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Book, movie and iPhone apps to start discussion about the value of art in ninth annual 'Three Books' program

Mark Applebaum, associate professor of music, is this year's "Three Books" moderator. He selected Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural Nörth Daköta by Chuck Klosterman, the 2007 film My Kid Could Paint That and the iPhone applications MadPad, Ocarina and I Am T-Pain, all created by Smule.

L.A. Cicero This year's Three Books selections include apps, a film and a book.

Although all past "Three Books" program moderators have had the option of selecting works other than books, Associate Professor of music Mark Applebaum is the first to do so.

For the first time in its nine-year history, Stanford's "Three Books" program won't include three books.

This summer, incoming freshmen and transfer students will receive one book, one DVD and access to three iPhone applications as part of the annual New Student Orientation (NSO) program, which takes place Sept. 18-23. As always, the Three Books program will feature a panel discussion headlining speakers related to each work and will conclude with dorm discussions among students about the works.

This year's panel discussion will be held on Sept. 23 at 2 p.m. in Memorial Auditorium. Stanford community members may watch a live campus simulcast of the discussion. Details of the simulcast will be announced later this summer.

Mark Applebaum, associate professor of music, is this year's moderator. He selected Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural Nörth Daköta by Chuck Klosterman, the 2007 film My Kid Could Paint That and the iPhone applications MadPad, Ocarina and I Am T-Pain, all created by Smule.

Students do not need to own iPhones or purchase the apps. Video clips and music samples demonstrating how the apps work are available on a website set up for the incoming students. During NSO, they will have the opportunity to try out provided devices, pre-loaded with the apps, in their dorms.

On the Friday afternoon of NSO, small groups of incoming students will use these devices to participate in a campus sonic scavenger hunt involving the apps.

The panel discussion on Sept. 23 will feature Klosterman; Ge Wang, Smule co-founder and assistant professor of music at Stanford's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics; and Michael Kimmelman, architecture critic for the New York Times, who discusses issues related to the film My Kid Could Paint That in a special-features commentary on the DVD.

Though all past moderators have had the option of selecting works other than books, Applebaum is the first to do so.

"That was liberating: To expand the medium and pose questions about what we learn from different types of texts, whether they are a book, a film or a tool," Applebaum said. "It also made particular sense in a year that is focused on the arts."

Undergraduate Advising and Research (UAR), which coordinates the program, suggested an arts theme in honor of the opening of the new Bing Concert Hall in January 2013. Applebaum said he was inspired by questions of what types of art might be presented in the new space, what makes art valuable and who gets to decide.

'Fargo Rock City'

Klosterman, a cultural critic, journalist and newly appointed ethicist at the New York Times, writes about his experiences growing up as a heavy metal fan in rural North Dakota in Fargo Rock City. Applebaum chose the book not only because it discusses a genre of music that is typically ignored by the curricula of august institutions such as Stanford, but also to give students the perspective of a writer outside the large metropolitan centers usually associated with cultural criticism.

"I wanted people to consider a Midwestern view and to dignify the perspective of those students who are coming from places that don't have the cachet of major urban centers such as New York or Los Angeles," Applebaum said.

'My Kid Could Paint That'

My Kid Could Paint That is a documentary by Amir Bar-Lev about 4-year-old artist Marla Olmstead, whose abstract paintings began selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars and inspired debate about what makes art valuable. The film also addresses suspicion that Marla's parents helped her paint and valued fame over their daughter's well-being.

"The question of what we are consuming when we attend to art is brought to the foreground, and I think that's an interesting issue," Applebaum said. "Who gets to be called an artist, who gets to make things we attend to and care about, and can it be a 4-year-old?"

In addition, Applebaum wants Stanford students to think about the similarities between Marla, a wunderkind, and themselves – many, arguably, wunderkinds and prodigies as well. Students may want to consider what kinds of expectations they have set up for themselves and whether they are attainable, and who else is responsible for their achievements.

'MadPad,' 'Ocarina' and 'I Am T-Pain'

The suite of Smule iPhone apps allows students to make their own music. With MadPad, users record sound samples from everyday life and then remix them into songs. Ocarina turns the iPhone into a virtual clay flute that users can play by blowing onto the phone and forming fingerings on the phone's touchscreen. I Am T-Pain prompts users to sing, karaoke-style, into the phone and simultaneously auto-tunes their voices in the style of singer T-Pain.

Applebaum wants students to consider the differences and similarities between the apps and traditional instruments. The role of technology in the arts, whether phone apps are really more accessible than classical instruments and the question of what kind of music is most deserving of a performance venue like Bing Concert Hall all come into play, he said.

"Is the iPhone application mightier than the violin, is the violin mightier than the electric guitar, is the electric guitar played by a professional mightier than the paintbrush held by the 4-year-old? And who gets to decide?" Applebaum said.

The questions raised by Applebaum's Three Books selections extend far beyond the arts, however. Applebaum hopes the Class of 2016's investigation of art informs their own debates about their university and what it stands for.

"I want students to ask questions about what is important and who gets to decide, and for them to not simply accept the curriculum, the conversation and the values that Stanford represents, but rather to participate actively in scrutinizing, discussing and debating those and considering the possibility of changing them," Applebaum said.

Robin Migdol is a writing intern with the Stanford News Service.