Feature #20: Max Zerrahn (Listgeeks Co-Founder)

Listgeeks co-founder Max Zerrahn, in addition to excelling as a creative director (Max edits the Berlin-based fStop image library when he’s not directing things at Listgeeks), is an accomplished photographer, prolific blogger, and enthusiastic appreciator of the arts. Though he was primarily involved in music and graphic design earlier in his career (he co-owned and managed the German indie label Rewika Records for several years), Max has always had a passion for technology, the arts, and popular culture, and a strong interest in finding innovative ways to bring them together.  Check out the below interview for more on how and why Listgeeks came to be – and to learn about some of Maxs’ influences and current favorites:

LG: How did the initial idea for Listgeeks come about?

Max Zerrahn: As big fans of pop culture, end-of-the-year lists, Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity,” and a general enjoyment of all things structured nicely, Derick Rhodes (a long-time friend and collaborator of mine) and I began toying around with the idea of building a website that would allow people to share and compare lists of things within a wider network of friends. Surprisingly enough, it seemed like nobody had ever done this in a meaningful way and we felt like it could be a lot of fun and a great way to discover new things. I personally always really liked the idea of finding someone with – say – great taste in music and then seeing what books that person is reading or what bar he or she would recommend in Istanbul or wherever else.

LG: What have been some of your favorite lists since you launched the Website?

MZ: What’s interesting to me is that when we first started talking about the site, to some extent we made the assumption that people would mainly make lists of their favorite albums, movies, books, video games etc. It was never our intention to build a site focused on product-oriented consumerism, even though as music (and pop culture) lovers, we drew a lot of inspiration from people having heated discussions over their best album end-of-the-year lists. It came as a bit of a surprise, though, to see that the kind of lists people were making ended up being a lot more personal, quirky and entertaining than we had originally anticipated – a great development and what essentially drives the platform nowadays. Here are some favorites:

WTF Band Names” by wwwacht
Favorite Foot to Put Socks on First” by thegoodrobotme
Things that are Usually Better in Theory than in Practice” by blackpanda
Favorite Unicode Characters” by nitrada
Most Overrated Things in Graphic Design” by espiekermann
How to Make an Awesome List” by derick

LG: How can you imagine Listgeeks changing/expanding in the future?

MZ: There are many things on our wish list but it seems like building a mobile app and being able to generate meaningful recommendations are highest up on our list of priorities right now. A Listgeeks app could obviously be a lot of fun and it seems like it would really change the way people interact with the platform in a big way. We’ve been wanting to do this since day one, so it is long overdue!

As for the recommendations, I just really love the idea of taking my taste in movies as a starting point for finding a nice hotel in London! Or saying I love Joy Division and David Shrigley, so where can I find a good bookstore in Marseille? The list format is ideal for creating these kinds of recommendations, so it’s time to start working on it.

Oh, and another thing we’re already working on is our widget. Listgeeks needs to stretch out beyond our site, so using the widget is an easy way to embed lists and part of their functionality into your blog or website. The widget is essentially done but we’re still tweaking it, so it’s at an early stage still.

Untitled photography by Max Zerrahn (see http://www.maxzerrahn.com for more)

LG: Are you a big user of social media apart from Listgeeks?

MZ: Hmmm, no. I use tumblr, Twitter and Facebook and obviously I have looked at many other services but I just don’t have enough time to be using them all. Even though there’s obviously some great stuff out there.

LG: What other types of projects are you involved in and/or inspired by at the moment?

MZ: I have been involved with a lot of photography related projects over these past few years. I do the editing for fStop, a Berlin-based photo agency, in addition to Opak Magazine. I also do quite a bit of my own photography for various projects and clients and I try to post on my blog, Limbo Youth, as often as possible – mainly about art, music and whatever else keeps me inspired.

LG: What are some of your  favorite Websites, apart from Listgeeks?

My favorite websites of the day are:

http://www.errors-in-production.info/
http://www.fucking-windows.com/
http://www.fallingfalling.com/

Otherwise, I keep returning to these:

http://jennilee.tumblr.com/
http://www.qubik.com/zr/
http://reform.lt/
http://pietmondriaan.com/
http://www.creativeapplications.net/

Max-related Links:

Max on Listgeeks
Max on Twitter
Maxs’ Photography Portfolio Website

Year-End Lists, 2011: The Needle Drop

Anthony Fantano claims to be “The Internet’s busiest music nerd,” and he might be right! Back in 1997, after his text-based music blog and podcast weren’t gaining the kind of attention he was hoping for, Anthony got aggravated and started something new: The Needle Drop, a b/vlog (and NPR-affiliated radio show) that consists solely of Anthony doing music reviews on camera. His youtube channel has since gained a lot of attention, and if you enjoy independently-oriented rock, pop, electronic, and experimental music, then you should do yourself a favor and check him out. Anthony has recently reviewed albums from artists as disparate as The Roots (“Undone”), The Black Keys (“El Camino”), Oneohtrix Point Never (“Replica”) and Kate Bush (“50 Words for Snow”).

The Needle Drop
The Needle Drop on Listgeeks

Feature #19 – Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips (Dean & Britta)

Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips started creating and performing music together in the NYC band Luna (1992-2005), which Britta joined in 2000. Prior to Luna, Dean fronted Galaxie 500, the highly influential three piece “dream pop” band (influenced by The Velvet Underground, among others) and Britta played in a few different bands (notably The Belltower and as bassist for Ben Lee’s live shows) in addition to doing film and television work.  As a duo, they’ve crafted three distinctly different albums over the course of the last eight years: “L’Avventura,” (2003) a stunning album of covers and duets produced by Tony Visconti, “Back Numbers,” (2007) a collection of original pop songs (also produced by Visconti) written in the tradition of American singer-songwriters like Lee Hazlewood and Tim Hardin, and, most recently, “13 Most Beautiful…Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests,” a project commissioned by the Andy Warhol Museum and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. The Screen Tests are silent film portraits that Andy Warhol shot at the Factory between 1964 and 1966, featuring a wide range of artists, collaborators and hangers-on (including Lou Reed, Edie Sedgwick, Nico, Bob Dylan and Alan Ginsberg, among others), and Dean and Britta wrote and recorded 13 songs to accompany a selection of the footage in order to create a unique performance: Dean and Britta perform the songs onstage with their band (including Anthony Lamarca and Matt Sumrow), while the Warhol films are projected overhead.  We’re grateful they took the time to answer our questions and provide us with some excellent lists.

Derick Rhodes/Listgeeks: Looking back, when Luna broke up, among the items listed in the announcement were, “Rock and Roll is killing my life,” “There are too many bands out there,” and, “Too much time spent in fifteen-passenger vans.” As a big Galaxie 500/Luna/Dean and Britta fan, I was a little worried that the action would come to a stop.  Clearly the action has done anything but come to a stop, fortunately.  Have you both surrendered to dealing with the downsides of touring/performing/rock and roll, or just found a better way to do things?

Britta: Well, we try not to carry really heavy things anymore, and we don’t spend as much time in fifteen-passenger vans. We’ve been spending more time in airports, though… It’s great to be able to travel the world… go to Paris, Brazil, Japan, Sweden, Spain etc., but everything great has a downside… there will always be itineraries to plan, hotels and flights to book, and musicians to heard through the gates.

Dean & Britta – “Night Nurse” from the album L’Avventura

Listgeeks: The “13 Most Beautiful” project seems to have been very well received internationally, and your work feels like it’s ideally suited to this type of performance/project.  Can you imagine future collaborations along these lines, perhaps involving another artist or performing in a film-oriented environment?

Britta: Yes, if it’s something inspiring and beautiful like these screen tests, we would love to do another project like this. A music project that is more of the art world than the “music biz” world. Working within set parameters can be very refreshing.


Dean and Britta performing “13 Most . . .” photographed by Julienne Schaer

Dean: It has been eye-opening to play in venues that don’t need to sell beer in order to pay you at the end of the night, arts festivals and museums, to realize there are other ways to do it. We just came back from performing the Warhol show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC and I am quite sure I never anticipated playing there.

Listgeeks: I came across a few articles online that were critical of your performing Galaxie 500 songs on “your own” during the recent “Dean Wareham performs Galaxie 500″ shows, typically suggesting that the original line up should have been involved.  While it’s clearly documented why you decided to move on from Galaxie 500 (in “Black Postcards,” the memoir you wrote which came out in 2008), I wonder what the decision making process was like behind deciding to perform those songs again.  Was it simply a matter of people loving that material, and wanting to hear you play it, or did you feel a personal/artistic urge to bring those songs to a live setting again?

Dean: People will sit at their desks and opine on what artists should be doing but I figure I am the one actually riding round in a van and I can sing my old songs however I want. I’d like to see the 1978 New York Yankees get back together but that’s not happening either.

As to why now: We were asked to play a set of Galaxie 500 songs at the Tanned Tin festival in Spain, and I enjoyed singing and playing the songs again, it was like slipping into another (younger) voice, and seeing how excited people were to hear the songs live, people who never had a chance to see Galaxie 500 back in the day.  We came home from that show and then Belle & Sebastian asked me to do it for the ATP festival they curated and we decided to add a few U.S. dates and that turned into more dates.

Listgeeks: One of my absolute favorite Dean and Britta tracks is “Ginger Snaps,” from L’Avventura – perhaps your most dance-oriented track to date.  Can the two of you imagine making an album or EP of songs with more of a dance/electronic atmosphere at some point?

Britta: Dean wrote that song, but yes, yes, yes, I would like to do more songs like that, if not an entire album.

Dean: Our other rather dance-oriented track was “Singer Sing” (the remix by Scott Hardkiss who brought the dance elements to the song). Maybe we will pursue the dance EP idea. . .

Listgeeks: Finally, are future Dean and Britta releases in the works?  Do the two of you spend much time working on music, when you’re not touring?

Britta: We released a limited edition single CD version of “13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests” on October 11th – all in the original order of the DVD.

Dean: We have some half-cooked songs sitting around; December will be the first month in about 3 years where we haven’t had live shows going on, so it will be time to get cooking again.

Dean and Britta Homepage
Dean and Britta Twitter
Dean and Britta on Listgeeks
Dean and Britta Facebook

Feature #18 – Cookies

The Facts: Cookies is a band from New York City specializing in popular music.  Ben Sterling formed the band shortly after the dissolution of his former group (the critically lauded Mobius Band) last year, enlisting Melissa Metrick (vocals/bass/keyboards) and Ian Ainley (drums) to help craft a unique and compelling sound. Unlike most good bands specializing in popular music, Cookies is a truly innovative outfit, incorporating into its productions a genuine love of 90s hip hop and R&B, electronic music, and – perhaps most importantly – savvy, distinctive songwriting.  We’re grateful to Ben for taking the time to answer our questions, and for creating some excellent lists. Those of you who are in the NYC area should be sure to check them out tonight (Thursday, November 10th) when they play at Glasslands, in Brooklyn.

Listgeeks: So far you’ve released six tracks, and based on the live set, it seems there’s more than enough material for a full-length on hand.  Do you anticipate releasing an album in the coming months? More generally, do you think we’ve moved past albums, for the most part?

Ben Sterling: We’re doing at least one more single and then probably an album. I like singles. I like albums. Grouping songs together will be around in some fashion forever… though our attention span is shorter, expectations are changing, and the internet means we often hear a song or two and leave it at that. But maybe that’s fair. It’s hard to make a record that deserves its length. They are very rare. Even “Rumours” has a couple wack songs.

LG: Your previous band, Mobius Band, was a little more on the traditional side, both in terms of the live show and from a production perspective . . . what are the main differences in how you approach realizing the songs in Cookies Vs. the way process worked in Mobius Band?

Ben: Mobius Band was a gang. We met in college and lived together and finished each others sentences. We were a thorough democracy with every decision. It was great for a long time. But then it wasn’t anymore. The dynamic broke down and got weird, like it usually does.

Cookies: “Love Will Never Do Without You” (Janet Jackson cover)

Cookies doesn’t work that way, it’s truly the opposite and that’s something I need after that experience. For me, the process of writing songs is very simple to start with and then excruciating to finish. The original rush of an idea is quick and beautiful and easy. But it’s just an idea, not a song or a production. The rest is basically window dressing and finishing lyrics, but without that it’s not a song, unless you’re making folk music or free improvisation. The original spark usually takes about ten minutes but I can’t finish a song in under two months.

LG: I’m a big fan of the boy/girl tradeoff vocal approach, which seems to be becoming a more central element in your productions. Has working with Melissa over time changed your perspective or approach in writing the songs, or did you envision that Cookies would have this type of dynamic from the start?

Ben: Melissa’s voice was at the heart of it from the beginning. I love her voice and have always wanted to do something focused on singing together. At least in my little hetero-framed world, the dynamic between men and women is relevant to just about everything, so it can point in every direction at once. It’s a really good challenge to write for a female voice. I’m not sure I’ll ever be totally comfortable with it. That’s part of why it’s so interesting in the first place.

LG: Who are some of your major influences at the moment from a production perspective?  Which artists have done things you’ve found compelling in the last year or so?

Ben: I’ve been digging back into early 90s New York hiphop. It’s such an optimistic era. Tons of 60’s and 70’s samples, everything soft focus.  A lot of Pete Rock and some lesser known stuff. Caribou’s “Swim” is probably the best pure production work I’ve heard in a few years, it’s untouchable. Stockhausen’s “Gesang der Junglinge.” Watch The Throne sounds amazing blaring from a car loud and distorted. New stuff: I have a feeling the new Chairlift album is going to be era-defining, based on one live show in June.

LG: You’ve collaborated with the photographer Emily Keegin and director/designer Wyeth Hansen, both of whom seem to have a visual sensibility/vision that really works with Cookies. Are the visual aspects of what you’re doing an important part of the process of releasing the music?  How did those collaborations come about?

Ben: Part of why Emily and Wyeth are in tune with the Cookies aesthetic is because they invented the Cookies aesthetic.  I knew what the cover was for “Summer Jam” before I’d written the song.  I’m so lucky to have Emily in my life, she is an amazing artist and thinker.  We’ve got some great stuff coming soon. Wyeth is the same, just a great friend that makes work I admire. He made the “Wilderness Tips” video in one night. I made him dinner and spoon fed him wine, and he sat there mumbling at the computer and made a video in two hours.

Related Links:

Cookies Website
Cookies tumblr

Cookies Twitter
Cookies on Listgeeks

Catcall – “Satellites”

It’s probably still too early for a “Song of the Year” list (though “Best Album of 2011 – So Far” is already happening!), but if it weren’t, a sizable percentage of the Listgeeks staff would have Catcall’s breathtaking new track, “Satellites,” at the top. Sydney-based musician Catherine Kelleher has been recording as Catcall since 2007 (when she started singing over her own beats in her bedroom), though she established herself as a teen in Australia with her DIY/Punk band Kiosk. If the first few tracks (see below) from her upcoming album “The Warmest Place (out in 2012 on Ivy League Records) are any evidence, next year is going to be seriously busy for Catherine. We’re happy she took the time to answer a few of our questions and create an awesome list (be sure to check out the links to this amazing collection of artists): “Catcall’s Top 10 Australian Artists Right Now

Listgeeks: Most of your earlier tracks (and the 2008 EP) as Catcall come closer to fitting under a “lo-fi” label, but “Swimming Pool” and “Satellites,” are clearly from a different place, production-wise. How did that shift come about? Are many of the tracks on the upcoming album produced by Diamond Cut?


Catcall
: I think the shift came about because of the music I started listening to after that EP came out, a lot of classic pop and disco, and also I expanded my collaborations to start working with talented guys like Youth, Diamond Cut and Gloves. That first EP was written entirely on an MPC then recorded and mixed in a bedroom. With the album I was really lucky to have a recording budget thanks to Ivy League and with all my new musical inspirations and new collaborations everything just evolved from there. Diamond Cut has worked on four of the tracks for the record with another producer called Bry Jones, and he’s awesome.

LG: What was the process like for creating the video for “Satellites”?

CC: It was a really fun shoot, we did it all in one day with a small crew in a park in Sydney called Sydney Park. The director Spod had a really simple and beautiful pitch for the track that I thought was so perfect for the song. We shot most of it in one full take over and over again, during the day then at night. It was a really fun clip – lots of incidental exercise too, walking up and down the hill haha.

Catcall – “Swimming Pool”

LG: Based on the strength of these two tracks alone, it seems likely that you’ll be spending much of 2012 on stages in clubs overseas once “The Warmest Place” hits. Who would you like to perform in a line-up with, if you were to curate an evening of your own?

CC: I’d really like to play a bill that included ESG and Chic, haha.

LG: Finally, which other artists/producers would you be most curious to collaborate with at the moment?

CC: I’d love to collaborate with The Dream some day, that would be amazing. I’d also really love to write with Joseph Mount from Metronomy, Paul Epworth and Peaches.

Catcall on Listgeeks
Catcall tumblr
Catcall Facebook

Feature #16 – Stephen Coles

Stephen Coles describes himself, with a concision and efficiency not likely to surprise his followers, as a “writer and typographer.” For the designers (and friends of good design) who have followed his prodigious contributions to the field, however, he is also an impeccable curator, a tireless educator, and an ever enthusiastic advocate for inspired, well-executed work. Whether engaging with people grappling with the complexities of typography for the first time on Quora, posting about a curious detail or quizzical aspect of something he’s come across during his travels on his blog, or adding his compelling take on a new object or typeface via one of his core projects – Typographica, Fonts in Use, or The Mid-Century Modernist – Stephen communicates his passion for the things which surround us with eloquence and empathy. Currently spending his time between Oakland and Berlin, Stephen is also a regular contributor to Print and Codex magazines, a Type Camp instructor, and a member of the FontFont TypeBoard. We’re really happy he took the time to answer our questions, and highly recommend taking a look through his Listgeeks lists after you’ve had a chance to read his responses.

Derick Rhodes/Listgeeks: Earlier this year, Mashable published an article highlighting, “8 Essential Web Typography Resources,” four of which were either created by you, or involve you in some significant way. What keeps you inspired to remain engaged (especially via so many different projects) with all things typography-related?

Stephen Coles: I think I have an unhealthy desire to correct all the typographic inaccuracies that plague the internet and hopefully that translates into something useful now and then.

LG: How did your initial interest in typography and design come about?

SC: It was when I met my first Mac. It was the ability to choose and use fonts that opened my mind to the world of typography, much in the same way that this new widespread power has introduced type to the mainstream. I explored this in a practical context when I worked as a paginator at my college newspaper, fussing over the typographic details of a daily rag rather then attending classes.

Dahl-Beck Sign, San Francisco - Photographed by Stephen Coles

LG: The emergence of web fonts (and related licensing models) has had a significant impact on the role of type in designing for the web. What’s your take on the successes and limitations of this newish way of working with type online?

SC: It’s an exciting time for typography on the web. Everything everything changed with the intro of digital DTP and now it’s like 1985 all over again. New technology, new ways to use type, and new fonts made specifically for a new medium. We’re still in early days but now that there is a standard format and successful webfont services we’re over a significant technical hump. Now it’s just a matter of making quality screen fonts and using them in interesting ways on the web and in mobile devices.

LG: What are some of your favorite examples of type used exceptionally well online?

I’ve written about most of my favorites at Fonts In Use, where you can narrow the content to just the web stuff. Beyond those, one of the best is one of the first: Jax Vineyards, who used FF DIN for their identity, echoing the modern design of their wine labels. This entire site is built with web fonts.

The companion site for the new book Explorations in Typography demonstrates what’s possible with type on the web. Using the tools in the sidebar you can play with layout, font selection, and type treatments using text from the book itself. When you need to explain the benefit of custom type or webfonts to someone who doesn’t get it, show them The New Yorker.

LG: Excluding the web font phenomenon, what do you feel has been the most exciting development related to designing for the web in the last year or two?

SC: The speed at which web designers have taken to the importance and craft of typography. A few short years ago something as simple as typeface selection wasn’t even something they had to deal with, and now, despite my own fears, there is already a widespread respect and enthusiasm for doing type right.

Portrait of Stephen Coles by Laura Serra

LG: You’re currently dividing your time between Berlin and Oakland – is travel important to shaping your perception of the role of design and typography when it comes to your projects?

SC: Definitely! Every place has a typographic dialect just as it does with speech. And besides being simply interesting, it can sometimes teach us all a thing or two. Americans can learn from the British, for example, to stop being silly with always stuffing their quotes inside punctuation. The “developed” world of the West can learn from India and Latin America that hand painted signs are almost always more interesting than plastic, backlit boxes with vinyl type.

LG: Finally, I asked this question of Erik Spiekermann in a Listgeeks feature a few months back, and I’m curious to your take: Do you feel that design, as an increasingly web-oriented activity, is in danger of becoming too uniform, internationally? In other words, is our visual sensibility merging at the expense of more local (or regional) innovation/variation that may have been prized in the past?

SC: That’s a tough question. I hope not. But I think Erik answered it perfectly.

Stephen’s Lists on Listgeeks

Stewf tumblr
Typographica
Fonts in Use
The Mid-Century Modernist

Feature #15 – Christopher Owens (Girls)

Christopher Owens, half of the critically acclaimed San Francisco-based band Girls (Chet “JR” White, the other half, has handled bass playing and production since 2007) is a remarkably gifted songwriter.  His disarmingly heartfelt songs, which evoke comparison to such great American songwriters as Brian Wilson, Elliot Smith, Daniel Johnston and Cole Porter, gained the band immediate widespread recognition with the release of their first album, Album, in 2009.  The band’s new full-length, Father, Son, Holy Ghost ranges sonically from shoegaze and noise pop to the sounds of the girl groups of the 1950s/60s, channeling a heavy dose of classic rock moves along the way.  Tethered by the emotional core of Christopher’s meditations on love, loneliness, and family, the songs on Father, Son, Holy Ghost resonate with a beauty and sincerity uncommon in today’s pop landscape.  We’re grateful Christopher took the time to answer a few questions and send us what is undeniably one of the most inspiring lists we’ve received from an interviewee on Listgeeks so far: “A current to do list copied and pasted from my phone


Derick Rhodes/Listgeeks
:  I’m curious about the kinds of relationships you have with Girls fans – it feels like people would really feel that they can intensely identify with you, as a person, because of the amount of heart you put into your songs.  Do you find people who love your music want to turn to you for advice, or – conversely – want to offer you their own thoughts/advice when you meet them?

Christopher Owens: I haven’t had anyone offer any advice, thankfully. People sometimes ask for advice and if it’s on something I think I can help with then I will, but even that is rare. I do get a lot of sincere thanks and gratitude from people for not being afraid to address the things that I do, or admit the things that I do, and I hear often from people that the songs “really helped” them in different ways. It’s always genuine and it’s one of the gauges that make me feel like maybe this is working.

LG:  It seems like people are really enjoying the current configuration of the band (as an eight piece, including three back-up singers) – how does it feel different for you from the previous Girls tours?

CO: The backup singers aren’t able to tour full time right now, they have children and lives and we’re lucky to have the money to fly them in for shows in big cities or filmed performances, etc… I wish that we were an 8 piece touring band but that’s not really the case. I will say that within the band, Matt Kallman and Evan Weiss and Darren Weiss are the strongest positive force and it’s wonderful to know they’re a part of this.

Girls, live in Vancouver 10/5/11 by Mikala Taylor/backstagerider.com

LG: My favorite song on the new album is “My Ma,” a profound and beautiful track.  It reminds me a little of the breathtaking Smog song, “Rock Bottom Riser” – I think because the sentiments are so straightforward and honest.  Do you work towards simplicity when you write songs?  What I mean is, do the songs sometimes start more complex, lyrically, and then transform into something more direct/honest over time?

CO: Never. When I find a song I take it or leave it. Lucky for me I’m not smart enough to write anything complicated.

 

Links: Christopher on Listgeeks
Girls on Facebook (Tour dates, videos, etc.)
Some Beautiful Portraits of Christopher by Hedi Slimane

Features Round-Up

To date we’ve featured/interviewed an eclectic mix of engaging list makers – here’s an overview – click on any of the below to check out the article and link to their lists:

   
 
 
 
 
 

Listgeeks Feature #14 – “Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art”

Adolf Konrad, packing list, 1962–63. Adolf Ferdinand Konrad papers, 1962–2002. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution.

The Morgan Library & Museum is currently featuring an impeccably curated, list-oriented exhibit called, “Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art,” which runs through October 2nd, 2011.  Derick Rhodes (one of the co-founders of Listgeeks) recently had the opportunity to visit the exhibit, and apart from being overwhelmed by the profoundly fascinating array of lists on display, he thought it would be of special interest to the Listgeeks crowd to hear more about how the exhibit came together, and what inspired the selection of lists.  Liza Kirwin, the Acting Director of the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution, who curated the exhibit (and compiled the accompanying, highly recommended book), was kind enough to answer Derick’s questions about the exhibit and provide some insight into this unique collection of lists:

Derick Rhodes/Listgeeks:  How did the idea for the exhibition and associated book come about?  Was there a specific list that first sparked your interest in curating the material?

Liza Kirwin: Picasso’s list, recommending European artists for the 1913 Armory Show, has long been considered one of the great treasures of the Archives of American Art.  Written in Picasso’s hand, complete with misspellings and curious omissions, it revealed the behind-the-scenes organization of a landmark exhibition in the history of American art:

Pablo Picasso, recommendations for the Armory Show for Walt Kuhn, 1912. Walt Kuhn, Kuhn family papers, and Armory Show records, 1859–1978. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution.

In 1996 this list was included in the Smithsonian’s pan-institutional treasures show, “America’s Smithsonian, Celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Smithsonian Institution.”  Then, when I organized an Archive of American Art’s treasures show in 2000, I again featured Picasso’s list, as well as Reginald Marsh’s 1953 “list letter” to collector Lawrence A. Fleischman; the John Trumbull auction catalog of 1844 with appraisal prices; Worthington Whittredge’s illustrated ledger with thumbnail sketches of commissioned works; and Everett Shinn’s personal account book listing titles and prices of his contributions to “The Eight” Show at Macbeth Galleries, 1908. There were a lot of lists, which got me thinking about this form of documentation and what it could tell us about the lives of artists.

I like to use common forms – the diary, illustrated letter, or love letter – as a hook to draw people into more esoteric aspects of American art history.  It occurred to me that the list was a perfect vehicle for this kind of cultural exploration.

So I started making lots of lists of lists.

LG: The exhibit features a wide range of fascinating lists, from such disparate people as Pablo Picasso, Alexander Calder, and Eero Saarinen.  Strolling through the space at the Morgan, I started to wonder what sorts of lists or list-related materials were excluded.  Were there certain compelling things that you wanted to include that were a little too far from list form?

LK: That’s a good question. Some artists, such as Oscar Bluemner, were such avid list makers that it was hard to choose just one or two lists from their papers. When I started this search in the Archives, I thought I would find more lists of books to read, or New Year’s resolutions, but I didn’t, which seems odd to me.

Oscar Bluemner, list of works of art, May 18, 1932. Oscar Bluemner papers, 1886–1939, 1960. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution.

After the book was published one of my colleagues found artist David Ireland’s list of “assholes.” It was short, just five individuals, but one wonders how they qualified. I thought of including that list in the show at the Morgan Library, but in researching the names I could only identify two of the five, and I felt that such a list deserved greater context.

An art historian, who had written about painter Ad Reinhardt, told me that she had seen a list that Reinhardt kept of parties he was not invited to. I looked for that list, but sadly it is not among Reinhardt’s papers at the Archives of American Art.

Ad Reinhardt, list of paintings, ca. 1966. Ad Reinhardt papers, 1927–68. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution.

Now that I revisit some of the lists that I didn’t use the book, I regret not using them.  There is a lengthy letter from Charles Frederick Briggs, a writer, novelist, editor and critic, to artist William Page, dated February 24, 1846, that includes his Briggs’s opinions, in list form, about portraiture and history painting. I may have decided not to use it because it was more letter than list.

LG: One of the things that’s been interesting about starting Listgeeks is observing the many forms a list can take.  Some of the lists in the exhibit/book are simple and practical (like Franz Kline’s grocery list) while others are more emotional/expressive, or elaborate, multifaceted art objects (like Eero Saarinen’s list of Aline Bernstein’s good qualities).  Are there specific lists in the exhibit you felt were especially revealing?

Eero Saarinen, list of Aline Bernstein’s good qualities, ca. 1954. Aline and Eero Saarinen papers, 1857–1972. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution.

LK: Some of my favorites are Janice Lowry’s lists that she kept in her journals. They are most interesting read in progression – to-do lists that move to successive pages, and successive days, as well as lists of “angry grievances,” and “people I need to forgive.” She used lists to clarify her thoughts and move forward from day to day.

Janice Lowry, to-do list, August 9, 2003, journal no. 101. Janice Lowry papers, 1957–2008. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution.

LG: Are there further plans for showing the exhibit in other cities?

LK: I am hoping that the show will travel to at least one more venue, but a second museum has not yet been confirmed. It is a quirky show (art-historically significant lists), but one that appeals to list makers and anyone interested in American art. If any of your readers have ideas, please let me know.

LG: What’s your relationship with list making? Could you share a list you created (handwritten or otherwise) in the process of curating the exhibit?

LK: My whole day is governed by lists. Here’s one of my typical to-do lists from my desk:

And here’s a list of lists not included in the exhibition:

Links:

Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art

Listgeeks Home

Listgeeks Feature #13 – Markus Popp (aka Oval)

Markus Popp has been at the forefront of electronic music for the last two decades, releasing groundbreaking and genre-defining music as Oval and through various side-projects and collaborations. His process-oriented/highly conceptual approach to making music has gained him wide recognition throughout the music and art communities. In the early 90s, Oval (at the time with collaborators Sebastian Oschatz and Frank Metzger, who both departed in 1995) captured the sound of audio produced by failing digital equipment and deliberately damaged, skipping CDs as source material, and then arranged the resulting fragments into complex, dense tracks that oscillate between experimental ambient and electronic noise.

After an extended hiatus, Markus made a much anticipated return in early 2010 with a series of releases that emphasized more organic-sounding elements. This new approach highlights Popp’s musicianship in a more traditional sense, resulting in his most accessible music to date while simultaneously embodying his pioneering spirit and experimental approach.  Later this year, Oval will release a “lost tracks” compilation, consisting of previously unreleased and hard-to-find material from 1993-2010.

Max Zerrahn, Listgeeks co-founder, met with Markus to get his take on where he’s been, musically, and what might happen next:

Max Zerrahn/Listgeeks: When we first met, we ended up spending quite some time enthusing over 90s indie bands like Polvo and Joan of Arc. In a weird way, that sort of surprised me because the way you seem to approach your own music seems so far from that world, even though you’ve released several albums on Thrill Jockey, toured with more “traditional” indie bands, and worked with Tortoise.  Can you talk a little bit about your musical socialization and sources of inspiration?

Markus Popp: I guess I was always into “band”-type music . . . non-quantized music played by real people.  MIDI-based gear and/or synthesizer architectures, for me, always represented an area I did not want to be seen spending too much time in.  The only musical element I was actively trying to get out of synthesizers pretty much came down to exploring the blind spots of typical synth architectures, for example, by becoming skilled at making the Waldorf MicroWave do all sorts of unexpected things.  I always liked that certain je-ne-sais-quoi atmosphere of Joan Of Arc. I tremendously enjoyed their record “Owls,” which remains a superb recording on so many levels: the atmosphere, songwriting, structure & overall production are infinitely captivating and still unmatched in this field of music.

Oval – “Glass UFO” from Amberley Productions on Vimeo.

LG: When it comes to making electronic music, today’s technologies seem very accessible and the possibilities are endless, yet you deliberately embrace certain limitations for each of your projects.  Would you consider that a crucial part in the way you approach your work?

MP: Absolutely.  Right from the early days, I was neither interested in the full scope of “creative possibilities” nor into fusing all of the existing tricks of the trade into a yet unheard of kind of music.  Instead, I focused only on certain aspects – which I described as “problematic” aspects at the time – and then standardized those elements, effectively shaping my own process.  This way, I could go about things confidently and would actually know what I was doing. Of course this kind of approach, by necessity, led to non-standard results – not because I was all “anti-music” – but because I like a clear-cut, minimal approach – and I guess because I believe in solutions that irritate and not merely iterate.

LG: This might be a misinterpretation, but a lot of your work seems to question the role of the author or the role of the musical composer by incorporating an element of randomness, especially with regard to the source material that you use to craft your pieces, though you are very much in control when it comes to reassembling those “random” bits and pieces to form an actual track.  How would you describe that relationship between being in control and consciously letting go of it?

Oval – Ah! from Thrill Jockey Records on Vimeo.

MP: I wouldn’t go as far as saying that I was actively employing randomness in my process, but I always try to encourage myself to enter situations that generate surprising results.  I like to craft unlikely building blocks and then make them collide until I get music that is almost something you feel you already know, but which is composed of totally different ingredients.  In other words: music that captures the atmosphere of pre-existing music, but achieves this via unlikely means.

LG: Your latest album “O” has a very analogue feel to it, and your general approach to making the music on this record appears to be vastly different from the way you went about recording your earlier albums.  Can you talk about your motivation behind this shift and the process of making the album?

MP: While my tracks from the mid-90s were engaged with music in a pretty basic and unsophisticated way, with “O” I was ambitiously challenging music on its own turf – something I had wanted to do for many years, but just did not quite feel ready for. Over the years, I increasingly felt I needed to be part of this conversation – ultimately, because music had always been a major part of my life and I wanted to finally come up with a better payback scheme than dissection or denial.  But this does not mean that those “critical” days are now behind me – my tracks are just as “meta” as ever. Only this time, I have made it a bit easier to get to the musical parts.

When I started working on “O,” I wanted to be part of a dialogue which could only happen via musical means, by my establishing a communication with music through music.  This is exactly why I developed a musical skill set: to speak the language.  For the listener, no Oval debate club membership card was required this time – to “just listen” was all I was asking with “O.”

First and foremost, I wanted a playful, inviting type of music that effortlessly just “is” (of course not in an esoteric sense of “beyond criticism”) and which convincingly renders distinctions like “programmed vs. played,” and “acoustic vs. electronic” obsolete.  Sure, the “Oh” EP and the “O” album are accessible, but they are also very “now” – capable of surprising any listener on almost any level.  These records may not have “WATERSHED MOMENT” written all over them, but on an emotional level, this new material was supposed to possess the potential to lock the listener in a pretty intense staring contest for quite some time.

However, from where I was coming from, engaging with music in the this way was far easier said than done.  The most important step towards this goal was radical departure – to do everything as differently as possible compared to how I did stuff before and do it on all levels: technically, musically and so forth.  I wanted to bring back the (IMO often absent) “music” part embedded in “electronic music.”  I wanted to PLAY stuff, I was impatient to take control – for example, by establishing riffs as the new main building block, replacing the loop extracted from an almost arbitrary audio CD.  Crafting my own building blocks alone added so much more immediacy and control (but also a lot of unprecedented decision-making and new responsibilities) – while being loop-based, like in the early Oval days – had been by definition very static and inflexible.

Hardly any of my old tricks, tools, or techniques were translatable into the tech setup I used for making “O.”  Plus, everything else around me having changed so dramatically over the years sure did help.  It would have been a major exercise in reverse-engineering to do another “Systemisch,” “Ovalcommers,” or even “So” album with today’s tools.  But to start anew with an entirely new approach was much easier – at least in theory.  So much had changed around me during my years-long hiatus, the list of tools to try in 2010 was practically writing itself. What to do with those many new tools was the actual challenge.

LG: Your older pieces are typically long – between 5 and 7 minutes – sometimes up to 25 minutes, whereas your latest release and the accompanying EPs really took the idea of shortening the tracks to an extreme by reducing them to mere fragments of no more than 1 minute for the most part.  How would you describe the motivation behind that shift, and how it relates to the impressive quantity of tracks you have released in the past year?

MP: My primary concern was to simply give each track on “O” a chance to truly shine and develop as much visual/associative power and emotional quality as I could come up with.  In practical terms, this meant capturing each theme in its most convincing form and then cramming in as much atmosphere as possible into the smallest possible space.  That’s why a considerable portion of the tracks on “O” ended up being these dense, emotional miniatures (“O” album CD2), while others were turned into more full-featured “songs” featuring drums, etc. (including tracks 2, 4, 6, 8, etc. on “O” album CD1).

Oval – Textuell/Do While from Thrill Jockey Records on Vimeo.

In return, tracks based on these of high-density miniatures would have lost a lot of their momentum by adding variations – or adding any other type of sound for that matter.  For example, all tracks on Side B of the “Oh” EP (same goes for the entire CD2 of the “O” album) are pure, concise “themes” in order to communicate the maximum emotion.  Otherwise, I don’t think that copying and pasting parts in the sequencer arrangement is a very convincing statement these days (and it probably never was).

Taking the minimal route meant being liberated from having to constantly think about what could be missing.  Instead, I could concentrate on exploring the distinct “faux future evergreen” atmosphere of those short tracks.  Other design goals for these miniatures were “ringtone” and “music that you could swear you already know.”  The sheer visual potential of those interludes (“O” CD1, tracks 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 etc.) tries to say: “in a sense, this music plays you.”

LG: Something tells me that your next project (whatever it may be), will once again head in some different direction.  Is there anything you are currently working on or making plans for that you can talk about just yet?

MP: I just completed the album master for “OvalDNA,” an upcoming “lost tracks”-type compilation that consists partly of entirely unreleased material, partly of rare, bonus tracks from several Japan-exclusive albums I have done over the years.  There will also be a second disc, a DVD-ROM containing almost my entire sound file archive from all work phases, accompanied by a piece of software that will serve as a browser/sequencer-type interface to those sound files.

Having said that, however, it is equally clear that very little will change around here. Even though I might have gone the extra technical mile with “O,” my goal will basically remain the same: to deliver touching music that can engage listeners from all backgrounds.

Plus, there was always a lot more “music” in Oval than what might have been apparent all along. Comparing “O” with my early albums, one possible interpretation might be that I sent off this “love letter to music” (which some people think what “O” is) already a long time ago – but that it is only now that its content becomes more clear.  So I’ll definitely continue to stay actively engaged with music in upcoming projects – the question is rather which form I will find for this music in the future.

Oval on Soundcloud

Oval on Facebook

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.