Geri Allen: Smart and Wonderful

Geri-Allen-2-by-Dean-C.-Jones-copyGeri Allen is one of those extraordinary jazz musicians whose influence runs wide and deep, but somehow, has not become as well-known as it ought to be. She’s a pianist with a resume that begins with a serious educational foundation: a master’s degree in ethnomusicology that has served her well (easy for me to see this because I’m approaching her life’s work some 35 years into a very good story). Her professional work begins with Mary Wilson and the Supremes in the early 1980s, and Brooklyn’s M-Base movement not long after (here, she established a reputation beside Steve Coleman, Cassandra Wilson, Greg Osby and other talented players). M-Base was a kind of updating of a jazz form, a structured modernist approach to improvisation. In 1988, she recorded a wonderful album entitled “Etudes” with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, followed by several more trio records with her two extraordinary (now, sadly, gone) creative partners, including Segments and Live at the Village Vanguard. (The best discography I could find appears on Wikipedia, part of a more complete story worth reading.)

UnknownThe awards began to roll in. Allen was in and out of the remaining avant-garde, which sounds much less radical now than in 1996 when she recorded “Hidden Man” with Ornette Coleman’s Sound Museum. In fact, by 1999, she was sounding very comfortable in a commercial setting, recording her popular CD, The Gathering, with Wallace Roney on flugelhorn and trumpet, Robin Eubanks on trombone, Buster Williams on bass, and Lenny White on drums, and others whose names are well-known from mainstream jazz records. A 2010 record, “Flying Toward the Sound,” made it to the top of many critic’s best-of-the-year lists.

So that’s the beginning of the story. A very solid player, well-connected and well-regarded, a talented composer, comfortable in the mainstream and in the more experimental forms of jazz. Somewhat unusual to find a female musician in that role, but things are changing, and, well, it’s about time.

For much of this past summer, Ms. Allen has served as the Artistic Director of a special project at the NJPAC, New Jersey’s Performing Arts Center (and center of cultural life and city rebuilding) in Newark, New Jersey. The project is an All-Female Jazz Residency with a wonderful array of inspiring special guests including Marcus Belgrave on trumpet, Carmen Lundy on voice, and more. Ms. Allen has been Professor Allen for some time now; she is the Director of Jazz Studies for her alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh. She recently received an honorary doctorate from the Berklee School of Music. She’s got the performance chops, the compositional excellence and nowadays, it would be fair to say that Geri Allen is one of our nation’s most distinguished jazz educators.

Photo by Dean C. Jones

Photo by Dean C. Jones

As impressive as her professional accomplishments may be, there’s nothing quite like listening. Her latest work, recorded in 2012 and released last year, takes the pianist back to her home town, Detroit, Michigan (actually, she was born in nearby Pontiac but grew up in Detroit). Grand River Avenue was the big street that she crossed when she was old enough to do so. She describes “three years of intensive training by master teachers and Detroit artists in residence” at Cass Tech, on Grand River Avenue, then one of “the nation’s premiere high schools.” The CD entitled “Grand River Crossings: Motown and Motor City Inspirations” is the third in a trilogy that began with “Flying Toward the Sound,” and continued with “A Child is Born.” In this case, the liner notes call her work “the new classical music” and state, quite reasonably and truthfully, that the music on the CD is “an exquisitely beautiful collection” based, largely, upon the Motown spirit. There are songs by Steve Wonder (“That Girl”), Smokey Robinson (“Tears of a Clown”), and Marvin Gaye (“Save the Children,” and “Inner City Blues”) and Holland-Dozier-Holland (“Baby I Need Your Lovin’”) but this is not an album of jazz versions of Motown standards. Instead, it is an intricate meditation on the musical themes and ideas that those composers expressed long ago.

Unknown-2Geri Allen has been one of those artists that I’ve wanted to know more about. Now that I’ve written this article, now that I’ve done some concentrated listening, I’m realizing that I am just beginning to understand what she’s all about. The latest album is elegant and wonderful, soulful and reflective, sophisticated and consistently interesting, but my collection is now woefully incomplete. I have listened to the two predecessors in the trilogy, but I want them for my very own. The same is true for the work she did with Paul Motian and Charlie Haden, and for the work she did in 2010 with her group, Timeline.

Another discovery. I keep falling in love. There is no better way to listen to music.

BTW: Don’t miss this NPR conversation between two beloved jazz pianists: Geri Allen and Marian McPartland.

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Studying Funny

There is a dead frog with its guts all over the place. More about this unfunny amphibian later.

HumorCode52GfQLFor now, the challenge is to figure out what’s funny, why it’s funny, how funny is constructed, what happens inside our brains when funny is happening, how funny works in different countries and why funny often misfires. Although I want to believe that this is a fascinating intellectual and scholarly pursuit, the whole idea of studying funny seems, to me, to be an odd pursuit that’s not likely to yield meaningful results. And yet, there are these two books, each with an embarrassingly unfunny cover, that have been staring at me all summer long. One puts Groucho glasses on a globe and calls itself The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny and the other has a big goofy grin with the word “Ha!” writ large with “The Science of When We Laugh and Why” down below. The former was written by a University of Colorado professor named Peter McGraw; he runs the Humor Research Lab (or, “HuRL”) and promises to be “a leading expert in the interdisciplinary fields of emotion and behavioral economics.” His co-author us a free-lance writer named Joel Warner. HA! was written by Scott Weems, whose Ph.D. is in cognitive neuroscience.

Weems taught me that it’s possible to make a rat laugh. How? Tickling works pretty well—scratch its belly and a rat will emit a high pitched screech at around 50kHz (which other rats can hear, but humans cannot). If you stroke a rat, it doesn’t laugh. Young rats are more likely to laugh, and laugh bigger, and more often, than older rats. Apparently, humans are the same way. If you leave a rat alone for an extended period, then tickle him, the rat is more likely to laugh a lot.

And then, things get weird. A rat scientist named Burgdorf (I’m sure there’s a better title) inserted electrodes into each rat’s dopamine-producing center and “achieved the same result.” Then, Burgdorf taught his rats to tap a metal bar to administer the dopamine provocation on their own. Similar result. All of which leads Weems to this conclusion, “Apparently, rats aren’t so different from humans, which suggests that laughter might have been around for a very long time.”

Yeah, you’re seeing the same problem I am. It’s cool that we can make rats emit a sound by tickling them, but there’s a pretty large gap between explaining that screech—which may or may not be laughter—and, say, what Richard Pryor or Robin Williams could do on their least productive days. Or why, when I’m bored, I will try (and often succeed) in making others laugh and lose focus (I’ve been doing this since fourth grade). Or why elephant jokes are still funny.

Q: Why did the Elephant stand on the marshmallow? 
A: So she wouldn’t fall in the hot chocolate.

Men and women seem to laugh at different things, at different times, in different ways. We don’t yet understand how computers might make us laugh. Research related to laughter, short-term health and longevity is inconclusive (but it couldn’t hurt). Ethic humor remains popular (throughout the world), but the 21st century’s political correctness limits its use in polite company. We’re still okay making fun of animals, and even in our enlightened world, nothing succeeds like a good poop joke:

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All in all, I didn’t learn much, but I did find out that scientists are taking an interest. That’s nice, but frankly, I’d rather watch a funny movie.

The comedy team of McGraw and Warner trekked a lot further (“two guys…19 experiments…five continents… 91,000 miles…”) but didn’t manage to cover any more ground. Studying humor is exceedingly difficult, probably because we’re not smart enough to understand what’s happening, which is why scientists come up with theory and do their thing, but the process is not much fun to watch. McGraw’s intrepid performance at a comedy club—these guys really are trying—is a flop. Their Venn diagrams are promising (one circle: “vomit in church” and the other “causing mass vomit in church” with the intersection marked, simply, “funny”). Both books tell the story of the girls in Tanzania who couldn’t stop laughing and comedian Gilbert Gottfried’s “too soon?” excuse to roll into the Aristocrats schtick shortly after NYC’s towers came down; and, sure enough, on page 81, the authors are talking about tickling rate here, too.

Their world tour is interesting, mostly for people who don’t usually follow the comedy business. This book attempts to be a global comedy road trip, and it’s interesting to visit Yoshimoto Kogyo in Japan: a comedy school that also manages 800 Japanese comedians (not sure why, but the image of 800 Japanese comedians makes me laugh). The company owns many of Japan’s comedy clubs and used to own a comedy theme park, too. There are Yoshimoto Kogyo golf balls, and instant ramen meals, too. The authors make good use of their travel budget, visiting Scandinavia where their obsession with the Danish cartoons that rattled Islam sensibility tends to overshadow the warmth and classy outrage that has been part of Danish humor since the days of Victor Borge (don’t miss this!). Humor on the Gaza Strip (conflict and humor are often linked), and in a chapter about the Amazon (where the inevitable Norman Cousins story about laughter as medicine is told, along with some notes on Patch Adams).

In the Montreal chapter—which is about the world’s largest comedy festival, the authors summarize what seems to be a list of items that didn’t require a full volume:

- Make fun of yourself before others get the chance to do so.

- Laughter is disarming. Make light of the stuff everyone’s worried about and you’ll negate its power.

- Create a safe, playful space where folks are free to laugh.

And so on.

I read these two books because I was hoping that the state of the science had greatly advanced (two books from two major publishers in the same year), but I was mostly wrong. We don’t know much more than we did before. And after thinking about that on a rainy weekend afternoon, I came to the conclusion that there is no problem in not understanding comedy. Maybe there is a point in studying it—or, at least, continuing to study laughter—but in some ways, I hope we never figure it out. I don’t think I want a science of humor. And I certainly don’t want a funny robot to be programmed into my brain to provoke dopamine provocation. Really, I’m good not knowing, I’m great knowing that Robin Williams and Victor Borge were funny, and not knowing or caring how or why that happened or how to replicate his magic.

So what about the frog? For that answer, everyone seems to refer to what E.B. White wrote in 1941:

“Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but

the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging

to any but the our scientific mind.”

Frog

 

 

 

 

The Art of a Fine Magazine

The Art of Waterolour Magazine: The Art Magazine for Watercolourists, Issue 15 is now available. Race to your Barnes & Noble bookstore to have a look; copies are always in limited supply.

The Art of Waterolour Magazine: The Art Magazine for Watercolourists, Issue 15 is now available. Race to your Barnes & Noble bookstore to have a look; copies are always in limited supply.

Note the “u” in “watercolour” — this is an article about an extraordinary magazine published in Europe. If I happen to show up at a well-stocked Barnes & Noble store in the U.S., I might catch the 15th issue, but so far, my success rate has been inconsistent. Yes, $15 is a lot to pay for a magazine, and no, this magazine is not printed on special paper or especially thick (about 100 pages per issue). It’s just, well, a very good magazine about a subject that interests me. It was interesting to write that sentence because I am interested in lots of different things, but this is among the few magazines (in the world, I guess) that would win that kind of recognition. (I enjoy Pastel Journal, for example, but I would rate it only “good” in comparison with The Art of Watercolour’s “very good.” As a rule, The New Yorker is very good, but most weekly issues would probably score a “good-plus” if there was such a rating.

So what makes a magazine “very” good? Of course, it’s helpful to offer an abundance of good stories and wonderful illustrations that are specifically intended to delight a very distinct target audience, in this case, the thousands of artists who call themselves “watercolourists.” The magazine assumes a relatively high level of familiarity with the medium, the artists with a national reputation, and a high level of interest in the work of many different types of watercolour artists throughout the world.

Take, for example, the recent issue #14. It begins with a report on the very first World Watercolour Competition which drew nearly 2,000 participants and 82 nationalities. Turn the page and there’s a spread about the Narbonne 2014 Watercolour Biennial (the magazine’s home base is France, so that country gets more attention that others, which makes me feel very international when I have the magazine in my hands). I love finding out about U.S. watercolor events in a French magazine—a blurb about the IWS competition coming up in May (now past), for example. Letters that matter—questions about the leading watercolour paint brand (Winsor & Newton) and whether it has changed its formulation; how to sign a painting; the Munsell color system. Serious discussion, nicely presented, far more up market and smarter than the discussions in, for example, Watercolor Artist in the U.S.

Here’s the cover of Issue 14 with a good painting by Stephen Scott Young on the cover.

Here’s the cover of Issue 14 with a good painting by Stephen Scott Young on the cover.

And then, there are feature stories about artists. The warm-up is called Revelations, and several artists are featured, each with his or her own page. Turn the next page and there’s a fabulous spread, a watercolour of an old New York City apartment building complete with fireplaces and elaborate window wells, a six-page spread including an artist’s career timeline, lots of juicy images, and a demonstration, by American-born Sandra Walker. Next is a four-page spread celebrating Australian painter Ron Muller’s atmospheric landscapes, followed by the Japanese artist working en plein air in Venice. And then, the extraordinary portrait work of Stephen Scott Young, Hawaiian-born, with an extraordinarily eye and a sensitive, realistic way of painting the lives of dark-skinned people living in the Bahamas and Florida. The next profile—the profiles are worth the price of each issue—is a feature about an abstract artist named Mark Mehaffey, which includes some very useful guidance about the composition and building of a nontraditional painting. I have a friend who paints cityscapes and especially enjoys the challenge of reflections and store windows—and in this issue, there’s a feature about David Stickel, whose opening pages attest to his abilities with his nearly realistic image of the clear box Apple store on Fifth Avenue near Central Park.

I’m still going—and this is a typical issue. There’s an instructional piece by American art teacher about color harmonies, followed by another long instructional piece about getting colors right (not easy because some colors are native and some are affected by light and nearby objects, and by the way the eye perceives contrast). And then, another meaty instructional feature, again dealing with a fairly sophisticated topic in an elevated way: it’s all about shadows, light and reflection. The consideration of these tricky issues as a single idea makes the article work, but it goes further, allowing for a sidebar about color temperature and the nuances of semi-transparent surfaces. Finally, there’s yet another instructional piece on the very difficult challenges associated with all prima watercolour portraiture (that is, capturing the human face—here, a young child) created by dabbing color onto wet paper which is notoriously impossible to control without extreme practice and polished technique.

So there! I just wrote hundreds of words about a magazine. I don’t think I’ve done that before. In fact, I’m so taken with what I’ve been browsing for the past hour, I’m going to order some back issues, direct from Europe.

To close, something more from Stephen Scott Young, from his website.

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Creepy Tale in an Lovely Setting

In 1905, Grace Brown drowned in Big Moose Lake. In 2005, the Metropolitan Opera debuted an opera about what happened to her. This past weekend, just about 100 miles from the tragedy, I watched the story come back to life, at my leisure, on the shores of nearby Lake Otsego. In fact, the whole sad affair took place in Cortland (75 miles away) and Utica (40 miles away). To this day, nobody is completely sure what happened to Grace Brown, but her story is as captivating today as it was when her love letters to Chester Gillette were revealed in connection with his 1906 trial. Did Chester Gillette lure his pregnant fiancé up to the Big Moose Lake to kill her? Probably. Did he swat her with an oar and send her to the depths; or did he lose faith in his plan at the final moment and lose his wife-to-be in an unfortunate accident? Whatever happened, it was kind of cool and kind of creepy to sit through a retelling of the story not far from where the real thing captivated newspaper readers a century (or so) ago.

You may recall that journalist-novelist Theodore Dreiser wrote a very fat novel called “An American Tragedy” about this unfortunate turn of events. Chester was hired by his uncle to supervise a skirt factory in Cortland, NY; got one of the worker girls pregnant and promised to marry her; captured the attention and the heart of a wealthy and pretty socialite; got himself all confused; and figured out that the best way to solve the problem was to end Grace’s life.

i-ftZBWGQ-LThe next character in what turned out to a fascinating Saturday night at the Glimmerglass Festival just north of Cooperstown NY is Tobias Picker. If you don’t know the name, you should. “An American Tragedy” is his fourth opera (and one of several he has written with Gene Scheer’s libretto—you may know Scheer from 1998’s “American Anthem”). Picker’s other operas include “Emmeline,” which is excellent and available on CD, originally a Judith (“Looking for Mr. Goodbar”) novel; “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” (same Roald Dahl story that gave us the animated film); and “Dolores Claiborne”) based upon the Stephen King novel. Which is to say: Tobias Picker is writing contemporary American operas about American stories (not many people are doing this, so it’s well worth noting).

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Two wonderful women—what’s a guy to do? Keep the one with the money, and kill off the other. His downfall: he kept the working girl’s love letters.

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As for this particular performance, a good solid brava! A solid cast of about fifty performers benefitted from very articulate direction (and especially good lighting design). The production was lifted by several nice turns by Vanessa Isiguen as the most unfortunate (and richly voiced) Roberta Alden (the Grace character, renamed, and shown in the blue frock, above), a fetching Cynthia Cook as the socialite who owns the bad guy’s heart (the blonde, appropriately placed above our Grace), and an impressive final act performance by the bad guy’s God-fearing, God-loving mother, Elvira, by Patricia Schuman. I should note that Glimmerglass is well-known for a superior Young Artists program, and many of the performers in this production are among this year’s class. BTW: Lots more photos of the performance here.

How to stage a death by drowning? With brilliant simplicity and clever use of lighting and materials. This is one reason why I like the Glimmerglass so much—they are clever!

How to stage a death by drowning? With brilliant simplicity and clever use of lighting and materials. This is one reason why I like the Glimmerglass so much—they are clever!

I believe Glimmerglass is one of my favorite places to enjoy opera in the United States. The opera house (built in 1987 but still looking new) is about eight miles (and another world) north of baseball-crazy Cooperstown: peaceful, easy, civilized. The Alice Busch Opera Theater is handsome and easily navigated, a tremendous relief for the seniors who may find other opera halls far less sensibly designed. The acoustics are wonderful, the seats are comfortable,  and the dedicated musicians, performers, and staging staff do a great deal with a budget that would be a fraction of some big city companies. When the weather is hot, the exterior walls open up to cool the place down during intermission (how great it that?!).

Every summer, the  Glimmerglass Festival produces three operas and one musical. This year, I missed “Carousel” (the musical), almost managed “Madame Butterfly,” and “Ariadne in Naxos.” Next year—I vow to make plans early—the bill will be “The Magic Flute,” “Macbeth,” “Candide,” and the far more obscure, “Cato in Utica” (by Vivaldi). And I learned a very important lesson: if you are planning to go to Glimmerglass, do not assume that it’s easy to arrange for a hotel room (unless you are working well ahead of the desired date). Tickets for next year are available now—and presumably, you can arrange for a room long before next season begins.

And in case you’re curious, the name Glimmerglass comes from a James Fennimore Cooper novel involving Lake Otsego. Cooper’s father founded the town that bears the family name. It’s a beautiful place, as lush and green and perfect as a summer’s day. I’m sure Grace was thinking the same thing when she and her husband-to-be floated out on July 11, 1906. Creepy enough that I almost drove up to Big Moose Lake to see what there was to see. But I thought better of it, and spent just a bit more time hanging around Lake Otsego, probably all for the best.

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On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Dog

2B or not 2BOn Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Bob Mankoff rejects most everything he sees. He works as the cartoon editor at the New Yorker, a magazine whose sense of cartoon humor is famous, but extraordinarily difficult to define. This is not a new problem. In fact, the New Yorker has always suffered from a rough case of not being able to explain itself (the problem goes back to the 1920s when Writer’s Digest asked the New Yorker’s editors to advise writers interested in the magazine; in essence, the New Yorker editors could not).

“Well, we needed the rain.”“How About Never – Is Never Good for You?: My Life in Cartoons” is a kind of small-scale coffee table biography, half text and half cartoons. As with the New Yorker magazine, it’s difficult not to be attracted to the cartoons, but I was good: I read the whole book including all of Mankoff’s confessional text and all of his chosen cartoons. What surprised me: only a few of the cartoons made me smile or laugh. And that got me to thinking about how difficult it must be, to select from the stack of 500 cartoons from regular contributors and an equal number from wannabes. Mankoff writes, “eventually, I cull the pile down to fifty or so, which I’ll take to the Wednesday afternoon cartoon meeting…” where the stack will be winnowed down to just seventeen, maybe eighteen cartoons that will be published in the magazine. (There are, and have always been, so many rejects, Mankoff started a new venture called Cartoon Bank to give exposure to the rejects—and earn some money for himself [before he joined the magazine as cartoon editor] and for other working cartoonists.

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So what’s funny? Or, perhaps more to the point, what does the New Yorker believe to be funny?

I just read a book about that topic and I still don’t know the answer. But I know a good New Yorker cartoon when I see one.

There are good ones on page 148.

The first shows a pair of snails with large spiral shells on their backs. They are staring at a plastic Scotch tape dispenser which resembles them. The caption: “I don’t care if she is a tape dispenser. I love her.” Very spare, right to the point, softly funny.

The second shows a man about to lose his head to a guillotine. The executioner offers a choice of two baskets to catch the head. The caption reads, “paper or plastic?”

On page 156, a cat is being instructed about litter box use by his owner: “Never, ever think outside the box.”

On page 251, under the sign, “Horse Play,” a horse is up on his hind legs shouting to a horse in the barn loft, “Stella!!”

On page (I lost count and they’re not all numbered), a croissant and tea on one side of the breakfast table and a whole lot of bacon, pancakes, sausage, eggs, juice, coffee, and the caption, “Welcome to America, bitch.”

On 284, a man has been murdered, and he is lying face down as two detectives look on. The room’s walls and floors resemble a crossword puzzle. One detective says to the other, “any clues?”

 

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So what have we learned? It’s no easier to write a book about cartoons than it is to select cartoons for the magazine. What’s funny is just funny—once again, there is no science to any of it. Which leads back to Mankoff on page 4, where he writes, “I’ve ignored E.B. White’s famous admonition, ‘analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”

BTW: The statement about the dog that titles this article

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Perfect Summer Days

The sun is still low in the sky, so the lake sparkles. I’m hungry for breakfast, but I want to walk along the water for a while to study the shape of the hills on the far shore. A quarter mile on the promenade and I can’t keep myself away from the farmer’s market. It’s an garage, open from 7:00 am until 11:0o am. I tasted yesterday’s coffee cake and it was spectacular. This morning, I want to try a scone before they’re all gone. Local strawberries, too, because the season doesn’t last long enough. Walking back to the town square, I grab a Daily from the news hawker—he’s probably fourteen years old, wearing a flat eight-panel cap, canvas bag drooping from one shoulder, shouting something unintelligible as if he’s been at it for decades.

Like yesterday, today is going to be a busy day.

2014-07-03 17.01.42Yesterday afternoon was busy with reading on the Hotel Atheneum’s wraparound porch, studying the lake, selecting the perfect rocking chair, becoming distracted by what sounded like a full orchestra nearby. Wandering is what folks do on a summer’s day at Chautauqua, so I followed the music to the amphitheater where a rehearsal of Madame Butterfly kept me and perhaps two hundred other people busy for an hour. On Saturday night, the theater will be filled with nearly four thousand people, mostly residents who either spend their summers here, or, at least, several weeks each year. I was reluctant to linger: I wanted dinner before heading to the theater. Back at the Hotel Atheneum, I wanted to sit outdoors and watch the lake while eating my local trout, and that was best accomplished by taking a seat at a community table where the conversation was both lively and reminiscent of first days at college when everybody I met was a potential buddy.

Off to the theater. It’s a standalone building on what amounts to a square mile of campus, passing hundred-year old houses whose facades were painted with bright colors, almost always adorned with bright flowers, a celebration of Western New York’s relatively short—but absolutely fabulous—summer season. Crossing the town square, noting the location of the bookstore for later on, I made it to the theater with minutes to spare (nothing new about that, not for me, anyway). A few hundred seats in a purpose-built structure with exposed beams and seeming endless depth on the stage, the Bratton Theater is everything a summer theater ought to be. The play: A Raisin in the Sun, which I had just happened to watch as a movie in June. The stage setting was so striking, there was an article about its design in the next morning’s Daily. It’s the story of a low income family trying for the American dream, a story that seemed dreary in high school, but here, consistent with Chautauqua’s mighty arts tradition, the play was both compelling and provocative. And, as is so often the case in this tiny summer town by the lake, it was the subject of rocking chair conversation for the next few days.

My first full day began, once again, at the farmer’s market, then at a brief spiritual ceremony—every morning offers a choice of several (Zen Buddhist, Episcopalian, peace)—followed by “Morning Worship”—in essence a few announcements, a few hymns, and a crackling good sermon from The Reverend Raphael Warnock, a brilliant fellow who now fills the job that Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. once filled, in his official capacity, at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. He talked about Adam and Eve, and the existence of God. What began as a relatively calm and thoughtful lecture became a sharp, energetic jolt of intellectual and spiritual power—very much in the style of Chautauqua at its best.

The amphitheater, orchestra on stage, rehearsing. Note the houses nearby (left and right). The amphitheater is just another site in the Chautauqua neighborhood.

The amphitheater, orchestra on stage, rehearsing. Note the houses nearby (left and right). The amphitheater is just another site in the Chautauqua neighborhood.

There was no reason to leave the amphitheater because the 9:15 am session ended more than an hour later, and at 10:45AM, the morning lecture was set to begin. Curious title: “For Cod and Country.” It was about fish. Which fish to eat. Which fish we shouldn’t eat. To be honest, I confuse what I learned from this lecture, by National Geographic’s Barton Seaver, with the one I attended on the next day, by the University of Minnesota’s Jonathan Foley. That’s what the programmers intended. Both are part of a week-long lecture series on closely-related topics about feeding everyone on the planet. Several interesting points: there is a lot more food available on the planet than we choose to eat, but our decisions about what to eat and just how far we are willing to ship that food is more than a little crazy; we need to eat more mussels, clams, oysters, herring, anchovies and sardines, and less salmon, tuna, and swordfish, and now I think I understand the reasons why. Fortunately, many of the Chautauqua speakers—there seem to be about 200 per season—have written books about their life’s passions. A good reason to spend an hour browsing in Chautauqua’s bookstore, if you can find a moment to do so.

2014-07-04 10.04.10-1Me? I’m off to Sol Messinger’s “Yiddish Language Conversation” back up near the main road at the relatively new (few Chautauqua structures are new) Emerson Jewish Life Center, built in 2009. Sol is sitting at a conference table with four or five people, interviewing each of them, each of us, about our family history. He is speaking in Yiddish. I understand only a bissel—the tiniest portion—but just the act of listening is joyful. Here and there, one of the people at the table translates key ideas for me. The conversation drifts in and out of English. The people are not young. I wonder what will happen to Yiddish, but only for a moment. My head is filled with ideas, but the yellow broadsheet—the detailed schedule for this Chautauqua week, contains far too many things for me to do, so I keep moving, grab a quick quiche at the informal lunch place above the bookstore (not wonderful: Chautauqua’s food for short-term visitors is a weak link), and manage to get to Philosopher’s Hall in time to get a seat just on the perimeter. It has been raining, so some seats are wet. I sit on my Daily, my bun is a little wet for a while, but I quickly forget my personal issue when the speaker begins. He’s compelling—John Hope Bryant, advisor to U.S. presidents, another brilliant guy, this time focusing on financial literacy, improved credit scores, the end of payday loan stores, and a realignment of neighborhood banks to provide services for the lower-middle and lower-classes. There is tremendous power in his idea—and a strangeness that feels unique to Chautauqua. Bryant is a passionate Black entrepreneur, not so distant from the Reverend we heard this morning—but the vast majority of his audience are white, and no longer the successful businesspeople they may have been a decade or two ago. No matter: Bryant’s presentation is digging deep into their souls, and they will carry the word. He mesmerizes. They listen attentively. The reason to go to Chautauqua is to learn, to take notes, to remember what was said, to learn because learning is a productive activity that makes life worth living. That spirit runs deep in Chautauqua’s soul: it’s part of the complicated set of reasons why this Institution was founded in 1874. And it’s the reason I visited: to get a sense of how recreation, learning, culture, and time to sit on a rocking chair might, in their way, be a better way to spend a summer afternoon than reading blog posts on the internet.

2014-07-03 17.07.15No time to linger. A Chautauquan keeps busy, does not lollygag (except when the day is beautiful and there is a book to be read under a century-old tree while children are racing around on bicycles and otherwise living a perfect small town American life). That glimpse of what America might have been is just that—a glimpse—for there is music to be enjoyed in one of the old churches. An hour of art songs performed by students from Chautauqua’s music school on the north side of town (no time to visit, but I understand practice sessions and rehearsals are open, and a bit like Tanglewood). Then, at 5:00PM, I wander back to the hotel for a daily wine tasting. I was invited by my new friends at last night’s Community Table. Mostly, my contribution to the table of six chatty people was recommendations of novels by Reynolds Price because one of the women was interested. Then, we headed down to dinner in the hotel’s main dining room. Steak dinner. Fresh cut.

Finished up just in time for the concert. Big concert tonight: a July 3 pops concert. Big fun! The 80-piece orchestra decked out in Americana, red white and blue everywhere, and because I was a solo act this time around, I got to sit right in front. Guest conductor Stuart Chafetz was a marvel, a musician so completely enthralled by the music, so joyful, so in touch with the orchestra and the audience… The first half was the stuff you’d expect from an Independence Day Pops Concert—Sousa, a few movie themes, a Beatles medley (which felt remarkably modern here). Second half: a song-and-dance team, husband and wife, Beverly and Kirby Ward. Selections from the American Songbook (“Cheek to Cheek,” “Johnny One Note,” etc.) and MGM musicals. Kudos to Kirby for his step-perfect recreation of Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain dance routine, not easy to do without (a) water and (b) much space to dance.

And it’s late. The stars are out. The lake is dark and a nighttime promenade is the only possible way to end the day. And then, sleep.

2014-07-04 10.01.57Next morning, it’s up at 7:00 am for the Farmer’s Market, then a spiritual bit, then a visit to the Methodist House (many religions, many houses, used for residents and for small events) for a July 4 lecture about the specific wording of the Declaration of Independence. I intended to stay for just a few minutes, but stayed for an hour and learned a lot about what Thomas Jefferson wrote and what Richard Henry Lee wrote. Half of the people in the audience seemed to know the speaker as a friend. I suspect he was a long-time Chautauqua resident or visitor, and that revealed one more piece of this fascinating puzzle: the people who attend Chautauqua are not just visiting because the lake is pretty in July. They attend because the combination of leisure and learning, family and fellowship, curiosity and creativity is, for nine special weeks every summer, available here and almost nowhere else.

There is so much to learn, to be learned, about this way of thinking and experiencing the world. I wish there was more time. I wish it was nearby. I want to see the constitutional law professor Akhil Reed Amar on July 21, and the opera, The Ballad of Baby Doe, later that week, and the author E.L. Doctorow on August 7, and my list goes on. But in terms of both space and time, Chautauqua seems too far away—it clings to parts of the 19th century as it figures out what its 21st century life might be. I know one thing Chautauqua  ought to be: more accessible to me. I want to carry a part of it with me all summer long. I can’t help but wonder whether the magic of the internet might make that possible, someday.

Stuart Chafetz conducting the Chautauqua Orchestra.

Stuart Chafetz conducting the Chautauqua Orchestra.

Free Love and Independent Thinking

‘tain’t often that artist Marcel DuChamp, Woody Guthrie, Henry Miller, R. Crumb and Walt Whitman show up in the same book, but as I write those names on a list, the linkages are clear. They’re all artists for whom self-expression has been a defining characteristic, frustrated by lack of acceptance,  iconoclastic in ways only a mother could love.

So here’s Walt Whitman. He dropped out of school at age 11, apprenticed for a printer, got lucky because his employer subscribed to a circulating library (they were unusual at the time). He read, and read, and read some more. He wandered, too, up and down Broadway, “losing himself in the great tides of humanity…”And then, he decided to write about what he saw, in terms that captured the way he perceived the world.

And you that shall cross

from shore to shore

years hence, are more to me,

and more in my meditations,

than you might suppose.

bohemians-a-graphic-history-verso-books

In a book with so many styles of storytelling and visual presentation, one story I especially enjoyed was entitled (of course) The Frowning Prophet and the Smiling Revolutionary: Modern Art Arrives in New York. The tale begins just as the Victorian Era is ending. Photographer Alfred Stieglitz is beginning to demonstrate the value of a new visual art form, teams with with Edward Steichen, and together, they create a magazine called Camera Work. Their sensibility was shared by two painters from the emerging Ashcan School, which painter Robert Henri describes:

“We want our paint to be as real as mud, as the closes of horse shit and snow that froze on Broadway in winter.”

After opening a gallery to display new visual ideas, Stieglitz staged a huge exhibit to showcase modern art, which he described as follows:

“This exhibit is a battle cry for freedom without any soft pedal on it.”

For most Americans, the exhibit, at the New York Armory in 1913, was their first exposure to Monet’s Waterlilies, Gauguin’s island paintings, Edward Hopper, Renoir, Picasso, much more.

Of course, this was radical. And it reeks of authenticity (in a good way). Is this truly independent media?

How does this tie into Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s circle or friends, or Josephine Baker’s time in Paris, or Charley Parker’s insurmountable talent and incorrigible bad habits? Is drugs and poor financial management, or abject (but artistic) poverty the key to honest art? There are so many stories that feel similar in tone, most often because people did precisely what they believed they ought to do, regardless of what others may have thought at the time. For example, consider the excellent story of Abel Meeropol, who wrote Billie Holiday’s radical song, “Strange Fruit” and then raised the children of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg after they were convicted of treason and executed. Is this related to the sexual freedom (and other strange stuff) that made the Harlem Renaissance fascinating (today and to the white visitors in the 1920s)? Maybe part of being a bohemian is positioning yourself outside the mainstream, hoping that someday, you might be discovered on your own terms, or, in other cases, not caring a whit about being discovered at all.

The free love story seems to begin before the U.S. Civil War as “The Free Love League. It “met in Taylor Saloon and Hotel, an elegant downtown venue often used for socialist and spiritualist meetings…” The outspoken were women who made their own choices about their own bodies, who they loved, how they loved, and how they dealt with a society bound by rigid, critical rules and expectations. Others hung-on, maybe because they were societal misfits, maybe because they were true believers, maybe because the whole idea was fresh and invigorating.

VERSO_978-1-781682616_BOHEMIANS_large_CMYKMuch as the 1960s was associated with independent thinking—and free love, for they often come together—so, too, were the 1920s. Before that, in the 1910s, Greenwich Village began to take shape as a neighborhood Bohemia. Today’s hipsters seem to be a pale counterpart, in part because they have money in one pocket and the internet in the other. A century ago, “Bohemians” (a bundle of misnomers generally not associated with the Czech region) “flocked to avant-garde exhibitions and modern dance performances, and bought paintings, lithographs, and photographs, helping the real bohemians pay the rent and get public attention…”

Co-editor Paul Buhle, graduate of Brown University, drawn with the kind of expressiveness than graphic novels have brought into the mainstream.

Co-editor Paul Buhle, graduate of Brown University, drawn with the kind of expressiveness than graphic novels have brought into the mainstream.

So goes the story told in a wonderful collection of graphic (comic-style) stories about a few dozen people who help to define the impossible-to-define term, “bohemian” in a book entitled “Bohemians: A Graphic History Edited by Paul Buhle and David Berger.” It may or may not be our place to challenge who is and is not included in the book, or what the precise definition of the term might be. Instead, I think it’s cool to just observe, to consider the ideas, keep what you like, discard the rest, and think about it on another day.

Stories are related, but just as the writing and graphic styles vary, so, too, do the ways the stories relate to one another. I read the book on a Saturday, and spent much of Sunday thinking about what I read, referring back to gain a more complete understanding. And then, much in the way that bohemians would have hoped, the next few days were filled with my recollections, and my suggestion that friends read the book, or, at least, explore these lesser-told-tales. It is a book that comes together quite wonderfully, but not while the book is in your hands. That comes later. After you’ve had a bit of time to think about it.

Maybe that’s a defining characteristic of independent media, too. It takes some time before the ideas form a meaningful whole. With some parts that never quite come into focus. And others with edges so sharp, they cut like a knife.

strange fruit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Second Visit to John’s Island, and Bohicket Road

In December, I wrote an article about a book about a watercolor painter named Mary Whyte. Along the way, I found out about an early book which is, in its way, even better than the first one. Here’s the link to the first article. Here’s what I think you ought to know about the earlier title, “Down Bohicket Road.” But first, here’s the cover:

Down Bohicket Road

It’s a lovely picture, posed, a local woman who became a friend after Phiadelphian watercolorist Mary Whyte moved south to, of all places, tiny John’s Island in South Carolina. It may have been the best decision the artist ever made, for there, she encountered a community whose stories needed to be told, and, apparently, she was the one chosen to do just that.

I want to show you every watercolor in the book, and I do recommend that you get a copy of the book so that you may experience them first hand, but here’s a start on the journey. The book begins with a 2011 picture—this all happened very recently—of a neglected church, old Hebron Church, located on a 12-mile stretch called Bohicket Road. There, she was, more or less, adopted by a group of local women who used the church as a community center. One, pictured ironing with a kerchief and a mighty head of steam, is Georgeanna. How Whyte manages to depict the energy and gaseous nothingness of steam in a watercolor is, for me, something of a miracle. When she painted Mariah, years earlier, in 1992, the picture called Queen depicts a woman deep in a quilting activity, fine fingers on the cloth which becomes a soft dream as the viewer approaches. Tesha is the woman on the cover, appearing in several striking setups, including one called September that shows her gathering sunflowers nearly as tall as she is. In the cover image, the horse’s name is Rosie, “a docile old mare that had been fused to teach dozens of children of all levels to ride.” The painting is called Summer Solstice because it was made on the longest day of the year.

There’s a tender picture of Georgeanna, at ninety years old, wearing one of her favorite hats, and another called Angel in which a young teenaged model stands, spreads a quilt like angel wings, closes her eyes, and dreams.

Not on the website, but as good a digital presentation as I was able to find:

Blue Bird

Friends have asked why I am so taken with Mary Whyte’s work. I can answer simply: she transports me to a different world. It’s rich with special people, a place that she has chosen to depict in ways that artists sometimes do: breathing a special kind of life into otherwise ordinary subjects.

Take a minute, watch the video, and then visit her online gallery. It’s worth the trip.

Two Books About School

…but not books about reading, writing or arithmetic. Not exactly.

Both books tell surprising stories about creativity, and support the thesis that experiential learning can be far more powerful than anything that can be tested.

I really like the way elementary school John Hunter sets up his story, so I’ll recap it:

“Three children have made their way into the room, gazing silently at the Plexiglas structure that represents our planet. It’s an imposing, four-level affair—undersea, ground and sea, airspace, and outer space—covered with submarines and ships, soldiers and cities, tanks and oil wells, spy planes and satellites….There is a United Nations, a World Bank, two or three arms dealers, and a weather god or goddess, who controls the vagaries of tsunamis and hurricanes, determines the fate of the stock market, and tosses coins to determine the outcomes of battles and coups d’etat. The children are provided with national budgets, assets, stores of armaments, and portfolios outlining fifty global crises. Then they are given ten weeks to save the world.”

For a video overview, click on the picture:

World Peace Game

The game works because it is is difficult, requiring students to figure out the many things they need to know, but do not know. So they figure things out—a far better way to learn than memorization or textbooks. Hunter describes three types of thinking that improve by playing the game:

  • the development of knowledge based upon facts
  • the unexpected insights and creative solutions that result from trying and failing and trying again
  • the gradual accumulation of wisdom that comes from collaboration, cooperation, conflict, and observation

book-3d-340For thirty years, Hunter has been playing the game with his students, without much notice, mostly in Virginia and Maryland. Then came a documentary, then a TEDTalk, then, this book. He’s now quite well-known, but a cursory understanding is quite different from the deeper understanding that a few hours with a good book and a good author can provide. The book works best when he is the teacher, which, of course, means learning a great deal about himself. He tells one story of his desire to expand his own personal world view by traveling and studying eastern religions and philosophies in ancient monasteries. Feeling good about his worldliness, he (and his dreadlocks) attracted the attention of several Chinese school girls on long train ride. After trying out their English and asking questions about American life, they asked him several simple questions: “Sir, where do you belong? Who do you belong to? Who is your group?” This set off a series of questions in his own mind; he explains: “This struck me because I had been in so many different groups since I left my home community—so many spiritual and social groups—that I’d begun to feel that I had no particular allegiance anywhere, simple because I had come to have allegiance everywhere.” A short time later, woken from a  dream, he conceived of all of the mechanics of the Game in a single instant. “It came to be in a diagram, an interconnected matrix of countries aligned in opposition to one another on every possible level—vertically (undersea, ground and sea, etc.) and laterally—each country at odds with every other in every possible sphere: economic, military, social, ethnic. I would actually see the multifaceted crises floating there above my bed as I lay awake in the pre-dawn hours.”

Hunter teaches in Richmond, Virginia. Several hundred miles up the coast, just north of Philadelphia, Tracey Krause is continuing the work that her teacher, and then, her mentor, Lou Volpe began. They produce high school theater. At Harry S Truman High School, theater may be the most important thing they do. It’s the school whose test runs of Les Miserables and RENT were so good, the owners of those properties determined that these productions could, in fact, be produced in high school. In high school theater, that’s a pretty big deal. In the life of Truman, it’s a minor detail.

Drama HighWhen the author visits Lou Volpe in his home, the living room walls are covered, top to bottom, with theater posters. When he watches Volpe interact with students, the author comments, “over time, one of the things that I come to see is how deeply Volpe knows his students. How couldn’t he? They take chances on stage that reveal their inner selves. But it is also true that the very things they learn from being involved in theater—empathy, the ability to imagine lives other than their own, the actor’s gift for giving a character a backstory…allow them to know him.”

It all ties together. “The theater classes are the foundation of Truman Drama, an essential element in its success. Plays and musicals that Volpe puts into production are already familiar to his students because they have studied them in class….In Volpe’s classroom, thousands of books are piled into bookshelves and stacked so high that if you remove a volume, you have to be careful the whole tower of them does not come tumbling down. The books are a reflection of one man’s catholic tastes—works by Shakespeare and Sondheim; David Mamet and David Hare; Wendy Wasserstein, Beth Henley, Thornton Wilder, Yasmina Reza, Wallace Shawn, Horton Foote, Paul Rudnick, Athol Fugard and on and on and on. They are not for decoration; they are used. If a student is looking for a monologue to perform in a festival or for a scholarship audition, Volpe reaches into the pile, pulls out something from the stack, and says, ‘Look in here. You might find what you want.’”

From a terrific article in Broadway World, a look at Volpe’s production of Les Miserables. Producer Cameron Mackintosh attended the last performance, which proved that the show could be produced on a high school stage, and so, the producer made it available to high schools everywhere.

From a terrific article in Broadway World, a look at Volpe’s production of Les Miserables. Producer Cameron Mackintosh attended the last performance, which proved that the show could be produced on a high school stage, and so, the producer made it available to high schools everywhere.

Author Michael Sokolove was inspired to write Drama High, in part, because he attended Truman (then, Woodrow Wilson). He tells the story of Truman Drama, mostly, through individual students, their personal and academic lives, their hopes and dreams, and their lives as young performers. He also allows Mr. Volpe’s successor, Tracey Krause her time in the spotlight: “Her energy level is staggering.. She teaches all day, spends endless hours with the theater program, coaches her kids’ soccer teams (she used to coach the sport at Truman), runs half marathons, has an active dating life, makes frequent visits to the tanning salon, and finds time to jet off to Las Vegas for occasional weekends to visit her best friend.”

So what are we learning? Sure, there are lots of ways to do school, some more and some less traditional. This isn’t an English class essay, so I’ll steer clear of identifying common themes, but I’ll allow myself just one. The sense of community provided by a big game, and a theater program—a sense that some student enjoy because they’re good at sports and others enjoy because they’re just plain brilliant. Here are two stories about two teachers (three, including Ms. Krause) that open doors for every student willing to enter and engage.

Thanks, Harry

My old desk does an arabesque in the morning when I first arrive.

It’s a pleasure to see, it’s waiting there for me to keep my hopes alive.

Such a comfort to know it’s got no place to go,

It’s always there

It’s the one thing I’ve got, a huge success,

My good old desk.

My old desk never needs a rest

and I’ve never once heard it cry.

I’ve never seen it tease it’s always there to please me

From nine to five.

HarryThere was a wonderful innocence about Harry Nilsson in those days. Like Randy Newman and Van Dyke Parks, he was a singer-songwriter with a great appreciation for the commonplace, a love of old (1920s-1940s) music, and an iconoclastic way of telling a story. The Beatles were crazy about him. I was, too, and among those of a certain age, he was the odd musical hero. He never grew old enough to call his fans by name—as he described the slow fade of a pop star. Instead, he flamed out, but, somehow, Nilsson is not included  in most “rock stars who died too young” compendia.

The place to start is not his best known hit, “Everybody’s Talkin’,” the Fred Neil song that he happened to record because he and his producer liked the tune (it became the opening theme for the film Midnight Cowboy, so it became famous). His novelty song “Coconut” was also a top ten hit, but it, too, was an aberration. “Without You” (you know: “I can’t live if living is without you…”) is better, but not on my list of his best work.

Where to start? Early, but not too early. Set your time machine to 1968, 1969 and 1970. Each year presented a very special album by an extraordinary performer, a storyteller with a wonderful sense of melody working, on two of these albums, in spectacular harmony with the ideal producer for these projects, Rick Jarrard.

I would start with the album called Harry because it contains so many of my favorite Nilsson songs—each one handsomely presented with an elaborate arrangement. “Nobody Cares About the Railroads Anymore” and “Morning Glory Story”—the latter is a dignified portrait of a homeless woman, a topic nobody sang or wrote about back in 1970—make sense on an album with similar stories by Bill Martin, “Fairfax Rag” and “Rainmaker” (you know the story; he tells it especially well). And, there’s a song by Randy Newman, then no better known than Nilsson himself: “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear.”

Nilsson’s voice and style was especially well-suited to Randy Newman’s music, and so, the 1970 album was devoted entirely to his work. This is a spectacular pop music milestone, story after story, sensitively and imaginatively told: short stories, really, told with the full power of music and nostalgia. Every song is special, and, in its way, timeless.

The prelude to all of this, an album called Aerial Ballet, is filled with top-notch pop songs that set Nilsson’s bubbly, sensitive, smart style. It’s the album with more familiar songs than the others: “Everybody’s Talkin’” and “One” (a top ten hit for Three Dog Night) among them. It’s great fun, but I like Harry and Nilsson Sings Newman so much that this album takes third position. (In the early 1970s, Nilsson reworked this and an earlier album, including new mixes and some new vocals, to create Aerial Pandemonium Ballet).

If you’re interested in going further, some would claim that Nilsson Schmilson, produced by Richard Perry, is his best. It’s certainly his most commercial, most mainstream (it was produced with that specific intention, and I think it suffers for its success). Better is his salute to the music of the 1940s (mostly) in what turned out to be a career-killer (with a stupid title): A Little Touch of Schmilson in the Night (the link leads to a BBC documentary about the making of the album). This is lovely work, better than most of what Rod Stewart and others have done with similar material, and it’s worth owning. At the time, it was considered wildly narcissistic, part of a larger pattern of disengagement with the realities of the music business, and, sadly, a harbinger of the musician’s disengagement with anything resembling a rational, healthy life.

Nilsson bookThe early days, and the dreadful slide into substance abuse, crappy behavior and, ultimately, death, is told with appropriate accuracy and sensitivity by biographer Alyn Shipton. The book is called Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter, and it’s difficult for fans of the early days to read and comprehend. Happily, the first half of the book explores the good times: the details of the relationships and creative decisions that led to the artist’s finest work, notes from the recording sessions, a rich history of the relationship between Nilsson and masterful arranger George Tipton, stories about so many songs that are so special to long-time Nilsson fans.

I suspect we all believed that Harry’s lyrics to Mr. Richland’s Favorite Song would come true, that each successive decade would find fewer and fewer of us grooving to Nilsson’s fine work and that, in time, the cult would become smaller and perhaps more intimate with a favorite musician from our youth or college days. It didn’t go down that way. Harry became a giant problem: tremendously talented, proven, light-hearted at his best, bad company at his worst. Later albums are, as a rule, dreadful, sarcastic, and lacking in the wonderful subtlety that made his work so very special.

If you feel the need to explore this work, and to try to make sense of the life that included the early albums and the likes of “you’re breakin’ my heart/you’re tearin’ it apart/so f— you” (which only began the nasty period), several options. One is to try to wrap your head around the awful Nilsson collaboration with John Lennon (who was also going through a bad period); it’s called Pussy Cats. Another is explore Knnillssonn with its strange (and sometimes lovely) production experimentation, and the return of the warmth that once characterized everything the man did. As Douglas Hofstadter might describe it, Harry was a strange loop.

Or, if you just want it all, there is a box set with just about all of his work. Click the link for a fascinating, detailed exploration of the whole 17-disc project.

Nilsson box

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