Dr. L. Subramaniam’s Global Fusion Knows No Borders

It was 1988, I was living in New York. Mira Nair’s award-winning movie Salaam Bombay! had just been released. I remember its strong impact on me and how I was riveted by the poignant and highly effective soundtrack which gave it another dimension. The score was by Dr. L. Subramaniam, the esteemed master of Karnatic (South Indian) violin.

Here’s the trailer for Salaam Bombay! with music by Dr. L. Subramaniam.

Exploring further, I discovered not only Subramaniam’s Indian classical recordings, but also his East/West fusion works and cross-cultural collaborations. The recipient of many awards since a young age, and equally trained in classical Indian and Western music, Dr. L. Subramaniam is a prolific recording artist who has worked with musicians such as Herbie Hancock, Larry Coryell, Stéphane Grappelli, Yehudi Menuhin, Ali Akbar Khan, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Jean-Luc Ponty, Stanley Clarke, Zubin Mehta, and the New York Philharmonic, to name a few. Continue reading

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Behind the Scenes

The Skirball’s Learning for Life program is always looking for new and fun ways to engage adult learners. When UCLA instructor Marc Milstein approached me about teaching a course explaining the science behind TV crime shows, I was hooked. I have always wondered about the accuracy of the crime-solving science on these shows. Entertaining Science: Simply Explained will explore forensics, DNA evidence, cloning, and much more. Hopefully, this interview with Marc Milstein will whet your appetite.

If I take this course, will I be able to identify the killer on TV crime shows?
Great question! We could do an experiment and see if detective skills improve after taking the course. I’ll get back to you on the results of that one. You will definitely have a greater understanding and appreciation of what your favorite TV characters are talking about when they discuss the latest DNA-based and fingerprinting technology. You will also be able to catch when your favorite TV characters are talking about using a technology that doesn’t quite work in the way they are discussing it!

Can we do anything to improve short-term memory?
Absolutely! In just the last few years there has been a lot of extremely exciting research on how our memories are made and formed. We are going to discuss that, as well as the most effective methods researchers have found to increase one’s memory. One tip is to learn new things and challenge your brain in areas you might not feel completely comfortable with. Whether it be learning a new language or learning about science, that type of brain workout seems to be the most beneficial. We are also going to talk about some fascinating studies of people who have lost their ability to make any new memories. These are people who completely live in the present moment, much like the main character in the film Memento. There is one famous case about a man who couldn’t form any new memories, yet he could still remember how to play the piano. Continue reading

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Be Still My Bleeding Heart

Champagne and roses may be synonymous with Valentine's Day, but this year, we recommend celebrating with Say the Word!

There’s a bit of a lull after the flurry of celebrations and activities of the holiday season, until suddenly, thoughts of Valentine’s Day begin to come into mind (or loom ahead, as the case may be).

At the Skirball we’re excited to celebrate Valentine’s Day with a special edition of our popular Say the Word comedic reading series entitled Bleeding Hearts, a little twist on the typical hearts-and-flowers motif. Whether you love Valentine’s Day or dread it, there’s something for you in this show. Say the Word: Bleeding Hearts is February 8—about a week before Valentine’s Day—so you have time to find a date!

I asked our Say the Word host, resident comedy maven, and goddess of love, Beth Lapides, to share some of her insights into the holiday and the Bleeding Hearts program.

Valentine’s Day: fake holiday or important day dedicated to expressing love?
Totally fake. But also, a very important day for expressing love! So, both. And that’s what keeps us interested in Valentine’s Day or any of the other Hallmark holidays—the contradiction of the authentic urge and the repulsive fake commerciality. The trick is to find ways to satisfy the one part while making fun of the other. And Say the Word is all about combining the heartfelt and the ironic twist. So, speaking of Cupid, it’s a match made in heaven!

I have one theory about Valentine’s Day. It’s actually a manifestation of our desperate longing for red in the midst of winter bleakness. Continue reading

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“Persian Lioness” Meets “American Soul/Blues Master”

While working for the Skirball, I long hoped to curate a concert series entirely dedicated to cross-cultural collaborations. This idea was propelled into action when I first heard Scent of Reunion: Love Duets Across Civilizations by Mahsa Vahdat and Mighty Sam McClain. I was moved by the beauty of the songs, their soulful vocals and the unforced rapport between a Persian singer and an American blues artist, each securely anchored in their respective traditions.

The blues has influenced a number of Persian musicians, most notably Mohsen Namjoo, Kiosk, and Rana Farhan (click on the links to see video clips I especially like from each artist). But in the case of Mahsa and Mighty Sam, the encounter takes the form of a musical conversation. For me it works because melancholy, nostalgia, and longing are at the core of both traditional Persian and blues singing. Although stylistically different, it is the emotion conveyed by both singers that makes this musical marriage so fruitful. Mahsa and Mighty Sam explore the connection between their musical heritages with grace and fluidity.

Their collaboration goes beyond two people and in fact spans three continents: Norwegian producer and poet Erik Hillestad met Mahsa on a journey to Iran while working on the album Lullabies From the Axis of Evil. They ended up working on several recordings together and eventually met and befriended Persian poet Mohammad Ebrahim Jafari. The lyrics of Scent of Reunion and the newly released follow-up, A Deeper Tone of Longing, were written by the two poets, in Farsi and English, and set to music composed by Mahsa and Norwegian musicians Sigvart Dagsland and Knut Reiersrud. To give the English lyrics just the right voice, they could not have come up with a better collaborator than Mighty Sam McClain.

The songs on both albums are about love, longing, separation, reunion, and hope. In an interview, Mighty Sam explains how Mahsa’s singing touched him to the core and that he did not need to understand the words to hear and feel her. He chokes up when he reveals the project’s emotional and spiritual meaningfulness for him. In turn, Mahsa explains that both styles of music express sadness and yearning but also hope and aspiration. She discovered through this project that the human heart is one and this oneness is the conduit allowing them to sing so easily together.

Mahsa Vahdat and Mighty Sam McClain live in concert.

Such is the beauty of music, an art form so fluid and universal that it speaks to us across, time, cultures, geography, politics, and language barriers. Music is healing, and in these times, a series based on the notion of connections without boundaries gives us more reason for hope and rejoicing. It is with anticipation that I look forward to the California premiere of Mahsa Vahdat and Mighty Sam McClain’s at the Skirball on Thursday, November 8.

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Rough Draft

Thomas Jefferson. Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence, June–July 1776 (detail). Manuscript. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Thomas Jefferson. Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence, June–July 1776 (detail). Manuscript. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Visiting Mount Vernon, Virginia, recently, I had a good look at George Washington. His original terra-cotta likeness, by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, is on display there. Washington was looking down at me. (He was six foot three.)

Our usual image of the father of our country is conjured from the dollar bill or the stiffly posed portraits of his day. But this likeness is different. It dates from 1785, when Houdon followed Washington around for weeks, waiting for the moment that would capture the great man’s character. It came when Washington was negotiating the price of a horse. The seller apparently asked too much. Washington’s expression, as captured by Houdon, is priceless: imperious, dubious, somewhere between high and mighty—and so lifelike that, standing there beneath his gaze, I was glad I wasn’t the one selling the horse. Not even the King of England could stand up to George Washington.

Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co.The British Surrendering Their Arms to Gen. Washington After Their Defeat at York Town in Virginia October 1781 (detail). Philadelphia: Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co., January 28, 1819. Engraving. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co.The British Surrendering Their Arms to Gen. Washington After Their Defeat at York Town in Virginia October 1781 (detail). Philadelphia: Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co., January 28, 1819. Engraving. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

To capture the living person before he became an icon—this is just what the Library of Congress exhibition now at the Skirball, Creating the United States, sets out to do. Visitors are invited to witness the founding of the nation as it happened, before it was set in stone. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights were once rough drafts, with cross-outs and add-ons you can still see. Before they were ratified, they had to be debated;  before they were proposed, they had to be composed. Continue reading

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Nice Work, Simon Rodia (An Italian American Who Could’ve Been the Grand Marshal of Any Columbus Day Parade)!

From afar or up close, the Watts Towers are visually splendid… and the story of its maker, Simon Rodia, is an inspiration.

From afar or up close, the Watts Towers are visually splendid… and the story of its maker, Simon Rodia, is an inspiration.

Of all the famous L.A. landmarks—the Capitol Records Building, the Hollywood Bowl, the Santa Monica Pier—perhaps none has a more fascinating origin story than the Watts Towers. This monument to one individual’s creativity and community activism is a fascinating place to visit, both because of the physical scale of the towers and their importance to L.A.’s art community.

For these reasons, a number of us in the Education department took a field trip to the Watts Towers to see them close up, learn about the community programs presented there, and find out more about Simon Rodia (1879-1965), the Italian immigrant, construction worker, and self-made artist who built the towers all by himself over some thirty-three years.

Skirball educators pose for a snapshot in a cozy corner of Simon Rodia’s triangular lot.

Skirball educators pose for a snapshot in a cozy corner of Simon Rodia’s triangular lot.

Ten of us ventured to Watts on a sunny Friday morning. The towers are tucked in a neighborhood filled with houses, schools, and nearby Metro tracks. We parked and entered the Watts Towers Arts Center and Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center, located in a building adjacent to the towers. The center serves as a space for art workshops, gallery exhibitions, and school programs (one of which was underway when we entered). First we watched a video about Simon’s life, which helped us understand the nature of his unusual undertaking: an immigrant from Serino, Italy, feeling far from home and missing familiar cultural traditions, who took it upon himself to express that longing through the creation of an ambitious work of art.

Examples of how the immigrant experience inspires artistic expression pervade our culture: novels by E.L. Doctorow, songs by Bruce Springsteen, paintings by Jacob Lawrence. As our Education team explores in many of the Skirball’s school tours and school performance programs, the immigrant story is one of the universal experiences in American life. Simon did not express his yearning for Italy or his relishing of opportunity in America in couplets written in a notebook or by painting a watercolor of stars and stripes.

Instead, Simon went big, creating a seventeen-part structure that includes three towers connected by interlocking arches. Continue reading

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Perfectly Imperfect Art

I’ve been interested in contemporary art since college, and it’s been a dream of mine to one day display a small but significant collection of art. In fact my husband and I recently contemplated the purchase of a piece by Ed Ruscha and Raymond Pettibon just last weekend, at the Pasadena Museum of California Art 10th Birthday Auction (if you click through, BTW, that’s me and the hubby in that top pic!).

But like most of my friends, our desire for an art collection had to take a backseat to an even stronger desire for food, shelter, and clothing, so we make due with home-sourced works of art and other creative endeavors. That’s one reason why I am a huge fan of the Skirball’s art studio. Visiting the studio offers a great way to unlock the special creative genius within your own family or circle of friends.

Nieces hard at work in the Family Art Studio, while their Aunt Jenn snaps pix.

My nieces hard at work in the Family Art Studio, while their Aunt Jenn snaps pix.

The Skirball’s drop-in art studio, a.k.a. Family Art Studio (or Studio Schmoodio, as a smarty-pants colleague once suggested for a name), is ideal for a group of friends or family wanting to partake in the artful assembly of recycled and repurposed ordinary materials, turning misfit minutiae into mini-masterpieces.

I’m not a parent but have regularly brought all six of my nieces since the Skirball started offering the drop-in art studio during busy summer and holiday weeks. You definitely don’t need to have kids to enjoy the studio, but kids always raise the bar when it comes to fearless innovation in hands-on art making.

I’m proud to share the story of a recent sleepover at my house with Ava and Claire, two of my six nieces, who were at a loss for sufficient dolls.  Looking around our place, they expressed to me their wish to have baby dolls for their bigger dolls to hold. Finally, Ava glanced over at the book shelf, full of the miscellaneous detritus of my life (don’t judge), and she suggested using a set of tiny spools of thread in a rainbow of colors as the “babies.” The girls even matched the color of the thread spool to the outfit worn by the “mama doll.” In true Skirball studio style, it was good fun for us to repurpose stuff that was right in front of us.

I’m also totally captivated by the story of Caine’s Arcade.  He’s another young guy who reminds the adults in his world about repurposing simple materials and cultivating our desire to create.  I had the chance to meet Caine and play in a “pop-up” version of his arcade at a recent Unique LA show. [And for those wanting to follow in Caine’s footsteps, stop by the Skirball on Saturday, October 6, to take part in the Global Cardboard Challenge.]

Left: That’s Caine back there behind his cardboard creations. Right: My husband, Victor, lines up to meet the famous Boyle Heights artist.

Left: That’s Caine back there behind his cardboard creations. Right: My husband, Victor, lines up to meet the famous Boyle Heights artist.

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The Lolly Gag

Our free series of Alexander Mackendrick matinee screenings starts today with Whisky Galore (1949). Coming up on October 9, we screen The Ladykillers, which Entertainment Weekly has called “one of the greatest comedies ever made.”

In the mid 1970s, PBS in New York City ran a retrospective of Alec Guinness movies filmed at London’s famed Ealing Studios. It was my accidental introduction to a series of amazing British comedies, including not only The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) andKind Hearts and Coronets (1951) but also the work of American/Scottish filmmaker Alexander Mackendrick. He directed Guinness in both The Man in The White Suit (1949) and The Ladykillers (1955), both of which are frequently cited as the pinnacle of Ealing films.

The Ladykillers, which we will screen on October 9, is an achingly funny tale of robbers who are almost able to pull off the perfect crime. As they scheme to rob an armored car, the gang pretends to be a string quintet, “rehearsing” (by playing record albums) in order to allay the suspicions of the little old lady from whom they are renting a room. When the landlady, Mrs. Wilberforce, accidentally uncovers their crimes, the miscreants decide they must kill her!

Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness are the most widely recognized members of the cast, but it is filled with faces like Jack Warner and Cecil Parker whom you will undoubtedly recognize from other British movies.

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Music That Brings Me Closer to Home: La Santa Cecilia

La Santa Cecilia performs this Thursday night as part of the 2012 Sunset Concerts at the Skirball. This is such a great photo of the band! To my eye, the illumination around each member creates a saint-like aura!

La Santa Cecilia performs this Thursday night as part of the 2012 Sunset Concerts at the Skirball. This is such a great photo of the band! To my eye, the illumination around each member creates a saint-like aura!

Ever since I moved to Los Angeles from Sacramento, I’ve tried my best to be independent. But, as much as I hate to admit it to myself and even though I talk to my mom just about every day, I do get homesick and find myself nostalgic for my childhood.

What sparks my fondest memories is the music that I’ve grown up with. As a child, I was exposed to wonderful musicians such as Selena, Marc Anthony, Vicente Fernández, Banda Machos, Chayanne, and my personal favorite, Shakira.

As I’ve gotten older, my taste for Latin music has expanded to other artists such as Carla Morrison, Calle 13, Café Tacuba, Camila, and most recently, La Santa Cecilia, an L.A. favorite that will be taking the stage this Thursday at the Skirball. When I first began my internship here, I knew very little about this band, but once I listened to a few of their tracks, I immediately fell in love. What attracts me most to La Santa Cecilia’s music is their ability to combine different musical genres, not just of Latin culture, to create a type of music that is for everyone.

La Santa Cecilia, named after the patron saint of music, is fairly new to the music industry, but received a lot of popularity after their Latin Grammy nomination for this song, “La Negra.”

I’m so excited that August 23rd is coming up, so I can finally watch the band live! So, to help get everyone ready for this Thursday night’s concert featuring La Santa Cecilia, here’s a quick interview with the talented lead singer, La Marisoul:

A beautiful photo of just one of the vendor booths that enliven Olvera Street in El Pueblo, Los Angeles. © Kevin Stanchfield. As featured on http://dguides.com/losangeles/information/history/.

A beautiful photo of just one of the vendor booths that enliven Olvera Street in El Pueblo, Los Angeles. © Kevin Stanchfield. As featured on http://dguides.com/losangeles/information/history/.

What or who has inspired you to make music?
My biggest inspiration has been my family. Their love of music influenced my early dreams of being a singer/performer. I remember as a kid my mother would sing around the house and teach me her favorite songs. Another fond memory was spending weekends at my grandfather’s shop on Olvera Street in the heart of Los Angeles. There, in the colorful alley ways of Olvera, the sound of mariachi music, trio groups, and norteño bands were never absent and inspired my love for performing. Continue reading

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