Beautiful Music: Liszt’s Pilgrimages

Lots of Wagner, Liszt, and Strauss listening of late–for some reason summer is prompting an appetite for overheated romantic music. But here are two non-excessive bits of Liszt from his set Années de pèlerinage Years of Pilgrimage. This was a musical travel diary for him, with sketches evoking sights, landscapes, artworks headed by bits of related poetry (often overheated bits of Byron).

Here are two from the first volume, Switzerland, “Au lac de Wallenstadt” and “Au bord d’une source,” beautifully illuminated by the gentle artistry of Wilhelm Kempff.


Lake Walenstadt, Switzerland. Perhaps Liszt had this very view. Wonderful photo from Martin Fisch’s flickr stream. CC 2.0

Americans and Math

To my surprise, Elizabeth Green’s sensible article about math education reform in the NYTimes has become a “most emailed” hit. Certainly several people have emailed it to me, one not knowing that I’ve done a fair amount of work doing online courses on math education and have a strong interest in the subject.

Although it’s got an unfortunate headline, “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?” points out that we haven’t had the follow up to train teachers in new approaches, even when they are promising–and have yielded great results in other countries. Instead, we get stuck in some kind of paradoxical nostalgia. We may have had bad math experiences at school, but we would prefer our children have those to new ones that we don’t understand or trust, we also let everyone off the hook, students, our teachers, and perhaps most importantly ourselves, when we categorize math competence as an immutable characteristic.

In a broader piece, I’ll vapor on about my speculation that fighting over curriculum is really ideological battle by other means, but in the meantime recommend reading the article which sites the baleful effect of giving the same bad old experiences to students in classrooms: places where using time tested methods that don’t work is the preferred way of doing most things wrong.

The unschooled may have been more capable of complex math than people who were specifically taught it, but in the context of school, they were stymied by math they already knew. Studies of children in Brazil, who helped support their families by roaming the streets selling roasted peanuts and coconuts, showed that the children routinely solved complex problems in their heads to calculate a bill or make change. When cognitive scientists presented the children with the very same problem, however, this time with pen and paper, they stumbled. A 12-year-old boy who accurately computed the price of four coconuts at 35 cruzeiros each was later given the problem on paper. Incorrectly using the multiplication method he was taught in school, he came up with the wrong answer. Similarly, when Scribner gave her dairy workers tests using the language of math class, their scores averaged around 64 percent. The cognitive-science research suggested a startling cause of Americans’ innumeracy: school.

Wolfram Alpha, an amazing website I used to fool with an Algebra I problem last week (for work, yes, but it was fun too). The Wolfram tool is a hell of a lot more interesting and educational than Mary P. Dolciani’s books ever were for me at least–I know they worked for some.

Proms Time is back

This weekend is the start of the Proms–the biggest (mostly) classical musical festival in the world, and all freely available on Radio 3 on the web (and on television for some lucky viewers, not in the U.S., alas.)


Lots of potential high points: Rattle and the Berlin Phil in J.S. Bach, continuing 300th birthday celebrations for his imaginative son, CPE Bach–fiddler Rachel Podger a likely magician in this rep. We’re also getting Kiss Me, Kate, and from silly to serious, Stravinsky’s oratorio, Oedipus Rex (not in the same concert, I hasten to add).

The opera offerings are probably not as likely to be as jaw-droppingly wonderful as the Barenboim Ring last year, still there are good line ups for Salome, Elektra, and Rosenkavalier.

Lots else, including Rufus Wainwright on the popular and jazz track. (They seem to be fixing links, so bear with them.)

More recommendations, musings, brickbats and praise as the concerts unfold. For music lovers, it really is the most generous of feasts. Thank you, BBC.

Commonplace Book: Meg Greenfield

Finally getting to Washington, the hybrid memoir and take down of Washington, DC, which Meg Greenfield, the late editor of the op-ed page of the Post, wrote in secret as she was battling cancer. Having read This Town a few months back, it’s clear that Greenfield was diagnosing many of the same ills as Leibovich is, with fewer wisecracks but a sharper scalpel.

Like him, she doesn’t excuse herself from playing a role in perpetuating aspects of a system she finds baleful in many ways. But she’s has an interesting view of the “two-track” language of Washington (which she acknowledges she learned to decode, even if not to speak, early in her career.)

Here’s a representative excerpt; Greenfield on politics and lying:

Reflecting on what had taken me by surprise at the outset, and on so much like it that I observed in Washington and politics generally over the years, I was eventually to conclude that there is a two-part truth that just about every one of us knows and has always known but that practically none of us will admit for fear of being seen as an accomplice. It is, first, that the basic linguistic unit of speech in politics–all politics, not just the Washington kind–is a statement that is already somewhere between one-eighth and one-fourth of the way to being a lie. (I will leave it to others to decide whether this is any different from the basic speech of either commerce or love and, if so, in what degree and with what moral difference.)

The other part of the proposition is that such deception appears to be built into the process, a function of what we demand and expect and what they feel is required to stay alive and get anything whatever to happen. Politics, in other words–and not just politics practiced by people you don’t like, but politics across the board–pretty much rests on a foundation of fractional lies, justified by some commonly shared if rarely acknowledged presumptions of necessity. The phenomena, after all, has long been copiously in evidence from the White House briefing room to the debate among candidates for city council and every other office to the solemn pronouncements of State Department spokesmen to the ocean of near parody gibbledy-gabble that engulfs the pages of the Congressional Record.

Our preferred way of dealing with this discomfiting truth seems to be to add one more smallish-to medium lie of our own. We grouse or look the other way or pretend to be shocked, even though at some level we have known all along that what is being asserted as truth really didn’t happen that way and never was going to.

We know that are our elected representatives were not acting out of the unalloyed high purpose they solemnly claimed. And we knew that likely as not when they promised tireless, strong, conclusive action on something we cared about deeply, the odds were that more than a few of them were already shopping around for a respectable looking cop-out in which to take shelter and pretend they had done their utmost but that the bad guys had stopped them or, even more contemptuous of our intelligence, that the cop-out was the great deal they had promised.

Yet whenever one of these implausible fictions that we never took seriously to begin with hits the news for some reason and is exposed for what it is, we manage to project heart-wrenching disillusion all over again. More reckless, in my opinion, we leap to endorse and thus encourage what must be the most tiresome strain of commentary running through the nation’s op-ed pages–and that is saying something–namely, that if the politicians don’t cut it out, we the people will become cynical. Yes, we say, you are making us cynical, awful you–ignoring the fact that America and Americans were born cynical, or at least profoundly skeptical, about politicians, which is perhaps why we have survived as long as we have.


Ground zero of 'gibbledy-gabble,'  aka the Government Printing Office.
Ground zero of ‘gibbledy-gabble,’ aka the Government Printing Office.

It’s still worth a read, for, among other things, a reminder that the political culture we so avidly deplore in Washington now is hardly new. The book also casts a sometimes hard to read shadow narrative about Greenfield’s personal life, including the price paid for breaking through barriers–although she’d probably cringe at that term–in the all boys world of newspapering in mid-century.

Don Giovanni Online

The London Telegraph is streaming the 2010 Glyndebourne Don Giovanni, with, among others, Gerald Finley and Luca Pisaroni. Not too shabby!

Although not as hard to book as Bayreuth, Glyndebourne is one of those nearly mythical destinations for opera lovers, so this is a real treat.

It’s only available until 7/13 (although snippets have been around YouTube).

The autograph of Don Giovanni, one of the three incomparable works that Mozart created with Da Ponte.


Vacation Photo

Remiss in posting. Partially a result of spending a few days at Shenandoah National Park (hadn’t been there since 1978 and it’s much the same… namely spectacular.)


Shenandoah National Park
The view from our deck at Big Meadows Lodge, Shenandoah National Park
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