Cultural Notes: January 2018

With a nod to Kottke's monthly "Media Diet" posts, I'm experimenting this year with short monthly recaps of interesting things I've read, watched or listened to. (This is as much for myself, as noting what I took in can help me better recall it.)

Read

Watched

  • The Big Sick (B+)
  • Columbus (A) — Unique and sensitive debut with such lovely and surprising  architecture.
  • The Sopranos, Final Season (A)

Listened To

  • Lomelda, "From Here," — Stumbled on her via Spotify Discover. The last-third build-up gets me singing.  
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on "Discovering America" — On this recent New Yorker Radio Hour interview with David Remnick, Adichie was incisive and funny. Moved me to pick up Americanah, which I'm reading now.
  • Slow Burn — Binged-listened to this podcast about Watergate. Hard to believe.
  • Saint Louis Symphony Concert Family Concert  — First time taking Leo, who looked up with wide eyes at Powell Hall's magnificent ceiling. It was a treat that the special guest was the 442s, friends and collaborators on this Forest Park Forever project. A week since going, Leo's been loudly 'conducting' in the kitchen. 

Abbott Miller on the "Content-Based Studio"

From the intelligent and beautifully made monograph Abbott Miller: Design and Content, which I devoured in early January, here is the designer/writer talking about the firm Design Writing Research, which he co-founded with Ellen Lupton:  

During this time [perhaps mid-1990s], DWR moved from its basis in small print-based projects to exhibitions and publications. We elaborated our position as a hybrid of think thank, publisher, and design studio. The goal was to fuse our work as designers and writers, creating a studio that could generate content and use the unique skill set of designers to focus on projects about art, design, architecture, and ideas. In this notion of the content-based studio there were a number of inspirational precedents, from Charles and Ray Eames to Quentin Fiore and Bernard Rudofsky.

Our original emphasis on language and theory merged with work for clients who came to us not so much for the manifesto-like pronouncements of our mission, but for the thoughtful interplay of design and content in our projects. DWR was a self-consciously literary and conceptual hothouse version of a design studio, undertaking projects that experimented with literary theory and psychoanalysis, leaning heavily on what we saw as the vastly underdeveloped relationship between writing and graphic design. We borrowed from Jacques Derrida an expanded notion of "writing" (écriture), which included all elements of graphic communication, from symbols to spacing. Hence our predilection for mazes of glyphs, our attentiveness to the minutiae of punctuation and our maniacal focus on typography and textural systems.

Tim Carmody on Bill Callahan

With this terrific Kottke.org guest post — "Bill Callahan, the only sad man worth loving" — Carmody had me immediately returning to the handful of albums I own. (As Carmody points out, Callahan's not on Spotify, my own daily streaming service: "This means his legacy risks being eclipsed for a whole cohort of fans. I find this unacceptable.") 

Below, one of the gems Carmody highlights at the post:

When Lapham Played Beethoven for Monk

Thanks to a surprise purchase by my wife, I've been enjoying the new issue of Lapham's Quarterly, which takes music as its cover-to-cover subject. (How that theme was still open to them after several years of publishing is surprising.) 

I've enjoyed reading Lapham for years, but hadn't known that he'd studied piano as a youth, or that he'd spent time in New York City as a young writer waiting (and waiting and waiting) to write about Thelonious Monk. After several months of sharing late-night space in the Five Spot, this happened:

At four AM on a Thursday in late March [1965], the Five Spot’s waiters stacking chairs on tables, Monk stood up from the piano, snapped his fingers, thrust his palm in my direction. “Time to play, man,” he said, “time to hear what you know.” Out front in the back of a Rolls-Royce, the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter was come to carry Monk home. She did so many mornings, but I never had been around at four AM to see Monk nod to the chauffeur holding open the door. A beautiful woman of uncertain age, wrapped in fur and wearing pearls, the baroness smiled, pointed me toward the seat in front. I can’t now remember if she spoke more than four words in my direction, either in the car or after we arrived at Monk’s apartment on West Sixty-Third Street at Eleventh Avenue.

Monk didn’t mess with preliminaries. Not bothering to remove his hat (that evening a fine English bowler), he pointed to the piano, opened and closed the wooden door of the bathroom directly behind it, seated himself on the toilet to listen to whatever came next. Nellie and the baroness sat upright and attentive on the small blue sofa they shared with a rag doll and a rocking horse. I played Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 27 in two movements (the first in E minor, the second in E major), run time fourteen minutes if taken at the indicated tempos. I don’t say I played it as well as Lipsky might have played it, but I’d been practicing it six days out of seven for two months, and to the best of my knowledge and recollection, I didn’t miss many notes, never once felt ill at ease or afraid. Monk stepped out of the bathroom, looked me square in the face, said simply, straight, no chaser, “I heard you.”

By then I knew enough to dig what he was saying. It wasn’t the personality of Lewis H. Lapham he heard playing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 27. He didn’t care who or what I was, clubfooted and white or blue-eyed and black. It wasn’t me or my interpretation, it was the music itself, off the charts beyond good and evil that somehow and if only for the time being I’d managed to reach.

Karl Ove Knausgaard Walks Central Park

For The New Yorker Radio Hour, Joshua Rothman walks Central Park with one of my favorite living writers. I especially loved this bit, which comes after Knausgaard is asked about the differences between the way children and adults go through their days: 

I have four children, and maybe when I spend a summer day with them, it is like nothing. Time is just passing. There's nothing remarkable happening. It's like the world is not attached to me, and I'm not attached to the world anymore. And then I remember the summers when I was a child myself — how important everything was, how attached I was to everything that happened, and how slowly those days evolved, somehow. I find it very easy to underestimate my own children. That I don't see them — that they're just little creatures, not realizing that they have an enormous, huge and independent inner life. Somehow, the task is apparently to be aware of that.

Nick Paumgarten Profiles St. Vincent

Following his exceptional profile of Father John Misty, Paumgarten goes deep with the intriguing, shrewd and self-aware St. Vincent: 

When she listens to a playback, she often buries her head in her arms, as though she can hardly bear to hear herself, but, really, it’s just her way of listening hard. Once, during a mixing session, while she was at the board and I was behind her on a couch, surreptitiously reading a text message, she picked up her head, turned around, and said, “Did I lose you there, Nick? I can feel when attention is wandering.” Her cheery use of the name of the person she is addressing can seem to contain a faint note of mockery. There’d be times, in the following months, when I’d walk away from a conversation with Clark feeling like a character in a kung-fu movie who emerges from a sword skirmish apparently unscathed yet a moment later starts gushing blood or dropping limbs.

Lethem on Knausgaard: "My Hero"

After discovering this short appreciation in a Jonathan Lethem essay collection on bookish things, I just read it aloud to my wife, who'd been curious about why I've been so utterly taken by this series and increasingly hungry for each subsequent volume. Lethem nailed it ("Knausgaard's approach is plain and scrupulous, sometimes casual, yet he never writes down. His subject is the beauty and terror of the fact that all life coexists with itself."), and he was only one volume in.