What Matters Most
- Marina Benjamin writes to parse the questions that loom largest in her life. It’s a self-examination, yes. But never self-obsession.
- Stefan Sagmeister has spent the past 40-odd years demonstrating how graphic design can make even the most abstract ideas tangible. And he does it with his own unique style—his own idiom.
- Donald Nally, conductor of the groundbreaking chamber choir, The Crossing, doesn’t just want audiences to listen—he wants them to think about real-world issues and events.
Donald Nally is a celebrated conductor of choral music and opera. He is best known as the driving force behind The Crossing, a Grammy-winning choral ensemble committed to the creation and performance of new music.
Born in Philadelphia, Nally attended the University of Cincinnati, Westminster Choir College, and the University of Illinois. He was artistic director of the Choral Arts Society of Philadelphia from 1998 to 1998, then choral master of the Welsh National Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Opera Philadelphia, and the Spoleto Festival. He has also conducted the Latvian State Choir, BBC Symphony Orchestra, and Philadelphia Orchestra, among other companies.
Nally founded The Crossing in 2005. They have recorded over twenty albums, performed over seventy world premieres, and won Grammy Awards in 2018 and 2019 for Best Choral Performance. He is a professor of music and director of choral organizations at Northwestern University.
Marina Benjamin is an editor and writer known for her essays, journalism, and memoirs.
Her work blends personal recollection, scientific history, social commentary, and philosophical reflection. Rocket Dreams (2003) tracks the disappointments of the space program and childhood in the 1970s. Last Days in Babylon (2006) explores her heritage in the story of the Jews of Iraq. The Middlepause (2016) delves into aging, menopause, and feminism. Her latest work, Insomnia (2018), ponders the semiotics of sleep and its absence.
Born in London to Iraqi Jewish parents, Benjamin studied history of science at Cambridge University and worked as a journalist and—for a time—professional gambler, before turning to non-fiction and memoir writing. She served as arts editor at the New Statesman and deputy arts editor at the Evening Standard. She is now senior editor at the digital magazine Aeon and a consultant in life writing and communications.
Stefan Sagmeister is an influential graphic designer known for his unorthodox and provocative art. He designed album covers for such artists as the Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, and Jay-Z. and worked for HBO, Time Warner, and Levis, among other companies.
Born and raised in Austria, Sagmeister earned an MFA at Vienna’s University of Applied Arts and attended Pratt Institute in New York. After a stint with boundary-pushing firm M&Co. he founded his own company, Sagmeister Inc., in 1993.
Sagmeister established his reputation as an innovative music industry designer in 1995, with his Grammy-nominated concept for HP Zinker’s Mountains of Madness CD. He won Grammys for the Talking Heads’ Once in a Lifetime boxset (2003) and David Byrne and Brian Eno’s album Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (2008).
He turned from commercial design to art exhibitions with “The Happy Show,” an investigation of the visual language behind happiness that premiered in 2012 and toured to five countries. “Beauty,” which began touring in 2018, considers the beauty of the human-created world.
- Art & Design
Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores the big ideas behind great creative endeavors. I’m Jim Cotter and on this episode, What Matters Most.
Marina Benjamin writes to parse the questions that loom largest in her life. Its self-examination yes, but never self-obsession.
Marina Benjamin: You have to touch base with what it is to be human at some level to make it resonate with someone else.
Stefan Sagmeister has spent the past 40-odd years demonstrating how graphic design can make even the most abstract ideas tangible. And he does it with his own unique style, his own idiom.
Stefan Sagmeister: Graphic design is a very, very living language that expands on a constant basis.
And Donald Nally, conductor of the groundbreaking chamber choir The Crossing, doesn’t just want audiences to listen, he wants them to also think, and about real world issues and events.
Donald Nally: Oil in the Gulf of Mexico is bad, we all know that, right? That’s just affirming people’s morals. I wanna do the opposite, right? I wanna challenge people’s ethics.
That’s all coming up on Articulate.
(Excerpt from Marina Benjamin’s Insomnia)
My insomnia often feels like this: turbocharged. It is not one idea that teases and prods me awake, a finger tickling me in a single spot, wriggling my mind into consciousness. It is as if all the lights in my head had been lit at once, the whole engine coming to life, messages flying, dendrites flowering, synapses whipping snaps of electricity across my brain; and my brain itself, like some phosphorescent free-floating jellyfish of the deep, is luminescent, awake, alive.
For the British writer Marina Benjamin, the page is a safe place to tackle troubling topics, like approaching middle age, reconnecting with her Iraqi-Jewish heritage, exploring how a pastime can become an addiction. Every book an attempt to confront something bothersome.
Marina Benjamin: Something that niggles me, something that I find painful, something that’s difficult, and writing is a way of kind of doing battle with the demon really.
AJC: Is the idea of all these books to find peace or to find knowledge, or both?
AJC: And do you?
Benjamin: I do actually. With each one I kind of feel like I’ve put something very difficult about life, or my life, behind me.
Benjamin’s breakthrough was 2016’s Middlepause, in which she analyzed, questioned, and often rejected everything she had been taught to fear about turning 50.
Benjamin: Everything that you’ve taken for granted as a driving force in your life is questioned. You become, I suppose, much more aware that the time left to you is less than the time that’s behind you. So, you’re not gonna waste time anymore. So, there’s a more, I think, a more directed sense about how you wanna use your energies. And the nice thing about being in your 50s, is you still have, you’re not elderly, you still have those physical energies, and you have an emotional maturity. So, there are two things that come together in quite a nice way, I think, in your 50s, once you get rid of the detritus of expectation around it. I mean I have wonderful conversations with, kind of, middle aged women about how liberating it is not to feel the pressures of youth anymore, not to feel that appearances, or desirability, or any of those issues are much of a factor. A lot of women have said that to me. I mean, a lot of women have sort of said, in terms of celebrating menopause, you know, “Thank God, thank God I don’t have to look good anymore.” You know, “Thank God I’m not visible.” And there’s definitely a little power flip going on there. ‘Cause if you’re not seen, you walk through the world as a seer. You know, you’re the one who sees, you’re the one with the power of the gaze. You can take things in without exposing yourself.
These days Marina Benjamin has grown ever more at peace with who she is and where she came from, but growing up in bigoted 1970s London she tried unsuccessfully to hide her Iraqi-Jewish origins.
Benjamin: Certainly, in my primary school, people were forever teasing me. Kids were always teasing me and saying, “You’re foreign, where you from?” Even teachers would ask.
AJC: Why, did you look foreign? You didn’t have an accent, I mean, you were born here.
Benjamin: Yeah, I was born here. I mean at some level they knew, so it was a kind of, it was a jibe. Because they knew that I wasn’t British. So, I think I was always dealing with an outsider status. So, and I internalized those questions, and jibes, and insults, and whatever it was, and desperately, as a teenager, desperately wanted to be seen as British. I wanted nothing more than to belong, to be seen as English. And that made my life at home very difficult, because my family were always saying, “But you’re Iraqi.” And I was saying, “But I’m not. I’m not Iraqi, I’m English.”
Over time, Benjamin’s appreciation for, and curiosity about, her heritage blossomed. So, in 2004, she went to Baghdad, where her grandmother was raised, in search of the remnants of a once-dynamic Jewish community. But unlike almost every other journalist in that war-torn country at the time, Benjamin traveled alone, un-embedded, and thus without military protection. She found barely a trace, but in the process discovered that the culture she had been seeking had been relocated, and was alive and well in the diaspora of all Iraqis, including herself.
Benjamin: I felt more Iraqi the less reality there was to that history and existence, the less of it there was to find the more of it I decided I’d feel myself, and preserve.
AJC: But whose Iraqi are you? Because you’re not an Iraqi of now, and you’re not a diaspora Iraqi–
Benjamin: And I don’t speak Arabic.
AJC: Right, but I’m just. Like, who, what Iraq?
Benjamin: Yeah, it’s a very good question. But, actually, in a way, that was one of the lessons that came out of the book for me. Because if Iraq had at one point had this multicultural experiment that went so badly wrong, then what was it now? What was this thing, this nation we called Iraq, if it wasn’t just this kind of botched experiment, a strange colonial experiment, a patchwork of ethnicities that were, kind of uneasily, sitting together in a nation state? What can we call Iraqi? To me, at the end of the day, it came out as being cultural, largely cultural. So, there was shared language, shared literature, music, food, dress, mores. Those were the things that made it a nation state. So, those are the things that you find now among the diaspora. So, you can bring together, you can find a Kurd, you can find an Iraqi Jew, you can find a Muslim. You can bring them together in the same room and they will have far more in common than they have that divides them.
AJC: And, certainly, more in common than if they were living on Iraqi soil.
Benjamin: Probably, yes. Where their differences are magnified at every turn.
Benjamin’s parents, first-generation immigrants, had hoped their daughter would forego college and accept an arranged marriage like theirs, but they ended up disappointed. Not that their own marriage was perfect. Benjamin’s father was a degenerate gambler, her mother was the grownup.
Benjamin: Well, she kept him on a fairly tight leash. She would take his winnings from the table. I mean, just lift them away and run away with them when they were in casinos.
AJC: When there were winnings.
Benjamin: When there were winnings, mostly there weren’t, you know. And she’ll tell the story of him coming home at night, having walked across London in the rain because he couldn’t afford a cab, turning out his pockets to show that he didn’t have a penny left.
AJC: Must’ve been horrifying.
Benjamin: Yeah, I mean it was kind of, it was. But it came also, funnily enough, the other side of him was this incredibly lavish generosity. So, when he did have money, he liked nothing better than lavishing it on his family, on the, had this sense of adventure. “Let’s go to France!” Or, you know, “Let’s go out.” “Let’s go to the fair. Let’s–”
AJC: But that’s classic.
AJC: It’s money from the gods.
AJC: So, therefore, it doesn’t
Benjamin: That’s right.
AJC: Need to be spent sensibly.
Benjamin: That’s right.
In her early 20s, Marina Benjamin began to wonder if her father’s addictive tendencies might have been passed on. And so, gambling with genetics, she entered the world of professional blackjack, joining the ranks of a skilled team.
Benjamin: When I was interviewed for the job, which I was, through a formal process, they basically said, “If you have any gambling tendencies in you, we’re not gonna take you on, because it’s our money you’re playing with, so we’re not risking that. You play by the rules or you’re out.” So, there was no gambling tolerated in that circle of professional gamblers. We played according to mathematical algorithms.
AJC: And you could win using mathematical algorithms?
Benjamin: Yes, the margin’s very narrow, but yes. It’s one of those equations, it’s a differential equation, because it involves, many, many, many runs. So, what you do with a differential equation is you aggregate the probability of what happens, the outcomes of those runs, of those many, many runs.
AJC: Well that’s how casinos make their money.
AJC: They have those algorithms as well. But how did you beat the house then?
Benjamin: Ah, very good question. It’s what you would call skilled playing. So, it’s about using the information that every single player at the table has, but you’re making something of that information. You don’t have more information than them, because that would be cheating.
AJC: But you were thrown out and banned from casinos none the less.
Benjamin: Yes, because we were winning.
AJC: When did you realize that you didn’t have the bad blood of your father?
Benjamin: When I got bored. It didn’t excite me. I mean for him, he never lost the excitement of the magic, “Maybe it’ll happen to me.” You know, Lady Luck. Or maybe this special thing.
AJC: But you never. Yeah but you never allowed the magic to come in.
Benjamin: Because it wasn’t magic. It was everyday run-of-the-mill magical thinking. It wasn’t stardust magic, it was the kind of magic that allows you to be duped.
(Excerpt from Marina Benjamin’s essay “Is gambling a kind of play, or a narcotic trap from the soul?”)
The word casino, meaning “little house”, derives from the Italian “casa”. The promise is that the casino will open its doors to you at all hours and embrace you, just like home. You can stay for as long as you like. In fact, the casino does not want you to ever leave. It offers itself up as a bounded field of play that is safe as houses, like a soft-play center for grownups. The illusion is that you cannot hurt yourself in a casino. But, of course, you can.
Though Marina Benjamin’s works draw from personal experiences, she’s careful to make sure that her writing is directed outwards, to an audience, and not mere navel gazing.
Benjamin: If you’re writing about yourself, the worst kind of thing you can do is just overshare. It’s like somebody showing you their holiday photographs and expecting you to be interested because it was a meaningful moment for them. How you make it meaningful to them, that transposition from the personal into the public realm, is what interests me in memoir. So, it’s how I make my personal obsession, how I make it resonate for other people. And so, it seems to me, that what you have to do is you have to touch base with what it is to be human at some level, to make it resonate with someone else.
Marina Benjamin is forever hunting for new truths, insights that might transcend her own thoughts, experiences, and feelings, and tap into something bigger, something more profoundly human, something useful for all of us.
If graphic design is a language, then Stefan Sagmeister is quite a poet. Though he, rather modestly, claims only basic fluency.
Stefan Sagmeister: Graphic design is a very, very living language, that expands on a constant basis.
Sagmeister’s portfolio is vast. Amidst a steady stream of high-profile commercial jobs, he also makes more personal projects. For example, his 2008 Things I Have Learned In My Life So Far, a book of aphorisms compiled from a lifetime’s supply diary entries. Most of the images were not finished on a computer, but in the real world.
Born and raised in Bregenz, Austria, Sagmeister decided to pursue a life in graphic design as a teenager, in the hope that one day he would create album art for his favorite bands. The young Stefan reasoned that with little musical talent of his own, design would give him the best chance of rubbing shoulders with his heroes. And it all worked out. He would eventually design albums for The Rolling Stones, Brian Eno, and David Byrne among many others. But his big break came when he was nominated for a Grammy, for his design of a far lesser-known artist’s album, H.P. Zinker’s Mountains of Madness.
Sagmeister: And I think from then on that made the difference between record companies telling us they’re gonna give us jobs, and them actually coming along.
AJC: And how much interaction, I know that you and David Byrne have stood in the same room, have you stood in the same room with Aerosmith and The Rolling Stones, and everyone else?
Sagmeister: Oh sure, absolutely, yes.
AJC: They really wanna be hands on?
Sagmeister: Yes, oh totally. It’s, and not for all bands, but let’s say for bands like The Stones, the cover is of incredible importance, also financially. Some of these bands make, actually, significantly more money from the cover than they do from the music.
AJC: How so?
Sagmeister: Because the cover is giving the direction for merchandise, and specifically for time-set merchandise. Now in the case of The Stones, I think that there were 800 merchandise items made from our cover.
AJC: That was “Bridges to Babylon”?
Sagmeister: Yes, yes.
AJC: I mean, this is a work for hire. You’re not getting a commission on any of this?
Sagmeister: I’m not getting any commissions, I’m not getting points on this. And I think rightfully so, because ultimately the reason this merchandise sells is not because my lion is so beautiful, but it’s because it says, “Rolling Stones Bridges to Babylon” on it. So, I think, I never really had a problem with that.
Stefan Sagmeister’s outlook on life has always been fairly upbeat. But it wasn’t until 2009 that he began to wonder why. He discovered that about half of his sunny disposition was innate. A biological gift. He then began to explore just how happy he might become with just a little more effort. And, thus, was born “The Happiness Project”.
Sagmeister: I was not depressed, far from it. I felt that, maybe a little greedy, you can always get happier. It’s, you know, the same way, I don’t know, like if you were born with a particular efficiency to be good in the high jump, let’s say. That doesn’t mean that you don’t wanna train the high jump and don’t wanna become better at it. And so, I felt very similarly about happiness, and I felt that the whole thing, the whole question, like is it something that’s trainable? Like, can I train my mind in the same way that I can train my body, was ultimately an interesting question.
Sagmeister tried meditation, medication, and talk therapy. It didn’t ultimately make him much happier, but after seven years he had created a documentary film and an art exhibition on the subject. Of late, Sagmeister has shifted his focus to another massive subject, beauty. In late 2018, he and designer Jessica Walsh created a book exploring the philosophical, scientific, and historical roots of beauty, and how it influences the way we feel and behave. Sagmeister believes that beauty is functional, and a very much underrated tool for sustainability. It’s something he carries with him every day.
Sagmeister: Let me quickly get up from here.
Sagmeister: And, look I’ve had.
AJC: That’s beautiful.
Sagmeister: I’ve had this bag for 29 years.
AJC: Right, and this is.
Sagmeister: And it’s a—
AJC: This is American West, I’m thinking.
Sagmeister: It’s a bag from Texas. I’ve always liked it. I’ve got hundreds, maybe thousands of compliments about it. I get it repaired every two or three years because I think it’s beautiful. Now, this is perfect sustainability. Because in the last 29 years I didn’t need a new bag. I just stayed with this one. So, it’s better than anything that is recyclable. It’s, beauty just takes care of it. And that is true for the Pantheon, that’s been standing for 2,000 years, and has been used for 2,000 years, because it was unbelievably beautiful. And people, different cultures, well different areas of Rome appreciated it enough that nobody’s, that everybody’s said, “No, let’s keep that thing standing, it’s just so good.”
Going forward, self-directed creative projects like the beauty book will be the only ones Stefan Sagmeister takes on. At 57 years old he is now embarking on a new phase, and one he hopes that will be beautiful.
Donald Nally believes his most important function as a conductor is not musical, it’s creating the conditions for human connections. And he’s gotten to be really good at it. His 30-plus years leading choral ensembles has included stints as chorus master at Welsh National Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Opera Philadelphia. But his greatest achievement is The Crossing, the 45-member choir dedicated to the creation and performance of new music, which he co-founded in 2005. To date The Crossing has recorded 15 albums, two of them Grammy winners, and premiered more than 70 new works. In all, Donald Nally has added a great deal of music to the world. But as much as he revels in sound, he also yearns for its opposite.
Donald Nally: We crave a level of silence that we don’t even know we crave. And I work for that in our music making, to create an environment in which silence is invited and allowed to be, because the ubiquity of music is crushing, it’s defeating, it’s demoralizing.
The Crossing is known for tackling far-reaching social issues, including immigration, climate change, nuclear threat. Take their 2014 premier of award-winning English composer Gabriel Jackson’s Rigwreck, a reflection on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster that dumped more than 200 gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. For the past few years, Nally says all his efforts, from commissioning new works through performing them, have revolved around the idea of the voice as a metaphor for power. His perpetual question is simple: who has the voice, and how are they using it?
Nally: When we talk about Deepwater Horizon the intention, through the careful placement of words, the careful choice of poet and composer, and the way in which we approach the presentation of it is not to say, “Oil in the Gulf of Mexico is bad!” Because we all know that, right? That’s just affirming people’s morals. I don’t wanna. I wanna do the opposite, right. I wanna challenge people’s ethics. And I don’t wanna do that through education. I don’t wanna do that through, like in-your-face, some kind of whatever. I wanna do it through incredibly thoughtful, often beautiful, sometimes harsh, because we are sometimes harsh, music that invites us to think about the world that we live in, through a composer’s voice, through that voice. Because that person has the voice. And they take really seriously how they use it.
And sometimes the work Nally commissions comment on the way those with real power use their voices.
Clip of Donald Trump speaking: “But we’re taking people out of the country, you wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people, these are animals.”
(The Crossing singing Ted Hearne’s “Animals”)
These aren’t people
These are animals
These aren’t people
These are animals
These aren’t people
These are animals
These aren’t people
These are animals
Choral music has never been mass entertainment, and new music will always be a tough sell. But despite this The Crossing has found its place in the culture, with Nally at the helm.
Robert Eisentrout: He knows what he wants, he knows how to get it, he does so with grace, generosity, collaboration. He’s a deep thinker and a deep soul.
Daniel Spratlan: There’re certain people that have personalities a certain energy that you bond to, and that you look to and you say, “I wanna do what he’s doing.” And so, you trust that like, okay, you have a vision and it’s really clear and we all wanna reach that goal with you, we wanna find that vision together.
Nally: If you choose to be a leader of people, you have to accept the fact that you’re gonna get it wrong every day. And that’s tough. And I think when you’re younger when someone comes to you with the, “You didn’t get this right,” your instinct is to go like, “But you’re just wrong,” right? Or, “I’m doing the best I can.” And life, you know, life beats us up pretty well and luckily if you’re listening to it you really do learn a lot from it. So, one of the things that I’ve learned is that listening is much more important than speaking.
And in that listening Donald Nally continues to find and create profound opportunities for human connection.