- Classically trained cellist Larry Gold has spent a lifetime orchestrating pop classics.
- Bach’s Goldberg Variations continue to challenge pianists and fascinate audiences.
- Kevin Cornell’s illustrations tend to evoke childlike emotion, even in adults.
- Sculptor Michael Murphy’s installations are perceptual puzzles.
- Art & Design
- Art & Design
Coming up on Articulate. The classically trained cellist Larry Gold has spent a lifetime orchestrating pop classics. Today he’s helping bring out the soul in R&B and hip hop.
Larry Gold: Well they’re getting a depth of feeling from me. They’re getting I guess an intensity.
Bach’s centuries old devilishly difficult Goldberg Variations continue to fascinate audiences and challenge pianists.
Simone Dinnerstein: It’s really unlike any other kind of composition that had come before it and really since it.
Kevin Cornell’s illustrations have a remarkable capacity to evoke childlike emotion, even in adults.
Kevin Cornell: It’s an interesting trick to make something that appeals to both of those sides. It has to be sophisticated and simple at the same time.
And whether created for commercial, political, or personal ends, sculptor Michael Murphy’s installations are perceptual puzzles.
Michael Murphy: I make it so the viewer has to put in work and they have to be observant, so once they finally see the illusion they’ve received this reward for their being observant.
That’s all coming up on Articulate.
When the elites of pop and hip hop want to express their deepest emotions, they turn to Larry Gold. He’s not a shaman or a guru, he’s a producer and string arranger from Philadelphia whose clients include Beyonce, Jay-Z, and Kanye West. As a teenager, Gold studied cello at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, but classical music was not to be his calling.
Larry Gold: When you try to be Jedi at an instrument, you really have to like commit yourself to that. It’s very mono. I have to play Dvorak concerto 100 times before you’re gonna kick it, you know, and feel like it’s part of who you are and not just something you’re doing by rote. But when you love something that much, that’s all you want to do, you know? It’s like I played my cello for hours, as much as I could. Most good musicians do that, that’s what they do. That’s your life.
AJC: You lose yourself in it.
Gold: You lose yourself in it, yeah. You lose everything in it. Unfortunately, you have to make a living, too.
And when he became a father, Gold accepted that classical music alone wasn’t going to pay the bills.
Gold: So I said well here’s this commercial music that I’m pretty good at. Let me get better at it, and I devoted myself to that then.
Gold joined the house band at Sigma Studios where he would play on countless hits of the 1970s and ’80s. It was during this period that he learned the art of orchestration, especially how to arrange strings.
Gold: In Philadelphia, that involved making records that were pop, but from a black perspective; and I learned about Gospel music and I learned about all these other things that I never knew really. I knew a little bit, but when you record them, and when you see the spirit in them, and when you understand the chordal structure, and you start getting into them, and how the bass fits with the drums and all this other kind of stuff, it was fascinating to me, you know? It held my curiosity for a long, long, long time. And it still does.
Today, Gold’s unique experience and talents are still in high demand. Artists turn to him for help with turning a good song into a great song.
Gold: They’re getting a depth of feeling from me. They’re getting I guess an intensity.
This intensity is manifest in a massive Justin Timberlake hit produced by Timbaland.
Gold: The record’s called “LoveStoned,” and one of the reasons I like this record so much is because if you listen close, most of the instruments are either Timbaland’s voice or Justin’s voice and there’s very few live instruments. The drums, I think, are sampled vocal things, as well as the bass line, and then we have the vocals. If you put strings going like this here, it would completely destroy this song. So, my concept of the strings was to make a grand appearance, which I’ll show you right now… And then to stay away, and to come in and out the way, he’s singing, the strings keep coming back and forth and then we meet here. And we do, which is the theme of the song.
By adding centuries old instruments to modern hits, Larry Gold brings a human touch to music that often begins life as bits and bytes.
Gold: Records are made by writers, and today the way these kids write records is all of them and a computer, basically. You know they have a keyboard, but there’s a lot of it that has to do with the manipulation of sound. A lot of it has to do with the mood you create, just you and this computer.
AJC: And qualitatively, is throwing data at a computer the same as throwing notes at a page? I mean is the end result better or worse?
Gold: I can’t criticize life that way. Popular culture evolves with technology, so if you refute technology you stay in the same place in popular culture.
And though successful pop records rarely open with swelling orchestral music, Gold knows that sometimes putting strings front and center can be what carries a song.
Gold: It seems to me that, when you hear strings, there’s a certain urgency, you know? Especially if they’re at the beginning of the record. You know the very beginning of the record, you’re not sure what’s happening because you’re used to hearing the beat come on right now. Well she’s singing “Born to Die,” so it’s like, the strings are very sort of soulful. They’re low, I love low strings you know? To me it sets the mood up. So you might have six violins, two violas, and two cellos. But she really sounds sad, you know? So it was like it lent itself to these kinds of string parts but as you can see there’s not much music on this either. You know it’s just… Little piano and a little drums and her vocal. Those kinds of records are the best kind of records for me, because it leaves a lot of room for the strings to maneuver inside. Like I’m doing a little passing tones here you know just to… It helps the song cry a little bit.
Now well established as a go-to guy in the pop and hip hop world, the 70 year old, Gold, has recently returned to his roots.
Gold: When I don’t have arranging to do I’ve been playing four to six hours a day, so I’ve really been trying to keep myself in very musical kind of, I don’t know…
AJC: State of mind.
Gold: State of mind. It’s become really important to me again, which is great you know? It’s like I’m living life through my cello again.
Bach is among the most prodigious and influential composers ever. And one piece he wrote late in his life is seen by pianists today as being as rewarding as it is intimidating.
Jeremy Denk: It’s so well trodden. It’s so difficult and so treacherous and everyone knows it and they know when you screw up and why would you do that to yourself?
Jeremy Denk is among a select group of classical pianists to have mastered the Goldbergs, a set of 32 variations on a theme that highlight Bach’s virtuosity.
Denk: You could say that he loved to show off and that he had more chops than any composer of all time basically, and he enjoyed using his chops as a vehicle for various things. It’s so loving, the way that he does it. It’s like each of the intervals is his friend and he knows them so well that he writes a little portrait of what they’re like.
Simone Dinnerstein: It’s a piece of music that seems to explore every different type of shade of feeling that it would be possible to have.
Simone Dinnerstein’s 2007 recording of the Goldberg Variations reached number one on Billboard’s classical music charts and helped launch her to international stardom. For Dinnerstein, they encapsulate everything that’s great about Bach.
Dinnerstein: The fact that Bach wrote this at the end of his life and that it seems to incorporate so many elements of other compositions that he wrote shows that he was thinking about a sort of huge tapestry unlike any other kind of composition that had come before it and really since it.
For many years the received wisdom was that Bach wrote the variations to ease the insomnia of a Russian diplomat. They were to be played by his court harpsichordist Johann Goldberg. This myth comes from a biography of the composer written more than a half a century after his death. It’s a nice story, but not altogether true, says Penn music professor Jeffrey Kallberg
Jeffrey Kallberg: As far as anyone can tell that you know was entirely made up. It’s one of those kind of nice stories that people like to tell about music.
AJC: Do you think the people have tried to use it to sleep? ‘Cause I know I did one time and it was completely disquieting.
Kallberg: The version of the story I read was that he suffered from insomnia and so he wanted something to entertain his brain while he couldn’t sleep, so it wasn’t that he was trying to be put to sleep, but—
AJC: That sounds more likely.
Kallberg: Now that might work. I should try that.
And to help fill the wee small hours, Bach taps into all of human emotion.
Denk: There are joyous variations, there are the deepest, most tragic imaginable variations. There’s a great moment where he goes from the depth of tragedy to the most ludicrous kind of Tom and Jerry kind of cartoon comedy, you know? And so one of the things that Bach wants us to feel is a chain of different feelings and the way that they pass, one to the other. And then one of the things that Bach is dealing with in Goldberg Variations is very simple that the pianist has two hands, and of course his harpsichord he wrote it for had two keyboards, and everything is about these two hands leaping over each other or running into each other or chasing each other and there’s sort of a childlike feeling of just the pleasure of, of notes
But says Simone Dinnerstein, playing a piece written for two keyboards on a single piano isn’t all fun and games.
Dinnerstein: Putting them together onto one keyboard means that sometimes you’re having to share the same key with two hands, and you’re having to be crossing over your hands and it’s very acrobatic and also counterintuitive because if you’re playing with your right hand all the way in the bass and your left hand all the way in the treble and you’re thinking about what the music looks like on the page, everything is kind of upside down. It’s both physically challenging and also mentally challenging, and then finally the very difficult thing is the endurance to perform it from beginning to end. And just keep it going, it can take 90 minutes.
And a movie length piece with no intermission is also no small ask for audiences.
Kallberg: For the average listener today you know it’s hard to bring the elements of concentration that are needed to follow the various threads through the music. You know Bach took this baseline and basically riffed on it for 30 variations.
And this riffing on a variation is something that would become a hallmark of a uniquely 20th Century art form.
Denk: Goldberg Variations is almost by definition a giant jazz riff. That’s what a harmonic variation is. Goldberg Variations is a set of variations not on the theme per se, which comes back at the end, but on the harmonies under the theme. And Bach does almost everything possible to hide the theme, and what does a jazzer do? They never want you to hear the theme, they’re just doing their, doing riffs on the harmony.
The piece itself was in hiding for more than two centuries until rediscovered by the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould who’d make what many consider to be the definitive recordings of the piece.
Kallberg: I think of Gould as someone pushing the edge on everything and you know the playing was brilliant technically and the interpretation really seemed to suddenly bring this piece from the 18th Century and make it seem like it was part of our culture.
Denk: He brought such an incredible strength of mind to it, such an imagination, and it reinvented sort of the idea of Bach at the piano.
But such is the depth of Bach’s masterpiece that its possibilities for reinvention, rediscovery, and reinterpretation are boundless.
Dinnerstein: I think I’ve now performed the Goldberg Variations several hundred times, I’m gonna guess, and I still find them utterly fascinating. So to me, that’s the mark of something that is just a real masterpiece that you could spend so much time with it and it continues to be fresh.
Philadelphia based illustrator Kevin Cornell is prolific. Animations, editorials, comics, and conceptual art. All done with a dedication to craft that borders on the obsessive.
Kevin Cornell: I have to draw every single day. If I don’t draw every single day I go crazy. I broke something in my brain where I think I get dopamine hits when I draw. And that’s what keeps me drawing. I’m a drawing addict maybe.
In the past several years, Cornell has turned his focus to children’s books. First illustrating other’s projects, and more recently writing his own. The form presents a unique conundrum. Be interesting enough for the parents, and succinct enough for the kids. In practice this means bringing home a compelling story in 1,200 words or less.
Cornell: It’s a very satisfying thing when you arrive at that perfect, perfect little story that you can’t take anything away from.
But when it comes to constructing that perfect little story, Cornell says it’s better to treat the moral like icing on the cake than the main ingredient.
Cornell: There’s just going to be those inherent lessons in the actions that the characters take. You find ’em, you find ’em after and then you can lean a little away if it’s starting to feel like “Oh this could be about finding an inner strength,” or this could be about that, but if you, if that’s your goal it just comes off as heavy-handed usually.
The same principle of discovery over design applies to his creation of characters.
Cornell: You are running experiments with them in it and seeing how they behave in those experiments. You spend a lot of time in their head.If you’re in their head while you’re drawing it, I think you make the right decisions and this is the part about illustration that probably, I don’t know if people realize it as much how much of a storytelling task illustration is just in designing the character. The clothes that they wear, the way they’re standing, that’s the stuff that comes out during even in the final stages of making a book. You’re discovering stuff about the character when you’re doing the final art for a book and some, you might, you’ll come across something you’ll be like this doesn’t seem like something they’ll do. They shouldn’t be wearing that shirt, they should be wearing this shirt. That’s the process that’s fun. That’s what I like doing. That’s what keeps me going. That’s why I want to work on new things, is to discover that character.
But there was plenty to discover in Lulu’s Mysterious Mission, the third in Judith Viorst’s series about the adventures of a spirited young girl. The first two were illustrated by Lane Smith.
Cornell: When I got the manuscript for Lulu, I was reading it and I was like oh this is a, it was a genuinely funny book. I really enjoyed reading it. It’s one of those books where you’re like “Oh, I have to draw this. I will do this for no money.” The Lulu character was interesting because I had to take what Lane had established and then translate that to my own world, to something I could render. He uses a lot of shapes, so my job was to take these characters and you know they have an oblong head, and I have to make that oblong head work in a 3D world and it has to work in a real environment. I have a lot of interest in expression, in the character, so I put a lot of work into making that face communicate correctly.
AJC: This capacity to make lines on a page emote, that’s a huge gift.
AJC: That’s it, that’s the thing right?
Cornell: I guess yeah. I’m just tapping into something that’s already built into a human being. When you take two things that are dots and you put an opening there, you know the human turns into a face and then even just slightly tweaking it a certain way, like humans work really hard to see expression and to connect with something. If you can’t get someone to connect with something, you’re doing something terribly wrong. You know because humans really want to do that. So I don’t feel like I’m doing anything unique. I just perhaps do it a little easier, or it maybe it can come through my hand a lot quicker.
And though Kevin Cornell is driven by a constant desire for improvement, he’s learned not to try fixing the past.
Cornell: I try to not revise stuff. It’s very difficult because it’s very satisfying because you see a problem and you’re like “Oh, I could totally fix that now. It’s five years later, I know how to draw that,” but it’s something I try to avoid especially because every time you revise you lose that heart of the drawing, the soul of it. That first bit that pours out of you, there’s usually something in there that you kill when you start to revise. So the trick of it really is like what I spend all my time doing is trying to find that fine place where I can make it look good so then I’m happy with it, but I haven’t made it look plastic and too perfect. There still needs to be things wrong with it. You spend a lot of time overworking something, and then peeling back the layers from it ’cause you went too far.
AJC: And for the viewer, is there a peeling back of the layers in terms of what you’ve put in there?
Cornell: I want the art to have depth. I want people to be able to go back and find new things. A lot of times it is just a process of you know you do the first pass and then you go back and you see what else you can tweak, what you can take out and put in things that might not be noticed, ever, but they’re there and you know they’re there and it attaches you to that drawing.
AJC: Is there always something in there for you, then?
Cornell: Oh definitely. There’s no way to finish it unless, unless I like it.
AJC: Most entertainment for children is not meant for children. Are you aware of your role in that?
Cornell: Yeah, definitely. I’m writing as much for the parent as I am for the kid. I mean it’s an interesting trick to make something that appeals to both of those sides. It has to be sophisticated and simple at the same time. The amount of time that I spend putting something in there for all kinds of people, that probably doubles the amount of time trying to make sure a drawing can work for anyone looking at it.
Kevin Cornell is quick to acknowledge the part that good fortune has had in his success. But it would seem that the harder he works, the luckier he gets.
Cornell: I do what I do every day and I can do it because I love doing it. That goes a long way but it doesn’t change the fact that I am constantly doing it, constantly practicing, and constantly refining what it is that I can do on a dime for someone. When luck calls, I can always be ready for it.
Michael Murphy’s large scale sculptures are all about perspective. He is best known for Identity Crisis, a piece that raised questions that he was careful not to answer about the role of guns in America. And for as much as his works appeal to the eye, Murphy says his ultimate goal is to engage minds. The key to his success is in creating the opportunity for an “aha” moment.
Michael Murphy: This point where the viewer puts this kind of visual puzzle together and they’re presented with this reward which is you know this illusion that is viewable from one vantage point. And the way that I do it is I make it so that the viewer has to put in work and they have to be observant in order to see the illusion, so once they finally see the illusion they’ve done it. They’ve put it together and they’ve received this reward for their being observant.
AJC: Of course, they don’t have to put in the work a lot of the time now. They can go on YouTube or they can go on Facebook and see what their friends have shared with them and have that “aha” moment there because it does work very well on the screen as well.
Murphy: Our perceptions’ base is controlled by binocular vision. We have two eyes and that’s how we see space. A lot of times in person, people will have to close one eye in order to flatten out their depth perception and then the illusion becomes even more apparent. When you film something with a camera, the lens only has one eye. So space is already flattened out. So those flat illusions that I’m creating are often easier to comprehend on a screen.
And though Murphy’s more personal work addresses some contentious subjects, the bulk of his production is geared towards more lighthearted commercial projects. But it’s not always so straightforward. In 2015, creative consulting agency, Lippincott commissioned Murphy to create a piece that threatened to put his personal views and professional goals at odds.
Murphy: They asked me if I could create an image of a person rendered out of brands, and yeah, I told them right off the bat, I said well my take on this is gonna be cynical. You know, I’m a person who won’t wear a logo anywhere on my body, because I feel like these companies make suckers out of their customers, basically, by turning them into walking billboards and having them pay for it. But people equate the value of their possessions by the value of the company that created those possessions, so to advertise that company lets the people around them know how much they paid for that shirt. So I let the company know that Branded was going to be pessimistic, sort of critical angle on the piece — and they said they were fine with that.
To the first time viewer, Michael Murphy’s massive installations may feel impossible to parse, but when it comes to creating them, he says the process is simple, if not easy.
Murphy: It’s like a Rubik’s cube, you know? It’s problem solving, like you know you figure out how to do small parts of it you know and then you figure out how to do another small part and you add it all up to, you know, solving a larger problem.