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The Varieties of “Experience”

November 9, 2011 | by

Mirror Carousel, 2005. Installation view, "Experience," New Museum. Photo © Benoit Pailley.

At this time of year, the Bowery seems colder and brighter than other streets nearby, maybe because it’s several lanes wide and flanked by buildings no more than four or five stories tall. To me, it’s also a resonant place, and has been since I moved to New York. Along the Bowery, there are traces of a cultural history I tell myself I’m a part of (artists and musicians making prescient, eerie, underground things) as well as a cultural history that, let’s be honest, I’m actually a part of (Chinese immigrants starting businesses to meet market demand). Mark Rothko, Eva Hesse, and William S. Burroughs lived or worked along the Bowery. CBGB’s was there. It has also been the site of lighting outlets and restaurant-supply stores with exactly the sort of aspirational, front-of-the-phonebook names that my parents, with their limited English, would choose: AA International Trading Inc. A-1 Restaurant Equipment. A-Plus Restaurant Equipment.

Maybe it’s because the rest of the Bowery seems so familiar that I found “Experience,” Carsten Höller’s solo show at the New Museum, so disorienting. Of course, as the Belgian-born artist recently told a colleague at Artforum.com, “My entire show is set up to make you [go] mad.” Read More »

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Managed Mayhem

September 15, 2011 | by

W. Eugene Smith, Jazz Loft, ca. 1959, black-and-white photograph. Courtesy of the Heirs of W. Eugene Smith and the W. Eugene Smith Archive at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.

It’s late August in Brooklyn, and two men are trying to figure out how to hoist a piano up to a third-floor window and then release it so that it smashes onto the sidewalk below. “I think the major issue is just balancing out its weight,” says one. They push open a door to the roof to explore their options. A security alarm goes off; they’re undeterred.

The two men, director Chris McElroen and “professional problem solver” Dan Baker, are part of the team behind Chaos Manor, a multimedia performance inspired by the unconventional life of W. Eugene Smith. In the 1950s, Smith, celebrated for his front-line World War II photography, found himself increasingly at odds with his Life magazine editors. He quit his job and, several years later, embarking on what some might call a midlife crisis and others a visionary project, left his wife and children and moved into a dilapidated Manhattan building frequented not only by “derelicts, hustlers, and thieves” (in the words of his biographer) but also by some of the “biggest names in jazz.” From his fourth-floor apartment, Smith spent the next eight years relentlessly documenting the sights and sounds around him. His forty thousand photographs and 4,500 hours of audio reels captured hundreds of musicians, including legends such as Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, and Roy Haynes. Read More »

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Michael Azerrad on ‘Our Band Could Be Your Life’

May 19, 2011 | by

Photograph by Haley Dekle.

Published in 2001, Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life featured the story of thirteen seminal indie bands from 1981–1991. Since then, his accounts of the decade’s underground do-it-yourself punk ethos has inspired a generation of music geeks, connoisseurs, and professionals—many of whom have gone on to found or play in various contemporary indie bands of note. On Sunday, a ten-year anniversary show at the Bowery Ballroom will unite fourteen such bands—from the Dirty Projectors to Titus Andronicus—each covering songs by one of the groups he documented. I recently sat down with Azerrad, an old friend and former bandmate, to talk about his book’s ongoing role in the music being made today.

Just the other day, I was reading your book in a cafe, and a waiter who saw it immediately came up wanting to talk. You describe underground indie fans back in the eighties wearing the SST record-label T-shirt, or sporting a Black Flag tattoo. In a sense, to certain people, your book’s now as powerful an identifier, even ten years after being published. What’s going on with that?

To have read that book means that you’ve been exposed to a certain philosophy, and odds are you agree with some of it. It spells out an ethos inherited from those eighties underground indie bands—opting out of the corporate machinery, keeping money inside the community, thinking for yourself, doing it yourself. You can apply those ideas to lots of things besides music—that's why the book is called Our Band Could Be Your Life.

Black Flag.

This same waiter paused to ask if I was reading your book for class. What’s it like to know that Our Band Could Be Your Life is now thought of as required classroom reading?

I had a very classical education, so part of me is very dubious: You’re reading my book in a class? You should be reading about the Revolutionary War, or studying Plato! But I suppose the story is part of cultural history. The mandate to think for yourself, and to do it yourself, and to live responsibly—that’s a thread woven deep in our culture. I asked Ian MacKaye (of Minor Threat and Fugazi) if he’d ever read Walden. He didn’t know anything about it, but philosophically he’s a Thoreau descendant to the core.

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Nadia Sirota and Her Viola

March 9, 2011 | by

Photograph by Samantha West.

“You are such a good drink, for a four o’clock drink,” Nadia Sirota tells her Campari and soda. Then, with a sort of resigned discipline, she also orders pizza so as not to turn up sloshed at her next gig in two hours. Sirota, a violist and radio host, has dark hair styled into sideways bangs, dark eyes, a tough-talking, trenchant sense of humor, and inked forearms. She explains that her tattoos—a stylized letter N and letter H, followed by brackets—are musical markings. Arnold Schoenberg used them in scores to denote what he called the Hauptstimme and Nebenstimme, or the primary voice and secondary voice in a composition.

Though she’s lately become an omnipresent figure in New York’s downtown music concerts, she’s probably less known than others in her circle (like her friend and frequent collaborator Nico Muhly). Perhaps it’s because creators tend to get more attention than interpreters. Or maybe it’s just because violists, to everyone’s detriment, tend to get no attention at all. Yet Sirota has collaborated with everyone from Meredith Monk to Grizzly Bear; she contributed to Arcade Fire’s recent Grammy-winning album, The Suburbs. This week alone, she goes from Webcasting a sold-out show at Le Poisson Rouge to moderating a discussion with conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen at WNYC to playing a recital with friends at the Ecstatic Music Festival that is tonight at Merkin Concert Hall.

As with many violists, Sirota started by playing the violin as a child but soon grew frustrated with the repertoire. “The advanced-intermediate violin pieces are all these flashy stand-on-your-head études, which suck, musically. I mean, I just didn’t give a shit. And I didn’t want to put my time into learning how to do those kinds of tricks, when I didn’t feel like I was getting anything musical from it.” She adds, “I switched to viola around the same time I became an alto. Viola sounds like a man singing very high, or a woman singing very low. It has a sort of intermediate gender-weirdness thing which also I find very appealing.” She was a natural at the viola; as a Juilliard student in 2005, she won first place in the conservatory’s concerto competition.

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The Dinnerstein Variations

January 25, 2011 | by

The startling success story of pianist Simone Dinnerstein.

Photograph by Lisa Marie Mazzucco.

Earlier this month, pianist Simone Dinnerstein celebrated her latest album, Bach, A Strange Beauty, with a six-hour-long release party in her parents’ Park Slope brownstone. She set her iPod to shuffle, and at the end of the evening, as the final few guests made their way out the door, her own recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations came on. “I hadn’t listened to it in years,” she said, “I hadn’t even realized how much I had changed.”

The Goldberg Variations marked a turning point in Dinnerstein’s life story, the classical-music world’s rags-to-riches tale that’s by now familiar to many fans. Less than a decade ago, with her chances at a high-octane concert career looking dim, she had started to settle into a life in Brooklyn, a career of smaller-scale concerts, teaching, and performances in nursing homes and prisons. The discovery that she was pregnant with her son inspired Dinnerstein to work privately on the Variations as a way to mark his arrival. She went on to raise money from friends and family and recorded the piece herself, a decision that took some guts, given the many canonical recordings of Bach’s epic work out there (joined now by a pretty hilarious rendition of the aria by Stephen Dorff in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere).

Improbably, Dinnerstein’s performance became the top-selling classical album of 2007, at one point even reaching number four on Amazon’s record sales for all genres. Her success is particularly startling when you consider the number of household-name classical pianists who either won a major competition or grew up in the spotlight as child prodigies. But Dinnerstein’s playing is one of a kind. The intense conviction she communicates is so arresting that, for me, hearing her rendition of a piece makes it impossible to imagine it performed any other way. (Classical musicians often refer to the importance of playing “with conviction”; or as my pianist friend’s formidable Russian teacher would often say, “My dear, you must be convicted of every note.”)

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Pictorial Grammar

December 21, 2010 | by

Co-authored by Gabriel Greenberg.

Think of the last time you looked for an apartment: Most likely, a good number of the listings that you encountered came with floor plans. And by looking at these diagrams, you probably had no trouble finding out all sorts of things about the living spaces being advertised: the rough shape of each room; the location of all windows and doors. But how exactly did you reach these conclusions? And how do you immediately understand the route you’re being shown, when a helpful stranger in a foreign country traces a path with their index finger over a subway map? Or how do you look at a courtroom sketch and know that the defendant was wearing suspenders?

Whether they’re architectural renderings, Venn diagrams, or even the inkless images created by gestures, pictures can all be thought of as 2-D encodings of our 3-D world. We decipher these images so easily that we never even suspect we’re cracking a code of sorts; we recognize that a certain brushstroke represents an eyebrow, or certain lines forming a Y denote the corner of a cube. But what if someone could write out a codebook (so to speak) precise enough that even a machine, by consulting it, could draw and interpret drawings? Over the past few decades, philosophers, psychologists, and computer scientists have taken on this task, and found it less straightforward than one might think.

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