Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Mary Poppins Returns

The official trailer for Mary Poppins Returns has just about everything: nostalgia, magic, and a nonagenarian Dick Van Dyke dancing on the furniture.

One thing that's missing is a significant sampling of the songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, which I of course can't wait to hear.

If the reaction videos can be taken as a measure, the trailer seems to be cuing all the right emotions.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Pecan Pie Baby

Image result for pecan pie babyJacqueline Woodson’s Pecan Pie Baby tells the story of an African American girl, Gia, who is less than happy that she is going to have a new sibling. Aimed at young readers, the book, with illustrations by Sophie Blackall, signals its comforting objective from the outset through its pastel colors and the appealingly round-faced characters. The front cover shows Gia and her Mama in close embrace with Gia’s arm around her mother’s pregnant belly after they have just finished eating pecan pie, the food that Mama uses to comfort Gia and reassure her of her love.

Blackall’s illustrations show the relationship between Gia and Mama, using indoor environments, predominantly the home, and Gia's position within them to show her emotional state. The book opens in the fall with Gia and Mama going through Gia’s winter clothes. Instead of throwing them away, however, Mama boxes them up for the new baby. Gia’s room is always shown from a perspective directed toward the far corner, where her bed is situated. In the first two-page spread, the room appears cozy and lived-in, with mother and daughter smiling as they pack up the winter clothes.

Image result for pecan pie babyThis mood is disrupted in the text, however, when Mama brings up what Gia repeatedly refers to in exasperated larger type as the “ding-dang baby.” On the next spread, Gia looks away from her mother (who is always looking at Gia, no matter what) as she tries to talk to her about the coming baby. In such moments of emotional closeness, Blackwell gives us intimate depictions of the characters with few or no details of their surroundings in the background. The passage of time is indicated by the changing of the season from autumn to winter, which is when, according to Mama, the baby will probably arrive (by the first snow). On the first page, trees in cheerful fall colors are framed by the windows in Gia’s room. After the topic of the baby comes up, falling leaves are foregrounded in an exterior view of Gia’s bedroom window as she looks out hoping there won’t be snow. Framed by the window, Gia looks away from Mama as each falling leaf portends the dreaded winter.

Mama remarks that the baby loves pecan pie, and it wants some right now. Gia says the baby is just a copy-cat, because the two of them love pecan pie. This conversation takes place on the same spread dominated by the picture of Gia and Mama in the window with leaves blowing across the pages toward the substantial paragraph of text. There is some space after this text before the single line, “In the kitchen, Mama cut us a big slice.” Then, in the lower right corner of page, there is a tiny picture of the two of them seated side-by-side at the kitchen table, sharing a piece of pecan pie. Their eyes are glancing toward each other, and there is something stylized, possibly even suggestive of folk art, about the way the hold their spoons against their smiling lips. Because of the unusual way in which they eat with their spoons, one is prompted to imagine the taste and texture of the pie, which has an affectionate place in Southern and African American culinary history as a dessert associated with family and holidays. Such a significant moment in the story might well have been its own featured page. The choice to slip it into the corner of a two-page spread suggests that it is the little things—small gestures of love and acts of bonding—that matter. It also allows room for this gesture to grow larger and more significant by the end of the book. In these first few expository pages, the full story has been prefigured on a small scale.

As time passes, leaves keep falling, and “jacket weather” comes. Gia’s fear that the new baby will ruin life as she knows it intensifies. There is a moment of playful abandon when Gia and her friends play “Mama’s Having a Baby.” As the children jump rope to the traditional children’s rhyme, Gia blends into the crowd—it takes the reader a moment to spot her near the end of the line. At this moment, she is able to play through her feelings of resentment (in the rhyme, the baby is sent down the escalator) without being singled out as the girl who’s getting a baby sibling, as happens during an episode in class.Image result for pecan pie baby

Image result for pecan pie babySoon, however, before even arriving, the baby seems to invade Gia's life, world, and physical space. She worries that her friend won't be able to sleep over because the baby will take the extra bed. Her aunties come to visit, but rush through tea and ignore her to talk about the baby, and her uncles invade her room to put the crib together. In a single-page illustration without words, they have strewn furniture parts and tools all over her room, leaving Gia drawn up in fetal position, backed up into the far corner of her room, small and marginalized. At school, the teacher reads a book about a girl who is about to be a big sister, and in contrast to the anonymity she enjoys in the jump-rope scene, she is encircled by her classmates who all look at her.

There is another moment of reassurance in the corner of the page when Mama rubs Gia’s back during dinner and says she need Gia in response to Grandma’s offer to keep her for a while. This is not enough, though, to keep things from reaching a breaking point at Thanksgiving dinner, when unending talk of the baby sends Gia into such a state of agitation she shouts “I’m so sick of that DING DANG BABY!”

Gia is sent to her room, where she again sits on her bed in the corner. Her loneliness is deepest here, with the lines where the floor and walls meet converging where she sits in a deep recess of solitude as we look down on her from above. The trees in the window have almost completely shed their leaves.

Image result for pecan pie baby

Soon, Mama comes to comfort her. As they cuddle together on the bed, Gia can’t avoid feeling the baby “jumping around” in Mama’s belly, which has grown noticeably since the beginning of the book. An illustration shows that Gia can’t put her arm around her mother without also embracing the baby. As it begins to snow, they go downstairs for pecan pie again. They laugh about how “the three of us loved ourselves some pecan pie!” In the last illustration, Gia and Mama hold hands and look into each other’s eyes while Mama balances a slice of pie on top of her belly. Mama and Gia’s emotional closeness is emphasized by the absence of any environmental details in the background. It is just the two (or three) of them, and at least for the moment ending the book, the bond among mother, daughter, and pecan-pie baby is secure.

Judy Garland sings "Over the Rainbow"

Judy Garland is probably best known for her role as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1939) and for her song from the movie, "Over the Rainbow." The song became her signature, and in the 1950s it was a fixture of her concert tours. Typically she sang it right after a recreation of "A Couple of Swells," a clowning song and dance duet which she shared with Fred Astaire in the film Easter Parade (1948). Still in the "tramp" costume from this comedic number, she would sit on the edge of the stage and give a heartfelt rendition of "Over the Rainbow," as though breaking the fourth wall of the preceding comedic performance to bare her soul. In this, the only video of the performance, from her appearance on the Ford Star Jubilee television program of 1955, even as she remains in costume and makeup, the pathos of her real life--the addictions, marital instability, career ups-and-downs, and other struggles of which many of her fans were aware--are foregrounded in a theatrically staged revelation of the person behind the performer.

This revelation of the person behind the performer also plays as a revelation of the child behind the adult. Much has been said about the androgyny of the performance and how Garland's inhabiting the drag of a male tramp intensifies the effect of dislocation--of a person not belonging or not confined by conventional gender and social categories--and the feelings of longing expressed by the song in such conditions of marginalization. Resonances with her gay male and other queer fans is obvious here. Perhaps less obvious, but at least as important, I think, is a kind of age drag. Her tramp character, although an adult, is comically childlike. Indeed, it is an infantalizing portrayal of poverty and, implicitly, race, given its roots in clown stock characters and minstrelsy tropes (which were very much part of Garland's early film career). Whereas in "A Couple of Swells," Garland's tramp is a carefree and child-like adult, in "Over the Rainbow," the character is a window onto the adult's childhood, which persists as the "child inside." Garland's performance channels both the image of the child star's loss of childhood and the impossibility of an adulthood without childlike vulnerability. The poignancy of the performance is, first and foremost, I think, in its queering of the line between child and adult, revealing the latter, in particular, to be a fantasy.

Friday, September 14, 2018

No More Kings!

The "America Rock" episodes of the ABC interstitial cartoon series Schoolhouse Rock presented lessons about American history and democracy that were meant to educate young viewers into  citizenship. Schoolhouse Rock used songs in styles of music broadly conceived as rock to help its young viewers remember things like the preamble to the Constitution, adverbs, and multiplication tables. In the case of the nostalgic "America" episodes, a folk-rock sound dominates. The first installment, “No More Kings," opens with an invocation of rock music itself to announce the appearance on the world stage of American democracy:

Rockin' and a rollin', splisin' and a splashin'
Over the horizon, what can it be?
Looks like its going to be a free country.

The song then launches into a narrative of the colonization of the new world describing the proto-USA as a child leaving the nest of mother England.

Oh, they were missing Mother England
They swore their loyalty until the very end
Anything you say, King, it's okay, King
You know, it's kind of scary on your own
Gonna build a new land the way we planned
Can you help us run it till it's grown?

Words, music and image seem designed to tell a story children could relate to. The animation makes the world appear small, so that a ship can easily sail across a small ocean, across which a king can watch his subjects through a spyglass. The Boston Tea Party is represented inside a teacup, which is reminiscent of a child's tea set. The Mayflower and the house, over which people tower, are also toy-like.

The folksy, guitar-based, seventies soft pop style of the music maintains the childlike affect. Most importantly, the pilgrims are described, like children, as dependent on a mother country. They are frightened to be alone in the world, but swearing their loyalty, they want to build a new land according to their own vision. They need help until, like a child, the new nation is “grown.” And they want the king to be proud of them, just as a child seeks a parent’s approval.  Both the colonizers and the country they found are thus positioned as innocent by being coded as children.

To maintain the innocence of this narrative, however, requires the erasure of those who would complicate it.
      We are told that the Pilgrims are looking for a land to call their own. We of course know that there are already people there, a fact which is not acknowledged in the song’s lyrics, and only marginally acknowledged in the animation as American Indians peer apprehensively from behind Plymouth Rock. The pilgrims simply “planted corn, you know” in a landscape represented by a blank page. There’s nothing to see here, as their crops and houses fill the uninhabited space.

      The king himself is presented as childlike, effeminate, and prone to tantrums. His authority is replaced in the end by that of men of reason, the founding fathers who framed the constitution and the declaration of independence. These rational patriarchs must be defined against their opposites—children, racial others and the femininely gendered Mother England. It is probably worth mentioning that the emergence of this species of rational men coincided historically with the emergence of Romantic, innocent childhood. In this and other "America Rock" episodes, the growth of the nation parallels the growth of the child from a primitive state to a mature one. This growth into Enlightenment rationalist Euro-American adulthood is the basis of Schoolhouse Rock's democracy. Children, while they remain such, along with infantalized non-white adults, are excluded.


Thursday, September 13, 2018

Pestalozzi and Music Education

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi.jpgJohann Heinrich Pestalozzi, the Swiss educator, held that education should be child centered, teaching the student through natural exploration and play. He expressed his view of the education of the whole person by saying that children should learn by "head, hand, and heart." His belief in the proximity of childhood to nature and the natural education of the child was influenced by the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with whom he shared the belief that speech and sound preceded written words ("sound before sign"). Pestalozzi's ideas were influential on American music education through the work of influential music educators like Lowell Mason. Under Pestalozzian principles, children were most naturally and effectively taught music through singing and playful performance rather than reading and writing music. Such ideas were further disseminated in the twentieth century in the music teaching methods developed by Carl Orff and Zoltan Kodaly.

In this video, music educator Jo Ann Champion traces the lineage of Pestalozzian ideas in American music education.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Gallimathias Musicum

I've been listening to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's early compositions, and this is one of my favorites. Mozart wrote Gallimathias musicum in 1766, when he was ten years old. It was performed in the Hague for the coming of age of the regent Prince William of Orange the Fifth on his eighteenth birthday, when he was installed as the Stadtholder of the Dutch Republic. Gallimathias seems to mean something like nonsense, gibberish, or a confused state. It's a humorous piece, a quodlibet, which usually indicates a lighthearted composition combining popular tunes in counterpoint. Here, the designation probably refers to the final movement, a fugue on the Dutch tune "Willem van Nassau," which, according to Mozart's father, Leopold, everyone in Holland was "singing, playing, and whistling" at the time.