This Week's Show •

Black Mountain College: “The Grass-Roots of Democracy”

In 1933, a group of freethinking American educators and academics took a look at their fresh, interwar world — and set about trying to remake it. They set up a campus in idyllic countryside outside Asheville, North Carolina, and Black Mountain ...

In 1933, a group of freethinking American educators and academics took a look at their fresh, interwar world — and set about trying to remake it.

They set up a campus in idyllic countryside outside Asheville, North Carolina, and Black Mountain College was born.

Our guest, the literary historian Louis Menand, explains that B.M.C. was a philosophical experiment intent on putting the progressive philosopher John Dewey‘s ideas to work in higher education. The college curriculum was unbelievably permissive — but it did ask that students undertake their own formation as citizens of the world by means of creative expression, and hard work, in a community of likeminded people.

The college may not have lived up to its utopian self-image — the scene was frequently riven by interpersonal conflict — but it did serve as a stage-set to some of modern culture’s most interesting personalities and partnerships.


Josef Albers — he of “Homage to the Square” — served as the head of the painting department and the school’s nerve center from 1933 to 1949. He and his wife Anni — whose beautiful weaving stands out at the ICA/Boston’s B.M.C. exhibition — fled Hitler’s rise and brought the Bauhaus School with them to America. Albers would go on to influence the great names of modern American art in his role at B.M.C., including Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, and Jacob Lawrence, whose 1946 painting, “The Watchmaker” leaps off the wall.


Meanwhile, the summers saw visitors like architect Buckminster Fuller — who threw together his first, flimsy geodesic dome at B.M.C. — and the dance-and-music pairing of Merce Cunningham and John Cage. All that talent could sometimes converge, as in “Theatre Piece No. 1,” an fabled, but undocumented, mixed-media happening starring Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg, David Tudor and Franz Kline.

Or, again, during the college’s cash-strapped final six years, while the voluble poet Charles Olson served as rector — and built a trailblazing poetic scene feeding into and drawing on the burgeoning Beat generation. Our guest, Globe art critic, Sebastian Smee, told the story of Olson grumpily fishing a delirious Rauschenberg out of icy Lake Eden.

So we’re looking behind B.M.C.’s famous products — the all-white canvases, the silent 4 minutes and 33 seconds, the domes and the poems  — to the effervescent human world beneath it, and for the much it tells us about vision, education, and human growth.

This Week's Show • August 28, 2014

WWI: Remaking Music

In the last show in our series on the Great War, we're listening to the sounds that emerged from its ashes. In Vienna concert halls and New York jazz clubs, from Maurice Ravel’s piano elegies to Igor Stravinsky’s explosive symphonies, we’re coursing through the composers who defined a modern era, reacting to the terrible violence of total warfare through art.

How did composers react to the violence of The First World War? In the last show in our series on the war, we’re listening to the sounds that came out of the ashes. It’s a twenty-year-long journey that begins in Paris in 1914, as bombs began to fall and mass media began to rise, with composer Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau, a swirling piano suite dedicated to friends of Ravel who died in the war. We’ll hear George Antheil’s bombastic Ballet Mécanique, which brought an army of plane propellers, sirens, and player pianos into the concert hall. Finally, we’re making the great transatlantic jazz connection: how Josephine Baker, Duke Ellington, and others found a new way out of the destruction.

Music from the Program

Reading List

Two essential book-length treatments of that beautiful, movable-feast-in-music moment: Albert Murray’s Stomping the Blues and Alfred Appel, Jr.’s Jazz Modernism: From Ellington and Armstrong to Matisse and Joyce.

    • The war took the lives of notable composers across Europe, including Albéric Magnard, Enrique Granados, and George Butterworth. German broadcasting company Deutsche Welle compiled a list of the many injured;
    • “Deceptive Cadence”, the NPR classical music blog, collected musical responses to the war from Ravel, Ives, Holst, and others;
    • New Yorker music critic Alex Ross details composers of the era—Stravinsky, Satie, Milhaud, and others—in a chapter in his primer to twentieth-century music, The Rest is Noise (a rich audio guide to that chapter is online);
    • CBC took on popular and classical music during The First World War, in an exceptional episode of Ideas, with Paul Kennedy;
    • If you didn’t catch it last year, WNYC broadcast a special about art in 1913, a “mad, Modernist moment” before the war, with a focus on Stravinsky and Schoenberg;
    • Finally, hear BBC’s “World War One: Cradle of Jazz,” a special on the musical evolution of ragtime into jazz during the war.

August 18, 2014

WWI: The Shock of the New

Out of the wreckage of World War 1 come the incandescent modernists -- none burning brighter than James Joyce and his Ulysses. And don't forget Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound and Pablo Picasso, too. It’s a rebel alliance of high-art anarchists. A century later, their lights are still on. Do you still hear the rebellious voice in the modernist masterpieces?

Out of the mire and death of World War One, even before the shooting stops, comes the strangest thing: the novel of the century.  It’s James Joyce’s Ulysses, transposing the wily warrior of Greek myth into the buried consciousness of a single day in Dublin in 1904. The global war was only part of the nightmare from which Joyce was trying to awake. From his teens, he’d set himself against every orthodoxy of provincial Ireland, against the pieties of family, church and Empire. Even before pre-publication, Ulysses became the fighting flag of Modernism: a sort of cracked “true realism,” an anti-violent anarchism in prose, poetry and painting, too. Do you still hear the rebellious voice in the modernist masterpieces: Mrs. DallowayThe Waste-Land? Have you made it through Ulysses? Is history a nightmare we’re still sleeping through?

Podcast • June 17, 2014

Robin Kelley’s Transcendental Thelonious Monk

Robin Kelley‘s superb biography brings the Thelonious Monk story back from the ragged edge to the creative center of American music. And it brings my reading year to a blessedly loving, gorgeously swinging, dissonant, modernist, ...


Robin Kelley‘s superb biography brings the Thelonious Monk story back from the ragged edge to the creative center of American music. And it brings my reading year to a blessedly loving, gorgeously swinging, dissonant, modernist, and utterly one-off climactic note. There may be another jazz biography as thickly detailed, as audibly lyrical, as passionate, as thrilling as this one, but I can’t bring it to mind.

There’s a vastly detailed, fresh take here on an immortal jazz pianist and composer whose life is often remembered as freakish, at best impossibly mysterious. Not that jazz players hadn’t known from the early 1940s that young Monk was a giant, and ever afterward that those odd, distinctive Monk tunes (nearly 100 of them) are the exotic orchid-like treasures of the American song book.

But this was a man who mumbled at the keyboard, got up and danced around it onstage, showed up late and sometimes disappeared; who did time for small drug offenses and famously lost his “cabaret card” required to play in New York jazz joints. This was a man who suffered bipolar disease and finally died in 1982 in the care of the same rich European lady who’d been Charlie Parker’s last refuge almost 30 years earlier. It is an impossibly eccentric story until Robin Kelley fills in the life of an unshakeably original musician, and with endless family detail paints a fresh picture of a consistently generous friend, a revered and attentive son, father and husband, in triumph and trouble.

In this telling Monk emerges as (not least) a heroic African-American Emersonian at the keyboard. Monk’s insistence that “the piano ain’t got no wrong notes!” resonates with Emerson’s war on conformity and consistency. Monk’s stubborn, self-sacrificing attachment to his own aesthetic summons up Emerson’s “trust thyself” wisdom, and his advice that “a man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within.” “To believe your own sound,” (paraphrasing “Self-Reliance”) “… that is genius.” Monk knew.

One of Robin Kelley’s many arguments with the received wisdom on Monk is that, though he was the house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem after 1941, and a cornerstone of the regeneration of jazz at mid-century, he belongs to no genre, no “period.”

I kind of break with tradition: I don’t see him as part of the bebop movement. I see his harmonic ideas as being fundamental to so-called bebop, but he wasn’t really out of that. He spent more time in the early forties hanging out in these old piano parlors, at James P. Johnson’s house, with the great stride pianists up in Harlem at that time, Clarence Profit, Willie “The Lion” Smith… He learned piano from an African-American woman who lived in his neighborhood named Alberta Simmons. Nobody’d ever heard of her until my book. She was a fabulous stride pianist. She was part of the Clef Club. She knew Eubie Blake and Willie “The Lion” and all these cats. And so, he grew up playing that and maintaining the old stride piano style because of three things.

One, they believed in virtuosity, but virtuosity that is expressed through your individual expression, not just through speed. How could you take a tune that everybody plays, like “Tea for Two,” and really make it sound like you, like your inner soul.

Two, Monk learned from these guys all the tricks that became fundamental to his playing: the bent note, for example. We say “Monk was so amazing because he could bend notes.” Well, wait a second. Listen to James P. Johnson play Mule Walk. He’s bending notes. It’s all about that. Monk learned all that from those guys, the clashing, the minor seconds, they’re playing that stuff back in the twenties.

And then, you mention Monk’s mumbling. Well, Willie “The Lion” Smith said in his own memoir, “if a piano player’s not mumbling or growling, you ain’t doing anything.” That’s old school.

What Monk did was take the oldest, rooted tradition of the piano, in Harlem, New York, all over the country. And then he combined it with a future we have yet to achieve. It’s collapsing space and time. And his whole approach to the piano is one that brings past and present and future together in one. And he had never ever left his roots as a stride pianist — all the way to the very last tune he ever played.

Robin D. G. Kelley in conversation with Chris Lydon, December 18, 2009

Podcast • September 8, 2011

Kamil Khan Mumtaz: back from a modernist Hell

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Kamil Khan Mumtaz (30 minutes, 15 mb mp3) Kamil Khan Mumtaz, at home in Lahore LAHORE — Kamil Khan Mumtaz, an eminence in Pakistani architecture, is giving us ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Kamil Khan Mumtaz (30 minutes, 15 mb mp3)

Kamil Khan Mumtaz, at home in Lahore

LAHORE — Kamil Khan Mumtaz, an eminence in Pakistani architecture, is giving us the gentlest of introductions to a revival in Pakistan of Islamic thinking about art and design and meaning in life. He’s tracking two West-to-East journeys of his own over the last 50-plus years: one professional and artistic, the other personal and spiritual, and of course they’re roughly parallel. In his student days in London in the 1950s, he was a modernist after the examples of Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright. LeCorbusier, a heroic model at the time, had the dream assignment of designing Chandigarh, the new capital of the Indian Punjab, at Nehru’s personal invitation. But what impressed young Mumtaz even more back home was how little he knew of the native tradition and the depths of the difference with the new: “really a difference in world view,” he tells me — between the materialist modernism and the traditional ease with metaphysical and spiritual planes. What he learned over a hard journey writing the comprehensive history of Architecture in Pakistan was the radical value of proportion and ideal forms, and the importance of copying the classical exemplars — as imperative as innovation and invention. The message in modern buildings is man’s technological prowess, he says; the highest praise is “how exciting!” “It’s all excitement… They’re like huge billboards saying: ‘go for it,’ or ‘you deserve it.’ It’s consumerism. Whereas traditional buildings set you in a different dimension: suddenly there’s a hush and quiet… Modern architecture titillates the senses; traditional art moves us to contemplation. That’s the difference.”

The inner man was in transition, too, if only because “you cannot practice traditional art without a conviction in the truth of what it’s based on… That cannot fail to affect literally your whole life, and it has transformed mine.” The core of his Islamic belief and practice is the Sufi tradition. He can laugh at the notion that the West toys with Sufism as a sort of “Islam Lite.” In the Mumtaz scheme of things Sufism is about a profound searching for the truth… The truth more and more becomes the unity of all creation and the oneness of all mankind. That is its most important aspect. I would say the two distinctive and distinguishing things about Islam are tolerance and beauty. No other religion to my knowledge makes it an article of faith to recognize the truth of all religions,” and most explicitly of the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels of Jesus.

Of the present day in general, he says, with half a laugh, “We’re all going to hell. We’re destroying ourselves.” We have the power to blow up the planet, and a post-modernist outlook that there is no truth, no right or wrong. “Combine these and you’ve got a real killer.” Modernism turns up as the villain again when I ask for his “capsule understanding” of Pakistan at the age of 64. The extremism in so many dimensions of Pakistani life today, he said, “is nothing but the flip side of modernity.”

Pakistan was a modernizing project. It begins with the deluge, the road-roller that went over us that is Western Colonialism. We were just knocked out of our senses: ‘What hit us?’ And so there is anger in the street, anger against the West, which just bulldozed us. Remember, we, the Muslims, identified ourselves as one people, and we were the superpower. So there is anger against the Western modernizing forces for having replaced us as the dominant power; anger against our own brother Muslims for having strayed from the true path; anger at our state for having lied to us and not delivered what it promised to do. So there are all of these angers, rages which are now finding expression…

I was happy to tell Kamil Khan Mumtaz, after two long conversations in his verdant second-floor porch and his library study, that any visitor might find in the spaces he created, if not proof of his doctrines, at least a warm, peaceful, comfortable confirmation in the harmony of many rectangles, of rose-colored rugs and “burnt Siena” bricks, of low cushions and seats and books to the ceiling. Immediately on entering it felt like a space I’d been trying to imagine, or maybe dreamt. He’d conceived that library in his “modern” days long ago, but it had evolved continuously, he said. It has “a certain presence and timelessness,” he admitted. “Those are qualities that will strike even the least spiritual of person, only because the spirit is in all of us.”

A private house in Lahore (2001)