When you think of an iconic New York City dessert, most people think of cheesecake. Some form of cheesecake has been around for thousands of years, with many countries having their own style or flair. Not everyone agrees on how the New York City style originated, evolving to have a cream cheese base and a graham cracker crust, which makes it rich, smooth, and creamy.
The earliest cheesecake, known as “libum,” was created in Greece on the island of Samos. Archeologists have dated cheesecake pans from Greece to around 2000 B.C. It is said that cheesecake was fed to the first Olympians in 776 B.C. to give them strength. The first recorded recipe appears in De Agricultura around 234 B.C., written by historian and senator Marcus Porcius Cato. The recipe calls for pounding cheese until it is smooth, adding honey and wheat flour, and then baking it. When Rome conquered Greece in the second century B.C., they discovered this cheesecake and spread it throughout the rest of the Roman Empire.
Over the centuries, many countries developed their own type of cheesecake. Regional versions vary based on ingredients, textures, and setting by refrigeration or baking. Italian cheesecake is made with ricotta cheese. French cheesecake is known for its very light consistency, using Neufchâtel cheese and gelatin. In the British Isles, crushed biscuits make up the base, and the cheesecake is topped with a variety of fruit compotes. Grecians today use Mizithra, cheese made from sheep’s milk and whey, or feta. German cheesecake has a pastry dough base and uses quark, a fresh cheese made from curdled sour milk, similar to cottage cheese. Japanese cheesecake uses cornstarch and eggs and has a more cake-like texture. Indian cheesecake is known as chhena poda and is made from cottage cheese, sugar, and nuts.
The type of cheesecakes we are familiar with in the United States are technically custards, not cakes. The New York style of cheesecake is based on cream cheese, has a crushed graham cracker base, and is served pure, without any flavorings or toppings. It is known for being very creamy but not too heavy. In Chicago you will find a sour cream based cheesecake that is soft on the inside, with a shortbread crust. Saint Louis’s cheesecake is made from butter with a layer of cake on top. California style cheesecake has a light texture with lemon flavoring, a cookie crumb crust, and sour cream topping.
Cheesecake was brought to this country by European immigrants starting in the eighteenth century. At that point, Europeans had started adding eggs instead of yeast to their recipes, giving cheesecake the consistency we know today. In 1872, William Lawrence, a dairy farmer from Chester, New York, tried to make the French-style Neufchâtel cheese. While trying to copy this milk-based cheese, William Lawrence added cream instead of milk, and came up with a denser and creamier form, which he dubbed cream cheese. A grocery distributor sold it for Lawrence in foil wrappers. It was eventually bought by the Kraft Company and has been sold as Philadelphia Cream Cheese since 1928.
It was the invention of cream cheese that allowed the New York style cheesecake to originate. While sources say that it is based on the Eastern European style, another claim to the origin is from our old friend Arnold Reuben, of the reuben sandwich fame. He claimed that he had a cheese pie at a friend’s house one day and was so enamored with it he that took his hostess’ recipe and worked with his chef to develop what we know as the New York style cheesecake. It was sold at his Turf Restaurant on 49th Street and Broadway in the 1930s. This type of cheesecake then appeared at the famous Lindy’s Broadway restaurant in the 1940s. Tales say that Lindy got it from a chef he hired from Reuben’s.
Yet another claim to the origin of New York style cheesecake is from the famous Junior’s restaurant. The original owner, Harry Rosen, had a restaurant called Enduro Cafe at the flagship site on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn since 1929. In 1950, he changed the name to Junior’s in honor of his two sons. One son, Marvin, said that his father would ship home cheesecakes he had tasted from everywhere he went. Rosen worked with his baker, Eigel Petersen, to develop the cheesecake that is still sold in his restaurants today. In the Village Voice in 1973, journalist Ron Rosenblum declared, “There will never be a better cheesecake than the cheesecake they serve at Junior’s on Flatbush Avenue…it’s the best cheesecake in New York.” That same year it won a contest for best cheesecake run by New York Magazine.
Although numerous city establishments serve or sell New York style cheesecake, it is possible to make one at home. Here is a recipe from Molly O’Neil’s New York Cookbook:
Recipe of a Lifetime: Junior’s Cheesecake
1/4 cup graham cracker crumbs
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons sifted cornstarch
30 ounces (3 3/4 large packages) cream cheese, softened
1 large egg
1/2 cup heavy (whipping) cream
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter the bottom and sides of an 8-inch springform pan. Lightly coat the bottom of the pan with the graham cracker crumbs and refrigerate the pan.
- In a large bowl, combine the sugar and the cornstarch. Beat in the cream cheese. Beat in the egg. Slowly drizzle in the heavy cream, beating constantly. Add the vanilla and stir well.
- Pour the mixture into the prepared pan. Bake until the top is golden, 40 to 45 minutes. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 3 hours.
Yield: 8 to 10 servings.
I’ve been acquiring works of art for most of my life, starting with the 1960s-style posters that graced the walls of my childhood bedroom. If you keep an eye out at galleries and book/gift shops, you can purchase some great and affordable pieces that will brighten living and work spaces, keeping you artistically and aesthetically satisfied for years. Here are some of my favorite works that I have on display at home and in my office.
All photos by Bernie Langs.
For this issue, I interviewed Luna, the rat who lives with Brigid Maloney (Jarvis & Magnasco Labs, The Rockefeller University) and her partner, Brandon. I think rats make great pets and I wanted to meet Luna ever since I first heard about her from Brigid.
Pooja Viswanathan: How old are you? In human years?
Luna: I am 2.5 years old, which makes me a pretty senior rat!
PV: Is there a story behind your name?
L: Luna is the name I came with when I was adopted, but usually my folks call me Looney Toon since I run around the apartment looking for snacks all the time.
PV: What is your first memory?
L: Probably when I was adopted and came home for the first day! I remember all of the new smells and meeting my parents, who gave me a welcome home chocolate chip, my favorite!
PV: Where do you live?
L: I live in a big 3 story cage in a little studio apartment with my humans. Comparably, my cage is much bigger to me than their apartment is to them!
PV: If you could live anywhere else in the world, where would you live?
L: Probably in the kitchen cabinets so I could have unlimited access to the full pantry!
PV: What are your favorite foods?
L: I love human food and any time my humans make anything tasty, they usually give me a little bite! My favorites are pizza crusts, but I also love chocolate chips, oatmeal, and above all else, bananas!
PV: What is your favorite weekend activity in NYC?
L: Snoozing late all morning, then running around the couch and snuggling with my humans while they fold laundry or watch tv, and then building big nests with loud crunchy paper all night long!
PV: Besides your human roomies, do you know other humans in the Tri-I community?
L: I get to meet all of the humans who visit our apartment! Some of them seem a little nervous when they first meet me, but I usually have them eating out of my hand (or rather, I am eating out of theirs) within a few minutes.
PV: Do you have a funny story to share with us?
L: One time, my humans went to the cage to make sure I had enough food before they went to work, and realized I wasn’t there! They tore the apartment apart looking for me and were worried I was lost, until all of the sudden, they heard a crunching noise coming from mom’s backpack, and then they realized I had found my way in and was trying to break into her lunch box! Alas, I was foiled again!
PV: Is there some way we can see more pictures of you on the interwebs?
L: Sometimes I am gracious enough to make an appearance on my mom’s Instagram, @Brigid_m.
PV: If you could have any human ability, what would it be?
L: Definitely thumbs to open jars and the ability to reach the fridge by myself!
On Thursday, November 14th, Santa Maria Pecoraro Di Vittorio of the Rice Laboratory at Rockefeller will be performing at Weill Hall, Carnegie Hall as a violist with the Chamber Orchestra of New York. The program includes Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 1, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and an original work by Salvatore di Vittorio, the conductor of the orchestra. The evening will feature a performance by violinist and Respighi Prize awardee, Irene Abrigo. The event begins at 7:30 p.m. and tickets ($40-50 general admission, $30 students) can be purchased online.
Collette Ryder of The Rockefeller University Office of Sponsored Programs Administration will be singing with the New York Choral Society in “Wisdom Sees a Light Draw Near” at St. Bartholomew’s Church at 8 p.m. on Friday, November 15th. The chorus will perform Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 and the East coast premiere of Frank Ticheli’s Until Forever Fades Away. Tickets ($40) can be purchased from the New York Choral Society (contact Ryder for discounts).
This month, Bernie Langs of The Rockefeller University Development Office releases a new music video, “My Beautiful Friend.” Acting as video director, composer, and performer, Langs crafts a piece inspired by legendary artists David Bowie and The Beach Boys. The video can be viewed on Langs’ YouTube page here.
Email Megan E. Kelley at firstname.lastname@example.org to submit your art/music/performance/sporting/other event for next month’s “Natural Expressions” and follow @NatSelections on Twitter for more events.
Philharmonie de Paris
Philharmonie 1 is a symphonic concert hall which opened in January 2015 and is part of the Philharmonie de Paris. Its architect, Jean Nouvel, used interlaced aluminum panels and sophisticated tesselation that will make your head spin, especially if you reach the rooftop to admire the view.
Inside Iran: Blue Wind of Isfahan
Isfahan, once called “half the world,” was the capital of Persia during Safavid dynasty. In the vast Naghsh-e Jahan Square, the Shah Mosque greets visitors with its gorgeous symmetry and heavenly blue tiles. Lotfollah Mosque, one of the architectural masterpieces of the Safavid Empire, is just a few steps from the Shah Mosque. The breathtaking arabesque patterns on the dome are almost synonymous with Isfahan.
At twilight, taking a walk to the Khaju Bridge is a great idea. Locals gather under its beautiful arches and hold nightly singing competitions. Their welcoming songs echo across the bridge, and transcend any language barriers.
Guangzhou is located in the south of China. Everyone I asked said that it is the place to enjoy Cantonese food. You will not be disappointed. It has many local restaurants, but street food is amazing and highly recommended. Besides the cuisine, temples, and parks, you can find the famous Opera House designed by Zaha Hadid as well as the famous Canton Tower standing tall above Pearl River. With over 14 million people in Guangzhou, you will never feel alone.
Nobel laureate Kary Mullis passed away on August 7, 2019 at the age of 74. Although a controversial scientific figure due to his climate change denial, rejection of the fact that HIV causes AIDS, strong belief in astrology, and open use of hallucinogenic drugs, it is impossible to deny the importance of his contribution to biology: the invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique. I wrote this piece for Stephen Hall’s Advanced Science Communication course a couple of years ago that asked students to imitate a famous author’s distinct writing style to narrate a well-known scientific discovery. Intrigued by the idea that Mullis thought up PCR while under the influence of LSD, I tried to inhabit Mullis’ mind during this time. The style of the Italian post-modern fiction writer Italo Calvino, with its overly elaborate and somewhat mystical style, seemed to be a perfect fit for the story of the invention of PCR. The following is a fictionalization of Mullis’ insight.
Well this is the story I will tell you and this is how I remember it. There I was, driving up and down the winding road, my beautiful Jennifer sleeping beside me, and I was in love with each turn as I headed towards my cabin. And by love I do not mean romantic love in the truest sense. It was the kind of love that comes from the full joy of being in the moment, hands gripped on the wheel. If I am being perfectly honest, I was not completely sober, but I am pleased to say that I felt as if I was in complete control of that vehicle. Or to represent the situation more truly, the LSD in my system could’ve been gone at that point. But, you know, in reality it was always there. You must understand that this was the type of road where everything looked the same, even if you had made the drive along the two-lane highway dozens of times before, as I had.
I remember it well how each redwood would try to pass by in a blur, but I would not let them do that to me. What I would really try to do was to shift one into focus, and then the next. I did this to try to understand their beauty, as you must admit that you have tried to do before too. Maybe I was driving too fast, but to be honest about it, I did not care. There was no point in worrying about it. I had to stay focused on each second to comprehend that road. I looked over and she was awake, asking me how much further, but I did not know. If I think about it, you know, it felt like only a few seconds since we were in Cloverdale. But then I saw the mile marker coming into view, and I realized that we passed Cloverdale 50 miles ago. The rolling hills had swallowed me, or rather I had the feeling that I was coming out of a deep abyss. But then, as sharply as the feeling of falling deeper and deeper, I had this feeling of serenity because I came out anew on the other side. When I try to describe it more accurately, it felt as if I was controlling my own body as I travelled as a roller coaster through the trees. There was this pulsing feeling as my brain was ebbing and flowing with the car, expanding and contracting with my thoughts.
Now really up until now I have been setting up the space in which I was existing in this moment. But to help you understand better, let’s go to the real beginning. Throughout the upward and downward tree-filled monotonous drive, my mind shifted to my work, as it tended to do. I made it so that DNA was passing by in my mind. And as I usually did, I boiled it in the heat of my mind, denaturing A’s and T’s and G’s and C’s. As my concentration cooled, the DNA retook its shape. I could do this over and over and it pleased me to watch this process to pass the time. This is not something I ever really wondered about, but it was just something that I did. So what I am speaking of is that my mind can see itself, as I am sure you have felt before. To be more precise about it, this is something that I had probably done thousands of times and I would play this process on repeat. First of all, I added heat to separate the helix. Then I watched closely as the strands came apart. Then I added my oligotide and the polymerase cut as it had been designed by nature to do.
But to make this point clear, up until now, it was always the same in my mind. So to follow my story, you must understand that as I was rocked by the rolling of the road, I suddenly thought of adding another oligotide. I let this oligotide slip into the slate of my mind and now there were two oligotides on the surface right in front of me, dangling right before my windshield. Then, as I had thought of countless times before, polymerase entered and polymerase copied. Now, if you are imagining it like I am, there were two DNA strands. But here is where this played again in my concentrated mind. All I had to do was denature and then cool once more, over and over again. If you see it with me, four DNA strands will be lying before you. Now you do it again. You see eight strands, and then sixteen, and on and on it goes. If you follow me now, you know that I extended this process to the limits of my mind, until my mind was full of DNA. Then there were too many DNA strands and they were leaking out. I was becoming aware that as I lost count, I had stumbled upon a significant discovery.
Coming back to the reality before me, I wondered how I had arrived at the cabin. This wonder hit me with fury as I was daunted by the realization of the redwoods towering over me again. Here I must explain that even with the awareness that I was more tired than ever before, and maybe less conscious, I had never felt more alive. The need for a pen overwhelmed me and I had to draw outside my mind to see what my mind saw. Where was that bottle of Cabernet that I brought with me? I poured out a glass and drew out the DNA as it amplified. This was undoubtedly a computer propagating numbers faster than I could think them. I was replicating, over, over, over—and it is difficult to describe in precise terms whether I was awake or asleep. I was totally lost and the wine had my consciousness in and out. But as I daydreamed and night-dreamed, what I saw clearly in my mind was a chain reaction. I was taken over by the thought that others had surely done this chain reaction? But then I knew this was not the case or I would have heard about it. It is difficult to say when I suddenly realized that Jennifer was out taking in the sun by the pond. Was it morning?
Transparent and thorough communication of data has the potential to streamline major scientific advances. For Dr. Maryam Zaringhalam, open science practices like these would have transformed her Ph.D. thesis. “While I was at Rockefeller, I was scooped five times,” she said.
As a student in Nina Papavasiliou’s lab, Zaringhalam aimed to develop a method to map the RNA modification pseudouridine throughout the transcriptome. However, she was stopped cold by the simultaneous publication of several similar methods. Had her field been more communicative and forthright about work in progress, she could have redirected her time and energy to other pursuits.
Zaringhalam pivoted her focus to a comparative analysis on these techniques and encountered another frustrating development: the methods were difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce.
Due to the problems she encountered in her field, Zaringhalam developed passions for both transparent science communication and ways to improve reproducibility. She published her Methods paper “Pseudouridylation meets next-generation sequencing” in September 2016 and graduated the following spring with an offer in hand to become an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) science policy fellowship.
Though many biologists may support the concept of open science, including open access publishing, many are also apprehensive. This contradiction is a product of our academic culture, which tends to assess the worth of data by the journal it is published in, rather than evaluating robustness on a case-by-case basis. In an increasingly competitive field, publishing in Cell, Nature, and Science has become the expectation at elite institutions. Scientists at all career stages want to change these policies and practices, but fighting the system is risky for trainees and untenured professors. Established heads of lab and scientists working in science communication and policy, however, can leverage their influence and security to promote a move towards open science.
As an AAAS Fellow, Zaringhalam specialized in open science and data science policy in biomedical research. “Policy is really exciting for me because I can keep learning, which is the reason why I, and a lot of people, wanted to become scientists,” she said. “I see how that learning applies to how research is ultimately done, in academia and beyond.”
A big part of Zaringhalam’s work focuses on reproducibility and equipping scientists with tools to generate reproducible research. Using electronic laboratory notebooks like Jupyter and version-control software like GitHub, for example, facilitates easy access to data and pipelines necessary to reproduce and repurpose data.
Zaringhalam recently led a workshop in which scientists were asked to reproduce data from several papers, which proved difficult. The group then discussed ideas such as introducing reproducibility as a criterion in the peer review process. “We had some nice discussions and ideas coming out about what needs to change within our culture to create a research environment that’s more collaborative rather than competitive,” Zaringhalam said.
Zaringhalam recently transitioned into a new role as a Data Science and Open Science Specialist at the National Library of Medicine, where she will continue to tackle the reproducibility problem. “This is the first time I’ve had a job that wasn’t a fellowship,” Zaringhalam said. “I will have a lot more opportunity to be thinking long-term about what kind of presence and impact I can have.”
Scientists tend to focus their efforts on communicating positive, exciting results because it is difficult to publish negative results in high-impact journals. Zaringhalam argues that this culture impedes progress. “The publishing space is very competitive, and people don’t necessarily want to read about the things that didn’t go right even though there’s a lot of value in that,” she said.
“We do have this responsibility to show what we’ve done, whether it’s positive, negative, or non-confirmatory,” Zaringhalam said. Cleaning up the data to make it sharable and reusable allows it to be repurposed. Moreover, if an experiment does not work, that is good for the next person to know. “There’s some work to be done to think about how we can change that culture and how we can see negative and non-confirmatory results as being useful,” Zaringhalam said.
Recent developments to ameliorate these issues include open access journals and pre-prints, which allow researchers to publish primary research manuscripts without being subjected to an extensive review process that favors high-impact results.
“You have to have these results published where researchers are already looking if you want them to encounter them,” Zaringhalam said. BioRxiv, a pre-print server, has become increasingly popular, with over 1 million papers downloaded as pre-prints every month, many to later be published in peer-reviewed journals. ASAPbio, headed by biochemist Dr. Jessica K. Polka, is another organization that encourages pre-prints in biology and calls for the publication of peer review to make the publication process more transparent and accountable.
Dr. Harold Varmus, co-recipient of the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on retroviral oncogenes, has been influential in shaping science policy and promoting open science. He has served as the Director of the National Institutes of Health and President and CEO of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and currently heads a lab as the Lewis Thomas University Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell. Varmus co-founded Public Library of Science (PLoS), and headed several successful efforts to make papers publicly available. “Science should be shared,” he said.
Varmus, Zaringhalam, and many others share the belief that the pressure to publish in prestigious journals undermines the accessibility of science. “In the biomedical world, we are not very open,” Varmus said. “We all work hard, but our values have been distorted.”
Still, a rigorous peer review process is important. “If you believe that peer review does something, you can’t be satisfied by only the preprint form,” Varmus said. “Work needs to be subjected to stiff statistical analysis and validation that people have been lax about.” The goal is to judge data more on its robustness and reproducibility, and less on bold and flashy claims.
Although most scientists may agree with this in principle, trainees and untenured investigators hesitate to sacrifice prestige and potential career advancement. Refraining from the opportunity to publish in elite journals might not result in an impact big enough to be worth the risk. It may be that real change needs to come from people with career and financial security. “The government and other funders have the real power here,” Varmus said.
For trainees and junior faculty, Zaringhalam recommends using electronic laboratory notebooks to record protocols; she also emphasizes the importance of designing clear presentations. These practices gear lab culture towards reproducibility and collaboration. “Even if it’s on a small scale, it still matters,” she said. “Science is something that fundamentally builds on itself.”
An Interview with Musician and Composer Izzi Ramkissoon
When you speak with the award-winning electroacoustic multimedia composer, performer, and audiovisual artist Izzi Ramkissoon about music, you are immediately swept up by two things. The first is his zen-like manner, which invites you to engage and share his passion for music and the creative audiovisual process. The second is realizing you are dealing with a man who takes the difficult path in composition and musical performance and does so with both a commitment to excellence and appreciation for his collaborators. Ramkissoon pushes the boundaries of the electronic instruments he plays and actually physically creates, and invites his collaborators to immerse themselves in his fabulously original work.
Ramkissoon notes in his biography that, “He has written works for a variety of media including theater, dance, installations, alternative controllers, and interactive multimedia” and that “his compositions deal extensively with the use of technology in composition.” His work has been featured extensively at venues and shows such as New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival, World Maker, New York City Creative Tech Week, and in numerous international festivals. He fuses media, technology, intelligent dance music, hardcore, classical, musique concrete, and other resources to perform interactive, improvisatory, and experimental creations.
When I was first introduced to Ramkissoon’s work I was dazzled by the perfection of his videos. Utilizing the structure of the atonal, abstract forms of his compositions, his films create a synergy between sound, color, and image. One is swept away into the experience, with emotions running the gamut from joy to fear, with tints of beauty, all with the smoothness and ease promoted by the notion that you are in the hands of a wise and sensitive conductor.
Ramkissoon has worked in many venues, such as The Public Theater, Public Assembly, The Robert Miller Gallery, National Art Gallery, and Experimental Media, The New York Hall of Science, and Webster Hall, as well as at Princeton, the Ionian University in Greece, and the American University of Rome. He serves on the New York Electroacoustic Music Festival steering committee, teaches undergraduate music technology courses in the City University of New York system as an adjunct professor, and gives guest lectures and performances at various universities. He also performs with electronic music groups as a solo artist and musician.
Ramkissoon works with The Rockefeller University’s Information Technology Department engineering and developing their audiovisual systems and events. He was kind enough to answer questions via email for Natural Selections.
Bernie Langs (BL): You studied electronic multimedia composition and sound design with many great teachers and now you teach as well. What are the ideas you took from your educators and what do you hope to impart to your students?
Izzi Ramkissoon (IR): I had the opportunity to study with electronic music pioneers such as Morton Subotnick, Joel Chadabe, [and] Robert Rowe, and they were all very encouraging. All of them were a great fit for my musical direction, as I was interested in blending composition, improvisation, interactivity, experimentation, and technology. One thing I really enjoyed when studying with Mort was his approach to developing a musical language. In our lessons, he was breaking down language in a way that was very primal and connected with my approach to rhythmic development. I was interested in building an approach from the ground up starting with my most basic impulses. During the time I was studying privately with Mort I was working on a new audiovisual piece for clarinet and interactive electronics called “Domesticated Animalia.” This was for Esther Lamneck. I use this piece when discussing language, improvisation, and interactivity as part of an approach to musical composition with my students. It is an example of building a dialog from the ground up using musical gestures. During my studies, Joel Chadabe [posed] questions like “what is a composition?” and I felt that was important in breaking down any remaining definitions and prejudices I had toward what a composition should sound like. Robert Rowe was my thesis advisor and led me to review different technologies and approaches to integrating technology within a musical composition. This made me question the relationships of technology to the musical work. Does it support the work in a meaningful way and contribute to the creation of the piece or is it passive, separate, and noncommunicative.
BL: Your music, with its atonal underpinnings, has a dynamic of what I would label “relaxed audio tension.” Is that an assessment you would agree with, that the music, though harsh at times, maintains a meditative appeal?
IR: With the recorded sound you can capture a moment and transport that sound to a different location. Familiar sounds in an unfamiliar environment or visa versa. I think there is something comforting about the sounds I use. I grew up in a household filled with television noise, pots and pans, close to the street with NYC transportation, and construction. I felt every day it was either a circular saw humming a new tune to a preacher and choir on the television or pots and pan creating rhythms against the tape noise of my low budget home recording studio feedback. When growing up in a dynamic urban environment you learn to meditate in dissonance and find harmony in a variety of sounds. Every sound has something to offer. There is a relationship linked to the sound itself. The sound is the center of the piece with its own musical tone producing tension and release.
BL: “Sub-ter-ain Frequencies” and “Asperity of Lace” are seamless videos where the images and their motion and coloration align to perfection with the music.
IR: When building these pieces I work closely with a longtime collaborator and friend of mine Alain Alfaro. Over time we have developed in parallel similar processes and ideas when working on audio-visual works. Sometimes I make music for his films and other times he makes visuals for my music. He is a fantastic cinematographer and has many video techniques that mirror my audio processing style. When we work on a new piece I tell him the narrative and we both collect audio and video from a selected environment. I have a definitive form associate with the audio and he enhances that form and structure with parallel visual themes. I have worked with him long enough that I trust his decisions and we tend to operate in separate spaces many times. The most important part of this relationship is our friendship and his ability to know me well enough to make independent complementary choices. I have worked with other visual artist[s] and there has been a lot of explaining associated with this type of process.
BL: Your music with the Izzi Ramkissoon Multimedia Trio INTAR Rehearsals leaves space for improvisation associated with jazz. How has that developed in your music?
IR: I have always been interested in improvisation and the techniques used to create an improvised piece of music. To be an improviser, a musician must have a familiarity with their instrument that goes beyond playing what’s on the page. There is a creativity and unplanned freedom of speech that I enjoy when performing with improvisation techniques. In order to communicate and have a real time conversation on a topic you must know the subject matter well. Working with various groups of improvisers has led me to develop a language of my own to support spontaneous expression in the context of different forms and structures within my musical pieces. Improvisation and interactivity have been two themes that I investigate often in my music. I have been working on a dialog between computer and human performer. I am interested in the computer as a performer and how that can sound. I have worked with programs that generate algorithms and respond to a performers input using music information retrieval (MIR) techniques and analysis. I have made controllers… to augment my electric bass performance and improvisations with musicians, [such as “The Bass Sleeve: A Real-time Multimedia Gestural Controller for Augmented Electric Bass Performance”].
BL: You had a longterm video project that you abandoned after years. How does failing in your art lead to new avenues of exploration?
IR: It was more of a video experiment that wasn’t complete and developed enough. Those happen a few times before the final version of any of my pieces. I give myself a set amount of revisions to get it right. Throughout the development of each new composition I am learning something. At the end of my set amount of revisions I am ready to take what I learnt and create a new piece and the process begins again. I tend not to dwell too long on the past, and I leave enough reflective time to learn.
BL: What do your musician collaborators bring to you and what do you want to give them in return?
IR: The best part of creating a new piece of music is the conversations and learning during the process. I enjoy working with creative musicians to develop my pieces. I appreciate the space to experiment and test out ideas with a musician; this can offer me insight to the way their instrument works and new techniques that may be available outside of traditional techniques. I build compositions with the performers in mind and work with them closely to create the music. When creating interactive or improvisatory computer music pieces, I like to work with the performer while developing the programming of the piece. This is an iterative process for me as sometimes changing the composition involves changing the hardware and/or software created for the composition. Being able to hear how the computer responds to a performer is important when fleshing out a work.
BL: Your performances are geared to a live audience that understands the parameters of what they are about to hear. How can you increase your listening public, given the difficulty and complexity of your music?
IR: The audience for experimental electro-acoustic music is very specific. I am on the Steering Committee for the NYCEMF (New York City Electro-acoustic Music Festival, https://nycemf.org), which has done collaborations with ICMC (International Computer Music Conference), and other major art institutions in New York City such as National Sawdust, NYU, Sheen Center, Roulette, and Issue Project Room. The music you hear at these types of festivals and conferences brings a variety of people from all over the world, many composers and instrumentalists. These non-commercial entities support the creation and the audience for this type of work. You can say the audience for this music has been artists, composers, new music enthusiasts, and academia. Anyone really with an open mind and ears.
Love Machine at 3LD (Izzi Ramkissoon Interactive Designer and Composer, 2014)
For the eighth year, I am back in the saddle and ready to tackle the Oscar race. The early part of the film year (from January until the Venice and Telluride Film Festivals begin in August) is a moving target. The inevitability of the award stops along the way, such as the Sundance, South by Southwest, and Cannes film festivals, can be equated to the change of seasons in that their arrival is imminent but their impact is uncertain, making Oscar prognostication a dicey proposition. For one, many films lack distribution or have soft release dates that studios can easily push to the following year. Second, many of the films that will eventually comprise the Oscar race have not been screened yet. So we only have a film’s log line, the talent attached, and a little intuition to measure its “Oscarability”—think how politicians are viewed early on.
It is refreshing to join the conversation now when there is some intel—previously I jumped in with the summer issue (finalized in July), when there was not a lot of information to go on.
In recent years, the eventual Best Picture winner premiered at Telluride, and Best Actor is often tied to Best Picture. The films of that festival (August 30 – September 2, 2019) along with Venice (August 28 – September 7, 2019), the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) (September 5 – 15, 2019), and the New York Film Festival (NYFF) (September 27 – October 13, 2019), provide the lion’s share of awards season chatter, and so begins the Oscar race. The critical reception of the films that will screen over the next couple of months will tell this year’s tale. We will start with a review of last year’s Best Actor nominations.
The Best Actor race came down between Rami Malek living it up as Queen frontrunner Freddy Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody and Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice. Malek easily took the Oscar after Bale didn’t provide much competition in the precursor awards, despite his outward transformation (Bale gained 40 pounds for the role). Half of the roles discussed here secured Best Actor nominations: Malek and Bale along with Bradley Cooper (A Star is Born), and Viggo Mortensen (Green Book). The Frontrunner, starring Hugh Jackman, was a dud, Lucas Hedges was unable to gain traction for his understated performance in Boy Erased, and John David Washington had some life in his portrayal of the first African-American detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department in BlacKkKlansman, but ultimately fell short. Meanwhile, in perhaps the biggest surprise of the season, critics turned on First Man almost right out of the gate, leaving Ryan Gosling in the dust. The last nominee was Willem Dafoe (At Eternity’s Gate), who was briefly mentioned in the column as having an outside chance at a nomination. By this time last year, only the performances of Malek and Bale hadn’t been seen. Cooper looked like an early frontrunner when Star premiered at Telluride, Venice gave us Dafoe, and Green Book took the audience award at TIFF. Bo Rha was not unveiled until October 23 in the United Kingdom and Vice not until December 11 in Los Angeles.
THE ACTOR: Leonardo DiCaprio – Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (director: Quentin Tarantino, studio: Sony Pictures)
FYC: Tarantino’s latest follows a faded television actor (DiCaprio) and his stunt double (Brad Pitt) who seek fame and success in the film industry at the end of Hollywood’s Golden Age in 1969 Los Angeles.
After numerous nominations including What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Aviator, Blood Diamond, and The Wolf of Wall Street, DiCaprio finally won his first Best Actor Oscar in 2016 for The Revenant. As Rick Dalton, DiCaprio gives yet another lived-in performance—we not only get to see Rick at home and in his personal life, but also as an actor filling other roles. It really is a masterclass to behold as DiCaprio projects confidence and poise to the outside world, only to fall apart behind closed doors. That said, given that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) a.k.a. “the Academy” took their sweet time honoring him before, overlooking his work in Titanic, The Departed, and Revolutionary Road, I don’t expect him to win again so soon.
Metacritic Score: 83
THE JESTER: Joaquin Phoenix – Joker (director: Todd Phillips, studio: Warner Bros. Pictures)
FYC: Phoenix plays the title character in this
back story of the infamous comic book villain, detailing how he turned to a life of chaos and crime in Gotham City. It is hard to believe that Phoenix has yet to win an Oscar, considering he has three nominations under his belt: Best Supporting Actor for Gladiator in 2001 and Best Actor for both Walk the Line in 2005 and The Master in 2013, has yet to win an Oscar. Anticipation for the film going into Venice was high following the trailer’s release. Once the film premiered at the festival, the reviews for the film as well as Phoenix’s performance were off the charts. Although it is important to maintain some perspective when it comes to film festival buzz, the truth is this could be Phoenix’s year.
Metacritic Score: 70
THE DIRECTOR: Antonio Banderas – Pain and Glory (director: Pedro Almodóvar, studio: Sony Pictures Classics)
FYC: This drama stars Banderas as a film director in the later stage of life who reflects on his choices as the past and present unravel. Banderas has been earning rave reviews for his performance ever since Cannes in May, where he took home the Best Actor trophy. He is another accomplished actor yet to be recognized by the Academy. Altogether he has received four Golden Globe nominations: two for film and two for television. He was first nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy for Evita in 1997 and again in the category for The Mask of Zorro two years later. In 2004, he earned a nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Miniseries or a Motion Picture Made for Television for And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself and was nominated this year for Best Performance by an Actor in a Limited Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television for Genius. With a win already under his belt in this race, he should not be discounted.
Metacritic Score: 82
THE FATHER: Adam Driver – Marriage Story (director: Noah Baumbach, studio: Netflix)
FYC: This drama follows the breakup of a marriage between a stage director (Driver) and an actress (Scarlett Johansson) whose divorce spans both coasts and pushes them to the brink. Driver was nominated this year for Best Supporting Actor for BlacKkKlansman—the same role netted him Golden Globe, Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), and British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) nominations. He has been receiving a substantial amount of critical acclaim following the film’s Venice bow and subsequent screenings at Telluride and TIFF. But at 36 years old, Driver is just getting started in his career and without a narrative for a win, his nomination is likely all he will take home—not to mention the difficulty Netflix faces with campaigning for multiple films in the same year and that Driver is competing against himself in The Report.
Metacritic Score: 95
THE POPE: Jonathan Pryce – The Two Popes (director: Fernando Meirelles, studio: Netflix)
FYC: Inside the Vatican, the traditionalist Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) and the reformist future Pope Francis (Pryce) meet to find common ground to forge a new path for the Catholic Church. In 1996, Pryce won the BAFTA for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role for Carrington. This was after winning the Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television in 1994 for Barbarians at the Gate. Following its premiere at Venice, The Two Popes generated a lot of buzz for both actors, but the studio has elected to campaign Pryce as lead and Hopkins as supporting. A wise decision considering Pryce has yet to be recognized by the Academy. It is also worth mentioning the screenwriter Anthony McCarten penned the screenplays for several recent Best Actor winners: Bohemian Rhapsody in 2018 (Rami Malek), Darkest Hour in 2018 (Gary Oldman), and The Theory of Everything in 2015 (Eddie Redmayne). What’s more, at 72, the Academy is running out of time to honor Pryce, which can only help bring him into poll position.
Metacritic Score: 83
THE DRIVER: Christian Bale – Ford v Ferrari (director: James Mangold, studio: 20th Century Fox)
FYC: At the direction of Henry Ford II, American car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and driver Ken Miles (Bale) build a revolutionary race car and challenge Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966.
Bale’s performance has been likened to his Oscar winning supporting role in The Fighter. I will refrain from providing the details of his other nominations because they have been discussed in this column more than once, most recently last year for his leading role in Vice. Bale consistently delivers Oscar-worthy performances, but for my two cents, there is no urgency behind giving him another trophy—especially when stacked against Phoenix, Banderas, and Pryce who have never won.
Metacritic Score: 71
THE LAWYER: Michael B. Jordan – Just Mercy (director: Destin Daniel Cretton, studio: Warner Bros. Pictures)
FYC: In this drama, a world-renowned civil rights defense attorney (Jordan) recounts his experiences and details the case of a death row prisoner whom he represented. Jordan was nominated this year by the BFCA for Best Supporting Actor for Black Panther and in 2016 he won the National Society of Film Critics (NSFC) Best Actor award for Creed. The difficulty he will face in this race stems from one of his main competitors being campaigned by the same studio. Do they have the resources to push him along with Phoenix to the finish line?
Metacritic Score: 65
There are of course more actors in the Oscar conversation than this space allows me to discuss. Ian McKellen, yet another actor who has never won, looks strong in the trailer for The Good Liar, Robert De Niro should not be ignored for The Irishman, which will have been unveiled at NYFF by the end of September, and perennial Timothée Chalamet could still pop up despite less than stellar reviews of The King at Venice.
Other performances to consider include Kelvin Harrison Jr. for Waves, earning raves on the festival circuit, Tom Hanks for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood—tricky that because the Academy has been ignoring him recently, and, as I mentioned earlier, Driver has another shot with The Report, which bowed at Sundance. With the fall film festivals behind us, the critic groups will start to weigh in and the consensus will build. Until soon, Oscar watchers!
For this issue I interviewed Lord Bullingdon, the dog who lives with Mehrnoosh Oghbaie (Rout Lab, The Rockefeller University). Lord B is such a happy dog, and I love running into him when he’s out on walks.
Pooja Viswanathan: How old are you? In human years?
L: I don’t quite know. Some say 3 years, others say 6.
PV: Is there a story behind your name?
L: I don’t have a name, but there are different sounds my mom/the humans make that I get treats for: Lord, Bully, Lord Bully, Lord Bullingdon.
PV: What is your first memory?
L: What is a memory? I know good food makes me happy and I like walking to the dog park. Is that a memory?
PV: Where do you live?
L: I live on the other side of a door that opens through a corridor right out of elevator that takes me from the lobby.
PV: What are your favorite smells of NYC?
L: The smell of barbeques, cheese, yoghurt, and banana.
PV: If you could live anywhere else in the world, where would you live?
L: I want to live in a garden with birds, bunnies, and cats.
PV: What are your favorite foods?
L: Anything my mom is eating; I want to try it.
PV: What is your favorite weekend activity in NYC?
L: I like going to barbeques with lots of meat.
PV: Besides your mom, who is your favorite human in the Tri-I community?
L: There are lots of them in the street and school. They stare at me and pet me when I go to them.
PV: Do you have a funny story to share with us?
L: The first day my mom took me home we went for a walk, and I peed on a flower in a flower shop before my mom could say anything. I got away with it.
PV: Is there some way we can see more pictures of you on the interwebs?
L: Oh, I never thought of that, but I’m gonna open a profile.
PV: If you could have any human ability, what would it be?
L: I’d want to be able to drink those yellow waters people drink while sitting together in a bar.
This month, Bernie Langs of The Rockefeller University Development Office announces the release of a new music video, “On Demand.” Langs merges themes by Beethoven and The Beatles into this piece, which plays over a combination of original film footage and images from the public domain. “On Demand” can be viewed online here.
Email Megan E. Kelley at email@example.com to submit your art/music/performance/sporting/other event for next month’s “Natural Expressions” and follow @NatSelections on Twitter for more events.
One of the wonders of Wuhan and a symbol of the city is the Yellow Crane Tower. The stunning building, which dates back to 223 A.D., was rebuilt in the early 1980s and is considered one of the Four Great Towers of China. The modern version of the tower is located on Snake Hill. It is a beautiful place and perfect spot to admire the city and the Yangtze River.
“Don’t put anything off. Do it today. Don’t wait.” This is the advice that Timothy Blanchfield, the Fitness Manager of The Rockefeller University, has for the Rockefeller community. If you have been to Rockefeller’s gym in Founders Hall, you have most likely run into Blanchfield. Since he was hired in the spring of 2014, it has been his main goal to keep Rockefeller fit—he manages the gym and its equipment, runs free fitness classes for the campus community, and is in charge of Rockefeller’s participation in the Virgin Pulse Global Challenge every summer. I sat down with him at Rockefeller’s Faculty and Student’s Club to discuss his job and the path that led him to fitness.
Blanchfield grew up in Beacon, New York, about an hour north of New York City. When Blanchfield was living in Beacon, the Breakneck Ridge trail was not well known, but now it is a popular hike due to a challenging rock scramble and nearly vertical climb in the first mile, as well as its stunning views of the Hudson River and neighboring mountains. However, in those days, the Mount Beacon Railway was a popular tourist destination. This trolley followed the steep mountain face, had sweeping views of the valley, and led to a casino at the top called the Beaconcrest Hotel. In 1978, after several fires and financial issues, the railway closed.
In college, Blanchfield began doing some fitness training with his friends. He was completely self-taught, but he realized that he could help people get into shape at the gym. A few years later, Blanchfield joined Teach for America in the Bronx, where he was teaching for five years. Although he was teaching history, he also helped with some of the physical education programs and found that many people would come to him for fitness advice. Blanchfield used his free time to begin personal training after school and when he left teaching, he was a full-time fitness trainer until Rockefeller hired him as part of Human Resources’ initiative to increase the wellness offerings at Rockefeller. Now he works part-time for Rockefeller and manages his own personal training business on the side.
When Blanchfield first started at Rockefeller, many people did not know about his free fitness class offerings. In fact, initially, only people from Human Resources attended his classes, but this worked to get the ball rolling. Through word-of-mouth and increased advertising of the fitness classes, a diverse array of Rockefeller community members of all ages and fitness levels now attend his classes. Classes are always being added and adapted. One of the most popular classes is Blanchfield’s strength and conditioning class on Mondays at 7:30 a.m. and Wednesdays and Fridays at 12 and 1 p.m.
Blanchfield also organizes Rockefeller’s annual participation in The Virgin Pulse Global Challenge. There is space for 210 people (30 teams) to participate. Participants receive a fitness tracker at the beginning of the challenge to track their steps and other physical activity online for 100 days each summer. The program aims to improve physical activity, mental wellness, nutrition, and sleep; this contributes to improvement in all-around wellness of the participants. In addition, the Global Challenge provides both a sense of comradery and competitiveness to campus as participants work harder to get in steps and climb the leaderboard, visible on the Virgin Pulse app.
Blanchfield says that he loves every part of his job. He finds satisfaction in helping people improve themselves and enjoys working at an institution like Rockefeller where there is a constant flux of students, postdoctoral fellows, research technicians, and other employees—there are always new people with whom he gets to work. To make the most of the limited space for equipment, Tim is continually working on replacing old machines and putting in new and improved equipment. He is excited about adding an upright rower to the gym soon. A cardio intervals class will also be added with a focus on high-intensity interval training. Blanchfield’s biggest pet peeve is when people do not return their weights to the rack after they finish using them. No one wants to spend half of their workout looking all over the gym for the weights they need!
Blanchfield’s advice for anyone at Rockefeller who wants to get into fitness is to start slow and find something you can enjoy and can handle. It is okay to modify anything as needed. The biggest mistake people make when they decide to start working out is that they go too hard at first, especially if they are working out with a friend who has been working out for years. So ease into everything to avoid injury and fatigue. The goal is to find a way to include fitness in your lifestyle in a way that will be maintainable for you.
Motivation can be hard to find and to sustain. Even incredibly fit people like Blanchfield burn out sometimes. This past year, Blanchfield realized that this was happening to him. He had completed six full Ironman races in four years. (That’s six long-distance triathlons where he swam 2.4 miles, biked 112 miles, and ran 26.2 miles!) Plus, he had done about ten half Ironman races in that same four-year period. So this past year he has been taking a bit of a break from intensive training and has allowed his proclivities for pizza to creep up on him. Everyone needs a break sometimes. However, Blanchfield is still very active—he discovered a love for mountain biking about three years ago, and now, he goes up to his condo on Hunter Mountain to ride his bike through the mountains almost every weekend. Not only is it fun and a beautiful place to bike, but this can also get him up to 90,000 steps for the Global Challenge.
Since Blanchfield’s advice to us is not to put anything off, I asked him what is one thing he would to do that he has not yet done. He has no plans to leave New York anytime soon, but eventually he does want to move somewhere more south or somewhere more west. Some options are North Carolina, Jackson Hole, or Park City—anywhere beautiful with plenty of places to go mountain biking. He says he’s been in the city too long, but we are thankful he has been here because he is doing a wonderful job of helping members of the Rockefeller community lead happy and healthy lives.
Frans de Waal
W.W. Norton and Company, March 12, 2019
Can you imagine your human life without emotions? In other words, can you imagine yourself not feeling any joy, sadness, fear, anger, empathy, pleasure, or excitement? Most likely, our social world would vanish, and we might not survive since fear would no longer be elicited. Frans de Waal’s most recent book, Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves, invites us to ponder the essential role of emotions in the lives of humans and other animals. The book challenges the notion that only humans are capable of having emotions and that it is not possible to study emotions in animals. The book is captivating, mind-changing, and a must-read for anyone interested in behavior, neuroscience, and social interactions.
De Waal is a well-known ethologist and zoologist. He is currently the C.H. Candler Professor of Primate Behavior in the Psychology Department of Emory University and a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences. De Waal begins by narrating an astonishing event involving a myriad of emotions expressed between a chimpanzee and a human. The event relates to a particular hug between a severely ill chimpanzee and a researcher. The chimp knew Jan van Hooff, the researcher, for forty years. Mama, the chimp, was motionless lying on her deathbed. When Jan entered the room, and Mama noticed Jan’s presence, she embraced him and grinned. During the embrace, Mama’s fingers patted Jan’s head and neck. A pat is a movement chimps use to quiet whimpering infants. Mama was clearly happy about van Hooff’s presence, and her patting indicated to Jan that she had no problem with him being in her territory. This event is astonishing. Normally, no one would dare to invade the territory of a chimpanzee because their outrageous strength can be deadly; the fact that Jan was able to do this denoted a deep social bond between Mama and Jan. It serves as evidence that chimps are capable of having and expressing emotions like happiness and gratitude. With this story, de Waal begins an exciting journey full of knowledge and reflections about what is known about human and animal emotions and whether it is plausible to study emotions in animals.
Over the course of the book, de Waal covers a lot of thematic ground, ranging from the expression of emotions through facial expressions and body language to different types of emotions, emotional intelligence, social signals, and consciousness in primates, birds, elephants, rodents, and fishes. The author’s narrative style is fluid, fresh, and clear. The chapters pose challenging questions to the reader by narrating experiments and their results and de Waal proposes possible answers to these questions.
De Waal challenges even the most skeptical reader and his arguments favor the existence of emotions in animals, their neural basis, and their evolution. The author defines emotion as an internal state affecting different physiological responses, such as changes in heart rate, skin color, facial movements, voice, and tears. He supports the idea that the body influences emotions through hormones, hunger, sexual arousal, insomnia, and exhaustion.
These two arguments shape a definition of emotion based on a physical substrate. De Waal identifies an explicit difference between emotions and feelings: “Emotions are bodily and mental states that drive behavior. Only when the person experiencing these changes becomes aware of them do they become feelings, which are conscious experiences. We show our emotions, but we talk about our feelings.”
By using Darwin’s definition of evolution, “descent with modification,” the author makes a case that since evolution rarely creates anything completely new, no human emotions are entirely new. This is a crucial argument to support emotions in other species, and poses an open question regarding the evolution of emotions and if they are shaped by species who depend on them for their social and survival needs.
All these arguments invite skeptical readers, like me, to think that emotions are measurable phenomena, and hence it is possible to study them in several animal species.
One of my favorite parts in this book was the section related to the expression of emotions. Here, the author does an amazing job of presenting evidence about how facial expressions in primates and body movements, such as tail movements in dogs or cats, provide a window into assessing internal emotional states. For example, we all know when a dog likes us and is excited about interacting with us. We just need to see how it moves its tail from side to side. We use similar reasoning to infer when a cat is angry. We just look at its fur and the shape of its body.
The book describes how Paul Ekman, an American psychologist and a pioneer in the study of the relationship between emotions and facial expressions, developed the Facial Action Coding System (FACS). FACS classifies facial expressions in humans based on facial muscle contractions. The book emphasizes that most of the time, emotions have ways to be expressed. To understand them, then, it is crucial to focus on the signals, the form they take, and their effect on others. De Waal himself conducted research to classify facial expressions in chimpanzees. Interestingly, he reports mixed facial expressions depending on the situation.
Other passages of the book relate to empathy. Here, de Waal describes several examples across different species, including rats, bonobos, and prairie voles. From all of the examples, one can conclude that indeed empathy is not exclusively human. In the case of prairie voles, which are tiny rodents, males and females form monogamous pair-bonds and raise their pups together. James Burkett, a scientist at Emory University, showed that if one mate is upset by anything, its partner is equally affected. This is true regardless of whether the partner is present during the stressful event.
Another mesmerizing experiment, involving bonobos, was developed by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods. The experiment consisted of providing a bonobo with a whole pile of fruits, which he could eat by himself or share with another bonobo sitting behind a mesh door. The first thing many bonobos did was to open the door, and let the other bonobo enter. This action cost them half of their fruits. However, if there was nobody behind the door, they would eat all of the fruits immediately. This behavior provides strong evidence for empathy and pro-social behaviors. This kind of behavior is also seen in rats and elephants when they help their peers get out of dangerous situations. As de Waal puts it: “Social connectivity at its best [is] the glue of all animal and human societies, which guarantees supportive and comforting company.”
As in real life, not everything is peaches and cream. Conflict resolutions, power signals, and social organization are also part of real life and of de Waal’s book. The author focuses on social hierarchies in non-human primates and the differences between bonobo and chimpanzee societies. Crucially, bonobos are a female-ruled society, while chimpanzees are male-ruled. Both societies are hierarchical, but have very different strategies to deal with social organization. While male chimps easily form coalitions, bonobo males are not very cooperative. Bonobo females form a kind of sisterhood, and they work together in response to male harassment. This is a sharp contrast to chimpanzee females, who endure abuse and infanticide. The book reveals that brain areas like the amygdala and anterior insula, which are involved in emotional processing and social behavior, are enlarged in the bonobo compared to the chimpanzee. Studies have also shown that bonobo brains contain more developed pathways to control aggressive impulses. All this evidence supports de Waal’s point that emotions influence the way we relate to others, and thus our social lives.
One thing missing from the book is a graphical schema comparing the brains of different animals (primates, rats, birds), with the brain areas involved in emotional states. This would help readers to easily understand portions of the book involving brain structures like the amygdala, insula, hypothalamus, dopaminergic system, and so on. At some point, the author proposes to construct a taxonomy of emotions, in order to get a fingerprint of each emotion. The proposed taxonomy would be based on the areas and brain circuits involved in each emotional state. However, the author just flirts with the idea and does not develop it. This is a pity, since in recent decades, huge progress has been made in understanding circuits related to emotions like fear, aggression, mating, and romantic and maternal love, among others. A similar omission occurs when the author talks about patients with emotional impairments. Overall, the information is extremely limited in the book in terms of neurophysiological data supporting behavior.
Despite these shortcomings, I enjoyed and learned much by reading Mama’s Last Hug. The book is a masterpiece from an ethological point of view. It convinces the reader that animals have emotions and of the importance of studying them in ethologically relevant settings. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in behavior, evolution, and neuroscience. It provides a huge amount of information but also leaves you thinking about the open questions in the research of emotions.
A column about NYC museum exhibits to check out on a rainy weekend day. This month: The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Camp: Notes on Fashion.
This year’s Met Gala theme required plenty of explanation and is arguably the least readily definable: “camp.” The annual themed fundraising event supports the Met’s Costume Institute, which subsequently puts on a fashion exhibition considering that theme. These exhibits are wildly popular (last year’s “Heavenly Bodies” garnered the most visitors the Museum has ever seen), and this year’s iteration is no exception. I was accompanied on my Saturday afternoon visit by what felt like a thousand others through the narrow bubblegum-pink hallways of the show, each of us coming to our own definitions of what camp means in the context of couture fashion.
The exhibit begins with a history lesson in camp (this does not refer to summer camp or cabins in Maine—an easy misinterpretation). Each gallery defines camp in a distinct and evolving way as the exhibit moves through its history. The first room presents the origins of camp as a verb (se camper in French, meaning to strut about in an exaggerated or theatrical way), highlighting Louis IV and his extravagant manner of dress. Camp is then presented as an adjective as a feature of subversive cross-dressing queer communities and its general capacity to play with masculine and feminine dress codes. We next learn about Oscar Wilde’s camp (a noun) and Isherwood’s camp (subsets of nouns) until we come to a gallery based on Susan Sontag’s cornerstone essay, “Notes on Camp”, and the inspiration for this year’s theme. Thus far the exhibit is borderline didactic but helpful nonetheless for us laypeople.
With all the exhibit’s efforts to define camp, I found it increasingly difficult to do so, yet I was gaining a compounding and mutable picture of its story. This speaks to camp as an elastic and multifaceted concept—something that seems to cause discomfort, as evidenced by the initial confusion after the Gala theme was announced. When we find a notion difficult to encapsulate neatly in one concise satisfying term, we tend to simplify it or shy away from it in favor of black-and-white definitives (often stated confidently in less than 280 characters on a social media platform). What I loved about the camp exhibit is that it challenges that tendency, forcing us to engage with something we can’t perfectly pinpoint. That, and the absurdly campy clothes.
The final gallery is a dim atrium displaying all manners of fanciful haute couture items in the camp aesthetic accompanied by quotes on camp. A ruffly periwinkle Viktor and Rolf ball gown fashioned completely upside down with the neckline at the wearer’s ankles. A Jean Paul Gaultier top hat covered in human hair. Sparkly dresses with belts and creases painted on as a suggestion of functionality but having no function themselves. Tinsel and jewels and feathers and fur and hidden and obvious messages—this is admittedly what most of us came for. It’s the most delightful dress-up box imaginable.
Sontag prefaces her seminal essay with the quip that “to talk about camp is…to betray it,” yet here I was at the end of an exhibit having been told what camp is from at least fifty different perspectives. I felt like by directly engaging with the idea of camp and observing its effects on the fashion world in such an obvious way, we were all betraying some kind of secret about it, thus missing the point entirely. But bringing a nuanced concept to a broader audience is certainly an important undertaking, and I’m glad the Costume Institute chose this theme at a time when we could all use a bit more nuance.
Catch the show before it closes September 8. When you leave, you likely won’t have that satisfyingly definitive answer to what camp is, but you’ll certainly have an expanded understanding and get to witness the fashion world’s whimsical interpretations. If you miss it, consider these other upcoming NYC art exhibitions this fall:
Whitney Biennial 2019 (Whitney Museum of American Art, through Sept. 22)
Yayoi Kusama solo exhibition (David Zwirmer gallery, November)
Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall (The Brooklyn Museum, through Dec. 8)
She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New York City 1919-2019 (Gracie Mansion, through Dec.)
Pierre Cardin Future Fashion (The Brooklyn Museum, through Jan. 5)
Smorgasburg is an outdoor food market that originated in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 2011 and now takes place every Saturday and Sunday, in Williamsburg and Prospect Park, respectively. Originally an offshoot of the Brooklyn Flea, the founders created a food centric market due to limited space. Today over 100 vendors flock to Brooklyn every weekend to serve innovative foods to tourists from all over the world.
Television Review: Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story and Springsteen on Broadway
Photo Credits: Netflix
If one believes that we’re living in a golden age of television, that blessing comes with a bonus of a golden age of rock and roll documentaries. Recent superlative films airing on Netflix and other cable services include full-length features about Keith Richards, John Lennon, Eric Clapton, and George Harrison, with an emphasis on new interviews with the primary subject (unless deceased), as well as many musicians who retell their stories as witnesses to the life and era in question.
Two new documentaries have left me with an increased appreciation and respect for the featured artists. Martin Scorsese’s film about the mid-1970s Rolling Thunder Revue tour of Bob Dylan is anchored throughout by a rare discussion with Dylan today. The second is the Netflix feature of Bruce Springsteen’s Broadway show, which was a sell-out hit during its limited run. The contemporary Dylan interviewed by Martin Scorsese is insightful, intelligent, humorous, and energetic, defying his late 70s age at the time of filming. Springsteen appears bright, witty, and deeply introspective as he relates the story of his life and career without pause and with biting emotional intensity.
In Springsteen on Broadway, the artist undertakes a live performance of his recent autobiography, Born to Run. Springsteen strums a solo guitar or plays the piano while recollecting and diving deep into the key events of his life and successful years in the world of music. It is unlike any Broadway show I’ve ever seen, a unique journey of the heart and soul.
Springsteen has a physical appearance akin to a chiseled stone monument, a weathered journeyman who has risen to peaks of success and heights of uncompromising integrity. Yet the artist has been felled at times by his depressive inner demons, many stemming from decades of confusion about his relationship with his tough, emotionally-stunted, hard-drinking father. Springsteen’s confessions are so raw, open, revealing, and, at times, brutal that I could only watch the documentary in short segments over several weeks. Springsteen’s wife, Patti Scialfa, joins him onstage to perform at times during the show, a respite from the rough ride we’ve been witnessing.
Springsteen rolls through versions of many of his hits, including “Thunder Road,” “Growin’ Up,” and “Born in the USA,” and supplements the music with a wide range of discussions. He speaks at length about how his long-time sax player and stage foil, the late Clarence Clemons, burst into his life and remained an overwhelming vital force throughout their many years together. The void created from Clemons’s death has been a great one for Springsteen, one with which he continues to struggle.
As an artist, Springsteen has a unique mind and a sharp view of the America in which we live today. His autobiography, the basis of the Broadway show, is an exciting read and a vivid display of literary rock and roll reminiscing. During the show, the stories about his father include the tale of how he had brought him to one concert to make his father see that his rock star son’s entire stage and musical persona as a working class man dressed in factory attire was based not on his own experiences but is borrowed from his dad. This manipulation was used by Springsteen to make an artistic statement, which was the key to his success.
More than any top director of major artistic films, Martin Scorsese is a musician’s filmmaker. He cut his teeth working on the Woodstock documentary and his early movies are peppered with well-placed rock and roll classics. His music documentaries include studies of George Harrison’s life, Living in the Material World, and the final performance of The Band in The Last Waltz. His new feature, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story studies the artist’s enigmatic mid-1970s wandering, troubadour-like tour, with its free spirit and great musical intensity. The new interviews with Dylan are focused and revealing, and one delights in the sing-song cadence of his spoken word. Dylan is the epitome of a vastly creative, genius poet well deserving of his Nobel Prize in Literature.
In one of Dylan’s first scenes, he asks Scorsese to halt filming as he attempts to get a handle on recalling the tour that took place decades ago. He humorously claims not to remember one thing about Rolling Thunder Revue and notes, “I wasn’t even born yet!,” a notion that makes complete sense in that this Bob Dylan is absolutely not the man we see speaking and singing in the 1970s footage. In the same segment, Dylan notes that his life has been centered around the act of creating, nothing more and nothing less, a remarkably astute sentiment.
There were many great artists that bounced in and out of the line-up of Rolling Thunder Revue, including Roger McGuinn of The Byrds and the late Mick Ronson, the guitar virtuoso who helped propel David Bowie to fame. The footage of the legendary Ronson soloing with the band are a highlight of the movie. One interviewee claims that Ronson told him at the time he had no idea what Dylan thought of him and that Dylan had never spoken to him during the tour. Yet there is a moment captured in the movie when Dylan stands before Ronson, rocking back and forth in a bliss-like state as the guitarist riffs with powerful intensity.
My favorite moment in Rolling Thunder is when Joni Mitchell, who joined the performers late in the tour, is in a back room with Dylan and Roger McGuinn teaching them her newly-penned song “Coyote,” which went on to become a classic (and which is also featured in Scorsese’s Last Waltz). When Mitchell begins singing this fantastic tune, we once again understand her status as one of the most respected artists in popular music. It’s a sublime moment in rock and roll history, captured on film in this one-time, unrehearsed, spur-of-the-moment performance with three legends.
The 1970s Dylan and the man we see on film today seems honest and genuine, nothing like the cunning, cultural manipulator described by the over-imaginative rock press through the years. He loves music and appreciates his musicians and it is obvious he is enjoying the tour. Funny enough, Dylan also drives the entourage’s large tour bus, the sight of which is oddly surreal. Perhaps he took the wheel because it offered the best and widest view of the scenery, a front seat vantage from which to take in America as they ride the open roads and swing into towns and cities.
Scorsese has chosen wisely from the many works performed during the Rolling Thunder Revue. We see some of the most moving songs by the artist from his mid-70s catalogue and hear several from his earlier days. There is a powerful version of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” an emotionally meditative “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below),” and a searing rendition of “Isis.” “Isis” was on Dylan’s 1976 album, Desire. It is a power-packed story of love and the seeking of earthly fortune. Dylan sings as a wide-eyed, energetic narrator with his face painted Kabuki white. It invites the listener to dream of cinematic action and adventure.
I believe that the present-day music industry has struggled to produce consistently high quality music on par with the excellence we are experiencing today in movies and television shows. But I’ll take it as a win that I find such deep satisfaction from a new documentary about a Dylan tour from a long past era or by watching Springsteen onstage in a Broadway show expounding with deep emotionality the tales of his older catalogue as it relates to his personal life. I consider these two films a huge validation for the continued relevancy of rock and roll, the music that acts as the powerful soundtrack for so many lives, including my own.