As the editor in chief of The Creative Independent, an impressive new webzine launched by Kickstarter in September 2016, Brandon Stosuy is helping to enable artists and innovators to share advice and anecdotes concerning their creative processes. Partisans of outstanding music journalism and cognoscenti of aural extremes have known and relied upon Stosuy for years, as a leading advocate for innovative sounds and performers during his noteworthy run at Pitchfork, and as a curator involved in presenting memorable events at MoMA/P.S. 1 in New York City, the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, the Basilica Soundscape festival in Hudson, NY, and National Sawdust in Brooklyn.
In October, Stosuy added a new line to his burgeoning C.V. – children’s book author – when Simon & Schuster published Music Is…, a charming board book featuring vivacious, enchanting illustrations by Amy Martin, a Los Angeles-based artist who has worked on projects for Obama for America, The New York Times, McSweeney’s, Death Cab for Cutie, Sufjan Stevens, and St. Vincent, and who illustrated the award-winning 2011 children’s book Symphony City. Aimed chiefly toward the youngest beginning readers and their parents, Music Is… offers a simple yet sophisticated overview of musical attributes and sensations, presented with a colorful verve and rhythmic flow that achieve their own sense of musicality.
During a recent conversation in a Greenpoint café, Stosuy related some details about his own creative process in producing this unique, special project, and talked about a dance party he’ll host in its honor in Brooklyn on Oct. 16.
STEVE SMITH: What made you consider taking on this particular challenge initially? Or did someone approach you about it?
BRANDON STOSUY: Sort of a mixture. I used to be a contributing editor at The Believer, and was talking to Andrew Leland at The Believer about maybe doing some kind of kids’ book for McSweeney’s at one point. Then when we started pitching it, thinking about it, it was getting too complicated, and wasn’t actually what I had in mind. We both just got really busy and nothing ever happened, and it was because it wasn’t something that struck me right away – we were thinking maybe we could do some sort of book of advice, like how to raise a kid, in sort of a not-jokey but less formalized/New Agey kind of thing, and from my viewpoint. And nothing ever really came of it.
But because I often tweet about my kids, or Facebook-post about my kids, or post photos of them, my friend Jeff Salane, who’s at Simon & Schuster and used to be a drummer in the bands Orchid and Panthers, one day hit me up and was like, “You know, you always have these amazing stories about your kids and these funny things that they say… have you ever thought about writing a children’s book?” And I was like, yeah, I actually had, and gave him this concept that I’d had. And he said, “What would you think about doing something much simpler, for younger children?”
My kids…when I first started doing this, Henry was still five, so they both still fit into the age bracket, and because I read my kids books every night, at this point I kind of know the language of children’s books. So then we just sort of talked about it: “What if it’s really basic, to explain what music is to children that age?” And it sounded like a good idea. Then Amy Martin, who illustrated it, she and I started going back and forth figuring out this is what the words will be, she came up with images that would work, we shifted things around a lot…
How did you and she connect?
She was someone who’d done a lot of stuff for McSweeney’s and in that zone, and was someone that Jeff had always wanted to work with. He introduced us and we got along really well, so we decided that it made sense, so we started collaborating from there. It was, for him, this illustrator that he always thought would be perfect for a book of this sort, and then it just happened to be that she and I had some overlapping connections. And we worked well together, and they went for it. The whole process was really fast. I’d just sit down and start writing it out: here’s what the words were going to be. Let’s have some of them kind of rhyme and some of them not, some of them speed up in the middle, like in the jazz part, and then slow back down, things like that, just kind of the language of children’s books that I’d picked up from reading so many to my kids.
I think, honestly, the hard part was Amy doing these amazing drawings, because I think the illustrations are beautiful. They’re so detailed and colorful. You look at a lot of books and the cover will be nice, but the images are not really as hardcore throughout. She just really went for it with each page, which is amazing; every page you’re like, wow, she really put a lot of effort into this. Pairing her images with the words worked out really well.
The one thing we were really lucky about was getting Björk to write the blurb on the back. I think a lot of people are going to be like, “Oh, a kid’s book… oh, Björk wrote on the back!” She’s always been someone who’s into education, and into children learning about music, and talks in interviews about how she learned about music in all the wrong ways as a child, when it was shoved down her throat in a really academic way. I thought that she’d be into the spirit of this book, so I sent her a PDF before it was out and she was really into it.
This just fit in with the whole feel of the book; for her it was about introducing kids to music in a way that’s not over-complicated, based on emotion and feeling and sound rather than being super-strict about it. My six-year-old, Henry, takes drum lessons with Greg Fox [of Liturgy, Zs, Guardian Alien, and more], who’s a really good drummer, obviously. But the way Greg started off was like, “All right, we’re just going to count” [taps table], that kind of more hardcore way of learning, and for a while Henry thought, “This isn’t any fun.” But after a while, they found a balance between doing paradiddles and all that other stuff, but also let’s just write some songs and get together and play.
I think sometimes kids can be a little turned off by something if it’s presented to them in too complicated a way at the beginning – it almost sort of crushes their spirit a little bit. So we just had this idea: Let’s make it really fun.
Was there a lot of give and take between you and Amy? Was this strictly a script that you created and she depicted, or did you find yourself altering things in response to what she came up with?
We shifted things a little bit here and there. She wanted to make the drawings really inclusive – we tried to mix it up with different kinds of people and different kinds of families.
There’s a really sweet picture of two dads and their daughter.
Yeah, there’s that, and then there’s the little girl doing ballet, who’s not like a super-skinny kid. Things like that, having people as they actually are: that was part of what Amy wanted to do, and I was totally on board with it. We shifted a few things; the cover got changed a couple of times. But really a lot of it, once we’d had the discussion, she just went for it.
Were you concerned about including insider terms like “a cappella” or “lo-fi”? The first time I read through the book without my daughter, I wondered if I’d be stopping a lot to explain those things. But actually, when we just went through it, went with the flow and looked at the pictures, it didn’t feel off-key. Plus, there’s the glossary in the back for parents to explain afterward. By the third night, my daughter was using terms like “a cappella” herself.
Cool. Yeah, it’s funny, the glossary was like a last-minute idea, where Jeff was just like, “We should make a glossary for these terms, because some parents won’t even know what they are.” That way, we can explain what “lo-fi” is, or “hi-fi.”
It’s parents who are going to overthink it, anyway.
Yeah, exactly. [laughs] We wanted to keep it simple, but there definitely are words in there that, especially when you’re surrounded with music all the time, to me are like basic terms, but for someone else may not be. I think kids do pick up and understand a lot of these things, just seeing how the words work together. My kids, their readings of things can be hilarious…they can be slightly off, but they’re also often amazingly insightful, and pick up things that I had no idea they’d picked up. So giving them some of this stuff does actually teach them something.
Music, for my kids, is such a big part of their whole existence, and they get so into it. Seeing it live – I’ve taken them to shows, and it blows their minds to see things. We have this Sonos at home now and they’ll just kind of shift through it; they’ll go from listening to Bollywood music to Kidz Bop, System of a Down to the Misfits, just this crazy mix of things. They’re doing their dances to it, and to them it’s kind of a big deal. So yes, it’s cool to steep someone at that age into it.
Speaking of dancing, you’re hosting a dance party in Brooklyn to celebrate the book’s release. What’s the idea there? When we do the book launch, my friend David Castillo, who’s one of the guys that owns [Greenpoint metal club] Saint Vitus, is going to D.J. The idea is that I’ll read one of the pages – “Music is sad” – and then he’ll play a song that’s sad, and the kids can dance – and then “a cappella,” you know, give examples of what these things are. We made a playlist for bookstores that Simon & Schuster asked us to do. Amy and I collaborated on it, and she’s really into like Sufjan [Stevens] and Andrew Bird, stuff like that, so we kind of have a mix of stuff like that and, like, Deafheaven, whatever. It’s all things that work.
I had this long-term idea, which I don’t think we’re going to do, but I really like the idea of having some kind of central Music Is… website, where parents could upload songs that illustrated the different ideas that their children are into, and just have this ongoing database of “This is what my kid thinks of when the book says ‘Loud’” – or sad, or happy, or lo-fi or hi-fi. So that’s what we’re going to try to replicate at the book launch. I don’t think the press has the resources to build a whole website for this book, but that was my idea, at least: Let’s have a website where people can do that, because I think it’s going to be interesting to see how kids react, what pages they like the most, and what kind of music they associate with “happy” or “sad.” My kids are very different from your kid, and everyone has a different view on what that is.
Brandon Stosuy is editor in chief at The Creative Independent and a music curator for MoMA/PS1 in New York City and the Broad Museum in Los Angeles. He co-curates the annual Basilica Soundscape festival in Hudson, NY, and the ongoing Tinnitus music series in New York City. Music Is… (Simon & Schuster), his first children’s book, is available in bookstores now. Stosuy will host a book-release dance party on Sunday, Oct. 16, 3-5 p.m. at WORD Brooklyn, 126 Franklin St., Brooklyn; www.wordbookstores.com/word-brooklyn
If you’ve followed the career of David Lang, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and co-founder of the revolutionary activist new-music collective Bang on a Can, for any significant amount of time, you might…umm…worry just a little bit. Not about his talent, originality, or capacity for innovation, certainly. But if you’ve been around from near the start, you kind of have to wonder about Lang’s seeming preoccupation with cruelty, extending from early works up to the loser, the 60-minute opera for solo baritone, piano, and small ensemble presented in its world premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House Sept. 7-11.
Okay, I’m kidding – I’m not actually concerned about Lang, a friendly and generous member of the musical community. Still, it’s hard to overlook the darkness that runs through several of his prominent works. Remember the unsettling start of his 1987 piece Are You Experienced? “Hello, I’m David Lang,” the composer recites, deadpan. “I know you were looking forward to hearing this piece, but something terrible has just happened. While we were busy setting up, someone crept up silently behind you and dealt a quick blow to the side of your head.”
What follows is droll, clinical, and morbid by turns, set to some of Lang’s most insouciant, peppy music. Further examples would follow: the ominous mystery of the difficulty of crossing a field, the chilly anguish of little match girl passion, the amorous torment of love fail, the livid guignol of anatomy theater. Lang seems fascinated by dark matter, responding with settings that are not just provocative, but also distinct, individual, and strikingly empathetic.
For the loser, which Lang not only composed but also directed in its premiere staging for BAM’s Next Wave Festival, that empathy extends beyond the score. Everything about the presentation underscored sensations intrinsic to Thomas Bernhard’s 1983 novel (distilled by Lang from Jack Dawson’s English translation), in which an unnamed narrator, formerly a promising pianist, recounts meeting Glenn Gould in a Salzburg master class led by Vladimir Horowitz.
Its considerable historical liberties notwithstanding, the story details the impact a brush with the incomparably brilliant Gould would have on the narrator and their fellow student, Wertheimer – in the process prompting reflection on the destructive potential of both genius and its absence. “When we meet the very best, we have to give up, I thought,” the narrator says, his declaration followed with a pregnant pause. (That he regularly appends such self-reflexive tags to his observations emphasizes his solitude.) Spiritually scorched by Gould’s incandescence in Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, both the narrator and Wertheimer – the “loser” of the title – would abandon artistic paths; the narrator contemptuously, Wertheimer self-destructively.
The versatile, charismatic baritone Rod Gilfry, in the lone vocal role, performed tuxedo-clad and spotlit in an otherwise darkened house. He stood perched atop a 20-foot platform planted in the orchestra-level seating, singing to an audience confined to the mezzanine. An arresting tableau, the arrangement emphasized the narrator’s comprehensive isolation and smug, self-important demeanor, feigned or otherwise. Gilfry sang with potency and nuance, working further wonders with facial expressions, gesture, and posture. Amid unconventional constraints he delivered lacerating bravura, his haughty declamations regularly moving audience members to laughter.
Below, hidden from audience view, the conductor Karina Canellakis guided a tiny consort (violist Isabel Hagen, cellist Clarice Jensen, bassist Lisa Dowling, percussionist Owen Weaver) in pithy music that paced, juddered, stabbed, and sometimes sang. Framing Gilfry’s busy delivery rather than mimicking or pushing it, spare instrumental lines established mood quietly: sometimes in accord with the narrative thrust, elsewhere seemingly contradicting it.
Close to the end of the loser, the pianist Conrad Tao comes into view, lit gently on the distant stage. A ghostly apparition, Tao represents the specter of Gould, and more pertinently of Gould’s idealized, unattainable genius. Wisely, Lang provides the pianist with crystalline, meandering original music rather than quoting Bach, assuring that his audience isn’t wrenched out of the intensely concentrated microcosm he has created.
Further credit is due: to set designer Jim Findlay for helping Lang to realize his unlikely and evocative construction; to Jennifer Tipton for lighting of exceeding subtlety; to Jody Elff for effective sound design; and to Suzanne Bocanegra for smartly severe couture. It all added up to an encounter that was strangely engaging if not wholly comfortable: a striking meditation on brilliance, mediocrity, and the cruel toll that can be exacted at either extreme, in a production whose every aspect illuminated its core obsession. Less jarring than a sudden, unexpected blow to the head, certainly – yet the impact was equally indelible.