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An overhead shot of the performance of John Luther Adams' Sila at New York's Lincoln Center Friday evening. (Courtesy of Lincoln Center)

A Breath Of Inspiration: John Luther Adams' New 'Sila'

Jul 30, 2014

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Composer John Luther Adams has been enjoying enormous success. He won this year's Pulitzer Prize for his expansive, unsettling and darkly beautiful orchestral piece Become Ocean, which will be released in the fall in a recording by the Seattle Symphony. His monumental 2009 percussion piece Inuksuit has been recorded and staged several times now across the country and abroad, from Tennessee to Portugal — a success almost unthinkable in the age of one-and-done premieres.

The ideas that have long compelled Adams have found a new home and expression in his outdoor work Sila: The Breath of the World, which was premiered at Lincoln Center Friday evening, with a repeat performance the following night. (I attended both the Friday afternoon dress rehearsal and the second concert.) The twin hallmarks of Adams' work — a deep concern with the interactions between humans and the environment, an undeniable though wholly nonsectarian mysticism — are fused through masterly command of musical texture and pacing.

Jointly commissioned by two of Lincoln Center's signature summer series, the Mostly Mozart Festival and Lincoln Center Out of Doors, the premiere of Sila fulfilled goals of both: to engender the creation of new works and to use the organization's outdoor space more creatively, a welcome recent development for concertgoers familiar with the campus only through entering and exiting its temples of culture. Arrayed around what is broadly called the Hearst Plaza, the 81 performers in Sila were dotted across a grass lawn, among a grove of trees and even in a pool of water.

Sila is a piece intended to be played by 16 to 80 or more musicians grouped into five separate ensemble choirs of woodwinds, brass, percussion, strings and voices, who may perform the work in any combination, either simultaneously or successively. There is no conductor, and each musician chooses his or her own pacing through the score, as long as each sustained tone or rising phrase "lasts the length of one full exhalation," according to Adams' notes.

The piece is set within 16 "harmonic clouds" grounded on the first sixteen overtones of a low B-flat. Does that sound anarchic, or overly academic? Hardly. The music shimmers and shifts in magical and beautiful ways. And Sila is as much performance piece as sonic work. The long, luxurious phrases were underscored by choreographer Mark DeChiazza, who had the performers make slow, sweeping tai chi-like gestures that seemed to halt time.

As in other Adams works, and most famously in his Inuksuit, audience members also participate in shaping their own experiences. Where a listener chooses to sit, stand or meander alters the sonic experience, and each person's experience is different. I chose to rotate my listening spots every 10 or 15 minutes.

String players were stationed along the edge of a small grove of trees, by a post under the overhang of the Lincoln Center Theater. The winds, brass and timpani players standing on a grassy hill that descends from the entrance to The Juilliard School might as well have been sounding in a far-off field, though they were only a few dozen feet away. At the southeast corner of the space, the metallic hum of bowed cymbals dominated for a while; at the northeast, it was the clink of glasses and clatter of plates at a restaurant's outdoor tables. And in the middle of a pool at the heart of the performance space, singers stood knee-deep in water.

Led by musical director Doug Perkins, some of the country's foremost new music specialists played the premiere. They were culled from flocks of Adams devotees from across the country — members of Chicago's eighth blackbird, Philadelphia's The Crossing choir and Michigan's Grand State Valley New Music Ensemble among them. They performed alongside such New York denizens as the JACK Quartet, TILT Brass and Bang on a Can's Asphalt Orchestra and many of the city's notable freelancers (including John Altieri, the conductor/tuba player from NPR Music's recent 100+ BPM project.) Their gathering for Sila was a testament to the enthusiasm Adams' music has generated among performers.

At the first full performance, audience members were not allowed to walk along the main pathway on the long side of the pool, between the string players and a line of percussionists, though many sat there (as I did, briefly, during the dress rehearsal). By Saturday night, Adams had given his benediction for listeners to walk through there, and this major artery was soon clogged up. About 30 minutes into the piece, the experience was half meditation labyrinth, half the familiar slog of navigating an uptown 1 train during rush hour.

But something else transpired as well. Absent a stage, the traditional walls between musicians and listeners dissipated absolutely. That intimacy created a marvelous cocoon of shared experience and silky, ethereal layers of sound. The physical closeness did create its own perils: On Saturday, I saw a couple of people in alarming proximity to the musicians and their instruments snapping selfies mid-performance.

Yet even those interruptions couldn't permeate the quiet, deeply contemplative nature of Adams' elegantly wrought and mesmerizing work. The composer translates the Inuit title of the piece this way: "Sila is the wind and the weather, the forces of nature. But it's also something more. Sila is intelligence. It's consciousness. It's our awareness of the world around us, and the world's awareness of us." Even with the buzz of Manhattan so close, Adams and his musicians created a work of music, and of theater, that encouraged listeners to look both deeply inward and out into an imaginary expanse far beyond Hearst Plaza.

Sila ends with performers blowing through megaphones — no notes sounding, just long exhalations of breath you had to lean in closely to hear. Just as Saturday's performance was drawing to its close, a breeze visited, creating new waves of ripples in the pool.

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Sylvan Esso's Amelia Meath (Courtesy of the artist)

Sylvan Esso Performs 'Wolf' Live With Megafaun, Lambchop, Others

Jul 30, 2014

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Last fall, Sylvan Esso's Nick Sanborn was commissioned by Duke University and Alverno University in Milwaukee to put together a special concert with some of his favorite artists and collaborators. The result was a two-night stand that featured Sanborn and Sylvan Esso singer Amelia Meath performing alongside members of Sanborn's other band, Megafaun and Meath's former band, Mountain Man, as well as the group Field Report and Lambchop's William Tyler. Together they shared mostly acoustic versions of a number of Sylvan Esso songs, including this cut from the band's self-titled, debut record, "Wolf."

Shot in black and white, it's a surprisingly intimate and arresting arrangement of a song originally scored with throbbing electronics.

Sanborn tells us via email that the performances, called "Lend Me Your Voice," were designed to explore "the concept of the sideman musician and how another musician's vision is supported."

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The Great American Desk. (

Desk Desk Evolution

Jul 30, 2014

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Linton Weeks

With the disappearance of the desktop computer and the downfall of the deskphone, could we be seeing the demise of the office desk?

"We still need a place on which to set all that digital stuff," says Henry Petroski, a civil engineering professor at Duke University and author of numerous design books, including The House with Sixteen Handmade Doors: A Tale of Architectural Choice and Craftsmanship.

Henry says his iPad is too heavy to hold comfortably."And I don't have a large enough lap for all the other devices." So for Henry, an office desk is an extension of his lap. For others, it's a repository for inboxes and outboxes and books and paper piles and a smattering of old business cards grown dusty and dogeared from neglect.

And now the Great American Desk - trying to be all things to all people — is going through an identity crisis. And a multi-faceted metamorphosis.

Recent desk developments include:

* The Superdesk — a sweeping platform that flows through the Barbarian Group office in New York.


* The Kinetic Desk — from Stir "senses your presence" and encourages you to sit and stand throughout the day.


* The Pull-Up Bar Desk — is just one of the un-official innovations at the the Brooklyn Boulders Active Collaborative Workspace in Somerville, Mass.


Did this new Age of Deskovery begin, perhaps, with predictions of a "paperless office" in the 1990s? "The paperless office was said to arrive with the desktop computer," Henry Petroski says. "I am still waiting..."

The Protojournalist: Experimental storytelling for the LURVers - Listeners, Users, Readers, Viewers - of NPR. @NPRtpj

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A hodgepodge of languages share space on library shelves. (Courtesy of Queens Library)

Want To See The World? Try A Library In Queens

by Cristina Silva
Jul 30, 2014

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Cristina Silva

The aggressive vibrato of the bandoneon hung in the air. While the tango singer spoke of romantic spats, hopeless drunkards and lonely whores, an elderly Argentine couple clasped hands.

The haunting music would have made for a steamy evening if not for the setting. The celebration of Argentine tango took place not in some hip Latin club on the Lower East Side or in a dark corner of a Buenos Aires cafe, but in a drab basement room with plastic chairs and gray walls in the Jackson Heights branch of the Queens Library.

New York's Queens borough is among the most ethnically diverse counties in the nation, its immigrant-filled neighborhoods teeming with taco joints, Dominican beauty salons and women in headscarves. It's no surprise, then, that the borough's library system has also strived for unparalleled diversity.

The library system's 62 locations boast more than 800,000 foreign language books, thousands of foreign language DVDs and CDs, and six language specialists tasked with finding the most popular materials in Urdu, Polish, Arabic, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, French and Spanish, among other languages. It also regularly hosts cultural events, such as the tango performance in Jackson Heights, to draw in immigrants unaware of how libraries or library cards work — or at least how they work in Queens.

Chinese romance novels are always popular, as is the Korean version of Twilight. The library system also caters to Albanians, Croatians and Serbians in Ridgewood, Tagalog speakers in Elmhurst, Woodside and Broadway, Farsi in Kew Garden Hills and Pashto and Dari in Flushing.

"We are the most diverse borough and we want to celebrate that," said Bridget Quinn-Carey, the library's COO.

Nearly half of all Queens' residents were foreign-born in 2010, according to U.S. Census data, with most hailing from Latin American and Asian nations. Among New York City's five boroughs, Queens has the highest number of residents who consider themselves as speaking English less than "very well," at 28 percent. Of those, 42 percent speak Spanish and 31 percent speak an Asian or Pacific Island language.

The library launched its New Americans Program in 1977 to provide services to the area's many immigrants. The staff's most significant challenge, apart from budget limitations and figuring out how to catalog book titles that don't use the Roman alphabet, is keeping up with the breakneck pace of New York real estate trends and demographic shifts. Employees rely on neighborhood clues including ethnic newspapers and produce sold at corner bodegas to keep library shelves stocked with the most useful material.

A decade ago, the library's Corona location demanded materials catering to Dominicans and Italians. Now, the neighborhood is primarily Mexican and Ecuadorian, said Vilma Daza, the Corona library manager. A dedicated following arrives at the library each day to read foreign-language newspapers, including the popular "Thinkana," a Bangla newspaper circulated in New York.

The library also offers citizenship and basic skills classes designed to help people assimilate more easily.

"It's very important because all those kids are growing up over here, so we need to have better communities, we need to enrich their lives, we need to make changes so this community will be successful tomorrow," Daza said.

Once an immigrant group reaches a mere 2,000 people, the library will attempt to offer services pertinent to that culture. International crises after spur the need for new library material. For example, the system's collection of Haitian Creole books grew to more than 5,000 titles after Haiti's devastating 2010 earthquake.

Of all the languages the system offers, one is particularly in demand among foreign-born library patrons. On a recent registration day, more than 100 people lined up starting at 5 a.m. to nab one of 30 classroom slots available in Corona. Thousands of other immigrants flocked to similar classes across the Queens Library system in 2013.

The language they were all so eager to learn?English.

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Christopher Petrone, of San Diego, CA, towering over attendees in his handmade, to-scale Chewbacca costume. (Getty Images)

On Dipping An Introverted Toe In The Comic-Con Ocean

Jul 30, 2014

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Linda Holmes

The first time I took one of the online Myers-Briggs inventories and it spit out that I was an introvert, one of my friends questioned the results. Specifically, he said, "Are you sure you weren't holding the test upside-down?"

I wasn't, though. Crowds challenge me, as do bustling parties, as do chaotically noisy environments, as do spaces I can't get out of quickly. So I'd pretty much made up my mind that I'd never set foot at San Diego Comic-Con, which scores pretty high on the Writhing Humanity scale. Let me put it this way: Have you ever been right outside a stadium when a truly huge sporting event or a concert let out? Where you're just getting shoved along, you can't really go anywhere except as part of a river of humans, and you suddenly realize that if you were viewed from above as part of this gathering, you'd suddenly realize the insignificance of your existence?

Much of the San Diego Convention Center, inside and out, is like that nonstop for about four days.

But this year, we had an opportunity to take Pop Culture Happy Hour to Comic-Con for a panel discussion (thanks to Stephen Thompson's mother, Maggie, a comics luminary) (Maggie does the "In Memoriam" segment at the Eisner Awards, if you want to evaluate that luminariosity for yourself). It was right at the end of my two-plus weeks at press tour, so I was on the west coast anyway. Why not? (We'll be posting the audio of the panel as our weekly show this Friday.)

I would love to tell you here that it was not as bad as I feared, that the esprit de corps overwhelmed any anxieties, swept away any discomfort, and made me forget about my sense that if there were a fire, we'd be screwed. I would love to have come home feeling that I'd battled my own bustle-avoidant tendencies as successfully as my buddy Glen Weldon did last year when he wrote a series of Comic-Con diaries that I encourage you to read.

But, perhaps exhausted from press tour, perhaps simply unsuited to it, I freely admit that I was a toe-dipper. Not inclined to endure long lines either for high-profile panels or for the chance to buy stuff, I spent about 15 minutes on the show floor, clinging to the perimeter, before taking my bulging eyeballs right out of there. I did not dive. I waded.

And the first thing I learned — confirmed for myself, really — is that Comic-Con is much, much less weird than a lot of people who don't attend it make it out to be. I encountered so many contemptuous tweets about it in absentia, so many assumptions that this was, at best, some kind of Weirdo Dude Ranch where, for once, freaks have the opportunity to be among their own. And I'm not saying there's none of that, particularly if among freaks and weirdos you count those who would wryly attach that label to themselves. It is, quite clearly, a haven.

But I dare you to watch the documentary America's Parking Lot and conclude that the extreme football fan tailgaters profiled therein — who tend to be tagged as extreme in their enthusiasms but not socially derided — are less weird than the people of Comic-Con.

Let me get this out of the way first: People take a lot of pictures of the costumes, because they're cool. But most of the folks I saw there taking in panels and shopping on the show floor were not in costume at all. It's not the Star Wars cantina. It's more like you're walking through a crowd of people and most of them look like the people you'd see at the mall, and then suddenly one of them is Wonder Woman. As our own Petra Mayer talked about in her really excellent radio piece this weekend, cosplay is an extremely creative DIY hobby, not much different from anything else you might make yourself just to show people that you made it, just to make it, just to do something interesting. And again, why is it any weirder from putting on face paint at a football game while wearing a player's jersey?

I did go to a couple of panels while I was there, and here's how I picked them: I went into the first room that was open. Why? Because most of the things I was extremely familiar with fell into the category of "too much waiting in line," so I was stuck with the unfamiliar. So why not gamble?

I first wound up in a panel of women who do fan art and fan fiction surrounding the current TV incarnation of Teen Wolf. And you know what they were like? They were a lot like every other panel of geeky young writers I've ever seen. They spoke intelligently and thoughtfully about writing and creativity and what they like and don't like to make art about. They talked about the responsibility they feel when they write about mental illness and thoughtfully chewed over the idea of creating transgender characters to add to what's sort of a preexisting universe. They rolled their eyes at a video that was circulating in which Teen Wolf actors were placed on the spot and asked to read fan fiction aloud for yuks, shrugging it off as a cheap effort to make actors uncomfortable on camera and get them to dump on their own fans.

What filed into the room next was a jam-packed panel called "IS IT STEAMPUNK?" Now this, costume-wise, is the old-timey, goggle-wearing droid you are looking for. (Yes, I am mixing my everything. Shhhhh.) Roughly defined, steampunk is Victorian-era-ish science fiction (think goggles and gears, as far as the aesthetic), and I had the biggest blown mind of my entire Comic-Con experience when I learned that at least to these steampunk people, the greatest steampunk movie is understood to be ... wait for it ...

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

I was not prepared for this!

The "Is It Steampunk?" panel included Andrew Fogel of The League Of S.T.E.A.M.; Claire Hummel, who worked on Bioshock Infinite; Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett, who write the adventures of the "steampunk robot" Boilerplate; and Thomas Willeford, who makes steampunk stuff and arrived dressed as Steampunk Iron Man. They basically tried to define what exactly steampunk is — and distinguished it from other faux genres and subgenres including "clockpunk" and "dreampunk" — and then voted on various examples from pop culture as to whether they are steampunk.

The verdict: Back To The Future III is probably steampunk. As is the aforementioned Bioshock Infinite. But not Cowboys And Aliens. Thus began the most interesting discussion of Cowboys And Aliens I have ever heard.

They pretty much acknowledged, you see, that the 2011 film fit the definitions they'd given of steampunk up to that point: It is in fact science fiction of the right era. It has gadgets. It is, to use Willeford's definition, "an adventure in a speculative past." (He later acknowledged that despite that sweeping conceptual definition, without gadgets, he doesn't consider it steampunk.) But they still felt like it wasn't steampunk. Why? Weeeeell, there are aliens, so it's alien technology, not man-made technology, and it doesn't really have the aesthetic, and, hmm, well, you know what it came down to?

They don't think it's very good, so they have trouble calling it steampunk.

It was a very interesting little distinction. In a way, this gatekeeping exercise seemed awfully silly to me at first: why does it matter whether a particular movie fits or doesn't fit the definition? What is the value in fussing over definitions? But this Cowboys And Aliens business was really enlightening. The lines between defining and evaluating are very, very blurry. When are you really classifying according to a neutral and factual definition, and when are you saying ... "I don't like it"?

That's not a real superhero movie. That's not a real romantic comedy. That's not hip-hop. That's not literary fiction. That's not fusion. He's not a movie star. She's not a critic.

This isn't pop culture. This isn't a story.

The point of a steampunk panel — the point of Comic-Con in general — is not only to hang around with other people who like the same things you like. It's also an opportunity to experience uncut enthusiasm itself. How does it work? How does it operate between groups of people? How does it change the way we approach culture?

Comic-Con isn't nerd camp, it doesn't smell, it doesn't feel sad, nobody seems desperate — it's just not that weird. If anything, you know what's weird? What's weird is me vibrating from anxiety because I can't see the door. The thing itself is just ... an event. It's just a concentrated blast of engagement with things, with all of its attractive and unattractive aspects, with all of its commercialized and obscure and handmade and mass-marketed tchotchkes. You can look at the guy standing in line for a hotel shuttle with a numbered Comic-Con exclusive Shadow Stormtrooper figure, and you can think, "Nerd." Or you can think, "That dude loves that movie/franchise/universe so much that he stood in line with several hundred other people for the privilege of buying that, and that is fascinating."

So yes, it's still true that it freaks me out. But it's not the costumes, and it's not the attitudes, and it's certainly not the people, who were almost unreasonably lovely (as they must be to survive packed in like sardines, please pause here while I dab my brow and take a sedative). It's just a lot. It's a lot. Perhaps more than any other pop culture thing that has ever existed, Comic-Con is ... a lot.

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