Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

08 MAY, 2015

A Lovely Illustrated Children’s Book Celebrating Trailblazing Jazz Pianist and Composer Mary Lou Williams

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How an extraordinary woman transformed bullying into beautiful music and came to lift the spirits of millions.

The history of jazz is strewn with Y chromosomes and credit-hogging egos, which makes pianist, composer, and arranger Mary Lou Williams (May 8, 1910–May 28, 1981) all the more dazzling an outlier — a generous genius who, like Mozart, began playing the piano at the age of four. At a time when women sang and danced but rarely played an instrument, Williams became a virtuoso pianist who went on to write and arrange for legends like Duke Ellington and mentored a generation of emerging icons, including Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis. Ellington himself, who believed she was “like soul on soul,” aptly captured her spirit and legacy in noting that “her music retains a standard of quality that is timeless.”

In The Little Piano Girl: The Story of Mary Lou Williams, Jazz Legend (public library), writers Ann Ingalls and Maryann Macdonald tell Williams’s uplifting story of passion, perseverance, and prolific contribution to creative culture. What emerges is not only a wonderful addition to the loveliest picture-books celebrating creative luminaries, but also a bold antidote to the striking statistics that only 31 percent of children’s books feature female protagonists and a mere 0.3 percent include characters of color.

The story, illustrated by the inimitable Giselle Potter — the talent behind Gertrude Stein’s posthumous alphabet book, Toni Morrison’s dark allegory for freedom, and an original love letter to dreams — begins with a long train ride little Mary took with her mother and sister from their hometown of Atlanta to Pittsburg, known as “The Smoky City” for its fuming steel mills, where they were to live with her aunt and uncle.

Chug-ga
Chug-ga
Clappety
Clap
Clap

The night she left Georgia, Mary couldn’t see anything but lights out the train window … but she could hear! She listened to the train and clapped out its sound on her knees.

She sang the sound of its whistle.
“Chug-ga, chug-ga, chug-ga … Toot! Toot!”

The train went faster, leaving home behind:
“Clackety-clack! Clackety-clack! Clackety-clack!”

Mary clapped and sang softly, so that Mama and her sister, Mamie, could sleep.
By the time they arrived at the big station in Pittsburgh the next morning, Mary had sung herself to sleep, too.

Music was Mary’s most exuberant love — a love seeded by her mother, who was an organ player at their church back in Georgia, attesting once again to the power of attentive, creatively supporting parenting in cultivating artistic genius.

When Mary was three, Mama played a tune, holding Mary on her lap.

As the last notes sounded through the room, Mary reached out and played them back to her mother. Mama stood up and Mary went tumbling. Mama cried to her neighbors, “Come hear this! Come hear my baby girl play!”

But they had to sell the organ when they moved, so Mary stopped playing. To make matters direr, their new home was far from welcoming — hostile to newcomers, the neighbors threw bricks through their windows and tirelessly taunted the family with unwholesome epithets. The local children called Mary cruel names, pulled her hair, and ridiculed her clothing.

And yet even at this young age, Mary possessed that singular skill of great artists — the ability to turn trauma into raw material for art — and transmuted the trying experience into music:

Ugly names and cruel words… Mary called them “bad sounds” and she taught herself to play them out. Even without a keyboard, she could do it. Tapping on the tabletop, she beat back the bad sounds and sang out her sadness. She crooned and whispered and shouted out until her spirit was lifted free.

One day, when little Mary was picking dandelions in the street, a kindly lady from the local church passed by and invited her over for ice cream. As soon as the little girl entered the house, a treat far more delectable transfixed her — a big old piano, sitting in the corner under a lace cover. Intrigued by the little girl’s interest, the lady invited Mary to play her a tune.

Mary sat down and lifted the cover. She drew a shaky breath and her fingers found the keys. They hadn’t forgotten a thing. Soon she was riding those keys, playing a tune that rumbled along like a freight train.

“Lord have mercy!” said Lucille. The teacup jumped in her hand. She went to the stairs and called up.

“Cephus! Come down here and hear this child play.” But Cephus was already halfway down the stairs.

Soon, the neighbors and the whole town were bewitched by Mary’s talent and she became affectionately known as “the little piano girl of East Liberty.” People even started paying her to play for them — something that calls to mind another pioneering woman of the era, the great children’s book artist and author Wanda Gág, who was so talented as a child that she sold her drawings to feed the family.

The remainder of the wholly wonderful The Little Piano Girl goes on to tell the story of how Williams came to lift other spirits free with her music the way she had once lifted her own, electrifying people the world over and becoming one of the most influential musicians humanity has ever known.

Complement it with more magnificent picture-book biographies celebrating great artists, writers, and scientists, including those of Frida Kahlo, Jane Goodall, Albert Einstein, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Neruda.

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07 MAY, 2015

Ray Bradbury on Storytelling, Friendship, and Why He Never Learned to Drive: A Lost Vintage Interview, Found and Animated

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“You write to please yourself. You write for the joy of writing. And then your public reads you and it begins to gather around.”

Ray Bradbury GIFIn the fall of 2012, Lisa Potts discovered a cassette tape behind her dresser. On it was a long-lost interview she had conducted with Ray Bradbury (August 22, 1920–June 5, 2012) — regimented writer, creative idealist, list-maker, space-lover, sage of life and love — exactly four decades earlier, when she journalism student in 1972. Potts and her classmate Chadd Coates were driving Bradbury — a resolute, lifelong nondriver — from his home in West Los Angeles to their university, Orange County’s Chapman College, where he was about to deliver a lecture. The informal conversation that ensued emanates Bradbury’s unforgettable blend of humor, humility, and wholeheartedness to the point of heroism.

In this wonderful animation, the fine folks of Blank on Blank — who have previously given us John Lennon and Yoko Ono on love, David Foster Wallace on ambition, Jane Goodall on life, and Richard Feynman on the most important thing — bring to life Potts’s lost-and-found Bradbury treasure. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy:

Half a century before David Whyte’s beautiful meditation on friendship as the ultimate gift of bearing witness, Bradbury tackles the subject with his singular blend of warm wisdom and wit:

That’s what friends are — people who share your crazy outlook and protect you from the world… Friendship is an island you retreat to, and you’re all on the floor and laugh at all the other ninnies who don’t have enough brains to have your good taste.

Shortly after Margaret Mead and James Baldwin condemned car-culture, Bradbury explains on why he never learned to drive — even though he spent his life in LA, one of the world’s most freeway-raptured cities:

I’ve had too many friends killed now. I’ve seen too many people killed in my life, when I drove across the country when I was twelve — I’m sure that has a lot to do with it. If you see real dead bodies with brains on the pavement, it does a lot to change your attitude… It’s stupid — the whole activity is stupid.

Half a century after Bertrand Russell cautioned that “the kind of truthfulness which sees nothing but facts is a prison for the human spirit,” Bradbury reflects on his realistic yet imaginative approach to storytelling:

It’s a combination of realism, with fantasy — but I don’t like realism, because we already know the real facts about life, most of the basic facts. I’m not interested in repeating what we already know — we know about sex, about violence, about murder, about war — all these things — by the time we’re eighteen… From there on, we need interpreters — we need poets, we need philosophers, we need theologians — who take the same basic facts and work with them, and help us make do with those facts.

Facts alone are not enough — it’s interpretation.

Bradbury, who spent a lifetime advocating for the supremacy of emotion over the intellect in catalyzing creative work, echoes Rilke’s conviction that feedback poisons art and champions the practice of unselfconscious authenticity:

Don’t pay any attention to what anyone else says — no opinions! The important thing is to explode with the story, to emotionalize it, not to think it. If you start to think it, the story’s going to die on its feet. It’s like anything else… People who take books on sex to bed become frigid — you get self-conscious.

You can’t think a story — you can’t think, “I shall do a story to improve mankind.” It’s nonsense! All the great stories, all the really worthwhile plays, are emotional experiences. If you have to ask yourself whether you love a girl, or whether you love a boy, forget it — you don’t! A story is the same way — you either feel a story and need to write it, or you’d better not write it.

[…]

You write to please yourself. You write for the joy of writing. And then your public reads you and it begins to gather around…

The enthusiasm, the joy itself draws me — so that means, every day of my life, I’ve written. When the joy stops, I’ll stop writing.

Bradbury never stopped — the joy stayed with him until he exploded out of this world shortly before his ninety-second birthday.

For more of Bradbury’s warm genius, see his wisdom on the importance of love in creative endeavors, the value of public libraries, and his conversation with Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke about Mars and the future of humanity.

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07 MAY, 2015

Einstein, Gödel, and Our Strange Experience of Time: Rebecca Goldstein on How Relativity Rattled the Flow of Existence

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“Is there anything we know more intimately than the fleetingness of time, the transience of each and every moment?”

“An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length,” Virginia Woolf marveled at the extraordinary elasticity of how we experience time, which modern psychologists are only beginning to fathom. Nearly a century later, Sarah Manguso — a Woolf of our own — tussled with the same perplexity in contemplating the pleasures and perils of time’s inevitable ongoingness. And yet however convincing our intuitive sense that time is a mutable abstraction shaped by the subjective grab-bag of attributes and experiences we call the self, there remains the empirical nature of time as a measurable, observable, concrete dimension of reality — and the rift between these two conceptions of time is one of the most disorienting yet fascinating aspects of existence.

In the altogether spectacular Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel (public library), philosopher Rebecca Goldstein — who has also explored the most intimate facet of our confounding relationship with time, the mystery of what makes you and your childhood self the same person — chronicles how the emergence of modern physics in the twentieth century, particularly Einstein’s theory of relativity, rattled our intuitive notions of time as a subjective experience.

Einstein and Gödel on one of their regular walks in Princeton, New Jersey.

Goldstein examines the immutable incompleteness of our understanding of time, which preoccupied both Gödel and Einstein:

Despite the popular distortions, to a certain extent encouraged by the vague suggestions of the word “relativity,” Einstein was … as far from interpreting his famous theory in subjective terms as it is possible to be. On the contrary, on his interpretation, relativity theory offers a realist description of time that is startlingly distinct from our subjective theory of time. The great yawning chasm between the “out yonder” and the “in here” is stretched even wider, on the Einsteinian hypothesis, since objective time — the time that is described in the equations of relativity theory — is lacking the very feature that seems to provide the essential stab to our subjective experience of time: its inexorable flow, ultimately lighting all our yesterdays the way to dusty death. Is there anything we know more intimately than the fleetingness of time, the transience of each and every moment?

And yet, Goldstein points out, Einstein’s physics actually counters rather than confirming this intuitive subjectivity of the human experience of time:

The nature of reality that spills forth from Einstein’s physics is so much more startling than the simplistic, undergraduate-beloved shibboleth: everything is relative to subjective points of view. In Einstein’s physics, there is no passage of time, no unidirectional flow from the fixed past and toward the uncertain future. The temporal component of space-time is as static as its spatial components; physical time is as still as physical space. It is all laid out, the whole spread of events, in the tenseless four-dimensional space-time manifold.

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.

Time, then, becomes not an attribute of the outer world — the universal “out yonder” — but an orienteering compass for the inner world. (One is reminded of Henry Miller’s meditation on the art of living: “On how one orients himself to the moment depends the failure or fruitfulness of it.”) Goldstein captures this beautifully:

The distinctions we make between the past and the present and the future — distinctions which are so emotionally fraught and without which we can’t even begin to describe our inner worlds — only have relevance within those inner worlds. Objective time, as it is characterized in relativity, can’t support the distinction between the past and the present and the future. Or, as Einstein told [philosopher and Vienna Circle member] Rudolf Carnap, “the experience of the now means something special for man, something essentially different from the past and the future, but this important difference does not and cannot occur within physics.”

Einstein himself articulated this with piercing precision in a condolence letter to the widow of his longtime friend, the physicist Michele Besso:

In quitting this strange world he has once again preceded me by just a little. That doesn’t mean anything. For us convinced physicists the distinction between the past, the present, and the future is only an illusion, albeit a persistent one.

Discus chronologicus, a depiction of time from the early 1720s, found in 'Cartographies of Time.' Click image for more.

Ultimately, these illusions are the direct result of the stories we buy into, which are in turn a direct result of the power structures that purvey the stories we call truth. In that sense, they are, after all, not absolute but relative to the baseline of our manufactured beliefs. Goldstein observes the general dynamics of which our time theories are but a particular symptom:

The necessary incompleteness of even our formal systems of thought demonstrates that there is no nonshifting foundation on which any system rests. All truths — even those that had seemed so certain as to be immune to the very possibility of revision — are essentially manufactured. Indeed the very notion of the objectively true is a socially constructed myth. Our knowing minds are not embedded in truth. Rather the entire notion of truth is embedded in our minds, which are themselves the unwitting lackeys of organizational forms of influence.

Incompleteness is a completely mind-stretching read in its entirety. Complement it with Goldstein on the paradox of personal identity, Thomas Mann on how time confers meaning upon existence, and the psychology of why different experiences warp our sense of time.

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06 MAY, 2015

Dante and the Eternal Quest for Nonreligious Divinity: Physicist Margaret Wertheim on Science and God

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“I believe that there is a love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

Centuries after Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, contemplated the relationship between science and religion, and decades after Carl Sagan did the same in his exquisite Varieties of Scientific Experience, physicist-turned-science-writer Margaret Wertheim offers perhaps the most elegant and emboldening reconciliation of these two frequently contrasted approaches to the human longing for truth and meaning.

Wertheim is the creator of the PBS documentary Faith and Reason, author of deeply thoughtful books like Pythagoras’s Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender War and The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet, and cofounder of The Institute for Figuring — “an organization dedicated to the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of science, mathematics and engineering.” In her intellectually invigorating On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, Wertheim recounts how she moved away from the Catholic faith of her childhood and toward science, while maintaining a nonreligious sense of spiritual curiosity. In discussing her beliefs, she offers one of the most luminous conceptions of what secular spirituality stands to offer in the modern world, especially for those of us who hold dear the values of science, and how a deeper sense of resonance with the universe can elevate and ennoble human life:

I don’t know that I believe in the existence of God in the Catholic sense. But my favorite book is the Divine Comedy. And at the end of the Divine Comedy, Dante pierces the skin of the universe and comes face-to-face with the love that moves the sun and the other stars.

I believe that there is a love that moves the sun and the other stars. I believe in Dante’s vision.

And so, in some sense, perhaps I could be said to believe in God. And I think part of the problem with the concept of, “Are you an atheist or not?” is that our conception of what divinity means has become so trivialized and banal that I think it’s almost impossible to answer the question without dogma. And … I’m very, very saddened by the fact that militant atheism has become so to the fore of our society — I think it’s destructive and unhelpful, and I don’t think it does science any service.

[…]

One way I think we can understand the God question in relation to science is this: that prior to the coming into being of modern science, [in] the Christian conception of God, God had two functions — God was the creator of the universe, but he was first and foremost the redeemer of mankind. And with the coming into being of modern science, God’s position as redeemer got shoved into the background, and all of the questions and the public discussion became about God the creator. And that was why Darwinism was so critical — because [Darwin] appeared to challenge the idea of God as the creator of man. And we, I think, [in] the modern West focus so much on the debate about the creative function of God that, outside of theological circles, we don’t seem to be able to discuss, as it were, the concept of redemption… And I think we need to be able to discuss that… We need to start thinking about that.

Complement with Alan Lightman on science and spirituality, Einstein on whether scientists pray, Flannery O’Connor on dogma and the difference between religion and faith, and Douglas Rushkoff on science, God, and why consciousness exists.

If you aren’t yet subscribing to On Being — a vitalizing source of moral encouragement and some of the most important cultural programming of our time — gladden yourself and subscribe. Tippett’s full conversation with Wertheim is but one of countless reasons to do so:

Cosmic illustration of Wertheim based on photograph by Noé Montes

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