The Lightning Field, Part 1

Posted on May 26, 2017


Visiting Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field is like going to an event. You might know the framework, but you can’t predict the exact experience. So after some fortunate advance planning (I read about visitors waiting 10+ years for schedules to align) and a journey into Western New Mexico, I stand with my main art friend and four other overnight visitors in an isolated cabin next to a grid of 400 polished stainless steel poles. A simple framework.

We congregate on the back porch of the cabin. Clear skies, no lightning expected. In the washed-out afternoon light the poles blend into the high desert landscape. Wind comes and goes, loud then silent. Rabbits scurry from beneath the cabin, a few cows stroll in the distance. Without connectivity to the outside world, time seems to slow. Walking the field brings the scope and scale to life. One mile by one kilometer, 220 feet between poles. It seems we’ve seen it. Time to chat.

But the field is not done…at the golden hour the light changes and the poles catch the sunset. The sharp polished tips begin to glow white. Silver torches. Then poles fully illuminate. Bright gold and deep orange tubes. The field becomes Flavin. Sunset fades, the air cools, and we gather back at the cabin. Did you see that!?!


Click here for Part 2.


Future You

Posted on January 8, 2017


My best personal planning occurs when I consider the context of my situation – past, present, future – and act in the best interest of my future self. In its simplest form it’s asking, will I tomorrow be pleased with the decisions I make today? Especially as New Year’s resolutions start to fade into post-holiday realities, I encourage you to plan – and progress – the optimal future you.

The Past

Recognize the connection of past decisions to present situations. Personal histories in health, in education, in career, in relationships, etc. are too frequently rationalized in hindsight, rather than fully related to the present. In financial hardships, for example, the real villain is often the victim’s past self. The point is not to beat yourself up over past decisions, it’s to recognize how your decisions impact your situation. As one of my colleagues likes to say, life is not a series of independent events.

“These are but shadows of the things that have been.” –Ghost of Christmas Past

The Future

Your future is a chance to begin again. The future you will have a personal history that includes where you are today plus the decisions you make up until the next point you look back. Even with a debilitating illness, you can embrace a version of yourself that you positively influence. Take ownership of your future self.

“You are what you choose to be tomorrow.” –James Altucher

The Present

This is where the work happens to create your future. Take one step at a time if dramatic transformation is difficult. As long as steps are in the desired direction, you’re making progress. Make mindful trade-offs between what you do and what you don’t do, between the present you and the future you.

“You have to participate in your own recovery.” –Gregg Popovich

Ask yourself – Where do I want to be in the future? How will I get there on an acceptable timeline? Are my decisions helping or hindering my future self? – and align your actions this year. The future you will appreciate it.


Sounds Extreme

Posted on December 10, 2017


The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum sits on New York’s Upper East Side in a renovated Andrew Carnegie mansion. When Carnegie purchased the land in 1898, it was more than a mile north of what was then considered fashionable society and many levels removed from the deafening steel mills that accelerated his fortune. It seems he wanted space for a garden.

On a sunny Sunday morning in October of this year, the Cooper Hewitt galleries are quiet with only a few visitors at such an early hour. I break the silence by tapping a few keys on a dot piano in the Designing with Sound exhibit. The notes present a stark reminder of how sound surrounds us, how sound influences us, and how sound is often most noticeable in its extremes – the overwhelming excess in its presence or the overwhelming quiet in its absence.

“It’s this hidden actor in our lives that changes our mood in an instant, guides our choices and makes or breaks emotional connections.” –Joel Beckerman

Discovering Sound: Max Neuhaus in Times Square

In an understatement, artist Max Neuhaus described Times Square as a “rich and complex” aural and visual environment. From a sound perspective I’d call it noisy. Vehicles rumble by with horns honking, tourists wander through excitedly chattering, and commuters stride across metal clattering. It’s a veritable Dr. Seuss soundscape.

So it’s really no surprise that Neuhaus’s Times Square sound installation often goes unnoticed or is easily dismissed as machine noise emanating from underground. Standing by it on the 46th Street and 7th Avenue pedestrian island, 2.5 miles south of the Cooper Hewitt, I see no one else acknowledge the installation or the sound. While for me, the sound anchors my environmental perception in the area, and the island is a different place.

“It’s meant for people who are ready to discover” –Max Neuhaus

Exploring Sound: Aki Onda and Akio Suzuki

Four days later Aki Onda walks past me in a dark performance hall rapping an object on the wall. Akio Suzuki, an older artist who first explored how sound can be part of a performance by throwing “a bucket full of junk down a staircase” at Nagoya train station in Japan, stands at a table in the middle of the hall. Suzuki and Onda are sound artists on their fu-rai North American tour, and I’ve happened on a performance in Marfa, Texas.

Rocks click, bottles tap, rubber squeaks, and amplifiers hum into space as Suzuki and Onda explore the “infinite and variegated possibilities” of sound. In an otherwise hushed room (an extreme away from the Times Square environment), each isolated sound dominates the senses, and the crowd appears transfixed. Walking into the evening afterward, the crunching gravel underfoot sounds at least twice as loud as usual, and I consciously slow a few footsteps to hear the variety.

“Some musicians, when they play, they imagine the notes, but I’m the opposite, I imagine the soundscape.” –Aki Onda

Integrating Sound: Artists at Work

I continue to notice sounds and extremes over the next month. In New Orleans, I see how some venues are structured around stages (and all that jazz), how some performers integrate into existing structures, and how The Music Box Village in the Bywater neighborhood serves as a musical playground of sorts:

At home in Minneapolis I hear the different ways conductors announce the arrival of light rail stops, the extended way sound carries across theater stages, and the flow of DJs working holiday parties. I’m reminded that some designs are intentionally constructed around sound – Warner Brothers drew full animation cartoons around Mel Blanc’s voice, after the voice was recorded, to better synchronize lip movements – while other designs treat sound as a byproduct. You can guess which designs work better.

“Sound design is part of the interaction design process, and not something to be tacked on to the end.” –Aaron Day


Field Notes: Sounds Extreme

Posted on December 10, 2017


Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

  • I frequently recommend the Cooper Hewitt across age groups. In addition to the Designing with Sound exhibit during my October visit, I saw an excellent exhibit on Design in the Digital Age, and an interesting Virtue in Vice exhibit with objects categorized across the seven deadly sins.
  • My previous visit to the Cooper Hewitt led to writing about Pixar.

Notes on Max Neuhaus, Times Square

  • Considering the foot traffic through Times Square, this is probably the most visited art installation in America. It just so happens the vast majority of visitors don’t realize they’ve visited. Neuhaus said, “I want at least fifty percent of the people to be able to walk through it without noticing, without hearing it.” By my observation across at least five visits, it goes 99% unnoticed.
  • Neuhaus’s description of Times Square at the time is great: “It includes large billboards, moving neon signs, office buildings, hotels, theaters, porno centers and electronic game emporiums. Its population is equally diverse, including tourists, theatregoers, commuters, pimps, shoppers, hucksters and office workers.”

Notes on Aki Onda and Akio Suzuki, Sound Artists

  • It seems strange to “happen” upon a performance in West Texas, but such is the case. I had traveled from New York to Marfa, Texas to revisit Chinati and the Judd Foundation.
  • Onda and Suzuki both seem like interesting characters. Onda is more quotable for me, partly because Onda is fluent in English, whereas Suzuki relies on a translator.
  • “You know, sound is everywhere. There is no silence in our daily life.” -Aki Onda
  • “I love mistakes. They often open a door which I hadn’t noticed before.” -Aki Onda
  • “Our life is basically unpredictable. We don’t know what’s happening in the future, and we are learning how to cope with that unknown future all throughout our life. It’s exciting, but somehow it’s painful as well. Everything is transitory in this world. Memories lose their significance, but their essence remains. We use them in our daily life. And we need them for making music.” -Aki Onda
  • Onda’s lengthier comments about soundscape are really interesting. I’ll never look at candles the same: “I always imagine the space. Some musicians, when they play, they imagine the notes, but I’m the opposite, I imagine the soundscape. For a Cassette Memories performance, I burn numerous beeswax candles in the performing space. The light and scent of candles set the atmosphere of the performance. It’s also a symbol of remembrance, as people have been using candles for centuries. Candles have a practical purpose – they change and improve the acoustics since they make a certain airflow in the space. If I place candles around the centre of the floor, the air goes up to the ceiling directly and runs down along the walls, making a dome-shaped airflow. Then, if I send my sound from vintage amps to the candle area, the sound follows the airflow and creates very spacious acoustics. Listeners sometimes don’t realise where the sound source is. Or if they stand by the walls, they feel like the sound is falling down from above them.”
  • Onda’s life philosophy: “I just want to rewrite rules.”

Integrated Design

  • “If you take sound away from an experience, and you don’t miss it, then it shouldn’t have been there in the first place.” -Joel Beckerman, Composer and Sound Designer
  • In the 1981 Letterman interview, Mel Blanc also describes the effort required to do full animation: “To make a 6.5 minute cartoon in full animation took 125 people 9 months to make 1 single fully animated cartoon. And even then it cost around $50,000. Today it would cost around half a million.” Remember this is before computer-generated imagery.
  • Referring to drawing animation after the voice is recorded, Blanc states this neatly: “They draw to the voice.”
  • Referring to music (over)use in movies, film editor and sound designer Walter Murch said, “Most movies use music the way athletes use steroids.”
  • I avoided any direct discussion on noise pollution. It seems an obvious corollary topic, and it would be hard to overemphasize the concern in urban American environments.
  • Related to noise and acoustic design, I recall one California town deploying recorded bird songs to reduce crime, a concept that may in fact be supported by research on pleasant soundscapes.


New Orleans

Posted on November 24, 2017


Having vanquished the French Quarter in prior trips to New Orleans, a long sunny weekend in November provided the perfect opportunity to explore additional neighborhoods in the city.

Magazine and Arts

Magazine Street angles southwest of the Quarter, beyond the museums and galleries of the Arts District. The commercial center of the Garden District, Magazine is easily walkable from the 2000 block (closer to the Quarter) to the 4000 block (further from the Quarter) with many shops and stops along the way. Consider breakfast at Surrey’s and an afternoon beer at the Bulldog patio. Passing back through the Arts District in the evening provides an excellent environment to taste wine (at w.i.n.o. naturally) and savor Cajun flavors at Cochon.

Bywater and The End of the World

Walking east of the Quarter through the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods offers varied views of restored venues and waterfronts. A stop in the friendly Bacchanal Wine backyard is a jazz-heavy respite from the sidewalks. And I absolutely love the (accurate) descriptions of The End of the World as a “makeshift park” behind the abandoned F. Edward Hebert Defense Complex. It’s worth the secluded walk for the more adventurous. If a hearty meal is in order, go for Pizza Delicious or the adjacent German beer garden on Piety street. But you absolutely cannot beat an evening meal/sauna/pool combination at The Country Club, which does sell swim gear by the way.

The Chateaubriand was excellent…do you sell swim trunks?

The Quarter

And of course the French Quarter got me again after all. From oysters to architecture to random jazz bands to a Legs and Eggs brunch, and Brennan’s in there somewhere, it’s easy to find a new appreciation for the Vieux Carré, especially after visiting its surroundings.

“There are only three great cities in the United States: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” –Tennessee Williams (and others)


It’s All Interim

Posted on November 12, 2017


I switched jobs this month, and alongside a few gracious comments as I transitioned, I experienced a sort of bewilderment that such a dramatic change could occur. It was almost as if leaving a decent role was unfathomable. The I could never leave mindset dominates. But you will leave as well, either by choice or by circumstance. Eventually for an advancement, through a termination, to a retirement, or on a stretcher, you’ll be out the door, and others, in some way, will pick up what you’ve left behind. We should all be mindful of temporality and inevitability in a role, with what we own, and in life. It’s all interim.

“You can die tomorrow…who is going to take care of all this crap!” –Margareta Magnusson