I’ll say the most difficult thing about it now is that all of it has a disposability that it didn’t have before. In the old days, you would buy a piece of music, you would own it, and you would be invested in that piece of music as yours. Now everything is available, which is fantastic and I love it. As a fan, I love it.
When something comes out by an artist that you love, it doesn’t have the same gravitas that it once had because it’s on this conveyor belt of music that’s always going by. Even the thing you love, you listen to it, but then there’s something new right behind it, coming right behind it, always something new coming right behind it. I don’t know how the music of today can get to the point of the canon of the music of the past based on that short term, the fact that the music goes by so quickly. Even the things we love, the shelf life is very short now.
In The New Yorker, Margaret Talbot explores the “melancholy grandeur” of Weyes Blood, my favorite new find of last year.
And I still meet journalists today that always have this, ‘If it’s done with a computer it doesn’t have a soul’ — that argument. But it’s not about the tool. You cannot rely on a guitar to put the soul in a song. Or a violin. Or a laptop. If there is not soul in it, it’s because the human did not put it there.
What a supremely fine and lovingly crafted book this was. Astute, admiring, and entertaining scrutiny of decades of rap lyrics. Huge kudos to author Daniel Levin Becker. A few especially great passages I drew circles around in my copy:
I will go to my grave wishing my self-conscious rhetorical throat-clearings could sound so cool. What Nas seems to toss off here is not just a very efficient overview of the themes he’s spent his career elaborating—decadence, gunplay, activism, divinity—but also a rare window onto his composition process, his creative deliberations, the whole inner monologue around medium and message that is at once so tantalizing in a rapper and so often viewed as beside the point. Most of all, though, what I hear in it is a true statement about what it’s like to speak on something so much bigger than yourself, so much more expansive than the present, something inexhaustible and infinite that is also right here. It’s what it feels like, for me, to put words to a way with words that so often leaves me, before the rest colors itself in, speechless.
All the discrete and interwoven pattern recognitions in this book, assembled with joy and leaving me no closer to a unified theory of how it all fits together, seem to be proof of rap’s multitudes, its dynamism, its knack for illuminating a bigger picture by obscuring many smaller ones. This is what the best art does, and I think it’s also why we play with puzzles. It’s not about the completed image, but about the slow, oddly suspenseful progress we make toward resolution and completeness—otherwise we’d just look at the picture on the box the puzzle comes in, right? There is so much in the world that is at least provisionally more awesome, more arresting, more puzzling than good. The endlessly deferred promise of understanding, being in the dark and working ever toward the light, just might be what makes the whole thing, impossibly, float.
[em]Family selfie in Forest Park’s new Anne O’C. Albrecht Nature Playscape. Grateful to all those who made pandemic year two more livable, from caretakers of outdoor spaces like this one to the healthcare workers, educational staff, and local librarians we so depended on. [/em]
Since 2000, I’ve had a year-end tradition of sharing my cultural highlights of the past 12 months. For this year’s post, I’ll first note the major life change I had in 2021.
After eight years leading comms and marketing for the nonprofit conservancy Forest Park Forever, I re-entered the agency world this summer by joining The Stoke Group, a fully distributed digital marketing and content studio that focuses on the B2B tech sector.
As the Senior Director of Editorial Content, I spend most of my time on editorial projects for Adobe (a key client, and one that values great writing and design), as well as helping produce the video podcast Real Creative Leadership with its host, Adam Morgan. While I miss the connection to my St. Louis community, I’m enjoying working with strategists, writers, and designers on content work for large global clients. I hadn’t worked with clients at this scale or in this specific sector, so it’s been broadening in the way I hoped. The team’s packed with interesting, talented, upbeat people.
With that 2021 milestone covered, here’s a look at some cultural-intake highlights from the year:
1. Lanny, Max Porter
2. Second Place, Rachel Cusk
3. Leave the World Behind, Rumaan Alam
4. The Copenhagen Trilogy, Tove Ditlevsen
5. Whereabouts, Jhumpa Lahiri
6. The Morning Star, Karl Ove Knausgaard
7. Beautiful World, Where Are You, Sally Rooney
8. The Sellout, Paul Beatty
9. Tenth of December, George Saunders
10. My Heart, Semezdin Mehmedinović
11. Fox 8, George Saunders
12. The Carrying: Poems, Ada Limon
13. New Teeth, Simon Rich
1. Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning, Philip Kennicott
2. The Most Fun Thing: Dispatches from a Skateboard Life, Kyle Beachy
3. Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design, Michael Bierut
4. Suppose a Sentence: Brian Dillon
5. Hannah Wilke: Art for Life’s Sake (Eds., Tamara Schenkenberg and Donna Wingate)
6. Three Women, Lisa Taddeo
7. They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, Hanif Abdurraqib
8. The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, Louis Menand
9. Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, Paula Marantz Cohen
10. Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres, Kelefa Sanneh
11. The Monocle Book of Homes (Monocle)
12. The Innovation Stack: Building an Unbeatable Business One Crazy Idea at a Time, Jim McKelvey
13. Studio Culture Now (Ed. Mark Sinclair)
14. The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel, Kati Marton
15. Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks, Adam Nayman
16. This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s “Kid A” and the Beginning of the 21st Century, Steven Hyden
17. After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made, Ben Rhodes
18. Vesper Flights, Helen Macdonald
19. An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination, Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang
20. The Master: The Long Run and Beautiful Game of Roger Federer, Christopher Clarey
21. Proustian Uncertainties, Saul Friedländer
22. Seeing Serena, Gerald Marzorati
23. Graphic Life, Michael Gericke
24. How to Raise an Adult, Julie Lythcott-Haims
25. Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson, paired with Twelve New Essays by Jessica Helfand
26. Power Play: Tesla, Elon Musk, and the Bet of the Century, Tim Higgins
27. The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, Jonathan Alter
28. No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer
29. Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, Adam Grant
30. Sorry Spock, Emotions Drive Business, Adam W. Morgan
1. The French Dispatch
2. Cold War
3. Certain Women
4. Meek’s Cutoff
5. The Power of the Dog
6. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
7. Let Them All Talk
8. The Farewell
9. To the Wonder
11. In One Breath: Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark
12. Biggie: I Got A Story to Tell
14. Untold: Breaking Point
15. WeWork: or The Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn
1. Succession, Season 3
2. The Bureau, Season 1
3. Ted Lasso, Season 2
4. Great British Baking Show, Season 12
5. The Chair 6. Only Murders in the Building
7. The Other Two, Seasons 1 and 2
8. This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist
Visual Art This was the second year in a row with little travel (which often prompts new art-viewing) and sadly little museum-going here at home (that’s on me). That said, and acknowledging my bias, the exhibition Hannah Wilke: Art for Life's Sake — curated by my wife, Tamara H. Schenkenberg, at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation — gained in richness and meaning every time I saw it. If you’re here in St. Louis, I highly encourage a visit before its January 16 close.
Music A million years ago, my year-end lists included dozens of individual albums and concerts. While music’s a daily essential for me, I see almost nothing live and dip in and out of all kinds of new things I learn about, often without good record-keeping.
I usually work listening to classical, then jazz is on in the evening. The only specific new recordings I’d surface this year are the terrific records from Tyler, the Creator, Lucy Dacus, and Julien Baker. Phoebe Bridgers didn’t have a new album, but I loved her live Pitchfork Festival set that I happened to catch the evening it streamed.
In terms of new discoveries, there was one artist — and one song — that I’ll long connect with 2021: “A Lot’s Gonna Change” by Weyes Blood (Natalie Laura Mering). I was introduced to this singer/songwriter through a Spotify station as I drove on an errand of some kind. I was transfixed.
At about 1:20, Mering sings the title phrase — “A lot’s gonna change / in your …. life / … time.” — and it swallowed me up in the way great song moments do. Likely because my wife and I spend so much of our non-working time focused on raising our young kids and thinking about what their future lives will be like, the line took on all kinds poignancy and significance in the seconds I heard it.
Later on, the second time that part of the song comes around (2:55 in the video above), Mering sings, “‘Cause you’ve got what it takes / in your … life / … time.”
Unlike many virtuosos, Eddie Van Halen had a knack for making virtuosity seem like a good time, and all the early Van Halen albums sound as if they were recorded at house parties, with the party noise somehow edited out.
Jeff Tweedy’s new Substack newsletter, Starship Casual, is unsuprisingly great — at turns goofy and thoughtful, just like his books and interviews. Today’s post, “Heart of Glass (Rememories 5), was especially memorable. He’s a slyly penetrating artist.
*Sylvie, sipping through a backyard quarantine concert by a friend and SLSO musician*
Year 20 of my annual cultural-recap tradition was quite something.
Thus far my family’s had good fortune amid the global pandemic, so we’re spending most of our time feeling grateful, yet exhausted, then grateful, yet exhausted.
With lots of time at home, there was some enjoyable culture to take in. Here’s a look at some highlights:
The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches & Meditations, Toni Morrison
Uncanny Valley: A Memoir, Anna Wiener
Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century, George Packer
Having and Being Had: Eula Biss
My Parents: An Introduction, Aleksandar Hemon
Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, Cathy Park Hong
Weather, Jenny Offill
Promised Land, Barack Obama
Then the Fish Swallowed Him, Amir Ahmadi Arian
Jack, Marilyn Robinson
My Life in France, Julia Child
Severance, Ling Ma
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson
Luster, Raven Leilani
Intimations, Zadie Smith
Monocle: How to Make a Nation
The Passion Economy, Adam Davidson
These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson, Martha Ackmann
Wine Simple, Aldo Sohm
Normal People, Sally Rooney
The Lying Lives of Adults, Elena Ferrante
Girl, Edna O’Brien
Lurking: How a Person Became a User, Joanne McNeil
How to Be a Family, Dan Kois
Mies van der Rohe, Edith Farnsworth, and the Fight Over a Modernist Masterpiece, Alex Beam
The Secret Lives of Color, Kassia St. Clair
No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram, Sarah Frier
Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest, Hanif Abdurraqub
How to Write One Song, Jeff Tweedy
How Architecture Works, Witold Rybczynski
Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State, Barton Gellman
To Start a War, Robert Draper
The Spy Masters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future, Chris Whipple
Agent Running in the Field, John le Carré
The Monocle Guide to Better Living
Hell and Other Destinations, Madeline Albright
The Ride of a Lifetime, Robert Iger
Bitter Brew, William Knoedelseder
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (exquisite, perfect)
Meyerowitz Stories: New & Collected
The Trip to Greece
The Other Guys
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
The Price of Everything
Ford v. Ferrari
Better Call Saul, Seasons 4 and 5
Atlanta, Seasons 1 and 2
Schitt’s Creek, All Seasons
Never Have I Ever
Call My Agent, Season 1
Great British Bake-Off, Season 6 and 8
I can’t recall a year when I saw less art — whether here in St. Louis or in cities we didn’t travel to. With that unfortunate reality, I’m especially grateful to have been able to see the fantastic exhibition “Terry Adkins: Resounding” at the Pulitzer this summer.
My Spotify’s a shared-with-kids mess, and for loads of weekly hours I stream jazz and classical music that I don’t make a note of to be recalled. That said, I did especially enjoy new records from Fiona Apple, Phoebe Bridgers, Adrianne Lenker, Jeff Tweedy, Lomelda, Bob Dylan, Run the Jewels, and Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist. I’m grateful to have been turned on to the music of Big Thief, Harold Budd (via the e-newsletter Flow State), Eleanor Bindman, and Haley Heynderickx, whose “Oom Sha La La” always brightened our family’s quarantine, with the kids screaming and jumping along to the swelling refrain, “I need to start a garden!” Here’s to what’s to come.
Best for last: We finished season 5 of “Better Call Saul.” Tremendous television. (How in the world did Lalo just show up so late and start owning scenes with major talent that had four seasons of episode strength beneath them? What a character and performance.)
Borrowing the structure of a few other online writers whose websites I enjoy (Paul Robert Lloyd and Mark Boulton, among others), I thought I’d start weekly low-key look-backs on the week, bullet list-style. Perhaps weekly is aspirational. We’ll see.
Greatly enjoyed Emily Nussbaum’s long New Yorker profile of Fiona Apple, whose long-awaited record just hit my Spotify streaming today. After reading the piece, I’d been going back through Apple’s back catalogue, awaiting the new songs and relishing the old. That stellar start of “I Know”: “So be it / I’m your crowbar….”
Also in the New Yorker, I was moved by Alex Ross’s essay honoring his late mother, “Grieving With Brahms.” I admire Ross’s writing greatly.
I’ve been dabbling with Roam, which is getting a lot of indie attention as a networked-notes app. (See: #roamcult) At least for now, I’ve enjoyed reading in-depth use studies more than actually using it. Somewhat relatedly, it’s been a big few weeks for Notion, which I continue to use more as a work/life dashboard than a notes app. This general area of knowledge management is one I’m deeply interested in and will continue to be tracking.
Speaking of tech, I’m three episodes into “Devs” (Hulu) and plan on continuing. Intrigued. (I loved the look of Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina.”)
On my family’s own isolation front, lack of options breeds ingenuity. Today Leo and I played driveway tennis over a rope tied between our basketball hoop and a locked stroller, followed by foam-ball lawn golf employing our Christmas tree stand as the hole. Worked surprisingly well.
Thanks to a chance moment listening to KDHX in the car, I’ve now had Haley Heynderickx on repeat — especially her record “I Need to Start a Garden,” and especially the song “Oom Sha La La.” Looked it up, and sure enough, there’s a Tiny Desk concert in the books as well, with that tune kicking it off. Grateful for the find.
While not personally a blues guy, I loved every paragraph of David Remnick’s terrific New Yorker feature exploring Buddy Guy’s long career, the change of blues’s place in culture and what the future holds, if anything, for the genre as Guy’s been playing it. Toward the end of the piece, Remnick turns to his magazine’s own poetry editor — poet and essayist Kevin Young — for this insightful description of the form:
The blues contain multitudes. Just when you say the blues are about one thing—lost love, say—here comes a song about death, or about work, about canned heat or loose women, hard men or harder times, to challenge your definitions. Urban and rural, tragic and comic, modern as African America and primal as America, the blues are as innovative in structure as they are in mood—they resurrect old feelings even as they describe them in new ways.
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.)
Paula Scher: Works — Terrific, from the opening essay and interview to the work itself. (A)
Abbott Miller: Design & Content — Intelligent and beautiful. Especially loved reading about Miller's co-founding of a "content-based studio" years before 'content strategy' became a thing. (A+)
We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, Ta-Nehisi Coates — I'd read most of these essays when they were published in The Atlantic, but they were even more powerful here as a package. I liked Coates' brief introductions to each one, noting any changes (to what happened in the world, to how he thought about the issues) since original publication. (A)
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.")
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.
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 , 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.
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.
Where have I been to miss this marvelous podcast for its first 101 episodes? Hrishikesh Hirway interviews musicians and asks them to break down a single song, which we hear in bits … and bits … and then in its entirety. It’s a fantastic idea executed with great polish, sensitivity and humility (Hirway is almost never heard from). I’ve so far enjoyed Jeff Tweedy/Wilco, Ghostface Killah and Bjork, with many more in the queue.
Insightful and entertaining New Yorker profile by Alec Wilkinson. I can still vividly recall seeing the White Stripes at The Pageant in 2002, a blazing tricolor duo that owned that room from start to finish.
Music I used to make long lists of specific albums purchased and enjoyed, but since I’ve gone to paid streaming (and, maybe, since I’ve become a committed podcast listener), it’s harder for me to point to specific recordings at a year’s end. This is especially the case since Rdio shut down, and I’m now starting fresh with Spotify — my digital records are kind of a mess. While I listen to hours of classical and ambient/lush music through the headphones during work, a few specific artists I spent more time with in 2015 include Angel Olsen, Youth Lagoon, Sun Kil Moon, Sharon Van Etten, My Bubba, Jennifer O’Connor, Girlpool, Atlas Sound, Earl Sweatshirt, J Cole, Common, Pusha T, A$AP Rocky, Villagers, Natalie Prass, and Perfume Genius.
NYC + D.C. I had the good fortune of accompanying my wife on a work trip she had to NYC, and it was incredibly culture-rich. Highlights included the new Whitney, MoMA (Yoko Ono and Bjork special exhibitions), The Drawing Center, David Zwirner Gallery (Serra show), Neue Galerie (sensational collection), the Cooper Hewitt, and “Drifting in Daylight” in Central Park (where I shot this short phone video). We also enjoyed a long weekend in D.C. with family, with pleasant dips into the National Gallery (terrific Caillebotte show) and The Phillips Collection (first time, great time).
Work I’m fortunate to have a great job at Forest Park Forever, and 2015 saw a few especially fun projects ship. This includes the introduction of our new brand platform, our launch of Forestparkmap.org and the formal introduction of Forever: The Campaign for Forest Park’s Future, with a new website that features a beautiful campaign video we made with the team at Once Films.
Family As referenced appropriately at top, so much of this year — and so much of every day — has been about Tamara and I raising our son. I’d been told that right around 2 is a fun age, and it’s true. This year had a ton of special moments, including — just to pick one, which we happened to catch on film — Leo’s changing expression during his first ride on a carousel at the Saint Louis Zoo.
Back before Tamara and I had our son in the summer of 2013, I used to keep regular lists of my “Annual Favorites” of the year — the best books, movies, TV shows, podcasts, exhibitions and so on that I’d consumed that year.
To say my rate of cultural digestion changed with fatherhood would be an understatement; that said, I still have an interest in logging the great stuff (if only for myself). So while I skipped 2013 entirely, here’s a go at some highlights from 2014:
Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays, Eula Biss
What We See When We Read, Peter Mendelsund
Inferno (The Divine Comedy, #1), Dante Alighieri (Mary Jo Bang, Translator)
Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst, Adam Phillips
Like Someone In Love
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Jane Eyre (2011)
A Most Wanted Man
Take This Waltz
The One I Love
Your Sister’s Sister
Slate Culture Gabfest
The Monocle Weekly
In Our Time With Melvyn Bragg
The Entrepreneurs (Monocle)
The Stack (Monocle)
The Political Scene (The New Yorker)
New Yorker: Out Loud
Articles & Essays If you follow me on Twitter, you have likely already seen links to the best articles and essays I read in 2014. I use it mainly as a way to praise and recommend.
Music I listen to Rdio every day of the week — on my Mac, iPad and iPhone. A great deal of what I stream is classical, since I listen while I work. And on that front I do a poor job of logging what I like, as I hop quickly from label to composer, from soloist to trio. So for this post I’ll skip classical (and hip-hop, where I also jump around) and point simply to a handful of indie albums I enjoyed this year:
Didn’t connect with: Headhunters, We Have a Pope, The Bourne Legacy.
Favorite Movies: Pre-2012
Bill Cunningham New York
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
A Dangerous Method
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop
Too Big to Fail
I continue to be a huge fan of Rdio, which I pay $10 a month to be able to stream music on a desktop, iPad, or iPhone. (This includes, say, streaming the new Nas via my home’s wi-fi as I mow my suburban lawn.) There will always be rituals and a closeness to the music I miss from my CD days, but the advantages of Rdio — especially the ability to discover and immediately listen to new music, particularly hip-hop and classical — are significant. I don’t have a ranked list here, but my listening history is an open book.
Favorite Articles, Essays & Blog Posts (categorized, not ranked)
One unusual memory I have from 2012 is spending several weekday evenings in March walking through my neighborhood for an hour or so, listening to the day’s oral arguments for and against the healthcare act. (My greatest moment of exasperation was hearing Justice Scalia mock-ask whether he was seriously supposed to get through so many pages of material.) In April, I published Abstractions Arrive: Having Been There All the Time, an iPad-only e-book pairing an essay by William H. Gass with photographs by Michael Eastman; New York Times coverage was a cherry on top. May’s Confab conference was one of the best I’ve attended. In August, Tamara and I enjoyed a few highly cultural days in Miami. Surpassing all that, though — we’re expecting a baby in late May of 2013. I expect this should be my best year yet.
The other day, I tweeted some frustration about the news that a world-famous film director had turned to Kickstarter to fund a new project.
Yesterday, I learned that one of my favorite (but maybe not yet financially set-for-life) singer-songwriters, Chris Mills, had too. That’s more like it. I’ve been listening to Chris and seeing him live since my days living in Chicago in the late 90s. Great songs, really nice guy. Happy to back him.
At one point, Smith introduces another lyrical gem (“I got watches I ain’t seen in months / Apartment at the Trump I only slept in once”), then rebuts a likely critique:
But asking why rappers always talk about their stuff is like asking why Milton is forever listing the attributes of heavenly armies. Because boasting is a formal condition of the epic form. And those taught that they deserve nothing rightly enjoy it when they succeed in terms the culture understands.
Terrific piece by Sasha Frere-Jones at The New Yorker’s website. Yauch’s transition from celebrated youthful knucklehead to enlightened (and hugely productive) grown-up was admirable.
I can still remember listening to “Licensed to Ill” in 1987 for the first time, on a tape my 8th-grade classmate Chris made me. My parents were away at the time, and I was staying at my grandparents’ apartment here in St. Louis. I listened to the tape on headphones before falling asleep on the sofa in their den. I’d never heard anything like it. More than two decades later, I still listen to hip-hop week in and week out.
Peter Watson's The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century is an extraordinary 1,000-page book. It is immensely ambitious, rich in ideas and evidence of the German-speaking peoples’ world-changing achievements in music, literature, philosophy, psychoanalysis, biology, geology, bioethics, archeology, art history, and on and on. (On music, to take just one subject: “The standard ‘backbone’ of classical music consists today of Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms — all German.”)
Watson, an intellectual historian and former journalist, is a confident, resourceful, learned guide. He succeeds not just in illustrating how Germany was the leading force in the world of ideas until 1933, but also in helping the reader consider the country since it was ever-changed by the Führer and the Nazi Party (“Hitler still makes history but he also distorts it”). As a writer and historian, Watson is sharp and entertaining, as evidenced by these well-drawn, memorable sketches and assessments of just some of the book’s key figures:
Prickly, oversensitive, cynical, and bad-tempered, he was as much feared and disliked as Hans von Bülow, who was notorious for his tempers and antagonisms. At one party in Vienna, it is said, Brahms left in a huff, grumbling, “If there is anyone here I have not insulted, I apologize.”
Paradoxically, Strauss was himself a solid bourgeois, with a sober — even staid — private life. Alma Mahler was at the rehearsal of Feuersnot in 1901 and confided to her diary: “Strauss thought of nothing but money. The whole time he had a pencil in hand and was calculating the profits to the last penny.” His wife, Pauline, was a grasping woman, once a singer, who would scream at her husband, when he was relaxing at cards, “Richard, go compose!” Their house at Garmisch had three separate doormats, on each of which Pauline insisted that the composer wipe his feet.“
Richard Strauss was ambivalent about Arnold Schoenberg. He thought he would be better off "shoveling show” [!] than composing, yet recommended him for a Liszt scholarship.“ … A small, wiry man, "easily unimpressed,” who went bald early on, Schoenberg was strikingly inventive — he carved his own chessmen, bound his own books, painted (Wassily Kandinsky was a fan), and built a typewriter for music.
When war broke out, Thomas Mann — as we have seen — was as nationalistic as many others. He was not yet one of the giants of European literature but he did have a growing reputation. He volunteered for the Landsturm, or reserve army, but the doctor who examined him was familiar with his work and, reasoning that he would make a greater contribution to the war effort as a writer rather than as a soldier, failed him physically for active service.
Kafka is best known for three works of fiction … But he also kept a diary for fourteen years and wrote copious letters. These reveal him to have been a deeply paradoxical and enigmatic man. He was engaged to the same woman for five years, yet saw her fewer than a dozen times in that period; he wrote ninety letters to one woman in the two months after he met her, including several between twenty and thirty pages, and to another he wrote 130 letters in five months. He wrote a famous forty-five-page typed letter to his father when he was thirty-six, explaining why he was still afraid of him.
Along with his fellow German-speaker, Adolf Hitler, Karl Marx probably had a more direct effect on the recently completed twentieth century, and the shape of the contemporary world, than any other single individual. Without him there would have been no Lenin, no Stalin, no Mao Zedong, and few if any of the other dictators who disfigured those times. Without him there would have been no Russian Revolution, and without World War II (or Max Planck and Albert Einstein), would there — could there — have been a Cold War, a divided Germany? Would decolonization have occurred in the way that it did, would there have been an Israel where it is, the Middle East problem that there is? Would there have been a 9/11? Ideas don’t come any more consequential than Marxism.
Sigmund Freud’s influence was less catastrophic than Marx’s, but no less consequential…. Alfred Kazin, the American critic, maintained in an essay he published in 1956 to mark the one hundredth anniversary of Freud’s birth that “Freud has influenced even people who have never heard of him.” Kazin thought that, at mid-century in America, “to those who have no belief, Freudianism sometimes serves as a philosophy of life.” He thought that at “every hour of every day now,” people could not forget a name, feel depressed, or end a marriage without wondering what the “Freudian” reason might be. He thought that the novel and painting (Thomas Mann, T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Expressionism, Surrealism, Abstraction) had been reinvigorated by the Freudian knowledge that “personal passion is a stronger force in people’s lives that socially accepted morality” and that the “most beautiful effect” of Freudianism was the increasing awareness of childhood “as the most important single influence on personal development.” He thought the insistence on personal happiness — the goal of psychoanalytic therapy — was the most revolutionary force in modern times, a modern form of self-realization.
Nietzsche’s most well-known — some might say notorious — aphorism is “God is dead.” One of his most important achievements, along with Max Weber, was to think through and confront the implications of that sentiment, to work out in what he saw as terrifying detail the consequences of modernity, a world of vast populous cities, mass transport, and mass communications, in which the old certainties had been dissolved, where the comforts and consolations of religion had disappeared for many people, and in which science had acquired an authority that was, in his view, as arid and empty as it was impersonal and impressive. It is in this sense that Martin Heidegger called Nietzsche the “culmination” of modernity — i.e., Nietzsche felt the loss of whatever had gone before more keenly than anyone else, and he described that loss in more vivid hues.
All this was overshadowed by the advent of Joseph Beuys, who stands apart (and, for many people, above) all else in German postwar art. Beuys, born in Krefeld in 1921, never deviated from his conviction that his artistic aim was to find a new visual language that would come to terms with the war and at the same time find a way forward that did not ignore all that had happened.
The work of art, Beuys believed, exists in “eternal time, historical time, and personal time.” Having himself been shot down over Russia as a Luftwaffe pilot in the Second Wold War, he was treated for frostbite by his Russian captors, who used felt and fat, which became the materials Beuys used in (some of) his art, fused with other, less personal substances. He felt the spectator should be aware of what these materials meant to the artist, adding a level of consciousness to the aesthetic experience (as a boy he used a tram stop near an important monument), with the national past, featuring railway lines to remind the viewer what railways were used for in Nazi Germany. But, his lines were slightly curved, to hint at progress, a way forward, and up. In experiencing the present-day beauty of his sculptures, Beuys is saying, we must relive past events — this is his dialogue with time.
Congrats to Watson for completing such a tremendous volume of history. I recommend it highly.