The Past’s Future at MCNY

Approved emblem for the 1939 New York World’s Fair; Designer: unknown; Tempera on board; Museum of the City of New York; World’s Fair Board of Design Collection, 41.44.61

I didn’t grow up in New York, or even in the United States. So before Wednesday afternoon my sole point of reference for the world’s fairs of the thirties was Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, in which two characters enjoy a tryst in the middle of the Democracity exhibit at the Perisphere, the iconic globe at the centre of the New York World’s Fair of 1939-40.

Sammy Clay’s and Tracy Bacon’s romp is only a somewhat more erotic expression of what many New Yorkers may have felt at the time, according to Jessica Lautin, a post-doctoral curatorial fellow at the Museum of the City of New York: fascination, even enchantment, with the sleek vision of the future on display at Flushing Meadow, Queens. Succeeding four other expositions of the thirties and contemporaneous with a fifth in San Francisco, the New York World’s Fair bewitched some forty-five million spectators with its displays of slick cars, bullet-nosed trains, friendly domestic robots, home dishwashers, streamlined toasters, modular furniture, bakelite napkin rings, and amusement park-like rides meant to show off the car-filled, skyscraping cities of the future. On offer at the fair: a spectacular escape from the daily realities of the depression and Second World War, and a tantalizing sample of a factory-made, affordable, and consumable world to come. Small wonder (some) New Yorkers fell in love.

Until March 31, the MCNY is offering New Yorkers a chance to relive, and reexamine, the Fair’s historical moment. Materials from the world’s fairs of the thirties—Chicago (1933-4), San Diego (’35-6), Dallas (’36), Cleveland (’36-7), San Francisco (’39-40), and New York (’39-40)—are currently on display at the MCNY’s Designing Tomorrow exhibit, which Lautin and her curatorial team have adapted for the MCNY’s space and audience from the original exhibit at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.. Working under somewhat more cramped conditions, Lautin has made a virtue of necessity, grouping the exhibition materials thematically and housing them in rectilinear structures meant to evoke the Fair’s original pavilions. The MCNY’s exhibit also shines a particular light on the exhibition in Flushing Meadow, its place within its historical context, and its role in reshaping New York City: the construction turned The Great Gatsby’s “valley of ashes” into the current Flushing Meadows Park, while the Queens Museum now occupies the Fair’s New York City pavilion, the only building meant to outlast the exposition.

An illustrated rendering of a scene from The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair. The Middletons admire Moto-Man, the domestic robot of which the MCNY has an exact replica on display.

Chatting with me over coffee in the museum’s café, Lautin emphasized the seismic shifts in cultural territory that the Fairs inaugurated, changes that went beyond home dishwashers, cars for summer vacations, and furniture that families could move easily from room to room or house to house. The Fairs’ corporations like Ford and Westinghouse sold, and their spectators bought, a kind of political and economic citizenship: middle class, straight, white, and happily committed to purchasing their place in the world promised by the glossy exhibits. Westinghouse even produced a film, tellingly titled The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair: a dour anti-capitalist artist and a smart blond engineer, conveniently employed at the Westinghouse pavilion, fight for a woman’s affections. (The engineer wins; was that in doubt?) However transparently propagandistic, the film’s simple narrative has a seductive pull over its spectators, no less than the engineer’s over Babs Middleton, giving us aesthetic purchase on the middle(ton)-class married life on offer at the Fair.

There’s something both attractive and dangerous in this seduction, which Designing Tomorrow, with its glossy artifacts and the siren-sheen of its Moto-man replica, recreates for a modern museum-goer. However suspect the political and economic vision that the world’s fair sold to its spectators, critically examining the Fairs’ historical moment offers rewarding insights into the futures that the Fairs’ corporate backers promised and, decades later, fulfilled.

So while I wouldn’t gaze at the past’s future with rose-tinted goggles, don’t let latter-day cynicism keep you away: Designing Tomorrow is exhaustively researched, impeccably presented, and also buckets of fun. The exhibition runs until March 31, and students with valid CUID get in free through Passport to NY. For more materials and information, including this snazzy recreation of the Democracity exhibit, check out the exhibition’s Tumblr, On March 11, E.L. Doctorow will be reading at the MCNY from his National Book Award-winning novel World’s Fair for $8 students, $12 general public.

Gavin McGown, CC’13

Posted in Museums | Tagged ,

Masters Hone their Craft at Columbia’s Own Miller Theatre

Just beside the gates at 116th Street and Broadway, right here on Columbia’s campus, is one of New York City’s most highly regarded, award-winning music venues. Maybe you’ve visited with your Music Hum class; supported your friends in the CU Orchestra, Jazz Ensembles, or Ballet Collaborative; or taken advantage of $7 CU student tickets to a jazz or Composer Portraits concert. Or maybe, like many students at Columbia, you’re not quite sure what goes on every day in the nearly 700-seat theater next door. Allow me to pull back the curtain on what’s been happening this week.

In preparation for Saturday’s Composer Portrait of Sofia Gubaidulina, members of New York’s own International Contemporary Ensemble took the stage on Monday for their first rehearsal in the venue. Led by conductor Christian Knapp, the group lost no time in filling the space with Gubaidulina’s remarkably intricate orchestrations.

Though the ICE players are all masterful musicians, rehearsals happen for a reason.  After practicing their parts independently, the musicians have only five days of group rehearsal to put these pieces together. Today, Knapp helps the players work through a particularly complex part in the score. At one point, polyphonic (more than one melodic line) and polyrhythmic (different rhythms for different voices) elements combine to create an overall sensation of cacophony that is both decisively chaotic and surprisingly organized. The effect is reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps — in both pieces, a strong ostinato pulse from the lower-voiced instruments is offset by a mélange of sounds and melodies coming from the mid- and upper-range instruments.

While working through some of the most problematic parts of the piece is obviously an important part of group rehearsal, Knapp also makes sure to consider the piece holistically. He gives the players a few images to invoke, hoping it will help them embody Gubaidulina’s artistic intentions. One such image was that of an Orthodox chorus, and for Gubaidulina’s music, it’s a particularly compelling one. As a practitioner of Russian Orthodoxy, Gubaidulina’s scores often have an overarching feeling that is both mystical and spiritually profound. Bassoonist Rebekah Heller, who will be performing the solo in Gubaidulina’s Concerto for bassoon and low strings, describes Gubaidulina’s work as “so tangibly dark, you can feel her questions and her angst.” As Knapp conducts, he reminds the musicians of this feeling, and encourages them to remember the composer’s influences in their interpretations of her work.

Watching Knapp conduct, it becomes clear he is a confident leader. But ICE is so full of brilliantly talented musicians the rehearsal is more collaborative than expected. The musicians give each other notes and suggestions, and sometimes ask Knapp to make adjustments to his conducting. Critiques are received with trust and appreciation — in a room full of masters, everyone knows best. According to Heller, cross-talking is one of the benefits of playing in a chamber ensemble. In a larger orchestra, the conductor is in charge; for the members of ICE, collaboration is the key.

ICE will be performing three of Gubaidulina’s works this weekend, but I spoke with Heller specifically about the bassoon concerto. The piece is rarely performed, and though she has admired the concerto for fifteen years, this will be her first opportunity to perform it. Her position in the piece is unique — as the featured soloist, she has a definite leadership role, but the impact of the work is in the interaction between the ensemble, the conductor, and herself. As Heller described it, Gubaidulina’s music is “more about voices coming together” than individual parts standing out — an appropriate analysis of the concerto, and of the work of ICE on the whole.


Composer Portrait performance will take place on Saturday, February 9th, at 8:00pm in Miller Theatre. Tickets for Columbia/Barnard students are only $7, and can be purchased at the Miller Box Office on 116th and Broadway. To learn more about this concert, or to watch a preview of the Sofia Gubaidulina Composer Portrait, please visit the Miller Theatre website.

Katherine Bergstrom CC’14

Posted in Uncategorized

The Art of Scent at MAD

I smelled an exhibit today. Yes, that’s right, “smelled.” Let me elaborate. In the realm of the arts we rely on our sense of sight to perceive visual works, our sense of touch to feel textures, our sense of hearing to experience music, and our sense of taste to sample the culinary arts. When it comes to our sense of smell, one that is understood on a microscopically chemical and biological level, it generally takes a backseat to the other four sensations in our experiences of art. The Museum of Art and Design is currently running an exhibition called, “The Art of Scent,” until March 3, 2013, purely focusing on the olfactory experience through a survey of twelve perfumes done by some of the most important scent artists dating back to the 1880s.

Museum goers check out and smell the scent niches from the "Art of Scent" exhibit

Museum goers check out and smell the scent niches from the “Art of Scent” exhibit

How do you showcase something that is far from visually present and difficult to contain as perfumes? The architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro have done a beautiful job of realizing such an exhibition through the design of 12 scent contraptions across the wall of the fourth floor gallery. Each perfume is contained by a subtle dimple into the wall and as each viewer reaches their head into the niche, a soft spray of perfume diffuses into the small space. As I’m writing this, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the incredible mechanism of the machines (I found out that they are designed by the company Scentcommunication, which specializes in creating these contraptions for perfume tradeshows), but enough of that.

Beyond testing perfumes on my wrist until my nose goes numb and everything just begins to take on a strong undercurrent of rubbing alcohol I can’t say that I have thought much about the medium of perfume as an olfactory art form. Yet the thoughtful curatorial work of the exhibit, which removes all the glitzy glass bottles that scents are contained in on a consumer level, made me really think about how a scent concoction is a complex synthesis of smells that can stimulate on a psychological basis and represent identities no different from how conventional art forms may do so. There are the top sellers such as Light Blue by Dolce & Gabbana , Angel by Thierry Mugler, Prada Amber, and the iconic Chanel No. 5. Yet beyond the designer names of the perfumes, the exhibit also highlights the perfumer who decisively used chemicals as a painter uses his or her paints to develop fragrances. My favorite was Drakkar Noir, developed by the perfumer Pierre Wargnye, which captures the small of laundry detergent through the synthetic molecule dihydromyrcenol.

It is a funny thing to call a perfume a work of art because as a product of our vanity, most justify it for the purpose of “smelling good.” Yet at the same time, for those who carefully select or make scents because they evoke nostalgia or find scent as a representation of who they are on an entirely different sensory level, they take on a different kind of meaning. In any case, I highly recommend you go on down to Columbus Circle to check out the exhibit at the Museum of Arts and Design and see if scent takes on a different meaning for you!

Caroline Chen CC ’15

Posted in Free in NYC, Museums, Uncategorized

Enter Ghost


Live at Lerner’s Sounds series has sometimes struck me as a musical blind date. The performers – usually up-and-coming NYC-based talent – can look just a little out of their element, playing a lunchtime gig squashed against the piano lounge’s baby grand. The students are a shy, enthusiastic audience, most of whom will not have heard of the band before seeing a tastefully designed poster in the Hamilton stairwell. But everyone makes a virtue of unfamiliarity, as the performers make our drab student center burst with a little bit of life and students file in for an hour of music and a warm, free lunch.

Wednesday’s amply enjoyable Sounds performance by This Old Ghost, a dynamic five-piece indie rock band with folk overtones, nostalgic feelings, snappy lyrics, flute riffs, and a fresh-from-the-oven LP, did not disappoint. This Old Ghost’s music is smart and self-reflective, their execution on Wednesday afternoon tight and polished. Their songs keep to some indie mainstays—think Bon Iver or Iron and Wine, beards and feelings included—but with enough lyrical wit and musical imagination to sound fresh and engaging. I appreciate in particular the colour that Karri Diomede’s flute lends to “Nowhere” and, from Ghost’s EP, “Madam of the Old West,” and I’ll admit that I spent some two minutes listening to “Foreign Languages” and tapping out the time signature (a 6/8 | 3/4 hemiola, I think).


And while This Old Ghost’s music tends towards the introspective and weighty—vocalist Ian McGuinness’ echo pedal lent Wednesday’s performance an at times emotionally gimmicky tone—McGuinness’ and Diomede’s abundant, lighthearted energy made the music impossible not to enjoy. McGuinness’ wry acknowledgement of some of the set’s more awkward moments was especially amusing, as he bantered with the room about the band’s not crafting a set list and the hodgepodge audience: “Sorry if you’re doing homework and we’re just being loud up here.” (Really, no apologies necessary, though.)

My hat is off as well to Columbia Catering for their menu of steaming barley soup, rich hot chocolate,  and a bread pudding that felt like a hug in my mouth. And kudos to the Live at Lerner team for putting a bright, warm moment in a busy student’s day. I look forward to a term of Sounds.

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Norman Vladimir, The Hurricane

Found this fellow’s music while Doing Things for the Arts Initiative. Officially hooked.

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Musical Mentors Collaborative Provides Lessons to Those in Need

The Musical Mentors Collaborative is a non-profit organization seeking to provide free music lessons to elementary school students.

The Musical Mentors Collaborative is a non-profit organization seeking to provide free music lessons to elementary school students.

Musical Mentors Collaborative, a student-run organization based primarily at Columbia, held their end-of-semester recital Saturday, December 15, to celebrate the progress of their students.

The organization seeks to provide free musical instruction and shares much in common with the famed El Sistema program of Venezuela, which provides free, high-quality orchestral instruction to students who might not otherwise have access to music lessons. Although the MMC differs from the El Sistema program primarily by emphasizing private lessons, “it’s the same idea of offering the opportunity to study music to people who wouldn’t be able to afford it,” Julia Sayles, co-president, explains. The program is based on “believing that anybody can learn,” she continues, and “focusing on the process more than on the finished product.”

The MMC has recently gained visibility at Columbia for its outreach work. The network sources potential instructors from the University community and connects them with students who meet the criteria to participate in the program at local elementary school P.S. 145, located at 105th between Amsterdam and Columbus. The target demographic comprises elementary school students who qualify for the federal reduced lunch program.

At the beginning of each semester, MMC hosts an instrument fair during which students from P.S. 145 have the opportunity to hear instruments they might like to play. The relationships struck up from this initial screening process are often long term—“ A lot of our students have been with their instructors for upwards of three years,” says co-president Nisha Hollingsworth. Her own student has been with her for two years, beginning when she was just five years old.

Hollingsworth seeks to emulate the pedagogical techniques her instructor used when she was learning piano and styles the lessons in the same way. “I’ve been teaching her just regular piano technique; I don’t think I water it down or anything,” Hollingsworth says. “She’s reading actual music now—I’m even using the same books that I used when I started playing piano!”

Part of the success of these extended partnerships revolves around parental involvement, which the MMC requires of each potential student. “In terms of philosophy, it’s really important for parents to be involved in the music process,” says Sayles. “If the parent is sitting in the lesson, then the parent knows what the student is expected to be working on and also becomes familiar with musical terms, and with the music, and can really help with at-home practicing.”

Hollingsworth and Sayles are also working to extend their good efforts to other parts of New York and the world. “The Columbia branch is like our flagship chapter and is our largest by far,” Sayles says. “But we also have a chapter at the London School of Economics.” Next semester, they hope to have a branch running at NYU. “We have two girls down there working on getting a group of instructors going and on finding a school down there to pair with,” Sayles says. “So we are really looking to spread it to as many students as we can.”

This is part two in the series on student groups in the community. You can read part 1 about the Columbia Ballet Collaborative in the post The Ballet Goes to P.S. 175.

– Laura Booth, CC ’15

Posted in Music, Programs, Student Organizations | Tagged , , , , ,

The History of Science gets Literary at the Jewish Museum

The Jewish Museum's Crossing Borders exhibit includes copies of Euclid's early texts on geometry, complete with notated figures.

The Jewish Museum’s Crossing Borders exhibit includes copies of Euclid’s early texts on geometry, complete with notated figures.

Perhaps the best way to appreciate one of the Jewish Museum’s current exhibits,  Crossing Borders: Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries, is to learn a little bit more about why—apart from being, at nearly a thousand years old, inconceivably ancient and on display for our 21st century eyes to see—the books in the show are so remarkable.

That’s where attending a talk hosted by the Museum comes in. Take, for example, “The Medieval Book and the Diffusion of Science,” given by Thomas F Glick, a distinguished Boston University professor who specializes in medieval Spain, medieval science and technology, modern science, and food history, and who was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Valencia in 2010 and has held National Endowment for the Humanities, National Science Foundation, and Fulbright fellowships.  Professor Glick began his talk as any suitably dignified professor might—by fiddling with his Powerpoint presentation and complaining about the inability of a person to give a talk anymore without having one—before launching into a discussion of the intertwinings of Hebrew, Arabic, and Latin in the historical trajectory of science education and knowledge.

Although our own Core curriculum may not focus on the diffusion of science from Greek, through other foundational languages such as Hebrew and Arabic, and into other Western languages, this phenomenon has been dubbed “The greatest single cultural achievement in human history” by some. Glick holds this position to be a bit extreme, claiming instead that the translation of science from Greek into Arabic ought to be placed into the same category as the Renaissance or the Enlightenment in terms of its impact on intellectual history.

One of the beautifully illuminated manuscripts now on display at the Jewish Museum.

One of the beautifully illuminated manuscripts now on display at the Jewish Museum.

Jews were highly influential in the progress of this type of linguistic diffusion because translations often had to pass through the medium of Hebrew to get to Arabic. These translations were achieved in teams and, in Spain, for example, Jews were always the senior members of such teams because they knew both Greek and Arabic. This is interesting, Glick said, because Jews have traditionally been persecuted in Spain. But, at this time, Christians wanted to learn Arabic, which gave Jews cultural capital, if only temporarily.

Glick’s primary interest is in the translation of technology across linguistic cultures. In this vein, he chatted extensively about the astrolabe, a device used in the middle ages to track the positions of celestial bodies for use in astrology, astronomy, navigation, and so on. According to Glick, the astrolabe came in Hebrew, Arabic, and Latin versions. The instrument’s various cultural roots related it to the study of science amongst particular peoples: science and, in particular, medicine, was highly astrological at this point, and to consult an astrolabe was considered akin to reading a book.

The additional context provided by Professor Glick’s lecture made the Bodleian manuscripts in the next room over all the more awe-inspiring. It was in these books, in their various languages, that the very basis of science as we know it became available to people across the world. And in any case, they’re beautiful to contemplate.

Crossing Borders: Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries will run until February 3, 2013, and is free with valid student CUID through Passport to NYTalks in connection with the Jewish Museum’s exhibits are offered frequently. For more information and a calendar of events, click here

-Laura Booth, CC ’15

Posted in History, Literature, Multicultural, Museums, Visual Art | Tagged , , ,