Thursday, October 27, 2011


I have a station on Pandora Internet Radio entitled "Gershwin."  I've been listening to it for the last few days.  Apart from enjoying the music very much, which I do, it offered up a puzzle to me.  I wonder if anyone else has asked this, listening to their favorites on Pandora.

This particular station is only instrumental music, mostly symphonic, some piano only.  There's nobody singing Gershwin popular tunes - I've Got Rhythm, Somebody To Watch Over Me, Summertime, the ones we're all familiar with and that have been recorded by many different artists.  The more interesting question though, at least for me, is this.  What determines which music does get included, the bulk of which is not Gershwin?

Lacking a better name, I'd call this, "popular classical music," the sort I learned about when I was a kid through Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts, which I watched on TV along with the rest of the family.  My sister, older than I am, may have attended one of these in person.  I don't believe I did, but I did attend several concerts at Queens College's Colden Auditorium, which were done in the same spirit.  It must have left a strong impression on me.  Some time later I got a present from a great aunt who visited us from Australia - a 10 record set of many of these selections (though not recorded at a young people's concert).  I don't remember all of the music, but a partial list included Mussorsgky's Night on Bald Mountain, Dvorak's New World Symphony, Prokofiev's March from the Love of the Three Oranges, a couple of Beethoven Symphonies, Debussy's La Mer, Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, and a bunch of others in that vein.  As I'm writing this, I recall that at a summer program at Hampshire College we did a trip to the Tanglewood Music Festival and heard the Tchaikovsky performed with canon. These pieces became familiar to me - an entry into a broader class of music.

I did expand the repertoire, but not very far.   For the most part I stopped pushing myself to experience classical music after graduate school, with only occasional experiences otherwise.

The Gershwin channel has a bunch of pieces by Aaron Copeland, some conducted by Leonard Bernstein.  These I knew.   Copeland became familiar, but probably that happened after college.  Before long as the Gershwin channel winds through its playlist, it gets to a very haunting piece, one I should have known but didn't, the Dance of the Knights from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet.  How I missed this growing up, I don't know.  It does seem to fit right in with the other pieces, which have a sense of the experimental and exploratory, yet are not threatening to the sensibilities.  A couple of nights ago I did wake up from a dream with the Prokofiev going on in my head, so the music did touch my spirit, which is part of the music's power.   Yet with that piece and certainly with the familiar pieces on the channel I don't feel assaulted when making a personal connection to the music, as I sometimes do when my son plays rap, which I react to much like my parents reacted to rock and roll.

I started to get enchanted with the idea of channels of favorites yet with new pieces too, using the familiar as a way to expand the personal knowledge base.  And then I started to ask myself whether this could be done not just with music, but with written work as well.  Could our Library do something like this?  What I have in mind is that if you take all the reading lists for undergraduate courses in social science, let's say, over the past 10 years and you cull articles from these lists can you find pieces that are (a) commonly read, and (b) are connected in some way.  For example, with Daniel Kahneman's new book out, Thinking Fast and Slow, there have been essay's about Kahneman (and Tversky) in popular outlets, such as this Op-Ed by David Brooks, and this Book Bench blog post by Jonah Lehrer.  Suppose on seeing one of those a student wanted to make a Kahneman channel, with both scholarly pieces and pieces from well written but popular periodicals, accessible intellectually to a bright undergraduate with not a huge background in the subject, and connected to each other in some way, though perhaps not totally transparently.  One of my favorite pieces by Stephen Jay Gould, The Streak of Streaks, on the question whether in sports a player gets "hot" or if this is merely a rationalization we fans make, would fit right in. The channel might include video material as well as print.  For example, George Akerlof's Nobel Prize lecture, which was video recorded, might be perfectly suitable material as part of a Kahneman channel.

I don't know if this is possible.  For the Gershwin channel the affinities are somewhat intuitive to me and with Kahneman I can see the connections.  Could there be an automated way to generate them?  If there were such a way, students would be be able to learn about a subject without relying on a textbook or  a professor to provide a reading list for a course.  Sometimes we want to learn something without taking a course on it.  And sometimes I, as instructor, wish that students would explore beyond the readings I assign.  A novel concept, isn't it?  When I queried students about that as we did a debrief for my class last spring, I asked them whether any of them did read largely in this way.  Many of them looked at me like I was from the moon. 

Maybe I am.  I've got this odd belief that if you can enjoy music this way, you should be able to enjoy reading in this manner as well.   Even if the kids didn't use it, I would.

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