I Sing the Classroom of Ed Tech

2012 July 24
by KeethInk

I sing: about what a transparent educational technology should be. Could be. I’m not talking about new PowerPoint templates here. I’m talking about a Jedi-training, multimedia, transparent technological tool that helps students learn. It doesn’t exist right now, as far as I know, but I thought if I put it out there, maybe one of you wonderful people of the world could make it happen.

I sing:

…about teaching English classes about the Great Vowel Shift by discussing the invasion of 1066. When we mention the key words (tags?), the lights will dim briefly, and shouts of Saxon warriors will fill the room. Flashes from broadswords on all four walls. Projections in the center of the room and all all four walls allow the class to sit in the round. A spinning globe will stop, focus hovering over England, then zoom in on the thread of a channel that runs between England and France. Sounds of Old, then Middle English fill the room, combined with French. The words change – kah-nite (knight) becomes nite (knight). The words are spelled out on the walls, in the air, as they students hear them changing. The map becomes interactive, and students are able to move words over the map with their hands (Xbox Kinect-style) to hear differences in geographical pronunciation. They can also move a chronological slider, to hear the differences time makes.

I sing:

… of a discussion of a text like Jane Eyre. The universe of British literature appears like a constellation in the classroom (picture Yoda’s Jedi academy, without the small green guy). Each text is a bright spot of colored light, poised in relation to other texts in terms of chronology and geography. Students (or the teacher) can highlight bands of theoretical movements, influence, authorship, translation… We could zoom in on the point of light almost infinitely, seeing images of the adaptations, viewing the biographical information about the author, linking to other texts via the Gothic, or queer studies, or women’s studies, or fanfiction, or any of the myriad ways that Jane Eyre can be read. These links would show a band of light of, say, the Gothic, lit up and highlighted as a belt of influence and relationship. Each choice would bring up a new constellation of knowledge (or a new view of the whole). The constellation would be a database accessible by all, but customizable by the user for their own classroom so that tags or ideas could be referenced easily or made age-appropriate (for example, a ninth-grade classroom will approach Jane Eyre in different ways than a graduate-level seminar).

I sing:

…of a discussion of James Joyce’s “The Dead” will bring up not only links to critical studies, books, and Huston’s wonderful movie adaptation, but musical adaptations of the songs in the story, as well as the poems, geography, images of Dublin, and—of course—an image of galoshes.

Let me be clear: I’m not seeking virtual reality, but a virtual construction of knowledge that allows students (and teachers, who should still be learning) to see and make connections between texts in a way that two dimensional diagrams (and even static three-dimensional diagrams) do not allow.

As you can guess, I’m not a new critic and don’t experience texts in a vacuum. I am not an especially kinesthetically oriented person, but I believe that sitting motionlessly and passively is not the best way to learn. I believe texts exist within contexts. I have learned (thanks to a wonderful professor, Dr. Pat Michaelson) that if students have a context in which to place new knowledge, they are much more likely to retain it. By creating knowledge structures, constellations which students can manipulate and explore, we could demonstrate and experience context in a visual and kinesthetic way.

This song (I sing!) has been inspired by my attempt to create a field of knowledge for my qualifying exams. As I create and explore texts in contexts, I keep trying to place them into visual spaces and relationships. I’ve been using Scrivener (see one example of my Scrivener “boards” here), which even has a timeline feature, but I want more.

I sing it. I’ve dreamed it. Who can do it?

Some thoughts on Prezis, PowerPoints, and other phenomena

2012 July 24
by KeethInk

I spent some time last night working with Prezi. I began with a PowerPoint that someone else had created.

That was my first problem. There were masses of information crammed on each slide and strange, generic, dated pictures. Ugh.

Then I realized that the presentation was just regurgitating information. It wasn’t asking the viewers (students) to “do” anything or think anything. That was no good. There was no logical sequence between the slides.

I realized that even though it is easy to use someone else’s work, it’s only useful if it’s good work.

My favorite class PowerPoints (I do use them occasionally) are sequences of images that ask questions in their juxtaposition. Occasionally I will use one with multiple choices on it, as a classroom assessment technique. I have been guilty of information regurgitation in the past, but I’m really trying to tone it back. I don’t use word-heavy presentations very often now – if there’s a ton of info, I give it in a handout.

People villify both Powerpoint (for its relentless march of slides) and Prezi (for its motion-sickness-causing abilities), but I don’t think it’s the tools that are the problems.

I worked in advertising for several years, and I think that was a good thing. I’m always conscious of the presentation and readability of handouts and presentations. I don’t spend a ton of time on it (I can’t), but I will take an extra five minutes to make sure that it invites reading. I like a nice margin, myself.

Speaking of visual tools, I’m working on a timeline on Dipity.com. My plan is that we will add to the timeline each time we read a text. My goal with that is to help students create context for the literature we are working with. Here’s our timeline. Follow along if you like. We’ll see how it goes!

Studying for exams

2012 June 29
by KeethInk

I’m currently studying for my PhD exams. I haven’t been posting much as of late here on KeethInk, but I’m not abandoning my blog forever–just focusing on the exam process. Follow me on Twitter for the briefest of news.

Productivity Desktop Apps for Academics, Writers, and Other Procrastinators

2012 April 26
by KeethInk

These are some of my favorite desktop apps. They help me organize, stop procrastinating, and get work done. Some of them are Mac-only, but some are available for multiple platforms. Hope they help you get some work done.

1. Evernote

I am constantly surprised at how many academics haven’t heard of Evernote. GET EVERNOTE, Y’ALL.

Evernote is a place where you can store your stuff. It holds web clippings, bookmarks, notes to self, photos, and all the random things that you would otherwise scribble on a napkin or the back of a receipt and promptly lose. Your stuff is stored in the cloud, which means that it syncs up and you can access it anywhere. Evernote has a desktop app that you can download and use offline, and a web-based app that you can access through your browser.

I love their web clipper extension for Firefox. When I see something important on a web page, I click the elephant button and save it as a new note in Evernote. Quick, easy, free.

Some specifically academic uses for Evernote:

Track research for articles/papers.

Write down ideas for future articles/papers (the ideas that would slip out of your head otherwise).

Keep track of door/key codes (I have 4-5 different door codes for my U, and they change every year!).

Clip articles for reading later (Evernote has a “plug-in” called Clearly that works well for this).

Clip lesson plans from the web.

Write stuff down to get it out of your head so that you can think about other things.

Academics have lives, too: among other things, I store the measurements of my dining room windows, the paint colors for the exterior of my house, my dad’s shoe size, and the item number for my printer cartridges. When I’m shopping at, say, IKEA, I use my phone to snap a pic of the item & bin number (Billy bookshelves—can I get an amen?) so that I can find it in their warehouse.

I also tend to clip websites into Evernote – yes, I could bookmark them in my browser, but that gets crazy after a while. Do I really need to have this British company who sells cute umbrellas—they call them brollies!—in my browser bookmarks? Probably not, but it doesn’t take up any room in Evernote. I keep my most-used sites (and I have plenty) in my browser menu and bookmarks, and put the rest of the random sites into Evernote.

I use Evernote as a vast receptacle of everything I run across and don’t want to forget. Word to the wise: tag your notes. Use as many tags as you want, but tag them. It helps so much when you are trying to find something later. You can also make groups of notes by making stacks of notes: check out this post from Michael Hyatt for more about using Evernote to the fullest.

*A word about Evernote and GTD (Getting To Done): GTD is a great productivity system/plan/book. I don’t really do everything in the GTD system, but my biggest take-away from it was this: write everything down. You have a limited amount of processing room or RAM in your head, and all of those times that you think “oh, I don’t need to write that down; I’ll remember” mean you are using up your RAM. If you write down the minutiae of life, you free up room in your head to think about more important things. This, for me, has been the best thing about Evernote—it frees up room in my brain. I can write everything down without worrying whether or not I’ll be able to find it later.

For you Harry Potter fans (and who isn’t?), Evernote is like your own personal Penseive; a place where you can put all of your memories and ideas for access at a later time.

Evernote is available for Mac and PC, and they have phone apps for iPhone and Android.

2. Leech Block.

Leech Block is a browser plug-in that is good for those of you who (like me) get distracted by the internet. LeechBlock allows you to set up limits for yourself on how much time you are allowed to spend on certain sites (*cough FACEBOOK cough*) before the program cuts you off. You can also set up certain times of day when the program will limit or prevent your use of the sites you choose. While this may sound like a “nanny” program, keep in mind that YOU set all the parameters. The best thing about Leech Block is that once it cuts you off, it is very difficult to change the settings to reach the blocked site (*cough PINTEREST) until your set time is up.

You can tell Leech Block to allow you five minutes of “distraction” time per hour, for example, from 7-10 pm on weekdays, but no limits on weekends (or whatever combination you choose).

The sites you block are, of course, specific to you—I waste plenty of time on The Hairpin, Zappos, The Blessing of Verity, and even dafont.com. Know thyself.

3. Concentrate:

Concentrate is a paid app, but it has an amazingly long trial period (40 60! hours of active use), so you can try it to see if you like it. Concentrate is a desktop app for Mac that allows you to set up timed work “sprints” in certain programs or documents, with the option of limiting your access to other programs or website if you choose.

For example, if you were using Concentrate for grading, you could set it up an event called “Grading Lit 101.” You could tell Concentrate that whenever you clicked on that event, you want it to open up:


your gradebook in Excel,

your rubric in Excel,

change your desktop photo to your school colors,

play your favorite station at Pandora.com,

while setting a timer for 45 minutes.

You could set up a message to appear at the end of the 45 minutes that said “stand up and stretch” or whatever you choose.

If you were writing, you could set up a Concentrate event that:

opened up your dissertation in Word,

your research in Scrivener,

your book list in Zotero,

your favorite writing playlist in iTunes,

your freewriting place in 750words.com,

change your desktop picture to your favorite inspirational image (whether that’s the Swiss Alps or Ryan Gosling)

and blocked Facebook and Tweetdeck (not that those are a problem for me, ahem).

The best thing about Concentrate is the way it gets you right into the task at hand, setting up a visual and auditory workspace that tells our brain “we’re working now.”

Do not discount the power of changing your desktop picture and playing certain music to build a habitual response in your brain that gets you working, fast.

The free trial of Concentrate will keep you going for a while, so give it a whirl.

4. Skitch

Skitch may not seem very useful to academics, but it is one of those all-purpose apps that is great for everyone. Skitch calls itself a “camera for the internet,” but it’s somehow much more than that. Yes, you could use command-shift-4 on your Mac to snap a pic of your screen, but Skitch is better. You can use it to snap a quick picture of whatever is on your screen, then quickly annotate it if needed, and share with others via email, Facebook, Twitter, etc. The image can be saved to your Skitch history for access later, to your Evernote account, to a folder on your computer, or anywhere else you like.

It’s super easy to drag the resulting file (as any file format) to an open Word or Scrivener document on your screen. Skitch can even snap a picture of a few lines from Google Books or a screenshot from a protected DVD, which are things that command-shift-4 can’t always do. I’m not suggesting you infringe on copyright here – this type of snap is, for me, used on my personal Scrivener boards for study, research, and recall.

I started using Skitch waaaay back in the day when it was in beta testing. Then, it was a paid program ($20). Now, it’s been purchased by the Evernote company, and it’s a free download. It’s a very simple but very easy and useful program. Get it.

5. Wren

If you tweet, you know that sometimes you have something to say (”I’m on a roll with this grading/writing/research!”) but when you open up Twitter, you find yourself reading other people’s tweets and then fifteen minutes go by and your roll has, sadly, rolled on. Wren is a very, very simple desktop app that allows you to tweet something without being distracted by reading other tweets. Just open Wren, type, and hit send. That’s it.

I’ll post later about some other helpful apps I use. For now, I need to quit writing about productivity so I can go be productive.

Getting Things Done

2012 March 18
by KeethInk

After getting multiple recommendations to read it, I bought Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen. This is a book on personal productivity. I have found it to be immensely helpful. In paperback or e-edition, it’s cheap (<$10) and they don’t ask you to buy anything else (unlike, say, Franklin-Covey).

I wanted to let you know about the two software solutions I have found to be the most helpful to me for using the GTD system. One of them is free and the other is ridiculously cheap, and you need to know about them.

1. Google Calendar and Gee Tasks

I use Google Calendar for my calendar and Task List. First, Google Calendar.

You can create multiple calendars (for example: School, Home, Work, Automatic Bank Drafts, etc.). You can also share calendars with anyone (or no-one) else. In the calendar view, you can turn calendars on or off so that you can see, for example, only your work commitments. This is great for using on your desktop. I’ve made Google calendar my home page, so it’s the first thing I see when I start up Firefox, my web browser.

Google calendar syncs with the iPhone calendar app (the one that comes with the phone). This means that you don’t have to buy anything or do anything special after the initial setup – it stays in sync. You can enter appointments in the iPhone calendar app, and they appear in Google calendars (and vice versa). Easy peasy.

Google also gives you a Tasks calendar. The task bar appears on one side of the calendar app in the normal view. You can also use a Canvas (wide, full page) view for tasks, or, in Firefox or Chrome, you can put Tasks in a sidebar so that they stay in view no matter what page you are browsing.

The Tasks Sidebar is awesome sauce—that’s all there is to it. Here’s how to access the Tasks sidebar in Firefox.

You can give tasks due dates, tab them to make them subordinate to other tasks, and make notes on tasks. You can change to way you view the tasks, from the order you typed them, to due date, to whatever.

You can also have multiple Tasks lists. I have one for School, one for Home, one for Professional Development, one for this year’s goals. You can do whatever you like.

Here’s the catch: Google Tasks doesn’t sync with the iPhone in any natural way. Thankfully, the developer of the iPhone app GeeTasks has bridged the gap. Download GeeTasks, enter your Google ID and password, and you’re up & running. The iPhone app is simple and intuitive and does exactly what I want it to do. It was totally worth $2.99. (Seriously, people, I’ve paid more for a cup of coffee.)

2. Evernote

Evernote is one of the coolest programs/sites out there, especially if you are an information hoarder like me. (Confession: I had ten years worth of Martha Stewart Living magazine on my bookshelf at one point. I FINALLY got rid of it after watching Hoarders.)

I used to have an elaborate file system, full of tearsheets from magazines and notes of all the cool things I wanted to remember.  Evernote is like that file system, but all electronic & web based & totally easy to use. And it doesn’t take up any room in my house. And it’s FREE.

This is the beauty of the GTD system: you want to have a place where you can store supporting documents, or notes, or “someday” stuff, or all that stuff you want to remember, but you aren’t sure where it should go. Evernote is where it goes.

Honestly, I don’t do the entire GTD system. I don’t have 43 folders (although Merlin Mann does, and his website is a great place to find out more about getting things done). My file cabinet is a cardboard box (I’m working on that).

Even if I don’t do everything, I can still take some of the good things about the system, like the tip to WRITE EVERYTHING DOWN, ALL IN ONE PLACE. Start there. Put things on your Google calendar, make a to-do list in Google Tasks, and put the other random stuff into Evernote.

And for goodness’ sake, get rid of those back issues of Martha Stewart Living.

Disclaimer: I don’t get any money or backrubs or any other free stuff from any of these companies. If you click the Amazon link up there and buy the book, I get a few cents for sending you there. If you get the book from your local library, that’s cool, too.

Tech Tools: Scrivener Corkboard

2012 February 23
by KeethInk

Scrivener is a writing program, and it’s huge. I don’t have time or space in this post to tell you everything is can do, but I wanted to share one way I’m using it to keep my notes organized for my qualifying exams:


Scrivener (by the software company Literature and Latte) is very robust, and the corkboard is just one layout feature. For me, it’s ideal for looking at my notes for a work like Shakespeare’s Richard III. I have images that remind me of major themes, and jog my memory. I have pdfs of relevant articles (the first three notecards) that are saved with the file (you can even make notes on the pdfs). And each card contains notes on a topic—clicking on a notecard leads me to the longer text on that topic. I have a corkboard like this for each of Shakespeare’s plays (one of my exam fields) as I read or review them, as well as the items in my other two exam fields.

Scrivener does a lot of things, and does them well. I just wanted to share this quick way of organizing your thoughts and notes on a topic. For me, it helps organize my thoughts and jog my memory for my PhD qualifying exams.

I’ll be posting on more of my favorite tech tools for academics in the future.

Imposter Syndrome

2012 February 21
by KeethInk

I have imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome is the feeling, common among graduate students, that you don’t really know what you are doing. It’s the feeling that you are an imposter, and at any moment someone will expose your lack of knowledge and know-how. It’s the feeling that if your colleagues knew that you didn’t really understand Heigel/Foucault/Nietzche, they would kick you out of the graduate lounge and laugh you all the way to the curb.

Imposter syndrome feels very real. One of the reasons it feels so real is that the truth has two faces: 1. you do know what you are doing, as much as anyone else does, and 2. no-one really knows what he or she is doing, including you.

Let me give you some examples, from my own graduate career. I give you these examples not in false humility, but in honesty. I really feel this way, a lot of the time.

I used to work in advertising. I knew what I was doing, knew what my parameters were. As a friend of mine likes to say: I knew what I knew. In graduate school, I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. Keep in mind that I’m not a grad school newbie – I’ve just finished my PhD coursework.

For example: one semester, I took a PhD level course in Victorian novels. Each of us had a class period where we chose a novel for the class to read, and then led the (three-hour) discussion.When I started the discussion with a brief overview of the author’s biography, I went completely blank. I stammered, I looked for passages without finding them, I called characters by the wrong names. I was certain I had bombed leading discussion, based on my perception of how the class went. I went so far as to email the professor to sort of apologize for my performance. She replied back, telling me, among other things: “You did a super, very professional job…” Now, clearly, she and I had different perceptions of my performance. I thought I’d bombed it, while she thought I did a great job (and here’s a hint: the professor’s opinion counts).  I felt like I was not a “real” PhD student, because I couldn’t even lead a decent discussion, but I was wrong. That’s another problem with imposter syndrome: it’s often based in a wildly inaccurate self-evaluation of your own performance.

In conversations with other grad students, I hear over and over: “I don’t know what I’m doing.” This is not the fault of my (or any other) U, in my opinion. It’s the state of mind of the graduate student. There is, I think, a movement in academia to make grad school easier to navigate (while at the same time a backlash against the “glut” of newly-minted PhDs, especially in the humanities). In some sense, I think graduate school is designed to weed out some students. If you can’t figure it out, the rationale goes, you shouldn’t be here. The problem is that graduate school becomes confusing to everyone. My graduate student association hosts sessions on grad student “how to’s”: how to get published, how to write a CV, how to do this or that. We have a new graduate student advisor who helps students get direction and focus. We have new professors who were in our shoes just a few years ago, and who are endlessly helpful and sympathetic. We have more established professors who know the ropes of our U, and who give invaluable direction and advice. And yet I still hear from my colleagues: “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Part of the problem is that in academia, you’re supposed to know. Knowledge is our goal, our business, and our currency. I took a class one semester on “Unread Shakespeare,” where we read his lesser-known plays. At the beginning of the semester, we had to decide which plays the fewest of us had read. Our professor simply read a list, and for each play, asked us to raise our hand if we had not read that play.

This proved to be instantly problematic. We are all happy to raise our hands when we have read a play, but who wants to raise a hand when you have not read it? People were trying to raise their hands without being seen, which defeated the purpose of the exercise.

I decided to set the example. A Winter’s Tale? I waved my arm around. Two Gentlemen of Verona? My hand went up. King Lear? I raised my hand, high. That one hurt my pride a bit, I’ll admit it. But how are we supposed to learn if we can’t admit what we don’t know? Sure, I can pretend I’ve read King Lear (insert joke about blindness, or father-daughter relationships…). (And I’ve now read King Lear, thank you very much.)

I think that I don’t know anything, but the truth is that I do. When new grad students ask a question within earshot of me, I am quick to give them every piece of info I can think of: how to get a TAship, what to submit to a conference, where the sink with the good water filter is, when the on-campus childcare is available, who can help with an eighteenth-century reading list. I believe intellectual collaboration is more powerful than competition.

My point is this: You are doing ok, even when you don’t believe it. Your feelings are not always true. Your perception is not always true. And unless you are wildly narcissistic, you are probably doing better than you think you are.

Try helping someone else out—collaboration works as an antidote to the potential poison of competition. Share what you know, and you will begin to be surprised at how much you do know. And if you really don’t know, admit it. Admit what you haven’t read, what you didn’t understand, and ask for help. In almost all cases, you’ll get it. And if you don’t get help at your U, ask online. I’m here to help and share, and many of my colleagues and Twitter friends are too.

You’re doing ok. Really.

forget cooking

2011 June 19
by KeethInk


accidental art

2011 May 1
by KeethInk

I’ve decided to post some photos today that I really love.

All of these pictures are what I call “accidental art.”

They resulted from a camera misfunction, or a small child took them, or they were otherwise taken accidentally.

I find them highly interesting and artistic.


“purple car” taken by my nephew


“fountain” taken by me accidentally (hipstamic for iPhone)


“river otters” taken by my mom

What do you think? If it’s accidental, can it be art?

for all photos: copyright remains with the photographer and/or keethink.com.

Concert review: Musica Nova “French Connections”

2011 April 16
by KeethInk

When I hurry around the side of the lobby before the show, I hear the clarinet player warming up. The muscles under the corners of my mouth tighten involuntarily in response, forming lines down each side of my chin like a marionette, or a ventriloquist’s dummy. When I return to my seat, it has moved—we all shift toward the center of the aisle to make room. By the time the concert begins, every seat is filled, including the chairs placed on each side of the stage.

UTD does not offer a music major. The musicians who will perform are scientists and engineers. Dr. Rodriguez introduces the musicians and the pieces in a way that reminded me of Kurt Rongey, the syndicated voice on WRR. He tells us about the pieces, gives us a little tune or lick to listen for. His guidance allows us to anticipate and participate, which are the best things an audience can do. Tonight’s theme is “French Connections,” and all of the composers are either French or have studied in Paris.

The first suite is by Claude Debussy: The Children’s Corner. Debussy wrote this for his five-year-old daughter, Claude Emma or “Chou-Chou,” as a gift. Chou-Chou only lived to the age of thirteen, but, as Dr. Rodriguez put it, “she lives on forever in this music.” The piece, written originally for piano, has been arranged for two guitars. This, I think, is what qualifies these pieces as “Musica Nova” or “New Music:” by arranging for different instruments, the piece becomes new and different. The two scientists enchant the audience. They sit close together, with the simultaneous sway and symbiotic breath of practiced musicians. I know what it feels like to enter that world, that time outside of time, performing music, multiple musicians becoming one organism for a few moments, and I envy them. Then one guitarist mops his face with a handkerchief during a rest, and I remember what hard work music is. The second movement is a theme on one of Chou-Chou’s Chinese toys, and it sounds more authentically Chinese than on classical guitar than it ever could on a piano.  The last movement is inspired by ragtime, and it is surprising in its familiarity. It is not the tune that we recognize, but the style. The suite ends with a musical laugh of sorts, and the audience laughs along, then applauds. This audience does not clap between the movements. Even the young girl sitting next to me is attentive.

The next piece is by Aaron Copeland, who found his quintessentially American voice while studying in Paris. Copeland’s Piano Blues, transcribed for a piano and three strings, isn’t just blue—it’s dark blue. The piece is deep, moody, and warm; a solitary cup of coffee at a café, an Americano in Paris. Again, by using the “wrong” instrumentation for the piece, Dr. Rodriguez has created a new meaning for the song.

We transition into Donald Grantham’s Son of Cimetiére. Grantham also studied in Paris and teaches as UT Austin. This piece is based on voodoo folklore. If Dia de los Muertes took place in Louisiana, this song is what you would hear. The piano and strings remain on stage, and are joined by a percussionist and a clarinet. This also is a new arrangement for this piece of music, and Dr. Rodriguez compares it to a body that has been stitched together: appropriate for voodoo/zombie folklore. The piece is dancey and bright, and it keeps the percussionist busy with wood blocks, a vibra-slap, triangle, maracas, tambourine, and drums. The clarinetist has quick fingers and the notes are firm, even in the highest register, but the performer has the misfortune of playing the instrument with which I am most familiar.  To play a solo clarinet in a jazz ensemble, on a Bayou piece, is a terrifying responsibility, and I applaud her. I do wish once or twice for the confident, round breath and reedy tweet of the old jazz clarinetists, but this is pickiness on my part. The song is a danse macabre, exuberant and highly entertaining.

The next piece is by Darius Milhaud: The Creation of the World. It has the distinction of being jazz performed before Gershwin. It is a suite for ballet based on the African story of creation. Dr. Rodriguez tells us to listen for the refrain that sounds like the tag of the Happy Birthday song (“and many moooore”), but to replace it in our minds with the words “and it was good.” I decide I like Dr. Rodriguez.

The Prelude is strange and unfamiliar, slow, with a cello drone, darkness hovering over the water, but some order emerges from the chaos. Then the Fugue, with its light quick jazz, is a brief story that gets handed around the circle from musician to musician. The Romance is very brief, piano and strings only, but the only way I know to describe it is to say that it sounds like Gershwin. For the Scherzo, everyone is back in for a strange and modern piece like the “Mambo” number in West Side Story—I think Bernstein must have listened to Milhaud. The Final is sparse and somewhat softer than the preceding movements. The clarinet and piano carry the melody, and then pass it  to the cello, then the violins. The melody flits around the stage, while the counterpoint reminds us, before the piece gets too pat or pretty, that this is a modern piece, after all. The end of the piece is a kind of cacophony, with wood blocks and jazzy bursts of sound, then the lone viola, low and charming, and a reprisal of the melodic hand-off, a call-and-response. The piece ends on a chord with an unresolved seventh—the seventh day of creation, perhaps?

During the intermission, I read that the pianist is a staff accompanist, which explains his solid but unshowy style. The anticipated soprano, too, is a guest artist, and not a student. She enters in a beautiful black dress with a rhinestone clasp, a marked contrast to the girls seated on the side of the stage who have come straight from soccer practice, shin guards still in place.

The soprano, Rebecca Duran, is Dr. Rodriguez’s goddaughter, and he arranged this piece—six e.e. cummings poems set to music— as a gift to her. He encourages us to follow along with the text, which is printed in the programs. The pieces are arranged for soprano and piano only. The first movement, “tictoc clocks,” is modern and has a “ticking” beat. Dr. Rodriguez says that it quotes Bach, but I am not familiar enough with Bach to catch the allusion. The next three pieces come in quick succession, and they are sweet, languid poems with words about love. Dr. Rodriguez’s arrangement normalizes the phrasing of cummings’ poetry, cleaning up the enjambment of the lines.

Ms. Duran is a true soprano. The higher she climbs, the better I like it. Her mouth is strangely unopen, which has the benefit of clarifying and modernizing the diction of the poetry, but denies us the most lovely and resonant parts of her voice whenever she encounters a horizontal vowel.

At the end of the fourth movement, a resolved major chord is a relief, somewhere to land, but it does not prepare us for what is to come next. Suddenly, Ms. Duran transforms from Serious Opera Singer to entertainer. When she sings, “mr youse needn’t be so spry,” she is Adelaide from Guys and Dolls, and on the last line she puts her hands behind her head and rolls her hips suggestively. The audience can’t help applauding, even though we are between movements. This infusion of sexuality transitions the audience into the final poem, a hilariously lewd rendition of “may I feel said he.” As this was the World Premiere, I wonder whether Dr. Rodriguez was nervous: a risqué symphonic piece is a risky one. But Ms. Duran is genuinely funny, breathing life into cummings’ spare (yet somehow explicit) poem. The audience clearly enjoys her performance, and the premiere is a success.

The final suite is by Gabriel Fauré, the Quintet No. 2 in C-Minor, Opus 115. According to our guide, Dr. Rodriguez, Faure wrote the piece when he was old, deaf, and suffering from aural hallucinations. It has been arranged for the piano and four strings.  Dr. Rodriguez describes the piece as “passionate, erotic, and beautiful,” heavenly, music played by angels. I have to agree: it is not at all American, but it is music that sounds like home.

The first movement is voluptuous, rich, full, and textural. This is not music to hum, not a catchy tune. This is music to drown in. I want to roll the sound around in my mouth like wine. The second movement is more of a dancing fountain. The melody jumps from instrument to instrument, and then the plucked strings sounds like drops of rain, filling up clear pools of notes. Streams and falls of notes flow around us.

The third movement is brown and earthy. This is fragrant, loamy music, with sounds like wind and leaves. The melody travels down a path dappled with sunlight. The final movement is strange, spinning, twirling: a long, sweeping, cinematic gust of sound that swirls like an eddy, then rushes on again. Piano arpeggios sparkle around chords from the strings. This movement is a bolt of shining cloth flung out, a full skirt sweeping past, music rustling like silk. The sounds resolve into one lush chord, then the magical half-moment of silence after the music has ended, and the musicians exhale. The thread is cut, and we are released from the spell.

The concert is well-attended and well-received. Dr. Rodriguez deserves accolades for his directorship and guidance of the musicians, in addition to his impressive arrangement and composition. The musicians, too, should be commended for their commitment to their craft. Their musicality and professional attention to detail is remarkable. Overall, a resounding (sounding, sound, all around, round, e.e. cummings would be pround) success.