Johns Hopkins Magazine - April 1994 Issue

Humanities and the Arts

Research Findings and News: Chopin on CD-ROM, etc.


The future is here and it's silver

When Peabody professor John Henry Carton's new textbook on Frederic Chopi's harmony arrives from the publisher, there will be no pages for him to riffle through. Just a single silver disc.

Carton and his publisher, Preston-Whitelaw, Ltd. of Clarksburg, Maryland, have published Chopin's Harmony on CD-ROM, a form of compact disc that stores text, images, and audio for playback on computers. Interspersed with Carton's text are 100 illustrative excerpts from Chopin's scores. A student using Chopin's Harmony will read the text from a computer monitor. When he or she comes to a musical example, a section of Chopin's score will appear on the screen in musical notation, and the student will hear that music through speakers or headphones.

"You ca't expect a sophomore to look at a complex score by Chopin and 'hear' the music," Carton explains. "I've tried to take advantage of computer technology. Say there's a place where Chopin pivots from one key to another. How does he do that? The reader can look at those few measures and hear just that."

The technology will permit a certain amount of interaction. The student will be able to tell the computer to repeat a musical passage, or to replay certain measures of it. The text is electronically cross-referenced. The user will be able to click on highlighted headings and bring up pertinent passages from throughout the text.

Carton has taught Chopin's harmony for over a quarter-century, and a few years ago he began assembling his lecture notes with an eye toward writing a book. Carton's son Stephen, who is director of business development at Preston-Whitelaw, suggested using CD-ROM technology. The elder Carton was unfamiliar with the technology, but was game to try: "When you get my age [he's 60], it's hard to learn new tricks," he says, "but I just go charging ahead."

Carton wrote the text on a computer, marking where musical examples were to appear. Preston- Whitelaw electronically digitized the relevant sections of Chopin's piano scores, which were then reproduced as images within Carton's text. Peabody graduate student Xak Bjerken played the piano excerpts in Leon Fleisher's studio, in recording sessions that took place between 1 and 4 a.m. to minimize outside noise. Finally, Preston-Whitelaw married these three elements--text, imagery, audio--with a computer program that permits the user to call up the musical excerpts and manipulate the text. Stephen Carton wrote some of the software that makes this manipulation possible.

Says his father, "Most of the excerpts are from the middle of various pieces. That's where Chopin tended to get florid. That's where his chromaticism flourishes."

Chopin's Harmony is due out this month. The CD-ROM will sell for $75; it requires an MS-DOS computer with an Intel 386 or higher CPU, a sound card, and Windows 3.1 or higher. It will be marketed to music libraries and to university-level theory and piano students.

Carton wants to see how students react to the Chopin CD-ROM before he does another, but he has a topic in mind already: "One of my other fancies is Irish instrumental music, especially uilleann pipes. I'm putting together a thing that will be a history of the pipes, a collection of pipe music, and an analytical system." Coming soon to a computer screen near you.


The long and the short of it

Prolific author and Writing Seminars professor Stephen Dixon recently published his 15th book, a collection of short stories titled Long Made Short (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994). It's his first book since the 1991 publication of his last novel, Frog, which was nominated for a National Book Award.

"Frog is pretty sad," he says. "I think Long Made Short is sadder, more wistful, more melancholic. Maybe I'm getting to be more wistful and melancholic. I'm definitely getting more contemplative. I find my characters seem to be thinking more and acting less."

The stories of Long Made Short mostly concern loss--lost relationships, lost children, lost companions, lost youth, and in the case of a story called "The Fall," lost footing. Says Dixon, 57, "I am getting older, and one begins losing things: friends, confidence, health. It just seems to have sunk in, the theme of loss." The central characters of these stories are mostly ineffectual men. They are beset by foibles, they have trouble saying the right thing, their wives and children perplex them, and not much goes smoothly in their lives. "I think it's better to write about an ineffectual person than an effectual one," he says. "It's more interesting to have somebody in a story who is struggling."

Each story begins abruptly, thrusting the reader immediately, sometimes disconcertingly, into one situation or another without preamble. "I feel that's where a story should begin," Dixon says, "right in the middle. It's my way of hooking readers."

He likes to play with structure and does so in a number of these pieces. In "The Fall," he begins with a series of incomplete sentences, each interrupting the one before and suggesting that something terrible has happened but not telling what. The effect is of someone distraught who ca't collect his thoughts. Dixon then relates a series of mundane events before circling back and revealing what has occurred. A few stories have phantasmagorical elements. In "Flying," a young girl accidentally opens an airplane door and falls from the plane; her father dives after her, clasps her to his body, and teaches her how to soar. A husband in "Moon" wants the lunar light to shine on his naked wife at a certain angle; when he commands the moon to move, it does.

Dixon collapses dialog into single long paragraphs, and he uses little description. "I do't do description," he says. "The reader's mind describes a place or a person much better than I can. A roof is a roof; I only have to say if it's an apartment building roof or a ranch house roof."

Dixon doubts he's gone two days in a row without writing in the last 30 years. "I feel sort of unsatisfied unless I work on whatever I'm working on every single day," he says. "I think the most exciting part of a writer's life is the first draft. There's a sort of ecstasy in that." After five and a half years of labor on Frog, Dixon spent two years writing the 12 stories of Long Made Short, plus nine more stories not yet collected. He also recently completed a novel, Interstate, which Henry Holt will publish next December.

On April 21, Holt will publish The Stories of Stephen Dixon, an anthology of 60 pieces spanning the first 30 years of his career. He shows no signs of slowing down: "If someday the well runs dry, I think I'll say, 'Finally,' and get on with other enjoyable ways of spending my time."


How the canon debate misfired

Professor of English John Guillory has spent 10 years studying the debate over which texts should be taught in U.S. schools and universities. His conclusion? The disputants have, for the most part, gotten it all wrong.

The big argument should't be about teaching Toni Morrison or Virginia Woolf or Amy Tan instead of some Dead European Male, says Guillory. Instead, the debate ought to be about how schools do not provide equal access to literature courses for all students, and about how society is devaluing literacy as an essential skill.

"Our passions have been misdirected," he says. "We're in the midst of a cultural transformation that we have't been noticing."

In his recent book Cultural Capital (University of Chicago Press, 1993), Guillory says that high schools direct students onto tracks too soon, steering those kids who do not seem bound for college away from English and other humanities courses, toward more "practical" vocational training. What this does, he believes, is deny too many kids a form of "cultural capital": if you learn through wide reading to use language well, and become conversant with literature, you acquire a form of intellectual capital that can advance you socially and professionally.

Guillory says this has always been the point of literary studies, though many opponents of conventional "Western tradition" curricula seem to believe that schools teach the specified texts because the contents of those texts promote "traditional Western values." Guillory begs to differ: "The critique of the canon has overemphasized the content of texts and underemphasized their use. Schools employ the literary curriculum primarily to teach language." That is, teachers historically have not held up the texts on the syllabus as examples of proper politics or values, he says, but as models of composition and the use of language.

Of even broader concern, Guillory argues, is that students in ever greater numbers are't taking literature courses at all. All levels of American education have become more technocratic over the last 50 to 70 years, he says, with liberal arts deemphasized in favor of professional and technical training.

Says Guillory, whose book earned the René Wellek Prize from the American Comparative Literature Association, "These forms are slowly displacing the form of cultural capital that constitutes the literary curriculum. We can and should make a vigorous defense of reading and writing as essential skills for all citizens."


In brief

The Hopkins board of trustees has awarded the first Krieger/Eisenhower professorship to anthropology professor Michel-Rolph Trouillot (PhD '85). The $50 million Zanvyl Krieger challenge grant in late 1992 created 10 endowed chairs, to be awarded to eminent scholars in the School of Arts and Sciences.

Trouillot specializes in the economy, history, and culture of the Caribbean, freely stepping across disciplinary boundaries. He is director of the Program in Atlantic History, Culture and Society, and also directs the university's new Institute for Global Studies in Culture, Power, and History.

Written by Dale Keiger


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