The life syllabus of David Amram

December 3rd, 2014 No comments
David Amram

David Amram

With more than half a century of work under composer David Amram‘s belt, it’s no surprise that his list of collaborators reads like the syllabus to a class about the most important artists of the 20th century. Amram has composed film scores (such as The Manchurian Candidate) and operas (The Final Ingredient), written multiple books, is considered a pioneer of the French horn and was the first composer-in-residence at the New York Philharmonic. His collaborators and mentors include storied names such as Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Langston Hughes, Joan Mitchell and Jack Kerouac. At 84, Amram continues to work and travel, committed as ever to put forth the music he has loved his entire life. He will visit Harvard for a Learning From Performers conversation on Dec. 4 and a concert with the Harvard Wind Ensemble (Mark Olson, Director, and Interim Director of Harvard Bands) on Dec. 5. I spoke with Amram over the phone in anticipation of his visit to Harvard about his views on the music industry, the relationship between his heritage and his work, and his top role models for budding musicians.

The music industry
“I never thought of myself as having any kind of career. I hoped, and I still hope, that someday my music will have a career. Big difference. After 50 years of the Titanic sinking, the entertainment industry sunk itself, because like the Titanic it was too big, too fast, too poorly administrated, and didn’t serve the needs of the customers. Those of us who wanted to choose different paths are like the people in the life boats, who didn’t go down with the ship. We’re not going to go away. People who love art and information and life and other people also have distinguished that.”

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The Harvard-Yale post-game, body and soul

December 1st, 2014 No comments

The night after the gridiron’s game of the year, Harvard and Yale came together for a new collaboration, Body and Soul, a showcase of Black arts from both schools. The showcase was organized by Harvard’s Kuumba Singers and included performances by Kuumba, Harvard’s Expressions, Speak Out Loud, Padame and Passus and Yale’s Rhythmic Blue, Dzana, Steppin’ Out and Word.

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Kuumba performs the 44th Annual Dr. S. Allen Counter Christmas Concert December 5 and 6 at Memorial Church.

Clive Davis: Living a legendary musical life

December 1st, 2014 No comments
The Legendary Clive Davis '56

The Legendary Clive Davis ’56

At one point during his open conversation with Harvard Law School dean Martha Minow, legendary arts executive and producer Clive Davis HLS ’56 remarked, “I don’t mean to name drop, but I just last week met Madonna for the first time.” To which the dean immediately responded, “No – she met you!”

Davis’ humility is remarkable, given that his resume reaches to the floor, and his career touches every corner of the globe. The event began with a five-minute introductory video, in which Davis is described as “a music man in the total sense” who has worked with just about every big name in the business, and whose contributions to the music world and public service record are unmatched. Not surprisingly, Davis won a standing ovation as he made his way into a tightly packed Wasserstein Hall on the Harvard Law School campus in November.

Right away, Davis revealed to the rapt audience that he fell into music accidentally. After studying at Harvard Law, he stepped into a general counsel role at Columbia Records – the result of knowing a few of the right people and being a tremendously hard worker. Although he was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a non-performer, Davis is a true showman, and that came across during his Harvard visit. At the start of his time at college, Davis said, he lost both of his parents only 11 months apart. “When you have no money and are getting by on scholarships, work ethic becomes a huge part of [making it through college],” he said. “It creates drive, determination and scared necessity.”

Davis quickly turned his focus to the artist with whom he clearly had the strongest connection: the late Whitney Houston. When an anxious Houston came to him asking whether she needed to write her own songs, he reminded her that she had come from the traditions of Billie Holliday, Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand. “Your genius is in your voice,” he told her.

To demonstrate the power of Houston as a performer, Davis played three clips of three versions of Houston’s song I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me). Read more…

Serving the human condition

December 1st, 2014 No comments

Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis

For a man in the prime of a career dedicated to creating thoughtful and oftentimes sobering political films, Eran Riklis smiles a lot. As we entered the intimate Sever Hall last month, Professor Irit Aharony whisked students one by one over to the much-lauded Israeli film director for introductions and handshakes. Riklis’ was at Harvard in November to talk about his filmmaking and the political voice he expresses through film.

Born in Jerusalem, Riklis spent parts of his formative years in Montreal and New York, and then returned to Israel for the remainder of his childhood and adolescence. He was later accepted to the National Film and Television School in England – the first Israeli in the program.

Riklis’s remarks spark with wit and thoughtfulness. He speaks warmly and is unafraid to voice opinions that may sting with controversy or to broach taboo subjects. This year, he recounts, he was compelled to hold back the release of his most recent film Dancing Arabs because the Israeli political climate at the time of the film’s anticipated release had been too dangerous.

And yet political fire-stoking is not by any means the focus of Riklis’ filmmaking. He describes his primary cinematic interest and thematic grounding as “the role of the individual within a complex society that is dealing with political and social issues,” and, by creating poignant and personal films such as Lemon Tree and The Syrian Bride, he has tackled the relationships among Israeli, Palestinian, Druze and other populations in the Middle East. Although his work touches on and melds elements of myriad cultures, particularly Israeli culture, he said that his aim is to reach a huge audience, and for each person therein to understand the film just as an Israeli would. Read more…

Art and activism: Eve Ensler’s dual identity

November 20th, 2014 No comments
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Timothy McCarthy and Eve Ensler in conversation in Farkas Hall

Harvard professor Timothy Patrick McCarthy and award-winning playwright Eve Ensler sat down Nov. 18 at Farkas Hall for a living-room-style conversation with a global-sixed topic billed as Politically Incorrect: Feminism and the Future of the Planet. The discussion came in anticipation of Ensler’s new play O.P.C. (Obsessive Political Correctness), which will premier at the American Repertory Theater at the end of November. “I first met Eve in May in her apartment in New York, and we immediately hit it off,” McCarthy said. “We decided that we were just going to reproduce that conversation when she came up here.”

To begin, Ensler spoke of a dual identity. The Vagina Monologues author has been referred to as both an artist and an activist since the beginning of her career in theater, and it’s how she refers to herself as well. “They’re equally part of my being,” Ensler said.

Ensler’s dual-mission is in line with The A.R.T. of Human Rights, a new collaboration between A.R.T. and the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Spearheaded by McCarthy, who is the founding director of the Carr’s Sexuality, Gender, and Human Rights Program, the joint venture brings together artists, academics and activists to address human rights and social justice issues through performance, dialogue and workshops.

In the course of the evening, Ensler quoted a Guatemalan saying: Struggle is the highest form of song. “In other cultures art and activism are actually seen as one,” she said. Ensler invoked feminist civil rights activist Audre Lorde to question why art and activism are often met with tension in America. “[Lorde] talks about the fact that growing up in a patriarchal culture we’ve learned to separate the political and the erotic; the political from the artistic,” Ensler said. “I think there’s something about these arbitrary splits that are actually not real.” Read more…

The suite “TEA” by Sam Wu ’17

November 19th, 2014 No comments


Sam Wu '17

Sam Wu ’17

Sam Wu ’17 and I were having lunch in a crowded dining hall to talk about his new piece TEA that the River Charles Ensemble will premiere at 8 p.m. Nov. 21 at Lowell Lecture Hall. Our table was populated with classmates who looked up from their meals to eavesdrop, if only momentarily. In my peripheral vision, I saw people staring.

There was, admittedly, a lot going on. “I live in a world of soundscapes,” Wu said spreading his hands with his palms facing upward. “And so many multiple universes of sound – I live in a multiverse, if you will.” As he continued, I couldn’t choose between listening to his words and watching his hands: Each thought was accompanied by a gesture that strangely helped the conversation flow.

The choreography, I assumed, is a byproduct of being an award-winning composer and conductor. Wu has conducted orchestras in Mongolia and at Harvard; he has worked under the guidance of famed composer and conductor Tan Dun; he has written music about the extinction of the Yangtze River dolphin, typhoons and the visual media of charcoal, oil paint and ink pen. He doesn’t have conversations. He conducts them. He doesn’t tell stories. He composes them.

His journey in the arts started in the visual realm, with a dream to be an architect. Taking up the violin at 7 and piano at 8 or 9, Wu didn’t enjoy music until he encountered Sibelius, not the composer, but the music composition software. “Because of my visual arts background, it made more sense to me that art should be about creation, not just interpretation,” he said. “I wasn’t satisfied with just being a performer and felt like I was missing out on a huge part of the creative process. So composing was actually a very natural extension of my visual arts experience.”

Wu (right) earlier this year in Shanghai, China.

Wu (right) earlier this year in Shanghai, China.

The fire and energy with which he speaks almost made me forget the deliberateness with which he crafts answers. When asked about his composition process, Wu held his hands still for a moment, thinking. “The thing about these interviews is that I can tell you something dramatic, or I can tell you the truth,” he joked. “I can’t think of anything dramatic now, but I’ll tell you the truth.”

Here’s the truth. “I start with a huge piece of music paper” – he indicated exactly how huge – “and I draw pictures; I draw lines; I draw melodies, and I annotate everything. I start from a kind of …” He paused again, making a sort of downward flicking motion, half slinging, half sprinkling. “A splattering,” he settled on eventually. “I start from this splattering of ideas that looks like a Jackson Pollock, and then think about how to layer these raw ingredients. There’s a lot of blurriness, so I can’t tell you exactly how.”

“For TEA,” he continued, “I read magazines and books and articles, and even though 95 percent of them I didn’t actually need, it was all kind of a background static that kept me composing.”

The composition of the suite was more personal than simply an academic interest, however. “My mother passed away from breast cancer this summer, and this past year was rough for the whole family,” Wu explained. “She loved drinking tea so much that it replaced water for my family, and I wanted to write something she could relate to and enjoy.”

“It made me really thankful for music, you know?” he mused, his hands folded in front of him, a finger tapping. “I was thankful for the power of music, how you can heal through beauty, how if you can channel your emotions you can make yourself ache less.”

The suite has three movements, taking place in China, Japan and India, following the journey of the tea leaf from country to country. “Each one describes tea from a different time period, a different area,” he said. “The tea theme will be in every movement, but will have a slightly different flavor.” He paused, hands frozen midair, for me to notice the wordplay. I laughed, obligingly. He continued. “You can think of the three different movements as three different glasses of boiling water, with the same leaf from Yunnan dropped in each one.”

Wu’s appreciation of his environs is obvious not only in his music, but in everyday life: “Hmm,” he said, also noticing the stares in the dining hall. “That’s interesting.” And turning back to me, he continued the conversation.

He is concentrating in Music and East Asian Studies and noted during our interview that he felt lucky to be composing at Harvard, where he could draw inspiration not only from other musicians but from historians, humanists and professors. In addition to that, though, there’s a more visceral and fundamental type of “research” that Wu has done to convey his complex messages and images with music. “I’m informed by philosophy, analysis, training,” Wu said. “I draw inspiration from culture, history and music. But when I’m stringing things together, it’s a lot of intuition, and I try to follow this.” Here, he pointed to his heart.

The River Charles Ensemble will premiere Sam Wu’s TEA and other works 8 p.m. Nov. 21 in Lowell Lecture Hall. Tickets are $8 for students and $12 for nonstudents. 

Crazy good at playwriting

November 17th, 2014 No comments
Mike Ross '16

Mike Ross ’16

Mike Ross – no, not the main character from Suits – is a very funny guy. A junior in Quincy House, Ross ’16 is a student playwright who has written three full-length works since arriving at Harvard. After writing the book for his year’s Freshman Musical, What the Hell?!, Ross took on the considerable task of penning the book and lyrics for his own original musical In Other Words (with music composed by Sam Pottash ’16). The show was produced in the Loeb Experimental Theater last spring. This semester, his play Carrie and Otis premiered at the Adams Pool Theater. I had a chance to speak with Ross over a delicious plate of HUDS curry about being a playwright and a Harvard student – at the same time.

How has being at Harvard influenced you as a playwright?
Harvard has influenced me the way anyone would be influenced by a school where everyone’s crazy good at something: It has pushed me to be better. The other students involved in theater here and the leaders of the writing workshops are all really fantastic, and you can either get intimidated or you can try to get on or near or mildly closer to their level. Or you can do both.

Describe your process of developing an idea and actually putting it down onto paper.
It’s always one based a lot on collaboration and checking in with people – me, and whoever I’m working with, usually my producer Megan Jones. We come up with an idea, then we talk about outlines and characters, where the plot can go and what venue it would be good for, and then about a month later we throw out the idea entirely and do a completely new idea, and that’s usually what people wind up seeing. And that’s great, because it comes from deciding what feels good and what doesn’t feel good, based on talking about it.

Basically when it comes to writing, they always tell you “write what you want to read, or want to see,” and that’s what I always start out doing. But I also check with other people: Does this make sense outside of my own weird little head? And that’s why I’m talking to other people even before I start writing things. If I’m going to invest that much time and energy into creating a show, I want to make sure that it’s not something that at the end of it I’ll look back on it and say: “Welp – that was a – negative adjective.”

When you’ve produced a fully formed script, how involved are you then in the rehearsal process?
Once the script is out of my grubby little hands, it is pretty much the director and the actors making it way better than I ever could have imagined. I’m really lucky in that I get to sit in the back and watch the rehearsals. At the end, if they have questions, the directors ask me stuff – but at the end of the day I really trust the people I’m working with. They get to control the final say on the script. Read more…

Mary Kenny: From pin-up to pious

November 17th, 2014 No comments

Mary Kenny explores identity, sexuality, power and the female form in her exhibition Adorned at the Harvard Ceramics Studio. From pin-up to pious, Kenny’s ceramic figures are an exploration of woman and the cultural disparities that affect her image.

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Adorned runs through Nov. 21, at Gallery 224, The Harvard Ceramics Studio.

The science of comedy with Megan Amram ’10

November 13th, 2014 No comments

Megan Amram ’10 stepped onto stage at the Brattle Theater to roaring applause and whistles. The comedy writer, hosted by Harvard Book Store on Nov. 10, played to a crowd of friends, students and fans who know her as a Harvard grad but also as a staff writer for NBC’s Parks and Recreation. Amram is on tour to promote her first book, Science…For Her! , which she describes as a “female science textbook designed to look like Cosmo.” The book builds upon the dark humor she is famous for in her active Twitter feed, a collection of often-ridiculous jokes with 442,000 followers.

Megan Amram '10 gives a reading of her new book, "Science...For Her!" at the Brattle Theater on November 10, 2014.

Megan Amram ’10 read from her new book, “Science…For Her!”on Nov. 10 at the Brattle Theater.

At Harvard, Amram and her roommate Alexandra Petri ’10, now a columnist for The Washington Post, wrote two Hasty Pudding Theatrical shows together, Acropolis Now and Commie Dearest. Upon graduation, Amram moved to Los Angeles to pursue comedy writing and landed her first job writing jokes for the 2011 Oscars, hosted by Anne Hathaway and James Franco. More writing jobs followed, such as at ABC’s A.N.T. Farm and at Parks and Rec. 

At the bookstore, Amram read selections from Science, which has chapter titles such as “How to Build a Biological Clock Out of a Potato,” “What Religion Is Right for Your Body Type?” and “Glamorous Ways to Die.” Decked in a lab coat, Amram took on the persona of a woman who lives for women’s magazines such as Cosmopolitan. In a sickeningly sweet voice laden with satire, she assured the audience that no one looked fat that evening, read punchy passages about how to build one’s biological clock using a vegetable (in the end, the husband is the one who deals with the “wires and stuff” ), how to die with allure (“Smallpox fits everyone, like the traveling pants!”) and offered recipe’s from “Paula Deen‘s healthy new cookbook.” (In a recipe for egg whites, Cadbury Eggs provide the protein). Throughout the evening, Amram often paused to wait for laughter to subside.

After the reading, Amram took questions from audience members, who asked about her relationship to a song about hoagies and how she got the idea for a parodic magazine-style “science” textbook. Read more…

Linda Leavell on fact, fiction and space between

November 12th, 2014 No comments

Linda LeavellThe softspoken Linda Leavell is fascinated by artists caught between worlds. In nearly three decades, she has authored two books about poet Marianne Moore, one of which – Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore – she’ll be presenting highlights of at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 13 in Houghton Library. In the years surrounding and between her study of Moore, she has also studied the poetry of William Carlos Williams and the painters of the Stieglitz Circle, drawn to the intersection of modern poetry and modern art.

Now retired from teaching American literature at Oklahoma State University, Leavell is focused on artistic pursuits: writing, and volunteering as an art museum guide. This transition is ostensibly strange, knowing how much of Leavell’s career has been shaped by her academic pursuits. She traced her interest in visual art back to a fifth grade report on Michelangelo, and stumbled upon Marianne Moore while looking for a dissertation topic. After that, a revised version of her dissertation on Moore’s relationship with the visual arts became her first book, and she’s been delving ever deeper since.

The methodology with which she wrote her books aligns with historical research and literary analysis. Looking through archived letters between Moore’s mother and her children, Leavell noted “an interesting family dynamic, a correspondence marked by animal nicknames, private mythologies, private baby-talk languages” that hinted at a mother’s attempt to “keep her children children.” This dynamic was reflected in Moore’s poetry: Her art became an “outlet for individuality in an oppressive family environment.” And as Leavell has studied Moore’s poems over time, she says Read more…