The Pursuit of New Truths
- For Hélène Grimaud, music has been both a profession and salvation.
- Sarah Williams Goldhagen is on a crusade to fix architecture, now.
- Scott McCloud understands comics.
Hélène Grimaud is a celebrated pianist and writer, known for her bold and adventurous interpretations of classical masterpieces.
Grimaud was born in 1969 in Aix-en-Provence, France, and began playing piano at age 7. She was accepted into the Paris Conservatoire at age 13 and won first prize in piano performance three years later. In 1987, she gave her well-received debut recital in Tokyo and was invited by renowned conductor Daniel Barenboim to perform with the Orchestre de Paris. She has since featured alongside most of the world’s major orchestras and recorded over twenty albums.
She has published three books, a memoir, Wild Harmonies (2003; English translation 2006), and two semi-autobiographical novels, Leçons particulières (2005) and Retour à Salem (2013). Grimaud studies and raises wolves and is the founder of the Wolf Conservation Center in Salem, NY.
She was admitted into the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest order of merit, in 2015.
Scott McCloud is a notable cartoonist, known for his nonfiction picture books about comics. He won a prestigious Eisner Award in 1994 for Understanding Comics.
Born in Boston in 1960, McCloud decided to become a comic book writer in high school and earned a BFA in illustration from Syracuse University. He worked for illustrious publisher DC Comics after college, writing twelve issues of Superman Adventures and creating the light-hearted superhero series Zot!
In 1993, McCloud published the first of three books about the history, methods, and business of comic books. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Arts was followed by Reinventing Comics: How Imagination and Technology Are Revolutionizing an Art Form (2000) and Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga, and Graphic Novels (2003). These works established him as a popular comics theorist, leading to his nickname the “Aristotle of comics.”
McCloud continues to write fictional cartoons; his latest graphic novel, The Sculptor, was published in 2015.
Sarah Williams Goldhagen is a notable architecture critic and author, known for her writing and lectures on how people interact with their built environments.
Goldhagen was born in Princeton, NJ, in 1959. Her father directed the New York City Department of City Planning. She studied at Brown University and Columbia University and taught at the University of Texas at Austin, Vassar College, and Harvard University. She resigned her faculty position in 2006 to write full time, and served as architecture critic at the New Republic until 2014.
Her first monograph, Louis Kahn’s Situated Modernism (2001), places the work of the famed architect within the major artistic, intellectual, and social currents of postwar American culture. Her acclaimed 2017 book Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives draws from cognitive neuroscience and environmental psychology to suggest how architecture and urban design can be better suited to the needs of people.
Goldhagen is a contributing editor at Art in America and Architectural Record and a visiting scholar at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.
Welcome to Articulate, the show that brings you candid, thoughtful insights into the human condition. From some great creative thinkers. On this episode of Articulate, early in life music found Hélène Grimaud. It would turn out to be but one tool for this spiritual seeker.
Hélène Grimaud: There was this intensity and I don’t know how it could’ve been channeled otherwise if I hadn’t found music.
Sarah Williams Goldhagen is on a crusade to fix architecture now.
Sarah Williams Goldhagen: The things that we experience in the built environment profoundly affect our mental health, our emotional health, our physical health and it’s grotesquely neglected.
And the graphic novelist Scott McCloud’s upcoming manifesto on visual communication is rooted in what he calls constructive rage.
Scott McCloud: The older I get I find that my love of good design is being gradually replaced by an intense hatred of bad design.
That’s all ahead on Articulate
Hélène Grimaud has lived one of the more remarkable stories in classical music. At just seven she came to the piano not just for music but for survival. Quite early in her life, she had exhibited a troublingly obsessive nature and a penchant for self-harm. In her 2006 memoir, Wild Harmonies, she describes one memorable outburst.
AJC: Have you said that music saved you or am I misquoting you?
Hélène Grimaud: No, I’m pretty sure I said that ’cause there was this intensity and I don’t know how it could’ve been channeled otherwise if I hadn’t found music.
AJC: These days you would probably get diagnosed with something no?
Grimaud: Probably, probably.
AJC: Scary, eh?
Grimaud: Yeah, yeah you’re right I mean I’m not sure there is a need for treatment for everything. I think you have to look at your life, you have to look at first recognize who you are and if you’re not sure of that you need to make abstraction of what surrounds you for a while, try and find out who you are and then make changes to your life accordingly. Once you feel you can be at one with your surroundings depending on who you’ve established you are as a person and what your needs are then if you’re still not fine then maybe you need to go and get another layer of help but I think it would always be better to start with that. I know it’s easier said than done but I think if you can do without you should at least start differently.
AJC: Do you still have that level of hyperfocus, if you were to start I don’t know stamp collecting or kickboxing does that hyper focus come out now still?
Grimaud: Yes, it does I mean—
AJC: That’s great though, right?
Grimaud: Yes, it is, it still wants to apply itself to whatever I choose it’s just that music is pretty exclusive and so it’s taking most of what’s there and it’s channeling it so there is not too much leftover to start creating new pathways of obsessions but the potential is still there.
AJC: We shouldn’t expect you to become a world class stamp collector any time, no?
Grimaud: No, not yet.
Music is the center of Hélène Grimaud’s world though she conceives of it differently from most of us, she has synesthesia meaning she associates sounds with colors. To her, middle C is black. She can also rehearse entirely in her own head. But for all that goes on between her ears, Hélène Grimaud is now quite attached to the physical form of the piano itself.
Grimaud: I do tend to feel better when there’s an instrument in the vicinity even if I’m not necessarily touching it. I think about the instrument a lot even if I’m actually not practicing at the instrument, I’m often playing the pieces through my head, and alongside that, you do get physical sensations of what the right sounds are supposed to feel like when you touch the keyboard so it’s always there.
AJC: You practice in your head a lot? I mean you can go a long time without physically touching a keyboard?
Grimaud: Yes, that’s true.
AJC: Is it as good as the actual practicing?
Grimaud: You know there were phases of my life where I was convinced that that was the better way of working for me and then I’ve gone through other phases where actually the only pleasure I could get from the piano is the tactile pleasure of touching it and there all of a sudden everything becomes, as they would say in German. as we would say in French. “Obvious” doesn’t really work in English but where it just feels right, simply and you’re gonna get your hands in there and make the sounds and take the sound and work on the phrase and repeat something and that’s how it feels good and that’s how it evolves so I think they’re different ways of doing it.
Hélène Grimaud is a rubato artist meaning that she has an unusual relationship with tempos, stretching and shrinking time bar by bar.
Grimaud: It’s very delicate in the sense because sometimes people will think oh well you can just distort the phrase to no end but of course it’s not true because the time you have stolen you have to give back somewhere so you have this ebb and flow to the phrasing and that is exactly the question where do you take, where do you add that tension, where do you take it back and let it recede? It’s a reconciliation of opposites in a way when you practice because you have to really pay attention to everything which is on the page but then you have to look behind and sort of open yourself up to take the keys to the secrets that the piece is offering. And only through your work of that text, looking at it, thinking about it, getting your hands into it, your mind into it, are you going to be able to get beyond what is written. And that’s the miracle of interpretation is that it lives anew every time and not just with every artist. With every concert, with the same artist and I think that that’s the sign of a concert which is special, it’s when you know it has happened in the moment, you’ve lived it in the moment, you’ve discovered something in that moment, you’ve had the freedom to follow whatever this inspiration, something which is communicated also through that shared freedom with the audience, with the colleagues on stage and to work with that energy which can only happen at that moment in this particular configuration. And that you are able to just go with the flow of that instead of sticking to something which you had prepared ahead of time where you are in your comfort zone and you just want to stay in command of what is going on and then maybe missing some of the most beautiful opportunities in you life, musically.
Despite being multilingual and having written three books, music is Hélène Grimaud’s most treasured language. She remains skeptical about the power of words.
Grimaud: Look at your own thoughts, your own sensations I mean even a thought, which can be fairly rational when you think I can translate it into words and it can be right on but very often as soon as you do that you’ve already betrayed it and if it’s a sensation or an emotion well then it’s just hopeless you can’t you can’t really appropriately describe it and accurately describe it when you start to use words and words are as intelligent and wonderful as they are and as poetic as they can be, they mostly serve as a—
AJC: Instead of—
Grimaud: As a barrier, right and instead of exactly.
Now approaching 50, Hélène Grimaud lives a life driven by her deepest passions. But unsurprisingly she’s still reaching.
AJC: This is it, this is enough for you?
Grimaud: I don’t know how to answer this question because part of me thinks, yes this is it in the sense that it isn’t enough in the sense that it is challenging enough there is enough of it left for me to explore, there is enough undiscovered depth about some of these pieces of music so I think what I would like is this idea of constant growth that there’s always more that can be had.
Though it’s been a century and a half since the world started standardizing how we make spaces safe, we’ve agreed on the ideal height for ceilings, the width of doors, the slope of stairs, we’ve given a lot less thought to the emotional and psychological impact of buildings.
Sarah Williams Goldhagen: It costs just as much to build a bad building as it does to build a good building but you need to educate yourself about what a good building is.
Architecture critic and former Harvard professor Sarah Williams Goldhagen believes we need a paradigm shift in architecture, starting with its status as an art form.
Goldhagen: To call it an art, mistakenly casts it as a luxury good and it’s not. It’s more and more clear that the things that we experience in the built environment profoundly affect our mental health, our emotional health, our physical health, the way children learn, the way children develop and it’s grotesquely neglected.
AJC: It sounds like you’re talking about a civil right rather than an art form.
Goldhagen: I am, that’s the reconceptualization of the built environment that needs to happen. I analogize it sometimes to the change in the way people thought about the environment from the 50s to the 70s or 80s. In the 50s nature was nature it was trees and forests and rivers and mountains and so on so forth and then people began to become concerned about pollution and various other things that turned into concerns about global warming.
When you look at global temperatures July was the hottest month on average since reliable record-keeping started and July was not a freak occurrence. The past ten years have seen many high temperature records broken.
Goldhagen: People realize that it wasn’t all these disaggregated elements it was an ecosystem, it was one system that we all inhabited and instead of calling nature nature we tend to call it now the environment. And what we need to understand now is the kind of importance that we all accord now to the environment is the kind of importance that we need to accord to the built environment because the built environment is in fact what most of us inhabit most of the time and it’s having an impact on us in all sorts of ways that people don’t appreciate.
It may sound abstract but the subtle impacts of the built environment on humans are numerous, profound, and well documented. One study measured a spike in heart right and cortisol levels in people who walked through a featureless part of town, demonstrating the built environment’s ability to add subconscious stress to our lives. Other studies saw patients in hospital rooms with a garden view recover from surgery faster and with less pain than their counterparts in rooms without a view. But Goldhagen says that for architects to leverage all this knowledge they’ll need to radically and fundamentally change the way they approach their craft.
Goldhagen: One of the problems with the way that architecture is taught in schools and purchased by clients is really to put it simply from the outside. I mean you sort of look at these big renderings of these very very large scale forms well nobody experiences buildings that way so you need architectural education to flip the formulation where they start from the user. Small construction details, better materials versus worse materials, the sonic qualities of materials, the tactile qualities of materials. That’s what the people who walk in that building or walk past that building they’re gonna notice.
And Goldhagen herself has noticed many thoughtful designs abroad and at home. One example the Via Verde sustainable housing project in the Bronx that presents a strong model for responsible community conscious architecture. Further south in Philadelphia there’s Dilworth Plaza where in 2014 three different firms were tasked with transforming the space around city hall from a menacing series of dark alleyways to a vibrant, uplifting center square. James Timberlake, whose firm’s most recent accomplishments include the U.S. Embassy in London, was one of the architects who embraced the challenge of building joy into a previously dour public space.
James Timberlake: That’s been one of the great shifts in our country in the last you know 18 to 20 years is that recognition that we can’t gate everything we can’t wall up everything but we need to open up some of these spaces to not only public expression but public use. I think Sarah Goldhagen’s book somewhat refers to that and when she starts talking about the impact of our public realms on our psyches and our spirit and how we engage that and how use it and you can see it on a day to day basis in Dilworth Plaza.
Mean time, Goldhagen is in surprisingly good spirits about the future of architecture. Practically and aesthetically.
Goldhagen: I do think that some things that are initially difficult for people to comprehend and not beautiful can end up being appreciated as aesthetically powerful so beauty doesn’t always have to be something that’s just immediately pleasing.
AJC: Doesn’t have to be pretty?
Goldhagen: Right, pretty is the word that I, it doesn’t have to be pretty because one of the things we know we need from our environments is challenge. We want our expectations to be subverted, we want to go oh wait a minute, I didn’t know I could stand on a bridge made of glass and look down. So is it beautiful? I don’t know, it’s a little unsettling but it’s pretty cool too and it makes me think about my environment and my relationship to this city in a really different way.
Scott McCloud is unique in the world of comics. More than a draftsmen, he’s a philosopher of sorts, who uses his medium to explore and explain complex subjects, including comics themselves. In 1993 the award winning non fiction graphic novel, Understanding Comics, put a then 33 year old McCloud on the proverbial map and into cartooning curricula the world over. And a string of follow ups have further explained the power of McCloud’s favorite mode of expression.
Scott McCloud: The advantage to comics, is that we trade in static images and we trade in static images in our own minds when we remember. We remember symbolically, we remember in static images that’s why when you’re in an airplane and you reach in the seat pocket in front of you you’re going to be looking at comics because they know that if you’re given a series of symbols, something still that that’s closer to the texture of memory.
The so called “Aristotle of comics” is himself a very gifted communicator but he says it’s the mastery of a subject and not the drawing of it that takes the most time.
McCloud: When you’re explaining something visually acquiring sufficient understanding for yourself, that’s 80 percent of the work. The actual execution is the easy part, making the comic is the easy part.
AJC: But since your job is always going to be to make something easy, to understand by simplifying it, can one get better at being simple?
McCloud: Yes, and this is actually a bit of a trap for me personally. I find that almost every project that I begin, I begin with the intent to make it simpler than it winds up being and I’m always a little sad that it becomes more complicated, more baroque that the drawing becomes more realistic or more labored than I wanted it to be.
McCloud: Sometimes it’s just the necessity of what I’m rendering but sometimes also I think that there’s this kind of seductive pull towards proficiency, towards showing off technically and for me as well because I’m just a so so draftsmen there’s also that little part of me that’s always trying to prove that yes I can draw the car, yes I can draw the bicycle yes I can draw the hat. When I really would’ve been better off just doing something a little simpler. And so I think in a lot of ways for decades now I think I’ve been moving towards this place that I hope I can get to eventually where my work can be truly simple.
McCloud spent five years in search of what he calls “eloquent simplicity” for his most recent work of fiction, 2015’s The Sculptor. A love story very loosely based on his own relationship with his wife, Ivy. His upcoming project, cross disciplinary compendium on visual communication returns McCloud to the realm of fact, that was motivated by some very strong feelings.
McCloud: The older I get, I find that my love of good design is being gradually replaced by an intense hatred of bad design. So that I’m more and more aware when things are wrong and more and more I realize that the default production of simple visual communication, just simple iconography, warning signs that sort of thing are almost always wrong in some fundamental way. I could write a whole book just on fire safety signage, I’m fascinated by how gloriously incompetent any kind of signage is when your life depends on it. Good visual communication should speak and be silent, it should communicate what it has to say but then not go shuffling off mumbling as it walks away and I think there’s so much mumbling out there, so much unintended messaging, so many ancillary visual messages that weren’t intended at all but were just the tritest of all this wasted effort and stuff around the edges.
McCloud: Overthinking it. Collateral meaning, you know all of these things. Good visual communication just lands, it just achieves what it had to say and then let’s you get on with your life.
McCloud’s current project, already five years in the making, will codify fundamental principles of good visual communication that can be applied across disciplines.
McCloud: If I’m to be honest with myself the best book I could possibly write about this subject would probably be only about 50 pages long this big and fit in your pocket because that’s what people really want hey just want a little boy scout handbook like here are the ten things I need to know about visual communication. I cannot write that book, the world is too interesting so I’m going to write too much about it. I’m going to go down too many side roads, I’m going to get too excited about too many little aspects of it but hopefully at least the little book will be embedded in the big book.
Now 58 years old, Scott McCloud still exudes a child like enthusiasm for discovery that he sees both as a great personal strength and as a weakness.
McCloud: I think as I’ve gotten older maybe I’m seeing that as part defect there are some aspects of my extended childhood that I want to try to overcome. I think ultimately the best synthesis is an enlightened or a more constructive joyful conception of adulthood and I’m still working on that. I’m trying to have it both ways, I’m trying to become an adult without having to relinquish that joy and I’m maybe half way there. My wife and I both of us really are overgrown kids but I think that we did decide that we were not going to mortgage our happiness for the sake of our children because then they would have the same fate later in life. So while we provide it for them we also try to provide for them a model of a joyful but slightly irresponsible way of living. So hopefully, and I think they already are pursuing their own passion, pursuing their own joy but pursuing it with the knowledge that they’re going to have to work like hell to ever be lucky enough to do what they love for a living. Very very often I would remind them that it’s not the usual way of things it’s not guaranteed, it’s the exception it’s not the rule. Most people don’t.
But Scott McCloud most certainly does.