Sound Art and Modernity

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Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet at MoMA PS1 in 2012 (image courtesy of Britta Frahm; made available via Creative Commons license)

Maybe you’re like me: you’re a fairly sensitive person who tears up at sad movies or at the endings of tragic novels. Those reactions are guided by specific cues–that of resonance with a character’s plight or the visual impact of someone crying on screen. We can see or feel the emotion, and our brains react to it; there’s a cause-and-effect that feels, at least to me, fairly straightforward. Music, however, provides an altogether different experience. The first few chords of an especially powerful song can make my eyes well up almost immediately. The chords bring on simultaneous feelings of transcendence, euphoria, and melancholy, and those feelings often seem uncoupled from the specificity of the emotion a particular song exudes. I cry just as easily at a powerful song, with booming notes and crushing cymbals, as I do at a mournful ballad played in a minor key.

Science supports the idea that music as an art form is uniquely able to produce a “frisson” , a sensation marked by a shiver, trembling and goosebumps. Unexpected, dramatic musical flourishes, especially those that violate our expectations and startle the nervous system, release dopamine to the brain, creating a similar response in a listener as one he or she might have to drugs and sex.  (Some frisson-inducing songs for me: The Shivers'”Beauty“; Nirvana’s cover of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night“; The Verve’s “Drugs Don’t Work“; DeVotchka’s “Charlotte Mittnacht (The Fabulous Destiny of…)“)

Sound is uniquely able to give us pleasure, but as an art form, it’s often overshadowed by other mediums. Yes, music is the clearest example of sound as art, but to define it as only music (as in: the kind that gets made by musicians) ignores the versatility of hearing as a sense and how manipulating it can play with our perceptions of reality in the best possible way (the dissonance of a nature recording played in the middle of Times Square, for example). Sound art isn’t just “music” in the same way that fine art isn’t just “painting.”

All of this is to say: I want more! There are sound artists doing amazing things, and museums are catching on, but the form isn’t nearly as widely recognized as older art forms. I’ve been intrigued by the medium ever since I experienced Janet Cardiff’s revelatory “The Forty Part Motet” at MoMA PS1 four years ago. Featuring 40 freestanding speakers that each play the unaccompanied voice of a specific singer, the piece builds momentum as the voices coalesce into the moving, reverential motet composed by 16th century Tudor composer Thomas Thallis. To walk and listen closely to each speaker is to marvel at the building blocks of music the way someone might marvel at the individual bricks of a soaring cathedral. It would be hard to overstate the emotional impact of the piece. (Listen to an excerpt here.)

I felt similarly moved when I viewed Paul Stephen Benjamin’s “Black is the Color” at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Though not strictly “sound art,” the video installation manipulates sound to give the museum goer an entirely new perspective on the piece of music he or she is hearing. By looping dozens of old televisions showing a Nina Simone performance of “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” a turn-of-the-20th-century Scottish folk song, the artist creates a haunting round that highlights only the words “Black is the color.” These four words are played on endless repeat–their power amplified by the booming, reverberating quality of Simone’s voice, and the effect is chilling.

Sound art may be the art form most suited to our modern world. It has the ability to completely transport us, to engage with us in a wholly unique way, especially at a time when our attention is pulled in many directions by so much disruptive sound: clicking, beeping, buzzing, honking, jack-hammering. Nowadays, when everyone is looking for something real, something that moves us, something human, perhaps it is sound art that can save us.

 

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A Memorable Walk

This past weekend, The New York Times Magazine ran a feature in which New Yorkers described some of their most memorable walks and the stories behind the routes. What emerged was an animated portrait of the nooks and crannies of this city. The streets are the pathways through which life moves; they are the veins of NYC. A walk can be about so many things: routine, comfort, peace, discovery, observation and even memory. Sometimes, a walk can feel like going through a time machine and emerging in an alternate universe–you return to a place you thought you knew but now no longer recognize.

Here’s my story:

My parents were in town on vacation about two years ago, and we’d decided to take a walk through our old neighborhoods in Brooklyn –we’d lived in Midwood and Bensonhurst in the late 80s and early 90s. It was a lovely, breezy late-May day. The sun was shining when we arrived at that first house–an aging Victorian standing defiantly on a nondescript corner of Elmwood Avenue. The top floor had been ours for a few months in the fall and winter of 1989. My parents hadn’t seen the home in years, and I could tell they were experiencing a complex cocktail of emotions as we stood in its shadow. That apartment was dingy and rodent-filled, but it was our first place in the U.S. Months of immigration limbo, of statelessness, of uncertainty, had led to that point. They engaged a man who was standing by the gate near the sidewalk–what of the old couple who had lived here, they asked. The woman was still alive, the man replied, but she doesn’t live here anymore.

We walked across Ocean Parkway to our second apartment, a large studio with a foyer and a window that faced a brick wall. It was where our family of four really acclimated to American life. I became obsessed with Disney movies–The Little Mermaid, specifically. My brother got really into LEGOs. We ate birthday pizzas that would be coveted by anyone outside the tri-state area. Life was starting to make sense. Outside the apartment building was an entrance I knew nearly by heart. Here, my brother and would play tag with friends and hang out on the metal railing (since removed).

We kept walking east, toward Coney Island Avenue. We turned onto the street and walked south. We stopped into various Jewish-owned shops, flipping through Hebrew language children’s books and ogling the hamsa necklaces. As the day wound down we found ourselves across the street from the hasid-run yeshiva for Russian-Jewish immigrants my brother and I attended when we first arrived. My parents insisted we go inside. It was now a bookstore and my parents started a conversation with the man who was manning the one-room library of books. He told us the Russian-born rabbi who had run the yeshiva 25 years back had died. My parents were saddened by the news. He had been so kind. They mentioned I had been a student at the yeshiva. The man then asked me whether I knew the main tenants of being a Jewish woman. I didn’t. Well, not exactly in those term. What did he mean? He asked whether I went to a mikvah. No, never. He’s rolling over in his grave, the man said, referring to the rabbi. We looked at one another knowingly and excused ourselves. This place was no longer ours; our memories of it existed in a parallel realm now, separate from the modern reality of what it had become.

The three of us understood that the man was wrong. We knew the rabbi’s intention–to open the eyes of ignorant immigrants to the concept of Jewish tradition. He had succeeded, and we, with our Passover seders and synagogue outings–even if only for the high holidays, were a testament to that.

We walked on, toward the subway, toward another home that was now a distant memory.

Coney Island Avenue (image via Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

Coney Island Avenue (image via Violette79, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

The Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookie Roundup

There’s something about a chocolate chip cookie (CCC, for short) that embodies a certain casual American exceptionalism. The French, Kings of Pastry as they deservedly are, take hours to make and assemble the perfect croissant or ideal Paris-Brest or any number of other complex dough-and-cream concoctions. We Americans get to waltz in with our flour and our sugar and our eggs and our chocolate chips and–in 10 minutes flat–create something near Godliness. Hold off on those U-S-A!, U-S-A! cheers, though. In NYC it’s French bakeries, with their supreme attention to detail, that are churning out some of the best versions of the CCC in the city.

For this roundup, I sampled 18 cookies all across NYC. There were plenty of winners, and I found it difficult to whittle down my favorites to a “Top 5” so I went with a “Top 6.” All are exceptional in their own way.

Top 6 (in no particular order)

Smile To Go: This cookie has an intense brown sugar flavor that plays off of the saltiness of large visible flakes (seen below), creating an ideal medley of salty-sweet. The chocolate disks are ideally distributed throughout.

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Maman: If I were to award an official No. 1, this gargantuan cookie would be it. From the cutesy new French bakery in Soho, this CCC is perfectly browned on the edges with an incredibly melty, gooey middle. Also, I’m usually a hater of nuts-in-cookies, but the whole hazelnuts here add great texture.

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The Dessert Club by Chikalicious: This has been one of my favorite CCCs for years (at the sister location in the East Village), and the one at the new spot is just as lovely. It’s slightly underdone with crunchy edges and a chewy interior. They know to warm up the cookie to order for just the right amount of time to achieve optimal softness.

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Levain Bakery: The most famous of the bunch, this French bakery is perpetually mobbed–and with good reason. They churn out large mounds of deliciously under-baked CCCs that are so heavy, you could use them for weight training. Bring a friend and indulge in the cookie dough-like interior. There are walnuts, but they’re not super loud about making their presence known, if you know what I mean.

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Pret a Manger: Yes, it’s a chain, but so what? These cookies can compete with some of the top bakeries on this list. They’re kept under a warming lamp, so they’re toasty and gooey no matter what time of day you purchase one. There’s a crunchiness at the edges that gives them a nice textural balance.

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Épicerie Boulud: Another Frenchy on our list, this cookie has it all. It’s buttery and soft, with a proportional combination of dark chocolate and milk chocolate discs. I’ve only ever had it warm, so in order to experience the magic, it would be worth it to ask if the ones on display are fresh out of the kitchen.

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Honorable Mentions

Blue Ribbon Bakery Market: The smallest (and cheapest, at $1) of the bunch, this cookie has a lovely home-baked quality. It’s soft, crumbly and not overly buttery. A perfect CCC for when you want a cookie all to yourself, but don’t want to consume a 500-calorie sugar bomb.

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Macchiato: A great spot for cookie cravings in Midtown, this European coffee shop stocks perpetually warm cookies with intense chocolate flavor.

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Bouchon Bakery: Yet another French bakery with a great CCC. This cookie is huge–nearly literally the size of one’s head. The edges are crunchy, but take one more bite and you’re in pliant, chewy heaven.

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The City Bakery: This institution has expanded its dessert empire with Birdbath Bakeries all around Manhattan, featuring the original icon’s famous cookies. The CCC here is flat, chewy and just right amount of underdone. It goes well with their exceptional hot chocolate, if you’re looking to spend the subsequent hours in a blissful sugar coma.

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Jacques Torres Chocolate: Jacques knows his customers, and what he knows is they want a warm CCC. They keep some of the cookies on a hot plate all day to ensure the one you receive is warm and soft. Mine may have spent a little too much time on the plate; it was falling apart when I held it up for a photo. Jacques is also the king of chocolate chip layering–a cross section resembles sedimentary rocks, which is perhaps why his chocolate chip cookie recipe is an Internet favorite.

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Other cookies sampled: Amy’s Bread, BKLYN Larder, Milk & Cookies Bakery, Breads Bakery, Baked, Maison Kayser, Roasting Plant.

The February Slump

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About a decade ago, my father was filming footage of our mostly beautiful hometown, Richmond, Va., to send to family back in Moscow. When he turned his camera on the blighted areas surrounding the interstate, near downtown, I was annoyed. “Why would you want to show that?” I asked.

“Because I want to show a full picture of where we live. You know where else they glossed over all the bad parts?” he asked rhetorically. “Communist Russia.”

“Uh huh,” I said, as his camera grazed over the abandoned houses and trash-covered parking lots.

Weather-wise, New York City in February is sort of like that dirty parking lot in the middle of a quaint city. It is the worst. Snow has fallen and collected in dingy brown piles on the sidewalk. In addition, because the city is medieval when it comes to trash collecting and bags are stacked high on the street, pieces of random garbage are strewn in and around the snow and are iced over inside of it. The tableau resembles a sort of nightmarish memory box.

There are still a few bright spots: the blueish-almost-turquoise haze of a wintry city at sunset, a near silent night of softly falling snow, the cozy warmth of a neighborhood restaurant.

Still, there’s no shame in hibernation. Though I’ve written about the importance of venturing out into the cold in order to combat SAD, sometimes it’s okay to stay in and avoid the soul-crush temperatures and grimy slush. Maybe make this tasty bolognese or decadent babka as you wile away the hours until May.

Memory Currency

A warning: I’m about to get a bit philosophical.

Maybe it’s the pace of city living, or growing older–with fewer milestones to measure the years–but time seems to be moving exponentially faster with each passing day. Was that friend’s wedding two years ago or four? Did I turn 30 this year or last? The growing elusiveness of time and its shift from steady construct to malleable force can feel, well, disconcerting.

How do we reflect on our lives as we’re living them? What do we remember of the last year or the last decade if our immediate surroundings haven’t changed all that much? Enter what I like to call “memory currency.”

Memory currency, as I define it, refers to a database of meaningful memories that we can access when reflecting on our lives and ourselves. To get a bit existential here: it’s an affirmation of the nature of existence, that life–our lives, specifically–matter in some way if for no other reason than we have lived them. Unlike tradition understandings of harping on memory as “living in the past,” this sort of heartfelt nostalgia, according to research, actually imbues us with a better sense of self and with excitement for the future. The concept of memory currency is catching on. A psychologist quoted in a 2013 New York Times piece referred to a new line of research surrounding the seeking of soon-to-be-memorable moments as “anticipatory nostalgia

What is it that we remember? Unless we’re born with the gift (or, as some see it, curse) of hyperthymesia, most of us accurately recall only a tiny percentage of our waking lives. Events that are significant in some way are more likely to be remembered because of the intensity of the positive or negative emotions with which they’re often associated. Negative events are, in fact, more likely to be remembered because of the rumination that takes place surrounding them. The more we think about something, the more likely it is to be stored in the brain’s “filing cabinet.”

But what of the positive, or even just peaceful, memories? How do we build that stockpile? My approach is two-pronged. First, though it sounds like a self-help book cliche, schedule events that make memories, something to take you out of the work-eat-sleep-go-out-on-weekends doldrums. A local college course, a book club or volunteering are good places to start. Or, it can be something simpler, like starting a tradition with friends (pancakes every February, for example) or with a significant other (summer nights out in Brighton Beach). The easiest option, of course, is going on a trip. These don’t have to be grand, international excursions, and personally, I’m irked by “experience collectors” who are only obsessed with their country count. Adventures are ready to be had an hour drive or a 20-hour plane ride from home. Pick a place you’ll anticipate going to (per a recent Atlantic article, we’re happiest when we spend money on experiences we’re excited about as opposed to on material things) and will want to document.

Second, facilitate the remembrance of events as they’re happening. Photos are important to the concept of memory currency–just a few, and not for the purposes of posting on social media. I also love the hippie-dippy-but-actually-useful concept of mindfulness. Stop and asses what’s happening and how you’re feeling. As an example: My husband and I had the best snowed-in day two winters ago. Nothing of importance happened aside from us playing in the park and making a gourmet lunch and from-scratch hot chocolate, but I took photos, and I tried really hard to capsulize those contentment-filled emotions. The day is fresh in my memory while I’d be hard pressed to recall the details of many other days from around that time period.

Living in a global city like New York can make us complacent, that just by virtue of existing here, in this kinetic space, we’re creating memorable moments. It’s not always so easy. Memory currency, much like regular currency, should be sought, earned and stored safely away.

JulieKevin-114

Image courtesy of Andrea Hubbell Photography

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