Elsewhere, October 18, 2010

Nicholas Kristof, Sufjan Stevens, Akira Kurosawa, comic books and spirituality, netlabels and HTML5, EllisLab and ExpressionEngine, Christopher Hitchens, Arvo Pärt, and Makoto Fujimura.
Sufjan Stevens
Sufjan Stevens

Elsewhere: A collection of interesting links and articles that I’ve come across in the last week or so. Follow me on Twitter for more of the same.

Nicholas D. Kristof offers up another quiz about religious knowledge:

…the point of this little quiz is that religion is more complicated than it sometimes seems, and that we should be wary of rushing to inflammatory conclusions about any faith, especially based on cherry-picking texts. The most crucial element is perhaps not what is in our scriptures, but what is in our hearts.

Sufjan Stevens talks to the Irish Times about The Age of Adz… and knitting:

Lyrically, the album also feels more personal. There is no imperative to write about a US state or a New York roadway. It could be the most honest work he’s ever done. Was it liberating to do that, to try something different?

“Yes, liberating is an appropriate word, because I felt burdened by the conceptual weight of my previous records,” Stevens says. “I just wanted to be straightforward, and it was necessary for me to shake it up a little bit. It is more personal, because I didn’t have an object to project meaning on to, so I was left with my own instincts, my own emotional impulses. I was very consciously refining the language … Well, not refining it, but reducing it to core, fundamental principles about love and loneliness. It was about allowing myself to express those feelings in very matter-of-fact, almost cliched terms. The size of the album” – it has 11 tracks – “is a response to all the theatrical clutter that characterised all my previous work. I was getting tired of that self-conscious, rambling psychobabble. I got really sick of myself and my own flawed, epic approach to everything.”

I find it interesting that Sufjan talks about reacting to the “theatrical clutter” of previous albums considering the cacophony — and I don’t mean that necessarily negatively — of The Age of Adz and the fact that the album ends with a 25 minute song.

The Quietus interviews Sufjan Stevens:

Is it good to work with people who have faith? I guess it wouldn’t be as easy working with drug addled lunatics right?

SS: Hahaha. [Pause] What’s the question?

I should probably rephrase it. You’re a Christian, so it’s probably easier to work with Christians than some heathen hoovering up cocaine every day…

SS: Yeah. [Long pause] What?!

What I’m asking is, is it easier to work with somebody in the same faith instead of somebody of a secular disposition?

SS: [Pintersque pause] Ahhh no, not at all. I don’t draw lines when it comes to my work. People I work with come from all over the place. There’s heathens and potheads in my band. I love them all, so…

Being an artist of some repute do you find the calling to spread the Good News sits awkwardly with your profile? Is it difficult?

SS: Not necessarily, you know, I think the Good News is about grace and hope and love and a relinquishing of self to God. And I think the Good News of salvation is kind of relevant to everyone and everything.

Bonus points to Sufjan for handling such awkward and frankly awful questions with as much grace and aplomb as he did.

Christ and Pop Culture reviews Sufjan’s The Age of Adz:

Behind all of Sufjan’s gritty honesty and insecurity, there is a deep seated belief in transcendent love experienced in community. That is the Christian life isn’t it? The greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart and the second is to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:36 – 40). What is so refreshing about this conclusion is that in getting there Sufjan covers some very dark terrain and doesn’t give us any false hope that it will be easy. The Age of Adz isn’t perfect. There are certainly beats and sounds that will grate on you and certainly some of the album feels a little self-indulgent (much like moments in The BQE). In the end, however, there are few albums that feel as honest and self aware as The Age of Adz. I find that the change of pace provides the perfect setting to express such self-awareness and thus a refreshing departure from the Sufjan of recent albums. I am glad Sufjan invited me on the journey, because I too believe “we can do much more together.”

PopMatters kicks off their Akira Kurosawa spotlight with “A Giant Shadow: The Continuing Influence of Akira Kurosawa on World Cinema”:

…Kurosawa’s influence is much deeper than on this rather superficial level. Like Sergei Eisenstein and Alfred Hitchcock, Kurosawa originated film techniques that are still being used today. It is today commonplace for movies and, thanks to lighter, less expensive cameras, television series to be filmed with two or three cameras, a technique Kurosawa initiated in the battle scenes of Seven Samurai and continued in all films afterwards. Although not the first director to employ telephoto lenses for most principal photography, he was perhaps the most influential and certainly the most successful. He was the first director to use slow motion in action sequences, while Sam Peckinpah and other action directors credited scenes like the end of Throne of Blood, in which Toshiro Mifune’s character is assassinated by having hundreds of (live) arrows, many of which were embedded in his heavily padded armor, others landing only inches from him. Without Kurosawa, the end of The Wild Bunch or Bonnie and Clyde is inconceivable.

Like Hitchcock, he has managed to impress critics and influence directors while simultaneously delighting moviegoers. One of the truisms about today’s movie viewers is that they resist watching movies in black & white and actively avoid movies that are subtitled. Yet as this piece is being written, Seven Samurai is the 13th highest rated film by viewers on IMDB.com, easily the highest-rated subtitled film on IMDB’s Top 250 and the second highest black & white film (topped only by Schindler’s List and two spots ahead of Casablanca).

TheoFantastique interviews Christopher Knowles about comic books, spirituality, and esotericism:

Christopher Knowles: I don’t know about comics in and of themselves. I think there’s a kind of winding down feeling about the market lately. There’s been a real risk-averse mentality at the big companies that has to do with the economics of publishing, which are pretty scary at the moment. I think that comics and superheroes have this common history but may not have a common future, necessarily. Superheroes might well belong onscreen and not on the page, now that the technology has caught up with the storytelling. I loved the Watchmen movie — to me it stomps all over the comic, as heretical as it is to admit. Same with Kick Ass.

The thing is that comics are the best place to take risks and really explore the possibilities but we don’t seem to value that in the culture. This is a really terrible time for this country, but also for the culture and the only way we’re going to get out of it is by using our creativity and imaginations. I don’t see that same energy in comics to kickstart that I did five or ten years ago. Other media tend to cherrypick the best creators and it’s very hard for new creators to get noticed. We’re starting to see the migration to the internet and to social media, but we’re still not seeing the magic yet. This might be a transitional period. But there’s a whole century of inspiration to explore that incorporates all of those themes, usually unconsciously. And the great news here is that a talented creator can create a universe with a pencil.

Disquiet interviews several netlabels regarding “HTML5, iOS, and related web standards”:

The absence of Flash in iOS, Apple’s mobile-device operating system, is the sort of tech-insider discussion that on the surface seems unlikely to filter into daily conversation among non-professionals. For most people, Flash is a semi-transparent working part of their daily Internet activities, fueling video, small interactive games, even entire websites — a source of frustration, certainly (long load times, frequent plug-in updates), but such is the nature of the Internet.

The OS wars, like other corporate melees, however, have a way of becoming part of everyday life. Apple’s commitment to HTML5, a still-in-the-works protocol that has yet to see widespread adoption, led me to check in with the proprietors of netlabels, those websites that give away their releases, with the full permission of the contributing artists, for free on the web. Many such netlabels simply provide links to Zip archives of MP3s, others to individual links; others use Flash to provide rudimentary streaming capability.

ExpressionEngine developer Kenny Meyers writes “A Plea To EllisLab” regarding ExpressionEngine 2 and the company’s reticence:

A couple weeks ago, I was at that aforementioned conference in Europe. The atmosphere was jovial; the community is a great, smart community. There was, however, a change in the air pressure when you brought up EllisLab in conversation.

Everyone was making jokes at the San Francisco conference about the delay of ExpressionEngine 2. This time, I encountered people whom were frustrated with the product, they were considering alternatives. I had numerous conversations with people about Django. It was surreal.

There are clearly some growing pains. Derek Jones, the CTO, wrote this blog post, stating ExpressionEngine is growing at 1000+ new members each day’. If you send any member of the EllisLab team an email with a question they will respond to you, personally, with as much information as they can give. So they’re not absent, just not present. Like a bored kid at a school assembly.

So I have some grievances with the way EllisLab handles things, and while Derek’s post is nice, I still feel it’s full of the same platitudes we’ve been hearing. Even though they’re growing, these are long running issues.

I agree with all of the author’s points, but I especially agree with #1 (“You need to hire a full time designer.”). I’ve been using EE2 more often, but its UI and UX is frustrating and in sore need of polish. In fact, that’s how I feel about EE2 in general. It has so much promise and potential that’s not fully realized, that using it is a frustrating experience.

EllisLab responds to Meyers’ article:

A blog post or potentially a series of blog posts is how we would normally respond. But we’ve decided that’s not giving this the weight it truly deserves. Instead, we’re going to ask Dan, Lea, & Ryan to bring us on the EE Podcast so we can actually talk about what’s going on with EllisLab. Anybody who has talked with me in person knows that I’m very open about the state of EllisLab and I think an interview will bring that out in a way that a blog post simply can’t.

I’m glad that EllisLab responded so quickly, and in the manner that they did. This bodes well for the future of ExpressionEngine.

Christopher Hitchens and the Grave

The question upon which the Hitchens conversation was centered was, “Does Civilization Need God?” Of course, they do not really mean God; they mean belief in God, or perhaps religion. To answer the question as posed, however…

Yes. All creatures and all things live and move and have their being in God. Everything at all times depends upon God for preservation. Those things which are contingently depend on That Which Is necessarily. I know this is not how the question was intended, but it teaches us an important lesson. We think too narrowly when we consider what needs God or what God provides. If all things everywhere and always are absolutely dependent upon God for their very being, then every moment is God’s gift. If God in a single moment could withdraw his sustaining will and all things would simple cease to be — and God does not need us, but chooses to give us to ourselves in love — then, yes, the most minute particle of time, the smallest thing, the most insignificant person and the most overlooked relationship is a gift, a sheer gift, and worthy of treasuring.

The New York Times profiles acclaimed composer Arvo Pärt:

Critics of Pärt’s work usually complain that it is ersatz and simple-minded. But unlike some so-called “holy minimalists” (like Henryk Gorecki and John Tavener) with whom he is unfairly grouped, Pärt composes by a process that is as rigorously systematic as anything propounded by Schoenberg. He is not an old-fashioned composer but a contemporary one. Without his having traveled through serial music, it is hard to imagine that he could have arrived at his method.

Much of what Pärt writes is choral music. Although his compositions are intended for concert performance and not religious service, in one regard he is medieval: his acute sensitivity to texts recalls the Gregorian chants he so admires. But here too, his mathematical brain is at work. He applies a set of principles to determine the phrasing of a piece: so that in “Passio,” a setting of the Passion according to St. John, which dates from 1982 and is one of his major accomplishments, he gives a different duration value to different syllables, depending on the syllables’ relationship to punctuation marks in the sentences. A similar operating system is used in instrumental works that are derived from texts, like the second movement of the Fourth Symphony; as the conductor Tonu Kaljuste observes, “Behind this string music is words — they pray between notes.”

Since he typically writes now in response to commissions, Pärt orchestrates his work with a detail that he didn’t apply in the early days, when his music was playing mainly in his own head — or, if it was performed, could be adapted to whatever musical forces were available. “It was music without colors,” Pärt explained to me. “Whatever instruments you had in Tallinn, you played at that time.” The more recent music also sounds freer than some of the older work. “Before, the algebra was most important,” Kaljuste says. “Now the algebra becomes more organic. The language he created has started to breathe.”

If you haven’t listened to Pärt’s “Für Alina” or “Spiegel im Spiegel”, then you’re missing out on some truly life-changing pieces of music.

Makoto Fujimura has written “A Letter to North American Churches” regarding the church’s relationship with artists, and it’s a doozy:

You began to believe in the late 18th century that we needed rational categories, to try to protect “faith” from “reason.” Reason began to win the battle in this false dichotomy. As a consequence, you began to suspect the mystery of our being and the miraculous presence of God behind the visible. What you call “Secularism” is your own offspring*, given articulation by the division and fragmentation within the church. As a result of this dichotomy, you began to exile artists whose existence, up to that point, helped to fuse the invisible reality with concrete reality. An artist knows that what you can see and observe is only the beginning of our journey to discover the world. But you wanted proof, instead of mystery; justification instead of beauty. Therefore you pushed artists to the margins of worship, while the secular world you helped to create championed us, and gave us, ironically, a priestly role.


Do you not know that the first people known to be filled with the Holy Spirit were not priests, kings or generals, but artists named Bazelel and Oholiab, who built Moses’ Tabernacle? Do you not remember that even the Babylonian kings wanted artists from the exiled nation; and they were the first to be exiled? Artists have skills and power that a dictator is afraid of, or want to use; and you, the church, unwisely neglected them.

A painter does not merely reproduce what is thought to be seen by the eye; an artist task is to train the eye first to truly see, and then learn to disregard what we have been taught, to throw away imposed categories — those easy preconceived notions that lure us to think that we are seeing when we are not, but merely looking. An artist’s task is to see through the eye into the eternal, into the invisible.