- The following are things we’re sending to the moon: text messages between a husband and wife, thirty-three artists’ blood, microscopic sculptures, river water, DNA from a genetically modified goat. They’re all part of Lowry Burgess’s MoonArk, a four-chambered mass of conceptual art he designed with dozens of other contributors. Soon it will go hurtling into the dark abyss on a privately funded space flight. “A poem is like a bell,” he said: “every word in a poem rings and makes all the rest of the other words ring. So in this, everything that’s there is making something else ring. So the totality is meant to hum together … We think it should be different than sticking a flag in the soil and claiming territory … maybe we’re leaving breadcrumbs for someone else to find their way back here. It’s an attempt to communicate forward in time—it’s an attempt to communicate outward.”
- Plenty of books exist. But just as many, if not more, have never existed. And it’s these that Samantha Hunt has on her mind: “I have spent many pleasant nights imagining ghost books, those phantom texts of possibility and wonder. Their unprintable Dewey Decimal classifications divide them into (at the very least) three basic categories: books that can only be read once, books that cannot be read in one lifetime, and the largest, aforementioned group, books that don’t exist … Among the books that cannot be read in one lifetime there is Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliard de poèmes … It is the poetic response to the mathematical function 1014 … It would take more than a million centuries to finish reading this thin, thin book of poems.”
- Remember all the dumb shit you wrote about T. S. Eliot in college? Imagine if it were published decades later, when you were President of the United States of America. A letter from the twenty-two-year-old Barack Obama to his then-girlfriend sheds light not just on his exegesis of “The Waste Land” but on his worrisome tendency toward fatalism: “Eliot contains the same ecstatic vision which runs from Münzer to Yeats,” Obama wrote. “However, he retains a grounding in the social reality/order of his time … Facing what he perceives as a choice between ecstatic chaos and lifeless mechanistic order, he accedes to maintaining a separation of asexual purity and brutal sexual reality. And he wears a stoical face before this.”
- Today in toothpicks: they’re still out there in abundance, sometimes soaked in tea-tree oil, and you chew on them at your own peril, as Ryan Bradley learned: “There is but a small window in which it is okay to have a pick in your mouth, and that is for approximately ten minutes post-meal, when it’s necessary to needle stuff out of your teeth. Unless you are Steve McQueen—not the director, but the actor, who is dead—if you walk around with a toothpick in your mouth trying to look cool, you look, instead, like a prick … I put a pick in my mouth, allowing it to soften, then bit down enough to release a burst of tea-tree oil, and thought of the bacterial apocalypse I had unleashed. It was satisfying. I lingered at a stoplight, chewing slowly, murdering millions of mouth bacteria while the light went green and the driver behind me began leaning on the wheel and only then, with the drone of the long honk behind me, did I begin to speed up.”
- In 1942, Shostakovich completed his seventh symphony, which made its debut in Leningrad even though the city was under siege by the Germans and many of its citizens were starving. The moment is the subject of a new documentary, Leningrad and the Orchestra That Defied Hitler: “One of the interviewees recalls her eighteenth birthday in January 1942, when she put her grandfather’s body on a sledge and took it away. She remembers seeing a Christmas tree with what looked like parcels under it and then realizing they were dead children. Her voice sounds incredibly young when she talks about the performance in the Philharmonic Hall, which looked just the same as ever, and the sense of elation everyone felt as they listened to Shostakovich’s music.”
Irina Kolpakova is a hummingbird of a woman, perfectly erect and poised as she walks into the cozy interview room tucked deep in the recesses of the Metropolitan Opera House. Her brown hair is kept off her face with a thin headband; she wears dark pants and a soft red sweater over which she wraps a leopard-print shawl. Voilà! Instant glamour. We shake hands and she sits, never wavering from that ballerina-perfect posture. Kolpakova is turning eighty the next day, but does not want a fuss to be made over her birthday. Still, the occasion demands some form of ceremony. As we speak, her expression is alert, her tone animated; her passion for her art emanates from her like a heady cloud of perfume. Her hands, as she talks, do a graceful little ballet of their own, and the geranium-pink nail polish only adds to their elegance.
Tell me about the city of your youth.
I was born in Leningrad. I was only there for three years. Then my mom and I moved to Molotov, which is now Perm.
And when did you start taking ballet lessons?
Nine years old.
Where did you study when you were young?
Molotov, because the Kirov Theatre—now the Mariinsky—was evacuated there. When my mom brought me to the first class, Vaganova was still alive. It was the time of Vaganova.
I wanted to ask you about Vaganova because not too many people in this country know about her contribution to classical ballet. What can you say about her teaching method? What was distinctive or different or important?
Vaganova told us to use all parts of our body together at the same time. Not only this movement for the leg, this movement for the arms, this movement you’re supposed to learn how to use for your head, neck. No, all together, all the time. And she was huge—in Paris they called her the Queen of the Variations. She was … amazing. And she was really smart. She combined French method with Danish. I think that’s unique. Her method was unique. Read More
There’s a black-and-white photograph of me in my grandparents’ old Moscow apartment. I’m wearing a hand-knit wool dress, two white stripes down the front. My hair is a mess of tight curls around my head. A lopsided smile exposes my teeth. With my right hand, I’m petting a guitar that looks like it might be taller than I am. It is polished wood, dark around the edges, growing lighter toward the center, an intricate garland along its bottom edge. It’s my grandfather’s. It has seven strings.
“A guitar with six strings isn’t a guitar,” my grandfather tells me. “You can’t play on it. You can’t sing to it. It’s worthless. A guitar must have seven strings to be worth its name.” He stops. He closes his eyes. His voice takes on a new tone. “The seven-string guitar, that’s the real guitar. Its voice sings. That, that is the Russian guitar.” I don’t quite understand—to me, a guitar is a guitar—but I know enough to realize that the difference is real to him and that I should abandon my attempts, later, to get him to buy a regular guitar in any old American music shop. As much as he might love me and want to make me happy, he will never play a standard-issue instrument. He will keep searching for his lost seventh string—and if he doesn’t find it, I’ll never again have a chance to hear him play. The decision is final.
Some say the seven-string guitar, the semistrunka, was born with the Central European gypsies. A child of the lute-shaped torban, carried back by Ukrainian Cossacks from Flanders after their mercenary stint in the Thirty Years’ War. The torban, whose familiar bass notes distinguished it from other members of its family. Some say it came from the Turks, during their thirteenth-century migration from Abkhazia to Poltava—a descendant of the kobza, that other lute-like instrument that could have as few as three and as many as eight strings—and might not the number have been seven? Some say it is a child of the Renaissance, the flat-backed cittern—an instrument akin to the mandolin and the English guitar (the latter perhaps its closest relative). With its metallic strings, its popularity in song, and its quick spread over Europe, it seems not altogether unlikely—though the cittern had four strings or six, sometimes five. Not seven. The seven-string guitar has many creation myths. But the most accepted version is that, whatever its origins, it first came of age as a uniquely Russian instrument.