Harriet Tubman’s new album Araminta has a joyous aura of creative destruction.
In 1967, Thelonious Monk wrote his only waltz: a slow, sweet, faintly melancholy tune he called “Ugly Beauty,” which appears on his album Underground. The title is probably Monk’s translation of jolie laide, a French expression for a woman whose less pleasing features somehow make her more attractive—though I suspect that Monk had more gnomic intentions in deploying the phrase. The idea that beauty might arise out of asymmetry—out of irregularities, imperfections, and apparent flaws—would no doubt have appealed to the composer of “Off Minor,” with his predilection for dissonant intervals, altered chords and rhythmic displacement. Monk’s music was a world of ugly beauty.
The story of musical modernism could also be told as a story of ugly beauty—of the steady triumph, in the face of critical resistance, of deviation, dissonance, and rupture. Many of the sounds we now consider beautiful were at first experienced as strange, unsettling, even frightening. In the feverish rhythms of The Rite of Spring, Adorno detected a fascist call for obedience. Philip Larkin accused John Coltrane of trying to be “ugly on purpose” with his severe, probing improvisations. Some American supporters of the war in Vietnam are said to have heard sacrilege, if not treason, in Jimi Hendrix’s electrical rewiring of the national anthem at Woodstock. The reasons for such resistance are as much political as aesthetic. As the philosopher Jacques Attali put it, “noise is violence: it disturbs.” The struggle to create new sounds, Attali argues in Noise: The Political Economy of Music, is usually received as a “simulacrum of murder” because it challenges the existing musical order. Read More
- Whenever someone asks me how I’m doing, I say, Good! The robots haven’t eradicated me or my species yet! I’ve been going on this way my whole adult life—but now Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist who studies tech, has convinced me that my real fear isn’t the robots. It’s staring right back at me when I look in the mirror. “Western culture has some anxieties about what happens when humans try to bring something to life … What we are seeing now isn’t an anxiety about artificial intelligence per se, it’s about what it says about us. That if you can make something like us, where does it leave us? And that concern isn’t universal, as other cultures have very different responses to AI, to big data. The most obvious one to me would be the Japanese robotic tradition, where people are willing to imagine the role of robots as far more expansive than you find in the West. For example, the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori published a book called The Buddha in the Robot, where he suggests that robots would be better Buddhists than humans because they are capable of infinite invocations … Mori’s argument was that we project our own anxieties and when we ask: ‘Will the robots kill us?’ what we are really asking is: ‘Will we kill us?’ ”
- The CIA tried for years to assassinate Castro—with a poison pen, an exploding underwater seashell (I’m not making this shit up), and a cigar tainted with botulism. It was only fair that the New York Times began drafting his obit in 1959: for a minute there it seemed as if he was not long for this world. Now the Times remembers its many false alarms: “The development of the Castro obituary is as legendary as the man himself. Countless colleagues—spanning many different technologies and platforms—have massaged it and passed the baton. Each of the many death scares gave us the opportunity to dust off the package and reassess our digital strategy based on ever-changing audience consumption habits and storytelling tools.”
Speaking to The Paris Review in 2011, Nicholson Baker remembered one of the small joys of his childhood. “The pencil sharpener was probably the best thing about school,” he said. “A little chrome invention under your control. It had a thundering sound, a throat-clearing sound, that I especially liked.”
As it happens, pencil sharpeners appear early and often in his new book, Substitute: Going to School with a Thousand Kids. But they’re all electric now, and they’ve lost their thunder. “There was a lot of earnest grinding away at the fancy electric pencil sharpener,” he writes on page thirty. Twelve pages later, “Someone else was grinding loudly away on the mechanical pencil sharpener.” On page 111 he mentions again “the remedial grind of the pencil sharpener.”
There’s a sound reason for this anti-sharpener rhetoric: in 2014 Baker became a substitute teacher at several Maine public schools, where the sharpeners’ grinding is just one agent in a multifront sensory assault, and further proof that technology doesn’t equal improvement. Substitute—Baker’s thoughtful, well-observed chronicle of his twenty-eight days in the classroom—catalogs the bells, the morning announcements, the iPad games, the lively chatter, and all the miscellaneous noise that characterize a day at school. Rather than a broadside against the education system, Substitute’s seven-hundred-plus pages offer a close, empathetic account of Baker’s time as a teacher, trading editorial asides for the richness—and, not infrequently, madness—of our efforts to impart knowledge. For every meaningless worksheet or recess infraction, there’s a warm, witty exchange with a student, or a moment, however brief, of genuine engagement.
Substitute is Baker’s sixteenth book; though he’s written nonfiction before, it marks his first outing as a participatory journalist, and he called it the most immersive book of his career. I reached him in his hotel room in Atlanta to ask him a few questions about it.
This is basically an act of participatory journalism, but it’s not like any other account I’ve read. Did you have any touchstones in mind?
Well, there’s George Plimpton. If you want to write about football, get yourself on a football team. If you want to write about boxing, you’re going to have to get punched in the head a few times. That’s what I did with Substitute. When I was in high school I read Up the Down Staircase and really loved it—all those wonderful memos—and in fact there was an actual down staircase and an up staircase in the middle school where I was a substitute. Two nonfiction books, Death at an Early Age and The Way it Spozed to Be also made a huge impression back then, even though I’d gone to an alternative public high school that was nothing like what was described in those books. Once I began writing Substitute in earnest, I tossed educational theorizing aside for the most part and went back to the method I’d used in Human Smoke, a book about World War II, where I did a lot of quoting from daily sources—newspaper articles and diaries and speeches on the radio. Substitute is a sort of collage of voices. In Human Smoke, I took my own voice out completely, but in Substitute I couldn’t—I had to be true to my own teacherly fumblings. Read More
As I write this, there are six workmen constructing a building within five feet of the window, as has been the case for the past eight months and will be for the foreseeable future. It’s not a quiet business at the best of times, and at the moment they’re blasting “Rockin’ Robin.” They start work at seven A.M., and they have one of those special permits from the mayor’s office that allows them to work on Saturdays, too. Along with the two preschools and the slew of amateur musicians who inhabit the surrounding buildings, it makes for a cacophony.
I used to wear noise-canceling headphones and sometimes earplugs, and I’d fume like an angry cartoon character, but now it doesn’t bother me much. In balmy weather, it even feels sort of Rear Window–ish and picturesque. Or so you can tell yourself, especially when one amateur musician noodles on his sax for several hours at a time. I realize I have come to love it. Read More
I love music, but I like to hear both sides of an argument, so I picked up Pascal Quignard’s The Hatred of Music: ten treatises about the danger in listening. Quignard, himself an accomplished listener, aims “to convey to what point music can become an object of hatred to someone who once adored it beyond measure.” In his crosshairs is not so much music itself but the omnipresence of sound, which has, he argues, metastasized into a force of death more than of life. Quignard can be ponderous—you can imagine him plugging his ears at a Selena Gomez concert—but I can’t deny the depth of his thinking, to say nothing of his gift for aphorism. (“Everything is covered in blood related to sound”; “Rhythm holds man and attaches him like a skin on a drum”; “Concert halls are inveterate caves whose god is time.”) As a kind of lyrical discourse on how we hear, The Hatred of Music belongs on the shelf next to Hillel Schwartz’s Making Noise. The second treatise, “It So Happens that Ears Have No Eyelids,” offers this: “What is seen can be abolished by the eyelids, can be stopped by partitions or curtains, can be rendered immediately inaccessible by walls. What is heard knows neither eyelids, nor partitions, neither curtains, nor walls. Undelimitable, it is impossible to protect oneself from it … Sound rushes in. It violates.” I read those words on the subway, as the train groaned into a turn and EDM bled from my neighbor’s headphones. —Dan Piepenbring
Every winter and spring, I receive reams of garden and seed catalogues. Perusing them is, for me, akin to reading a good book and requires that I find a quiet, comfortable spot and consider each page with care. The photographs and copy vary in quality from catalogue to catalogue (I have my favorites), but each nevertheless brings what Katharine White calls “dreams of garden glory.” White became The New Yorker’s first fiction editor in 1925; three years later, the magazine published her first entry in the “Onward and Upward in the Garden” column, in which she wrote on seed and nursery catalogues, gardening books, and her own amateur attempts at floriculture. Last year, New York Review Books collected her fourteen columns. I recognize myself in much of what she writes: when, for instance, she cannot bring herself to stop acquiring plants or when she feels at once cheated and culpable for a plant’s failure to thrive. Mostly, though, I enjoy the moments in which she writes appreciatively of garden life: “Today I’d like nothing more strenuous than to sit still and admire the huge heads of phlox that the wet season has produced in the perennial borders and watch the bees sipping nectar from the poisonous monkshood and plundering the lavender spikes of the veronicas.” —Nicole Rudick Read More