About neuroscience and music (mainly classical). Exploring the relationship of music and the brain based on experience of two careers.

October 30, 2016

There are Few Places like Mt. Gretna

Far from just a simple village Mt. Gretna is a quilt of fragments of several municipalities that gives new meaning to the word "balkan." Our Balkan Mountains are a few square miles of gentle forested Appalachian foothills and their highest peak "Governor Dick" hill, elevation, 666 ft. Water runs down it's slopes into all parts of Mt. Gretna, eventually ending in the majestic 10-acre Lake Conewago.

The only residents who can legally claim to live in "Mt. Gretna" are the approximately 200 households in the "Borough of Mt Gretna" that also calls itself the "Pennsylvania Chautauqua," and thus has two governing bodies and budgets. Others live in sections called Campmeeting, Mt. Gretna Heights, Conewago Hill, Timber Hills and Stoberdale, actually residing in the corners of townships: South Annville, South Londonderry, West Cornwall, all meeting the Borough near the post office. 

The only remotely common features of the community are the Fire Company, the Sewer Authority and the Post Office. Most walks to the post office (or flow through the drains) cut through several school districts and gerrymandered electoral districts. Even the county court house can be confused about the latter. My district  extends all the way to the Philadelphia 'Main Line,' its shape often likened to an pouncing dragon with part of Gretna in its teeth. Among the main unifying Gretna ideas is the prevailing conviction that attempts to consolidate services among these quilt patches are actually schemes to increase taxes, though most Gretnans, like Californians, live unaware of the fault lines they cross every day.  

As a results of these peculiarities, the actual population of Mt. Gretna is indeterminate. Typical guesses range from 1,600 to 2,200 people, the higher figure for summer. Many residents join one or more organizations like The Outdoor Art Show, Gretna Theater, Gretna Music, Cicada, Heritage and Bible Festivals, Historical Society, Chautauqua Summer Programs and Foundation, Organ Concerts, Arts Council, Socrates Cafe, book and film clubs, and others. Some members of each view 'the others' with suspicion or jealousy as competitors. They actually do compete -- for contributions, audiences and venues. A list of Gretna 501c organizations would fill a page! And, I should add: there are five restaurants, several small businesses and, get this, a Roller Rink and Psychiatric Hospital! 

Alas, our narrow gauge railway, three hotels and an amusement park vanished during the last century.

And though our forested hills are now surrounded by a sea of recently-harvested cornfields where Trump signs sprout like weeds, political inclinations of Metropolitan Gretna remain largely unpolled and uncertain, though it is fair to guess that, owing to a concentration of artists, writers, gay couples, professors and professionals, the place is an oasis of liberalism in our conservative "Alabama" middle of Pennsylvania. 

My post-office walk takes me through two townships into a borough, two electoral districts and three ecclesiastical domains. Yesterday while crossing the Campmeeting, founded in 1892 and home of the Annual Bible Festival, I came upon two golden-agers engaged in a violent shouting match -- I dare not repeat most of it -- and on the verge of a fistfight. My approach enabled one to scamper away to safety, shouting back over his shoulder. 

"I only asked why he had a Hillary sign in his front yard," said the remaining octogenarian. "Why should he take offense? I only asked him to tell me what Hillary has ever done to qualify herself for President. Why can't we have a reasonable discussion? I read everything, learn from the internet and TV and stay well-informed. I'm a good citizen and welcome other opinions. I just wanted to know." 

"You certainly must be a good and well-informed citizen," I affirmed, trying to avoid replacing the escapee as a target. "I too enjoy rational discussions as opposed to trading insults."

But he continued, "I just learned why the Ambassador was killed in Benghazi!" "Why," I cautiously asked. "He had discovered that Hillary and Obama were running a drug cartel and so they didn't rescue him when the terrorists attacked." It seems Trumpism has even infected us here.

Finally, I should mention the most important unifying feature of Mt. Gretna: people choose to live and come here because they love it, albeit for varied reasons, and want to participate. Perhaps that also explains a strong resistance to change. We are a community to which almost everyone volunteers time and effort, and thus each of us has an identification beyond just 'resident.' We know most of our neighbors and take care of one another, meet often, serve common though diverse, goals. We don't always agree and discussions sometimes become heated, but when you need help, there is always someone to call.

So now you know why there is chamber music here.

October 18, 2016

Shakespeare 'removed' from Yale?

At a chance meeting the Development Director of a local orchestra gave me two tickets to their evening concert. In the lobby afterwards, sipping sweet cranberry juice, we encountered an impeccably-dressed young couple, clearly well-bred, well-heeled and probably professional, with their equally pretty daughter who looked to be about 13 years old. 

Emi is likely to approach teenagers and children in such situations: “It’s so good to see young people at concerts,” she says to strike up a conversation with strangers. 

The father said proudly, “Heather plays in the Youth Orchestra.” Emi replied that was wonderful, especially in view of the fact that music education has been phased out of so many schools, and brought me into the conversation to tell me that. Then the father remarked that it’s tragic that even Harvard and Yale are "removing Shakespeare."

Taken aback, I replied with something like, "That can’t be true. You must be mistaken.” The man, suddenly cold and defensive, replied, “I am correct. And you are talking to a member of the choir” meaning, I assume, that he strongly disagrees with that terrible decision. He turned away, not interested in any more conversation and led the family to safer territory.

When I got home, puzzled by the angry response and pondering the sorry fate of Stephen Greenblatt, Harold Bloom, and others, I -- of course --  'Googled.' The first result at the top of the page was from Breitbart.com

Yale Students Demand Removal of White Authors from Curriculum

Under this (deliberately?) misleading headline Breitbart reported that a "group of Yale students” had circulated a petition to remove a course on English poets from the list of courses required for graduation with an English major — because the poets are all white men. The article implies such behavior should be expected from a school ironically not so diverse as it likes to flaunt because (quoting an earlier Yale Daily News), "97 percent of political contributions from Yale employees go to Democrats." 

Further down the list I found that last May the Yale Daily News had more accurately reported on the petition signed by 160 undergraduates (among 5430). English majors take 14 courses in their major field.

Student petition urges English department to diversify curriculum

"It urges English department faculty to reevaluate the undergraduate curriculum, as well as reconsider the current core requirements and introductory courses. It particularly criticizes the Major English Poets sequence, a longtime prerequisite for the major and “perhaps the most distinctive element of English at Yale,” according to the department’s website. The petition calls for the abolishment of this prerequisite and for the pre-1800/1900 requirements to refocus and include literature relating to gender, race and sexuality. [more]

Eventually I learned that a report published by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni has revealed that only four of 52 highest-ranked schools still have a Shakespeare requirement 
The Unkindest Cut: Shakespeare in Exile 2015 
Researchers determined that Harvard University, the University of California-Berkeley, Wellesley College and the U.S. Naval Academy are the only four schools in the U.S. News & World Report’s 52 highest-ranked universities and colleges which require English majors to take a course on Shakespeare to obtain their degree.
The key word is "required" not "removed."

Obviously some Yale students don't just swallow meekly what they are served (something I learned in college), as, it seems, do readers of Breitbart. And it's sad that two sides of important issues no longer discuss them rationally (they do at Yale) before permanently locking up their views behind the lines on either side of a battlefront. We can hope that Heather will learn in the youth orchestra to play well with and listen to others.