Life on a Roll

Pretty Old Carved Stones in France

Elodie Pauwels

https://elodiepphoto.wordpress.com

 

Don’t you like to observe the details of finely carved stones and try to feel the history behind it? Here are a few examples of those that I liked the most: the year of construction of a chimney in a modest house in a village in Corrèze, the shell-shaped motif on both sides of a door in a street of Beaune, and my favorite: a pretty young girl with braided hair on the tombstone of Philibert II, Duke of Savoy, in the Royal Monastery of Brou.

New York State Of Mind

Guadalupe Astorga

This month Natural Selections interviews Alicia Galicia. Conference dining/ catering, RU.

How long have you been living in the New York area? 

I’ve been living in NYC for 28 years.

Where do you currently live?  Which is your favorite neighborhood?

I live in Astoria and I love it, so Astoria is my favorite neighborhood.

What do you think is the most overrated thing in the city? And underrated? 

Most overrated in NYC I think is Time Square, nobody visiting the city misses it. Underrated, St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Avenue. It’s a beautiful place to go, and pray and find yourself. For some people it may not be important in the way it is for me.

 What do you miss most when you are out of town? 

I miss the transportation. It’s so easy to move from one place to another in NYC. In other places like Chicago is much harder.

Has anything (negative or positive) changed about you since you became one of us “New Yorkers”?

I’ve changed in different aspects. I’m from Mexico and life there is harder. I feel that everything is possible in NYC if you pursue it. My first challenge was to learn English and I’m still trying to improve.

If you could change one thing about NYC, what would that be?

The subway service. I feel we’re paying more each time more, but the quality is decreasing. The trains are slower and waiting times are longer.

What is your favorite weekend activity in NYC?

I like to go to Central Park with my kids, they like to climb rocks and visit the zoo there. It’s a lot of fun for them to feed the cows and goats.

 What is the most memorable experience you have had in NYC?  

I came to work for a short time at Rockefeller and they liked my work, so they hired me. Since the first day I loved this place. I’ve been here for 21 years and I love the ambience, talking with professors, students and doctors. It’s a beautiful place to work and one of the best things that has happened in my life.

Bike, MTA or WALK IT???

I use the MTA because I don’t have enough space in my house for bikes.

If you could live anywhere else, where [would] might that be? 

I would like to go back to the country I’m from, but it’s hard. I love NYC, the city that never sleeps. You have 24-hour stores, movies, and much more.

Do you think of yourself as a New Yorker?

Yeah, I feel part of NYC because I’ve been living here for 28 years and I’ve learned many things. Unfortunately, I was not lucky in my relationship, but I always teach my kids and myself to pursue your goals.

New York City Dialect New York-ese, Lesson 6

Aileen Marshall

Hey! Welcome to the sixth and last lesson in our series on the New York City dialect. By now you should be able to understand the natives well enough to ask for subway directions (which also makes it obvious that you are a tourist). Don’t worry about being able to understand the announcements in the subway, no one can understand them.

To review last month’s lesson, a number of words in the city dialect drop the “H” in words that start with that letter. The two examples are ‘uge and ‘uman. Here are some more examples of them used in a sentence.

  • Katz’s Deli sandwiches have a ‘uge pile of cold cuts between two slices of bread.
  • Sometimes Grand Central Station can seem like a sea of ‘umanity.

This month’s lesson:

The New York dialect is known for two qualities: we speak very fast and tend to blur our words together. So much so, that phrases, and even entire sentences, can seem like one word. Life in the city is fast paced, so we don’t have time to even wait for the next word. Here are some examples of words in the New York dialect. Click on the links to hear the pronunciation.

  • Amirite A word used at the end of sentence, asking for confirmation.

There’s nothing quite like seeing a Broadway play, amirite?

  • Fugedaboudit. A word used to express resignation or forgiveness.

You can’t drive anywhere in the city on a Sunday afternoon, fugedaboudit, the traffic is too much.

  • Gedoutahea A word used to express surprise or disbelief.

You got a rent controlled apartment in Chelsea for $700 a month? Getoudahea!

  • Ariteaready A word used to express annoyance at being pushed or hurried.

I’m moving, aritearedy, I just double parked for a minute!

Final exam: see if you can interpret this conversation between two natives.

First Guy “jeetyet?” Second Guy “No, jew?”

I hope you have enjoyed these lessons in the New York City dialect. Listening to conversations among locals is the best way to tune your ear in to the pronunciation. It’s also a great way to learn about and experience what this great city has to offer. Don’t forget there are five boroughs in the city, it’s not just Manhattan. There is a wealth of culture, cuisine and entertainment to explore. So many people come here every year to visit or to stay. Not only is the United Nations headquarters here, but there are over 100 different ethnicities in the city’s population, that’s why they call the city “The Capital of the World”.

Answer:

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Culture Corner

Bernie Langs / NATURAL SELECTIONS Red-figure stamnos depicting Chiron, Nereus and Nereids, attributed to the Berlin Painter, ca. 480-470 B.C., Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, Munich (photo: BL)

Art review: “The Berlin Painter and His World: Athenian Vase Painting in the Early Fifth Century B.C.”; Princeton Art Museum, March 4 – June 11, 2017

Bernie Langs

There are certain types of art exhibits that are more difficult to take in than others. I have always found, for example, that illuminated manuscript displays require a very tiring amount of concentration, though the effort is well worth the wonder evoked. Exhibitions of sculpture, unless of ancient pieces, and drawings (excluding those from the Renaissance) require a great deal of disciplined looking to garner the rewards of understanding.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, I would often visit exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and explore the permanent collection at length. At times, I’d be the only person lost in The Met’s side rooms displaying a huge inventory of ancient Greek vases, drinking cups, oil vessels, etc. There were cases and cases of them, many works graced by explanations written on typewriters indicating years of neglect and lack of attention. A few years ago, that all changed. The prize vases are now on glorious and ordered display, dozens of smaller, “lesser” works are upstairs from the main floor of the Leon Levy and Shelby White Court in a large, new repository and massive “study” space of ancient treasures that draw only a few curious, and, at times, quite knowledgeable viewers.

“The Berlin Painter and His World: Athenian Vase-Painting in the Early Fifth Century B.C.” at the Princeton Art Museum (March 4 – June 11, 2017) is a rare kind of exhibition. I can’t recall a major museum show featuring ancient Greek vases, let alone one centering around the works of an individual artist from this obscure period when attributions are hard to come by. I had no idea what I’d find when I drove out to Princeton on a March morning, but I had high hopes that the illustrious Ivy League institution would do the subject justice.

The magnificent exhibit is the fruit of decades of study on individual hands that can be catalogued from the time around 500 B.C. and later. Sir John D. Beazley (1885 – 1970) is noted by the curators as the first scholar who began cataloging vases to individual painters and The Berlin Painter is one of those who left no signature, but surely a recognizable and signature style. When one is dealing with the subject of actual artists from the Golden Age of Greek art and beyond, those of us who love art history are in awe of the mere mention of a sculptor, such as Praxiteles (4th century BC), or Apelles, a painter also of the Hellenistic Period. There are no remains of either of their outputs, but many “copies” and much speculation about what they produced and just what their works may have looked like. Apelles was legendary even in the days of Julius Caesar and inspired the Renaissance artist Botticelli to attempt to recreate one of the artist’s most famous works from antiquity (“The Calumny of Apelles”).

At the Princeton show, one easily finds a name, a style, and the hand of an exemplary artist. The various figures depicted on the vases in “red figure” style are elegant, smooth, and represent everything from mythical beings, to gods, athletes, fantastic beasts, wrestlers in repose, and so on, all adorned in smooth, simple, flowing chitons and draperies. There are swords and war, there are mystic offerings, there is Herakles undertaking his many tests, trials and tribulations, and there is the life and leisure of the ancients. One’s eyes widen in wonder at what is in the display cases.

Bernie Langs / NATURAL SELECTIONS Princeton Art Museum – second of two galleries for The Berlin Painter exhibition.

The exhibit’s explanations are concise and very much on point, giving everything from historical context to notes on how one creates these pieces of pottery. The placards for each vase were also spot on, and I never found myself reading and drifting off to mutter “that’s a lot of words” which I often do. There was one very beautiful wine vessel that the museum noted was found completely intact. Most vases are pieced together from fragments, and in this exhibition, the viewer is blessed that most of the vessels displayed were not broken up too badly when they were found in either The Berlin Painter’s home area of Athens or in Etruscan Italy, an export destination. I can’t recall ever previously viewing a major Attic Red-figure vase that was found entirely in one piece, as if it was fresh from production and presented for use that very day in New Jersey.

When I was done visiting the galleries of the exhibition, I took in sections of the museum’s permanent collection and out of nowhere, I raced back to view The Berlin Painter with fresh eyes. I now knew how to approach it, and how to see it. On this second go-around, spending time with only the top pieces, they truly came to life and felt more vital and immediate to me. Cicero has a book called “On the Nature of the Gods” and the stamnos depicting Chiron, Nereus and Nereids (see photo) truly reflected The Berlin Painter’s notion of the cosmography by which he was bound by in space and historical time. By believing one could, for a moment, see the graceful mythic beings through his eyes, the cosmic dance commences, and it really is quite a show.

Autism Awareness

Guadalupe Astorga

April is National Autism Awareness Month. April 2 is a day meant to create consciousness, tolerance and acceptance of people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). A better inclusion in society is essential to increase their quality of life and expectations.

Autism spectrum disorder encompasses a vast range of behaviors, genetic mutations and neurophysiological conditions. For this reason, it is difficult to find common traits that unanimously describe people with ASD.

It is well known that those with autism have a different perception of the world. They have a strong sensitivity to sensorial stimulus, such as light and sound, that is mild for most people. As these stimuli can be extremely disturbing for people with ASD, they may consequently avoid them with behaviors that appear incomprehensible from the outside. However, it is a natural reflex in all living beings to elude harmful stimuli, it is probably one of the adaptive behaviors that enabled us to survive on earth. How different would these behaviors appear if we were all aware of the reason behind them? Were that the case, we would probably support them instead of meeting them with a frightened expression. It is therefore crucial to generate awareness in society about the sensorial hypersensitivity of people with autism in order to integrate and accept them, instead of excluding them due to ignorance.

There are also notable differences in people with ASD in their ability to localize their attention on single tasks. While it is generally challenging to captivate their attention with things they don’t find interesting, once something has caught their attention they can spend long periods of time focusing on such activities. A great example of this is the number of outstanding artists and musicians with ASD. An open question for scientists and physicians is whether this ability to focus on one thing at a time is also related to their social withdrawal. Understanding the brain circuits required to localize attention as well as those required to establish social interactions and empathy with other people is certainly essential to developing therapies to integrate people with ASD into society. However, understanding and societal acceptance is also crucial to reduce their social withdrawal.

A rather worrisome subject concerns the general panic originated almost twenty years ago about a possible relation between autism and vaccines, in particular the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. This controversy was originated by a biomedical research article that intended to show that this vaccine caused several behavioral and physiological disorders, including autism. However, strong irregularities during data collection and analysis were found in this work, and it had to be retracted by the authors after no other group could reproduce the results. Extensive research in the past fifteen years demonstrated that there is no evidence for a relationship between vaccines (including ingredients present in them) and autism. Unfortunately, the unfounded belief that vaccines can cause autism continued to grow and spread around the world causing a large number of parents to stop vaccinating their children. This leaves both children and adults vulnerable to severe complications including pneumonia, encephalitis, blindness, diarrhea, ear infections, paralysis, and death.

As vaccine-preventable diseases are nowadays rarely found in several countries, one may think that they have already been eradicated. However, the infectious agents that cause them are still present in some parts of the world and can easily spread and infect anyone who is not immunized. This has already lead to significant measles outbreaks in unvaccinated populations in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom as well as the United States. This could have easily been prevented by vaccination. We cannot go backwards in history and waste years of medical and scientific advances. The risk of not taking vaccines far surpasses that of taking them. It depends on us to make responsible and informed decisions about vaccination in order to protect ourselves as well as those around us.

Iamge Courtesy of Autism Society of America

An Italian Easter

La Colomba (the Dove) is the traditional Easter cake in Italy. iStock by GETTY IMAGES

Francesca Cavallo

Easter brings to mind egg hunts, chocolate, jelly beans, and the Easter bunny.

In Christianity, Easter is the holiest and oldest of all traditions, and it’s related to the even more ancient Jewish festival of Passover, which is described in the Old Testament. Both holidays are often celebrated at the same time of year, in the same week. Passover takes place over one week in remembrance of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. For Christians, Easter commemorates the resurrection of Christ after his crucifixion.

Many things about Easter are neither Jewish nor Christian in origin. For example, the English name “Easter” and the German name “Ostern” are both derived from old Germanic roots. Also, the traditions of having an Easter eve bonfire or burning Easter wheels come from Germanic and Celtic heliolatry, or sun worship. Even the popular colorful Easter egg has its origins in another pagan belief: it was considered a symbol of fertility in Egypt.

Today, eggs are synonymous with Easter in many countries, including Germany, Austria, Italy, and Switzerland. At the end of Lent, hard-boiled eggs are colored, Easter trees or bouquets are decorated with little wooden figurines and hollowed-out painted eggs, and people buy or bake special sweet Easter breads, often bursting with raisins.

But how is Easter viewed and celebrated in Italy? There is an Italian proverb which says: ‘Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi (Christmas with your family, Easter with whoever you wish), which illustrates the fact that Pasqua (Easter) is considered a less intimate festival than Christmas. You probably won’t see the Easter bunny if you’re in Italy for Easter, but you will find some interesting Italian Easter celebrations. Like all holidays in Italy, Easter has its share of rituals and traditions. The Monday following Easter, la Pasquetta is also a public holiday throughout Italy. While the days before Easter in Italy include solemn processions and masses, Easter is a joyous celebration.

Easter mass is held in every church in Italy, and the biggest and most popular Mass is held by the Pope at Saint Peter’s Basilica. On Good Friday, the Pope celebrates the Via Crucis or Stations of the Cross in Rome near the Colosseum. A huge cross with burning torches lights the sky as the stations of the cross are described in several languages. At the end, the Pope gives a blessing. Solemn religious processions are held in many towns on the Friday or Saturday before Easter and sometimes on Easter Sunday. Many churches have special statues of the Virgin and Jesus that play a big part in the processions. The statues may be paraded through the city or displayed in the main square. Parade participants are often dressed in traditional ancient costumes. Olive branches are often used instead of, or along with, palm fronds in the processions and to decorate churches.

Since Easter is the end of the Lenten season, food plays a big part in the celebrations. Normally we spend Domenica di Pasqua (Easter Sunday) with the family, engaged in the traditional act of stuffing ourselves with food, such as roasted lamb or kid, hard boiled eggs, which have been taken to church to be blessed at the end of the Mass, and of course chocolate eggs. The traditional Easter cake is la Colomba (the Dove), a cake similar in flavor and consistency to the Christmas cake Panettone, but baked in the form of a stylized dove.

It’s studded with candied orange peel, then topped with almonds and a sprinkling of sugar to form a crisp, nutty crust.

Numerous myths surround the Colomba cake. According to one particularly dramatic story, the city of Milan was defending itself against invaders on Easter in 1176. Just when the Milanese seemed destined to lose the battle, three doves flew over the city. Soon after, the battle shifted and the invaders were vanquished. Legend holds that after the victory, the Milanese celebrated by eating cakes shaped like their savior doves.

Although Italians do not decorate hard–boiled eggs nor have chocolate bunnies, nor pastel marshmallow chicks, the biggest Easter displays in bars, pastry shops, supermarkets, and especially at chocolatiers are brightly wrapped uova di Pasqua (chocolate Easter eggs) in sizes that range from 10 grams (1/3 ounce) to 8 kilos (nearly 18 pounds).

Most of them are made of milk chocolate in a mid-range, 10-ounce size by industrial chocolate makers.

All eggs contain a surprise. The very best eggs are handmade by artisans of chocolate, who offer the service of inserting a surprise supplied by the purchaser. Car keys, engagement rings, and watches are some of the high–end gifts that have been tucked into Italian chocolate eggs in Italy.

Another traditional Easter dessert that’s popular in Naples and southern Italy is pastiera, a ricotta and whole grain pie with a mouthwatering aroma so distinctive that any blindfolded Neapolitan could instantly identify it. Pastiera is considered by many to be one of Italy’s most important desserts. It is prepared in special pans, whose edges angle slightly outward. The pie is often given away as a gift and always in the pan it was baked in because of its fragile pastry. The pie needs to rest for two days for the flavors to meld, so it’s traditionally finished on Good Friday so that it will be ready for Easter. Pastiera has become so popular that it is now available year-round in Naples.

The day following Domenica di Pasqua is Lunedi’ di Pasqua (Easter Monday), better known as Pasquetta (Little Easter) or LunedidellAngelo (Monday of the Angel). The name Lunedi’ dellAngelo refers to the Gospel story in which the women who went to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body the day after Easter were told by an angel that Jesus had been resurrected. This day is probably the most popular part of the festivities for Italians, and it’s traditional to celebrate Pasquetta with a “gita fuori porta“ (a trip outside the city gates), usually for a picnic with friends. One interpretation of this tradition comes, once again, from a Gospel story which recounts that on the day of the resurrection, Jesus appeared to two disciples who were travelling to Emmaus a few kilometers outside the city gates of Jerusalem. The gita fuori porta tradition could be seen as a kind of “re-enactment“ of this story, although like many traditions most people are not really aware of its origins. A way to spend the gita fuori porta is a visit to a small historical town. Many of these towns will hold an event, such as an antique market, and will be packed with tourists. Whatever is done for Pasquetta, the deciding factor is, of course, the weather: everybody always hopes for a beautiful sunny warm day.

I wish to everybody a peaceful and happy Easter. Buona Pasqua a tutti!

The Golden Age of Hip Hop on the Silver Screen

Owen Clark

The Get Down’s Shaolin Fantastic learns the ropes from Grand Master Flash.

Hip hop is dead. I can’t exactly recall the point at which I first heard this phrase, but it seems to be etched in my earliest memories of acquainting myself with rap music, and all of its accompanying baggage. Undoubtedly, journalistic decries of the death of entire genres of music, sports, or really anything entertainment related, have become tiresome clichés. Jazz is dead; boxing is dead; this writer’s short-lived career is dead—frankly these assertions are as banal as they are dubious. However, the only upshot of such a declaration is that it often elicits a thoughtful discourse as to how we reached this supposed nadir, and the state of things to come.

Let me just say from the outset, if you’re looking for a detailed analysis on the current state of hip hop music, you can stop reading. I’m far from an expert on the subject, and in all honesty, I detest the critic culture that currently dominates internet journalism. However, like many others, I share an affinity for rap, and see it as having a fairly unique origin and evolution that will always fascinate me. If I may be so bold, I will say that my introduction to rap music probably occurred before the standard age of the nerdy, white, middle-class demographic that I belong to. I was nine or ten when I purchased my first rap album, It Was Written—Nas’s sophomore studio offering, and follow up to the highly acclaimed Illmatic. I’m possibly stretching the truth for the sake of my ‘rep’; I definitely possess several of Shaquille O’Neil’s critically-lauded singles in my old CD rack, so who can say which came first, but let’s just say I started listening around the time that those black and white ‘parental advisory’ stickers started appearing on CDs—great job Tipper Gore, you really deterred our interest. This isn’t some sort of brag; had my sister not attended Abbeydale Grange, Sheffield’s version of Dangerous Minds, I might have been listening to the same Spice Girls CDs as my peers, but I think it led me to buy into the idea that post-gangsta rap music just wasn’t worth my time.

Flash-forward to the present, rap is certainly alive and well. Summer sixteen (the summer, not the album) was about the time I realized that the genre is to some extent semi-unrecognizable from the rap I know and love. That August, my former roommate/current friend and I attended a Lil Dicky show in Manhattan. For those of you that don’t know, Lil Dicky is a technically flawless, comedy-focused rapper, whose ingenious parodies effectively spell out all of rap’s shortcomings. The venue reeked of weed and was populated almost exclusively by teenagers (the most frightening demographic). Lil Dicky preceded Lil Yachty (why are rappers always diminutive?), who at the time I hadn’t even heard of—but that man, with his braids so bright, managed to whip the crowd of vape-high/Bud Light-drunk teenyboppers into a frenzied state. I stood back, terrified, but also intrigued. The next day, I perused Lil Yachty’s tracks on Spotify, from the safety of my living room, and came to the realization that his particular style of drawling, atonal, syncopated rap-talking, in essence exemplified the current movement in hip hop that somehow emerged right under my nose.

Accepting that you’re no longer ‘down with the kids’ can be a tough pill to swallow. But for me it came at a time when I happened to notice an uptick in the appearance of documentaries/dramatic portrayals exploring the early origins and development of hip hop music. This might be a slightly tangential straw at which I’m grasping at, but this speaks to me as a collective acceptance, that rap has in a way, come full circle. Maybe not in the true sense of that phrase, but what I mean is we’ve reached the point where we can sit back (‘with a Buddha sack’) and wax lyrical about the earlier days of the music, with a sense of nostalgia that only comes with firm, mainstream, establishment; and some current, unfamiliar deviation from our perceived norm. So with that muddled sentiment in mind, I will end this long-winded introduction and briefly review some of these excellent offerings.

Hip Hop Evolution

Originally airing on HBO, and currently streaming on both HBO and Netflix, this four-part documentary follows Canadian rapper Shadrach Kabango (stage name Shad) on a musical pilgrimage to discover hip hop’s origins in the crime-stricken streets of 1970s South Bronx, and trace key developments throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, as the genre took new and exciting directions, and garnered mainstream success. Shad takes us on a fascinating journey, revealing remarkable insights that are accompanied by a plethora of interviews with key figures in the rap community, both past and present.

The show explores crucial innovations in hip hop, beginning with the founder himself, DJ Kool Herc, and his ‘merry-go-round’ idea of using side-by-side turntables playing the same (or similar) record, in order to elongate rhythmic drum beats in soul and funk tracks—known as break beats—at legendary parties in the recreation room of the Bronx project he called home. Herc would punctuate these breaks with rhyming slang phrases, normally delivered through an Echoplex delay, and thus hip hop was born. We see how some of the originating icons built on the methods of others to finesse early hip hop—Grand Master Flash’s ingenious technique for identifying the precise location of break beats; Melle Mel’s use of rap to bring awareness to the social strife experienced in the woefully deprived communities of inner city America, in the timeless classic The Message; Run-DMC’s at the time startling decision to drop the instrumental samples and rap purely over beats; Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin’s savvy entrepreneurial strategy that turned rap into a multi-million dollar business, and took hip hop center stage with acts like LL Cool J and The Beastie Boys. The final episode explores the genres infiltration into West Coast circles, and how the crack epidemic, police brutality, and rising gang warfare on the streets of LA engendered the gangsta rap that came to dominate the 90s.

There’s a thought-provoking scene in the short-lived and divisive HBO drama Vinyl, in which we see a presumed DJ Cool Herc—honing his craft by spinning funk records side by side to create break loops—maligned by the elders and their calls to ‘let the record play man!’ This perfectly illustrates the salient message of Hip Hop Evolution, that these developments were not simply step-by-step progressions on a clear-cut path, but truly imaginative innovations that exceeded against all odds. There’s also a theme here that pervades throughout Vinyl, of betting on the wrong horse—whether it be record company execs or the general public. When Hip Hop Evolution details Run DMC’s 1986 collaboration with Aerosmith on Walk This Way, we’re reminded that throughout its early history, hip hop was often scoffed at as a passing fad that would never materialize into mainstream success. For a hip hop group to collaborate with a larger than life rock band was actually a huge deal at the time. What’s even more remarkable is that some twenty years on, it’s actually hip hop that is unquestionably the more dominant mainstream genre, and rock is unfortunately falling by the way side.

The Get Down

Although The Get Down was produced completely independently of Hip Hop Evolution, in many ways it serves as the perfect companion piece. This six-part Netflix-original drama, which takes its name from the slang term for those gold dust-like break beats, follows a group of teenagers as they navigate the burning Bronx of the late 1970s—struggling to steer clear of the street gangs, rising crime, and political corruption that blighted the city, while establishing a hip hop crew mighty enough to topple the throne of Grand Master Flash. Although co-creator Baz Luhrmann’s trademark style of production provides a brightly colored, comic book feel; the show weaves a captivating narrative—perfectly illuminating the key developments of the 70s hip hop scene described in Hip Hop Evolution, with a dramatic spin. We’re treated to scenes like Grandmaster Flash sending his protégé Shaolin Fantastic, on a dangerous race against The Savage Warlord street gang, to retrieve a rare copy of a record to sample (which was a huge part of gaining an edge for early DJs). We see the inside of one of DJ Cool Herc’s aforementioned parties (also depicted in Vinyl), in a hunt for a mystery bootlegger—a key feature of the dissemination of early hip hop tracks; and we get a glimpse of what life was like for kids whose playgrounds were the burnt down tenement buildings and abandoned lots around the South Bronx’s Charlotte Street.

The show does a great job of using fictional portrayals to educate viewers about key events that changed the course of hip hop, such as Grand Master Flash handing Shaolin Fantastic nothing more than a purple crayon to impart the lesson of creating break loops (see if you can figure it out). However, the standout highlight is the depiction of the 1977 New York blackout, when an electrical fault caused the entire city to lose power for an entire night and day, during a brutal July heat wave. While this event will forever be remembered as a shocking display of carnage—where mass looting and rioting saw some 1,600 stores damaged, with over 1,000 fires, leading to almost 4,000 arrests—it served as a crucial facilitator in the development of hip hop, where stolen DJ equipment tripled the number of functional hip hop crews overnight. The blackout was of course covered in Hip Hop Evolution, but gaining some perspective on what it was actually like to live through, gives the show a touch of magical realism, reminiscent of another Netflix original, Narcos, in which as a viewer you’re frequently brought to disbelief, questioning whether these seemingly bizarre events actually happened. The producers also do a great job of splicing in period footage to solidify pertinent scenes.

One of the reasons why I call New York home is its riveting history, particularly the 70s and 80s, where soaring crime rates and near-bankruptcy led parts of the city to resemble a dystopian war zone. I’ve read books on the subject, and watched myriad YouTube videos cataloging the widespread arson that leveled the Bronx in particular (where my mother grew up in the 40s and 50s), but until now I’ve had to make do with The Warriors as the closest thing to a historical portrayal of this captivating period. The Get Down fills an obvious void, and manages to tie multiple developments together such as graffiti artistry, disco music, breakdancing, and Ed Koch’s mayoral campaign, over six hour-long episodes, while maintaining a compelling story.

Time Is Illmatic

This was always going to be a winner for me. In my humblest of humble opinions, I can say without any shadow of a doubt that Nas’s 1994 debut album Illmatic is the greatest rap album of all time. This record is to hip hop, what Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue is to jazz, somehow managing to effectively distill the beauty of all that preceded it, while blazing a new and exciting path. The intro on the albums first musical track, NY State of Mind, still gives me chills. With its triplet swing-style rhythm on drums; the crescendo of the blues scale-derived riff played on upright bass; and the piano, peppering the bass line with an offbeat altered chord—the track lays a groove deeply rooted in jazz, that sets the scene for Nas’s hilariously self-depreciating ‘I don’t even know how to start this,’ prior to dropping one of the greatest verses in the history of rap. Spoiler alert—Time Is Illmatic ends with Nas spitting this verse to headphone monitors in the studio, contextualizing its brilliance. While I haven’t always been so opinionated on the matter, I think the fact that twenty-five years after its debut, holding the title of the only rap album that I periodically come back to time and time again, without skipping a single track, is testament to its preeminence.

Time is Illmatic (which viewers can watch via streaming on Amazon Prime) expertly intertwines Nas’s early life growing up on the streets of Queensbridge (in America’s largest public housing project) with the production of Illmatic—weaving a complex story of personal strife that sowed the seeds for a precocious 21-year-old Nas to produce this iconic masterpiece. For me, what sets the album apart from other classics is the coupling of musicality—jazz-derived rhythmic grooves that permeate through every track; with deeply poetic storytelling—a tradition firmly rooted in the country blues music of the early 20th century, of which Nas has unquestionably mastered. With this in mind, it’s particularly interesting to explore Nas’s relationship with his father, a Mississippi-born jazz musician (who actually makes a cameo playing cornet on the outro of the album’s third track), and to see an in-depth examination of the production of these tracks. I kind of see myself as a slightly better looking version of Ryan Gosling’s Seb in the film La La Land—I genuinely hold the opinion that if you don’t at least somewhat appreciate jazz and blues music, then you don’t deserve to listen to rap or rock. Thus, I feel somewhat validated by this aspect of the documentary. It also really highlights how important instrumentation is to the album, with Nas sampling jazz legends like Ahmad Jamal, in contrast to others that rely heavily on samples from very well established famous songs (*cough* Kanye *cough*). Serving as a sort of internal control, It Aint Hard to Tell, which samples Michael Jackson’s Human Nature, is probably Illmatic’s corniest track.

Other highlights include an examination of another flawless track, One Love, with words from its producer Q-Tip. Here we delve into the tragedy of a generation of young black males lost to the mounting mass incarceration that pervaded the latter half of the 20th century, and continues to this day. One Love is definitely a stand out track on the album, in which Nas’s rap takes the form of a letter to a friend in prison, exploring both the horrors faced behind bars, and the void that’s left on the streets—exemplified by the line ‘plus, congratulations, you know you got a son//I heard he looks like ya, why don’t your lady write ya?’ This message is arguably even more relevant now than it was then, with the industrial prison complex at an all-time high, perfectly illuminated in the recent Netflix documentary 13TH. Again there’s an interesting precedent to this, wherein early blues music would often center around the hardships of the penitentiary and the forced labor that came with it—the trials and tribulations encountered in navigating a system that’s designed to keep you down.

I think this documentary and the album itself serves as an interesting follow up to Hip Hop Evolution and The Get Down, since you’ll notice Nas’s frequent nods to the old guard (also coincidentally, Nas introduces each episode of The Get Down with a tailor-made rap). Lines like ‘A smooth criminal on beat breaks’ or ’I reminisce on park jams, my man was shot for his sheep coat’, as well as ‘back in 83 I was an MC sparkin, but I was too scared to grab the mics in the parks and, kick my little raps’—are all brought to life with the knowledge of how early hip hop took shape during Nas’s childhood. At times in the album the instruments will even drop out for a couple of lines, allowing Nas to rap solely over beat breaks, merging the old with the new—an audacious feat for a 21-year-old newcomer. You might be able to tell at this point that I’m struggling to resist the urge to digress into a song by song review of Illmatic, so I’ll cap this off with words from the man himself—‘Sip the Dom P, and watch this document-ary till you’re charged.’ Ok I rejigged it a little, but you get the message.

Culture Corner

Bernie Langs

“Truth” in Painting

 

Getting to a ‘core essence’ in a mystic or revelatory sense can be as elusive as tracing the path of an electron or photon, famously described as both particle and wave. The arts can be utilized as a conduit to higher states of consciousness. In music, the drone of an Indian sitar or a choral work by Mozart can carry the mind of the listener to abstract and blissful states. In the 19th century, Walter Pater redefined the approach to the study of art in history and art history itself in his book of essays, The Renaissance. When writing about the Italian Renaissance painter Giorgione, he noted “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music” and later asserts that the mind’s impressions are “in continual flux.” Pater states that a passion for the arts has “the greatest potential for staving off the sense of transience, because in the arts the perceptions of highly sensitive minds are already ordered.”

Bernard Berenson [uncredited picture on the Web site Art Fuse]

Bernard Berenson presents his theory of how and why painting grabs hold of the viewer, in his book The Italian Painters of the Renaissance, a compiled series of essays written from 1894 to 1907, and reissued in 1952. Berenson’s famous ideas on the ‘tactile’ process of how paintings bring the viewer to a heightened state starts with his observation of what form does in paintings: “It lends a higher coefficient of reality to the object represented, with the consequent of accelerated psychical processes, and the exhilarating sense of increased capacity in the observer.” He observes this as a retinal sensation and that the tactile sense stems from childhood revelations and joy in the discovery of the physical aspect of the sense of touch.

Alison Brown describes in her essay Bernard Berenson and ‘Tactile Values’ in Florence the evolution of Berenson’s theory, noting that Berenson saw his ideas more akin to psychology rather than philosophy, and that he had been heavily influenced at Harvard by his professor, William James, and his writings on psychological aesthetics.

What I took from reading Berenson’s book over two decades ago, was the idea of the shortcut offered by paintings to heightened states of the sublime, which leaves the door open to many kinds of revelation, including, yet far beyond, the psychological. In the mid-1990s, I purchased a book of collected essays by Meyer Schapiro, who at the time was Professor Emeritus of Art History at Columbia University. I’d read Schapiro’s book of selected papers on late Antiquity, early Christian and Medieval art that had impressed me in its scientific, sleuthing, and exhaustive examination of art, much along the lines of the awe-inspiring and groundbreaking approach of Princeton’s Erwin Panofsky. The 1990s collection includes the essay, Mr. Berenson’s Values from 1961, boasting cutting gems of prose such as his analysis of Berenson’s conversion from Judaism to Christianity.

Meyer Schapiro [Book jacket photo for “Theory and Philosophy of Art” photo by Richard Sandler]

Schapiro notes that Berenson failed to grow as a theorist and critic and chose to be a connoisseur rather than an art historian or philosopher of art, which indeed Berenson did regret. Schapiro describes the theory of ‘tactile values’ in painting as a “strange appeal to physiology” and that Berenson used these ideas “with no deepening sense, as personal clichés imposed on any sort of problem.”

Around the time I read Schapiro’s book, I was trying to incorporate the study of art history in cultural context using the methodical approach of Professors Schapiro and Panofsky, and others combined with the bullet train to higher states I’d created in my mind around Berenson’s ideas.

About ten years ago, I chanced to read The Truth in Painting by French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Derrida’s writings are uncommonly difficult and convoluted, and he is both praised and derided as the main force behind the philosophical school of Deconstruction. When reading Derrida, I’m always struck by his underlying humor, and when I really believe I’m catching the gist of his purposively obtuse arguments, it’s a source of sublime understanding.

Jaques Derrida [Photo: PhilWeb Bibliographic Archive]

Derrida’s approach is akin to a circling war party, each on his own horse surrounding one solitary covered wagon, where all riders have their own notion of what may be hidden in that wagon, and whatever it is may have an ‘ultimate’ end to it. But as we circle, it becomes clear that there’s a good chance that there is absolutely nothing inside the wagon (or perhaps Schrödinger’s cat!) and also that we’re never truly going to get a clear look at it. But by moving closer and closer and sharing all angles of viewing, we’ll perhaps find the ghost or essence of the core.

One of the essays in Truth in Painting is Derrida’s work Restitutions of the truth in pointing [pointure]. Gianluca Spinato in his essay, Philosophy of Art: Martin Heidegger and Meyer Schapiro, argues that “Jacques Derrida’s well-known discussion of the conflict between the faculties in question locates Heidegger on the side of the ‘truth’ of art and finds Schapiro on the side of historical and dialectical, even materialist accuracy. The resulting ‘haul’, as Derrida names it at the end of his own evaluation of Schapiro’s original assessment, ‘is a meagre one for the picture police, for this discourse of order and propriety/property in painting’.”

Derrida examines, in his playfully maddening manner, approaches to understanding Vincent Van Gogh’s famous painting Old Shoes with Laces, as well as other paintings by the artist of peasant boots. Two significant quotes begin the exposition, the first by Cezanne that “I owe you the truth in painting, and I will tell it you” and Van Gogh’s own words, “But truth is so dear to me, and so is the seeking to make true, that indeed, I believe I would still rather be a cobbler than a musician with colors.”

Chad Orzel’s YouTube for TED-ED

After a long discourse on shoes, peppered with doubts of whether they can even be called “a pair” and other unsubstantiated “givens” in discussing Van Gogh, Restitution continues on to jab at Professor Schapiro and his approach to studying art, including the questioning of one of his most famous essays in his book on late Antiquity and early Christian art. Restitution included an unexpected view of Schapiro that both Heidegger and Derrida bring down on him, seemingly implying that their philosophical query into the underlying truths in Van Gogh and in painting, are something akin to abstract notions defined by the ancient Greeks, and ignored and beyond the comprehension of an art historian. Schapiro’s criticism of Heidegger is made to look like an attempt at grabbing back the paintings to his field of study and away from the other school. Derrida writes of “A symbolic correspondence, an accord, a harmonic. In this communication between two illustrious professors who have both of them a communication to make on ‘a famous picture by Van Gogh’—one of the two is a specialist. Painting, and even Van Gogh, is, so to speak, his thing, he wants to keep it, he wants it returned…They owe the truth in painting, the truth of painting and even painting as truth, or even as the truth of truth.”

In complete contradiction to my circling wagon deconstructive metaphor, Derrida describes examining the problem from a stationary standpoint. It reminded me of a lecture I attended many years ago by then-Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello. He discussed that to get the full power of a painting, one has to look at it for a very long time. He punctuated this point with a funny anecdote of how, while visiting the Frick Collection, he stared so long at a painting that the security staff grew concerned and a guard approached him demanding to know what he was doing. It reminds me to keep looking, keep looking long and hard.

 

New York City Dialect New York-ese, Lesson 5

Aileen Marshall

Yo! Welcome to lesson five in our series on the New York City dialect. I hope you’ve been practicing. By now you should be able to hold a light conversation in New York-ese, and order a bagel with a schmear.

To review last month’s lesson, a number of words in the city dialect have an elongated A sound, sounding like “aw.” Our vocabulary words were tawk, thawt and dawg.  Here are some more examples of them used in a sentence.

Don’t sit next to that guy tawkin’ to himself.

I thawt he was a tourist askin’ for directions, but he was a bum askin’ for change.

You can make money in your spare time as a dawg walker.

Other examples of the elongated A are walk, cough and taught. Here are some examples of these words used in a sentence.

If you want to get around in the city, don’t pay any attention to wawk signals.

Bus exhaust usually makes me cawf.

My mother tawt me never to touch the handrails in the subway.

This month’s lesson:

Native New Yorkers often drop the H in words that start with that letter. The two most common instances of this are huge and human.

Here are some examples of words using the dropped H words used in a sentence. Click on the links to hear the pronunciation.

Dat demonstration on 57th Street is really goin’ to be ‘uge.

It’s been good to see New Yorkers stand up for ‘uman rights.

Keep practicing by listening to locals conversing. Hang out at your neighborhood pizza joint. The two traditional establishments in this neighborhood are Sutton Pizza, on First Avenue and 63rd Street, and Pizza Park, also on First Avenue, at 66th Street. Tune in next month for a test of your newly acquired language skills.

Life on a Roll

Qiong Wang

Las Ruinas y Las Piramides

This was my first visit to Mexico, and my first visit to the Yucatán peninsula, which must be a magical land. Despite a plan for every detail on the trip, things started to fall apart the moment I landed. However, all the adventures became so worthwhile when I finally saw the ancient Mayan civilization. Here is a peek at the great Chichén Itzá, the breezy Tulum ruins, and the magnificent Governor’s Palace at Uxmal.

Governor’s Palace at Uxmal, By Qiong Wang

Chichén Itzá, by Qiong Wang

Ruins at Tulum, by Qiong Wang

Carnival done Italian-style

Francesca Cavallo

February in Italy is infiltrated by masks, confetti, colors, and lights that create a very exciting and unique atmosphere. Carnival is a huge winter festival celebrated 40 days before Easter and ends on Shrove Tuesday (Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras), the day before Ash Wednesday. It is not a single day or event, but a whole season of masquerades and fun for people of all ages, especially children who really love it. When I was a child, I looked forward to it all year long because every Sunday you could run through the town square wearing costumes that represented cartoon characters or superheroes while tossing confetti to create a rainbow shower for passersby. Pranks are also common during Carnival, hence the saying: “A Carnevale ogni scherzo vale”, “anything goes at Carnival”. During this time, you could even prank your classmates and not punished for it. It was fantastic!

Carnival has its roots in pagan festivals, and traditions are usually adapted to fit in with Catholic rituals. Historically, it was the last chance for Catholics to indulge before they gave up meat (traditionally) for Lent, though today people give up all sorts of other things for Lent. The name for the festival in Italian is “Carnevale” the word “carne” means meat in Italian. It was perhaps not only a last chance to indulge, but also an opportunity to consume any meat that had been put up for winter that might not stay fresh enough for consumption until spring.

The tradition of getting dressed up at Carnival is one that dates back to a time when the class system played a major role in society. It is celebrated in many different ways, varying from region to region, and city to city. Venice, Viareggio, Putignano, and Ivrea are towns that hold the biggest and most elaborate Carnival festivals in Italy. Carnival in Venice is very refined, elegant, and chic. Masks (maschere) are an important part of the Carnival festival and Venice is the best city for traditional masks. Its traditions began as a time for celebration and expression throughout the classes because wearing masks hid any form of identity between social classes. Today, approximately three million visitors come to Venice for the celebrations. Two of the classic Venetian costumes are the Bauta and the Moretta. Bauta is composed of a black cloak (tabarro), a black tricorn (tricorno), and a white mask called larva. It tends to be the main type of mask worn during Carnival.  It was also used on many other occasions as a device for hiding the wearer’s identity and social status. It was thus useful for a variety of purposes: some of them illicit or criminal, others personal, such as for romantic encounters. The Moretta is an oval mask of black velvet that was usually worn by women visiting convents.  It was invented in France and rapidly became popular in Venice as it brought out the beauty of feminine features. The mask was accentuated with a veil, and secured in place by a small part in the wearer’s mouth. Carnival in Venice is a unique and dazzling experience, probably because this city has a particular glamour to it, especially during winter.

Viareggio, on the Tuscany Coast, has one of the biggest Carnival celebrations in Italy. Viareggio’s Carnival is known for its giant, allegorical papier-mâché floats used in parades, not only on Shrove Tuesday, but also on the three Sundays before and the Sunday that follows. Festivals, cultural events, concerts, and masked balls take place throughout the Carnival season both in Viareggio and in neighboring regions, and restaurants have specialized Carnival menus. The artistic refinement of the papier-mâché  masterpieces are admired as true works of art, similar to the luxurious masquerades in Venice.

However, the oldest carnival celebrations in Europe are found at the Putignano Carnival in Puglia. Dating back to 1394, it was only during the Fascist era that this rural carnival developed into the more refined, suburban event of today. This was when the parade of floats, a favorite form of communication in Fascist culture, came into fashion. The first floats are said to have been made with straw and rags, then cardboard and wood, until the current technique of papier-mâché over wire structures was developed. The floats always have themes related to scathing political satire or current affairs, and feature giant caricatures of politicians or TV personalities. They are accompanied by troupes of costumed dancers and loud music to engage the crowds of spectators.

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Culture Corner

Landscape Into Art: Thoughts on the book Albrecht Altdorfer and the Origins of Landscape (by Christopher S. Wood), and the film The Revenant (directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu)

Bernie Langs

Caution: spoilers ahead!

Albrecht Altdorfer’s most famous painting: The Battle of Alexander and Darius at Issus (Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany; photo: Wikipedia – Public Domain)

The inspired ideas and emotions one experiences when taking in the sights of nature, reading about the subject, or seeing a film with beautiful landscapes, can range wildly, from those of awe and wonder to absolute terror. I’ve come to believe that once humans banded together to hunt and farm, communicate effectively, and build communal living areas, the species irrevocably lost any direct association with natural surroundings. We were left with only the ability to examine the inner biological mechanics of being for understanding what is called “nature.” We were destined from an early time as persistently self-aware beings to be removed and isolated observers of the planet’s natural wonders, no matter how in awe we are by such magnificence.

Ideas about the relationship of Man and his natural surroundings are examined in fantastic detail in Albrecht Altdorfer and the Origins of Landscape by Christopher S. Wood, who is Professor and Chair of the Department of German at New York University. Professor Wood’s book is an incredible achievement in art historical theory and research. It investigates a single daunting question: What motivated the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Altdorfer (1480 – 1538) to paint the very first stand-alone landscape paintings in human history? How did a European world completely centered on religion, with its arts engulfed in religious or classically-themed pagan iconography, end up with an artist creating pictures either with no humans in them at all or as tiny figures in overwhelmingly dense forest settings?

Professor Wood thoroughly examines the mindset of the artists of the German Renaissance era in which Altdorfer worked, a much less studied locality than that of the Italian and Flemish schools. He also examines the implications on his thesis drawn from the scant information in the historical record about the artist’s personal life. The book has beautiful reproductions of the works by German masters of paintings, drawings and prints, many in color, lending themselves well to deep meditation on its themes.

Altdorfer was caught between the rising tide of Martin Luther’s iconoclastic teachings (Luther was alive and active during his time) and traditional Christianity as practiced out of Rome, but he never completely gave in to the former. Professor Wood notes that as the landscape setting encroached on the religious saints and the pagan heroes in paintings, certain aspects of the primeval forests took on their attributes in an odd substitution of sorts. Joachim Patinir, the visionary Netherlandish painter who set his small figures from Christian tales amid beautiful panoramic views of mountains, waterways, lush trees, and forests, is cited as a proponent of the widespread idea at the time that nature’s beauty is subservient to the religious experience and story. However, Altdorfer’s revolution swayed towards evincing the fear and harshness evoked by the dense forests of his native Germany as an independent entity, with no relationship to the stories of the Bible or Classical literature and myths in any way. In the long run, one also can see in these frightening German landscapes the source of a nationalistic pride in their terrors. This attitude eventually leads as an almost natural path to the unflinching murderous apects of National Socialism.

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Facing the Music: Life as a Born Again Musician

Owen Clark

My small but growing NY-style home studio

When I was twenty-eight I had a third-life crisis. Well, let’s be honest, my whole twenties were a series of quarter to third-life crises, but for whatever reason, this one stuck. I’ve always been prone to obsessions. Some on the fairly bizarre end of the spectrum—collecting pipes and cigars when I was nine years old; some more pragmatic—lifting weights or riding motorcycles. But it’s always the same story, my life becomes transformed, consumed with an intense singular focus, dedicated to achieving some lofty goal. During the early stages of a new hobby, nothing else matters. The problem is, they never last. My friend calls them my ‘kicks’. In the midst of a kick I can convince myself that I’ve a puncher’s chance of attaining Ryan Reynolds-like abs, or hauling a bike around a race track quicker than Valentino Rossi. Then, after the euphoric excitement subsides, I realize that I’m destined to be just another puny guy getting buried under a 175lb barbell; or that the legends of Moto GP that I idolize started racing bikes when they were three years old, and possess a near psychopathic lack of fear, whereas I’m afraid to walk past groups of teenagers on the street. Then a depression/hopelessness follows, then onto a new hobby! Rinse and repeat. It’s a timeless formula that’s served me well on my path to becoming a jack-of-all-trades, master of none.

Music has been a recurring theme with these kicks. When I was fourteen I saw the movie Desperado. A mid-nineties hit starring Antonio Banderas as the ultra-slick, mysterious Mariachi man making his way through the violent drug towns of the Mexican desert to avenge the murder of his lover, and the maiming of his fretting hand by a local cartel leader, aided by a guitar case laden with firearms. I’m not exactly sure what triggered my obsession, perhaps the scene in which El Mariachi uses his guitar headstock to render a man holding a woman up at knifepoint unconscious (mid performance), but I became utterly hooked, watching it over and over again, isolating the exquisite Spanish guitar licks amongst scenes of gun-slinging bloodbaths. I, of course, immediately purchased a classical guitar, insisting that it come with a hard case should I ever need to carry a small arsenal to wage war on the drug dealers of Sheffield, England. I would later find out that one of my current guitar heroes, John Mayer, was inspired to play after seeing Michael J. Fox in the movie Back to the Future. I may lack his fame or virtuosic skills, but I feel my inspiration was slightly cooler.

In the coming weeks I would play several hours a day, diligently teaching myself, listening to my dad’s John Williams records in awe, dreaming of lightning fast fingers and an eventual mastery of the instrument. Not soon after, on my fifteenth birthday, I got an electric guitar, which I covered in electrical tape in an attempt to emulate my new hero, Eddie Van Halen. I still maintained focus over the next couple of years, eventually fronting a band, but despite my guitar teacher cutting me loose following his declaration that he’d taught me all I needed to know, I never felt like I truly understood the instrument. I took up the saxophone, which became my new primary focus (amongst other things), and while I never stopped playing guitar, as you might have guessed the obsession became a distant memory in the years to come.

Cut to twenty-eight, I finally said enough is enough. That late-twenties malaise, in which the impending doom of your thirties encourages you to take life by the scruff of the neck, had gotten a hold of me good. Figuring I’d safely made it past twenty-seven, the age that had tragically consumed several of my musical heroes, including Jimi Hendrix himself, it was time to become the next sensation. I started teaching myself guitar theory, diatonic intervals, the five patterns, dyads, triads, extensions, alterations: all that jazz (pun intended). I’ll spare the boring details, but after a few months of this utterly painstaking, slow and laborious process, it all started to click. This coincided with my coming home for Christmas, dusting off my gorgeous made in America Fender Stratocaster, criminally neglected under my bed for several years. I forgot how fun it was to just noodle around on an electric guitar (I had been teaching myself on an acoustic, fingerpicking style, slightly trickier/duller), sliding through my newly learnt scale and arpeggio patterns, bending strings; I remembered what I used to love about playing, and felt like all the good stuff was still to come.

When I returned to a desolate New York January, I purchased a worn-brown American made Gibson Les Paul. In case you’re not familiar, in conveniently simplistic terms guitarists often tend to think in terms of Les Paul or Stratocaster, and being a life-long Strat guy it was time for a new beginning. Switching to electric and armed with my newly acquired theory, playing no longer became a chore. I went from an hour a day to between three and four. On weekends I would spend entire days transcribing Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn. I felt like I had learnt a new language, since I was able to understand exactly what these gods were doing, and exactly why it worked, rather than just learning by rote memorization as I’d done in the past. The guitar is a funny old instrument, due to the numbering of the strings and frets, you can learn music from tablature (a six line notation system where each line represents a string and notes are represented by fret numbers) and thus never really understand what you’re playing.

During the next few months I applied a renewed focus to becoming fully proficient at playing the blues, rock and jazz on electric, and fingerpicking style folk, pop and blues on acoustic. This leads me to another intriguing aspect of the guitar, its extremely multifaceted nature. There are several ways to skin a cat, and even more ways to play a guitar. Fingerpicking Spanish guitar requires a very, very different skillset from hair-metal style shredding; as does playing bottleneck slide blues; as does improvising over fast chord changes on a jazz chart. But to progress from that intermediate stage where so many of us tend to reside, to that elusive advanced stage, you’re kind of expected to know how to do it all. You also want to do it all. I find the majority of music I hear on guitar as fascinating as it is pleasing to the ear, and setting your sights on new genres can be as satisfying as juggling them is frustrating, one of my many love/hate relationships with the instrument.

Nothing seems to draw me to the guitar like the blues. Clapton put it best with “If you hand me a guitar, I’ll play the blues. That’s the place I automatically go.” There’s just something so deeply satisfying about sliding and bending through the same old blues licks that were born out of all that pain and suffering on the Mississippi Delta. Pondering how extreme adversity engendered such soul-stirring music. With that in mind, I set my first major goal of playing in Big Ed’s Blues Jam at The Red Lion on Bleecker Street, a stage that’s frequented by exceptionally talented professional musicians including the resident grouchy blues master himself, Ed Sullivan (and coincidentally shares the same name as the Sheffield pub where I used to hone my jazz-sax chops at jam sessions as a teen). Leaving my guitar at home, I set out for a little primer one Monday night in April, surveying the talent and thinking about how I’d shape up, having only been playing chord-based blues improvisation for a couple of months at this point. Obviously I was hoping to see a bunch of mediocre musicians fumbling their way around a few tunes, my people. Unfortunately, this was not the case, and I was instead awe-struck at the level of talent on display. Basically the best blues I had ever seen live, and I was somehow supposed to rock up to the stage and hold my own. Seemed like a tall task. I went back home and spent the next few weeks practicing like hell in a seemingly futile attempt to play without making a fool of myself by the end of May.

Eventually I ponied up the courage to walk on stage, guitar in hand. A lot of people I speak with are amazed that these jam sessions work at all. After all, you have a group of musicians that have never seen each other before in their lives, getting on stage to play a number together perfectly in sync and in tune, with about fifteen seconds to confer. It’s not quite as difficult as it sounds; thankfully the blues is fairly simple and generally revolves around one well-known chord-progression, with the chords being referred to by numbers relative to the root of the key you’re playing in. But still having not set foot on a stage since I was eighteen, only having a vague idea of what I was expected to play definitely added to the nausea sweeping through my body. Once the song started and I dropped in with some rhythm chords, I realized just how different performance is to bedroom rock starring. My hands were shaking to the point that I could barely fret chords. When it came time for my guitar solo (customarily everyone on a lead instrument gets a solo, indicated with a nod from the bandleader) it was genuinely like that classic scene in the movie Old School, where Will Ferrell reels off a long-winded answer to a complex question in a debate competition then asks, “What happened? I blacked out.” As I was walking to the subway, complaining about how badly I choked, my girlfriend started playing a clip on her phone of a guitar solo, to which I said ‘that sounds alright, who was that?’, then grabbing the phone I see my miserable looking mug, sternly concentrating on hitting notes I had no recollection of playing. Not that I was Muddy Waters of course, but I think I just about held my own.

Over the next few weeks I attended a few more times, getting slightly more comfortable on stage and eventually doing a few tunes as the band leader, singing and playing. However, becoming dissatisfied with sitting around for several hours on a Monday night to play two songs (it’s like they don’t even appreciate that some of us have bedtimes), I started a new chapter: writing my own music to perform as a soloist. I gravitated towards singer/songwriter style acoustic music (I just have a lot of feelings!). I let fly with my hands every Sunday afternoon, and managed to pen down a few semi-interesting progressions and riffs, scribbling down accompanying lyrics and forming a few rough songs to work with.

This has probably been the most challenging and interesting aspect of my musical journey. You don’t really think about it until you do it, but coming up with a completely original sound from scratch, when the sole creative burden lies on you, is actually pretty darn difficult. There are all sorts of decisions you have to contend with, and none of them came easy to me. Even something seemingly simple like singing in your natural voice is really an open-ended question. A lot of Englishmen like myself emulate American accents when we sing; others honor their native tongue (proudly representing my hometown, Alex Turner of The Arctic Monkeys is pretty far on this end of the spectrum). Lyrics are another particularly tricky subject to contend with. Some choose the direct literal approach; others favor a more abstract poetic tone. Both can be exceptionally effective at delivering a poignant message; both can be exceptionally effective at making a vocalist look lame as hell, where the line is drawn is completely in the eye of the beholder, adding to the complexity of the task at hand. It’s also very, very unnerving sharing your deepest darkest feelings with anyone that happens to be listening. I still struggle with this, and choose to essentially code my lyrics, steeping in metaphor to the point where the subject matter is semi-unrecognizable. Perhaps an unwise choice, but the alternative truly offends my closed-off English sensibilities. As one of my favorite artists Banks says, “sharing music is like giving away your children.” Lastly the music itself, again probably hard to appreciate until you try, but there’s such an incredibly fine line between one sound and another that you can find yourself switching between reggae and emo while you’re trying to write jazz. You’re striving for an original sound while building off of your influences; trying to keep it simple while delving into the complex; toeing the line between standing out in the crowd or being that guy. Essentially, it’s a minefield.

I set forth one steamy August night to perform my songs at a local open mic night, at The Graham Bar in East Williamsburg. It was a nervy walk, intensified by the constant appearance of ginormous rats scurrying from hot stinking piles of trash. My roommate and I coined it ‘rat city’, where stars are born. The venue itself was equally inauspicious, a hot shabby back room in a fairly deserted bar. But just like my earlier forays into the blues, I was once again amazed at the level of talent on display. I performed my allotted three songs as best as I could, attained a pretty good reception from the audience, and made some unquestionably hilarious wisecracks (honestly). All in all, a success.

I’ve played several times since that night, but I’ve never quite matched the sense of satisfaction I felt walking home that evening. In relative terms I’m of course still a newbie, but it seems to me like it never gets easy. When I hear the nasality of my voice on the mic or recording; hit a bum note on guitar; or follow a vocalist with pipes like a steam train; that sense of imposter syndrome really forces you to constantly question what you’re doing there. I suspect it’s an issue that plagues the creative community in general, especially here in the naked city, where inescapable talent surrounds us. Music is a particularly curious character, there’s no obvious formula for success. Some have talent coming out the wazoo, only to be scoffed at as ostentatious bores; some possess little in the sense of objective skill or creativity, but seem to strike a chord with their listeners that can’t be argued with. I find myself constantly analyzing anything that falls on my ears, picking apart composition, melody, harmony, rhythm—and while I’ve got a pretty good handle on how the music’s made, there’s always a faint whiff of pixie dust that makes it truly work, hooking us in time and time again, toying with our emotions like only music can.

And what of my obsession now? When I think back to last year, the flames have unquestionably died down, but the embers still glow. I no longer harbor hopes of becoming the next Jeff Buckley, Gary Clark Jr., or John Mayer; moving to Nashville to find work as a session guitarist; or attending Julliard as a precocious thirty-year-old man. I’m painfully aware of the fact that there are countless people out there, far, far more talented than I could ever hope to be, and far hungrier for a taste of the limelight. But I persevere. I still play every day—jazz, blues and rock before work in the morning; original acoustic material, repertoire and transcription after work, until ten, every night. My social life suffers, but it’s a sacrifice I feel inclined to make—though thankfully I only have one or two friends at the best of times. When it all comes together I feel like I’m channelling Jimi; but mostly, I feel like Ross Geller. Not a day goes by where I don’t stress about some aspect of my playing or my music. I experience bouts of elation on the odd occasions when I’m satisfied, but they’re increasingly fleeting, without fail extinguished either through the joylessness of repetition or the despair of inadequacy relative to the legends I so worship. Some days my guitar feels like a burden that I’ll forever carry, some days it feels like a blessing that can deliver a state of joy like no other. But whatever it brings me, I’m still along for the ride.

 

The Face Behind the Mask

Guadalupe Astorga

Do you remember the Greek myth of Narcissus? It’s the story of an attractive and arrogant man that fell deeply in love with his own face reflected on the water, to the point of losing all interest in life when the reflection was not visible. He died looking at the pond, with no other desire than gazing at his own image.

We have all probably encountered someone like this in our lives. Whether it is that popular guy at high school, the wife that spends two hours in front of the mirror, the husband, the impulsive boss, the public celebrity, the writer, the actor or even politicians, anybody can show some signs of narcissism. The problem begins when it becomes pathologic.

At first glance, people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) seem extremely confident, fearless, shameless, and self-sufficient. However, researchers and clinicians investigating these behaviors have found that they are actually a mask to cover low self-esteem, fear, shame, and lack of empathy. People with NPD have the need to be admired, valued over others, and expect to be treated as superiors.

More frequent in men than women, NPD is rarely treated by itself since it is often accompanied by more severe conditions such as depression, substance abuse, paranoia, eating or bipolar disorders. The causes of this personality disorder are not completely clear, but it has strong hereditary and social components. It’s often incubated during childhood, and blooms in adolescence and early adulthood. The major problem with NPD is not what happens with the individual itself, it’s what happens to others. It is common that people surrounding narcissists get humiliated, discredited, disregarded and disrespected by them. It is also common that in order to surpass the fear of falling short, narcissists develop a need for achievement, self-enhancement, perfectionism, and snobbery. However, society rewards these kinds of behaviors, especially in public personalities like artists and politicians. In a culture where success is overvalued and measured in comparison to others, NPD can drive individuals into privileged positions at the expense of others. The famous phrase by Machiavelli “the end justifies the means” is a magnificent example of the approach that these individuals can take in order to achieve their goals. But one can imagine that this is a double-edged sword, since the same attributes that brought them to success could end up dispelling their beloved ones away. In the end, patients with NPD are not aware of their condition and do not seek treatment by themselves. It is often a harmed third party that requests mental healthcare for an individual with NPD.

Do you know any politicians exhibiting any of these symptoms?

The New Second Avenue Line. Is the Q the A to your Q?

Johannes Buheitel

First, there were horse-drawn wagons. Then, during the industrial revolution, the steam engine took over and ultimately helped to win the West. But all of these achievements seem to pale in comparison to what the venerable Metropolitan Transport Authority, MTA for short, has unveiled on New Year’s Day: The new Q train extension, which for the first time in thousands, nay, millions of years, connects the rural more eastern side of a part of the Upper East Side to downtown Manhattan.

But jokes aside, it might seem weird to outsiders, the very intimate relationship we New Yorkers have with our subway system. A big part of the reason being that most of us don’t have a car and heavily rely on the old underground railway system to get to work, to this new must-go restaurant in Bushwick, or that special Starbucks with just the right amount of distraction to musefully work on our screenplays. Of course, this dependence has its downsides, most dramatically felt when trains aren’t running properly, which, let’s face it, is all the time. In fact, the MTA has an actual smartphone app solely dedicated to informing us about service changes during the weekend (called “The Weekender”)! But wherever you are on the MTA love/hate spectrum (please don’t get me started on the F train!), you have to acknowledge the sheer size of the operation: 6407 subway cars distributed among 35 lines running on a total length of 380 km (236 mi), and transporting over 5 million people on a typical weekday (over 1.7 billion (with a B!) per year). Which by the way happens 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. To the MTA’s credit, they are, at least for the most part, keeping this beast running. In addition, they are even trying to further expand the network and this is where the new Second Avenue line comes in.

This feat has been a long time coming. Originally proposed almost a century ago, the actual construction never got off the ground mainly due to the Great Depression kicking in. However, the plans were brought back on the table after the demolition of the Second and Third Avenue elevated tracks (1942-55) left the Lexington Avenue line (serviced by the 4,5 and 6 trains) as the only option for commuters on the Upper East Side. And everyone living and/or working there today knows that, particularly during the week, those trains are bursting at the seams. Construction of the first tunnels began in 1972, but had to be halted again in 1975 due to New York City’s fiscal issues at the time. Nonetheless, the city’s development never stopped, leading to an ever increasing number of subway commuters, further exacerbating the situation on the Lexington Avenue lines. Finally, in 2007, after thirteen years of (re-)planning (and, of course, many quarrels about costs and the actual route), the second attempt to build the Second Avenue Subway was undertaken. According to the MTA’s vision, the new line will be built in four construction phases that will take… actually, no one knows how long it will take; The MTA isn’t even trying to give an estimate. What we do know is that the fully completed line is supposed to run along Manhattan’s east side from the financial district (Hanover Square) all the way up to East Harlem (East 125th Street). And the other thing we know is that, as of last month, the first construction phase extending the Q line to the Upper East Side has been completed, baffling the natural skeptic/cynic that is alive and well in every New Yorker’s soul.

The daredevil that I am, I have already logged a sizable number of rides on the new Q, which connects the Lexington Avenue-63rd Street station with three brand new stations on the Upper East Side’s Second Avenue at 72nd, 86th and 96th Streets. So what’s the verdict? Is the new Q faster, better, stronger? For everyone at the Tri-Institutions and around, the answer is a resounding… it depends. It depends on where you live but even more, whether you do a lot of dining, shopping, etc. on the Upper East Side. Personally, I do like the new Subway. I’m saying this, not because the new stations are really gorgeous (which they are!), and also not because I get to work significantly faster (and when it’s raining, probably drier as the closest entry to the 72nd Street station is already on 2nd Avenue/69th Street). I’m saying this, because I do enjoy certain places on the Upper East Side, which were inconvenient to get to from work, because walking to Lex just to ride the subway for one stop and then walk back to 2nd Avenue doesn’t really make sense. But also areas that are further uptown (and would make a little more sense to take the 6 train) are now easier to reach, like the one around 86th Street, where you might find me shopping at Fairway (and by Fairway, I of course mean Shake Shack) or going to the East 86th Street Cinema (again, Shake Shack). So overall, even if the new subway might not revolutionize your way of living, it at least opens up some more possibilities to travel to this mystical northern territory. And whether or not you’ve already acquainted yourself with the Upper East Side yet, now is the perfect time to get to know some great new places around Second Ave, and I’m sure that soon we will see each other buying bread at Orwasher’s, slurping ramen at Mei Jin or inhaling a burger at… well, you know where.

New York State Of Mind

Guadalupe Astorga

This month Natural Selections interviews Johannes Buheitel, a postdoctoral scientist in the Jallepalli Lab at MSKCC, and a member of the Natural Selections Editorial Board.

 

How long have you been living in the New York area? 

As of this month, I’ve been living here for 1.5 years.

Where do you currently live?  Which is your favorite neighborhood?

I live on Roosevelt Island. There are so many great neighborhoods in NYC. I typically enjoy areas that are a bit under the radar but still have great places to go to. One of these areas would be Astoria, but I’ve also been hanging out in Bushwick lately.

What do you think is the most overrated thing in the city? And underrated? 

Overrated: Times Square. Big lights? Broadway glamour? More like suffocating in a sea of tourists, while getting your pockets picked.

Underrated: Home cooking. I know, it’s hard especially in NYC where you have these great options to dine out or order in. Also, cooking at home is often more expensive and then there’s the whole dish situation afterwards. But on the other hand, preparing a meal for your friends and loved ones can be a very rewarding experience.

What do you miss most when you are out of town? 

Definitely the food. You have authentic cuisine from just about all over the world right at your fingertips when you live here. When I’m back in Germany, especially during Christmas and it’s cold outside, I sometimes catch myself daydreaming about a hot bowl of spicy ramen (not the kind you buy at Gristedes of course!).

Has anything (negative or positive) changed about you since you became one of us “New Yorkers”?

I feel that I’ve become more impatient, something that I particularly notice when I’m out of town; Why is everyone moving SO slow?

If you could change one thing about NYC, what would that be?

That’s easy: the insane rents!

What is your favorite weekend activity in NYC?

My cop-out answer is: explore the city. This includes anything between walking around a new neighborhood, checking out a new restaurant or eating food I’ve never had before, going to see some weird exhibition, or going bar hopping in Soho.

What is the most memorable experience you’ve had in NYC?  

That’s a tough question, because you can experience so many memorable things here. But I have to say, the moments that emotionally stick with me the most are very mundane ones. Like when I’m just taking a stroll with my fiancé through a nice neighborhood such as Greenpoint. It’s a weekend, the sun is out, and we’re just talking. It’s in these moments, where you get to feel a sense of calm, and counterintuitively, as if you were in sync with the city.

Bike, MTA or walk it?

In general, I love to walk the streets, which really allows me to feel the pulse of the particular neighborhood I’m in. But if I need to get somewhere, particularly when it’s far, I switch to my bike or the subway.

If you could live anywhere else, where would that be? 

So far at least, my plan is to go back to Germany after my postdoc. There, I’d really love to live in Munich, which for me has the right mix between modernity and traditionalism. But if I leave out Germany, then I could see myself living in Amsterdam, which is very beautiful, diverse, and just perfect to explore by bike.

 Do you think of yourself as a New Yorker?

According to some, you have to have been living here for at least ten years, while others say only if you’ve been mugged at knifepoint, you’re allowed to call yourself a New Yorker. When I think of a typical New Yorker, I think of a busy person, who may be very direct (this is what many outsiders mistake to be rudeness), but is ultimately very kind and helpful. I’d like to think of myself as that person, so I’m at least a New Yorker by heart.