Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Good Drones or Questioning Citizens?

Below is a column, posted online last week, by a blogger who calls himself “The Rude Pundit”. He commonly visits spicy nooks and crannies of the English language which I tend not to visit, myself. So while I would like to quote the piece verbatim here, it includes strong language that I generally avoid in this space, and in my personal and professional life. So I shall quote it after applying a gentle editing pen to it – at the risk of overly watering down what probably a more effective rant when it does include the F-bombs and such. I’m not sure whether I’d want my own stuff edited for content by someone else, so this may be presumptuous of me. Literary and artistic integrity is important. If you want to read the column in the Original Vernacular, and I recommend it (people who know me will be startled to discover that I can approve of the occasional appropriately-flung profanity), do wander over and scroll downward and find it and read it, as well as almost anything else he writes. His blog is basically a series of aggrieved rants that mostly feature a lot of common sense.

The Rude Pundit’s main thrust here is the subject of standardized testing at the college level. I’m a teacher who has experienced the exquisite joy of standardized testing in public secondary education. In Massachusetts, No Child Left Behind and our own state version of education reform has yielded MCAS, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment something-or-other, in which our students get to kill three or four weeks of valuable educational time taking pencil-and-paper tests that will, by the 11th grade, serve as the sole arbiters of “…well? Can s/he graduate or not?” By extension, that will determine how well the schools are doing, which is to say, how well the teachers are doing, so the sword of Damocles hangs over everyone’s head – including (to an extent) administrators, whose jobs occasionally are on the line according to test results, and who pass that stress on to the teaching faculty. The MCAS subjects don’t include music, so at the moment I’m not directly in the crosshairs of the testing push – I have on occasion half-joked that if ever there’s a music MCAS, I’m going into insurance. (If there’s ever a music MCAS, let’s face it, I’ll know I’ve fallen into an alternate universe.)

Another subject of the Pundit’s ire is the array of assessment organizations that swoop in and regularly coerce school administration officials into providing Tasks for its faculty (in addition to, you know, teaching), which usually involve extra time spent on committees and department task forces. Those Tasks include rewriting or re-organizing or re-formatting or just plain re-copying their curriculum materials, and to create exciting new “goals”, and other items that often feel like busy-work. I’ve been mixed up in this process more than once in my teaching career. At those times, I have taken deep breaths, squared my shoulders, and half-convinced myself that it was worthwhile to codify my lesson plans, techniques and tactics. Next to no one, even the administrators who have pointed us toward these tasks, has ever looked to me like they really enjoyed using their time to accomplish these things. But someone, somewhere, out there in the shadowy world of education policymaking, has declared that it has been a Good Idea, so as to Prepare Our Students for the Twenty-First Century and get them Ready to be part of the Workforce.

(As a teacher of the fine arts, I’m usually a little disappointed that we’re not nearly so concerned about Preparing Our Students to have a clue about things like culture and other things that make humans more than just future Twenty-First Century Economic Engine Parts. If they don’t recognize the names Mark Twain, Louis Armstrong, or Mort Sahl, then we got ourselves a problem. But that’s a subject for another time, and another hijacked column.)

So here’s the column, which makes a number of suppositions about the genesis of these Assessments and Tasks that make a certain amount of sense to me [particularly the end of the absurdly long paragraph in the middle of the column]. Although I do post this with apologies to my friends who attended Ivy League schools … whom I know do not fall into the slightly whitewashed category into which the Rude Pundit sees fit to place them all [remember also, one of my favorite phrases, which I may have made up: “People Who Generalize Suck”] …

See what you think.

 

David Brooks Understands [Everything] About Colleges

The Rude Pundit doesn’t spend a lot of time writing about his profession because, frankly, he just doesn’t think a lot of what we do is very interesting to most everyone everywhere. But New York Times writer David Brooks decided to s*** where the Rude Pundit sleeps, and, between that and an enraging sliming in the Washington Post a couple of weeks ago [a column by a former university chancellor called ‘Do College Professors Work Hard Enough?’], a response is more than justified.

“Today, in his ‘column’ (if by ‘column,’ you mean, ‘the pathetic pleadings of an elitist prig begging to demonstrate his regular dude street cred’), Brooks cites a few studies and books that say that students simply aren’t learning very much in their college experience in the last couple of decades. You can tell where he’s coming from by this line: ‘At some point, parents are going to decide that $160,000 is too high a price if all you get is an empty credential and a fancy car-window sticker.’

“Let’s unpack that for just a moment: he’s obviously talking about rich students at elite institutions, where ‘parents’ can obviously afford $40,000 a year. Because that ain’t about kids who have to pile up student loans and get government assistance. And it ain’t about the vast majority of schools in the nation which cost far, far less. Oh, and one thing. Let’s not be naive. Of course, those parents are buying a fancy car-window sticker. And the schools know that. Grade inflation has been a far greater problem at Ivy League institutions than elsewhere. Why? Because Harvard and Columbia and Yale need to keep those cash teats good and ready for suckling.

“’One part of the solution is found in three little words,’ Brooks says, and if you know anything about a conservative approach to education, you know what he’s gonna say. ‘Value-added assessments. Colleges have to test more to find out how they’re doing.’ Yes, yes, yes, let’s test more because it’s done so very much to improve public schools in America.

“Let’s get this straight, David Brooks and every other stupid [person] on the right who wants to solve the ‘problem’ of college education (or any education) in America, and this comes from someone who has been at this job for over twenty [expletive deleted] years: You [screwed] it up. Back in the 1980s, you got [scared] when multiculturalism and ethnic/gender/queer/whatever studies began to take hold in academia. You published idiot books that said that what educators wanted to do about education was wrong and that people outside of academia should actually be involved in setting standards. And then you went further. Colleges, you decided, needed to be run like businesses, blaming colleges for the ever-rising tuition rates when, in reality, the problem was worthless tax cuts, going back to Sainted Reagan, that did [nothing] to help the economy but forced states to gut funding to universities, but, no, no, it really was that schools needed to be run efficiently, like businesses, and if a college is now a business, with the bottom line being the only line, and not a place where people get, you know, educated, then you have a [expletive deleted] responsibility to your customers, in this case, the students, to make them happy with the business where they are spending their money. The Rude Pundit’s own institution is now in the midst of ‘streamlining’ the general education requirements so that students can graduate more easily. It’s under the guise of ‘making transfer easier’ or some such [nonsense], but it’s really about getting the kids through to get more money. And let’s not even get into the evisceration of public education at the primary and secondary levels so that the students that are coming to college are starting at a point where freshman composition is now ‘How you write a sentence with proper grammar and punctuation because your high school teachers were forced to transform their classrooms into test prep labs so that the place where they work won’t be shut down.’ And let’s not get into the over-reliance on criminally overworked and underpaid adjunct faculty to teach the vast majority of college classes, people who often work at several institutions in order to cobble together a liveable wage. And let’s not even get into an economy that has transformed technologically and socially without any concomitant investment in those things that might actually allow people to be ready for the jobs that are out there. And let’s not get into the devaluing of a broad, liberal arts education that creates thinkers and doesn’t just train people to work. [Expletive deleted], what’s better to those in power? Good drones or questioning citizens?

“And you know who caused all these [expletive deleted] problems? The [people] who went to the $160,000 schools who figured out a way to scam and scare everyone into ‘value-added assessments’ as some kind of Holy Grail of education.

“Every couple of years, every department in the Rude Pundit’s college has to deal with some ‘assessment’ organization coming in and forcing them to justify everything they do. One of the last groups made the departments create rubrics of goals and lists of assessment tools to reach those goals. It was pencil-pushing, ego-soothing nonsense. It was overlaying a factory model onto the role of colleges. But you can be sure as [hell] that someone made money on the whole nonsensical exercise in futility.

“But, no, really, David Brooks, by all means, let’s waste another s***load of everyone’s time and money on more worthless testing. It’s far better than just letting professors do their [expletive deleted] jobs.”

April 27, 2012 Posted by | blogging, education, teachers | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sorry

Optional soundtrack for this post is here.

 

The management of Editorial License would like to apologize for the length of the previous post. As penance for this 3,300-word monstrosity, we offer this haiku poem:

 

If brevity is

the soul of wit, I’m afraid

I may have no soul.

 

Thank you.

April 19, 2012 Posted by | blogging, writing | , | 1 Comment

The Official Mental Block of the XXIIIrd Olympiad

It’s school vacation; thus I seem to have time to pursue random wisps of thought.

While doing intensive Internet Research (watching YouTube videos till half-past-stupid-AM), I found a couple examples of TV sports music from my distant past – the formative junior high years, of course! – and had one of those moments that really make one marvel at the power of the human brain to store away microscopic fragments of memory and then access them decades later.

Well, almost access them. Oh yeah!, I thought, there was that song from the L.A. Olympics. It was the official basketball theme of the 1984 Olympics. With an actual basketball-bounce sound as part of it. What the devil was the title of that thing?… That’ll drive me crazy, I just know it…

So, more Internet Research. A few (and I mean not too many!) searches later, I had my answer, and then some – a complete YouTube reconstitution of an album (sorry, a cassette tape, history buffs) that used to own, containing 11 songs created expressly for the 1984 Summer Olympics, held in Los Angeles.

At least that’s what my memory whispered at me.

I did get close. The more Internet Research I did, the more obvious it became that some producer in L.A. had gone through piles of records, hunting for previously-released items that could be reissued on an album that would leech hard-earned bucks out of foolish young persons like me, in the name of extolling the glory of amateur athletic competition, and also in the name of well-timed capitalism. (My, my; everything doth have a “99-percent” slant these days. Occupy the Olympics!)

<*shakes himself out of his political mood, like a dog shaking off water*>

Aside from possible usage by ABC Sports, most of these musical items were probably as much the “official music of the 23rd Olympiad” (the only tunes the athletes listened to!) as Right Guard is the official deodorant of the National Football League (the only thing that football players in their right minds would stick in their armpits). But it’s an impressive sounding phrase; therefore we do not question.

But what better place than Los Angeles, California, USA, capital of the entertainment world, to launch a project which would engage the towering talents of modern music? I suppose. Some of the talents were towering; others kinda weren’t.

Now I’ve had a chance to compare and contrast. I’ve taken a listen to all those songs, some 28 years later (ouch), to see whether they hit me the same way now as they did then. Behold! The tracks from “The Official Music Of The XXIII Olympiad of Los Angeles 1984”, in the order they appeared on the album – with occasionally overblown or outright silly quotes from the performers or composers that were included in the liner notes (MAN, I love the Internet). Follow me down the rabbit hole, if you like … and see if you agree (or disagree) with me about any of these …

Side 1, Track 1: Bugler’s Dream (from ‘Charge’ Suite)” by Leo Arnaud

Irony alert. “Bugler” was not composed for any Olympics. It was composed long before ABC utilized it during its coverage of the 1968 Grenoble Winter Games. Since 1968, any time this thing starts up, all anyone can think of is sports. Yet another example of a musician (hello, Sir Arthur Sullivan) whose rather large body of work (in Arnaud’s case, a voluminous catalog of orchestrations and arrangements for motion pictures from the late 1930s to the early 1970s) is entirely eclipsed by one little item. Well, maybe not so little.

(And by the way, yes, that’s how you know you’re dealing with an ancient track list. “Side One…”)

Side 1, Track 2: Nothing’s Gonna Stop You Now (Team Sports Theme)” by Loverboy

To reach for the gold and strive for perfection is what the Olympics are all about. It is this spirit and quest for excellence that inspired us to reach out musically and pay tribute to the dedication of the world’s finest athletes.” -Loverboy (or more likely their publicist)

And so begins the onslaught of the 1980s pop synthesizers! Yes, this is your basic ’80s hair band tune. And you know it’s the 1980s when the song title includes the word “gonna”.

Please to forgive, but then as now, I have doubted that this item is [1] anything extraordinary, or [2] full of much Olympic gravitas. Loverboy fans, please refrain from heckling: because it’s true that I could also say this of Chuck Mangione’s “Give It All You Got”, written for the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics – a tune I like a lot. Loverboy wrote during the mid-1980s and, sensibly, that’s what they sound like; Mangione was writing in the late 1970s, in a style that might have been the precursor to the accursed “smooth jazz” genre, so that’s what he sounds like.

But neither item sounded (or sounds) to me like an Olympic Composition For the Ages. Which I presume is what this album was going for. I think.

Side 1, Track 3: Reach Out (Track Theme)” by Giorgio Moroder

It is a great pleasure for me to be part of the Olympic experience. Having competed in sports in my earlier days, it was exciting for me to now make my contribution musically. Writing a song for this album is one of the highlights of my career.” -Giorgio Moroder

While you’re trying to un-imagine Giorgio Moroder at outside linebacker, I shall press on.

The opening lyric doesn’t bode well. “Reach out, reach out for the medal!” And when the tempo kicks up abruptly, this tune is revealed as a less dangerous-sounding, studio-sanitized take on the previous Loverboy entry. Those of us who are old enough can easily construct our own ’80s date movie montage, featuring Patrick Dempsey, Molly Ringwald and all the high hair and stone-washed jeans in the world. And in the ’80s … this tune would have worked just fine.

Side 1, Track 4: Courtship” (Basketball Theme)” by Bob James

Sports, like music, is an international language we can all share. To be involved with this Olympics album project is a great thrill for me. The only greater thrill for me would be if I were out there playing on the US basketball team myself.” -Bob James

Ah. Now we’re talking. My ancient memory got pretty close to the reality. “Courtship” opens with the sound of a basketball being dribbled – perhaps this tune was actually composed with sports in mind. And soon it becomes the result of an imaginary head-on collision between a John Williams fanfare piece and “The NBA on CBS”: the tune that inspired this whole adventure in the first place! That tune, which of course is my mental soundtrack for every one of glorious childhood memories of the Larry Bird-era Boston Celtics, was basically “the ‘thrill of victory’ meets the Harlem Globetrotters.”

By the time this track is done, it has suggested both grand Olympic spectacle and little moments of grin-inducing basketball wizardry; it’s used both synth brass and genuine, acoustic, played-by-humans horn sections. The basketball never stops bouncing (sometimes the synth percussion fills sound like hands tapping the ball). And – remarkably for this album – it’s fun. Now I remember why this item stayed with me all these years. It’s actually fun to listen to.

Side 1, Track 5: A Chance for Heaven (Swimming Theme)” by Christopher Cross (co-written by Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager)

We wrote this song to capture the spirit of swimming competition and found, when it was completed, that for us it encompassed the beauty, pageantry, competition and excitement of all the Olympics. We are pleased to be a part of this historic event.” -Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager and Christopher Cross

We arrive at soft-rock! I always identified Christopher Cross’ voice with wistful ballads (“Arthur’s Theme” and “Sailing” were favorites of mine as a little kid), so this uptempo tune initially seemed outside his usual game. Again, it’s not too awfully different from the Moroder song, or from most ’80s pop records, but I can stomach this one a lot easier. Until I did the Research, I had no idea Burt Bacharach was one of the composers, which might contribute to my enjoyment of this tune. (A couple of neat chord moments in and after the bridge, and the ridiculous modulation in the last 30 seconds, make perfect sense now.)

I know what makes me grin, though: the ascending synth line in the intro, which recurs a lot (now that I listen closely), which perhaps resembles the splash of water when a swimmer dives into a pool? Maybe I’m making a bit too much out of that, I don’t know. But I find the song entirely tolerable.

Side 1, Track 6: Moodido (The Match) (Boxing Theme)” by TOTO

Amidst the thunder of those roaring for a victory, the only rhythm the boxers dance to is the strength of survival and a power they draw from within. It is with this passion for being the best that ‘Moodido (The Match)’ was created.” -TOTO (all band members seem to be signatories to this treaty)

TOTO!? On an Olympic music album? (Well, if Loverboy is there, can TOTO be be far behind?) TOTO isn’t exactly an progressive-rock icon like, say, Yes … but this instrumental item is creative in its commercial way. They *were*, after all, responsible for “Africa”, which is a more interesting musical composition than it’s sometimes given credit for.

So, let’s assess: your boxing theme is straight-ahead rock, appropriately pounding away at the listener like, well, a boxer! Also it sounds like it was written and performed by musicians slightly more serious about their craft – a rock song that sounds as if it’s working hard to break out of the “average ’80s tune” cage. I particularly appreciate the boxing-ring bell sound effect tucked away in the middle of this one – a subtle touch in a composition whose purpose is nowhere near subtle.

Side 2, Track 1: Olympic Fanfare and Theme” by John Williams

The Olympic Games continue to fascinate and inspire each one of us – with every presentation of the Games, we experience that complete dedication and unshakeable will to persevere that typifies the goal of each competitor. The human spirit soars, and we strive for the best within us. These are the qualities which we seek to capture, describe and preserve through music, and it has been my great honor to contribute ‘Olympic Fanfare and Theme’ to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. I dedicate it lovingly to all participating athletes, from whom we derive so much strength and inspiration.” -John Williams

For better or worse (better, I think), this is the orchestral Olympic composition against which all others are judged – even others written by the same composer. Often, movie sequels don’t quite live up to the original, even the ones which aren’t derivative (hello, “The Spy Who Shagged Me”; no no, don’t get up) … and although the pieces that John Williams wrote for ensuing Games (Calgary 1988 and Atlanta 1996 leap to mind) have much to recommend them, this one is your go-to anthem.

Best of all, it doesn’t sound like it only belongs in 1984. It works now, too.

Side 2, Track 2: Grace (Gymnastics Theme)” by Quincy Jones & Jeremy Lubbock

Something that has not changed from hundreds of years ago is the pure spirit and faith of the very young, as exemplified by the Olympics. We wanted to capture the spirit, gracefulness, courage and strength of these athletes in their gymnastic competition, for their nobility and maturity comes through in all that they attempt.” -Quincy Jones

A welcome change of pace from the rest of the album so far: in spite of its fanfare beginning, this piece is much less Fast And/Or Loud!! than its counterparts. Sensible: gymnastics tend not to be nearly as slam-bang as many other summer Olympic sports. And of course, we’re envisioning the wood sprites who compete in gymnastics, as distinct from the muscle-bound sprinters, wrestlers, power forwards, rowers, and almost everyone else in the Athletes’ Village.

The opening melody teeters on the edge of cloying, but thanks to one or two chords and this intriguing little staccato synthesizer figure that wings in and out, it doesn’t quite plunge into ick. Arguably, it goes on a bit: if you squint, you can discern two separate melodic themes, but they’re not different enough to hit you over the head with their differences. The opening fanfare only makes a hint of a return at the end …

Yes, friends: I’m critiquing the compositional techniques of the great (even as of 28 years ago) Quincy Jones. He’s made more money off his compositions than I’ve made off mine. So, a tip of the cap, and we waltz along to the next track. (Speaking of: not a single track on this whole album is in 3/4 time, and the only things in any kind of complex meter is the Arnaud fanfare’s second, less well-known section, and one brief moment of the next track along. Hmm. Well, runners only have two legs…)

Side 2, Track 3: Power (Power Sports Theme)” by Bill Conti

For the power sports, I kept visualizing the overall spectacle of the Games, so, I began the piece with fanfares derivative of the valor, stateliness, and grandeur of the Olympics. The following section personifies action, excitement, striving and expectation. In the slow movement I put myself into the body of the athlete during the competition. The inner calm and concentration felt during the actual performance of the sport is the sensation that this movement expresses. Then we jump back into the external aspects for the triumphant emotion of winning at the conclusion of the piece.” -Bill Conti

Although those comments remind me stylistically of a few high-school music-appreciation exam answers I’ve read in my time … it’s an interesting if tiny window into the composer’s thought process.

Power sports include weightlifting and not a lot else. That’s what my Internet Research tells me. So: I think Bill Conti scores about ninety percent: there’s a mystifying middle section of this piece which has some nearly-pizzicato synth figures dancing around, and I’m sure I’ve never seen weightlifters dance, except to get out’ the way of a weight they haven’t lifted well … but everything else about this piece is good and plangent (I’ve been waiting half my life to use that word), if arguably about a minute too long for comfortable listening. And yes, we children of the ’80s can probably assemble in our heads the accompanying “Top Gun”-esque movie montage as we listen.

Side 2, Track 4: Street Thunder (Marathon Theme)” by Foreigner

In our musical contribution, I imagined myself one of the athletes and drew inspiration from the supreme individual challenge of the marathon and the Olympics. Music, like sports, is the opportunity to bring peoples of the world together in a quest for excellence and achievement, laying down a strong foundation for a more peaceful world. I am proud to be involved.” -Mick Jones, Foreigner

Man alive, what is it with the ’80s and synthesizers? I went to high school and college in that decade, and thought I was paying attention musically; but you’d think that American music had outlawed acoustic instruments.

Anyway. Here’s a tune that has just enough melodic content to avoid utter monotony, but enough minimalist monotony to quite aptly suggest the sport it’s aiming at: the marathon. I will admit that in 1984, I usually listened to music other than pop radio, and so (confession) I had barely heard of Foreigner, and didn’t think I was interested. First TOTO, now this: a wholly instrumental piece from a group I’d tended to dismiss as just another band with a lot of hair. “Street Thunder” isn’t Yes, either; but as program music, it succeeds in reflecting its target sport better than anything else on this album except for the basketball-bouncy tune.

Weird trivia: it was originally released as the “B” side of Foreigner’s hit single, “I Want To Know What Love Is”.

Side 2, Track 5: Junku (Field Theme)” by Herbie Hancock

The Olympics embellish the spirit of international unification. In the theme for field events, I tried to portray the combination of pride, challenge and responsibility. We began with an ethnic foundation of African and American rhythms and then layered multi-cultural musical elements upon it. What we hope was to find a common thread that touches all of mankind.” -Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock has never been a shrinking violet. Always willing to try new things. The sound he creates for this one, although shot through with the requisite ’80s synth patches (again!), is at least a bit ahead of its time. Very danceable; a logical sequel to “Rockit”; and an interesting mix of electronically processed sounds and ethnic instruments – who else uses a kalimba on this album, or in all of 1984’s pop music? Nobody.

It’s neat to listen to, for stretches (or as background music for going to commercial breaks), although at over five minutes long it wears out its welcome shortly after the standard radio three and a half. And one other consideration: I’m not sure whether it reflects the track-and-field sports that aren’t on a track, i.e. pole vaulting, javelin catching (yes; I know I wrote that), the hammer toss, shot put. Or, since it wasn’t created specifically for this project, I’m not sure why the album producers tried to jam this particular square peg into this particular round hole.

Side 2, Track 6: The Olympian: Lighting of the Torch” by Philip Glass

I can think of no other event to compare with the Olympic Games which makes us so conscious of our shared humanity, our common fate. The torch lighting ceremony strikes me as the essential symbol, the summing up, of this, our shared consciousness. Surely it is a rare event in the life of any artist when he is asked to make a personal contribution to such a public event. It has made this for me a uniquely challenging and inspiring experience.” -Philip Glass

Well, there’s the old joke:

Knock knock. Who’s there? Knock knock. Who’s there? Knock knock. Who’s there? Knock knock. Who’s there? Knock knock. Who’s there? Knock knock. Who’s there? Knock knock. Who’s there? Knock knock. Who’s there? … … Philip Glass.”

Minimalist Mr. Glass has the bad fortune to be on the same album as John Williams, contributing a piece to accompany an event for which Williams would be a logical composer choice. Still, there’s some good material in here – lightly bombastic (if there is such a thing), nicely mystical (for an intriguing 30 seconds in the middle of the piece) … and, if performed by live musicians, probably remarkably fatiguing. In this video clip from the actual torch lighting ceremony, the Glass composition is in fact used … and in the pastel-colored, cartoon-y world of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, it actually works.

(For comparison, see this clip – the opening ceremony from the 1992 Barcelona Games – for two reasons. First, Glass’ 1984 music and the Barcelona accompaniment are at least cousins. And second: this is the only Olympic torch-lighting ceremony I’ve ever seen that genuinely lifted me out of my chair and made me shout, “–whoa!!”)

 

So, a trip backwards in time (in memory and in music). In 1984, there were only two or three items on this Official Olympic Music album that I played much after the first listening. Now, I’d probably add perhaps one or two others to my iTunes playlist and leave the rest to sit around for another few decades … but at least I know why.

Also, I can now sleep well at night. “Courtship”. That was the title of that danged bouncy-basketball tune.

April 18, 2012 Posted by | entertainment, media, music, sports, television | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment