Utne Reader is proud to premiere "The Fish and Sea" from Gondolier, the new album by singer-songwriter Kristin Andreassen.
Known primarily for her work in traditional folk and old-time music circles with the stringband Uncle Earl and other groups, Kristin Andreassen took her time putting together the songs that became Gondolier. The album took shape over a period of years, shaped both by Andreassen's foundation in folk music and the opportunities that came her way to work with artists in other genres, such as Sufjan Stevens. The end result is a beautiful collection of songs that reflect the varied influences Andreassen has encountered and taken to heart over the course of her career thus far. “Most of these were written on a quiet island in New Hampshire,” she says of the songs on Gondolier. “So the lake itself shows up everywhere—rainstorms, boats, fish—submersive sounds and layers in the lyrics and the music.”
Below is the premiere of "The Fish and the Sea" along with three additional songs from the new album. Gondolier is out on Feb. 17, and Andreassen is on tour now in support.
Photo by John Madere
If you think you aren’t familiar with Lella and Massimo Vignelli, you’re probably wrong. Anyone who has seen the maps and signs for the New York City Subway, the logos for Ford, Bloomingdales and American Airlines (1967-2013), or noticed the ubiquity of the font Helvetica, knows their work. The Vignellis worked together throughout their 57-year marriage, their strengths and weaknesses working in perfect compliment until Massimo’s death last year. Design is One, a documentary by Kathy Brew and Roberto Guerra, took on the task of reducing the extensive careers and endearing personalities of the design world’s most influential couple to 79 minutes of film. The result is an accessible look into the Vignellis’ diverse resume in design, peppered with off-the-cuff philosophizing by the prolific duo as they look back on a lifetime of creative inertia.
Design is One does not call the viewer to action, pander to the emotions or bury the subject in its own artistic vision. Much like a designer, the film seems to realize that its primary duty is function, disappearing behind subjects who are thankfully articulate and charismatic enough to carry it. Mirroring the varied careers of Lella and Massimo, the film lacks discernible structure. Not necessarily linear or divided by medium, it is most accurately an impressionistic snapshot of the creative passion, celebrated innovation, design philosophy, and contrarian but loving relationship of the famous pair.
The working partnership of the Vignellis is at once contentious, adoring and above all, symbiotic. Lella, the MIT-trained architect and shrewd businesswoman has the less glamorous job of reigning in Massimo, the dreamer, the graphic innovator. As a pair, design is constant—a lifestyle rather than a 9-5 profession. “If you can’t find it, design it,” their motto echoes throughout the film, and true to it the couple even designed clothing and jewelry when they found their standards of utility and aesthetics unmet.
The scene that most concisely encompasses the Vignellis’ dedication to design is set inside their favorite project: the interior of St. Peters Church in New York City. Vignelli design in its purest form, the space is elegant, minimalist, and deceptively functional—seemingly unmoving pews can be rearranged for various uses, and steps open up to reveal additional seating. Lella and Massimo are visibly fulfilled in this space, as they look around with satisfaction and single out their favorite details. At one point, Massimo gestures to a high corner where he and Lella are to be entombed. As if it weren’t poetic enough to spend eternity together amid their own designs, Massimo explains that his name will not be inscribed in his signature Helvetica font, “Which everybody will expect,” he says. “The typeface for the church is Optima. In deference to the standards, my tomb will be in Optima, my name will be in Optima.”
For those interested in the delicate combination of beauty and utility or curious about the figures who contribute to our visual lexicon, Design is One is time well spent.
Images provided by Vignelli and Associates
Utne Reader is proud to premiere a two-song sampler for the 3-disc box set celebrating the influential music of reggae outsider Vivian "Yabby You" Jackson.
Making a name for himself with his DIY ethos, ardent Christian faith, and influential collaborations, Yabby You earned public recognition for his hit "Conquering Lion," but never managed to reach the heights of his contemporaries in the roots reggae scene. He did, however, make plenty of friends over the years, some of whom became so taken by his music that they did whatever they could to give it greater exposure.
One such friend was Shanachie Entertainment GM Randall Grass, who first heard Yabby You's music in 1977 and has been instrumental in keeping his legacy alive. “It was extremely difficult to obtain but what I heard was transformative," says Grass. "When I went to Jamaica for the first time in 1982, I mentioned to the late Hugh Mundell that I wished I could meet Yabby You, thinking that was an impossible dream. The next day there was a knock on my hotel room door and in came Hugh with Yabby You on crutches behind him. That meeting, marked by much reasoning and quotation of Bible verses, led to the first release by Shanachie of Yabby’s music in America. I last visited him at his home in Jamaica a couple years before his death. When he died I felt a personal mission to preserve and re-present his great musical legacy and so decided to put together this project.”
The project Grass refers to is a comprehensive 3-disc box set titled Dread Prophecy that Shanachie will be releasing on Feb. 17. With 56 total tracks and extensive liner notes, the set includes his well-known classics, 31 songs never before released on CD, as well as 12 never before released rarities. Here is a two-song sampler of the set that includes Yabby You's biggest hit, "Conquering Lion."
PBS documentary and 5-CD box set celebrate the career of classic guitar virtuoso Sharon Isbin.
Sharon Isbin is widely regarded as one of the foremost guitar players in the world. Though she's primarily known as a classical guitarist, she's collaborated with and cultivated the respect of musicians from numerous genres outside the classical genre.
To celebrate her extraordinary career thus far, American Public Television will be premiering the documentary Sharon Isbin: Troubadour on public television stations throughout the United States now through March. Warner Classics has also released a 5-CD box set with music from the film, Sharon Isbin: 5 Classic Albums, and the DVD/Blu-ray of the documentary will be released in March by Video Artists International. Here is the trailer for the documentary and a brief Q&A with Isbin that offers some additional insight into a remarkable musician.
Talk about about how you discovered the guitar. What drew you to classical music as opposed to other genres?
Our family moved from Minneapolis to Italy for a year when I was nine. The experience opened me up to languages, history, Europe…and the guitar. When an older brother requested guitar lessons—hoping to become the next Elvis—he soon learned the teacher had studied with Segovia and played classical. He bowed out and I took take his place by default. I knew only that I loved folk music and imagined this couldn’t be too far afield!
Throughout your career you've demonstrated an incredible passion for your craft as well as a tenacity for pushing yourself forward. Where does that drive come from?
I love what I do, and have always been motivated by a pioneering spirit. As a young girl with two older brothers, I was determined to enjoy the same rights and privileges they had. As a guitarist, I believed in the beauty and power of the instrument, and that it deserved the respect afforded other classical instruments like the piano and violin. This meant broadening horizons by commissioning leading composers to write for me, embracing new collaborations and genres, and cultivating a playing style that celebrates lyricism, color and nuance, as well as virtuosity.
It's been said that you've shattered boundaries for both women in music and guitar in the classical genre. Do you feel like you've had to overcome certain kinds of obstacles pertaining to to this throughout your career?
One summer as a kid at the Aspen Music Festival, I was one of only two girls out of fifty guitar students. It was a challenge, but one that motivated me to study even harder to eliminate any questions of gender. I’ve been a soloist with orchestras that either had never had a guitarist before or not for decades. I’m still the only guitarist to have recorded with the New York Philharmonic, and the sole female guitarist to have won a classical GRAMMY! Long before it was fashionable, I mixed genres and worked with jazz and rock artists. The last two seasons, I toured my Guitar Passions trio with jazz greats Stanley Jordan and Romero Lubambo, who, along with rockers Steve Vai, Nancy Wilson from Heart, and Steve Morse, join me in a CD by the same title. Last April, I premiere a concerto written for me by jazz artist Chris Brubeck.
How do you feel the new Sharon Isbin: Troubadour documentary captures the essence of your career? What messages do you think it gets across to the audience?
Viewers are drawn to the personal, spontaneous and fun nature of the film, and the variety of musical styles shared with artists like Joan Baez, Mark O’Connor, Steve Vai, Tan Dun, Chris Rouse, John Corigliano, Rosalyn Tureck, and non-musicians like Martina Navratilova and First Lady Michelle Obama. Producer Susan Dangel and editor Dick Bartlett accomplish the remarkable by making the audience feel as if they are invisible participants in a truly unexpected journey, whether backstage at the GRAMMYs or launching rockets. People have told me they feel ever more inspired to pursue their dreams, undaunted by roadblocks, empowered by their passion.
Chadwick Stokes / Photo by Margarita Platis
Utne Reader is proud to premiere the song "Mother Maple" by singer-songwriter Chadwick Stokes. The song is the latest single from his new album, The Horse Comanche, which is out Feb. 3 on Ruff Shod Records/Thirty Tigers.
On "Mother Maple," Stokes employs an old sample machine, a choir, and a really catchy hook, to frame his insightful lyrics on selfless love. Here's what he had to say about the song, which was produced by Sam Beam and Brian Deck and features the Berklee Reverence Gospel Choir:
"I was walking around with my uncle Tots in the woods in Vermont and he was showing me some old maple trees that had since died but had given life to much of the forest around it. It reminded me of a friend of mine who's mother had died some years back; she was always giving to everyone else and never paid attention to herself. The mystery instrument is a Sudanese homemade guitar traditionally made with a gourd, but mine is made with a frying pan. Much of the drums are an original drum track played through an old sample machine called Dr. Beat."
Being the new kid at school is never an easy transition. As an immigrant? Even harder. But German researchers have figured out a way to help ease the drastic change for those young kids seeking acceptance in a new culture: play music together.
“Programs providing young migrants with the opportunity to perform music within a larger, culturally heterogeneous group can be viewed as an effective intervention to encourage adaptation to mainstream culture,” wrote a research team led by psychologist Emily Frankenberg of J.W. Goethe University in Frankfurt, published in the journal Psychology of Music.
Focusing on 159 German elementary school students from immigrant families—mainly those of Turkish, Russian and Ukrainian, or Polish descent—the study looked at 62 kids in second and third and grade who participated in “An Instrument for Every Child.” The kids took two weekly lessons on the instrument of their choice starting in second grade, and in third grade would join the school ensemble. Their level of cultural integration would be measured twice—at the beginning of the study and 18 months later—and then compared to the other 97 students who didn’t participate (some of whom still opted for choir).
Participants responded to statements intended to gauge “behavior and attitudes in such domains as language use, music and national pride,” as well as how accepted and valued they felt by their peers. Those who began the study as third-graders and who were retested as fourth-graders “showed an increase in orientation to mainstream culture,” writes Frankenberg, an increase they did not find in the non-musical group of kids. The younger students who had just begun third grade at the time of the second data collection (those who hadn’t played in the ensemble for much time), however, did not report a difference. The research team said this strongly suggested that playing in the student ensemble is what caused the sense of belonging.
“Results indicate that it was the experience of collaborating and performing within a larger group which led to stronger host culture orientation.” In this program, no matter religion or ethnicity, “students collaborate to perform music pieces together. This requires children to listen and pay attention to each other,” the report said.
It is worth noting, however, that 87 percent of the kids were born in Germany but came from immigrant parents—a detail that leaves room for interpretation as to how this same approach would affect adolescent immigrants. Another factor that the researchers will try to hone in is encouraging the students to pick an instrument native to their country (fewer than 4 percent had), as “maintenance of one’s culture of heritage is a necessary component of healthy adaptation.”
“Through the experience of playing music together, migrant children … come into closer contact with their non-migrant classmates, and are encouraged to develop a stronger sense of community and cohesion,” the report concluded. “For immigrant students, this may represent a key opportunity for social and cultural inclusion within the classroom and, from there, within wider mainstream society.”
Image by Robin Zebrowski, licensed under Creative Commons.
The band OK Go initially garnered attention for its innovative one-take music videos, using choreographed treadmills, trained dogs, or a mass Rube Goldberg machine, to name a few. But the band’s latest creative endeavor will transcend its endearingly dorky-yet-clever viral videos: OK Go’s fourth studio album Hungry Ghosts—already out digitally, CD and on vinyl—will be released on DNA later this year.
OK Go is working with Sri Kosuri, a biochemist at UCLA who, in 2012, converted a book into DNA. “We are starting to reach fundamental limits of how densely we can store data on microchips,” Kosuri told the New Yorker. “We need new ideas.” And his idea, true to roots, is DNA. “It’s information,” he said. “Our bodies use it to code for life, but it could be anything.”
The process essentially converts the binary code in music files (consisting of ones and zeros) into genetic code (consisting of strings of A, G, T and C bases) using an electrophoresis machine. The end result is a vial of DNA dissolved in water—a few nanograms potentially containing about 100,000 copies of the album. “So, if we sell just one or two droplets, we’ll have the highest-selling album of all time,” Damian Kulash, lead singer of OK Go, told the New Yorker.
This idea, however, has equally sophisticated complications.
“Legally speaking, it’s unclear whether we will be able to sell the DNA to anyone, or how we would physically get it to them,” Kulash said. “Obviously, it’s an artistic gesture and a scientific project, not the most efficient way to actually buy our album.”
The following music videos by OK Go illustrate the band’s imaginative one-take tendencies, ranging from the largely elaborate to the charmingly goofy.
2006: “Here It Goes Again,” one of the first truly viral videos:
2010: “This Too Shall Pass,” the ultimate Rube Goldberg machine:
2010: “End Love,” spanning three days and captured in one take:
2012: “Needing/Getting,” a Super Bowl commercial gone rogue:
2014: “I Won’t Let You Down,” their latest video, filmed from an aerial drone:
Image by Stuart Cale, licensed under Creative Commons.