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Moby and Tea

Yesterday, I finally made it to Teany, a tea shop opened by Moby in 2002 in the Lower East Side. A cozy, chic place, I was most impressed by their tea options, with a whopping seventy-eight varieties in total. When I told the waitress I wanted the almond black tea, she replied by asking for the item number (forty-six). The tea had a delicious flavor and was without the excessive sweetness of some of the almond milk tea I’ve had from Asian bubble tea places in the past.

Teany

You would never have guessed that this tea shop had anything to do with Moby – quite unlike concert halls or jazz clubs that show portraits of the famous musicians that have graced their venues. Having been a longtime fan of Moby, I had meant to go to this tea shop long ago, well before I finally saw Moby last year. My fortunate encounter with Moby was enabled by having created an account on songkick.com, a site that lets you know when artists you wish to follow are going to perform near you. I received a notification on the last Tuesday of last October, which listed a sizable group of artists performing at some “unknown venue” in Brooklyn on the coming Saturday. The only name on that list that I cared for was the one that appeared first. I immediately purchased a ticket knowing that wherever this concert would take place in Brooklyn, I would find a way to get there no matter the circumstances. After purchasing my ticket, I learned that the location of concert would be disclosed only on the day of the concert.

When it comes to electronic artists, Moby possesses a unique richness and diversity to his output that is unlike any other I have heard. He incorporates vocals, acoustic music, and hip-hop among other elements, and his music style ranges from energetic dancing to introspective soul-searching. I appreciate the full spectrum of his work  – just listening through any one of his albums like Play or Destroyed takes me on a marvelous journey. His uplifting music conveys an earthly vitality common to pop or folk music while his more solitary, ambient tracks sing to the song of some lost existential hymn. Being who I am, I’ve been more drawn to this latter genre of Moby’s. Pieces like The Sky is Broken, which I’ve listened to on loop in previous times, I have a hard time finding anything else that can quite mimic it. During graduate school, the last half of the second CD of Hotel, beginning with the hauntingly beautiful Not Sensitive, would often accompany my long periods of concentration on mathematics. It seems that there are neuroscience studies on the effect of classical music on the brain, but I wonder about the effects of electronic music.

When Saturday’s concert day came around, it was past 4pm when I checked my email on my phone while walking casually around in my neighborhood. It was the email disclosing the secret location and I couldn’t believe it: that place is just a block away from me! Also surprisingly, the location was on a road that I felt to be occupied only by abandoned warehouses. I immediately walked by the location and could find no indication that a concert was conspiring to take place. It was the usual way it was every time I walked or jogged by it in the past: an empty street with nameless, graffitied buildings and bolted garage doors. Sure enough however, when evening descended, a file of people lined outside the warehouse door, with a few bouncers and an array of portable stanchions to reveal that an event was taking place on the otherwise dim, lifeless street. Apparently, lots of things can be happening in a warehouse behind closed garage doors during the day.

Warehouse

As to be expected, there were several artists in the lineup before Moby’s arrival. The most interesting among them had a display that was a novel audial-visual synchronization: it paired human voices with animated faces that were lit upon pods mounted above tall electrical tentacles. Each time there was a vocal, a corresponding mouth of one of these avatars would open, inducing a kind of futuristic choir involving simulated faces detached from bodies. Apparently, the technology goes by the name of The Lumiphonic Creature Choir, and it can be programmed in many more ways than what I saw in concert.

It wasn’t until close to 1am that Moby finally made his appearance. His arrival was prefaced by the artist on stage asking the audience, with eager anticipation, if they were ready for Moby. The cheers were loud, the audience was jubilant, and an immediate transition in music and lighting signaled Moby taking over the DJ table.

Moby

Moby brought the energy level and excitement well beyond the previous artists. Even though this was Moby just DJing instead of giving a full-on performance, my enjoyment of his compositions transmuted into an immediate fervor over his choice of sounds to spin. As with other DJ jam sessions I’ve been to, there would be perpetual rounds of climaxes, where the music ascends in pitch, the base disappears, and the anticipation builds up as the DJ raises his hands and claps, inducing a forceful, synchronized clapping from the audience. Finally, a thunderous cadence falls and hypnotic beats return to rumble the dance floor. Simply rapturous. Moby looked like a man from another world. A pale and bald skinny guy bobbing up and down as he was spinning the disks – he was some kind of albino music alien.

After Moby’s phenomenal performance, I felt thoroughly satisfied, the kind of feeling you get after the high of a run and the relief of a shower. I left about an hour later (i.e. walked around the corner and back to my apartment). The concert would continue to go late into the night, lasting until 6am according to the organizers. Before going to bed, I looked out my window through the curtain and could see blue and red lights pulsating from the topmost window of the warehouse at which I had just spent the last few hours. To be so close to it all – what rare privilege and proximity. I slept well. Definitely my cup of tea.

Carnegie Hall: Evgeny Kissin and Yuja Wang

Last May, I attended two exceptional piano recitals at Carnegie Hall. The first, held May 3, was given by the legendary Evgeny Kissin. He is arguably the most famous living piano child prodigy, having made his international debut at the age of twelve with his performances of the Chopin piano concertos. His name is certainly household among classical music afficionados, and when I learned that he was performing at Carnegie Hall, I made sure to set my alarm to the morning of August 27, 2012 so that I would be able to buy tickets the moment they were on sale and gloat afterwards about my fortuitous purchase.

Even if one were deaf, it was clear from the setup of the concert that Kissin’s performance was an atypical ordeal. Extra rows of chairs were set up on stage around the piano facing the audience, providing elite ticket holders with an up close-up and personal experience with Kissin’s pianism. I have to say, I’ve never seen such a special setup in any kind of musical performance, either in real life or on YouTube.

To my surprise, the piece that impressed me most in Kissin’s performance was the first: the Haydn Sonata in E flat major Hob XVI:49. There was something very wholesome about Kissin’s playing of the piece. His ability to weave together all the subtleties of the sonata created a sort of sublime ecstasy, one far more enchanting than dazzling displays of technical flare. Of course, Kissin made sure to showcase his virtuosity when he played Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No. 10 as one of his encore pieces. Although thunderous and electrifying, I’ve always preferred Claudio Arrau’s interpretation to Kissin’s. It may just be that I head Arrau’s first and grew comfortable with it, but if I had to come up with a reason, I think it’s that Arrau’s interpretation is more haunting, while Kissin’s is more diabolic and agitated. I also prefer Cziffra’s interpretation to Kissin, whose playing I find more dreamlike (as can be seen in Cziffra’s facial expressions).

Two weeks later, I attended Yuja Wang’s piano recital, which was especially a treat, since her program, in contrast to Kissin’s, consisted of works much closer to my heart: Rachmainoff, Scriabin, and Lowell Liebermann. Wang is a rising star still in her twenties and yet her bewildering virtuosity has already sky rocketed her into comparisons with the greatests pianists of previous generations, including Vladimiar Horowitz. On a more superficial level, she has also turned heads with her unconventional attire, preferring more colorful and revealing clothing that displays her toned, athletic body. Consequently, there are numerous articles reviewing Yuja Wang that address not just her music but also how she dresses. As it turns out, she actually changed her attire during the intermission of my concert, going from a form-fitting black attire to a bright, orange, low-cut dress. As the video below shows, I was sitting sufficiently far back that her choice of clothing (or lack thereof) would have had little bearing on my concert experience.

Honestly, I was more impressed by Wang’s playing than Kissin’s. Her technique was absolutely breathtaking; that she chose to play Prokofiev’s Toccata and Horowitz’s showpiece Carmen Variations as encores already communicates this on paper.  But also her musicality was in no way compromised by her technique, an unfortunate plight among some famous musicians. Wang definitely has a very bright future ahead of her.

Rocking to the Unsilent Night

Last year, I went to Unsilent Night, a unique group event in which anonymous participants gather and walk along a designated path all the while making music by carrying boomboxes. This was not just any kind of Christmas carol music though. Each person could play music selected from only the four audio tracks on the website, which was also being distributed in various media by the organizers. These tracks were made by composer Phil Kline, and they each create a unique electronic bell-like aura very much reminiscent of the Indonesian gamelan. It was quite a spectacle to be part of a walking movement of sound carried by a crowd of people stretched across blocks. Apparently, Unsilent Night started in 1992 in Manhattan and has since then become an annual tradition that has spread to many other cities. The Manhattan event for this year’s Christmas will be tomorrow, December 14. For the less musically inclined, there is always SantaCon.

A few hours before the event, I was at the Park Avenue Armory, which had a novel, also participatory, exhibit on display. It consisted of an array of swings suspending from an extremely high ceiling, so that with enough undulations, or with the (un)intentional push of a friend, one could swing well over a hundred feet. There were also billowing white sheets suspended alongside the center point of the swings, adding to the ethereal visuals of the place. To round it out, a cryptic soundtrack of a murmuring voice could be heard within the exhibit, which is why many participants lied down, listened, and looked into the white sheets above.

“Existential Love and Math”

On Sunday, I went to the MOMA PS1 with two friends to see a joint presentation by mathematician Edward Frenkel and economist/artist Laurent DeRobert titled Existential Love and Math. Frenkel is a highly respected and accomplished mathematician and is currently a professor at UC Berkeley. He first made his break into the art world with his production of the short film Rite of Love and Death in 2010. Suffice it to say this was a very unique step on Frenkel’s part, given the unglamorous reputation associated with being an academic, let alone a mathematician. Recently, Frenkel released his book Love and Math and the event at the MOMA was a natural continuation of his desire to bring mathematics to the mainstream.

I cannot say nearly as much about Laurent Derobert, as I am outside his circle. According to some fragmentary biographical information, he has a PhD in economics and he explained to the audience that one of his mathematical influences was his experiences teaching applied mathematics. My impression, however, is that he is regarded and regards himself chiefly as an artist. (However, I do find it disappointing, if not strange, that a google search reveals very little information about Derobert; I could not find a professional webpage or direct way to contact him, and the only work of his that I could find available was a link on Amazon France to his book Fragments of Existential Mathematics, which however is currently unavailable and unreviewed.)

In any case, the evening began with Frenkel comparing the lack of appreciation for mathematics in society at large to a fictitious scenario in which painting is studied without any reference to the great masters such as van Gogh and Picasso. As one can imagine, the subject of painting in such a world would be devoid of lineage and it may very well be reduced to the art of repetitive brush strokes. This, unfortunately, quite accurately describes how mathematics is commonly taught in schools, where rules and formulas are introduced rather mechanically and without reference to their origins.

From this starting point, Frenkel goes on to argue how mathematics and art contain many elements in common. One of these is the central role that abstraction plays. To illustrate, Frenkel described the concurrent introduction of higher dimensions into mathematics and physics as well as art in the early twentieth century. In the former scenario, we have figures such as Poincaré and Einstein who developed the mathematics of special and general relativity, and in doing so, revolutionized our conception of the universe in which we live. Indeed, whereas Euclidean geometry had been the model for reality for over two millennia, and its absoluteness was even regarded in Kant’s philosophy as being fundamental to our ability to perceive the world, the new vista of a curved spacetime was now provided solely by the powerful abstraction of mathematics. In the world of art, we have in the same period, the work Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 by Marchel Duchamp in 1912, in which Duchamp departs from traditional painting and attempts to incorporate the dimension of time into a static, two-dimensional canvas. Frenkel, via this example and others, suggests that it is through such novel and powerful ways of introducing abstraction that we soar to higher levels in mathematics and art.

Frenkel goes on to explain briefly the relationship between love and math. Despite tattooing a mathematical formula on his lover in his film Rite of Love and Death (a formula discovered by Frenkel by the way), Frenkel explains that it is not that the case that he thinks there is a formula for love (thankfully). But rather, he believes (if I understood him correctly) that math and love can share aspects in common, namely, its ability to infuse passion and desire. On this point however, I do not recall if Frenkel explained what is unique about mathematics’s intersection with love (in contrast to any other creative pursuit), something I personally would have liked to be clarified.

In DeRobert’s presentation, DeRobert describes an (obviously toy) model which is supposed to mathematically compute, for lack of a better word, happiness in terms of certain variables attached to observers and the world. This is of course nothing extraordinary, as economists and game theorists do these sorts of things for a living. What was perhaps slightly unique about DeRobert’s model was the existential qualities he attached to the variables. In his model, he had vectors labelling observers and the world, each of which had three components: the objective, the subjective, and the ideal. That is, persons can be described by how they are, how they experience themselves, and how they wish to be. Similarly, the world can be described by how it is, how it is experienced, and how it ought to be. DeRobert then went on to describe various equations that relate these quantities, which naturally, are based upon intuitive assumptions about human nature. For instance, there was an amusing slide in which two variables being negatively correlated translated into the statements “The more I love, you the less you care” and “The less I care, the more you love me.”

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Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2

The presentations concluded with a discussion session moderated by artist Peter Coffin. I found this to be a very engaging discussion and one of the highlights of the event. For one, it was a very intelligent and honest discussion about topics rarely discussed in the rigid confines of academic circles: beauty and truth. Second, one rarely gets to hear an artist or an intellectual reveal his or her personal opinions directly, and it is always a pleasure to see such divulsions of private feelings in an unrehearsed and organic manner. Concerning the subject of truth, I found it very refreshing to hear three different viewpoints espoused by the men on the floor. Frenkel made it clear he is a Platonist: a mathematician discovers truths. DeRobert, on the other hand, says that an artist does not so much find truth as creates truth. To contrast these views, Coffin chimed in that he feels that art serves as a catalyst for truth. This last idea was completely new to me and I am still feeling its echo between the walls of my mind.

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One of the images invoked in the discussion of truth.

Cologne – November 24, 2012

For the month of November, I was living in Bonn to be a part of one of the trimester research programs taking place at the Hausdorff Institute of Mathematics. On my last weekend in Bonn, I made short train ride to the north to Cologne.  I had been there on a previous Friday night with some friends to get a taste of German night life. Based on the one night club I went to, what struck me as quite different between the German and American clubbing crowds was how tame the Germans were. Inside the club, people danced at an ample distance from one another and there was hardly a raunchy display of proud drunkenness from anyone.  No sweaty masses of gyrating bodies packed together, as would be the case back home, could be found.

My main purpose on this second trip was to find some decent chocolate to bring back for my family. I also wanted to get a taste of Cologne during daylight hours. As with my previous trip, upon exiting the train station, I was immediately next to one of the great landmarks of Cologne, the Gothic cathedral.

It turns out St. John’s cathedral on the upper west side of Manhattan, which I visited before, is even larger than the Gothic cathedral. Though given the scale of these monuments, and their very different style of architecture, someone with an untrained eye like myself could hardly compare their magnitudes, much less determine which one was greater in size. After taking a tour inside the Cologne cathedral, I wandered my way through the main shopping part of the town. The stone-built roads gave a distinct feel of an old town. I eventually found a large store with many floors that had a special section that sold candy and chocolate in all sorts of flavors and packages. Mission accomplished.

One of the highlights of my wandering was bumping into a group of street musicians. I’m always pleasantly surprised when I discover a new instrument whose sound opens up an undiscovered auditory vista. (This also occurred on my previous trip to Europe in 2011, where I discovered the hang drum from a duet playing in a town square in Stockholm.)

Jane Lecroy and the Mathematics of a Broken Heart – October 3, 2012

A poet and singer whose talent I greatly admire is Jane Lecroy. I first met her through the The Inspired Word open mic series, where I had quite the treat on that evening of January 6, 2012, since it was the venue’s two year anniversary event. Normally, this open mic series allows any volunteer to perform, but on this night, only an elite lineup of featured local poets, comedians, and entertainers took the stage.

While there were many memorable performances that night, I remember being immediately captured by the uniqueness of Jane’s singing voice and the lyrics of her songs. It was very obvious she had a scientific, philosophical mind, as her songs are punctuated by many poetic existential elements and quirky scientific references. This was obvious when in one of her pieces that night, she counted to ten and then lamented how the numbers all go on just the same – all the while singing beautifully and comparing the uniformity of the natural numbers to the angst of finding one’s identity mind you.

Since then, I’ve been to many other performances by Jane. Below is a clip from a performance on October 3, 2012 at The Brecht Forum in the West Village. The sound quality is low, but the real jewel is Jane’s insight into the geometry of a broken heart at the start of her piece.

Williamsburg Street Band – August 25, 2012

One of the best things about being in Brooklyn is the diversity and ubiquity of artists at every corner. It’s not always a plus – I’ve witnessed plenty a horrible musician step onto the subway train, wailing and flailing their tunes and asking for change while I’m trying to maintain equanimity (thank goodness for noise-cancelling earphones). But on this night, I couldn’t help but pause for a moment and enjoy the relaxing electronic vibes of this band as I was walking down Bedford Ave. Unfortunately, the group seems to have fallen off the map, but they go by the name of Basik.