Staff Picks: Tigers, Transliteration, and Truth


This Week’s Reading

Zeb Bangash performing on Coke Studio. Photo courtesy of Coke Studio Pakistan.

There are many things I love about Coke Studio. One of them is the show’s commitment to lyrics and subtitles; on most songs, such as this season’s “Roshe,” they are presented four times: in the original language, transliterated into roman, translated into Urdu, and translated into English. In a country as diverse as Pakistan, who else is making the effort to render a Kashmiri song comprehensible to those who don’t speak Kashmiri? (And yes, in an ideal world you would be able to find those lyrics in Sindhi and Seraiki and Ormuri and Brahui and Kalasha-mun and Domaaki, too; baby steps.) But more than that, I think the show is special because at a moment obsessed with purity, it is so resolutely and inherently the opposite. It has its own homogeneity, that Coke Studio sound, but its most successful songs aren’t necessarily those that could be considered objectively “the best” (that will always be Abida Parveen, solo, by herself, no questions). Instead, the greatest Coke Studio moments emerge from the most daring experiments: Season 3’s “Alif Allah,” performed by the entirely unexpected duo of Meesha Shafi and Arif Lohar; the mixed-up “Ghoom charakhra” by Ali Azmat and Abida in Season 11. So far, Season 12 hasn’t delivered anything living up to that mark, but we are only two episodes in—I’d suggest you keep watching, and remember that purity is to be aspired to only in fabrics. With such fertile ground, why wouldn’t you want to see all the kinds of flowers that can grow? —Hasan Altaf 

The new issue of Asymptote is as interesting as always, but one piece in particular stood out to me: “Brain and Me,” written by the young Korean poet Moon Bo Young and translated by Hedgie Choi. “My lover left behind his brain when he left me,” go the arresting first lines. “I guess I could blend it into a smoothie and drink it.” The rest of the poem is a brutal combination of prose and poetry reflecting on the end of an affair. Choi’s translation contains a coldness, a steeliness, that reminds me at times of Anne Carson’s equally devastating breakup poem “The Glass Essay.” A lot of really exciting work seems to be happening among contemporary Korean women writers, and I’m grateful for the translators who are working to bring this work to an English-speaking audience. —Rhian Sasseen


Douglas Dunn (left), Carolyn Brown (rear), and Merce Cunningham (far right) perform at the Shiraz Art Festival, 1972. Photo courtesy of the Cunningham Dance Foundation archive. Via Wikimedia Commons.


During one of many ballet classes in high school, I stood in the corner as our imperious, devoutly Catholic teacher wondered why I had failed to execute a combination. “I wasn’t paying enough attention to the music,” I offered. I had just unknowingly confessed to a cardinal sin. Godliness, goodness, coordination, harmony—I quickly learned that these were all one and the same. The truth of this lesson remained firm within me until it was jostled earlier this week by two remarkable performances. One, the play and film What if they went to Moscow?, was a part of BAM’s Next Wave Festival. While much was remarkable about the lush and friendly production, a Brazilian adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, I was particularly entranced by a sort of dance performed by Julia Bernat. She thrashed around the stage, drunk, in a black dress and precarious black pumps, to the System of a Down song “Fuck the System.” She leaned backward, arms flung stiffly in front of her, screaming in perfect unison with the spastic, sinful music. The next evening, I watched the graceful dancers of New York City Ballet execute with precision the work of Merce Cunningham set to John Cage. This performance was the first of three events this fall hosted by Alastair Macaulay for New York City Center’s Studio 5 Series. Cunningham, Macaulay explained, requires of dancers a rigorous internal rhythm entirely separate from the score. One dancer remarked that, while onstage, she hardly noticed the music. Cunningham, we all agreed, was holy, “a religious experience.” Of course, I wasn’t studying Cunningham all those years ago, nor was I careening around the BAM Fisher. But these two dances were a welcome reminder that harmony need not be good, and the good need not be harmonious—and that any combination can be absolutely marvelous to watch. —Noor Qasim

When the indie-rock band Big Thief released their third album, U.F.O.F., earlier this year, it was immediately lauded as a masterpiece by critics and listeners alike. The album was a sort of breakthrough for the band, bringing them a bit more into the mainstream. But not six months later, they’ve released another album, Two Hands. I am stunned first by their unprecedented productivity, producing a sister album so soon after their previous release and so close to the year’s end, but mostly by how good it is. Two Hands functions as an independent artistic statement, but it also works in conversation with U.F.O.F.—mystical yet grounded, part whisperings, part rocking out. The ten songs on Two Hands have a restrained, spare quality I can’t stop listening to. The lyrics of the title track set the tone for the record, moving in a kind of loop: “And the more that we try / To figure through the answers / To repeat ourselves / to deny, deny / To deny, deny, deny.” Go listen to it on repeat—the best album of the year has only just arrived. —Camille Jacobson

This week, my mom came to town and got us tickets to see a “magic show.” At least, that’s what she called it. I had never actually been to a magic show, but the phrase brought to mind images of tigers, smoke machines, glitter, men in tuxedos waving wands. I expected, if not rabbits disappearing into hats, then, at the very least, to see someone get sawed in half. What I got, though, was something quite different. Derren Brown’s Secret, up at the Cort Theatre in Times Square until January, is less a traditional magic show than it is a kind of psychological experiment. The performance incorporates elements of hypnotism, subliminal messaging, and clever sleight of hand to influence the audience in a kind of participatory illusion. Without giving away too much, lest I ruin it for any future viewers, all I’ll say is there was mind reading, there was fortune-telling, objects appeared from thin air and disappeared again seemingly at will. Illusionist shows of this sort have been around for thousands of years; they experienced something of a heyday in New York in the thirties, an era that Brown—dressed in a tailcoat and standing before a red velvet curtain—recalls in much of his staging. I spent a great deal of the show reverse engineering the tricks in my mind—scanning the stage for evidence of trapdoors or hidden cameras, trying to figure out how everything worked. I have my theories. Several stunts, though, left me totally at a loss, their possible explanations seeming even more far-fetched and unlikely than the existence of an ineffable … magic. Among the crowd spilling out onto the chilly sidewalk after the show, I found myself warmed with a childlike sense of mystery. —Cornelia Channing


Derren Brown. Photo: © Seamus Ryan.