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Description

  • At a young age, Ani Liu had to disguise her art as science. Now she combines them.
  • Howard Jacobson is now a pillar of English literature and society. But this was never anything he would have predicted.
  • Historically, the repertoire for the double bass has been extremely limited. The acclaimed performer, collaborator and composer, Edgar Meyer is out to change that.

Segments

10:09
  • Art & Design
Ani Liu: Daughter of Invention
At a young age, Ani Liu had to disguise her art as science. Now she combines them.
Season 5, Episode 6
Ani Liu: Daughter of Invention
06:04
  • Literature
Howard Jacobson: Senescence and Sensibility
Howard Jacobson is now a pillar of English literature and society.
Season 5, Episode 6
Howard Jacobson: Senescence and Sensibility
09:10
  • Music
Edgar Meyer: Beyond the Bass-ics
The acclaimed performer, collaborator, and composer Edgar Meyer.
Season 5, Episode 6
Edgar Meyer: Beyond the Bass-ics

Transcript

Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores the inner lives of some remarkable thinkers. And on this episode of Articulate, at a young age, Ani Liu had to disguise her art as science. Now she combines the two.

Ani Liu: You can find a lot of truths in math and science and to some extent in technology, but the way it makes you feel, the way it impacts culture, is something that I think artists explore.

Today, Howard Jacobson is a pillar of English literature and society, but this was never anything he would have predicted.

Howard Jacobson: Your shyness is a kind of measure of the way you’re not getting on with everybody. You feel everybody is looking at you, you feel everybody sees your weakness.

And historically, repertoire for the double bass has been limited. The acclaimed performer, collaborator and composer Edger Meyer, is out to change that.

Edger Meyer: Writing is really where all the juice is. And the other stuff, I may be a better performer than writer, but writing’s the most interesting part.

That’s all coming up on Articulate.

Ani Liu is a research-based artist who works at the boundaries of science, technology, and aesthetics. All of her projects are governed by scientific rigor, while also leveraging the full scope of her intellect. 

Ani Liu: I do really rely on my intuition and I am really interested in really listening to all the aspects of my intelligence, including the emotional ones. I was just thinking, when I was learning chemistry as a child, I tried to have crushes on the elements so I would remember their properties better, and so I think this kind of weird conflation of emotion and other modes of thinking have always been deeply entangled in me. 

Liu thrives where science meets the realities of being human. She has engineered goosebumps to see if instinct can be manufactured, bottled her husband’s essence so she could feel close to him when they’re apart, she’s even designed her own way out of social anxiety. 

Liu: I read Sherry Turkle’s book by the title Alone Together. She’s a media theorist at MIT and it was all about how we have all these networked devices now, all of us have smartphones, but somehow, we feel more lonely. I was thinking about this like, I am kind of shy and often, at parties, if I don’t know anyone, I’ll just stay on my phone the whole time instead of actually talking to someone. And so, I was thinking about how this specific piece of technology, the phone, is made, designed, to bring people together, and yet it was driving a wedge between me and human interactions. So, I was like, can I make a piece of technology that actually brings people together? And I made this gigantic helmet that obscured my face and my vision unless someone held my hand and then it would open and we would make eye contact. And it was all about human touch and eye contact, which apparently millennials are increasingly uncomfortable with because we spend so much of our time communicating across mediated digital interfaces. 

From a young age, Ani Liu sought ways to explore her creativity, but her parents, who had both grown up under the social and economic restraints of Communist China had more practical ambitions for her. 

Liu: Definitely engineering, math, science was very much favored as the only legitimate way to display intelligence or find truth, which of course is not true. But for them a lot of that had to do with what kinds of jobs will allow you to have work through wars, through ethnic cleansings. What can give us the most security in this life? And for them it was highly skilled labor that often had to do with math and science. They had a lot of friends who they knew escaped a life of farming, in some way. So, I went to a math and science high school, I was on the math team, I was on the robotics team, I really tried to make my parents proud in this way, but many instances in these explorations you come up basically kind of up against philosophy. You can find a lot of truths in math and science, and to some extent in technology, but the way it makes you feel, the way it impacts culture, is something that I think artists explore. 

Liu’s early life was a series of delicate negotiations. She learned to draw under the guise of preparing to become an architect, which she almost did. She got a Master’s in architecture at Harvard before becoming disenchanted by what she saw as pervasive sameness within the craft. So, she went back to school to get a Master’s of science from MIT. There she devoted herself to the innovative artistic work she would become best known for. And though her journey has been circuitous, Liu acknowledges that it wouldn’t have been possible without her parents’ clear priority starting out. 

Liu: I definitely was told that to achieve I had to do at least 10 times better than the next best person, that because I was a woman, or at that time because I was a girl, because I was a minority, getting 100 would never be enough and I’m sure that made me super annoying to teachers. Like after getting the 100 on the exam, I would literally go up to the desk and be like, “Can I do some extra credit? Because this is not enough for my mom. I really need the five to 10 extra points.” And they’re like, “Oh my god, what’s wrong with you?” 

AJC: There’s no such thing as 110%! 

Liu: Yeah! I think that some of my teachers were probably super annoyed and some of them were kind enough to actually give me extra credit. 

AJC: And what was the downside when you would go home when you got a 97, or did you ever get a 97? 

Liu: Certainly, I did. I think there was a really deep shame that came with failing. And that’s probably 1,000 little behavioral things in the household, you know, but I do remember at some point feeling like I would rather die than fail a test. Which I have since really calmed down about and it required a lot of realigning my own values in some ways. But I think in the time that my parents grew up, maybe it was kind of like a live or die mentality, like you must achieve to get out. 

AJC: What would you keep from that? Or what will you keep when you become a parent, if that’s something you aspire to do? 

Liu: Ah, that’s such a nice question. Maybe not the severity, but I think one of the things I really value is because this kind of discipline was taught to me, I was able to see very clearly the fruits of my efforts. Because for me it was like live or die, there were many moments where the feedback loop was very positive, where I’m like okay, if I do actually put in the crazy amount of effort, I can see the results, and that feels very euphoric. It’s still something that drives me when I’m trying to debug something and I like, oh no, this is so unbearably frustrating or uncomfortable. I do have a long history of those eureka moments. So, I think that discipline and teaching one to believe in oneself, in a weird way, even though maybe the way I learned it was rather extreme, I think is really important. 

Ani Liu is grateful for where and who she comes from. And in 2017, she stumbled onto a profound connection with her family’s origins when a project brought her to Shenzhen, China. She spent a month in a factory learning about manufacturing before creating Mind of the Machine: Psyche in the Age of Mechanical Production. 

Liu: It’s a piece of fabric that I made in a Chinese textile factory where I took the EEG brainwave signals of a worker and programmed the machine to knit according to her mood. So, when she was more tense, it would knit tighter stitches and when she was more relaxed it would knit these big, wavy knits. And it was really meaningful for me because my parents both worked super manual labor jobs. When they got sent to be reeducated, they were rice farmers, so I think I have a particular relationship to labor and especially anonymous labor. Whenever I’m in a hotel I can’t help but really think about the person who tucked in the sheets and made sure it’s all very nice and perfect, even though their job is to stay invisible. So, I really wanted to make visible the labor of things that we take for granted. Like this was probably knit in a factory and we think it was machine made, but actually quite a few hands touched this to make sure that it would go into the store as it looks. And I wanted to tell the emotional story of those people. 

But in the middle of all this, she discovered an even more profound connection to the site when she phoned home one evening. 

Liu: It’s the weirdest thing, but I was in Shenzhen in this factory, sweating and getting infections and being really stressed out and then I was having a call with my dad and we discovered that the factory that I was working in is in the same probably 10 square miles of where he farmed rice, actually. That rice field where he did manual labor is now the site of where I’m making art about labor and it was like, we cried. It was just the weirdest thing. Life is entangled in this way. 

AJC: But also, that if he had ever possibly dreamed of how his daughter would end up, any daughter he would have, what a great outcome, you know? 

Liu: It is the dream, yeah. 

Howard Jacobson is a celebrated novelist and an iconic figure in his native England. A dyed-in-the-wool skeptic, his writing is intelligent and self-assured. But as a young boy growing up in 1950s Manchester, Jacobson took much more after his reclusive housewife mother than his father, a natural showman. 

Howard Jacobson: I think my father knew how to belong. He was a market man, he’d have gone on, he became a magician and he went on the stage, all he wanted to do was entertain and was a very bad magician but that didn’t bother him. He could stand on the stage and every trick could go wrong and it didn’t matter. He had the charm to pull it off. And my mother would be sitting watching him with her head in her hands and I would be sitting next to my mother with my head in my hands. 

Jacobson continued to feel like an outsider throughout his young life, carrying a profound loneliness that would later fuel his work. 

Jacobson: Your shyness is a kind of measure of the way you’re not getting on with everybody. You feel everybody is looking at you. You feel everybody sees your weakness. The earliest experience of the social world, for me, was that everybody else knew one another. When I went to university, and there we’re all freshmen together, they all seemed to know one another. Where had they met? 

AJC: Well, was it private schools? It was Cambridge, so. 

Jacobson: Yeah, but they weren’t— And there would have been colleges where that would have been the case, but we were doing English literature at Downing College under F.R. Leavis, which meant that we were very serious, working class, almost certainly working-class boys, and we’d all gone to small grammar schools. That was where we came from. So, it’d not have been that. And this has been a recurring metaphor for something throughout my life, that somewhere or other, people go, there’s a little meeting place where people go and they kind of form bonds and they change and I’ve not been there and I am outside it. How does it happen? Will death be like this? Will there be a little, you’ll go to hell or you’ll go to heaven and they’ll all know one another? 

Much of Jacobson’s fiction grapples with the social anxieties of strong Jewish men, and though he says his characters are not exact representations of himself, they do share his tendency to question life, the world, the very meaning of existence. Take for instance his 2010 Man Booker Prize winner, The Finkler Question, in which three old friends navigate their lives in modern-day London. One wrestles with the significance of his Jewish identity, the sole gentile constantly feels like the odd one out, while the third reevaluates his faith as he mourns the death of his wife. 

(Excerpt from The Finkler Question

He wished he’d been a believer. He wished they both had, though perhaps one of them might have taken the other along. But belief had its underbelly of doubting, too. How could it be otherwise? 

Though faith is a recurring theme in Jacobson’s novels, he has never subscribed to any rigid set of beliefs. 

Jacobson: I was quite interested in being Jewish, but not for one moment did I or any of my friends buy into the religious part. I never bought into politics. I’ve never believed in anything in that sense, which doesn’t mean I disbelieve in anything, but in the practice of that skepticism, you do feel very free and clean and you feel your breathing, you’re on the heights. Skepticism is a high place to be. I am not at the mercy of any ideology or belief, and therefore I cannot be hurled upon the rocks of disappointment. 

A skeptic like Jacobson might consider himself to be above the banality of the party political. Instead he applies his sharp critical perspectives in essays for The Guardian, The Atlantic, and The New York Times, among others. His latest book, 2019’s Live a Little, takes a new, sweeter approach, exploring the relationship between a man and a woman in the autumn of their lives. She suffers from memory loss, he can’t let go of the past. 

Jacobson: Accidents bring them together. So, it starts to become really, for me, a very warm and sentimental story about two people in their 90s who realize what they can give each other. She who can’t remember and he who can’t forget can fill in many of the gaps, or soothe many of the pains. And it’s about each doing that for the other. 

(Excerpt from Live a Little)  

“Such powers of recall you have,” she says. “You are welcome to them.” “That’s a tactless thing to say to someone who can’t plug the holes in her memory fast enough.” “Don’t wish away the most precious thing you have.” “What if it doesn’t feel precious to me? “Then you’re a fool.”  

Today, Howard Jacobson is a bona fide literary celebrity, and although he now seems comfortable in the public eye, he admits he hasn’t completely left his childhood insecurities behind. 

Jacobson: My wife thinks I’m an obsessive party-goer and that I love going to parties. And I do love going out to parties. Maybe without even thinking about it, I like it because I’m being my father. But it wouldn’t take much, it wouldn’t take much, if someone were not to come up and talk to me, the nice thing about being well-known is that people come up and talk to me, so as a shy boy who wouldn’t know how to go up and talk to other people, that’s now overcome, they come up and talk to me. But I guess if I was to stand in a party for 10 minutes and no one were to come up and talk to me, I would feel all the old feelings would come flooding back. I don’t belong here, I don’t belong anywhere. We perform balancing acts. 

Howard Jacobson has walked this tightrope for a lifetime, and though he is, in truth, now part of the establishment, for the sake of his literature, part of him must forever remain an outsider.  

The bassist Edger Meyer is a unique figure in music. He has won the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize for an outstanding classical instrumentalist, a so-called Genius Award from the MacArthur Foundation, and five Grammys. Celebrated equally as a performer and a composer, Meyer is as at home playing jazz and bluegrass as he is with standard classical repertoire, yet he sees himself as a master of none. 

Edgar Meyer: I can be myself in a lot of situations. It doesn’t make me an expert at any particular thing. And I do feel like I am an expert at a few things. But I’m interested in music. If I can find a way to participate in the conversation, I do. 

Meyer’s cultivation of creative opportunities has meant never shying away from the kind of genre-jumping that might make lesser musicians dizzy. His virtuosity has made him a go-to partner for some of the world’s greats, from Yo-Yo Ma to James Taylor.  

(James Taylor singing from “Hard Times Come Again No More”) 

Oh, hard times come again no more  

He’s also composed for other well-known classical stars, such as Joshua Bell, Hilary Hahn, and Emanuel Ax, but his most important musical partnership was forged much earlier in his life. 

Meyer: My father played jazz and he played classical, he played the bass and that was what he loved. And so that was my music world at least until I was 10. 

AJC: How much of him is still within you, do you think? How present is he in your— 

Meyer: You know, it’s not a conscious thought, but he is the biggest influence on my life. His love of music was immense and he passed it straight down. Obviously, the kind of immersion that I went through with him was very defining. And so just my general feeling for music is his. 

Today, Meyer is continuing to pass the torch as a teacher at the world-renowned Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. He’s also laying the groundwork for future soloists. Repertoire for the bass being notoriously scarce caused him to start composing about 25 years earlier than he had expected. 

Meyer: I figured I would write music more when I was about this age. And thought I would just try out playing in a lot of different situations and see how it felt, and I guess what I didn’t understand until I was close to 30 was that writing is really where all the juice is. And the other stuff, I may be a better performer than writer but writing’s the most interesting part. And if you combine that with the instrument’s fundamental lack of repertoire, then you see that I had to kinda make a change in that plan. And just got more involved in writing sooner. And you know, continued to perform, but really wanted a life that was much more a fusion. A lot of creative opportunities. 

Meyer’s unorthodox early life has undoubtedly contributed to his unconventional path. He grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee in the 1960s, and though the country and gospel supergroup, the Oak Ridge Boys, also come from there, the town was in no way a hotbed of traditional Southern culture. Oak Ridge was a society unto itself, attracting scientists from around the world to work on the US government research and development of nuclear weapons. 

(Excerpt from Newsreel of the Week: Atomic Bomb – The Big Test 1945

Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Site of one of the huge secret factories producing atomic bombs. On a 59,000-acre military reservation lived 78,000 men, women and children. A hidden community sealed off from the outside world. The secret city had everything on tap. Schools, shops, newspapers, picture houses, and Pathe News. 

Meyer: You couldn’t have a more wonderful way to grow up. My best friend’s mother was Japanese and his father was from India, and I heard a lot of music over at his house. So, I wasn’t hearing banjos. 

AJC: Interesting. And how much do you think that the fact that you grew up in this very cosmopolitan town impacted your musical growth? 

Meyer: It really was the aesthetics of the scientists themselves who just loved the arts and they love education. My father loved teaching there, he taught elementary through high school strings, because it was the best school system in the state. And so, for him, growing up in Chattanooga, this was an arrival. And it was the best, along with a couple private schools in Nashville, for decades it’s been the best performing school. And so, it’s just a very ideal environment for a person to grow up in. And interesting also in that there were no rich people and no poor people. Just because of the nature of the construct. 

AJC: Tell me about living in a place like that. That’s fascinating. 

Meyer: Well, it’s very disappointing to find out what the world’s like after that. It is quite a shock and really is not quite as nice. 

AJC: Seriously though, because you did, you grew up in a place, an egalitarian place. 

Meyer: Essentially it was all one class. Of course, there were a few poor people and a few rich people. It was still closer than other places. It was not the extremes. I just had no idea. 

AJC: And when you get to Georgia Tech and there’s then, clearly there’s gonna be a delineation between— 

Meyer: I didn’t figure it out until I left college. I mean, I was slow. When I started doing things professionally and started seeing the hierarchy of things, I just was… It took a while, I grew up very insulated. 

AJC: How much of that is still with you? 

Meyer: I believe it’s to be aspired to. I mean, it’s certainly what I would wish for. I’m positive that it’s preferable. 

Because of his somewhat utopian upbringing, Meyer has never been interested in the hierarchies in art. For him, classical music is not about class. It’s a means for anyone to connect directly with the greatest musical minds of all time. Mozart, Beethoven, Bach. 

Meyer: Their music just speaks to me in a very human way. And one that I would think could reach any person who has a breath. I don’t see it as elitist, I don’t. I just see it as extremely beautiful and why wouldn’t anybody like this? 

AJC: You do write beautiful melodies. 

Meyer: I write a lot of ’em and you see which ones stick on the wall. 

AJC: Is stickiness the greatest virtue of melody? 

Meyer: No. I don’t think it’s very easily definable.  

AJC: What are you looking for? Beauty?  

Meyer: Beauty, yeah. And it’s obviously a hedge because that can mean what I want it to. But it is what I’m looking for.