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Description

  1. Daniel Libeskind believes that architecture is, fundamentally, an act of optimism and of selflessness.
  2. The composer Missy Mazzoli is a trailblazer—undeterred by obstacles, undaunted by the salacious.
  3. For more than seven decades, the photographer Elliott Erwitt has been lauded for his humor and visual wit.

Segments

10:06
  • Architecture
Daniel Libeskind Doesn’t Hear No
Daniel Libeskind believes that architecture is an act of optimism and selflessness.
Season 5, Episode 5
Daniel Libeskind Doesn’t Hear No
10:33
  • Music
Missy Mazzoli Keeps It Surreal
The composer Missy Mazzoli is a trailblazer.
Season 5, Episode 5
Missy Mazzoli Keeps It Surreal
05:23
  • Art & Design
Elliott Erwitt’s Moments in Time
For decades, the photographer Elliott Erwitt has been lauded for his humor and visual wit.
Season 5, Episode 5
Elliott Erwitt’s Moments in Time

Transcript

Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores how art tells all of our stories. And on this episode, Pioneering Spirits. 

Daniel Libeskind believes that architecture is fundamentally an act of optimism, and of selflessness.

Daniel Libeskind: You have to be a believer in something that is more than just yourself and your own ego. You have to believe in something that’s far more important.

The composer Missy Mazzoli is a trailblazer, undeterred by obstacles, undaunted by the salacious.

Missy Mazzoli: There’s a lot of violence and sex and death in my operas, because those are the most interesting things in the world to most people, certainly to me.

And for more than seven decades, the photographer Elliott Erwitt has been lauded for his humor and visual wit.

Elliott Erwitt:I don’t know if I’m funny, but I’d rather be funny than tragic.

That’s all coming up on Articulate.

The architect, Daniel Libeskind believes that his craft is fundamentally a form of storytelling, a reflection of memory. He has designed centers of culture, sights of memorial, and elaborate homes for priceless art collections. But until age 52, he hadn’t built anything. For more than 20 years, he was a theorist teaching at Ivy League schools, including Yale, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania. 

Daniel Libeskind: I lived my life in reverse, you know. According to the Greeks, you should have an active part of your life, you should do things, you act. And then in the second part of your life, you should reflect it, you should think about what was it? And I had all the reflection at the beginning. I had reflected on nothing, and then suddenly I fell into reality, into building, into work, into 24 hours a day engagement. 

Despite his real-world experiences, Libeskind’s ideas about his field have remained rather lofty. For instance, he says architecture can have a complete life without ever leaving the page, without ever putting a shovel in the ground. 

Libeskind: It’s kind of a mystical belief that by drawing, by continuing on a certain path which most people would have called esoteric or unrealistic, or even stupid, I really believed if you draw a line on a piece of paper, you draw a possibility. If you draw a different line, you draw a different possibility. So, whatever can be drawn can also be built, and it was sort of a faith. I certainly didn’t consider myself an academic when I was doing those drawings. I didn’t consider myself a paper architect who’s going to be happy if the drawings hang in a museum. I considered this a constructive aspect of building something, and how lucky is it that I was able to build something? 

In practical terms, bringing any piece of architecture to fruition is messy. Indeed, Libeskind credits and wife and partner, Nina, with being the quiet force that has propelled many of his projects. Commissions usually begin with a formal competition. A client issues a request for proposals, and architects, sometimes thousands of them, respond by submitting their best ideas. But in 1989, Libeskind transgressed tradition and won his first major commission by rejecting a key part of the brief. 

Libeskind: The name of the competition was the Berlin Museum, with a Jewish department. Participants from all over the world, Israel, the United States, had all made a big Berlin museum, and then some space called the Jewish department. When I saw those come in I said this is all wrong. You can’t have a department of the Jews. They’re not like in a department of history. They were successful citizens who were part of the success of that city, so I’ll do something that completely denies that idea. And I created different kind of structure, and of course it was controversial, but over time, I think people understood that it’s right. That it’s not a department, it’s a museum, it’s a Jewish museum. 

Libeskind’s conviction was deeply rooted. He’s the son of two strong-willed Holocaust survivors who boldly spoke Yiddish in public in communist Poland after the war. 

Libeskind: They were proud of that, they were not afraid. Although they were threatened. My father was called by the UB, the secret police, several times to report at night. It was scary, because anybody could be jailed at any point and disappear, but my parents were not to be terrorized. Definitely not. They were people hardened by their experience, but retained their hopes. They were different from other survivors that I know who were very depressed, or who had turned away from the world inwardly, but my parents were very much of their time and into the future. 

When Libeskind’s father visited the finished Jewish museum at age 90 he was taken aback by what his son had accomplished. There were no right angles, endless exposed beams, and passageways to nowhere. 

Libeskind: It’s an experience, and some of it is foreboding. Some of it is inspiring, some of it is full of light. Some of it is dark. Some of it is disorienting. Some of it is orienting, so yes, that was my intent, in creating a building that tells a story, and that was my idea. It wasn’t just that you build an abstract set of walls and windows, but I wanted to tell a narrative, a complex narrative. And, by the way, I was highly criticized. People said this is ridiculous. Architecture shouldn’t be telling a story. It should give us walls and windows and doors. But I said no, architecture, just like any art, whether it’s painting, or a piece of music, or film, should tell you a story. 

AJC: And who was this story being told to? 

Libeskind: I was speaking to the young person who was just born and that’s just coming of age and able to enter a building and think about what the city around and what the country what Europe looks like today. I was speaking to the new audience, an audience that didn’t pre-exist in museum because there was no such museum before in any case, so I had to invent the imaginary quote, user and what was that user? It was somebody who wasn’t even around me at that time. Somebody who will be coming later. 

Libeskind thrives on projects that both reflect on the past, and look to the future. In 2003, he was commissioned to create a master plan for the National September 11th Memorial Museum where the twin towers once stood. It was after his first site visit that he understood that, once again, he wouldn’t be abiding by the provided brief. 

Libeskind: That’s when I suddenly realized, don’t build anything here. Now I was the only one who suggested not to build, it seems obvious in retrospect. Why could you build? Why should you build where people perished? No one declared it sacred ground. It was just a piece of real estate in New York. But I said no, I said something’s not right. This has to be preserved as a space for people to understand, to get in touch with this bedrock which is now in the museum. 

20 years ago, it would have been reasonable to assume that Daniel Libeskind would never build anything at all, but he was loyal to his path, confident in his own potential, and steadfast in his ideas. 

Libeskind: You have to be a believer in something that is more than just yourself and your own ego. You have to believe in something that’s far more important, and without that it’d be useless, and I always say that the only criteria to be an architect is to be a believer of that sort, an optimist, because as opposed to a composer, a writer, a thinker, a general, a politician, an economist, who can be depressed, because you’re an architect, you’re laying foundations for the future. Every building, you have to dig to lay a foundation for something that’s not yet there, so it is the art of optimism. 

Born and raised in a working-class Philadelphia suburb in the 1980s, it was hardly inevitable that Missy Mazzoli would grow up to become one of the most successful composers of her generation. Her journey began at age 6 when her parents brought home an old piano from a flea market. 

Missy Mazzoli: It really just took hold of me. I knew that I needed a life in music, I knew that I needed a creative path. 

But Mazzoli also knew that she wanted to combine her many interests, visual art, theater, poetry, literature, storytelling, and composition brought them all together. In the past decade, Mazzoli has enjoyed a steady flow of commissions from the likes of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall, and the Minnesota Orchestra. All this between touring with and writing for her indie band, Victoire. Then, there’s the opera. After creating acclaimed works for Washington National Opera and Opera Philadelphia, she got an unprecedented offer, a commission from the mighty Metropolitan Opera, making her one of the first women composers in its 136-year history. Yet, Mazzoli is characteristically undaunted. Indeed, she’s become known for her bold subject choices that embrace the messiness of the human condition in sometimes shocking ways. 

Mazzoli: There’s a lot of violence and sex and death in my operas, because those are the most interesting things in the world, to most people, certainly to me, and I don’t feel the need to leave on a happy note all the time, or to make the audience feel comfortable, or to coddle people, and I think that that coming from a woman, in my experience just stirs up a lot more criticism than when a man writes a piece that is violent or sexual. 

Mazzoli’s most controversial piece to date was 2016’s Breaking the Waves, an operatic retelling of Lars von Trier’s polarizing 1996 film, the story of a devout Scottish woman who engages in violent extramarital sex at the behest of her disabled husband. And though von Trier’s original story was criticized for its misogyny, Mazzoli had a different take. 

Mazzoli: For me, it’s a story about a woman in an impossible situation, who has everyone around her telling her what to do at all times, and the staging reflects that in that it’s usually Kiera Duffy as Bess McNeill in the middle and then all the men in the piece surrounding her, there’s only three women in the piece, but there’s a lot of men, and an entire men’s chorus. So that was really the way that I approached it. And I feel that that’s something that I can relate to. That’s something that every woman in my family can relate to. And also, the idea of using your sexuality as a source of power when you have no other obvious source of power, is also something that’s very familiar, I think to most women, myself included. Jan, her husband’s motivations, are unclear, and that to me is actually the great power of the story, is we don’t know why he’s telling her to do what he’s telling her to do. Is it selfless? Is he trying to set her free because he knows that she’ll always remain chained to his bedside if he doesn’t do this? Is he wicked? Is he just a dirty old man? Is he brain damaged? I mean, these are all possibilities that you could go home with your own conclusion, and not be wrong in deciding any one of those three things. But the thing that I decided is that it doesn’t matter what his intentions are because of what she believes. This is her story, this is about what she believes. She believes that she is setting him free by doing what she’s doing, and that was what we focused on.  

(Excerpt from Breaking the Waves)  

Drill deep 

Men drill deep, drill deep 

Men drill deep, drill deep 

My body is a map 

Of our life together 

Where Jan begins 

Where Bess begins 

Is now settled 

Mazzoli followed up Breaking the Waves with 2018’s Proving Up, adapted from Karen Russell’s fictional often surreal story of the Zegner family, struggling to make a life in Nebraska on the back of the Homestead Act of 1862, which offered all Americans 160 free acres of land in the so-called unsettled west, but despite their most earnest efforts, the Zegners fail. Mazzoli was drawn to the story in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, which laid bare important assumptions woven into the promise and the premise of the American dream. 

Mazzoli: That anyone can do anything and be anything no matter where you come from. And that’s the version of the American dream that was sold to immigrants settling the west, you know, settling in quotes, because there were already a lot of people settled there, a lot of Native Americans, but I feel like that’s what was sold to me as a young person. I grew up in a working-class family outside of Philadelphia, and we did not have a lot of money at all, but my parents were like, no but you can do anything. Like, we work so that every successive generation will move further and further. And oh, you wanted to be a musician? Do it. And it kind of worked out. I feel like I benefited from that sort of magical thinking. So, it’s not all bad, but it’s just interesting to me, how little that has changed throughout the last century until now, you know now as an adult I think I’m seeing the darker side of it and I think a lot of people, for the first time, are seeing that maybe that’s not true for most people— 

AJC: Well, you may well be the last generation. I mean, the idea is that you do better than your parents. 

Mazzoli: Right. 

AJC: So now with crippling college debt, and real wages not improving in the last 20 years, lots of gig jobs, I think it’s really difficult now, but maybe my memory’s bad, maybe it was terrible for every generation. 

Mazzoli: Well, yeah. That’s another part of it. We do put this glossy picture on it. It wasn’t even great for the immigrants in the 1880s. And that’s sort of what I also wanted to show through the opera Proving Up, was that I think history is written by the winners, and I wanted to tell a story that was not told by the winners, because the families that didn’t make it out on the plains, usually don’t have heirs, people who are descendants of homesteaders are usually descendants of more successful homesteaders. 

Missy Mazzoli’s upcoming opera for the Met is based on a story with a fantastical tilt, George Saunders’ Man Booker Prize winning Lincoln in the Bardo. It imagines the great president surrounded by ghosts as he mourns the death of his 11-year-old son, Willy. 

Mazzoli: I think that stories that are surreal or have an element of magic or magical realism work really well on the operatic stage because opera itself is so surreal. You have these skilled athletes, these freakish voices, going to extremes, in even the most sort of mundane, realistic opera, and everyone’s singing all their thoughts, like we’re already in a strange world, so I try to run with that, and I try to find stories that have a little bit of that magic woven into the storyline, and then I just try to normalize that. And so, Lincoln in the Bardo and all of George Saunders’ writing is perfect for this. Everything is very surreal but also very human, you know, very funny. There are a lot of really body-silly moments in this book, and it just seemed to have everything. And I also really liked the fact that it was centered around this character that everyone has an opinion about. Everyone has a relationship with Abraham Lincoln, and so you put him on stage and people already feel, they just feel rooted and safe, and so that would allow me as the composer and our set designer’s gonna have a ball, and the librettos, everyone is gonna have so much fun with this, because they can just go to town and go really wild because it’s this character that everybody knows, and this story that is, in a way, it’s a simple story about the space between life and death, and letting go, but it also tackles these big themes. I think that’s the other thing. I think opera is a place for big ideas, and so I try to tackle themes like what is the nature of goodness in Breaking the Waves, or the American dream in Proving Up, in Lincoln in the Bardo, you’re dealing with the death of a child, and grief, and what happens after we die. I mean, these are big things that kind of fit on the bigness of the stage. 

AJC: And the Met is a pretty big ship to steer. I mean if your band is a Sedan with four people sitting in it, the Met is an ocean liner. Are you daunted at all by having to sail that ship? 

Mazzoli: No, not at all. I mean, I’ve written three operas. The opera that I write for the Met will be my fifth, so I’ve been steering 18-wheelers between the Sedan and the ocean liner, and I feel, I’ve wanted to write for the Met since I was 15, so while it may seem to the outside world like it’s a big leap, I’ve been preparing for this for a really long time. 

Missy Mazzoli represents a sea change and an exciting, previously unforeseen, future for opera, one in which the opera is forced to face the sometimes-traumatic ambiguities of the human experience, and to come away with more questions than answers. 

Elliott Erwitt is one of the finest photographers of the 20th century. He’s captured the glamor of Marilyn Monroe, the anguish of Jackie Kennedy, and the utter absurdity of everyday life. But though he’s celebrated for his visual wit and impeccable timing, Erwitt doesn’t think of himself as particularly amusing. 

Elliot Erwitt: My sense of humor is really a judgment that other people can make. I don’t know if I’m funny, but I’d rather be funny than tragic. 

Erwitt’s life very well could have been tragic. He was born Elliot Erwitz in 1928 Paris to Russian-Jewish immigrants who would ultimately flee Europe for New York in the late summer of 1939. 

Erwitt: I came to this country at the age of 11. On the last boat leaving from France as the war was declared on September 3rd. It’s been fairly exciting since then. 

To describe his life as only fairly exciting is an understatement. Erwitt has photographed nearly every pope since Pius XII, and every US president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. Erwitt first became obsessed with photography as a teenager. After his parents divorced, he moved to Hollywood with his father, where he got an afterschool job at a photo lab printing autographed pictures of movie stars. Less than a year later, his dad moved again to New Orleans, leaving the young Elliott to take over his father’s house, and learn to fend for himself. 

Erwitt: I would say that I, since the age of 16 and a half I’ve been on my own. 

AJC: Was there any sense of panic that you had to be a fully-fledged adult at that juncture? 

Erwitt: I was whatever I was not by choice but by necessity, I think, at that age. I didn’t have a chance to make choices until later on in life. 

AJC: Were you scared when you got drafted? 

Erwitt: I mean, I was quite lucky it was during the Korean War, and I went to Europe and had a great time. I did take a lot of pictures because I always carried a Leica camera in my fatigues, and there was plenty of time to do that because being in the army in Europe at that time was a pretty easy gig. 

AJC: Did you ever get in trouble for having your camera out and not focusing on army things? 

Erwitt: On the contrary, I didn’t get in trouble I won a prize in a contest run by Life magazine at the time. I got second prize. And I got a commendation from the officer of my platoon or group, or whatever it was. And I had the unique opportunity with the money that I won to buy a car. And so, while my tour of duty in Europe was going on, I had time and place to take pictures, and the car to get me there. 

After he left the army in 1953, Erwitt returned to New York City where he was accepted into the now iconic, then nascent, photography collective Magnum. There, he joined the ranks of those he had admired from afar. Among them, Henri Cartier-Bresson. This was when Erwitt’s now more than 60-year long career really took flight. Through it all, this extraordinary artist has maintained the enthusiasm of the amateur, and always trusted luck to put him in the right place at the right time.