The Bard’s Barbs

shakespeare's insultsAll the world’s truly a stage for William Shakespeare this month, with commemorations of the 450th anniversary of his birth taking place far and wide throughout April. From the birthday fireworks in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon taking place on the 23rd, to festivals and productions spanning the globe, the celebration of all things Shakespearean has many in a bardish state of mind.

I think it’s also a great occasion to remember the playwright’s inimitable talent for verbal abuse, which I recalled from an indispensable little book called Shakespeare’s Insults – Educating Your Wit, a tome that everyone should have at the ready when only the most perfect pejorative will do. Perusing it recently, I marveled again at both the juicy relish and often suave understatement of words sharply crafted to cut to the bone. One can be sure their targets didn’t know what hit them.

shakespeare insultsOld Wills had a penchant for certain aspersions (“whoreson” is one he uses repeatedly) as well as variations on the theme of “infection” (as in “the most infectious pestilence upon thee!”) Not surprisingly, many invectives are undisguisedly sexist (“wedded be thou to the hags of hell”), and he often tosses out allusions to the creature kingdom as the lowest blow (“toads, beetles, bats light on you!”)

Tough to pick from such a treasure trove of taunts, but the following pithy handful do stand out:

  • You scullion! You rampallian! You fustilarian! I’ll tickle your catastrophe! – Henry IV, Part 2
  • [Your] face is not worth sunburning. – Henry V
  • Thy mother’s name is ominous to children. – Richard III
  • Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it. – Macbeth
  • More of your conversation would infect my brain. – Coriolanus

And near the top of the list:

  • It is certain that when he makes water, his urine is congealed ice. – Measure for Measure

Incivility has never sounded so elegant.

What’s Cooking, Watson?

watson cognitive cookingNot content to rest on its laurels as Jeopardy!’s all-time champion, IBM’s artificial-intelligence computer system, Watson, has now donned a chef’s hat, showing off its culinary chops in a recently unveiled project called “Cognitive Cooking.”

It’s all part of an effort to broaden the horizons of computing to incorporate that most unique of human qualities — creativity — which has long eluded technological reach. Tapping into a database of more than 35,000 recipes stored in the IBM “cloud,” Watson sniffs out flavor profiles and chemical compounds with a nose for novel combinations, in pairings that number in the quintillions (that’s 18 zeros).

cognitive apple pieThe system searches for the most interesting gastronomic matches by ingredient, cuisine, and dish type, resulting in such unorthodox creations as “Baltic Apple Pie” (with a topping of pork tenderloin, left) and a “Belgian Bacon Pudding” that mixes bacon and figs along with egg yolks and buttermilk (and a pinch of cumin). Other confections whipped up so far: a “Caymanian Plantain Dessert,” “Peruvian Potato Poutine,” and an “Austrian Chocolate Burrito” (ground beef alongside dark chocolate and Edam cheese).

The public got its first sampling at an IBM Watson Food Truck in Austin, Texas last month. Visitors at the city’s SXSW Festival tweeted their choices for favorite dishes, as Watson spewed out recipes ranked by their ability to surprise. For the “Vietnamese Apple Kebab,” it identified a common flavor compound found in both pork and apple. Add curry, mushrooms, and strawberries, and any traditional notion of shish-kebab is turned upside down.

graphics cognitive cookingWatson’s human counterparts will admit that in some ways they can’t compete. James Briscione, one of the chefs from the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) who is working with IBM on the Cognitive Cooking venture, told NBC News: “This is stringing together five or six ingredients at a time that are all matched based on the flavor compounds that they share. That’s something that’s way beyond my ability as a chef.”

IBM has even loftier goals for the project, seeing possibilities for global impact in such areas as obesity and malnutrition. The thinking is that by using computational creativity technologies to analyze chemical compounds and ingredients, the food-service industry can avail itself of new recipes and combinations that will be both healthier and more efficient to produce.

But for now, Watson, how about a taste of the “Caribbean Snapper Fish & Chips”? (Non-fried, of course.)

Sound Experiment

The soundscapes of Things You Already Know, the experimental and eclectic new offering by composer Chris Campbell, are not easy to categorize. (Its cover provides more than a hint of that.)things you already know chris campbell

More than fitting, as the album appears on Innova Recordings, which describes itself as “difficult to label.” Innova is the recording arm of the American Composers Forum, an organization that’s long promoted independent and cutting-edge artists from a wide range of musical genres. This is Campbell’s third work on Innova (where he doubles as operations manager) and where his first solo CD, Sound the All-Clear, was issued in 2010.

A hard-to-describe hybrid of post-minimalist classical, new-new age, and electro-acoustic, Things You Already Know also incorporates things you didn’t know could make such interesting music: propane tank drums, bowed psalteries, and singing bowls, matched with more traditional instruments like cello and piano, in a sonic shake-up that’s unexpectedly resonant. The musicians themselves are a diverse mix, with members of the Minnesota Orchestra and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra playing alongside counterparts from the alternative Twin City rock bands, Zoo Animal and Aaron & The Sea.

Campbell’s inspiration came from what he calls absorption – “That metaphysical equals sign (=) where there’s no separationcampbell things you already know back cover between self and other, inner and outer, general and particular,” he says in the liner notes. And there’s quite a bit of audile absorption to be experienced here, particularly in the two provocative tracks, “Lord Byron” and “Torso of a Bodhisattva.”

Be ready to land in uncharted musical territory, where it’s best to just take it all in. The tumultuous “Lord Byron” combines dissonance and displacement with a surprising sweep of neo-Romanticism (the Byron connection?), along with touches of psychedelia that reminded me of some chaotic notes from The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.”

“Torso of a Bodhisattva” creates a mystical mélange of ambient space, underpinned with a searching sense of longing.  The two keyboard works that bookmark the album — “Form – Emptiness” and “Emptiness – Form” — as well as the title piece, serve as quiet oases in a journey that’s a lot about juxtaposition, far-flung elements coming together to forge an unlikely whole.

It may take more than one listen, but those who enjoy a little challenge in their music (and I do), should find Things You Already Know worth the effort.

(Cover art: Alec Soth)

[First published as Music Review: Chris Campbell - Things You Already Know on Blogcritics.org.]

The Celebrity Connection

It’s a noble thing to try to build environmental awareness by way of the arts, and I have no doubt that film legend and activist Robert Redford had every sincere intention when he backed a project, The Way of the Rain Miami, by his artist wife, Sibylle Szaggars, that had its world premiere in the city last week.the way of the rain miami

The mixed-media piece, whose setting was colorful enough (right), consisted of a montage of music and dance together with artwork and video by “artistic director” Szaggars, and was inspired by weather phenomena over the Southwestern skies of the couple’s New Mexico home. The show also featured an appearance by Redford himself, and was trumpeted in big fashion by The Miami Herald, with a front-page story in its Sunday entertainment/arts section. At the very least, the one-time event promised to be an ambitious example of performance art with a serious message.

Not quite. Way of the Rain turned out to be a senseless jumble that, at nearly an hour, seemed almost twice as long. It was hard to see what any of it had to do with Miami — or the environment for that matter — though Redford was perplexingly quoted as saying that Szaggars hoped to address “threats to the Everglades and the rising sea level.” (Guess I missed that part.)

Sibylle Redford

Art by association: Sibylle Szaggars Redford

In an awkward segment of the work, the screen icon delivered some platitudinous readings about the precarious state of the earth that lacked the deeply felt intensity of his dedication to environmental issues. I don’t begrudge him supporting his spouse, but in my mind, this affair was less a statement about the environment and sustainability than about a famous movie star promoting his less than stellarly gifted, though well-meaning, wife.

It was surprising to see it all presented under the auspices of the National YoungArts Foundation (the performance took place at its Miami campus), with its renowned history of fostering emerging talent. But then again, Redford the actor has had a long-standing association with the organization. And in this story of celebrity and connections, I thought about the potential number of truly accomplished and anonymous artists, young and otherwise, who perhaps more rightfully deserved such a prestigious showcase for their endeavors.

A few weeks ago, the arts world was stunned when a vase owned by Ai Weiwei, on view at Miami’s newly renamed Perez Art Museum, was smashed by a South Florida-based painter in a protest against the museum’s paucity of representation of local artists. In a strange way, I felt the same sort of frustration at Way of the Rain, where tickets ran as high as $125 for a pointless sound-and-light show that didn’t merit this level of attention.

Oftentimes, and sadly, it’s less about what you create than who you know. (Or, in this case, who you happen to be married to.)

(Photo / middle: Carl Juste / The Miami Herald)

Artful Mergers

JR mural david koch theater new yorkCollaborations among those from widely dissimilar fields of the creative arts are nothing new, but some are more interesting than others. Perusing the arts blog at the New York Times over the weekend, I saw a piece about the French street artist named JR, whose talents are now to be tested in a quite different arena, namely as choreographer of a new production for the New York City Ballet that will debut as part of the company’s spring season beginning in April.

It’s all a result of a remarkable installation by JR that was on view at the NYCB’s home base of the David H. Koch Theater from January 26 through February 9. Shown above (as seen from an upper ring of the theater), it consisted of a 6,500-square-foot vinyl photograph of dozens of life-sized dancers that covered almost the entire marble floor of the venue’s promenade space. Before long, smartphones were ubiquitously employed by many who had their picture taken as they lay down alongside their imaginary dance partners, elevating the mural to viral status.

Amazed by the response, City Ballet artistic director Peter Martins commissioned JR for the still-unnamed “pièce d’occasion,” with the idea of drawing crossover audiences from the world of the visual arts. (Martins will also contribute to the work.)

As I got further into the story, I came across Lil Buck (real name Charles Riley), who practices what’s called “jookin” and whocellist yo-yo ma with lil buck will be featured in the upcoming dance creation by JR. “Jookin” is a variety of technically challenging hip-hop dancing that’s led to Lil Buck being called a “Baryshnikov” of the genre by the Times.

A 2011 video of Lil Buck performing a startlingly unique interpretation of Saint-Saëns’ “The Swan,” with Yo-Yo Ma on the cello, taken in an informal setting by the director Spike Jonze on his iPhone, has since received more than two million views on YouTube. (The photo above is from a 2013 performance.) Supple and subtle, contortional yet often delicate, Lil Buck’s rendition is another example of art reshaped into something fresh and wondrously new.

Street art, ballet, jookin, classical music…and artists with names like JR, Yo-Yo, and Lil Buck. That’s some creative converging all right.

(Photos: top: Ramsay de Give / Wall Street Journal; bottom: © Erin Baiano)

So Who’s Cool?

1986 jean michel basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1986

American Cool, an exhibit that features the “100 coolest Americans” throughout history in photos chosen by curators for the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, is an attempt to catalog one of those ineffable qualities that can only be described as “you know it when you feel it.” (I’ll call it a combination of singular style with a tantalizing touch of insouciance. An iconoclastic streak helps a lot.)

1918 georgia o'keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918

The eclectic exhibition, mostly culled from personalities in the fields of music, film, literature, and sports, includes some obvious choices — Miles Davis (whose defining jazz album was called Birth of the Cool), as well as Humphrey Bogart and James Dean, Elvis and Sinatra. Not-so-obvious: the poet Walt Whitman, singers Neil Young, Carlos Santana, and Selena.

But beyond the inclusion of the four divergent and groundbreaking artists whose images from the exhibition are shown here, lovers of the arts will be disappointed to find that many of their coolest heroes just plain didn’t make the cut.

Surely the legendary conductor, Leonard Bernstein, was way cool to lovers of classical music? Same goes for the opera singer Maria Callas, who hit some pretty cool high notes in her day. If the eminent essayist Susan Sontag was picked (justifiably so, though Truman Capote was inexplicably missing among the writers), perhaps the experimental modern composer Philip Glass might have merited a nod?  Annie Leibovitz, whose pictures of Johnny Depp, Michael Jordan, and Bruce Springsteen are among those on display, should have had a slot of her own as “cool” photographer. And there’s not a single figure from the world of dance — unless, of course, you count Fred Astaire — or theatre, for that matter (Tennessee Williams, anyone?)

1949 jackson pollock

Jackson Pollock, 1949

Five years in the making, American Cool is broken out in four sections (“The Roots of Cool,” “The Birth of Cool,” “Cool and the Counterculture,” and “The Legacies of Cool”). Jazz musicians are heavily represented, which makes sense, as the origin of the term as it is used now is attributed to the saxophonist Lester Young, who first popularized it in the 1940s.

The criteria for the selections, of which three of the following qualities had to met in order to qualify, were:

An original artistic vision carried off with a signature style

Cultural rebellion or transgression for a given generation

Iconic power, or instant visual recognition

A recognized cultural legacy

“The big question that we kept asking ourselves,” co-curator Joel Dinerstein told Smithsonian.com, “is, did this person bring something entirely new into American culture?”

In many cases, “yes,” as far as those who made the list. But no surprise that one person’s cool is often another’s “huh?” American Cool, which runs through early September, can make for some heated discussion…

1964 andy warhol

Andy Warhol, 1964

Photo credits:
Jean-Michel Basquiat: Dmitri Kasterine
Georgia O’Keeffe: Paul Strand
Jackson Pollock: Arnold A. Newman
Andy Warhol: Bruce Davidson

Just One Look

mandrill_2A reminder of the artfulness of nature, as captured by the contrasting gazes of two quite dissimilar species in a couple of remarkable images taken last month by wire photographers with an eye for the artistic. Above, a mandrill casts an intense look in a photo shot at the Madrid Zoo (“no other member in the whole class of mammals is coloured in so extraordinary a manner,” wrote Charles Darwin in the 19th Century) — while a flamingo, below, glances coyly during a grooming session at Frankfurt’s Zoological Garden.flamingo

(Photos: top: Jorge Sanz / Demotix / Corbis; bottom: Boris Ressler / EPA)

Electric Avenues

Tracy Silverman’s intriguingly titled Between the Kiss and the Chaos, the new recording from a musician who’s been described as “the greatest living exponent of the electric violin,” piqued my interest on several levels.between the kiss and the chaos

Released this month on the Delos label, the album features the esteemed classical ensemble, The Calder Quartet. Almost entirely a product of social media networking, it was funded largely by donations generated by Kickstarter in a digital campaign that made it possible for the Juilliard-trained violinist to bring his showpiece concerto to the mass public. In the credits, Silverman acknowledges the 113 friends and fans who donated to the project, “each of whom is directly responsible for making it possible for me to share my music with the world.”

Their faith in Silverman stems from his acclaimed background as a pioneer of the six-stringed electric violin, highlighted in performances that include John Adams’ The Dharma at Big Sur (the legendary composer has referred to Silverman’s playing as “a marvel of expressiveness”).

tracy silverman electric violinThe name of the record comes from a song he wrote many years ago. In the liner notes, Silverman says, “I think it’s a good metaphor for the creative process, this tension between the kiss of inspiration and the compulsive chaos of the artistic struggle within people who are desperately trying to get it right on the canvas.”

Lovers of art will delight in the concept: well-known masterpieces by Michelangelo, Henri Matisse, Georgia O’Keeffe, Vincent Van Gogh, and Pablo Picasso, as interpreted through a unique 21st-Century musical sensibility. A lofty endeavor for sure, as well as a huge challenge in mixing such diverse creative perspectives and somehow making it work.

And it does work, stunningly, in Silverman’s rendering of Picasso’s epochal allegory of war, Guernica, from 1937. No mere fiddlin’ around here: it’s an amazing piece, with Silverman brilliantly capturing the beating drums of conflict in music that, like its artistic inspiration, is anguished, pulsing, and mesmerizing. Silverman’s mastery of his multihued instrument —  which can often be mistaken for a raging electric guitar — is virtuosic, shifting effortlessly from the torment of Guernica to the bouncy emotion of Matisse’s La Danse. (Shall we say that Matisse provides the kiss, while Picasso contributes the chaos?)

The second half of the album, “Axis and Orbits,” is all about “looping,” a signature technique for Silverman. A loop pedal records a section of music, which is then stopped and played back from the beginning, repeating endlessly, to be overdubbed and layered as the artist sees fit. In the last of the four sections that make up “Axis and Orbits,” called “Mojo Perpetuo,” one senses Silverman’s expertise. Its sharply staccato counterpoints comprise some of the “harmonic serendipities” he wished to impart in the piece.

Come to think of it, “perpetual mojo” serves as an apt description for this highly creative offering from a distinctly dynamic instrumentalist and composer.

[First published as Music Review: Tracy Silverman - Between the Kiss and the Chaos on Blogcritics.org.]

Hey Paul

paul mccartney beatlesCelebrating creative heroes is a theme that’s very much at the heart of this blog, and my lifelong admiration of one of those, Paul McCartney, was further enhanced by his appearance with Ringo Starr at Sunday’s Grammy Awards (where, incidentally, McCartney added another four statuettes to his collection, for a total of 20.  Among the wins: his co-writing contributions on “Cut Me Some Slack,” which garnered Best Rock Song).

For the majority of the nearly 29 million Grammy viewers who were expecting to hear an umpteenth reprise of one of those old Beatles chestnuts in his reunion with Starr — especially with the timing related to the 50th anniversary of the band’s arrival in America — sorry.  The two instead performed a new McCartney song, “Queenie Eye,” eschewing the past for the future. (It was also fun seeing an animated Yoko Ono, now 80, along for the ride.)

It’s exactly that sense of the forward that has kept the 71-year-old McCartney relevant, and no mere relic as one of the pioneers of modern music. His creative journey has been unceasing and multifaceted, expanding beyond his roots in rock to encompass the classical genre, as well as painting, poetry, even children’s literature. Three years ago, he immersed himself in the world of dance with the score for a production called Ocean’s Kingdom, staged by the New York City Ballet.

His authorship of what some consider the most perfect pop ballad in history — “Yesterday” — would have been enough to secure his legend as a songwriter. If anybody had told me as a kid that I would be downloading fresh McCartney songs in the 2000s, I would never have believed it. It’s a kind of virtuosity that, due to its longevity, can easily be taken for granted, despite all the accolades. (“Lord” McCartney is about the only thing still pending.)mccartney cover

The solo career, launched with the album McCartney in 1970 (and the memorable maraschino cherries that appeared on its cover, shown right) led to 23 more studio albums — not including classical and electronica offerings — by the end of last year. His latest is titled, in typical McCartney spirit, New.

In a point I similarly made about Barbra Streisand on the occasion of her 70th birthday a couple of years ago, one searches for parallels amongst the musical idols of today’s generation. Despite a few with obvious talent — the Adeles, Eminems, and now Lordes of this world — can anyone see them still making some serious noise come the mid-century?

So all hail, Sir Paul. Maybe I’m (still) amazed.

Almost Invisible

ramiro gomez maria waiting for check

“Maria Waiting for Her Check”

For Los Angeles-based artist Ramiro Gomez, time as a live-in nanny for a wealthy family in Beverly Hills provided the background for a series of works that strikingly capture the faceless figures behind those immaculate scenes of the affluent life.

In a new solo show, Domestic Scenes, Gomez experiments with “interventions,” interjecting images of Latino laborers into pieces like David Hockney’s A Lawn Being Sprinkled, which is transformed into A Lawn Being Mowed. He does the same in advertisements taken from such upscale magazines as Dwell and Architectural Digest. The juxtaposition of these everyday workers in settings of manufactured opulence is both subtle — and powerful.

rosario on a break ramiro gomez

“Rosario on a Break”

Housekeepers, pool cleaners, gardeners, all hover almost as ghosts, reminding with compelling simplicity of their importance in keeping the machinery of daily life humming. “You know, as little as someone might seem to be on the totem pole — they might just be the valet outside of the restaurant — they’re important, because they’re a face. And they have feelings, and they have thoughts, and they have a family, and they have lives,” the artist told the Huffington Post in 2012.

For me, it’s the sense of solitude that most lingers. The two images shown at top and left can best be summarized by Gomez in a recent interview with Hyperallergic: “It is a lonely job at times, with no protections or safety nets. Many of the job’s stresses are internalized and one must navigate on their own regardless of the treacherous journey.”

Anonymous journeys that will remain permanently etched in his provocative Domestic Scenes (on view at LA’s Charlie James Gallery through mid-February).

Notes in Neon

tracey emin angel without youExperimental British artist Tracey Emin’s first American museum exhibition, Angel Without You, expands on a long tradition of neon as art, personalizing the use of the chromatic light tubes in creations replicated from her own handwriting and drenched in wrenching emotion.

The debut, in the “Magic City” long associated with the glory (and often garishness) of neon, is more than fitting. “They recall graffiti scribbled on a bathroom wall or entries in a yearbook, complete with misspellings, erratic capitalization and crossed-out words,” wrote Anne Tschida in an article about the exhibit (at Miami’s Museum of Contemporary Art through March 9). Says the artist in an interview with MOCA: “Many of my neons are love poems, not being sent to one individual but to many.”violins violence silence bruce nauman

Emin’s installations derive from an impressive legacy, including that of Bruce Nauman, who has employed neon in distinctive displays dating since the 1960s. In works like Violins Violence Silence (1981-1982), right, critic Gregory Volk noted that Nauman evokes “a carnivalesque world that is part visual wonderment and part uncomfortable confrontation.” Nauman has long explored the deep contradictions in human experience, rendered in philosophical interactions of language and light.

And then there’s the “grandfather” of the neon-as-art category, the elegant minimalist Dan Flavin (1933-1996), whose pieces were often inscribed with dedications to both friends and artists — his The Diagonal of May 25, 1963 flavin diagonal brancusi(to Constantin Brancusi) is pictured left — and whose works exude a soft spirituality that often played off pastels in a medium more known for the bright and the bold.

Emin’s Angel Without You takes neon to an edgier level, adding to an already rich panoply of artistic expression…where, like the title of the Jonathan Foer novel, “everything is illuminated.”

Topsy Turvy

crooked house of sopot poland

As far as architectural oddities go, the “Crooked House of Sopot” in Poland is more whimsical than most, tracing its inception to the fairy-tale drawings of Polish illustrator J. M. Szancer (1902-1973). Built in 2004, the Krzywy Domek (“little crooked house”), as it’s called in Poland, is one of the country’s top tourist attractions, drawing thousands of visitors mesmerized by its dizzying facade. (The Krzywy Domek’s twisty entrance leads to a retail center housing an array of shops and restaurants.) Less well known outside his native country are Szancer’s charming and often mysterious sketches, below, which illustrated children’s stories by Hans Christian Andersen and Carlo Collodi among others — and whose artistry inspired a uniquely creative blend of imagination and commerce.
Szancer fairy tale illustrations