Thursday, January 30, 2014

Grad School, and New York

Hanging out in the library
Quite a few times, I heard that I should expect graduate school to be miserable; a professor at Swarthmore’s short answer to whether anyone should go at all was “no” and a different professor said that his first year of his PhD was the worst of his life, and that was just how PhD programs were. I’m just writing to say that so far, this has been hands down the most gratifying and meaningful professional experience of my life. Nothing on the costs/disadvantages side of the ledger — we could be making more money; we could be feeling like we’re having more impact; we are sometimes very busy — seems significant. And the advantages are terrific. My “work” is often talking to really smart people about things I care about; past some not-very-high threshold, there’s pretty much no external pressure for the next five years; once you’re part of an institution/network, opportunities for really cool things just seem to pop up; and the entire structure seems designed to help me pursue pretty much anything I decide is interesting. I’m just really happy things worked out the way they did.

Having said that, I can see why not everyone would like it. A strong perfectionist streak would be a burden. I think people who come from jobs in which they’re used to frequent feedback might feel a little adrift with how rarely anyone evaluates or praises our work. The academic writing and publishing style might be kind of constraining if you're really creative. But probably because of who I am, none of that bothers me, and for a certain kind of person, I couldn’t recommend graduate school enough. Job? Whatever. I’ll deal with that in 5-6 years. For now the experience is just intrinsically pleasurable.

I can’t say Columbia is as high-functioning as it could be. If the university were a PC, the department I’m in is like a fancy video card with the capability to magically update itself every few years. The administration is more like Vista: opaque and not oriented around users’ needs. The campus itself is like a gorgeous enclosure with some truly baffling internal wiring decisions. And IT support/their services are exactly like every workplace IT department you’ve ever encountered. (Are there any large, bureaucratic institutions anywhere that work well?)

But none of that matters because a) outside of my department I need very few things from the school — books, a quiet place to read, and really just one printer that works — and b) New York. Living here is just the best. I feel like there are so many people with preferences extremely similar to mine that it is never a challenge to find something that is cheap and exactly what I want to do. And because those people and I are so similar, I tend to like them.  You're perfect, oh please don't change a thing.

Today I’m going to learn some stuff; tomorrow I’m going to see a free classical show and then Nancy Whang do a DJ set in Williamsburg. And as she says, “I never thought I’d see the day, so I thank you just for being so damn, excellent.”

Monday, January 13, 2014

Four things to make rap shows fuller performances

Waiting for Kanye at Governor's Ball

One way in which I try to fill the empty forever is by going to concerts. Most often I go to classical -- the free shows around New York are just amazing -- and a fair smattering of EDM. At home, however, I mostly listen to rap. I think it's a generational thing, but to me, hip-hop seems like the genre that is both innovating right now and really has something to say. Rap shows, however, are often not my jam, and I think they could be much better.  Here are some ideas for how:

1) A live band instead of a DJ. It would be really cool to see a group of instrumentalists try to reproduce the interesting textures of great albums, and, for what it's worth, there is absolutely no substitute for being at a show with a live drum set. They wouldn't even have to be entirely accurate to, say, the weird melody which cuts off the dialogue on GZA's 4th chamber; I'd really just like to see someone play that on guitar or marimba or whatever! It would be surprising, and something you couldn't get just by listening to an album really loudly at your house. On that note,

2) More improvisation and chance. A lot of shows I see take you through a rapper's greatest hits, sometimes greatly sped up or abridged (Nas actually did this really well at Governor's Ball). I like that, but I would like some freestyles, unreleased material, or a verse mix and match even more.  good remixes are often just that -- peep Biggie's Suicidal Thoughts verse over Kanye's  Runaway -- and it would be fun to see rappers do the same thing with their own material, i.e. hear Pusha-T put his When the Last Time 16 over Nosestalgia. I mean it might work, and it might not. But it would be interesting, something you just could not get at home.

3) Put in a dance routine. Either have dancers, or learn some moves. Kanye had some good moves during his Glow in the Dark routine! I know not everyone's gonna be able to do this. I certainly couldn't. But hip-hop and dance music are really interlinked, and so it would be nice to see that onstage.

4) Drop the vocal track and only rely minimally on the hpye man. Seeing rappers shout the ends of their rhymes over both a vocal track and a hype man is pretty disappointing, especially when, hypothetically, a large part of that rapper's appeal is his or her understated/seductive/contemplative/sinister flow, what have you. Great rap shows, in my opinion, do this beautifully; here I'm thinking of Run The Jewels and Kanye, both of whose performances in 2013 I loved.

This is not to say I'm going to stop going to rap shows. Me and you, your momma and your cousin too are going to be at Governor's Ball this summer to see Outkast. But I wish there were some way to either encourage rappers to do the above, or to tell from the outset who already does. As in many aspects of my life, Kanye is the ideal here; I'm also feeling optimistic that Kendrick, touring with him, will pick up on the things that make Kanye a performing global superstar.

But until then, I'll probably be in Brooklyn dancing to Jessy Lanza.