Restricted from their art, teachers struggle to reach students who are uneager to leave the confines of what they already know.  Likewise, students can’t be expected to leave such confines if curriculum doesn’t provide them an opportunity to meaningfully connect with their teachers and their learning (Egan, 2003). What we are seeing is a standardizing of art out of the artist as teachers are reduced to the role of managers of student learning (Kanu & Glor, 2006). Perhaps more than ever, teachers need to take it upon themselves to find their path with heart and reconnect to their art. Teachers need to dig deep and find what matters to them and for their students (Chambers, 2004). Students must be engaged in dialogue not only through the establishment of their scholastic and democratic voices, but they must be listened to as well. It is only when teachers and students are able to incorporate their own subjective investments into the learning process that the conversation becomes complicated (Pinar, 2011). As curriculum complicates, the individual is privileged, the currere of curriculum awakens and teachers reconnect with the heart in education and the art in their composition.


As I mentioned, Joel Zimmerman is a master at complicating composition and many of his songs are true works of art. His ability to produce and coordinate immense complexity such that each individual element contributes meaningfully to the overall composition is the genius that I appreciate and admire. The layering of the voices, the melodic clarity of the lead, the potency of the bass, the synthetic diversity of sounds, and the thoughtfully placed accents, build ups and releases are just some of the elements that complicate his songs. By removing any one of these contributions, the entire energy of the song is undesirably altered. As I dabble with producing electronic music myself, I can truly appreciate how hindering the absence of a particular element can be when trying to establish a certain sound, mood or energy – the result may be similar to painter who has run out of a certain colour of paint. Just as these missing elements in composition simplify and considerably detract from the art, curriculum too may be undesirably simplified when certain voices are excluded.

Curriculum relies on pluralism to remain adequately complicated (Pinar, 2011). When developers include (or exclude) elements that are influenced by dominant discourse, barriers are formed that isolate and omit certain contributions from the dialogue. Like forts, these curricular walls contain what is deemed necessary and banish to the exterior that which is not (Donald, 2009). The result is a division between us – the dominant culture, and them – the marginalized race, culture, and/or class. Many contemporary curriculum theorists (see Chambers, 1999; Chambers, 2003; Chambers, 2004; Chambers, 2012; Weenie, 2008; Haig-Brown, 2008) call for the need to tear down such barriers and engage in a postmodernist view of curriculum that forms bridges between all groups thereby complicating a narrative that is potentially meaningful for all.

In Canada, we still have a long way to go before pluralism adequately complicates our curriculum. For many of Canada’s early settlers, including my ancestors, history, education and any initial concept of curriculum began with their arrival – “It was as if the country they had adopted had no story, or at least not one worth learning” (Chambers, 2012, pg. 25). Colonialism was a dominant influence on a curriculum that worked hard to exile indigenous language and culture. Here, Weenie (2008) shares the horrors of residential schools that attempted to “have the Indian educated out of them” (p. 548). While many of us may recognize that curriculum was a homogenizing exercise on them, very few of us are willing to accept that “the conquest is being completed here and now” (Haig-Brown, 2008, p.16). Currently, in the face of globalization, we see a new type of colonialism in our curriculum that has not brought prosperity and justice to all, especially in regards to Canada’s Indigenous peoples (Haig-Brown, 2008). Instead, once again, the dominant voice echoes loudly over the voices of marginalized groups that remain quarantined from the conversation as the rest of Canada teaches the story in classrooms (Donald, 2009).

Pinar writes,

We are what we know. We are, however, also what we do not know. If what we know – history, culture, and national identity – is deformed by absences, denials and incompletions – then our identity is fragmented. (as cited in Tupper & Cappello, 2008, pp. 61)

If we are able to take the first step in understanding that current curriculum discourse is fragmented, Haig-Brown (2008) asks us to consider how we might take the next step and bring action to such realizations. How can we tap into the wealth of potential from the voices that remain silenced by curriculum’s ‘a cappella’ composition so to add another layer? As many cry out in silence for someone to open their heart, Chambers (2004) calls for curriculum scholars, theorists and educators to find and follow the path with heart. It is time to dig in and take responsibility for how we live ‘here’ in the commons with others. Complicating the conversation in Canada requires becoming self-aware so that we may establish the capacity to become outwardly aware and this is our common countenance (Chambers, 2012). It is only by including the full range of colours on the palette and every note in the scale that the composition of our art is complicated to its full potential.


While Pinar (2011) sees curriculum as a complicated conversation, I see it as art – a complicated composition. The path with art is necessarily complicated – a symphony, a poem, and a painting would be mere notes, words and brush strokes without meaningful complication. The diverse contribution of each element is what complicates the art, but it is the establishment of meaning between the elements – the running of the course (Pinar, 2011) – that reveals the artist. In this way, curriculum and education are the art and teachers and curriculum theorists are the artists. While Chambers (2004) and Pinar (2011) ask educators and theorists to find and follow the path with heart to establish curriculum as a complicated conversation, I ask artists to find and follow the path with art so that the composition of curriculum becomes adequately complicated.

The music that matters to me matters because it is a connection to a true expression of the heart. When an artist finds the path with art in their music, the realness is what grabs me. As music affords me my most meaningful connection to real in art, I turn to another art form – education – and ask if the audience – our students – is meaningfully connecting to the performance as I do with music. As shown, current curricular discourse lacks the necessary complication to be real to either artist or audience. Teachers struggle as the art is standardized out of the artist and curriculum is simplified by the voices that are marginalized from the composition. A poet and a musician named John Lennon once wrote “the love that you take is equal to the love that you make” – but where is the love in a curriculum devoid of meaning to all that need to take from it? If art is to be a true expression of the heart, there can be no restrictions that simplify the composition. In this light the path with heart is the path with art, and the path with art is the path that leads to complicated composition.

To The Reader:

In an attempt to fill in the gap of what is lost in translation with some of my descriptions of my appreciation for the complication in some of Joel Zimmerman’s (Deadmau5’) work, I invite you to explore the links that follow. My instructions are simply this: find the best set of headphones around and play each video with adequate volume. Try to actively listen to each voice that is added and layered separately into the composition. Try to transition your focus between the different voices as the composition becomes more complicated. Listen at least up until it becomes fully complicated at the indicated times. At this point, let go of your focus, let your mind wander to anything and everything. It is at this point that I believe you will experience the art in the complicated composition. Note the added visual complication included in video 2.

  1. (fully complicates at 2:04)
  2. (fully complicates at 7:42)


Apple, M. & King, N. (1977). What do Schools Teach? Journal of Curriculum Inquiry, 6(4), pp. 341-358.

Chambers, C. (1999). A Topography for Canadian Curriculum Theory. Canadian Journalof Education, 24 (2), pp. 137-150.

Chambers, C. (2003). “As Canadian as possible under the circumstances”: A view of contemporary curriculum discourses in Canada. In William F. Pinar (Ed.), International Handbook of Curriculum Research (221 -252). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Chambers, C. (2004). Research That Matters: Finding A Path with Heart. Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies, 2 (1), pp. 1-19.

Chambers, C. (2012). “We are all treaty people”: The Contemporary Countenance of Canadian Curriculum Studies. In Nicholas Ng-A-Fook & Jennifer Rottmann (Eds.), Reconsidering Canadian Curriculum Studies: Provoking Historical, Present, and Future Perspectives, pp. 23-38.

Den Heyer, K & Abbott, L. (2011). Reverberating Echoes: Challenging Teacher Candidates to Tell and Learn From Entwined Narrations of Canadian History. Curriculum Inquiry, 41 (5), pp. 610-635.

Donald, D. (2009). Forts, Curriculum, and Indigenous Métissage: Imagining Decolonization of Aboriginal-Canadian Relations in Educational Contexts. First Nations Perspectives: The Journal of the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre, 2 (1), pp. 1-24.

Egan, K. (2003). What is Curriculum?. Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies, 1 (1), pp. 9-16.

Haig-Brown, C. (2008). Taking Indigenous Thought Seriously: A Rant on Globalization with Some Cautionary Notes. Journal of Canadian Curriculum Studies, 6 (2), pp. 8-24.

Kanu, Y. & Glor, M. (2006). ‘Currere’ to the rescue? Teachers as ‘amateur intellectuals’ in a knowledge society. Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies, 4 (2), pp. 101-122.

Moll, M. (2004). Passing the Test: The False Promises of Standardized Testing. Ottawa, ON, Canada: Canadian Centre for Policy.

Pinar, W. (2011). The Character of Curriculum Studies: Bildung, Currere, and The Recurring Question of the Subject. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Tupper, J & Cappello, M. (2008) Teaching treaties as (un)usual narratives: Disrupting the curricular commonsense. Curriculum Inquiry, 38 (5), 559-578.

Weenie, A. (2008). Curricular Theorizing From the Periphery. Curriculum Inquiry, 38 (5), 545-557.