All posts by Stan

STEAM Before STEM: Lewis Mumford’s Ideas about Art and Technology

Digital Handout for:

“STEAM Before STEM: Lewis Mumford’s Ideas about Art and Technology and Why They Matter Today”

Stanley C. Pelkey, Director

University of Kentucky School of Music

2018 College Music Society National Conference

Vancouver, BC

Lewis Mumford (1895–1990)

Definition of “technics”:

The field of “practical arts” and “that part of human activity wherein, by an energetic organization of the process of work, man controls and directs the forces of nature for his own purposes.” Technics is “rooted in man’s use of his own body” (Art and Technics, 15), but technics move beyond the body by magnifying human power via machines (Art and Technics, 24). And “technics is that manifestation of art from which a large part of the human personality has been excluded, in order to further the mechanical process.” (Art and Technics, 21)

Definitions of art:

Art widens “the province of personality, so that feelings, emotions, attitudes, and values, in the special individualized form in which they happen in one particular person, in one particular culture, can be transmitted with all their force and meaning to other persons or to other cultures.” (Art and Technics, 16)

“Ritual, art, poesy, drama, music, dance, philosophy, science, myth, religion, are accordingly all as essential to man as his daily bread: man’s true life consists not alone in the work activities that directly sustain him, but in the symbolic activities which give significance both to the processes of work and their ultimate products and consummations.” (Condition of Man, 9)

Participation and imitation are implicitly aesthetic terms.

The “megamachine”: a large-scale controlling structure arising when keepers of knowledge, armies, and bureaucracies are combined with “a system of absolute power capable of conquering and controlling” vast populations, with the whole power complex grinding toward limited, limiting, and potentially destructive ends for the individual and for society as a whole. Megamachines existed in the Ancient World, arose again with industrialization, and (Mumford argued) became global-encompassing with the post-war era.

The (Mumfordian) goal: not more technological conduits for listening to music, but rather technology to facilitate greater participation in music making.

STEAM: “A” = “active arts making”

 

Key Texts:

Mumford, Lewis. Art and Technics. Columbia University Press, 1952; 2000.

—. The Condition of Man. Mariner Books, 1944; 1973.

—. The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects. Harvest Book, 1961.

—. Findings and Keepings: Analects for an Autobiography. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1975.

—. “The First Megamachines.” 1966. Reprinted in America, Changing… Essays Contributory to an Understanding of Contemporary Culture, edited by Patrick Gleeson, Charles E. Merril, 1968, pp. 381–394.

—. The Myth of the Machine: The Pentagon of Power. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.

—. The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1967.

Other Readings:

Lewis, C. S. The Abolition of Man. Collier Books, 1955.  [cf: the “omnicompetent state”]

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Beacon Press, 1964.  [cf: the “society of total mobilization”]

Christopher Lasch and Philip Slater are particularly important examples of later American intellectuals whose works from the 1970s and 1980s echoed themes found in Mumford’s earlier writings. For interesting overlaps with a contemporary of Mumford, see books by Robert Elliot Fitch published in the United States during the 1940s through the 1960s.

Leadership Challenge: Managing Your Emotional Week

During the past ten years, I’ve become acutely aware of the patterns of the more-or-less predictable ups and downs of my moods and associated emotions over the course of most seven-day cycles. I call these patterns my “emotional week”. My emotional week is shaped in large part by the rhythms of my work week, its schedule, and the patterns of interactions with others in my work place, and those shaping influences are often beyond my direct control. My tendency to not get enough sleep in the first half of the work week also negatively contributes to these recurring emotional patterns.

I believe that exercising self-control is a critical factor for success as a leader; therefore, I’ve begun to factor my emotional week’s tendency to influence my behavior into how I manage those parts of my schedule under my control. Allow me to give some concrete examples.

I have come to realize that Thursdays are my weekly emotional low point; things always look their bleakest on Thursdays. Past experiences have taught me that I must avoid making critical decisions on Thursdays, I need to make a special effort to tamp down on any feelings of self-doubt, and I must exercise extreme caution when communicating with coworkers on Thursdays.

It’s easy to see why Thursdays are my low point in the week: I’m usually exhausted by Thursday evening. On top of that, for many years when I was an active church musician, I had Thursday evening rehearsals. Exactly at the point in my week when I felt most tired and stretched emotionally, I had to try (not always successfully) to find a last bit of energy, courtesy, and patience to work successfully with others with whom I only had a short time each week to meet very concrete goals. When rehearsals did not go musically as well as I might have wished, or when I failed to muster the needed patience or courtesy, the resulting feelings of frustration tended to spread out across my entire perspective on work and life.

In light of these experiences, I now try to schedule as many of my meetings as possible on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. This saves most of Thursday for quiet work behind closed doors. This has allowed me to manage the low point in my emotional week much more effectively, but it’s also given me a chance to recharge for Friday – to end the week strong. As a music executive, this is really important, because major concerts often take place on Friday evenings.

Here’s another example. I’m often tempted to stay up too late on Friday evenings. This is a pattern of behavior that goes back to my childhood. During the past three years, I’ve been trying to go to bed earlier on Friday nights and to wake up earlier on Saturday mornings.

If I’m so tired by Thursday, why am I getting up early on Saturday? Because I know how I will feel on Sunday evening! On those Saturdays when I get up and get to work on projects important to me – my personal writing, my composing, my podcasting – then by the time Sunday afternoon rolls around, I’m OK with doing a bit of work for the work week ahead, and it feels less onerous or less like an intrusion into my personal time. Indeed, if I have a good Saturday morning, I’m able to enjoy my Saturday and Sunday evenings more thoroughly, even if I decided to complete some light reading or business correspondence if in front of the TV or with a movie playing on my laptop. On an overly busy weekend when I lose my Saturday morning time for personal productivity, I often feel frantic on Sunday evening, or like I’ve been cheated of time and thus frustrated that the weekend has slipped away. By making time for important things on Saturday morning, I more successfully manage my emotions in light of more urgent things on Sunday afternoons and evenings.

If you’re not sure when you experience your highs and lows, keep a journal: over time, those cycles of moods and emotions will definitely show up. Or ask a loved one what they have observed in their long-term interactions with you. Learning to manage your emotional week can make a difference in your work-place relationships and productivity. And it could very well make a difference at home, too.

What I’ve Been Listening to: All Kinds of Creatures… Big and Small

 

The music that has been occupying quite a bit of my attention during the past month was some of my own. As I have been sharing on the homepage for the past month or so, several of my new, short original compositions were featured on a program for families called “Libraries Rock!” at the Cape Girardeau Public Library in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, on June 16, 2018. The character of the program was the brainchild of Dr. Sophia Han, violinist and faculty member at Southeast Missouri State University, with whom I’ve been collaborating on several musical projects during the past year.

Dr. Han, Zach Stern (saxophone), and Lesly Krome (narrator) presented the children’s books Harold and the Purple Crayon and Ellie In Concert at the library in a short program. As Krome read the books’ text, Han and Stern performed incidental music that I had composed for the stories. I wrote a combination of descriptive cues — such as ones for the apple tree and dragon in Harold — mood music, action music — such as for when Harold fell from the mountain or was sinking in the water —  and a theme song for each book. Children attending were encouraged to dress up as their favorite animals, and the performers channeled a peacock, a unicorn, and an elephant.

I’m looking forward to reprising the music at a future event with Han and Stern, for whom I also wrote four miniatures for violin and saxophone duet, and I’m especially grateful to the entrepreneurial Dr. Han for garnering attention for the program on local media. You can check out a video here.

 

 

 

Easter Morning Music Blog

I have had the privilege to make a lot of music on Easter Sundays during the past 25 years as a part-time church musician and to lead dedicated and hard-working choral and instrumental ensembles for those more festive holiday services. During the past few years, I’ve put more time into preparing original music or arrangements for Holy Week and Easter.

I was especially fortunate while serving as director of music at the (Episcopal) Church of the Epiphany in Rochester, New York, during 2014 and 2015 to have had been able to write some original music with texts by my friend, Debbie Bennett. I also lead a wonderful group of brass players who played on Easter Sundays and for whom I wrote several pieces of original brass ensemble music. I’ve included a computer-realized sample of some of that brass music below.

This year, as director of traditional music at Deer Lake United Methodist Church in Tallahassee, Florida, I composed an original extended, three-part choral introit with accompaniment for piano, oboe, and bassoon on texts by Charles Wesley. I also composed a four-part choral anthem with accompaniment for piano and solo violin, with original texts that I penned. My choir premiered those two choral pieces, “Hail the Day that Sees Him Rise” and “You Have Arisen,” yesterday morning. I also arranged two congregational hymns — “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” and “Crown Him with Many Crowns” — for piano, two violins, cello, oboe, and bassoon, which the choir and congregation sang yesterday with our guest instrumental ensemble. The instrumentalists also played two movements from my “Chamber Concerto”, which I composed in January, for our prelude. (You can listen to one of those movements on the “My Music” page. Plans are underway to video record that piece in late April.)

The computer renditions of the hymn arrangements (below) lack the congregational and choir voices but will still give some idea of what the instrumental music sounded like during our two major congregational hymns yesterday morning.  I hope you enjoy them.

(Chamber instrumental ensemble and choir, Deer Lake United Methodist Church, Tallahassee, Sunday, April 1, 2018.)

Arrangement of “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” for piano, two violins, cello, oboe, and bassoon (Stan Pelkey, with quotations from Handel, “Hallelujah Chorus”).

Original “Rondo” for brass ensemble, composed by Stan Pelkey in 2014 and first played at The Church of the Epiphany in Rochester, New York.

Arrangement of “Crown Him with Many Crowns” for piano, two violins, cello, oboe, and bassoon (Stan Pelkey).

Who knows what next Easter will bring? But I plan to continue to seek inspiration for special composition projects for Easter mornings that can help turn people’s attention to the Hope of the Resurrection.

Stan

 

Njal’s Saga: Literature and Leadership

By Stan Pelkey

In mid-January, during the last few days my two children were home for winter break, my son and I began to watch the first season of Vikings (Michael Hirst, 2013–2018) on Amazon Prime’s streaming video service. We’d watched The Last Kingdom on BBC America in 2015, and we’re huge fans of Game of Thrones, so Vikings seemed like a promising choice, given our preferences for epic storytelling on television.

Now this post is not a review of Vikings, which I do enjoy very much. I may post such a review later. Watching the program, however, motivated me to go back to my bookshelf of medieval European literature (yes, that’s a real thing in my office at home), which I collected while working on my MA in European History, and I began reading the great Icelandic prose text, Njal’s Saga.

What began as an exercise in “how well did Hirst capture the sense of historical Viking society, culture, and attitudes?” (with some collateral “ah, there’s a bit of Tolkien!” thrown in) quickly morphed into an exploration of historical “mentalities” embedded in literature, a practice that was central to my training as a historian. And then my reading became the basis for this, my third blog post on literature and leadership.

Njal’s Saga is long enough and dense enough and has a large enough cast of characters that I may mine its riches over several posts this year. (As a comparison, think of the size and narrative style of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, rather than his The Hobbit.) What I wish to focus on first is the importance—for a leader or would-be leader—of surrounding oneself with people of good character, being willing to find common ground, and using compromise as a tool for crafting the common good.

The events of Njal’s Saga take place roughly a century after the events depicted in the first four seasons of Vikings (i.e., the late 900s rather than the 800s). The first half of the saga focuses on four significant, recurring figures: the half-brothers, Hoskuld and Hrut; and the friends Gunnar and Njal. In each of those pairings, the latter individual is a wise man with powerful spiritual gifts who serves as a trusted advisor to the former man. Hoskuld and Gunnar rise to levels of great wealth and power by exhibiting the character traits that the Saga consistently celebrates in men: strength of arms (whether one is a farmer, trader, or lawyer); shrewdness; a core even-temperedness; reliability and loyalty toward friends; and ruthlessness toward enemies. (I think one could argue that these are also the character traits of Ragnar in Vikings, at least during the first two seasons, and perhaps even more so of his eldest son, Bjorn.  Likewise, John Snow and Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones also demonstrate those characteristics, and one might argue that the lack of shrewdness was precisely the reason that the Stark men played the game of thrones so poorly.)

 

Hrut likewise rises to prominence and rightfully gains his place of power and influence beside his half-brother after spending time trading and fighting abroad and demonstrating those same character traits just enumerated. He’s motivated to go abroad, in part, because he is told early in the Saga that while his brother is a famous leader, he is unknown. In this way, Hrut’s rise from beneath his brother’s shadow could have been a model for the long narrative arc in Vikings in which Rollo continuously wrestles with his place and reputation in relation to his more skillful and successful brother, Ragnar.

Early in Njal’s Saga, Hoskuld’s family and Gunnar’s family are nearly swept into violent conflict. Hrut, however, urges his brother to resolve their dispute with gifts and pledges of friendship rather than by single combat, which he knows Hoskuld will lose. Hrut’s wisdom in pursuing a face-saving compromise between the two families is rewarded richly when Gunnar falls in love with Hoskuld’s daughter, Hallgerd – now widowed twice and a landowner in her own right. Through the subsequent marriage of Hallgerd and Gunnar—which Gunnar would not have contemplated but for the willingness of Hoskuld to settle their earlier dispute peacefully— the two families become bound by both promises of friendship and by blood.

In contrast to the valiant Hoskuld and Gunnar and the wise Hrut and Njal, the saga continuously introduces a cast of minor, villainous, and often short-lived male characters regularly referred to as “scoundrels.” Unlike the valiant and wise leaders, these characters are led easily into trouble; lead others into misfortunate with poor and even malicious advice; lie, even to their allies; and mouth off.

As the first of these “scoundrels” are introduced, the saga moves into a peculiar phase in which Gunnar’s family and household are, for several years, pitted against the family and household of his friend Njal. The conflict begins with an underlying jealousy between Hallgerd (Gunnar’s wife) and Bergthora (Njal’s wife), and the two women use the scoundrels in their respective husbands’ households to needle each other. Over a series of chapters, there is a cycle of tit-for-tat murders between the two families, starting with household slaves, then moving up the social scale from freemen, to minor kinsmen, and finally to close and important kinsmen. With each cycle of violence, more fighters are forced to take part in the respective revenge killings (to ensure numerical advantages for the “winning” side), until the spiraling cycles of violence and vengeance threaten to suck both households into open warfare.

With each cycle of violence, Njal and Gunnar also agree to pay appropriate compensation to each other (in keeping with Viking law) in order contain the threat of open warfare and to maintain their personal friendship. They make these decisions despite the bitterness of their wives and the seething anger of their respective collections of hot-tempered sons. Again, the leadership displayed by Njal and Gunnar is embodied first and foremost in a willingness to find an appropriate compromise that is consistent with their “institutional” policies / procedures / safeguards rather than allowing disagreements between their clichés or camps to spiral out of control – which would only benefit their mutual enemies. Real leaders are often tasked with holding the line for peace in the face of opposition from even one’s closest friends and relatives. By maintaining the common ground despite opposition within their own camps, Njal and Gunnar hold their alliance together, and after the cycles of violence subside, the two families find genuine peace and are ready to work together again to mutually protect each other from both the ravages of famine and the threats of far worse regional opponents.

This leads me to my second observation: leaders must be sure to have a close circle of confidents and advisors who are of good character themselves. Hoskuld and Gunnar have that in their primary advisors – Hrut and Njal – and Gunnar also has a brother, Kolskegg, who is valiant and trustworthy. But why are there so many men of poor character in their households? One has to assume that some of this is simply a function of the need for a certain level of man power to run their farms, manage their flocks, and look after their logging and fishing enterprises. (Of course, their presence also serves a fundamental literary function, driving the plot forward.) But it is clear from the narrative that Hoskuld, Gunnar, and Njal do not seek the advice of such men. Contrarily, their chief enemies, who are not men of noble character, do turn to the unscrupulous characters in their households for advice – which leads to terrible consequences.

Gunnar for his part goes further: his is not simply a passive avoidance of the advice of the “scoundrels” in his inner circle; Gunnar also actively urges those men to stay out of trouble and to avoid being led astray by the scheming of the jealous Hallgerd. Nevertheless, neither Gunnar nor Njal resort to micromanaging the behavior of every single person in their households. This would be impossible to do and is not the best use of any leader’s time or energy. Thus, if they cannot avoid all problems caused by the actions and decisions of the people who work for them, they are at least ready to contain the impact of the potential crises caused by those other men. That being said, even good leaders reach limits with the scoundrels in their midst, as when Hrut finally kills in single combat one scoundrel, Thjostolf, who keeps getting his niece Hallgerd into trouble with her first two husbands.

Now I’m certainly not advocating that we settle modern leadership / organizational problems by turning to violence. Far from it. But in reading this literature as a study in human ideas and behavior and of leadership ideals and ethical systems, some of which appear to have remained remarkably stable for the past millennium, we can distill several timeless prescriptions: Good leaders will minimize risks to their organization to begin with by developing cadres of folks of good character— and note, these are not simply those one most enjoys or gets along with best—who serve as primary advisors and agents. Furthermore, when conflict emerges, whether within the organization or between one’s organization and another, a good leader will seek and hold the common ground for the common good for as long as possible (which will likely be longer than most people want). But finally, a good leader must be willing to be decisive when circumstances call for it and to act to protect others in the organization from the malicious influence of “scoundrels”. The alternative is becoming trapped in a spiraling cycle of internal and external conflict and recriminations that can derail the mission of the organization and ultimately tear it apart.

 

Music Entrepreneurship at the FSU College of Music in November 2017

More “Pop Up Concerts” at FSU

November 25, 2017

Again this fall, students from my “Introduction to Music Entrepreneurship” class at the College of Music at Florida State University gave a “pop up concert” in the Strozier Library at the heart of campus. The students served on two teams that were responsible for planning and performing the music, creating marketing materials, preparing and distributing audience surveys, and producing audio and video recordings to help promote the course’s next pop up concert, which will be given on December 6 — off campus at the Wesley Foundation.

Each pop up concert is a chance to practice basic marketing strategies, project management skills, and audience development approaches, as well as to draw attention to the College and to share information about the College of Music’s upcoming events as we engage with the audience members.

 

[All photographs courtesy of Michael Kimbrough.]

What I’ve Been Watching This Month (November 2017): Gilligan’s Island (seasons 2 and 3)

Gilligan’s Island (seasons 2 and 3)

As the second season of Gilligan’s Island commenced (1965–1966), the adventures of the castaways began to be presented in color. Furthermore, composer Gerald Fried more consistently prepared the episodes’ underscores in both seasons two and three, and in the early part of season three, there are longer cues with fuller textures. Some cues are even jazzed up a bit, and Fried used additional musical quotations of tunes from beyond the Gilliganverse, such as “Rule, Britannia,” to good effect. Sadly, the richer approach to underscores did not persist through to the conclusion of season three. 

There are many episodes in season two that I can clearly remember watching (and enjoying) in the late 1970s, particularly “Smile, You’re on Mars Camera,” “The Sweepstakes,” “Quick Before it Sinks,” “The Chain of Command,” “Don’t Bug the Mosquitoes” (I still enjoy the women’s musical trio), “Not Guilty,” “You’ve Been Disconnected” (a telephone cable washes up on shore), “Gilligan’s Living Doll” (remember the robot!?), “Forward March,” “Feed the Kitty” (don’t you love that lion?), “Operation: Steam Heat,” “Ghost A Go-Go,” and the “Friendly Physician,” with its mad scientist, Dr. Boris Balinkoff (Vito Scotti), and bizarre body swapping. As I rewatched these memorable episodes this past month, I enjoyed them again after the decades-hiatus but felt that season two had less charm than did season one.

Indeed, as silly as season one gets with its numerous other inhabitants on the island whom the castaways just happen to keep discovering, season two episodes such as “Smile, You’re On Mars Camera,” “The Little Dictator,” and “The Friendly Physician” slide into the realm of the absurd. Furthermore, while I remembered the nuclear explosion at the end of “Forward March,” it was far more jarring to me now, as was the boat explosion (and could-have-been murder of the castaways) in “Ghost A Go-Go.” At least in that episode, Richard Kiel plays The Ghost / Soviet Agent in such an over-the-top manner that one gets the sense that we’re not to take any of this too seriously. The same can be said for Dr. Balinkoff.

But in terms of being jarring, no episode matches “The Hunter” from season three.

In that episode, big-game hunter Jonathan Kincaid (Rory Calhoun) arrives on the island in search of his next hunting challenge. After discovering that there is no game on the island (where did the earlier apes and gorillas go?), Kincaid announces he will hunt Gilligan instead. Despite its laugh tracks, “The Hunter” is profoundly dark, and the dramatic (and realistic) reactions by both Lovely Howell and the Professor to Kincaid’s announcement (see picture below), as well as the new suspenseful musical cues for this episode, leave no doubt in my mind: this episode reached a level of seriousness unmatched by any other episode in the series. Unlike Dr. Balinkoff and the Ghost, Kincaid is not played for laughs. Indeed, Kincaid’s reaction to Ginger’s standard (feigned), manipulative come-on is also the most realistic response in the entire series because the kiss that Kincaid/Calhoun shares with Grant/Louise is the only one that suggests it is grounded in genuine adult sexual passion.

(Compare the realism of Kincaid’s kiss to the typically bashful or naive responses of Gilligan or the Professor to Ginger.)

All this creates an all-too-real villain in Kincaid who is far more believable than are the various Cold War Soviets who show up on the island. In short, “The Hunter” is a very strange episode, and I am left wondering what 1960s viewers thought about this episode. Did they feel that the writers had crossed a line, abandoning innocent comedic mayhem for representations of human cruelty about which I have never wanted to laugh? And speaking of the 1960s, what did viewers of the day think of that nuclear explosion? 

Still, the comedic elements of season1 that I like so much—disguises and costumes, slap stick by Gilligan and the Skipper, and dream sequences—continue in seasons 2 and 3. And while I still found the dream sequence in which Gilligan becomes a life-sized (political) puppet in “The Little Dictator” emotionally terrifying, I laughed heartily yet again during Mr. Howell’s wild-west dream in “The Sweepstakes.” The line, “I haven’t had a bath in forty years!”, delivered by Mr. Howell as a gold prospector, still tickled me, but with much more experience during the past two decades watching 70 years worth of Westerns, I enjoyed the collection of parodied Western characters more thoroughly than I could have done as a child. 

I was surprised that season 3’s episodes felt less familiar to me. I certainly remember “High Man on the Totem Pole,” “The Pigeon” (with its huge spider, an effect which has not aged well), and “All About Eva,” which I appreciated far more now than I did as a little boy — Tina Louise shines as an actress in that episode — but season 3 did not radiate as much familiarity as did season 2. That said, I vaguely remember the episode “Up to Bat”—with its Hammeresque dream sequence during which Gilligan is a clumsy vampire; that episode has now become my absolute favorite in the series! The acting in the dream sequence is especially good for Gilligan’s Island, the haunted mansion set is quite fine for 1960s television, and the affection that the other characters express for Gilligan in “the real world” scenes come across as heart-felt and true. Here’s a cast that seems to have hit their stride.

Finally, with seasons 2 and 3 of Gilligan’s Island, the series is no longer haunted by World War II. Instead, the Cold War presses in on its stories, and Japanese stereotypes give way to Soviet/Russian ones. Was this the result of the escalating violence in Vietnam between 1965 and 1967? I find myself wanting to revisit other American sitcoms from the late 1960s to see if I can identify similar changes within their patterns of storytelling that might also point to the growing shadow of Vietnam on American life.

Stan Pelkey

November 14, 2017

What I’ve Been Watching This Month (September 2017)

What I’ve been Watching

September was a good television month: I watched some new programs and revisited some old ones. I also managed to complete quite a bit of new research and writing, sometimes while allowing those familiar, old programs to serve as sonic (rather than visual) companions, but that’s a story for another time. 

This Is Us

I know this is not exactly a “new” series, but my wife, Heidi, and I decided to catch up on this very popular program by watching all of season 1 in September. There are two features of this show that I consistently enjoy when they appear in television programs: an ensemble cast with many well-drawn characters; and well-deployed, non-linear story telling.

I’d like to spend some additional time considering the theme of parental-child conflict inThis Is Us. That is a consistent thread running through much contemporary TV, and it’s a topic I’ve been exploring and will be discussing in several conference presentations this fall. But it will have to wait for fuller treatment another time, because what I want to focus on in this review is non-linear storytelling. This is an effective tool for holding the ensemble story telling together, since the ensemble’s members — in the case of This Is Us, all members of a single extended family — exist across several decades, with some only appearing in scenes situated in the earlier or later decades. As individual episodes unfold, the storytelling shifts back and forth between decades to explore parallel moments in the lives of the family members. We see parents early in an episode revisited later as grandparents, and children transform into parents, then slide back to earlier familial roles. In the process of placing the parallel experiences side-by-side within the narrative, the episodes tease out broad themes — sibling rivalry, the stress of balancing career and family life, the search for happiness in love, the formation of adult personas in the experiences of childhood — even as the first season pursues an overarching forward thrust, at least in its scenes set in the present. (Scenes set in the past are more disjunct, and several different years in the past are revisited.)

This Is Us uses non-linear storytelling in nearly the same way that the first two season of Dexter, one of my favorite television shows of all times, did, though the premises and the overarching plots of the two series are profoundly different. Nevertheless, the two programs are bound by a significant commonality: both examine the long-range formation of the individual’s character, personality, and outlook on life, and both raise doubts about the ability of the individual to live his or her adult life as desired due to the formative power of childhood experiences and parental choices (and mistakes). 

Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War

The highlight of September’s television offerings for me were the ten-episodes of Ken Burns’s miniseries, The Vietnam War. I consider myself to have an above-average knowledge of American history, but I learned a tremendous amount from the miniseries. I particularly appreciated the mix of new interviews with American, South Vietnamese, and North Vietnamese veterans, citizens, parents, and children, who were eye witnesses to the decades of conflict. I also always appreciate archival footage. While there was ample footage of the principal politicians and generals, plus excerpts from classified documents and White House recordings, I appreciated being given access to the thoughts and experiences of people at many levels of the war’s events and at several levels of the decision making. History is an unfolding of decisions and actions taken by many actors, those remembered, those barely remembered, and those long-forgotten; it is precisely the fact that there are so many actors within any “historical moment” (let alone an historical era) that makes the unfolding of human history unpredictable, despite the efforts of leaders, bureaucrats, technicians, generals, and admirals doing all they can to plot the future.

I thought the series as a whole was compelling and that episodes 1, 2, 9, and 10 were particularly powerful. The focus on POWs in episode 9 was moving and illuminating, for many reasons. As I wrote on Facebook on the night of its original broadcast: “Grateful as allows for the fortitude of POWs like Senator John McCain, but also grateful to learn about lesser-known heroes, like Dr. Hal Kushner. Maybe if we reflect more on what these men and their families endured, we can find the inspiration to engage in more dialogue and less violent behavior, to listen to each other rather than just to react.”

My generally positive perspective is not shared by all: some people have expressed their opinion that the miniseries devoted too much attention to North Vietnamese perspectives and anti-war demonstrators. Of course, the telling of the past is always a matter of selectivity of evidence, and the stories we tell will necessarily be conditional. But more than that, every person comes to a story like this with filters and expectations. Some people may be more aware of those filters and expectations and attempt to watch both the miniseries and their reactions in light of that reality. Others may not do this. Given these expectations and filters, there inevitably was going to be disappoint (or worse) from viewers along the entire spectrum of perspectives and political persuasions. For me, the point of a miniseries like this is precisely to see past the American perspective(s), particularly those with less nuance that tend to be learned in secondary school; I, for one, believe that true peace between people and between nations (and within nations), if it has any chance of being achieved, can only come as people open themselves to hearing other perspectives, embracing other people, and allowing all stories to be part of the moral geography that is built up over time from the disparate and contradictory experiences of peoples on many sides of conflict. Yes, that is a political stance! But it is the only one that makes sense to me — as a historian and as a citizen — for an ethical and dignified way forward.

One last comment: During the first few episodes of The Vietnam War, we once again had non-linear storytelling as the narrative moved between parallel experiences of the French soldiers in the 1950s and the American GIs in the 1960s. The linking of similar experiences — past and present — highlighted common themes, but it also provided immediate access to the American part of the story for audience members who may not have known that much about the prior French experience in Vietnam and wanted the American experience in the 1960s and early 1970s to immediately take center stage in the miniseries. While I “live” in the 1950s as a fan of old TV and movies, and as I read voraciously from the critical and social science research of that decade for several current research projects, the 1950s probably feel like ancient history to those born after the Baby Boomers. Whether we recognize it or not, that past lives on, still shaping institutions, culture, and families.   

Gilligan’s Island (Season 1)

I used to watch old reruns of Gilligan’s Island back as an elementary student in the 1970s. As I recall, episodes ran in the hour or so before the local and national news programs each weeknight. There’s not very much non-linear storytelling in Gilligan’s Island, but I enjoy the mistaken identities and disguises; the occasional dreamscapes and elaborate hoaxes that shape plots; the performances of songs, dances, plays, and even a make-shift island orchestra; and of course, the slap-stick and physical humor (both Gilligan and the Skipper engage in it — I have to admire Alan Hale’s efforts, given that he was in his forties and literally threw himself into the physical demands of the part); the dozens and dozens of times the actors, and especially Bob Denver and Hale, get tipped into the water and even “quick sand”.

As a historian of American television culture, I certainly find interesting the subtexts of the program. While the series was broadcast in the 1960s, its peculiar gender dynamics are grounded in attitudes seemingly more at home in the 1950s. Nevertheless, some of the behavior of characters pushes well beyond that seen in the sitcoms of the 1950s. Furthermore, the series’ reflection of post-war American consumer culture exemplified in the representation of Ginger Grant and the Howells (just how many sets of clothes did the Howells really pack for a three-hour tour?) and its regular haunting by the memory of World War II draw my attention. But I’m most interested in the echoes of America’s post-war technological obsessions. As the first season of Gilligan’s Island unfolds, the Professor begins to construct ever-more elaborate appliances from bamboo! 

Gilligan’s Island is not 1950s television comedy, yet with its slapstick, body humor, and performance sequences, it is still closer in conception to I Love Lucy (both echo aspects of vaudeville) than it is to All in the Family from the early 1970s. This even includes the regular appearances of guest comedic stock characters from episode to episode, around whom individual weekly stories tended to revolve. That leads me to a final question: How big was this island, really? Three times in the first season, the crew discovery other people stranded on the island (who then become the comedic “guests”): a “jungle boy,” a World War I-era American pilot, and an artist seeking solitude. How in the world did these people never ran into each other, let alone not cross paths with the castaways much sooner? 

Stan Pelkey

Four Concepts Every Future Voice Major Should Know Before College

By Maddie Pelkey

The voice is an instrument, just like a trumpet, a violin, or a piano. There are certain technicalities that every vocalist has to master in order to control their instrument. But in order to be a good musician, not just a good singer, there are many concepts you need to be familiar with. These are just a few of the concepts I’ve found it’s important to understand in my first semester as a freshman vocalist.

1. Know your terms. 

Hopefully your high school teacher taught you solfège — which, by the way, is totally underrated in high school.  But you also need to know the more complex terms that pertain to your craft, like “passagio” and “tessitura.”  And you also might want to start familiarizing yourself with Italian words that describe the mood of music, like “grazioso” and “pesante.” 

I know that learning vocabulary like this sounds boring, but your college professors will throw these around in lectures, lessons, and rehearsals and expect you to know what they mean.  Of course it’s okay to ask if you don’t know a term, but it’s nice to have the background knowledge beforehand so you understand the context of what you’re working on that much faster. 

2. IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet)

My high school chorus teacher taught our chamber chorus, and later his entire program, the basics of IPA. At the time, I thought it was cool, but I wasn’t really sure when I would use it besides writing the pronunciations of words in my music — which is handy, but not really ground-breaking.

Imagine my surprise when I realized that the first semester of my English/Italian diction class was literally learning the basics of IPA. Thanks to my high school teacher, that class is a breeze. I’m so grateful he taught me IPA before I came to college, because now I’m just getting reinforcement of what I already know. Thus the IPA will stick with me longer, and the prior knowledge certainly helps my grades, too. Learn basic vowels and consonants before you come to college — you’ll be glad you did.

3. Know the notes on the piano.

When I signed up for Piano 1, I was expecting to be able to play all my scales and a few songs by Thanksgiving break. Instead, I was assigned scales and a few songs in the first week.  Knowing the notes on the piano is probably the most important thing you can do before you go to college for music: not only will it refine your theory skills, it will also make sure you don’t cry in the practice room every time you try to do your piano homework. 

In all seriousness, learn which note is where. Knowing where middle C is and finding everything from that just doesn’t cut it. If your teacher is expecting you to play major scales with both hands in your first week, you need to know every single note. Flash cards are a beautiful thing.

4. Be familiar with the Circle of Fifths.

Again, knowing the circle of fifths is great for piano class, but you’ll really want it so you can pass theory with flying colors. Theory revolves around intervals, scales, and key signatures. When it comes down to it, that’s all Theory 1 really is: arranging intervals in succession in a way that doesn’t break the all-important (but sometimes malleable) rules of composition. If you know your circle of fifths, then you’ll start your first weeks of theory strong, which is super important in understanding the rest of the course.

The unfortunate tendency for high school vocalists is to think of yourself as solely a vocalist, not a musician. Avoid this pitfall by studying up on these things before college: take a theory class at your high school, or learn some basic scales on the piano. And if your music teacher goes off on a tangent during class about theory or the International Phonetic Alphabet, take note of what they’re saying. You never know how it’ll help you in the future.

 

About the author:  Maddie Pelkey is currently a first-year vocal music education major at the State University of New York at Fredonia. In addition to her interests in music, she is an avid writer and loves the French language. She is a regular guest blogger @ stanpelkey.com.

 

Learning to Push Back Against Life’s Unexpected Set Backs

My daughter, Madison, who has done some guest blogging on my website, has headed off to college back up in New York State, where she was born and where she spent her early high school years. She’s now writing a regular blog as part of her college experience. I wanted to share her latest, which is about what happened after one of the cars in which she traveled from Tallahassee, Florida, to Fredonia, New York, was broken into oWhy I've Stopped Dwelling On What-Ifsn her way to college three weeks ago.

I am proud of the mature way in which she has come to terms with the experience and the fear it initially caused, but I am also pleased that she’s able to continue to share her thoughts and ideas with others through her writing. I’m a proud Dad, and I think Maddie’s a gifted young writer. I hope you find value in her story.

Stan

https://www.theodysseyonline.com/why-ive-stopped-dwelling-on-what-ifs

(And in case you’d like to read something more humorous by Madison, check this out.)