TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people: hire Mario Testino next time

April 25, 2011 § Leave a comment


By Rebecca Liao

As a serious journalistic publication, TIME Magazine is an old hat at making people who are not, perhaps, naturally photogenic photograph well. Its signature portrait  is a brightly-lit closeup against a neutral background with an intriguing facial expression that, at its dullest, makes the viewer curious and, at its most effective, entices the viewer to mirror the image. Bottom line, though, the magazine’s honorees need to look good. This was especially important this year because, unlike in previous years, TIME decided to reduce many of the tributes accompanying the photographs to an ant-like 4 point font. If we didn’t bother to read the tributes before, we certainly didn’t read them this time around. The photos were left to stand on their own, and it became clear that TIME doesn’t quite always know how to style or incorporate props into people’s personas. Two suggestions for next year: supersize the tributes, or hire Mario Testino (I hear he’s still cheaper than Annie Leibowitz). Am I being too harsh? Let me know in the comments!

Amy Poehler Source: TIME.com

The lovely and hilarious Amy Poehler is expanding her repertoire to Shakespeare and will star this summer as Queen Titania in Shakespeare in the Park’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Oh, wait, that’s not the play they’re doing this summer? Oh, I get it, Amy’s show is Parks and Recreation, which has to do with nature, hence the crown of flowers. Judging by her expression, she seems to be a little befuddled by it too, but completely game, which is why we love her and all her cohorts from SNL. Still, this was hardly a Tina-Fey-hiding-under-the-desk-Amex moment.

Mark Zuckerberg Source: TIME.com

We all know Mark Zuckerberg is a visionary, and this is before he has actually pocketed the billions and has Twitter nipping at his ankles. We have all suspected he’s not human, but according to The Social Network, he’s all too human, and you can’t create that characterization out of thin air lest the reality catch up all too quickly. This photo throws that whole storyline into doubt, though. That light in his eyes and on his forehead–I’ve seen it before. He’s receiving knowledge from a higher source and will disregard Indiana Jones’ warning to cover his eyes before…no, can’t be. He looks so calm.

Amy Chua Source: TIME.com

I never thought that an educated and cultured woman would share so much with Sarah Palin: overexposure, unintelligible interview responses and shameless opportunism. Only Palin is a politician, so she’s somewhat expected to have those traits. Amy Chua, on the other hand, marketed herself as the model mother, not perfect, but certainly better than any of the empathetic Western parents out there with failures for children. That image has started to chip away as Chua has settled into the public eye and is ready to really have some fun. At a talk hosted by the Wall Street Journal at the New York Public Library a few weeks ago, Chua wore a suspiciously short (as in, personally tailored) blue tweed skirt that she had to constantly adjust as she shifted in her chair. Yes, it’s just a goddamn skirt, but no tiger cub would have overlooked such a detail. The photo for TIME 100 follows in the same vein. Like all those who futilely tried to dissuade the Tea Party from adopting the term for a sexual position to describe themselves, I would like to point out that “dominatrix” is a sexual term. It is a role that should be embraced as a wife. But Chua has hid her role as a wife to the public. To us, she’s only a mother. I think we’re all due for some therapy…

John Lasseter Source: TIME.com

Which brings us to Pixar! Who doesn’t love a Pixar movie? Except, perhaps, its Chief Creative Officer? Granted, I would be a little morose too if I had to fight for real estate with the characters I created. Lasseter appears to be drowning in a sea of childlike joyfulness and doing his best impression of a sage to balance the narrative. Always on the job, I see. I knew there was a reason I actually pay to see his movies.

Grant Achatz Source: TIME.com

It’s hard to label a chef heroic. Chefs are in the pleasure business, and their craft does not easily translate to revolutionary, world-changing ideas (unless you’re Alice Waters and have convinced people who can afford it that Whole Foods and farmer’s markets are the only acceptable places to shop for groceries). If anyone has earned the honor in America, however, it’s Grant Achatz. Executive Chef at Alinea in Chicago, Grant is one of the leaders in molecular gastronomy. As his star was rising in 2007, he was diagnosed with mouth cancer and lost his ability to taste. Now cancer free and armed with a newly cerebral approach acquired when he had to build a sense of taste independent of the palate, his output of innovative dishes is as furious and delightful as ever. The field in which he works can challenge even the most adventurous eater. My family is from southern China; all the wild stories people have about the food we eat is true (there are lots of animals, not all raised on a farm, many of them quite cute). A potato impaled with a test tube, I have no problem. Vaporized Rocky Mountain oysters (not on the Alinea menu), I can also do. A pheasant presented like a science experiment, maybe it’s the vegetarianism buzzing in my ear, but I really don’t want to eat that pheasant. The photo gives the science-heavy molecular gastronomy a bad name; it’s much better if we just remain ignorant of where our food comes from.

Sting Source: TIME.com

I have never met Sting in person. From his performances and interviews, though, he doesn’t strike me as Agent Smith from the Matrix. This is one of the photos shot with the signature TIME look that did not fare so well. I wouldn’t worry about next time: Mario Testino is universally charming, unless you’ve seen The September Issue, in which case, you know he can sometimes flaunt direction. (But the honorees would look happier!)

Arianna Huffington Source: TIME.com

All along, we thought that Arianna Huffington was after Tina Brown’s life: glamorous and powerful editor who covers and hosts the most important political and cultural luminaries. It turns out we were all wrong. This photo may have been TIME’s most grievous error, an image that gives away something about Arianna that she probably does not want the world to know yet. Tina Brown was never her target. It’s this woman:

Anna Wintour Source: fashioncollections.org

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What is happening at the Mariinsky?

April 18, 2011 § Leave a comment


By Rebecca Liao

Uliana Lopatkina, Prima Ballerina of the Mariinsky Ballet in Russia, was set to debut as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet on April 21 at the Mariinsky’s Eleventh Annual International Ballet Festival in St. Petersburg. Last week, we learned that she had pulled out of this long-anticipated performance and would be replaced by first soloist Olesya Novikova. Given how frequently and publicly Lopatkina has voiced her desire to dance Juliet, this was a bizarre turn of events. Even more bizarre was the lack of explanation behind the casting change. Here was my attempt to get some answers:

Beijing Bob: Protester as Possum

April 13, 2011 § 7 Comments


By Rebecca Liao

Uninhibited exercise of free speech is a useless fantasy. Two Sundays ago on Meet the Press, Senator Lindsey Graham gave the following unfortunately-worded condemnation of Terry Jones’ burning of the Koran in Florida: “I wish we could find a way to hold people accountable. Free speech is a great idea, but we’re in a war.” The “fighting words doctrine” in US constitutional law recognizes that words that can only inflict injury or immediately incite violence are not protected under the First Amendment. Those are just some of the officially-sanctioned restrictions on free speech. Then there’s the social filtering that Carolina Herrera put best in her Proust Questionnaire for Vanity Fair: when asked when she lies, she answered, the ellipses emphasizing the obviousness of the response, “Whenever I have to…it’s called manners.” Social activists worth their salt would never worry about being rude, but that is not to say they do not have a keen instinct for expedient self-censorship.

Bob Dylan in China

For an iconic voice of the protest generation, Bob Dylan doesn’t talk very much. In concerts, he only speaks to introduce the band members. His interviews are really only quotable if questions are included, just to give a sense of how frustrating and hilarious his stubbornly non-sequitur answers can be. More importantly, Dylan never says what the listening public wants or expects him, of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin” fame, to say. The seeming disconnect between the person and the personality is pronounced to the point that many still have a hard time believing it exists, which leads to misguided outbursts as newsworthy as the episodes that inspire them. In reaction to Dylan’s performing in China according to a setlist pre-approved by the Ministry of Culture and failing to voice support for detained artist Ai Weiwei, Human Rights Watch had a go at the singer, as did the New York Post and John Whitehead at HuffPo. In the end, though, it was Maureen Dowd who really did Beijing Bob proud with a scathing op-ed in the New York Times:

The idea that the raspy troubadour of ’60s freedom anthems would go to a dictatorship and not sing those anthems is a whole new kind of sellout — even worse than Beyoncé, Mariah and Usher collecting millions to croon to Qaddafi’s family, or Elton John raking in a fortune to serenade gay-bashers at Rush Limbaugh’s fourth wedding[…]

Dylan said nothing about [Ai] Weiwei’s detention, didn’t offer a reprise of ‘Hurricane,’ his song about ‘the man the authorities came to blame for something that he never done.’ He sang his censored set, took his pile of Communist cash and left.

Dowd does eventually acknowledge Dylan’s reluctance to be a protest figure, but rather than accept that as an explanation, let alone an excuse, for his refusal to be overtly topical, she suggests that he was a cynical sell-out from the very beginning, leveraging the fertile socio-political culture of the 60s to become famous, only to cut and run once he had succeeded. It’s a fair, but nauseatingly demanding, point that, as Alex Ross, classical music critic for the New Yorker, said over the weekend, smacks of “the worst sort of armchair moralism”. Given the body of work sung in place of the anthems Dowd so wanted to hear, among them “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “Desolation Row,” it’s also a lazy and unprofessional point that was probably conceived and written before Dowd had done any fact-checking (i.e. looked up the list of songs performed). So what she and her fellow critics hated wasn’t exactly what Dylan actually did in China so much as the very idea that he would go there and not be Yankee gangbusters.

This is the exact kind of narrow, inflexible, commercial-friendly generalization Dylan ran away from when he was first anointed a visionary and brave folk singer. Direct criticism is not the only way to effectively make a point. Dylan’s songs largely shy away from proper references; they instead work by playing off the atmosphere in which they are performed. They will always be associated with the events and spirit of a certain era, but someone with no knowledge of their history will find that the lyrics, inflections and chord relations are actually quite well suited to counterculture tendencies in any socio-political landscape.

If anything, Dylan’s decades-long slide into the uncooperative eccentric has further enforced the subversive nature of his work. It began innocuously with altered melodies and transposed lyrics. It graduated to a game of cat and mouse with the press generally and, as Paul Williams put it, “cause-chasing liberals who concern themselves with the issues and have no real empathy for people” in particular. If people insisted often enough that a song had a certain significance despite Dylan’s denial, he would give in and make up a clearly bogus backstory. At some point, the artist became unrecognizable, his delivery in concerts as unpredictable in quality and substance as only the most die-hard Dylan and music-legend fans would tolerate. Whether these are the tricks of a calculating fameball, a tired performer, or just an artist that has refocused his perspective is not clear. What is evident, though, is that Dylan is not comfortable being in anyone’s corner, neither that of William Zantzinger nor Hattie Carroll’s champions. It leads to a funny outcome in which the message of the music maintains its clear bent but remains almost universally claimable because it refuses all allegiances.

More importantly, it’s the sort of “protest” that goes over well in China. The Ministry of Culture allegedly did screened Dylan’s setlist, but lyrics like the following from “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” slipped past:

Gonna change my way of thinking
Make myself a different set of rules
Gonna change my way of thinking
Make myself a different set of rules
Gonna put my good foot forward
And stop being influenced by fools

So much oppression
Can’t keep track of it no more
So much oppression
Can’t keep track of it no more
Sons becoming husbands to their mothers
And old men turning young daughters into whores

As did this gem from “Desolation Row”:

Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row

Chances are the Chinese officials didn’t see a “Free Tibet” riff on the program and let it go. It’s also plausible that the Chinese government categorically likes Dylan’s music: CCTV played “Blowin’ in the Wind” in the background for their feature on him. One man’s protest song is another man’s…protest song, equally applicable against Communist regimes and Imperialist barbarians.

Contrast that with Ai Weiwei, who makes both his political activities and the identity of those on the receiving end clear. On the eve of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, for which he helped conceive the Birds Nest Stadium, Ai wrote a column for The Guardian entitled “Why I’ll stay away from the opening ceremony of the Olympics”. It included the following statements:

Almost 60 years after the founding of the People’s Republic, we still live under autocratic rule without universal suffrage. We do not have anopen media even though freedom of expression is more valuable than life itself […]

We must bid farewell to autocracy. Whatever shape it takes, whatever justification it gives, authoritarian government always ends up trampling on equality, denying justice and stealing happiness and laughter from the people.

Ai has reiterated these sentiments in his blog, twitter feed, and interviews with foreign press on a regular basis. He isn’t simply a pundit, though: after the devastating earthquakes in Sichuan province, Ai created an installation for the Haus der Kunst in Munich comprised of 9000 children’s backpacks spelling out, “She lived happily for seven years in this world,” words from a mother who lost her child. Assembling a group of volunteers through the Internet, Ai compiled a list of 5,335 names of children who had been crushed in the rubble. All went to 20 schools whose buildings had collapsed during the quake. Though the government shut down the investigation, it launched one of its own into shoddy classroom construction.

Like Dylan, Ai is an increasingly subversive artist, but their styles could not be more different. In an interview with the Financial Times a year ago, Ai confessed, “You play like a gambler. You may be on a winning streak. You may think: ‘This is a winning table’. And you may fantasize that you can win for ever.” One man has sung his ballads for 60 years; the other has been silenced, hopefully not indefinitely. It would be indefensible to downplay what Ai has sacrificed for his political bravery, but it would be just as irresponsible to encourage him to continue as he has and permanently join the leagues of “crazy, anti-China dissidents” the Chinese public by and large ostracizes. Protest works against a very organized and controlled enemy; it should be just as inclined in order to maximize effectiveness.

Middle Finger at Tiananmen Square

Ai’s work is already a powerful tool: regarding his Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, Ai explains, “My work is always dealing with real or fake, authenticity, what the value is, and how the value relates to current political and social understandings and misunderstandings. I think there’s a strong humorous aspect there.” Whether by dropping a Ming vase, giving the middle finger to the world’s most recognizable monuments, or decapitating zodiac signs, an irreverence that makes people laugh along with it without causing discomfort is the most untraceable text message.

When Ai Weiwei is released, and he will be released because the Chinese hate more than anything to lose face, he should, as Dylan has, do his job. At the end of the day, we all just work here.

Interview with Zoë Keating

April 9, 2011 § 4 Comments


By Rebecca Liao

For someone with over a million Twitter followers, Zoë Keating is very much alone. She is a one-woman string quartet, using her computer to loop and layer recordings of her playing to create the illusion of multiple instruments. She does not belong to a record label, nor does she have a coterie of handlers. Her album “Into the Trees” debuted at #7 on the Billboard classical chart and shot to #1 on iTunes Classical. Catching a breather at home in Portland, Oregon after completing the first leg of her Out of the Trees tour, which included collaborations with Radiolab, and a visit to Google, Zoë took some time to chat over the phone.

You’re almost done with the first leg of your tour, what has the experience been like, and how has it been different from tours in the past?

I love touring. I love going to new places and meeting new people, trying all the foods of the region. All of that is to say that the feeling of waking up in a different place everyday is both discombobulating and wonderful. And what’s different this time is, obviously, having my family with me. Traveling with a baby means that any time you might normally have off on a tour, you don’t have off anymore because you also have to be a parent. It kind of makes for no down time, but you just take every minute as it goes. I couldn’t do it without my husband coming with me. He does all the baby wrangling during the shows.

Oh, yeah. I imagine you have to wake up several times during the night.

Definitely. One other thing that’s different is that, in my mind, I thought of touring as this thing I do on my own. And now it’s a group operation. I think the three of us (baby, husband, and me) are the smallest operation. I think we’d actually like to take more people with us because then it would easier. Yeah, it’s been good to learn that I need help.

When you meet with your fans before and after shows, what is the most common thing they say to you, other than, of course, “I loved every minute of it”?

(Laughs) It depends on what kind of audience. If they’re musical, they have technical questions. The other thing I hear is, “Oh, you know, I listen to your music all the time while I’m writing, or while I’m painting,” or “I listen to your music while I’m doing this or another thing, and it really helps.” I also hear a lot of people say, they gave up an instrument when they were younger. Then they heard me and picked it up again. Those are my favorite kinds of comments.

Do you have an audience member in mind when you write music?

No, not at all. It’s very personal. I don’t really imagine the listeners. (Laughs) Although, after the concert, I do like to go out and talk to everybody. This is a very important part of the show for me. It’s like closure. But when I’m actually creating the music, it’s a very personal experience where I’m making my own world, and it’s not about who listens to it; it’s more about some kind of abstract thing I’m trying to create.

Describe your composition process to me. Do you start off with this musical idea in your head, and you know where you want to go with it? Or is it more, this is sort of what I want to express, and let me try out these different phrases?

Often the pieces start out with a feeling. There’s some kind of, I don’t want to use the word emotion, cause that seems sort of flat, really. There’s some sort of feeling that I’m trying to capture in music. I’ll want the music to feel like that. As far as the content of that feeling, it comes from improvisation or mistakes in a previous performance, or I kind of build it up from little bits and let it develop organically. Sometimes, the feeling might change along the way, and I might go somewhere else. Other times, I stick to this feeling that I have in the beginning, and I try to make all of the parts match that emotion. I don’t really know the word to use. That’s why it’s music. (Laughs) It’s sort of a direction, like a motion and an emotional feeling. I’m trying to make a musical version of those two things together.

Yes, I know what you’re talking about since I have a bit of a dance background.

Yeah, if you’re a dancer, you would definitely get that.

I read one of your previous interviews, and you said there was a piece of music in your CD that started with a happy accident during a performance. Do you often remember a lot of those instances? For me, it’s harder to remember something that happens in music the same way I remember a quote from a book, say. But for you, is it natural to keep everything in your head?

I do tend to remember musical phrases, sometimes better than I remember words. It’s kind of like a “finger memory”. My fingers remember what they did. Sometimes, it’s frustrating to hear what I think is “the melody to end all melodies”. I’ll hear it in my head while I’m walking, and I’ll want to do it in the studio, but by the time I get around to it, I’ve forgotten it. Whereas, if I play it on the cello, I’ll probably always remember it.

Walk us through one of your performances. I know that it’s part what you’ve already composed, and it’s part improvisation. How do you navigate the two when you’re on stage?

I have to sort of not think about it. It’s funny: I have my eyes closed because it helps me to concentrate. I’m really concentrating, but I’m not thinking directly, “Now I will do this, and now I will do this.” It’s concentrating on this overarching abstract thing. It’s a funny state of mind that I find sort of hard to describe. I make these strictures in advance. The piece is pretty composed, and I just sort of practice it enough so that I know what to do, and then I don’t have to think about that part.

There’s also a lot of math. I have to make all the numbers of loops add up. On stage, I don’t really think about that either. I just sort of practice it enough so that it becomes second nature. I’m not being very helpful in my description.

No, that totally makes sense.

It’s a lot of work beforehand, just like it would be for a classical piece, really. You have to learn the piece of music in an incremental way. You learn it phrase by phrase, and then you learn the whole thing. I do it the same way I would do classical music, except that I also have a bit of programming in there that’s telling the computer what to do and when to do it: for example, record me for 4 bars, stop recording me for 4 bars, record the next track for two bars, fade down track 1. It’s very similar to the stuff you would have in a musical score. So when I get up on stage, I just have to do the right thing at the right time. I could take over with my feet, if I wanted to, but once I have a piece a certain way, I tend to stick to it that way, and change little bits here and there.

So you play the cello, and the computer just sort of goes, and you only use your feet when you want to change something up?

Yes and no. The computer knows when to record me, so if I didn’t do anything, nothing would happen. There would be no audio. The parts of the song are broken into these things I call modules. When one section of a piece is finished, it will trigger the next section. So if I wanted one section to go longer, I could stop it from triggering that next section. Or, I could have it go to a different section. It’s a little bit like, “Choose your own adventure.” Sometimes, I might start out a piece using this method and then stop it and take over entirely with my feet.

The MIDI commands are what tells the computer what to do. When I send the MIDI command, the computer knows to start recording or stop recording or mute or unmute something or to chop up a phrase. But if I were to send a MIDI command with my foot for every single thing I do, I would do so much tap dancing because there are so many things going on all at once. Once I got this method of doing automated MIDI control, it freed me up to do things that were much more musically complex and not quite so linear. When you hear someone doing looping, it often sounds kind of linear because you get a phrase going and it has to go for the whole song. Automated MIDI allows me to have more different sections and be a little more flexible in how I want to make the piece.

Creating something beautiful and personally meaningful is your main objective, but I was wondering if you have an idea for how you’d like to move music along in general?

My philosophy is that music does move along. I find it frustrating that it’s segmented into these different genres. Classical music is something that is from the past; it will play forever a certain way. Obviously, music evolves. One thing that I would like to do is help break down the barriers between different genres. It doesn’t have to be that your identity means that you only listen to one specific kind of music. I often notice that one particular social group will listen to one particular kind of music. If their friends find out that they listen to another kind of music, they might be ostracized, especially with young people. I listen to all different kinds of music.

Just segueing a bit here, I’m curious, how has motherhood changed you as a musician, if it has at all?

Well, that’s an ongoing question. It’s always changing, just like your kids are always changing. Right now, it’s changed my relationship to time because time is broken up into smaller chunks. I’ve yet to do any major composing since I became a mother. I released my album right when my son was born, so I’ve focused on promoting that and touring on it. The next stage is for me to figure out how to compose. I spend long hours doing that, and that’s something you can’t do if you’re nursing. So I’ll have to keep answering that question in the future.

Do you think in future albums, you’ll compose something for your baby?

Most likely. He’s a huge inspiration. I’m inspired by whatever’s going on in my life, and he’s obviously the biggest thing going on right now.

If we could go way back and talk about why you chose to go into technology right out of college.

I went into technology because it was the only choice at that time. I had student loans to pay off, the dot-com boom was happening, and it was a great way for someone with a liberal arts degree to get a job. I always cared a lot about not doing anything evil. I didn’t like the idea of working for a company that created a lot of stuff, be cause I’m sort of anti-stuff. Working in a dot-com, it wasn’t even really clear what you were making!

You really don’t know what you’re going to do right out of college. I once thought I might go into advertising, and I thought I might be good at it, but I knew that I’d have to work on products I didn’t believe in, like cars or Coca-Cola, a lot of things I just can’t support, so technology was a great industry to be working in. And it was an intellectual challenge that I really enjoyed.

I know you get asked this question a lot, but we can never ask you too many times because you’ve done this so successfully. How does a musician harness social media to build a successful career?

Just like everything else, it’s incremental. Looking back on it, it seems like, “Oh, you were so clever in doing something,” but really I just threw myself out there to see what would work. The main part of it is always being honest. I just use all those tools to be myself and never be out of character. There are tools that we use like anything else, and you have to keep your integrity, and not just use them as marketing. I think if you only think of them as marketing, you won’t succeed. Unless you’re really clever, maybe you can, I don’t know.

Do you mean by that that you have to have a personal connection with your fans so that when they ask you a question, you’re not going to give a PR response?

Exactly. Basically what it means is that it’s just me, and whatever I use, I’m always going to be myself. My motivation is to be myself, and not promote myself, you know what I mean? It ends up being very simple, but I just feel that a lot of people are either trying too hard or being fake.

You were named a Young Global Leader. What does that role entail and what would you like to do with it?

I don’t know yet. It sort of came out of the blue while I was on tour, and I was really surprised by it. I have to think about that for a few months. Right now, it’s a little hard for me to act on because I’m a new mother. I did say to them, “Next year, I’d like to think about this more.” It sounds like an amazing opportunity, and I don’t want to take it for granted. It did just sort of come out of the blue.

That must have been an amazing phone call to get.

Yeah, it was actually.

Preview: Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads

April 6, 2011 § 1 Comment


By Rebecca Liao

Unveiled at the São Paolo Biennale in Brazil in September, 2010, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads by China’s foremost contemporary artist Ai Weiwei will begin its international tour at the Pulitzer Fountain at Grand Army Plaza near Central Park and the Plaza Hotel. Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is based on the fountain clock at Yuanming Yuan, an 18th-century imperial retreat outside Beijing, and is Ai Weiwei’s first major public sculpture. Commissioned by Emperor Qianglong of the Qing dynasty from two European Jesuits serving in his court, the clock featured the heads of the twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac spouting water every two hours. In 1860, the Yuanming Yuan was ransacked by French and British troops, and the heads were pillaged. Early 2009, the heads depicting the rabbit and rat were auctioned off by Christie’s as part of Yves Saint Laurent’s estate despite vehement objections from the Chinese government and advocacy groups. (Wealthy art collector Cai Mingchao ended up sabotaging the auction by posting the winning bid and then refusing to pay.) Today, five other heads – the ox, tiger, horse, monkey and boar – have been located; the whereabouts of the other five are unknown.

Four feet high (10 feet when the base is included), three feet wide, and 800 pounds, Ai Weiwei’s heads are far from replicas of the originals. He explained it this way to AW Asia, “My work is always dealing with real or fake, authenticity, what the value is, and how the value relates to current political and social understandings and misunderstandings.” (Full interview)

Sunday morning, officials in China detained Ai Weiwei as he attempted to board a plane bound for Hong Kong. His wife, nephew, and a handful of his employees were arrested and questioned as well.  The US, UK, France, Germany, and the European Union have since called for his release. Officials in China remain steadfastly silent on his whereabouts.

Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads will be revealed in New York as planned on May 2–one day after May Day.

In the meantime, here is a preview of the sculptures. Throughout the turmoil, we shouldn’t forget that ultimately, Ai Weiwei views the exhibition as “an object that doesn’t have a monumental quality, but rather is a funny piece.” (If you place your cursor over an animal’s image, its characteristics will pop up. All images are courtesy of AW Asia.)

The Rat

The Ox

Amy Chua

The Rabbit

The Dragon

The Snake

The Horse

The Ram

The Monkey

The Rooster

The Dog

The Pig

Yundi and Tchaikovsky, Blomstedt and Sibelius

April 4, 2011 § Leave a comment


By Rebecca Liao

For a performer, a rough day at the office is one in which the audience is reminded that the office actually exists. It is show biz fail to admit to mistakes and allow people to see the effort. Such seemed to be the fate of the San Francisco Symphony as it kicked off its concert of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 on Saturday night at Davies Symphony Hall.

Yundi Source: EMI

According to critics who attended the weekday performances, Yundi Li did not have a smooth landing in San Francisco. Watching him walk the plank to the piano bench with Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt in tow, I could see that bitter cocktail of fresh, tepid reviews, an almost incurable discomfort with showmanship, and lingering self-consciousness from a career whose days of being the youngest winner ever of the International Frédéric Chopin Piano Competition are long over (Deutsche Grammophon dropped him two years ago) course through his system. He bowed stiffly. He slowly outstretched his hand and focused on its counterpart for the customary handshake with the concertmaster, awkwardly revealing that, while a duty for all soloists, it is really just that for him. His coattails needed to be adjusted several times when he first settled on the bench. His pants didn’t fit well. His hair was possibly the biggest offense of all, a far cry from the straightened-and-flipped locks of his press pictures. Without the hair and makeup team, it was a loosely crimped weave, no hints of luster or gel.

Warhorse and piano virtuoso are usually a foolproof combination. However, aside from the Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1 that made his name, Yundi does not speak in warhorses. Tchaikovsky’s thunderous opening chords lacked a consistency in dynamics that most pianists of his renown can rely on as an assuring warm-up. A loud, straightforward announcement such as this cannot be found in the Chopin nocturnes and Lizst sonatas that dominate Yundi’s recording repertoire. To his credit, he wrangled the notes in time to avoid distracting from the strings’ exposition of the opening theme. The effort was not without casualty: the arpeggiated notes lost the timing and deftness required to make them into a coherent forward movement. Worse, Yundi and the SFS seemed to have momentarily lost each other. Doubts of Yundi’s abilities outside the recital context were gaining traction, and the first movement had just begun.

When it came time to repeat the opening theme, the SFS and soloist had had enough. Both used the swell of Tchaikovsky’s narrative to reset, but that is not to say they then proceeded through the traditional route. The SFS can be workmanlike, bordering on robotic, with Tchaikovsky’s concertos, and Saturday night was no exception; Yundi’s calling card is a sensitive and subtle elegance most clearly heard when no other sounds threaten to overwhelm the piano. Together, they would never cruise in the stratosphere; just as well, it’s crowded up there.

Instead, they went for something much rarer: an arch reading of a heroic work, more Chekhov than Mother Russia. During the second movement, Yundi moved completely economically. He betrayed no sign of the slow swaying of the upper body and shaking of the head that has practically become a part of the technique. His fingers moved deliberately, but unhurriedly; it was a very contemplative and studied delivery that acknowledged, without milking, the plentiful nuances in the slower amble of notes.  The flute and cello solos introduced the orchestra’s response: each musician took their time with the pauses and eased into the notes that followed through an inflection point, giving the effect of a skillfully rendered soliloquy.

For those who expected fireworks from Tchaikovsky, the third movement did not disappoint. Turns out someone who has mastered Lizst can play with great speed, accuracy, and conviction. Yundi became a completely different pianist at the signal of the timpani, springing from his bench with his forehead cocked forward in intense concentration and cheeks jiggling from the sprint of his hands. To confirm that the second movement was no coping mechanism, the orchestra executed the climax with the same subtle phrasing.

Any Sibelius symphony played by the San Francisco Symphony with Blomstedt at the helm threatens to be the definitive version. But with its inversion of the classical structure, rhythmic irregularity, explosiveness and tenderness, and history as Finland’s reluctant “Symphony of Independence,” Sibelius’ second symphony is a minefield for interpreters. Herbert von Karajan all but raced through it to avoid the expressive challenges, and Leonard Bernstein’s trademark molasses pace undermined the unity of what is, on the surface, a work already precariously put together. Unlocking the internal logic of the symphony, which Sibelius preferred to emphasize over the socio-political overtones, involves a thorough and inventive understanding of its tempos, namely how they can be manipulated. There were no hints of the more rigid, almost staccato, playing from the Tchaikovsky. Rather, key motifs in each movement were parsed so that the last notes of a phrase were allowed to gradually peter out before moving on. Combined with confident execution throughout from all solos and the full orchestra, the SFS was by turns majestic and lyrical without ever losing its train of thought. Occasional wobbles from the brass and woodwinds aside, this was a performance so beautifully controlled that it grabbed the aura of inevitability from the first three notes and never relinquished it.

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