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Post "US Education Reform and National Security" Report
Created by John Eipper on 05/20/12 7:25 AM

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"US Education Reform and National Security" Report (Henry Levin, USA, 05/20/12 7:25 am)

The right wing is at it again, using "national security" as a basis for arguing for privatization of education through vouchers and other mechanisms. I enclose the link (below) to the most recent report by the two co-chairs, Condoleezza Rice, who got us into the mess in Iraq in the name of national security, and Joel Klein, the former chancellor of schools in NYC, who gained publicity for vastly exaggerating the claims for educational improvements and results in NYC and moved on to become the highly paid lackey for Rupert Murdoch. Both are circus barkers for the commercial interests from which they receive most of their income.  The great DC voucher that they talk about showed no achievement advantage of private schools funded by vouchers, despite the original intention that it would provide a productive alternative for students in failing schools in Washington.

The Report seems to carry the water for the American Legislative Exchange Council, ALEC, a powerful non-profit, largely of commercial entities and their representatives, that has drafted and pushed legislation for privatization across the board (probably in violation of its non-profit status).

We have plenty of issues in education and need to find some serious solutions which, in my mind, need to engage families and communities and pressure the commercial interests that have undermined serious educational endeavors (e.g. video games) and other destructive influences for educational achievement (such as hip hop culture and the decline of family involvement and support for educating their children by ignoring it in the home).

JE comments:  Here's the link:


Henry Levin forwarded this report a few days ago, and I've finally plowed through it.  It plays several variations on the familiar theme:  the crisis of US education.  Specifically, the authors see our educational system as failing to impart technical expertise, problem-solving skills and civic cohesion, thus ensuring that we are doomed on three levels:  we won't be economically competitive, militarily strong or a nation of engaged and informed citizens.  Grim conclusions.

The report provides data that places the US in the middle of the pack (interestingly, about the same as Poland) in reading, math and science.  South Korea is at that top in just about every category.

The recommendations?  "Competition, choice, and innovation," backed up by a strict regimen of accountability.  "Accountability" is always terrifying for us teachers, because it means one thing:  ever-larger armies of bureaucrats demanding silly reports, rubrics and "outcomes" matrices.

As an aside, I'd like to know how much CCI (competition, choice, innovation) exists in the Korean system.  I always thought they stressed long days of draconian rote learning, best defined by the "hagwon" (private cram centers) that keep children up late.  If we want to reach Korean levels of achievement on standardized tests, shouldn't there be more centralization and less choice and innovation?

I also wonder if top-ranking Finland and Denmark have much educational CCI.  Aren't both nations best known as high-tax "nanny states"?

So is this "US Education Reform and National Security" report a thinly veiled attempt to break the monopoly of public schools and teacher unions, as Henry Levin suggests?

I do give an "amen" to the report's recommendation for expanded foreign-language study, although it's laughable to cite our Canadian neighbors as a case to emulate.  Quebec is de facto bilingual, but Canadians from Ontario west don't learn French.  We're close to Canada and I have a good number of Canadian students.  For them not knowing French, eh, is a point of pride.

I'd like to hear WAISer thoughts.

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  • "US Education Reform and National Security" Report (Mike Bonnie, USA 05/20/12 10:44 AM)
    The problems and solutions presented by Joel I. Klein, Condoleezza Rice, and Henry Levin (20 May) are complex. I agree with the general sentiment of Henry's post, if I understand correctly his intention. Perhaps Henry will be disappointed to learn that I do agree with Mr. Klein and Ms. Rice on the overall sentiment of their views, if I understand those correctly, to a certain extent (which I hope to explain). How important is it that the US rank tops in PISA and TIMMS scores?

    Dissolving the public school system by expanding private schools to the benefit of national security misses addressing the root of our education system's problems. Basing advocacy for voucher schools on the premise that children will thrive in education if provided greater numbers of choices misses addressing the root of our education problems. The "third rail" of the systemic problems we have in education, that which is not addressed often enough, is parental apathy. Parents ultimately decide which school their children will attend, not students. Parents provide the level of support in the triad (school, community, family) that children need to thrive in education. The debate has gone back and forth forever: who is responsible for the education of children, parents or teachers? All are responsible.

    So, how does society "get to" the parents who are needed in deciding what levels of education children are able to attain? Most children I've met, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, either don't know, state they want to be superheroes, sports stars, or singers of some sort. Some don't think they'll live long enough to be old. Where do those attitudes come from? What are some better ways to address the attitudes of young people so their goals become positive, realistic, and of benefit to the whole of society, without (accentuate without) destroying public education? In my opinion, the answer is not by building an world-wide national security police state.

    Mr. Klein and Ms. Rice (and the task force they represent) do continue the exploitation of fear created in the wake of mass US terrorism. However, I need to ask myself, is this a way (a step) in getting the attention of parents, a step toward bettering the education system and lives of children?

    From the task force report:

    "Innovation is widely understood to be the engine that keeps America running--and the factor that has led to its success over the centuries" (p. 32).

    "The Task Force members believe that to retain this important competitive edge, lessons in creativity--whether in the arts or in creative analysis or imaginative problem solving, must begin in early elementary school" (p. 47).

    Additional and Dissenting Views:

    "Our public schools need flexibility and sufficient resources to identify and nurture young people's talents, interests, and imaginations, whether in the sciences, mathematics, technology, or the liberal and applied arts." Carole Artigiani joined by Linda Darling-Hammond, Stephen M. Walt, and Randi Weingarten (p.61).

    "I am pleased that the Task Force identifies the importance of setting high goals for student learning in fields ranging from English language arts and mathematics

    to science, technology, engineering, and foreign languages--areas that were profoundly neglected during the No Child Left Behind era." Linda Darling-Hammond

    joined by Carole Artigiani, Stephen M. Walt, and Randi Weingarten (p.61).


    I give credit to the numerous participants on the task force representing the arts, performing arts (music and dance), and languages in the making of this report. Further support and funding are needed in those areas. Living in Wisconsin, a state where battles over ideological dominance permeate nearly every aspect of life, from driving down the street and being inundated by political signs to the lines set up to feed the poor, I can't start writing about ALEC or this post will extend forever. I feel reticent to attack the past history of character-making decisions made by Ms. Rice and Mr. Klein without having more information on where this task force report takes us in a addressing real systemic education problems.

    Thanks to Henry Levin for bringing this report and most important subject to light.

    JE comments: I thought of Mike Bonnie when I read in the report that Wisconsin has the #1 high school graduation rate among the 50 states (p. 22). That shows that Mike and his colleagues are doing something right.

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    • "US Education Reform and National Security" Report (Henry Levin, USA 05/21/12 3:10 PM)
      I agree with Mike Bonnie's analysis of 20 May. There is plenty that is wrong in American education, but the schools are not even close to the major source of the problem. Nor have 20 years of vouchers and voucher experiments shown much promise in solving it.

      With the exception of the upper middle class, support for education and good educational habits has largely evaporated from family priorities, who simply do not promote or reinforce education and educational values. Their view is that schools should be a magic inoculation which requires no effort on their part or that of their children who are preoccupied with their iPods, video games, chats, texting, hip-hop (listen to the words sometime, parents), cell phones, YouTube, and other diversions. Can one really study or read deeply with earphones and texting simultaneously competing with serious study or writing?

      Where is the evidence that two decades of privatization has resulted in strong academic gains? (If you check Google Scholar under educational vouchers or privatization, you will see my answer to that question.) As an economist, I was a strong advocate for market solutions. Unfortunately, the evidence did not support my views.

      So, one can agree that there is a great need for improved educational outcomes among substantial portions of the population. But, the attempt to link privatization of education to revolutionary improvements in educational results and to national security is based upon ideology and feeding troughs rather than evidence. For example, they keep on repeating the praises of the voucher experiment in Washington, DC, an experiment that showed no difference in achievement after three years between students who received the voucher and those who did not in randomized assignment. Not only did the voucher students use private schools, but some were taken into the most expensive private schools in DC. There is weak evidence that despite no difference in achievement, there were better graduation rates in the private schools based upon parental self-reports rather than based upon documentation. But even assuming that this is the case, how can private schools graduate students in higher numbers with achievement scores no better than comparable students in public schools? If learning and achievement are what will improve American education, this is where the evidence should be found.

      We cannot get large improvements without families doing their part. More than 90 percent of a child's waking hours from birth to 18 are spent outside of schools. What kinds of influences prevail in the 90 percent before placing blame completely on the 10 percent?

      JE comments:  I hesitate to apprend a YouTube link to Henry Levin's post, but this segment from the Jimmy Kimmel Live! show comes to mind--"A Message from Your Kids' Teachers."  There's a painful amount of truth in it:


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      • Studying with Headphones (John Heelan, -UK 05/22/12 4:45 AM)
        Henry Levin asked on 21 May: "Can one really study or read deeply with earphones and texting simultaneously competing with serious study or writing?"

        While I agree with him that texting would interfere seriously with studying, I am not so sure about listening to music through headphones.

        Many years ago I was interested in the left brain/right brain theory and its possible application to the educational process. I wanted to explore whether listening to music (mainly right brain?) helped concentration (mainly left brain?), and I carried out some highly unscientific experiments with my students' permission.

        Having used various methods to get them relaxed, I split them into two groups, an "experimental" group and a "control" group. With the experimental group, I played background music while I read out 50 or more French descriptions of more unusual dishes one might find on a restaurant menu in France. (The music I recall was classical being played at a largo tempo, 40-60 bpm.) The "control" group had no background music playing.

        The experiment was repeated several times over some months with different groups of students achieving similar results in recall tests carried out immediately after the initial reading and again the following morning. In both cases the "experimental" group achieved better results. More interesting, for me, the recall results of the "experimental" group the following morning were substantially better than the control groups. (This was not, I repeat, a scientifically rigorous experiment but merely a dilettante exploration of an idea.)

        However, the experience had two effects on me. First, I did not object when my teenage family had pop music blaring while doing their homework. Further, in my professional life running major high-tech projects, neither did I complain when my teams of programmers did their creative work with the headphones plugged into their favourite music on their computers.

        JE comments: A most interesting experiment--but young people today would probably agree with Henry Levin that it's impossible to learn while listening to ... classical music!  My students take multi-tasking for granted.  It's common to have the ear buds plugged in, smart phone at hand, and the TV on while studying.  Is this a recipe for academic failure, as the cranky old codger in me tends to believe, or has the post-modern brain, accustomed to varied and brief stimuli (think video games), adapted itself to multi-tasking?

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        • Studying with Headphones (Henry Levin, USA 05/23/12 4:54 AM)
          John Heelan (22 May) asks a reasonable question. To my knowledge, these studies were done with classical music, which is usually harmonious and, for many people, soothing. Is this what young people are listening to? In my experience they are mostly listening to rap and similarly loud and cacophonic noise and screaming profanities. This ain't Beethoven or Perry Como singing "Three Coins in the Fountain."

          JE comments: It's all in how you define "soothing," I suppose...

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          • Is Beethoven "Soothing"? (Cameron Sawyer, Russia 05/25/12 4:08 AM)
            I think Beethoven would roll over in his grave if he knew his music was being described as "soothing" or "harmonious" (see Henry Levin, 22 May).

            Beethoven's music is profoundly disturbing, exalting, sometimes ecstatic, sometimes cacophonous, often shocking, but never soothing. I cannot imagine how anyone could study and listen to Beethoven at the same time. For me it would be the same as studying and having sex at the same time, or studying and steering a ship through a hurricane at the same time. Studying and listening to Beethoven at the same time should be forbidden. Sometimes I think Beethoven should be locked away with the heroin and LSD--I am not at all sure that it is even healthy. Tolstoy wrote a long essay on this very subject.

            JE comments: Studying with Beethoven should be forbidden--we've finally found a rule that today's youth can accept!

            Is Cameron Sawyer referring to Tostoy's essay, What is Art?

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            • Is Beethoven "Soothing"? (Istvan Simon, USA 05/26/12 8:41 AM)
              When I read Henry Levin's comments (May 22) about studying and listening to music at the same time, in which he said that students are not listening to classical music, and then mentioned Beethoven in the context of being "soothing and harmonious," my first thoughts were similar to Cameron Sawyer's reaction (May 25). I suspect that there is more agreement than disagreement here, in that probably all three of us profoundly love Beethoven's music.  I know I do.

              I think that some of Beethoven's music is soothing and harmonious, for example the sublime and sensual second movement of his violin concerto, or the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata. But the last movement of his seventh symphony is definitely not soothing. Called the apotheosis of dance by Wagner, it is exhilarating, and shocking in its jarred rhythmic patterns. Perhaps rock music might have a similar effect on some listeners.

              I would describe some of Beethoven's music as violent. The following references in parenthesis are for illustrative purposes of what I mean, in the Bernstein performance of his Egmont overture with the Vienna Philharmonic:


              Beethoven liked to write crescendos that lead to a climax in a sudden fortissimo explosion, an outburst that is meant to blast the listener out of his/her seat (5:20 - 5:36). His imagination tended towards the romantic vision of the arrival of the hero that comes in at the last moment and saves humanity from injustice and oppression (7:13). This leads to the final outbursts that sweep away the forces of darkness (8:47 - 8:57).

              Though Cameron's probably humorous proposal to outlaw studying and listening to Beethoven at the same time is maybe a bit extreme, I agree that Beethoven requires and deserves our full attention. If given, it will be amply rewarded.

              JE comments:  What can I add to this, except to say that "I like me some Beethoven" too.  Before I curtailed my piano studies to take on WAIS (no time for both while keeping a day job), I used to do a fairly competent interpretation of the Moonlight Sonata.  Hope someday to go back to it...but WAIS, of course, will always come first!

              Remember Schroeder from Peanuts?  Another Beethoven fan.

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              • Is Beethoven "Soothing"? (Anthony D`Amato, USA 05/26/12 2:25 PM)
                Beethoven is clunky and predictable like an attack from the Hessians. He's certainly a master of form; one could learn a lot about writing a sonata by studying the way his movements complement each other. He is nowhere as imaginative as Mozart, and when it comes to forms, no one has yet surpassed Bach. Brahms is much more soothing than Beethoven, and though there's a reversion to predictability in Mahler, fortunately we're rescued by Bruckner (who sounds at times like a score for an action motion picture--maybe today's students can relate to that). Richard Strauss, like Mahler, is overrated. As for Wagner, I treasure Mark Twain's comment that Wagner's music is a lot better than it sounds.

                Strange how the twentieth century seems to be a lost century for good music. It's like anything anyone composes now is either a lot like one of the classicists as to be compared unfavorably, or is lost in the twelve-tone thicket. Actually, come to think of it, another German composer is one of my all-time favorites--born in 1900 and died in 1950, a child of the twentieth century. I'm referring (of course) to Kurt Weill. Listen several times (once won't work) to Der Kuhhandel, for example. It's great music-not-to-study-by (though it worked for me once in the dentist's chair). Because Weill could actually write melodies (unlike Beethoven) and some became popular hits (September Song, Speak Low, Mack the Knife), it would probably take a few hundred years before he's taken seriously enough to be elevated to the pantheon.

                JE comments: I'm pleased to post the second (WAIS) movement from our newest colleague, Anthony D'Amato.  I'll be introducing Anthony formally to our group in the next few days.  I fear, however, that Anthony's appraisal of Beethoven will rankle some WAISers. And there is no good music from the 20th century? For classical, how about Ralph Vaughan Williams and Samuel Barber? Stravinsky? He's an acquired taste but I've managed to acquire it.

                And then there are the countless composers of rock and pop, too many to list here, who keep me going on my endless drives to work.  Maybe this reveals my Philistinism, but if I were allowed but one century of music to keep in the pantheon, I'd make it the 20th.

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                • 20th-Century Composers; Eurovision in Baku (Tom Hashimoto, -UK 05/27/12 6:02 AM)

                  JE asked in response to Anthony D'Amato's post of May 27 if there is no good music from the 20th century. I would add Benjamin Britten and
                  his Simple Symphony (especially, the 2nd movement, "Playful Pizzicato") to the list. Music is a rather subjective topic for me, so I'll not comment if Beethoven is "soothing" or not. For me, even his "Eroica" can be soothing if it is improvised and played on a harp.

                  On a different note, I watched Eurovision last night. I was not much interested in the music presented, but I was curious how Azerbaijan presents itself to a wider European audience. To my surprise, they have organised the show very successfully and showed off Baku as a cultural, modern and entertaining city. The show made me think of visiting Baku one day.

                  JE comments: And I am certain that Tom Hashimoto, WAISdom's ichiban world traveler, will soon make it to Baku. Coincidentally, at a party last night Aldona and I were speaking with a Venezuelan friend who is planning to spend her summer holiday in the Caucasus, including several days in Baku.  Azerbaijan is now entering the Big Leagues.  For me, the most interesting aspect of this year's Eurovision is that it is a tacit acknowledgement of Azerbaijan's Europeness.  I spent much of my youth as a map geek, pouring over our World Atlas and dreaming of visiting each and every country.  One thing I mistakenly took for granted back then:  Azerbaijan is part of Asia.

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                • Beethoven, Mozart, Bach...and Strauss (Cameron Sawyer, Russia 05/27/12 6:18 AM)
                  I agree with Anthony D'Amato (26 May) about Kurt Weill, but he left me scratching my head with his comment about Beethoven as "predictable," a word I would never associate with Beethoven in my wildest dreams.

                  It is difficult to compare Mozart and Beethoven, as they worked with somewhat different tools. If you imagine Beethoven dying at 36, as Mozart did, and ignore everything he wrote after that age, then perhaps you might say that Mozart wrote with "more imagination." Beethoven's early period produced some fairly pedestrian things. His Quintet for Piano and Winds, Op. 16, is a pale shadow of Mozart's K 452 (I performed both of these when I was still working as a musician). But I'm not sure that it's imagination, exactly, which makes K 452 such a delight--it's elegance, charm and wit, something which infuses Mozart's music.

                  But Beethoven did not die at 36--he went on into his 50s, undergoing a continuous process of growth and development, a process which was apparently agonizing, writing almost like three different composers in his early, middle, and late periods. By the late period he was stone deaf, and one feels that he descended into his own private sonic world where all references and landmarks were lost. I think I am not alone in thinking that late period Beethoven is not only the most profound music ever written (or at least, which ever came down to us), but the most profound product of the human imagination which we know. And the crowning achievements came just as death was breathing down his neck--Hammerklavier is the last piano sonata; Die Grosse Fuge is the last string quartet.

                  Mozart used very conventional tools of the Classical period--at a time when convention was what was expected. Mozart was always firmly rooted in the creative community of his time. An understandable, clear, concise musical idea, charmingly expressed, and worked up into a form which gave the idea scope and depth, was the way one worked at the time, and Mozart was the greatest practitioner of this period.

                  Beethoven, on the other hand, was the kind of person who might not have even noticed that the creative community of his time either understood and accepted, or did not understand or accept, less conventional approaches. If he had worked in Mozart's time, he might not have even been noticed, and his work might have been lost. But his working life coincided with the beginning of a big revolution in aesthetics, which understood and accepted a more unrestrained exercise of imagination, and a more personal type of expression--and so Beethoven found his listeners, and his work has been preserved and passed down to us.

                  And in any case, what characterizes Beethoven's work more than anything are very long musical ideas which are realized with great emphasis on what we call in music theory "development." Indeed, development becomes so intense and so large in Beethoven's work by the late period that the forms burst at the seams, as if they simply cannot contain the force of Beethoven's musical ideas. Towards the end of his life, Beethoven employed more and more rigid forms, as if in a futile attempt to contain and impose some order on these rampant, luxuriant, often violent musical ideas, reaching all the way to the already long-obsolete and already almost unknown fugue form, famously employed in Die Grosse Fuge, for example.

                  This is a parallel to Bach, by the way (one of many between Bach and Beethoven), who already back in the early 18th century was actually considered to be a reactionary for having revived the fugue and other old-fashioned and formalistic forms from the early Baroque period in his own later period, and one might imagine for similar reasons, Bach being another creator of very long and very eccentric musical ideas, as Beethoven was. In Beethoven, this reaches such an extreme that in the late string quartets, form is sometimes lost altogether to a continuous process of development, fueled by Beethoven's seemingly inexhaustible fund of musical ideas--which seems almost diabolical, somehow non-human, at times, as if Beethoven's imagination came not from this earth. There's more music in one average movement of one of Beethoven's late quartets than in the entire works of Vivaldi, for example.*

                  Despite the fact that the two wrote in totally different musical periods separated by a large expanse of musical history, Bach reminds one in many ways of Beethoven--particularly what concerns eccentric, densely woven, highly imaginative musical ideas (and if we reach back across the centuries to Josquin, we see again--much the same thing). Interestingly, Bach was not considered a great composer in his own time; he was considered a great organist and kapellmeister. As a composer, he was considered to be an eccentric reactionary who "didn't get it"--who clung to old-fashioned early Baroque forms as the rest of the musical world had moved on.

                  Beethoven, by his late period, was widely considered to have simply gone insane, and many of his late period masterpieces were not even performed, considered to be unplayable and/or unlistenable gibberish.

                  * This might be a form itself--and might someday be named as one--this process of continuous invention and continuous development which we see in late Beethoven. Another practitioner of this is Richard Strauss, the greatest composer (in my humble opinion IMHO) of the 20th century. I have been studying, over the last year or so, the body of Strauss's lieder. I had known, of course, and even sung, individual Strauss lieder, but never tried to listen to all of them, to understand them as a body.  They are amazing, and they remind me all the time of late Beethoven--the richness of musical ideas, no one thing ever the slightest bit like the other, the process of continuous development. The musical ideas are sometimes so complicated and dense that you can't even understand them, you don't even recognize them, until you've studied them closely, and studied them for a long time. I haven't had so much pleasure from music in a long time, as I have had during this year with Strauss.

                  JE comments: I'm enjoying this conversation immensely, and only wish I had the depth of musical training to contribute something knowledgeable.  So instead I'll just edit, post, and learn!  Now I expect our friend Istvan Simon, WAISworld's violin virtuoso par excellence, to weigh in with a vote for his favorite composer, Mozart.

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                  • Beethoven and Wagner (Tor Guimaraes, USA 05/29/12 5:19 AM)
                    As a (relatively ignorant) classical music lover, I found Cameron Sawyer's comparison of Beethoven and Mozart's work extremely interesting (27 May). I wonder if he would be kind enough to do the same for Beethoven versus Wagner?

                    JE comments: Care to take up the challenge, Cameron? Allow me to channel Mark Twain with this follow-up question: Is Wagner's music as good as it sounds, or even better?

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                    • Wagner (Cameron Sawyer, Russia 05/31/12 7:22 AM)

                      Tor Guimaraes wrote on 29 May: "As a (relatively ignorant) classical music lover, I found Cameron Sawyer's comparison of Beethoven and Mozart's work extremely interesting. I wonder if he would be kind enough to do the same for Beethoven versus Wagner?"

                      I'm afraid I can't help much with Wagner. There are two important composers to whom professional musicians generally don't listen much--Tchaikovsky and Wagner. I am no exception. I have no Tchaikovsky in my large collection of recorded music, and I never listen to Wagner as music--it will drive you crazy with its formlessness and lack of articulation. Wagner probably never intended it to be listened to on its own anyway--his operas were supposed to be Gesamtkunstwerke. The dramas themselves are exceptionally stupid (the plot of Siegfried, for example, resembles nothing so much as that of an early ‘60s "B" movie for teenagers--it might be called "Young Man with a Sword"), but somehow it does all come together and work on stage, and how! I have had hours of ecstasy in Gergiev's performances of the Ring at the Mariinsky. I guess musicians dislike Wagner because it is unpleasant to play--continuous sound without phrases or articulation--particularly unpleasant for the wind players.

                      For more on the dislike towards Wagner widely observed among professional musicians, I commend to WAISers Susskind's delightful one-man play, Kontrabass, which is a staple in Moscow played by the incomparable Konstantin Raikin at Satyrikon. The play is all about life in the orchestra, and the psychological stress and complexes of one contrabass player. His hatred of Wagner and resentment at being forced to play it is a major theme of his inner life. The play is a two-hour monologue--just one actor. Raikin's performance is an extraordinary, unbelievable tour-de-force--not to be missed by anyone who understands Russian and can manage to be in Moscow when it's on. I had the great good fortune to see the premier some years ago, when Raikin performed it privately for guests at his 50th birthday party.

                      JE comments:  I'm not so surprised by Cameron Sawyer's take on Wagner, but Tchaikovsky?  I'm all ears.

                      For years we've had an occasional feature on WAIS:  German Abstract/Compound Noun of the Day!  Today's lesson:  Gesamtkunstwerk:  a total work of art.  I found this and plagiarized it off the 'Net:  "In the aesthetic theory of Richard Wagner, [Gesamtkunstwerk is] an ideal combination of performing arts, including music, drama, decor, etc. into a kind of total theater, as in opera."

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                      • Gesamtkunstwerk and *Tosca* (John Heelan, -UK 06/01/12 4:39 AM)
                        On 31 May, JE defined (via the 'Net) Wagner's theory of Gesamtkunstwerk.

                        Perhaps Wagner's total art theory influenced the director of a performance of Verdi's [actually Puccini's; see Roy Domenico's correction, below--JE.] Tosca that I had the misfortune to witness in Glasgow some years ago. He obviously wanted to combine drama, music, comedy and acrobatics.

                        The singers fulfilling the roles of Tosca and Scarpio were---ahem, how do I phrase this diplomatically?--substantially overweight. The combined weight of the two of them falling on the single bed in the key attempted rape scene, caused it to collapse. (There were undignified giggles in the audience.)

                        Later in the last scene of the opera, the dramatic denouement when Tosca hurls herself from the parapet of Castel San'Angelo, presumably the insurers had insisted that the rather meaty lady did not come to any harm. So a large airbag had been placed out of sight (almost) on which she would land. Unfortunately, somebody had apparently overinflated it.

                        The singer jumped off the parapet with a despairing cry and disappeared from sight, to suddenly reappeared above the parapet, spreadeagled as she bounced on the airbag. It took two or three bounces before she finally disappeared from our view.

                        By this time the audience was having mild hysterics and, no doubt, Giuseppe Verdi [Puccini--see below] was rotating rapidly in his grave in Milan's Casa de Riposo per Musicisti!

                        JE comments:  I hope I won't have to spell Gesamtkunstwerk from memory anytime soon!  It took me years to master Weltanschauung.  We Anglophones cannot wrap our minds around the "uu" back-to-back.

                        What a hysterical performance of Tosca.  Have any other WAISers attended a truly disastrous opera?  A bad performance turns a comedy into a tragedy, and as John Heelan's experience illustrates, a tragedy into a comedy.

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                        • *Tosca* is a Puccini Opera... (Roy Domenico, USA 06/01/12 6:31 AM)
                          I've been enjoying this music discussion. I was waiting for a chance to get into it when I saw John Heelan's wonderful Tosca story. I must say, however, that Puccini--not Verdi--composed Tosca.

                          One of my favorite opera moments was in Florence a few years ago where I saw Verdi's Otello at the Maggio Musicale. It was a terrific presentation, except for the sailors' ballet in the first act which came off as some perverse choreographer's nightmare--a sort of Verdi meets Madonna's "vogue" dance. At the end of the opera, for the curtain calls, the conductor Zubin Mehta took a bow to great applause. I think it was his birthday and the crowd clearly loved him. Desdemona, the beautiful Barbara Frittoli, brought down the house. But when the choreographer came out--Mamma mia!--the crowd roared, booed and whistled until Mehta, laughing and embarrassed, grabbed him and pulled him off the stage.

                          One more point. I wanted to ask if any WAISers saw Anthony Tommasini's composers "Top Ten" list a few months ago in the New York Times. Is there really a point to these things except that they're so much fun? How could you read it and not say "Hmm, interesting choice" or "but where is ..." or "certainly" or "has he lost his mind?" The list: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Debussy, Stravinsky, Brahms, Verdi, Wagner and Bartok. To his credit, Tommasini debated certain obvious problems ... e.g. where's Haydn? I like Debussy on the list but there may be some ultimate issues there. And then, for me, the inevitable ... Bartok? What was Tommasini thinking?

                          JE comments: Although Roy Domenico gets the honor of setting the record straight, Paul Preston was the first WAISer to identify Tosca as a Puccini opera--I received Paul's note about 3 minutes after posting John Heelan's comment.  Sorry about not catching the error, but I've been in a Verdi state of mind ever since we brought up Aida a few days ago.

                          The NYT top-ten list will definitely get WAISers talking. I heartily endorse Debussy on the list--he embodies impressionist music like no other composer. Bartok? I'm not so sure. I'd love to hear an appraisal from the Hungarian perspective--Istvan Simon, care to comment?

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                          • *Tosca* and Other Opera Disasters (Gilbert Davis, USA 06/01/12 7:43 PM)
                            John Heelan's description of the Tosca on a trampoline (1 June) has been told so many times, one wonders 1) if stage directors can continue to be so dumb, and/or 2) if this little tale hasn't been retailed beyond its actual happening(s). A perhaps equally interesting Tosca finale occurred at San Fransisco opera when the soldiers comprising the firing squad were not told how to get off the stage after they finish off poor Cavaradossi. In the absence of any rehearsal (supers seldom get much attention from directors), they relied of the age-old exit practice of following the star off the stage. So, when Tosca jumped, they jumped after her, bringing down both the curtain and the house.

                            Opera house history is full of such stories, from singers falling through carelessly open trap doors--one Don José broke his leg this way in the last act of Carmen, but manfully climbed up to sing from the floor (perhaps Don José's only display of real manliness in the entire opera)--to the old tale of the Italian audience at a performance of I Pagliacci that kept demanding an encore (bis in Italian) performance of Canio's "Vesti la giubba" (Put on the motley); after repeating the aria several times, the flattered tenor came to the stage apron and suggested to the audience that he sing something else, whereupon a voice from the balcony advised, "Listen buddy, you're gonna sing it until you get it right!"

                            On a more serious note (no pun intended), now that we have gotten around to opera, may I suggest that interested members consider having a look at the Metropolitan Opera's Saturday matinee live HD projections into theaters all over the world. Next season's offerings will surely have something for everyone's tastes, and sitting in a movie theater near you at prices 1/10th the Met's best is hard to beat, especially if you are in a part of the world without live opera.

                            JE comments: The Met's Saturday matinees are a win-win suggestion, although I'd like to invite Gilbert Davis (in Grand Rapids) to come to our side of Michigan, to the Detroit Opera House.  I confess, however, that I've only been once...

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                            • Metropolitan Opera's Live in HD Performances (Miles Seeley, USA 06/03/12 2:21 AM)

                              In response to Gilbert Davis (1 June), we have attended 4-5 performances of the Met in HD at a very nice movie house. We
                              bring a sack lunch and settle in. We have enjoyed the venue and of
                              course the voices of some of the Met's stars.

                              Good as it is, nothing beats the live opera, especially when you have
                              a grand new house at the recently completed Kauffman Center for the
                              Performing Arts in Kansas City. We have also enjoyed several lunches
                              with our CEO and a lead singer.

                              The worst experience here happened years and years ago. Usually our
                              General Manager and Artistic Director hear auditions in New York, but
                              this time illness prevented that and they chose a Russian woman to
                              sing Carmen, based solely on tapes. She was an unmitigated disaster:
                              grossly overweight, she could hardly move around the stage, and her
                              dancing consisted solely of standing still and pointing her left toe
                              forward...pause...then her right toe. I have teased our management
                              about it ever since.

                               JE comments:  Ah, but I'm sure Don José still loved her!

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                            • *Tosca* and Other Opera Disasters (John Heelan, -UK 06/03/12 2:31 AM)
                              Gilbert Davis wrote on 1 June: "John Heelan's description of Tosca on a trampoline has been told so many times, one wonders 1) if stage directors can continue to be so dumb, and/or 2) if this little tale hasn't been retailed beyond its actual happening(s)."

                              In this particular case, Gilbert can relax. My wife and I were reliable eyewitnesses of the actual events.

                              JE comments:  Trampolines themselves are dangerous, but less so than swords.  I wonder how many accidents, horrific or humorous, have resulted from staged swordplay in opera?

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                              • More Opera Disasters: Swordplay...and Fire (Gilbert Davis, USA 06/04/12 3:03 AM)
                                My apologies to John Heelan (3 June) for doubting his recollection of that memorable Scottish Tosca production. I guess opera directors can be dumber than I thought.

                                And regarding JE's question, "I wonder how many accidents, horrific or humorous, have resulted from staged swordplay in opera?" I did report on the dangers of open trap doors in my Carmen example, but let me add one more of many, and interestingly it also occurred in a Tosca production: In a Vienna Tosca production, at the end of the second act after Tosca (sung by the great Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya) stabbed her Scarpia, she unknowingly backed into a candle, catching her wig on fire. Luckily her "dead" Scarpia saw she was in danger and jumped up, running to the oblivious Tosca and began beating her inflamed hair with his bare hands. The mystified Vishnevskaya screamed, not knowing what Scarpia was up to, and it was only after the curtain came down that she realize that her Scarpia had saved her life.

                                As for Miles Seeley's observation that watching movie house opera in HD is no substitute for live, staged productions, I agree entirely. My urging WAISers to look into the Met's season was not meant as a substitute for enjoying live performances. But for those without a Kauffman Center and the long and distinguished tradition of the Kansas City Opera, the Met's program is a welcome one. And even with a local opera company--which we have here in Grand Rapids, Michigan--there may be a tendency for the company to repeat favorites too often and too soon. With the Met's program, one thus has a chance to see productions a local company is never likely to mount, such as Handel's Rodelinda, Strauss's Capriccio, and Donizetti's Maria Stuarda.

                                JE comments:  Regional opera companies have to pay the bills, as Gilbert Davis wrote me in an off-Forum note on the Michigan Opera Theater (Detroit).  Only the "Greatest Hits" can ensure a full house.  It must be ridiculously expensive to stage an opera, and public interest is on the decline.  How many young folks these days are into opera?  The answer:  music education.  Note that this discussion thread was originally about education, the merits of studying with headphones, and whether or not Beethoven is sufficiently soothing.

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                          • Opera and Bartok (George Krajcsik, USA 06/02/12 2:34 AM)
                            I, too, would like to join this interesting conversation. I possess no musical training, but lifelong listening to classical music has made me an ardent lover of it. My first experience and the beginning of "acquired taste" came when as a teenager in Hungary I started to listen to a Budapest radio station. (Nowdays there is a station in Budapest named Bartok Radio, broadcasting classical music 24 hours a day.) Then visits to Budapest (we lived in about 25 miles away) to the Opera house and the Erkel theater enchanted me and made me want to listen to everything in classical music. I was fortunate to have teachers who felt their duty to enrich their students' lives by exposing them to music of this kind. My first operas were easy to like: Verdi's Il Trovatore, Gounod's Faust, Mascagni's Cavaliera Rusticana, Leoncavallo's Il Pagliacci, and Puccini's Tosca. Back then there were no subtitles, but in Hungary all these operas were sung in Hungarian so I was equally mesmerized by the story. Now, of course, I look at the story-line differently, although I still remember some of the Hungarian words to the arias.

                            During my undergraduate years there were few occasions to hear classical music; I lived in Helena, Montana. But when I started graduate school in at NYU, I reveled in my good fortune that I lived in the classical music capital of the world. (Milano eat your heart out!) In 1961 I attended the old Met on 40th Street and Broadway, then in 1963, when Lincoln Center opened, the new Met. At that time I would often buy a standing room ticket--there was a space reserved for standees behind the last row of the orchestra--for $2. Of course, there was a technique I soon learned from old standing-room attendees. You stand during the first act and carefully note 4 or 5 empty seats. After intermission, you go sit down, then if the rightful owner shows up, you apologize and move to seat no. 2. But that seldom happened to me. When I started working after graduate school, being in a better financial situation, I bought season passes. That went on for about 10 years, until I moved away from NYC.

                            I like all operas. I'd be hard put to explain why. I just enjoy the melodies, the story, the acting and the spectacle. My favorite operatic composers are Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner. A week before each performance I would borrow from the library a recording of the opera, play it and follow the translation carefully from the libretto. I think it was in the 1970s when the first English subtitles started to appear in the NY City Opera (Beverly Sills domain), but the Met stayed with staging operas in their original language. I have not seen a performance in the Met in 30 years (well nigh impossible if you're in South-East Asia). In Sarasota we I now live, we have an opera company and a quaint little opera house. I attend every chance I get.

                            If I may I'd like to write a few lines on Bartók. Surprisingly, many Hungarians don't like his compositions. Bartók is an acquired taste. When the average listener discovers a motive he recognizes from a folk melody, he or she enjoys that, but listens to what follows with bewilderment: how could that nice melody turn into such dissonance. But Bartók is great! His operas Blue Beard Castle, The Wooden Prince, and The Miraculous Mandarin have interesting story lines, but one must very carefully listen and interpret the music to one's own emotions and to those which Bartók's music tries to evoke.

                            Bartok also wrote a few symphonies; the Kossuth symphony is notable. When John Richter heard it he liked it so much that he made the Manchester Philharmonic perform it. Bartók was still under the influence of Richard Strauss when he composed it. Of course, Bartók's Hungarian sentiment showed strongly in this work.

                            Let me quote a short passage from Halsey Steven: The Life and Music of Béla Bartók:

                            "Béla Bartók's ardent spirit enlightened every field to which he turned his attention. Unsatisfied with his early compositions, he devoted his energies to becoming one of the finest pianists of his time, and shared that side of his nature for nearly thirty years with students who still carry on his ideas in their performance and their teaching. As a virtuoso he unselfishly lent his talents to the encouragement of his contemporaries by the performance of their music.

                            "Almost by chance he discovered the vast reservoir of peasant song in his native country, previously unplumbed and on the brink of disappearance. Enlisting the services of a few other enthusiasts, he systematically collected and scientifically classified thousands of melodies from Hungary and other countries; his musico-ethnological publications, both books and periodical articles, have greatly enriched the store of knowledge concerning the Hungarian, Romanian, Slovakian and other peoples."

                            JE comments:  I've learned an enormous amount from this conversation.  WAISers excel at combining theoretical insight with personal anecdotes, of which we have so many!  George Krajcsik has inspired me to explore the operas of Bartók.  I knew nothing about them.

                            I wonder, George, if opera standees can still get away with the old trick of grabbing an empty seat after intermission?  They've no doubt put greater controls on crowd management.  Ever try to move to (empty) better seats at a baseball stadium?  There are too many ushers around offering to "help you find your (legitimate) seat."

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                            • Sneaking into the Good Seats; Bullfights (Henry Levin, USA 06/03/12 2:47 AM)
                              The moving up from standing or the bleachers is still alive and well, whether you go to the opera, ballet, theatre, or bullfights (George Krajcsik, 2 June). In the latter case the aficionados wait until after the first bull meets his demise and the gringos and others with weak stomachs leave. My son, who went to the University of California in San Diego, would go across the border to Tijuana every weekend with his friends and buy the cheapest seats and then proceed to the top seats where there were plenty of options after the spectacle.

                              Bullfights might raise a nice topic for WAIS.

                              But, in our frequent outings to concerts and theatre, we are constantly bombarded with questions about whether a particular empty seat nearby is occupied. And it is not just the "poor" and devoted student seeking such seats. We have had unpleasant and smelly unkempt types with the distinct smell of alcohol sliding in to vacant seats, so we are not typically welcoming. Sorry to the devotees who only lack money. Finally, ballets and opera are far more spectacular in close proximity than from a distance.

                              JE comments: We haven't discussed bullfighting since August 2010, when Catalonia banned the practice.  I don't know a single Spaniard who still cherishes the toros as a national tradition/art form/sport. In my student days I attended two bullfights in Mexico (Morelia and Oaxaca). That was enough for this lifetime.

                              I just searched "bullfighting" in the WAIS archive, and came up with several notes from Prof. Hilton, including this one on the "strange, irresponsible crowd" of García Lorca-bullfight aficionados, dated 14 November 1999:


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                              • Ronald Hilton and Federico Garcia Lorca (John Heelan, -UK 06/04/12 3:26 AM)
                                JE (3 June) reminds us of a Ronald Hilton 1999 comment in which he could not resist a dig at his eternal bête noire, Federico García Lorca--usually followed by RH with "and his ilk"--as being a "strange, irresponsible crowd."  As a lorquista for some decades, I regularly disagreed with RH´s sometimes emotional outbursts against Lorca, Dalí, Buñuel and other avant-garde writers and artists of the 1930s.

                                With the greatest respect to our founder, his claim to "know" Lorca has always puzzled me. Comparing the timelines of both, I found it difficult to place them in the same place for any considerable period. By the time, RH was at "La Resi" [Residencia de Estudiantes] the triumvirate of Lorca, Dalí and Buñuel had long gone. However, Lorca was still living in Madrid from time to time and visited La Resi while RH was there.

                                When I privately questioned RH on the details of his relationship with Lorca, he promised to consult his notes and get back to me. Unfortunately he did not. This was a great disappointment to me, as he was one of the two or three people still living at the time who claimed to have known Federico and could have filled some holes in my research.

                                At the height of his career at that time, Lorca could be vain and obnoxious. Perhaps RH picked up and reacted to those vibes as an onlooker as well as believing the constant right-wing media campaign against him as a symbol of the Republican government (as an often braggart homosexual, with friends in high places, and challenging the Church and cultural mores of the time). Who knows?

                                By the way, I am not an aficionado of bullfighting but understand its role in the culture and psyche of Spain--more so in the past than today perhaps--and have written in WAIS about it several times.

                                JE comments:  John Heelan and I have communicated off-Forum about Prof. Hilton's connection to Lorca.  I agree with John's conjecture that they met on no more than a few passing occasions.  What always fascinated me was RH's virulent dislike of Lorca's poetry.  He was more tolerant of his plays, but not by much.  WAISers may find this lengthy exchange, titled "Homosexuals" (10 March 2004), to be of interest:


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                                • Calderon's *Life is a Dream* (Anthony D`Amato, USA 06/05/12 3:15 AM)
                                  I don't speak Spanish and know practically nothing of its literature, but nevertheless I am taking advantage of this discussion to seek help on how an outsider like me can make sense of Calderón de la Barca's Life is a Dream (La vida es sueño) when all you can get (apparently) is the dialogue.

                                  I need the stage directions to make sense of what I'm reading. Obviously, and most frustratingly, the visuals are paramount in importance: how is it staged, where are the actors, when do they enter and exit, how re changes in scene depicted? I suspect that down through the years the staging differed, but I would be quite content with the "standard" interpretation if there is such a thing.

                                  And here's a slight contribution to pay for my question. I know that purists won't have much to say about Man of La Mancha, but there is a song in it--"Dulcinea"--that is far and away one of the most beautiful melodies ever composed. Ranks right up there with "The Huguette Waltz" from Rudolf Friml's Vagabond King and "All the Things You Are" from Jerome Kern's Very Warm for May.

                                  JE comments:  Anthony D'Amato has thrown a softball pitch across the plate for a Hispanist, but I confess I haven't read La vida es sueño (often called the first "existentialist" play) since grad school!  Has anyone seen a staging of it recently?  In the meantime, I'll ask around here at the Spanish Literature AP reading in Cincinnati.  There are over a hundred of us Spanish professors assembled for the week.
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                          • *Tosca* is a Puccini Opera... (John Heelan, -UK 06/02/12 3:13 AM)
                            Roy Domenico (1 June) is of course perfectly correct--Tosca is Puccini's work not Verdi's.

                            Roy's anecdote about an opera occasion in Florence, reminded me of a visit to La Scala, Milan, to hear a famous Russian army chorus. The audience was so sparse that at the end of the performance, my Italian companion said to me, "For goodness sake, applaud because there's more of them on the stage than there are of us in the stalls!"

                            JE comments:  Good advice all around.  Is the Russian Army Chorus still as active now as in Soviet times?  Perhaps Cameron Sawyer can fill us in.

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                          • Top-Ten Composers (Harry Papasotiriou, Greece 06/02/12 8:03 PM)
                            Anthony Tomassini's "Top Ten" list of classical composers cannot possibly satisfy everyone. (See Roy Domenico's post of 1 June.) As Tommasini himself states, it would have been much easier to do a top five or a top twenty list. But I strongly agree with his choice and ranking of the top four: JS Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. Interestingly they were all from German-speaking countries, whereas the language of classical music was and remains Italian from an earlier period. This presumably reflects a northward shift in Europe's musical center of gravity sometime during the eighteenth century.

                            JE comments: Coincidentally, we visited an antique mall in central Ohio yesterday on our way to Cincinnati. There I saw a collage of 8 "Great Composers" engravings. The picture must have been from the late 19th century.  Included among  the expected names (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms) were Franz Liszt and Charles Gounod. Who talks about Gounod these days?

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                            • Top-Ten Composers (Cameron Sawyer, Russia 06/04/12 2:43 AM)
                              When commenting Harry Papasotiriou's post of 2 June, JE wrote: "Coincidentally, we visited an antique mall in central Ohio yesterday on our way to Cincinnati. There I saw a collage of 8 'Great Composers' engravings. The picture must have been from the late 19th century. Included among the expected names (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms) were Franz Liszt and Charles Gounod. Who talks about Gounod these days?"

                              Sure. And the "Three B's" used to be Bach, Beethoven and--Berlioz. Tastes change.

                              These rankings are a somewhat silly exercise, but irresistible. Besides Harry's Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert, I would put Chopin in the very first rank, among those four. A technical master of his art whose only rival is Bach, in that regard. Most people would put Brahms there; I would not. I would put Josquin there, if we are considering pre-Baroque composers--in fact in the Top Three with Bach and Beethoven.

                              I don't like Tommasini's list. I would never put Bartok or Wagner even in the top 20. Debussy and Stravinsky have fabulous moments, but are both, on the whole, lightweights--I think Tommasini was giving affirmative action to the 20th century (I adore Stravinsky, just don't think he's of that rank). I already rejected Brahms. I would have put Richard Strauss, Mahler, Haydn and Schumann above any of those. And what about Prokofiev and Shostakovich? After Richard Strauss, the best composers of the 20th century in my opinion, if not perhaps Top 10 material. And if we are considering pre-Baroque composers--and I think we should--perhaps Palestrina or Monteverdi.

                              JE comments: Speaking of the Great Russians, we've already heard Cameron's views on Tchaikovsky (not a musician's composer), but what about Rimsky-Korsakov? That guy could write a catchy tune.

                              Totally agree on Chopin.  I don't think there's a piano player in the world who doesn't adore him.

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                  • Beethoven, etc. (William Ratliff, USA 06/01/12 3:23 AM)
                    This has been an interesting discussion of Beethoven and classical music, though alas I am coming in just as others are moving on. Still, I'd like to add a few late and somewhat random comments and suggestions. Why not?

                    For those who don't know Beethoven well, as seems to be the case with several WAISers, it may help to put the composer's works into several loose and inevitably debatable listening categories. First, the works that are easy enough to listen to but in my judgment probably are not worth the time for beginning listeners of advanced years, as many of us are. (Realistically I think we should make the best possible use of what listening time we have, for there is a lot out there to hear by and beyond Beethoven.) For me the "don't bothers" would include mostly early works, including keyboard and ensemble music. Second, works that are easy or at least not hard to appreciate and well worth the listening and even studying time. Third, the later works which are of increasingly complexity but almost all less challenging than the late quartets. The late quartets were the intense focus of Beethoven's last years, a time almost of creative madness. All should try these quartets, which are an acquired taste worth acquiring, though experience suggests that most listeners will not often return to them. (Of course if you don't return to them, your chances of appreciation are much diminished.)

                    I seldom think of applying the words "predictable" or "soothing" to what I consider Beethoven's best compositions. His later works are the ultimate challenge of this musical giant, but even many earlier works then and still catch listeners by surprise. Just three of innumerable possible examples. The lyrical and seemingly improvisatory beginning of the "Moonlight" sonata, which we now feel flows so hauntingly and naturally, was then unprecedented for a sonata. Also, the first chord of the first of Beethoven's nine symphonies, a work in many ways still much indebted to Haydn in particular. For the first time in the history of this musical form, a symphony begins with a dissonance, a seventh chord that doesn't even resolve into the symphony's main key of C Major. Finally, an anecdote about the Third Symphony (Eroica), a revolutionary piece throughout. Beethoven's student and assistant Ferdinand Ries joined the composer at the first rehearsal. About ten minutes into first movement a low solo horn slowly and quietly plays a fragment of a theme the cellos play prominently several measures later, shifting the key. Ries later recalled: "During the first rehearsal of this symphony, which went appallingly, the horn player, however, came in correctly. I was standing next to Beethoven and, thinking it was wrong, I said, 'That damned horn player! Can't he count properly? It sounds infamously wrong!' I think I nearly had my ears boxed--Beethoven did not forgive me for a long time."

                    Someone else has remarked that Charles Schulz often has Schroeder playing Beethoven on the piano, but I don't think it has been noted that more often than not Schroeder is playing the Piano Sonata No. 29, Op. 106 (Hammerklavier), one of Beethoven's gigantic non-soothing and unpredictable works.

                    Still I consider a lot of Beethoven quite easy to listen to, and not only works and movements from his early and middle periods. (Of course as one learns a composer's music, familiarity in time makes most music less strange and "easier-to-listen-to" than it may seem to newcomers.) I can't think of anything much more listenable and beautiful than most of the "Archduke" Trio for piano, violin and cello, Op. 97. The last quartet--which was the last work Beethoven completed--was the Quartet in F, Op. 135. Unlike the other late quartets this one is in most places immediately approachable, what Joseph Kerman and Alan Tyson call "a brilliant study in Classical nostalgia, though it does not lack a vision of the abyss in the second movement." Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is best--and for many, only--known because of the famous Ode to Joy conclusion. Yet if I could somehow save only one of this symphony's movements, it would probably be the third, a beautiful Adagio molto e cantabile. I cannot imagine anyone having a problem listening to Beethoven's only violin concerto or the Piano Concerto No. 4. His only opera, Fidelio, has profoundly moving sections--Florestan's prison solo and the Prisoners' Chorus, among them--though it has not always been a great success on the stage. But the opening duet for the doorkeeper, Jaquino, and the jailor's daughter, Marzelline, is just for fun, in the spirit of earlier French and German light opera. Besides a sense of humor, this duet demonstrates Beethoven's often simple but sure sense of instrumentation. Jaquino is pestering Marzelline to marry him and she finally has to drive him off with "Jetzt morgen, und immer, und immer, und immer nein, nein, und immer nein, nein, nein, nein, nein, nein, nein, nein, nein," with a bassoon honking out a reinforcement of each of Marzelline's final burst of "neins." (This scene from Fidelio, and other light touches like the last movement of the First Symphony, suggest to me that Beethoven could have done much more with comedy if the mood had struck him, just as Gianni Schicchi demonstrates a real comic flair in Puccini, a composer known almost entirely for his operatic tragedies.)

                    Ever since the discussion of Beethoven's "soothing" music began, I have thought of a story about Lenin, whose reactions to Beethoven I first heard about fifty years ago from my first professor of Russian history Donald Treadgold. Lenin very much liked classical music and particularly Beethoven. But he stopped listening to the latter because he said it was too soothing--it made him "soft" and want to embrace people when he should be hitting them on the head. Lenin might have felt more comfortable with the complex, abrasive, often twelve-tone--but quite effective--Lear (1978) of Aribert Reimann, with the title role composed for the recently late, very great baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Verdi and other composers considered doing a King Lear after Shakespeare but never did so, no doubt at least in part because they concluded their musical idioms couldn't effectively convey the mayhem and madness of the tragedy. The madness of a Donizetti Lucia di Lammermoor, nicely spoofed by Gilbert and Sullivan in Ruddigore and elsewhere, just wouldn't cut it for Lear.

                    I was particularly glad to hear Cameron Sawyer's remarks (May 27) on Richard Strauss, but as much as I like Beethoven I disagree with his assertion that "There's more music in one average movement of one of Beethoven's late quartets than in the entire works of Vivaldi." And I may have to say something later about Wagner, too.

                    JE comments:  Look forward to it.  WAIS President Emeritus William Ratliff wrote for many years as a classical music critic (for the San Francisco Chronicle, Bill?), and frequently commuted to SF from his day job at the Hoover Institution to attend performances.  This has been a fascinating analysis; I particularly appreciate the Ries and Lenin anecdotes.

                    Thanks, Bill!  Whenever I post something from my illustrious predecessor (and not just on Beethoven), it's an Ode to Joy.

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                    • Is Verdi Quoting Beethoven? (Istvan Simon, USA 06/02/12 4:23 AM)
                      Speaking of opera and Beethoven, has anyone noticed the similarity between the following passage in Beethoven's C sharp minor quartet, Op. 131 (1:13 - 1:20), and the Grand March in Verdi's Aida (6:02 - 6:12)?



                      JE comments: I gave it an over-quick, amateur listen, and didn't hear the similarity. Can't we assume, however, that Beethoven was one of the most borrowed-from composers during the rest of the 19th century?

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                  • Mozart and Beethoven (Istvan Simon, USA 06/01/12 4:08 AM)
                    When commenting Cameron Sawyer's remarks on music (May 27), JE wrote that he expected me to weigh in on my favorite composer, Mozart.

                    John is right: Mozart is my favorite composer. To understand Mozart's musical language, I think that the best tool is to listen to his operas, if possible while simultaneously reading the libretto, because there the words give a clue to what the music means. This is well worth it, for those willing to invest the time that it takes to do it, particularly for the three great Italian operas that Mozart wrote in collaboration with Lorenzo da Ponte, because da Ponte's sense of drama matched Mozart's, and the texts of all three are excellent. I think that Mozart's operas might have been appreciated even by Mark Twain, including the excellent jokes that all three are peppered with throughout.

                    Nowadays, one can watch DVDs of excellent performances of operas, but the staging is often disappointing compared to the way I imagine them performed. Opera is theater, and so proper stage direction can greatly add to the appreciation of this art form, or conversely, bad staging greatly detract from it. It is obviously quite difficult to stage operas, because the natural pace of drama and the music do not necessarily move in the same tempo, and truly great singer-actors are hard to find. When Don Giovanni, for example, kills the Commendatore in a duel, the latter dies on stage singing that he feels his soul departing, in music that is perfect for the occasion, short, and deeply moving, but if the staging is not right, the effect can be one of ridicule instead.

                    Much of what I think of Mozart's music and why it is so great is included in a review of a Harnoncourt DVD that I wrote for Amazon.com a few years ago. So rather than repeat it here, I give the link for interested WAISers:


                    Here is a link to the complete first act of a Ricardo Mutti DVD instead. I think that Mutti's tempos of the two pieces I commented on are better than Harnoncourt's. ("Di Scrivemi Ogni Giorno" starts at 29:00 and ends at 31:24. "Soave sia il vento" starts at 33:10 and ends at 36:40.)


                    Turning to Cameron's comments on Beethoven, I have a very personal connection to Beethoven's quartets, and chamber music in general, because I first encountered them through playing rather than listening to great artists performing them. I rarely listened to chamber music as I grew up, and formed my musical ideas through listening to orchestral music and operas instead. In contrast, I discovered chamber music by actually playing it, and so formed a more personal view.

                    Cameron is right that Beethoven's late quartets are considered (nowadays) the pinnacle of his art by musicologists. This highly favorable view of these works is relatively new, however, and evolved only in the twentieth century. They were unpopular all through the nineteenth century, and considered incomprehensible. Cameron is also right that these can be and have been considered as the beginning of modern music. I called it "cerebral music," because they rarely reflect normal everyday human emotions, but rather something much harder to relate to, more other-worldly, perhaps due to the great social isolation and despair of Beethoven caused by his complete deafness by the time he wrote these works. The Grosse Fugue that Cameron mentions was written originally as the last movement for his quartet Op. 130, but the reactions to it were so negative, that Beethoven wrote another last movement for the quartet, and it was published separately. I think that it is fair to say that still today the late quartets are not very popular, and less frequently performed than his middle quartets. In my opinion, as opposed to that expressed by musical experts and contemporary professional musicians , the middle quartets of Beethoven are better than the late quartets.

                    I played, or tried to play, at one time or other all the late quartets, but much less frequently than the other Beethoven quartets. They are very hard to play by amateurs, in part because of sudden and constant changes of tempos, which give a chopped up feeling and break up the unity of some of these quartets. Among the late quartets, I became quite fond of Op. 132, in A minor, which for me is the best of the set, and also more accessible than the others. I like particularly the first movement (0:00 - 9:38) with its tragic undertones throughout, culminating in the highly dramatic coda, (9:17) in which perhaps one can hear the heavy blows of fate (9:25) and finally of utter despair (9:32 - 9:38) expressed by the first violin.


                    JE comments:  Istvan Simon has taught me a great deal about Mozart over the years, and I'm grateful for this latest installment.  After reading both Bill Ratliff's and Istvan's comments on Beethoven's late quartets, I'm inspired to give them a listen.

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              • Beethoven, Education and Hip-Hop (Sasha Pack, USA 05/27/12 4:25 AM)

                Thanks to Istvan Simon (26 May) for the nice tour through Beethoven's Egmont overture. Is it even appropriate to label Beethoven, other than for commercial purposes,
                classical? To my ear, the contrasts of emotion, sonic texture, and rhythmic license have more to do with modern music than with Mozart and Haydn. At many
                moments, he sounds like he is a century ahead of his time. The middle portion of the second movement of piano sonata #32 in C minor, Opus 111 (1822) carries
                a stride syncopation that anticipates Mississippi River Barrelhouse style by some seven or eight decades. It really swings, depending on the interpreter. (I own
                two recordings and I'd say Richter swings it better than Pollini.) I suspect Ludwig van B would have understood that indefinable musical verb better than most of
                his countrymen, even today. (Have you ever listened to German Country-Western? It's a real genre, studiously performed and entirely missing the point, unless I
                am the one who is missing the point.)

                On the topic of education and music, I would like to share my own personal observations about hip-hop and its allegedly deleterious effect on the culture of
                achievement--a charge which Henry Levin has twice leveled in his recent, and, as always, very informative posts. When I arrived from the wholesome Midwest
                for my freshman year at a selective private New England university in 1993, hip-hop was an unexplored world of which I was mainly dismissive--not music, just
                capitalism on crack. Having studied the piano, I was confident with modern music theory and had a decent grasp on the unsurpassed tonal sophistication of
                twentieth-century American music. I was surprised to find that many of my classmates, mainly upper-middle-class kids from greater New York and Boston, who
                knew nothing of Duke Ellington but could recite hip-hop lyrics ad nauseam, consistently managed to earn better grades than I in every subject.

                I realize that Henry Levin is not mostly worried about upper-middle class kids who presumably enjoy a variety of intellectual influences other than rap lyrics. It is
                also clear that a lot of rap lyrics glorify superficial living, easy money, and excessive drug use. But certainly hip-hop is uniquely guilty here among popular
                culture genres; art is probably just imitating life, and if there was a breakdown in the kind of values conducive to educational achievement, this process was
                probably complete before hip-hop entered its heyday. In fact, a major theme in a lot of hip-hop music--including some of the most commercially successful--is the journey (material and spiritual) out of violence, squalor, and hopelessness made possible by the skillful wordsmithery of the craft. I don't disagree that
                much hip-hop is offensive to any polite taste, but at its best it can be masterful social realism in the truest sense of that term, as well as very moving and
                spiritually uplifting. Musicians raised in the black church tradition have increasingly worked with hip-hop. Serious (if off-beat) composers like Stockhausen have
                praised it, and elite instrumentalists like Yo Yo Ma and Robert Glasper have embraced it. It is one of America's most important artistic exports of recent decades: I
                bet that if the Arab Spring had a soundtrack, it would have to include a strong dose of this maligned genre.

                So, Henry is probably right that kids listening to hip-hop on the subway are not thinking about their algebra quiz. But they might be gaining their first entrée to
                poetry. Unfortunately, as every humanist knows, this will not give them a competitive edge for twenty-first century employment.

                JE comments:  My thanks to Sasha Pack for this convincing defense of hip-hop.  As Sasha points out, it's the best exposure most young people today have to the artistic manipulation of language--let's call it poetry.  It's certainly the only genre of "poetry" that today's youth actually enjoys.

                Sasha writes that he is spending the year in Toulouse, France--far from his academic home in Buffalo.  I hope he will send us a "Toulouse Update" when time permits.

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                • Beethoven, Wagner, and Mark Twain on Wagner (Istvan Simon, USA 05/28/12 4:33 AM)
                  I thank Sasha Pack (27 May) and JE for their encouragement regarding my May 26 comments on Beethoven. I found Sasha's insightful comments on Beethoven's piano sonata 32 so interesting that I have been listening to various interpretations of this sonata for the past hour or so. Which brings me to YouTube, this wonderful innovation marrying technology with entrepreneurship and molding it into something that is so useful. YouTube made it possible for me to illustrate music the way I did in my previous post, and also to instantly look up what Sasha meant in his.

                  Since Sasha mentioned the great Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter, I was gratified to find two of his recordings of this sonata on YouTube, one which is broken up in three parts, due to YouTube's earlier limitation on the length of clips. Fortunately YouTube now allows longer clips as well, so the other one contains the whole sonata. The first one is a film of an actual performance, thus combining both visual information and sound, while the second is just sound, with still photographs of Richter, but I found the quality of the recording better in the second, so I give it here:


                  The second movement of this sonata (8:08) consist of a series of variations, and I think Sasha may have meant either the third variation (12:36) or the fourth one (14:23), but I hope that at least those amongst us that love Beethoven, would listen to the whole sonata.

                  Without trying to provoke more controversy within WAIS, I would challenge our new colleague Anthony D'Amato, who said that Beethoven's music is too predictable, to predict where the fifth variation starts or the final eighth variation from the data I provided above. I propose that if he can predict this within let us say plus or minus 10 seconds, he wins, with my admiration for his powers of prediction. If he can't, I win.

                  Nonetheless, I very much enjoyed his Mark Twain quotation on Wagner ["Wagner's music is better than it sounds"], which made me look up other quotations by Twain on the same subject. This one had me in stitches:

                  "There isn't often anything in Wagner opera that one would call by such a violent name as acting; as a rule all you would see would be a couple of ...people, one of them standing, the other catching flies. Of course I do not really mean that he would be catching flies; I only mean that the usual operatic gestures which consist in reaching first one hand out into the air then the other might suggest the sport I speak of..."

                  Or this one:

                  "One in 50 of those who attend our operas likes it already, perhaps, but I think a good many of the other 49 go in order to learn to like it, and the rest in order to be able to talk knowingly about it. The latter usually hum the airs while they are being sung, so that their neighbors may perceive that they have been to operas before. The funeral of these do not occur often enough."

                  Both are from http://www.twainquotes.com/Opera.html .

                  Answering a question of JE about the Moonlight sonata, this is the one:

                  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O6txOvK-mAk .

                  These designations for his sonatas were not coined by Beethoven, but were added later by admiring listeners and stuck. The Moonlight Sonata's first movement is all written pianissimo, and Wilhelm Kemp does an excellent job on this recording in faithfully following what Beethoven wrote, which is not always the case.

                  I'll comment on Cameron's Sawyer's interesting observations separately.

                  JE comments:  "The funeral of these do no occur often enough"--is there a better embodiment of American wit than my fellow Missourian, Mark Twain?
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              • Music and Studying: To Soothe or Not to Soothe? (John Heelan, -UK 05/27/12 4:57 AM)
                Questions have been raised on whether the music one listens to when studying should be "soothing" or not.

                In my (highly unscientific) experiments into the effect of music on recall, the music I used was classical and probably "Moonlight Sonata," "Air on a G String," or "Au clair de lune"--I cannot remember the precise one (maybe I need some music!), but it certainly was at largo tempo (40-60 bpm).

                That said, I am not sure that the actual nature or tempo of the music--soothing or otherwise--was important. Probably more important was that the music was familiar and non-challenging for the following reasons. (Forgive me when I describe the hypothesis in computer terms, but that is my background.)

                Memory storage and recall processes appear to be akin to those in computer systems. Both require processing time. As the main objective is education and storage of information for later recall, a larger amount of processing time should be allocated to that end. Peak demands of storage and recall can conflict with each other (assuming a limited resource).

                In the listening to music part of the experiments, it seemed to me important that the music was familiar so that the listener knew what was coming next and did not have to concentrate on it, thereby reducing the demand for processing it.

                On the other hand, if the music was new and/or challenging (e.g. rap, Stockhausen and others) then the demand for processing the music/spoken word would increase and reduce the amount available for storage of new information.

                I must repeat, my experiments were not scientifically rigorous, did not test the effectiveness of various genres of music and I am fully prepared to "crash and burn" if challenged by professionals in the field. (Smile...)

                JE comments: A question that might reveal my Beethoven ignorance: Aren't the "Moonlight Sonata" and "Au clair de lune" (Beethoven's composition, not Debussy's) the same piece?

                Could we discuss John Heelan's fascinating computer/brain analogy further? For my own (admittedly unusual) brain, I would ask for unfamiliar background music if required to study and listen at the same time. When I already know a particular piece, my brain is "playing along" with it the whole time, anticipating the next passage, listening to the bass line, counting beats, and the like.  For me this leaves no spare brainpower for processing new information.  With unfamiliar music, my brain can relegate it benignly to the background.

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                • Music and Studying: To Soothe or Not to Soothe? (Soraya Sepahpour-Ulrich, USA 05/28/12 5:00 AM)
                  JE correctly pointed out that we have such experts as Istvan Simon, and the all-too-modest composer Charles Ridley, to contribute to the topic of music; and while reading various WAISers posts on the topic of classical music I am reminded of my own lack of informed appreciation, I would like to add my insignificant perspective on the topic--and my appreciation.

                  Whenever I need to concentrate, I listen to classical music. It is hard for me to pick up a book without tuning into KUSC (classical) channel. I own very few discs of my own, and almost everything I hear is new to me, but the novelty does not hinder my ability to retain information; the opposite is true. It seems to help me focus. This is important as I have a wandering mind and my inability to concentrate has always been a handicap. Often, I need to read a paragraph or a page several times. I have been able to overcome this shortcoming by listening to classical music. I came by this wonderful "aid" as an undergrad in 2005. A friend, a violinist and conductor, gave me a CD of his work and I played it every time I wanted to read. This led me to various classical radio and TV channels.

                  JE comments: I'm convinced that classical music (soothing or not) brings many people to a higher level of mental focus. It's all in what works for the individual.  I'm not productive unless I work/study/WAIS in complete silence.

                  Soraya Sepahpour-Ulrich brings up our favorite WAIS composer, Charles Ridley.  Charles:  we've yet to receive your input on classical music, studying, and the Great Beethoven Debate.  Do you play background music when you work at translation?

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                  • Music and Study/Work (Charles Ridley, USA 05/28/12 11:39 AM)
                    I don't very often listen to music while I am working because I tend to follow the lyrics of songs or arias. I usually listen to Beethoven piano music with the score in question in hand to see how a given pianist handles particular passages. From a performance perspective, the structure of the music makes it relatively easy to learn (if not play well) because of repetitive patterns. I remember playing the first movement of the Patethique Sonata at a meeting of a piano group to which I once belonged, to be told by our pianist advisor that my tempi were all over the place, reflecting as I now believe, the difficulty of given passages!

                    Certainly, Beethoven is not suitable for restful listening nor pacific performing as is Debussy's Clair de lune. And, to be sure, my Bach never had very much of a bite.

                    JE comments: Bach and bite: a pun best pronounced in Mainard! (Most WAISers will remember that Charles Ridley is a Maine native.)

                    I feel your pain, Charles. I've often been told by my piano teachers that I'm tempo-challenged. I usually go from slow to fast, unless the piece is too difficult. Then my andante grinds down to largo, über-largo, and finally a merciful silence.

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                    • Music and "Tempo Tantrums" (Anthony D`Amato, USA 05/29/12 4:29 AM)
                      In response to Charles Ridley (28 May), the one place written music (before the days of recording) gives the performer freedom is in the tempo. Charles's pianist adviser probably wasn't listening to what he was playing so much as keeping an exact tempo in his mind and finding that Charles wasn't being march-step Hessian. Here are some scattered observations:

                      1. Written music does not allow tempo instructions except in the grossest way (e.g., placing an accent over a note). The result is that the classical music we hear is a lot poorer than was intended because of strict application by music teachers and orchestra leaders of metronomes.

                      2. George Gershwin was tempo-illiterate when it came to writing down his music. Rhapsody in Blue was an exercise in syncopation--hard enough for pianists to do irrespective of tempo requirements. But lo! A recording of Gershwin playing it on an aeolian piano roll (where tempi and dynamics are preserved) will give you an experience that is unlike any R-in-B you've ever heard.

                      3. After listening to much of Jelly Roll Morton (kindly recorded by the Library of Congress in the single best investment of taxpayer dollars in the history of the Republic), I bought a book of his songs. The disparity between what he played and what was written was immense. If the recordings hadn't been made, the written music would long be forgotten.

                      4. Scott Joplin, of pre-jazz days, wrote "flowing" music (rendered beautifully in the movie "The Sting"). But his piano renditions lent themselves to a contest of who could play the music faster. Joplin was appalled when he realized that his pieces kind of invited faster and faster playing. So he wrote atop his sheet music "Slow!" The music went into hibernation for for 25 years or so, and when it was revived in the 1940s, it was played so slowly that if Joplin had been around he surely would have written "Fast" at the top of his sheet music.

                      JE comments: For this pianist of modest accomplishment, Joplin rags are true "entertainers" to play. (Pun intended, although I should leave this delicate work to Charles Ridley.  I'm heartened, however, that our new colleague Anthony D'Amato shows promise as a punster--see "Tempo Tantrums.") Even though Joplin scores usually come with "slow" or "not fast" written at the top, it's hard not to get excited and speed things up. Joplin (another great Missourian, like Wagner critic Mark Twain) gives off too much energy to play him slow.

                      Anthony D'Amato (item #3) lists the Jelly Roll Morton recordings as this nation's single best investment of taxpayer dollars. So many early folk and blues performances were preserved because of Depression-era cultural initiatives. An excellent investment indeed!  Let's pose this question to WAISworld: what was the best money ever spent by the US government?  My votes go to the National Park and the Interstate Highway systems, with the Internet a close third. (Or was the Internet privately bankrolled by its inventor, Al Gore? With this quip, I beat Randy Black to the punch.)

                      Speaking of tempo, here's an observation about how it (time) flies:  The classic grifter film "The Sting" (1973), which revived the work of Scott Joplin, turns 40 next year.  The film depicted a vastly different age (dress, cars, music...), yet it was set in 1936, only 37 years prior to its release.

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                      • Music and "Tempo Tantrums" (Miles Seeley, USA 05/29/12 2:09 PM)

                        Music has always been an important part of my life, from the days my
                        parents bought big 78 rpm single-side platters and took me to the
                        Chicago Symphony and Lyric Opera. Several times I was without much
                        music when living in war-torn or underdeveloped places, but now in
                        Kansas City we are enjoying a major surge in the arts, classical as
                        well as modern and jazz, opera and ballet, and loving it.

                        I leave specific criticism to those better qualified, but I still can
                        melt over live performances of symphonies and opera, Beethoven
                        included, with Brahms, Mahler, the Russians, Mozart, Schubert et al. I
                        favor Italian opera, ridiculous as the stories are, in part because I
                        sang for many years and love great vocal performances. My wife is a
                        Wagner enthusiast, and I scoffed and plugged my ears for years, but
                        she has gradually won me over to admitting some of the music is lovely
                        and the singing is terrific. I also much enjoyed our own Lyric Opera
                        doing "Nixon in China," and a blockbuster opening night "Turandot" that
                        got even New York critics' attention.

                        I can read and listen to all of the above, but never tried actually
                        studying to it. I'm not a great multitasker, so perhaps I would not do
                        well trying to combine them.

                        I listen to music, including some jazz, blues etc, for pure enjoyment
                        and a little enrichment.

                        JE comments:  Miles Seeley is the first WAISer to cast a vote for Italian opera.  I confess to having a taste for it, nurtured at a tender age by my father's obsession with Verdi on his "hi-fi."  I've seen a few live performances of "Aida" (my favorite), and it brings me to tears every time.  Someday I wish they'd give it a happy ending.

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                        • "Tempo Tantrums" and the End of *Aida* (Anthony D`Amato, USA 05/30/12 10:16 AM)
                          JE wrote (29 May) that Aida brings him to tears every time he sees it performed, especially the ending. Maybe the following nostrum will be of assistance:

                          A young man who had never been to an opera was finally persuaded by his friends to join them in a box seat to see Aida. As the opera progressed, he became visibly caught up in it, sitting on the edge of his seat and gripping the railing. By the final scene he was sweating and agitated and was unable to restrain himself. He shouted out to the stage in a voice heard by everyone in the theatre: "If you stop singing you'll live longer!"

                          JE comments: Ah, Radamès: don't you hate it when you choose your girlfriend over your country and get entombed for it? I agree with Anthony D'Amato's anonymous spectator.  Maybe you can claw your way out of the vault, but not if you use up your strength and oxygen on one last aria.

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                          • Opera: Queen of the Performing Arts (Henry Levin, USA 05/31/12 4:13 AM)
                            Thanks to Miles Seeley and Anthony D'Amato for bringing up opera. Let's see: my concern about earphones grafted on to student ears and blasting hip hop profanities (every other word, bitch or ho) versus classical music and Beethoven shifted quickly to the issue of how inharmonious was Beethoven. That led to discussions of other composers, which led recently to the virtues of Wagner. And that led to opera.

                            Pilar and I attend eight operas each season, and have for years (we have worked our way up to sixth row and dead center at the Met), so I feel good that all of these subjects have led us to the queen of the performing arts, opera. Aida is also a particular favorite, although I get more entranced by the music and pomp then the plot (which is rarely subtle in opera). The return from Ethiopia with the dancing and acrobats and the sound of trumpets heralding the entrance of the treasure on donkeys or elephants or horses (we have seen all three at the Met), and the sad parade of prisoners following the symbols of triumph is always breathtaking. Let's hear more about opera.

                            JE comments: I was fortunate to attend the Met with my father on a few occasions in the 1980s, but I haven't been in 25 years.  Henry Levin has achieved royal status among American opera-goers:  sixth row center at the Met!  Hank:  if you ever end up with an extra ticket or two, let me know, and I'll make the 600-mile drive.

                            So, WAISers:  do you agree that opera is the "queen of the performing arts"?  I vastly prefer it to ballet, which (confession) I find boring.  Admittedly these are matters of taste.  Ballet requires more physical stamina than opera...or does it?  Just to learn a major role in a 3-hour opera requires superhuman mental capacity and no small amount of endurance.

                            A minor correction:  nobody yet in WAISdom has extolled the virtues of Wagner, although we have an open invitation from Tor Guimaraes to do so.  The Missourian in me still wants to know if his music is better than it sounds, or the opposite.

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                • Driving with Music (John Heelan, -UK 05/28/12 7:28 AM)
                  JE commented on my post of 27 May: "When I already know a particular [musical] piece, my brain is 'playing along' with it the whole time, anticipating the next passage, listening to the bass line, counting beats, and the like. For me this leaves no spare brainpower for processing new information. With unfamiliar music, my brain can relegate it benignly to the background."

                  Let's set the foreground (studying)/background (music) in a different but analogous environment for comparison--i.e. driving a familiar route while listening to the radio.

                  Every week for some two years, I had to drive some 200 miles to manage a major project on a customer's site. The route was a mix of 60 miles country driving (i.e. 2-lane blacktop) and 140 miles motorway (freeway) driving, including traversing the notoriously busy and complex "Spaghetti Junction" (M5/M6 interchange west of Birmingham). I whiled away the boredom of the three-hour drive by listening to radio dramas. By their very nature, the plays provided "new" information, whereas the route and the driving process became ingrained and familiar.

                  Many times it struck me on arrival at my destination--customer site or home--that I did not remember much about the actual 200-mile drive itself, even the negotiating of Spaghetti Junction, although I could remember details of the play.

                  That scared me as I thought that maybe I should have been concentrating better on my driving, often at high speeds, sometimes in poor weather. I comforted myself by recalling that when necessary my mind had switched from the drama to dealing with a potential hazard up ahead--but also realised it soon switched back to autopilot when the hazard was gone.

                  This experience strikes me as another example of the brain switching processing priorities, with new information taking precedence over the familiar information for most of the time, but switching back when necessary when the familiar acquires "new" information--e.g. an unexpected traffic hazard looming up.

                  Our esteemed editor apparently travels a substantial distance each day between his home and his university, So perhaps he--and other WAISers who regularly drive familiar journeys--would comment if they experience the foreground (listening to unfamiliar information)/background (driving a familiar route) processing described above. How much do they remember the details of their last journey on that route?

                  JE comments: My daily commute is 80 miles (128 km) each way, and I've experienced the mental blocks John Heelan refers to. Especially on my afternoon trip home, I'll often walk in the door with very little memory of the drive. My commute is divided half-half between Interstate (motorway) and country roads. The rural leg of my journey to Adrian is a stair-step route that enables me to avoid other towns before Adrian. I do not know the names of most of these 2-lane roads. About once every six weeks, while zig-zagging, I'll realize that I have no idea where I am. (I hope this doesn't frighten WAISers into thinking I'm a careless driver--in four years of this lengthy commute, I've never had an accident or a traffic ticket.)

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                  • Daniel Kahneman, *Thinking, Fast and Slow* (Paul Pitlick, USA 05/29/12 5:39 AM)
                    Reading John Heelan's recent WAIS posts brings to mind a book by Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, which I've just finished reading. He's a psychologist who won a Nobel Prize in Economics. My interpretation: he starts by discussing how we think--there are two thought processes, fast and slow, hence the title. The first process is somewhat instinctive, even unconscious--for example "What's 2x2?" We don't even think about that one ("fast"). The second process requires thought, and is very conscious "What's 17x24?" Not so easy ("slow"). When we encounter life situations, sometimes the first process takes over (sometimes appropriately, sometimes not), but sometimes more thought is required and the second process is invoked. Perhaps something like this is what John is describing.

                    Aside from this, a good reason to read the book is later on. He describes "Econs"--people who make perfectly rational economic decisions--vs. "Humans," i.e. the rest of us. An example:  let's say I'll flip a coin. If it's heads, I'll give you $100; if it's tails, I'll give you nothing. Or, I'll give you $46 up front, no coin flip. What will you do? The Econ will take the coin flip, figuring that throughout life, we have these choices every day, so he'll wager that, on balance, this flip is worth $50. Personally, I'd take the $46. Seems to me that the US/Western political/economic system is built upon the idea that we are all Econs, but I must confess that I'm a Human. I suppose herein lies the basis of our economic system. Some of us are Econs, and will recognize that there is an opportunity here--"Paul will take $46 for something that's worth $50, which means that there is $4 in it for me." Perhaps off-topic in terms of music, but an interesting analysis nonetheless.

                    JE comments: As with most of life's choices, it depends on whether you are the flipper or the "flippee."  My goal would be to get on the receiving end of the deal.  Then I'd take the $46, which I find to be the more rational choice. Isn't a bird in the hand worth at least 2.1739 birds in the bush? We could view the $4 "fee" as a kind of hedge investment.  And if I were the unfortunate flipper?  I'd shell out the $46 too, and consider it a very pricey insurance policy against a $100 loss.

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          • Studying with Headphones: Muzak to Manson (Mike Bonnie, USA 05/24/12 4:38 AM)
            Henry Levin asked on 23 May, "Is this [classical music] what young people are listening to? In my experience they are mostly listening to rap and similarly loud and cacophonic noise and screaming profanities."

            This may be off topic as far as education is concerned, however, I'd like to add a comment on how listening tastes change over time. I recall the controversy that took place in the news and gossip circles around the time someone stepped into an elevator for the first time to hear the Rolling Stones being played on Muzak, the piped-in "mood" music produced by a company of the same name. Muzak, I read on Wikipedia, has been around since the 1920s, originally patented by Major General George O. Squier. "Squier remained involved in the project and was reportedly intrigued by the made-up word Kodak being used as a trademark, and so took the 'mus' syllable from 'music' and added the 'ak' from 'Kodak' to create his word Muzak." Muzak went bankrupt in 2010 and reportedly is or has been purchased by Mood Media, a Canadian a music delivery company, which "has agreed to purchase Muzak Holdings for $345 million, including $305 million in cash."

            Kodak filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.

            Back to the Rolling Stones controversy. Critics of the "outrageous" drug-use-suggestive music performed by the Rolling Stones took years to transform it into something palatable to the tastes of elevator riders.

            Last weekend my daughter and I attended a Marilyn Manson concert. I became aware of Manson, not through his music, rather an interview conducted with him by Michael Moore for the movie, "Bowling for Columbine," shortly after the tragedies took place. At the time the movie came out, I felt impressed by Manson's articulation of ideas, a rebuttal of accusations his music somehow influenced the youth who perpetrated the shootings at Columbine High School. I began to hear what reminded me of the gossip surrounding the early Rolling Stones. Although not in total agreement with Manson's views of tasteful music or his manner of performing on stage, I felt the need to indulge my curiosity, cave in to my daughter's curiosity as well and attend the concert. My thoughts following the concert?  I can't wait for Manson's songs to synthesize to something palatable for the elevator.

            JE comments:  I'm impressed.  I'd wager my 401(k) that Mike Bonnie is the only WAISer ever to attend a Marilyn Manson concert!  In interviews, Manson has always struck me as smart, articulate, and philosophical, although I'd never go to one of his performances:  my fellow concert-goers would make me nervous.

            Manson (Brian Warner) was born in Canton, Ohio.  It's surprising how many outrageous performers hail from wholesome places in the Midwest--Axl Rose, for example, is from Indiana.  And what about James Dean?  Another Hoosier.

            I was surprised to learn that Muzak is still in operation, given that its function has been replaced by iPods, MP3s, and satellite radio.  When was the last time you actually heard "elevator music" in an elevator?  I couldn't say:  the whole point is that the ambient music is felt (internalized), not "heard."

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      • "US Education Reform and National Security" Report in *New York Review of Books* (Henry Levin, USA 05/24/12 5:13 AM)
        The "US Education Reform and National Security" Report, which I brought up on WAIS a few days ago, has been addressed in the New York Review of Books:


        JE comments:  A devastating critique from reviewer Diane Ravitch, who exposes the vested interests of a number of the committee members responsible for the report.  Ravitch sums up the report as an "urgent appeal for more testing of students, more top-down control, and more privatization of the public schools, that is, more of what the federal government and many state governments have been doing for at least the past decade," and carefully (and to my mind, convincingly) deconstructs all these "truths."  Although this is far from the central point of her essay, Ravitch raises the valid question about foreign language study and national security:  how many US high schools are going to teach Arabic, Pashto, Urdu, or Turkish?  Even Chinese is only beginning to gain momentum in the public schools.

        Education is shaping up to be one of the central issues of the 2012 elections.  Gov. Romney recently described US education as "third-world," and came out strongly in favor of vouchers and "choice."  He pledged no additional federal money for his initiatives, however.  He must have read the "US Education Reform and National Security" paper--although, to the report's credit, I don't recall it laying blame on teachers unions.  Not the case for Romney, who said the teachers unions are "a group that has lost its way" and doesn't "fight for our children":


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        • US Has "Third-World" Schools: Romney (Henry Levin, USA 05/25/12 3:52 AM)
          That Mitt Romney calls our education "third world" shows his own ignorance of facts and paucity of integrity. (See JE's comments to my post of 24 May.) Any WAISer can go to the web and read the PISA 2009 comparison of international performances by the OECD of the more than 60 countries that participated in the testing. The US is at about the average for the OECD (industrialized countries) and about one standard deviation above the third-world countries, including such important ones as Brazil which would be at about the 16th percentile relative to the 50th percentile for the US. The US performance is at about the same academic level as these "third world" countries: Sweden, Germany, UK, and Switzerland.

          Our higher education system is ranked--by far--as the best in the entire world, even after acknowledging the vast differences in quality among institutions. What we might think of as average state universities rank among the top 50 universities in the world. Check the two most prominent of these surveys, the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) and the Shanghai survey (Jiao Tong) or the ARWU (all sources are found on the Internet). How can we have such a highly rated higher education system with a third-world elementary-secondary system? Keep in mind that only about 5 percent of higher education students in the US are international, so that cannot possibly account for our high ranking. Do we have the top banks in the world, the sector that Romney represents? Laughable.

          The serious part is that we need to improve considerably our educational system, particularly for students from low income families and communities, for minorities (and especially English-language learners), and for immigrants from some of the most impoverished regions of the world. Complacency is not in order by any means. But, if a presidential candidate can deviate so far from the facts because of his support for privatization and vouchers and his desire to undermine government provision of services, how seriously should we take him?

          Obama's initiatives are also not evidence-based and are largely ineffective. But, they are not based upon deliberate prevarication, just sloppy analysis.

          JE comments: Why don't we see such clear thinking in the current politicized debate on America's schools? Henry Levin for Education Czar!

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          • US Has "Third-World" Schools: Romney (Tor Guimaraes, USA 05/26/12 5:19 AM)
            A reporter on TV recently showed two short video clips, one showing Romney some months ago complimenting the US education system and present efforts to improve it, against a second video clip showing the candidate calling our education "third world."

            I agree with Henry Levin (25 May) that Romney's last remark about education "shows his own ignorance of facts and paucity of integrity." It is difficult for me to understand how the Republican party can allow a great man like Ron Paul (my favorite candidate) sit in the background while it promotes a chicken hawk vulture capitalist who doesn't even want to talk about his past experience as governor. Romney reminds me of a shady used car dealer; I could never vote for him.

            JE comments: In the best spirit of non-partisanship, I would counter that most politicians give off a shady used-car dealer vibe. Politicians tend to dress better, however.

            For an alternate interpretation of Romney's "third-world" remark, see Randy Black (next in queue).

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          • US Has "Third-World" Schools: Romney (Randy Black, USA )

            Henry Levin (25 May) stated, "That Mitt Romney calls our education 'third world' shows his own ignorance of facts and paucity of integrity."

            I researched the charge that Romney is ignorant of the facts and lacks integrity regarding the level of education that impacts millions of US school children.

            In context, on May 23, speaking to a Latino Coalition Small Business Summit in Washington, DC, candidate Romney said, "education (is) the civil-rights issue of our era," arguing that "millions of kids are getting a third-world education. And, America's minority children suffer the most."

            In short, it is a misstatement to say that "Romney calls our education third world." The Governor's charge was not an indictment of the nation's entire education system but rather to a portion of the system that is 1) minority and, 2) (RB) is likely inner city. How can that be ignorant or untruthful?


            It would seem that candidate Romney is equating the right to a good education as a "civil right." What is so wrong about that idea?

            I believe that candidate Romney was not far off the mark as it relates to tens of thousands of mostly inner-city schools in the USA. In past WAIS discussions, many among us have been quick to note that American students are no better than "middle of the pack" when it comes to science, geography, math, language studies and a host of other subjects.

            Without naming names, has there not been the charge from several WAISers that American education lags behind a number of European nations?

            That said, what Romney apparently foresees is a system that "attaches" the per capita public funding to the child, not to the school district. As such, if a school is consistently low performing, dangerous, or both, a student should have the civil right to exercise the option of transferring to another school producing better results.

            What's so wrong about that?

            Why should consistently lower-performing schools and their staffs be rewarded for poor results year after year, decade after decade?

            I agree that accountability begins in the home. But at what point must we take a stand at the school level?

            Texas has taken a firm stand on several occasions in just such situations. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) closed down the Wilmer-Hutchins Independent School District south of Dallas in 2006 and blended the student body the Dallas ISD. The crimes? A decade of low performance coupled with criminal acts on the part of principals, administrators and teachers who falsified grades, test results and stole computers, televisions and other equipment from the very students they were supposed to be educating. The TEA closed the Houston-area's North Forest ISD in 2011 for being academically unacceptable over several years. Not only were the students failing year after year, but more than 25 percent of the district's teachers and administrators failed the Texas Examination of Current Administrators and Teachers exam. NFISD's student SAT results: 748 out of 1600 in 2008.

            There is good news and bad news: The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 gave school children the option of transferring from low-performing schools to other schools. The bad news is that hundreds, if not thousands of districts hinder such applications by stonewalling the applicants. Only about two percent of applicants are able to take advantage of the law. Teacher unions have put up their fuss too.


            Is there any doubt why the President of the United States does not submit his daughters to the public schools system near his home on Pennsylvania Avenue? It's clear that the secret service can protect the President's daughters in a public school just as easily as they did for Amy Carter when President Carter sent Amy to the local elementary and middle school. Why don't the Obama daughters attend public schools? Don't answer yet.

            Here's an example of a school district with about 47,000 students spread across about 125 schools. The district is more than 90 percent minority. The dropout rate exceeds 25 percent annually. Sixty percent are on free lunches. This school district spends more than $28,000 per student annually. (For reference: annual tuition at Harvard University is $32,000.)

            Grade proficiency (state testing) in reading and math, grade school through high school, is in the 42-46 percent range at this public school district. The National Assessment of Educational Progress test reveals that grade level proficiency for school year 2010-2011 is 15-23 percent for 4th and 8th grade.


            Teachers in this district average $64,000 annually, putting them 14 percent higher than the national average. http://www.indeed.com/salary/q-Teacher-l-Washington,-DC.html

            JE comments: What I find interesting is that the discourse of Civil Rights, originally exclusive to a political movement of the 1960s, has now become universalized. "It's a Civil Rights issue" now takes its place alongside the Bible and the Constitution as a way to buttress any argument you want.  Thus for Romney, privatizing education--and one suspects, eviscerating the Teachers Unions--are civil rights imperatives.

            Too much emphasis on failing schools focuses on the inner city.  Aren't rural schools often equally underperforming?

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            • US Has "Third-World" Schools: Romney (Henry Levin, USA 05/27/12 3:58 AM)
              I am in full agreement with Randy Black (26 May) that major parts of our educational system need vast improvement, and that in the absence of family support the job will not get done.

              I want to emphasize that families do not need to be rich to achieve positive results. Participation by families in early childhood education opportunities (and its improvement in many Head Start communities) and creation of home and community situations that support education are crucial. For example, asking children what they are doing in school, what they learned that day or week, and responding to concerns by contacting schools is important. Having a time and place for the child to do reading (quietly) and homework and checking on homework; getting students a library card and taking them to the library and checking out books (or e-books) and asking the students questions about readings or, better yet, discussing readings with them; asking them to write stories about real experiences or fantasies or some historical or imaginary character and celebrating their stories, are all examples of activities with little or no cost involved that have powerful effects. Using computers to write stories and do research instead of hours on educational games (Angry Birds) will have positive results.

              Randy is right about meaningful school reform, and the DC schools have long been a prime candidate. I taught as a substitute teacher in those schools 45 years ago. I was more likely to see the key administrators of the district in Woodword and Lothrop shopping during school hours rather than working with schools with serious problems. Much of what I saw was corrupt behavior with nepotism and consultants with connections to key decision-makers. Children were neglected. Serious reforms need to be effected. The historic drumbeats of the liberals for more funding alone and the conservatives for privatization and prevention of unions alone are both based upon weak evidential bases and delay serious recognition of the issues and the needed changes.

              The fact that the DC voucher experiment found that students in failing schools (SINI) did no better in private schools than similar students randomly assigned to not receive vouchers is certainly sobering. Even in underfunded school systems (rural and urban), augmented funding is only a necessary condition. The sufficient condition is that it is allocated to strategies that are effective, and many of the most popular strategies are not. In general, the charter schools that succeed have both different strategies (with deep parent involvement) and additional funds. The most successful of the charter schools in terms of improving student achievement (e.g. KIPPS) obtain philanthropic funds that enable them to spend thousands of dollars more per student ($3,000 more per student is about $75,000 per classroom), yet the overall evidence on charter schools is mixed to negative in their impact on student achievement (e.g., see the "Multiple Choice" study of CREDO, Hoover Institution).

              My friendly question to Randy is this. My understanding is that Texas does not provide collective bargaining rights for teachers and has not done so historically. Yet, Texas has educational challenges as serious as those of other states with similar populations. If the teacher unions were responsible for the educational deficiencies of students, why hasn't Texas been more successful? My understanding from the empirical work on Texas schools by Hanushek and others is that Texas has patterns of failure similar to those of other states that allow collective negotiations for teachers.

              None of these conversations address the successes of the US of which there are many. Read "Top of the Class," publication of the OECD, and you will see that the US is among the top countries in the proportion of students who score in the highest categories of the PISA test. The problem is that it also among the countries with a very high proportion of low scores (particularly concentrated among immigrants, the poor, and other minorities) that offset the high scores in coming up with our middle of the pack ranking among the industrialized countries. Further, the high educational adaptability of our young (the highest in the world I have argued in a recent publication) is what has been able to contribute to our high labor productivity (arguably the highest in the world) and the flexibility of our labor markets.

              Education in the US is a serious challenge and all of the political nostrums are inadequate to solve it. We need serious commitments to transform schools, communities, and the educational lives of families. The politicians are not going to do this. If the job is to get done, we (broadly speaking) of families, communities, churches, media, businesses will need to shift the discussion from Facebook and Facebook IPO's and music blasting in the ears of every child to a very different agenda.

              JE comments:  I'd like to know more about the concept of "educational adaptability."  Does this mean that US students are exposed to a wider variety of methodologies, course electives, etc.?  What role do extracurricular activities (sports and the arts) play in adaptability?

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              • Wear Your Hearing Protection! (Rodolfo Neirotti, USA 05/27/12 11:25 AM)
                In his posting on education, Henry Levin (27 May) wrote about "music blasting in the ears of every child."

                Technology has side effects. The number of either deaf people or those with severe hearing disorders as a result of the widespread use of devices blasting loud music into the ears of millions of people around the world will be a major problem in the future--a matter of grave concern.

                JE comments: You heard what Dr. Neirotti ordered! Protect your hearing. Cameron Sawyer this morning mentioned Beethoven's deafness. I doubt his symphonies had much to do with it. This is not the case, say, with Pete Townshend of The Who, who (who who...this sounds strange) suffers from tinnitus. His bandmate Roger Daltrey calls Townshend "almost stone deaf."

                Those cursed "earbuds" are going to reap a grim harvest of deafness in the coming decades.

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  • "US Education Reform and National Security" Report (John Heelan, -UK 05/20/12 1:14 PM)
    Henry Levin wrote on 20 May: "The right wing is at it again, using 'national security' as a basis for arguing for privatization of education through vouchers and other mechanisms."

    Is it not sickening how politicians justify everything with the latest bogeyman story to promote their ideologies? Education has always been the plaything of contemporary rulers (religious and secular). Dictators use education as a control mechanism. Hitler, Stalin and Franco inculcated allegiance to their ideas through their schooling systems. Even in Spain today, there is a major battle for control of education between the Church and the secular world.

    For centuries, English schooling was linked to religious ideas emanating from Rome until the Reformation, when Henry VIII changed English schooling. Educational content was a shuttlecock batted between people like the Stuarts and Cromwell. Victorian England changed the education once again to meet the demands of a burgeoning Empire. Labour and Conservative keep tinkering with the UK education system for their own ideological reasons--in the last 70+ years the "grammar school/technical college" system came and then dwindled, supplanted by the "comprehensive education" system that failed, with "colleges of further education" being able to award degrees thus devaluing their worth, recently followed by the privatisation of secondary education and restricting tertiary education to the offspring of richer families.

    As Charles Ogburn (1911-1998) commented in a 1957 Harpers Magazine article, "We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. Presumably the plans for our employment were being changed. I was to learn later in life that, perhaps because we are so good at organizing, we tend as a nation to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralization." It seems that the political managers of educational systems have failed to learn the lesson.

    Today, the popular "scare story" that excuses everything is "national security." In Joe McCarthy's time it was "UnAmerican Activities" as part of the "Better Dead than Red" movement. Later it was overtaken by Nixon's "War on Drugs," then George W Bush's "Saddam's WMDs" came along. How soon will "national security" be supplanted by either "Iran's nuclear bomb" or "Stopping the Caliphate"?

    JE comments: At least since the 19th century, education has been the foundation upon which the nation is built. I am reminded of Paul Baumer's gymnasium experience in All Quiet on the Western Front. It was the schoolmaster who fired up an entire generation of boys to go to their deaths in the trenches.

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    • Education and Nationalism (Alain de Benoist, -France 05/21/12 4:42 AM)
      John Heelan wrote on 20 May: "Is it not sickening how politicians justify everything with the latest bogeyman story to promote their ideologies? Education has always been the plaything of contemporary rulers (religious and secular). Dictators use education as a control mechanism. Hitler, Stalin and Franco inculcated allegiance to their ideas through their schooling systems."

      Quite true. By why restrict this observation to dictatorial and/or totalitarian states? As John Eipper said: "At least since the 19th century, education has been the foundation upon which the nation is built." Any nation. Propaganda in favor of the dominant ideology can be found in any educational system. Communist schools promoted communist values and ideology, fascist schools promoted fascist values and ideology, democratic schools promote democratic values and ideology. The American schooling system promotes American values, capitalism, the ideology of human rights and "political correctness." The content of propaganda differs (one can agree or disagree with it), yet the mechanism of propaganda is always the same.

      JE comments:  Ah, yes:  but what if students aren't paying attention?

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      • Education and Nationalism (Cameron Sawyer, Russia 05/22/12 7:24 AM)

        Alain de Benoist wrote on 21 May: "The content of propaganda [in education] differs (one can agree or disagree with it), yet the mechanism of propaganda is always the same."

        Perhaps the "mechanism" is similar in some ways, but that does not mean that the results are everywhere the same. You cannot really compare the indoctrination of children in the Soviet educational system, where a narrow set of supposedly absolute truths were inculcated with fanatic conformism, without any chance of discussion or diversity of opinion, with the system in democratic countries, where even if children are taught that dictatorships are bad (something which I personally believe to be true in any case), there is considerable room for diversity of opinion, and independent thought is encouraged. These are very different things.

        Oddly enough, however, the best educated people I have ever known were all products of the Soviet school system. I do not pretend to be able to explain this. Education which emphasizes critical thought and independent thinking ought to be better, but to be honest you can't prove it by the actual results of our educational systems.

        JE comments:  I've observed the same thing about people who grew up in the USSR, Cuba, and...socialist Poland, of course.  Could it be that in judging a person's level of education, the first thing we notice is "cultural literacy"?  Meaning names, places and events--the kind of things you internalize when subjected to rote learning under totalitarianism.

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        • Education and Nationalism: Is There a "US System"? (Henry Levin, USA 05/22/12 2:19 PM)
          In response to Cameron Sawyer's and Alain de Benoist's remarks on the "best" educational system being authoritarian or democratic:

          When referring to the "democratic" system in the US, there is no system. There are fifty states, each that has taken responsibility for education, charging it to one state system (Hawaii) and 14,000 districts in the other states. Each entity in this complex maze sets different educational requirements for its students and experiences different funding levels, different levels of community support, and different groups of advantage among its students in a highly stratified manner according to race and socio-economic status.

          All generalizations about this non-existent "system" are overly done. At the top we have among the best-educated students in the world, and large numbers of them. How do you think our higher education students maintain their top ratings (15 out of the top 20 or better, and 60 out of the top 100 or better) among international rating systems established around the world (e.g. Shanghai and London)? But, we also have one of the largest proportions of poorly educated students among all of the industrialized countries. They do poorly in elementary and secondary school, and lack the fundamental resources in the home to succeed, even in schools that cater to their needs. Very few overcome their educational disadvantages. They do not get any perch on higher education because even when they apply, they face financial obstacles, remedial classes, and frustration.

          Some parts of the "system" are working well; other parts are failing miserably. And, the parts that are failing miserably are comprised not just of schools, but families with little educational support for their children as well as poverty and other obstacles to good child development.

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        • Education and Propaganda (Alain de Benoist, -France 05/22/12 2:22 PM)
          I wrote on 21 May: "The content of propaganda [in education] differs (one can agree or disagree with it), yet the mechanism of propaganda is always the same."

          Cameron Sawyer answered me on 22 May: "Perhaps the ‘mechanism' is similar in some ways, but that does not mean that the results are everywhere the same. You cannot really compare the indoctrination of children in the Soviet educational system, where a narrow set of supposedly absolute truths were inculcated with fanatic conformism, without any chance of discussion or diversity of opinion, with the system in democratic countries, where even if children are taught that dictatorships are bad (something which I personally believe to be true in any case), there is considerable room for diversity of opinion, and independent thought is encouraged. These are very different things."

          I like this answer, but frankly I am very, very skeptical. Take the US for example. Where concretely do we see "diversity of opinion," "independent thought," critical thinking, etc? These seem to me restricted to very small and marginal circles and/or individuals. I have traveled a lot during my life, and I have never seen so much conformism as in the US. The American ideological creed is shared by at least 85% of the Americans (my impression)--and even the others have a great difficulty thinking outside of this system. They have the greatest difficulty in understanding other cultures, other values, other political or ideological systems. They have the greatest difficulty in understanding other ways of life, conceptions of the world and collective existential differences. They are prompt to dismiss as "barbarous" all those who are not like them. The world has to become Americanized to be understood. And what about critical thinking and diversity of political opinions in a country where political life is reduced to a simple alternation between two big parties which agree fundamentally on the same things? I have never seen this phenomenon elsewhere.

          JE comments: "The world has to become Americanized to be understood [by Americans]."  I'd like to open this point up for discussion.  Does Alain's claim conflate globalization with "Americanization"?  If we accept his thesis, might the cause be the continental stature of the US and its long-standing, if waning, hegemonic status?  Europeans, after all, share a continent with many different languages and nation-states.

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          • Globalization and "Americanization" (Alain de Benoist, -France 05/24/12 3:56 AM)
            John Eipper asked on 23 May: "Does Alain's claim conflate globalization with 'Americanization'? If we accept his thesis, might the cause be the continental stature of the US and its long-standing, if waning, hegemonic status? Europeans, after all, share a continent with many different languages and nation-states."

            I do not conflate globalization and "Americanization." Americanization is a complex phenomenon, which has to be analyzed without bias or stereotypes and which began much before globalization. What could be said is that globalization has accelerated Americanization (and the use of pidgin "airport English" as a world lingua franca). Sometimes, globalization and Americanization go together, sometimes they do not.

            Yes, the continental nature and the US and its long-standing hegemonic status have to be considered. But the historical-ideological factor, namely the original idea of the US as a new Promised Land ("a city upon the hill") whose way of life is implicitly held as a universal model of what is "good" for mankind, cannot be ignored.

            "Europeans share a continent with many different languages and nation-states."  They also share something which is more important: different histories, with an important lot of different political systems, of different ideological options, of quite different political opinions, etc.

            JE comments:  "American exceptionalism" has become, over the years, one of WAISdom's most durable topics.  As we are a worldwide organization with US roots, this is not surprising.

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            • Globalization and "Americanization" (Tor Guimaraes, USA 05/24/12 7:43 AM)
              In response to Alain de Benoist (24 May), to me globalization has always stood for the flow of anything (goods, services, culture, music, etc). Americanization merely indicates the flow of such things from America to the other countries. When I was a child things like democracy, law and order, Spam, Coca Cola, cars, radios, TVs all came from the US to Brazil and other countries. After 1945 the destroyed nations of Europe and Japan got a huge dose of Americanization (globalization). Of course America also imported many items mentioned above from the rest of the world.

              In the '80s to date some idiot politicians under corporate influence decided it was a good idea to trade high-paying jobs for cheap goods produced abroad (outsourcing) in places with no government regulations regarding labor practices, production quality, pollution, etc. This simple stupidity has made China our single most powerful rival and financial partner. Meanwhile, I noticed everywhere the most obvious Americanization items are US youth culture, peaceful military and civilian aid, and military interventions to punish and/or change nations.

              It is very clear that America has been an exceptional nation, it has clearly demonstrated to all humanity the great benefits from following the rule of law, the power of democracy and elected government, the great benefits from free markets, the need to separate government from religion, and the incredible benefits from science, technology, and an educated citizenry.

              For many years America has been/was the envy of the world, a beacon for any nation to emulate. However, we Americans now seem unable to sustain such greatness. We bicker amongst ourselves, our democratic system is falling apart, we are disrespectful of one another, hypocrisy and fraud run rampant, and we love a quick fix. We seem more interested in receiving than in giving, our egos [and bodies!--JE] are too fat and our irresponsible expectations are too high. We are not Americans anymore, we are Republicans, Democrats, and independents. We are religious fanatics of every stripe, socialists, liberals, conservatives, capitalists, atheists, etc. ad nauseam. We kill thousands of innocent women and children all over the world and just call it collateral damage, and we rip the financial heart out of the American middle class and call it a mortgage crisis.

              Something is very wrong with us. Where is our love for nature, for justice, civility, fairness, truth, education, science? Without these we are doomed to mediocrity and failure.

              JE comments: Tor Guimaraes brings up a stinging list of indictments, but I have to get this goofy question off my chest: they import Spam (the real stuff, not the junk e-mail) to Brazil? I understand Spamming Japan, Korea, New Guinea and Hawaii, but Brazil? Given Brazil's titanic output of canned meat, isn't this coals to Newcastle? (I propose a new expression: "it's like taking Spam to São Paulo.")

              Anyhow, the tone of my reply to Tor means it's time to take a break from WAISing. See you in a few hours.



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              • Universality of Bickering, Disrespect, Hypocrisy...and Obesity (John Heelan, -UK 05/25/12 4:39 AM)
                Tor Guimaraes (24 May) wrote of Americans: "We bicker amongst ourselves, our democratic system is falling apart, we are disrespectful of one another, hypocrisy and fraud run rampant, and we love a quick fix. We seem more interested in receiving than in giving, our egos [and bodies!--JE] are too fat and our irresponsible expectations are too high."

                Although I am long-time critic of some things American, I think Tor is far being too self-flagellating about the US. Are not the less-than-desirable attributes he describes to be found in most countries that claim civilised lifestyles and especially among the more privileged classes?

                Take obesity; the World Health Organisation reports that in 2008 some 500 million people were obese and 65% of the world's population live in countries where overweight and obesity kills more people than underweight:


                "Bickering among ourselves" is a universal pastime. Democratic systems are in danger worldwide for a variety of reasons. (Close examination of countries that claim to be democratic--like the US and the UK--reveals that perhaps they are not as democratic as they claim.) "Disrespect" is growing as multiculturalism increases. "Hypocrisy and fraud" are endemic in countries with large differences between the haves and the have-nots of the developed world as well as in developing countries. In many countries, especially those with welfare states, people seem "more interested in receiving than in giving." Expectations are too high everywhere--but that is not necessarily a bad thing: low expectations are usually self-fulfilling.

                Even further, has it not always been so? The difference is that today with better communications, we know about it quicker and in more detail, allowing us to "covet our neighbours' house, wife, manservant or maidservant, ox or donkey or anything that belongs to (or) neighbour"... and encouraged to do so by daily doses of TV soap operas and advertising.

                JE comments: Coveting? It's a universal pastime, probably the central tenet of modernity--giving rise to finance, the marketplace, litigation, and so forth. I can affirm with a clear conscience, however, that while it would be amusing to own a donkey, I've never coveted a neighbor's ox.

                John Heelan brings up obesity as a growing (!) phenomenon. I observed this much in Chile during my February visit. Chileans have prospered over the last generation, and alas, they've also become fat.  Is this inevitable for a nation that eats four meals a day?  (No reference to Taco Bell is implied here.)

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        • Education and Propaganda (George Krajcsik, USA 05/22/12 3:23 PM)
          Regarding education and propaganda, why not then teach, or at least emphasize, propaganda-neutral subjects? Let propaganda-laden subjects be electives. The goal of education should be to teach students to think and reason.

          JE comments: When is a subject propaganda-neutral? Therein lies the rub. (Isn't there always a rub?) Ideology is often the most effective when it's invisible. Did I read too much Foucault in grad school?

          George Krajcsik's post makes me recall Prof. Hilton's call for an International Textbook Institute, as a means to expose the values, specifically nationalist values, imparted via history texts. Our long-silent colleague, Kyle Ward, took up RH's cause. I'd love to hear from Kyle.

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          • Can Education Be Propaganda-Neutral? (George Krajcsik, USA 05/24/12 6:14 AM)
            Following up on JE's comments to my post of 22 May, all science courses (mathematics, engineering, chemistry, physics, biology, geology, paleontology, etc., etc., too numerous to list all of them) are propaganda-neutral. So can language courses put on a neutral mantle.

            As for history, literature--aye, they're subject to interpretation. So are soft-science subjects. There's enough propaganda-free material in the sciences to fill a lifetime of learning. If one wishes, for completeness's sake, one can read history, literature, art, etc. But as I wrote previously, let those be electives.

            JE comments: Biology and paleontology, to name just two subjects, are hardly propaganda (ideology)-free. Just consider the debates going on about creationism and "intelligent design." As for language study, grammar drills can be purged of ideology I suppose, but they're also stupefying to students unless a healthy dose of culture is mixed in. And culture--the "fifth skill" after speaking, listening, reading and writing--is always subject to interpretation.

            What about engineering? Soviet-era engineers, for example, were trained to do very different tasks from their capitalist counterparts. I'd also like to hear from our WAISer mathematicians as to whether they see their field as perfectly "propaganda-neutral."

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          • Textbooks and the 21st-Century Learner (Siegfried Ramler, USA 05/31/12 4:38 AM)
            I also recall Professor Hilton's interest in establishing an international review center of textbooks and Kyle Ward's follow-up. (See JE's comments to George Krajcsik's post of 22 May.)

            Quite apart from the logistics and complexity of such an enterprise, I question the role and relevance of textbooks for the 21st-century learner.

            Most observers of approaches to the teaching of history and social studies would agree that textbooks tend not to offer interesting and compelling reading.  In fact, they tend to be boring for the student reader, who now has a wide range of access to information and and analysis, particularly through the Internet.

            I argue in a presentation prepared for an East-WEst Center conference in Beijing that the characteristics of the 21st-century environment require a fundamental rethinking of approaches to the teaching of social studies. Such approaches would require the teacher or the team of teachers to design a past-present-future process in dealing with societal evolution and challenges. Rather than textbooks, this approach calls for the use of primary sources, such as selections of writings and documents illustrating an era from various perspectives. It calls for student participation in designing alternate scenarios for the future.

            The rapidity of change in the 21st-century environment requires the educational setting at all levels to marshal leadership and creativity.

            JE comments: Presenting a variety of perspectives on an era is essential to instill in students that Holy Grail of the education process: critical thinking. The challenge in this 21st century is to get the students to actually read the primary sources.

            Siegfried Ramler has been an educator for longer than any of us, and he has put his finger on the future of textbooks. They are destined to become obsolete--much to the chagrin of the publishers, for whom textbooks have long been cash cows. Their response in part has been to offer "custom publishing," where they can tailor their texts to a course's specific requirements.

            It won't be that many years before all textbooks are electronic, I suppose. Such a solution could be updated continuously and would conserve resources. But where would that leave our International Textbook Institute?

            I must get in touch with Kyle Ward.

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