Get WRCT to the top!

Shameless self-promotion:

Your favorite freeform radio station WRCT Pittsburgh has been duking it out with the finest non-commercial radio stations from around the world these past two weeks. We’ve been participating in’s Madness competition. A march madness style competition between noncommercial radio stations.

We’ve been advancing round by round thanks to the support of our regular listeners and now we’re about to be in the final four. Nevertheless, if WRCT is to come out victorious in the next round, we need your help. Help us out by listening in and discover some new music along the way!

I really appreciate your help in getting Pittsburgh’s little old WRCT to the top of this freeform competition. We love being the underdog and you, dear web listener, can make all the difference.

Eisner at the ToonSeum

As odd as it may seem, Pittsburghers can find a slice of the Big Apple in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh until May 27.

This is because the ToonSeum, Pittsburgh’s museum of cartoon and comics art, is currently presenting Will Eisner’s New York, a rare collection of original works by legendary comics pioneer Will Eisner. The exhibit chronicles the artist’s informal history of the city that shaped many of his illustrated masterpieces. Simultaneously personal and universal, Eisner’s depiction of New York City captures the nuance that the greatest of biographers are capable of.

The exhibition is curated by cartoonist and critic Denis Kitchen along with comic book writer and editor Danny Fingeroth; it is presented in partnership with the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York (MoCCA). MoCCA had originally organized an Eisner retrospective in 2005, soon after Eisner passed away at the age of 88. Many of the pieces are from this restrospective. The ToonSeum’s display of Will Eisner’s New York is the first time that this particular collection of New York oriented work has been shown outside of New York City.

Considered one of the most important contributors to the development of the artistic medium of comics, Eisner was best known for his leading role in establishing the graphic novel as a form of literature with his book A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories. In this work and the subsequent works he created during the ’80s and ’90s, Eisner explored the communicative depths of the medium and laid down a framework for generations of aspiring cartoonists.

Will Eisner’s New York allows audiences to explore the artist’s most intriguing element, the ever-changing landscape of New York City. The exhibit includes over 50 original works spanning Eisner’s 70-year career, each capturing a glimpse of the city’s beauty and squalor. Dense but not overwhelming, the exhibit allows visitors to fully experience the city from pre-Depression to modernity. From immigrant ghettos to claustrophobic subways, dirty alleyways to towering rooftops, ramshackle tenements to grandiose bridges, Will Eisner’s New York reveals the artist’s powers of observation and empathy and, above all, the brilliance of his pen.

An exhibit like this makes it possible for visitors to lean forward and peer at the original drawings and, in so doing, increase their appreciation of Eisner’s art. Getting close to the original drawings, and to such a broad array of them, reinforces the notion of Eisner as a master of this 20th-century art form.

The ToonSeum’s main gallery houses the exhibition and displays it in a concentrated yet uncluttered fashion. A lively jazz soundtrack with pieces by the likes of Duke Ellington, Cannonball Adderley, and Cab Calloway accompanies the exhibit and adds the energy of New York to the halls of the ToonSeum.

Small details in the exhibit like a light post, a fire hydrant, and a manhole cover make for nice touches that embellish the exhibition. These details invite visitors to experience the work viscerally, on their own terms, and to develop their own relationship with the master’s work and with the city of New York.


On Rachel Ries

I’m going through a lot right now. Rachel Ries’ music is helping me go through it. I met her last week in Austin. I thought I’d share her influence on me with you.

Hailing from the vast expanses of South Dakota, Ries can bring audiences to tears with the trembling of her harmonies. A talented instrumentalist, and deft songwriter, Ries has been traveling around the country accompanying Anais Mitchell as part of the Young Man Band on Mitchell’s most recent tour.

My introduction to Ries was at the Whip In. Just south of downtown Austin, right off of I-35, situated on a busy corner of the southbound access road, the Whip In is a flat-roofed, cinder-block building that at first glance looks much like an ordinary convenience store. But upon entering, its clear that it is a different creature. To the right of the door, there is a cozy dining space warmed by wooden church pews, antique tables, Indian wooden screens, and colorful printed textiles. Beercave, coffeehouse, cozy restaurant: The Whip In is a magical place.

It was there that I saw Ries play for the first time. She took the stage with Anais Mitchell, Matt Fockler, and Southpaw Jones, and performed a suite of songs including Mitchell’s powerful “Young Man In America.”

Ries pulled every last one of my heartstrings; she had me weeping in awe. She’s know to make grown men cry. Despite the myriad of performers that I saw across the city during SXSW, it was Ries’ raw performance that impacted me the most.

That night I chatted with her and picked up a copy of her most recent recording, On Laurel Lake EP.Besides overflowing with massive doses of honesty, the On Laurel Lake EP reveals skilled production and recording techniques. Ries tackled the album by herself on a personal retreat in Tennessee and dug deep to patch the songs together.

On this album, Ries’ trembling harmonies punctuate her sophisticated melodies. Her craftmanship is apparent on this exquisite folk recording. From the slightest wavering of vocals to the gentlest of brushes on the guitar pickups, Ries captured it all on the recording. While not as seemingly hip as Bon Iver’s Blood Bank, her recordings on the EP have a poignant delicacy that allow it to exist free from hype. In a different vein from On Laurel Lake is Ries’ 2007 release, Without A Bird.

Warmly analog and carefully orchestral, Without a Bird showcases the artistry of some of Chicago’s finest players: Kevin O’Donnell (Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire, Neko Case), Joel Paterson (Devil in a Woodpile, Kelly Hogan, Steve Dawson), Alison Chesley (Bob Mould, Verbow, Poi Dog Pondering) and Ariel Bolles (Bakelite 78). Without a Bird was recorded and mixed analog and it shows. As would be expected, in contrast to the On The Lake EP, the songs have much more of the city’s rhythms flowing through them.

Across albums, Ries’ music constantly grapples with the tumultuous dichotomy between life in the city and life in the country. In her own words:

“This life I’ve chosen felt suddenly precarious, muddled, and far too far from the source. What do we really need? Out here in the ‘real’ world I ask for so much more than family, faith, food and shelter. So much vapor.”

While Ries’ songs are heartbreaking, they are not love songs. They speak to life — its joys and its anguish. They talk of so much. Memories, dreams, and illusions sit beside anguished lonesomeness in Ries’ songs to create a heart wrenchingly powerful combination.

Fans of early Liz Phair, Anais Mitchell, Ani DiFranco, and early Regina Spektor  will certainly find much to like in her recent recordings. For those interested in learning more about Rachel and her music, check out  this interview at Gaper’s Block and this interview at WBEZ from 2009.


On ZZK Records

The future of music is blasting out of the sound system at Zizek Club in Buenos Aires, Argentina. At Zizek DJs and producers mash-up Cumbia, Reggae, Hip-Hop and Electronic Music and create a space where musicians work with new ideas and the chance to show what they’re doing in the current music scene. Arguably the hot bed of the borderline avant-garde transformation of the Latin American sound of Cumbia, Zizek Club has created whirlwind of energy in just a few years time and has spawned the acclaimed record label, ZZK records.

Born out of their weekly Zizek Club, the rapidly expanding crew of ZZK records all share a hunger for getting on the road and spreading their gospel. Established in 2008 by Texan Grant C. Dull, ZZK records now manages 11  “New Cumbia” groups with “Digital Cumbia” as its most active sound.

Dull first came to Argentina in 1999 and reinvented himself more than once, going from musicologist and online magazine editor, to visual artist for events and finally to curator and DJ. He founded the bilingual cultural website, and co-founded ZZK Records and Zizek Club with his Argentine partners. Behind the decks, Dull, who goes by El-G peppers his sets with live percussion, collaborates with his peers on stage and brings his unique vision of global music and culture to the arts community at large. It’s only natural that his label would do the same.

ZZK Belongs to a new movement of world rhythms born out of cities that are being reinterpreted using electronic music to make something new, fresh, and fun. Baile Funk from Brazil and Kuduro from Angola, popularized by M.I.A. and Buraka Som Sistema respectively evidence the rise of this global movement of sonic reinterpretation.

In the case of ZZK, membership to this new movement is shown by Tremor, an Argentine trio on ZZK Records. Tremor researches folklore traditions by region and bridges generations, geography and genre through technology to produce their signature style. Their sound is equal parts electronic music and native drum. It owes as much to anthropology as it does to popular music.

Today, ZZK is now home to  the psychedelic cumbia of Fauna, to the experimental beats of Chancha Via Circuito, the hard hitting cumbia hypnotics of El Remolon, King Coya, Tremor, the theatrical Frikstailers, newcomer Mati Zundel, the first lady of ZZK – La Yegros, and the label’s latest signings, chip tune obsessed brothers Ignacio and Luciano Brasolin, aka Super Guachin.

Mixing cumbia, bastard pop, and reggaeton, ZZK’s mission is to modernize the sounds of the night of the past.


Check out this teaser of what has recently been coming out of ZZK.

And be sure to marvel at this video of Mati Zundel’s Señor Montecostes done by Marco Lizama. Single frames in this video are studies of form and color as brilliant as any work of 20th century color theorists. It rules.

A personal favorite of mine from ZZK has been Chancha via Circuito‘s Rio Arriba. Thanks to him I’ve been listening to Jose Larralde continuously.

Native Pennsylvania: A Wild Flower Walk

Hunt Institute’s collection of plants and watercolors takes viewers on visual tour

There are few things in life more delicate than wildflower blossoms and the soft splashes of watercolor on vellum.

Native Pennsylvania, A Wildflower Walk, the newest exhibit at the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, pairs the two wonders together to celebrate the historical intersection between the sciences and art in the world of botany.

A collaborative exhibition between the Hunt Institute and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s botany department, Native Pennsylvania, A Wildflower Walk presents visitors with a painstakingly collected selection of plants and watercolors. The exhibition features the pairing of 36 watercolors by Richard Crist (CIT ’28) from the Hunt Institute’s collection with a significant selection of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s herbarium specimens.

In addition to Crist’s watercolors and the botany department’s herbarium selections, the exhibit also features watercolors by painter Lyn Hayden and entomologist and painter Andrey Avinoff, which underscore the importance of herbaria in botanical research, education, and conservation.

The concept behind the exhibit is to create a visual wildflower walk through Pennsylvania’s blooming seasons. A special emphasis is placed on endangered and rare species. Given Pittsburgh’s historically gray winters, visitors will surely welcome this early celebration of nature’s ephemeral splashes of color.

At Carnegie Mellon, an environment in which most undergraduate students have a hard time taking a break, let alone going outside,Native Pennsylvania, A Wildflower Walk provides a convenient look at the delicate unfolding of Pennsylvania’s natural world. Located in the often-overlooked Hunt Institute, on the fifth floor of Hunt Library, the exhibit provides a quiet space for serene contemplation. The unfolding of the seasons lends the exhibit a gentle, logical progression that is sure to please those in need of a respite.

In the exhibit, visitors can explore the intersection between the arts and natural sciences by viewing the juxtaposition of botanists’ tools and artists’ documentation on display. For those uninitiated in the traditional practices of botanical collection, the exhibit thoroughly describes common tools and their uses.

The inclusion of Crist’s work alongside the herbarium selections provides a new perspective on the artist, given that historians remember Crist primarily as an abstract painter. Native Pennsylvania, A Wildflower Walk adds another dimension to the public’s understanding of his work as an artist.

Along with his painting and printmaking, Crist was also an amateur botanist, author, and book illustrator. He wrote and illustrated several children’s books, including The Mystery of Broken Horse Chimneys, published in 1960 with his wife, Eda Szecskay Crist. He also provided hundreds of watercolor illustrations for the “Herbs” and “Vegetables and Fruits” volumes of The Time-Life Encyclopedia of Gardening in 1977. His work is in the collections of the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh.

For those interested in expanding their knowledge of the botanical world, The Hunt Institute for Documentation will be holding lectures through mid-June that will focus on Pennsylvania’s native plants.

Pets Reign at Warhol Exhibit

Thanks to a recent partnership between the Andy Warhol Museum and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, fans of cats, dogs, and Andy Warhol can experience Warhol’s 1976 ode to man’s faithful companions: the Dogs and Cats print series.

Together, the museums have dedicated the space just preceding the Benedum Hall of Geology in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History to exhibiting Warhol’s varied print work. Dogs and Cats is the second exhibit to be held in this space. It follows another exhibit that displayed Warhol’s prints of endangered species. The collaborative effort to put together Dogs and Cats was organized by Natural History director Sam Taylor and Warhol director Eric Shiner.

In a press release, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History expressed the significance of exhibiting these portraits: “These works remind us of the complex relationships between humans and domesticated animals.” Although the museum claims that examples of this long and intertwined history can be found throughout the museum — in exhibits like the Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt’s cat mummies and the Polar World’s depiction of Inuit reliance on dogs for transportation — the justification is weak.

There simply isn’t a lot in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History that deeply explores the relationship of man and domestic animals. While it may not meet the expressed purpose, Dogs and Cats does provide a colorful passage for museum patrons.

The Dogs and Cats series is among Warhol’s lesser-known works. The eight silk-screened painting set features common house cats and dog breeds such as the Great Dane, West Highland Terrier, and Dachshund. The series began in 1976, when art collector Peter Brant commissioned Warhol to paint his Cocker Spaniel named Ginger. Warhol made two paintings of Ginger, as well as numerous drawings. Brant liked these works and encouraged Warhol to do a whole series of cat and dog drawings.

When viewed, a juxtaposition of eeriness and vibrant personality comes forth from the depicted pets. This eeriness is likely due to Warhol’s decision to use stuffed animals for his first cat and dog photos. He took this approach because of the difficulty he initially faced when staging the pets. The subsequent paintings Warhol completed were done from photographs of cats and dogs and, given his predisposition to work from photographs as an illustrator, it is easy to understand why the later pets are so vibrant and infused with personality.

Dogs and Cats’ vibrant colors and energetic swatches of paint contrast the rigid tension created by the exhibit’s wallpaper. The backdrop of the current exhibit, a three-color wallpaper print on sand-colored paper, is actually a reproduction of the fish wallpaper that was created as a backdrop for Warhol’s exhibition Painting for Children at the Bruno Bischofberger Gallery in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1983. Like much of his art, this backdrop was visually engaging because of its hypnotic repetition.

Despite the interesting background, the mundane subject matter of domestic pets does not create as much excitement as the previous exhibit’s endangered species prints did. As such, the fish backdrop is an essential element of the curated exhibit that prevents the room from feeling too sparse.

Despite Dogs and Cats’ small size as an exhibit and its seemingly lofty mission, the exhibit is a pleasantly whimsical contemporary experience that will add to patrons’ museum visits.

(This article appeared in the Tartan’s arts and culture digest, Pillbox.)