The Uncanny Valley

Notes on art, culture and preservation

Archive for February 2010

Animosity Pierre

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Philly invades the Lower East Side: these guys took top honors at Crash Mansion‘s sketch comedy competition last night. Nice way to spend my last night in the States.

Most of their comedy is definitely NSFW — and if you’re at work you shouldn’t be watching videos anyway. But this one (except for what’s in that jar) is clean. And viral. These guys have arrived. Somewhere.


Written by cwmote

February 24, 2010 at 10:29 am

Among the Magic Gardens

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From vacant lot to wonderland: the gardens at the tail end of the blizzard (watch your step!)

To provide the topical connection between Philly (my hometown) and Brooklyn (my current location, where I’m staying until my flight leaves), I have Isaiah Zagar to thank — born in the former, raised in the latter, and now known as the most celebrated public artist in Philadelphia, surely among the most renowned in the US.

If you have taken a walk along South Street, you have seen the mosaics — the dazzling patterns of tile, glass, and found objects that sprint across various storefronts and walls. Zagar’s trademark mosaic style concentrates in two establishments — Eyes Gallery, at 402 South, owned by his wife, Julia; and Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, at 1020 South, the opus magnum, no mere housing of art but one giant piece of art itself.

Isaiah Zagar's mantra: "Art is the center of the real world."

I toured the gardens on Sunday. If you plan on going, consider taking a guided tour. You’ll learn a lot about the man behind the tiles, and come to realize unmistakably that he is the work he creates — every aspect of his life and philosophy goes into it through his choice of materials, his incorporation of folk trinkets from Hispanic America, and his preservation of personal memories and experiences in the design. Aside from the impression that Zagar’s deeply romantic egalitarianism makes on you, the tour also gives you the chance to witness the artist’s evolution. In an apartment building next door, you’ll witness his earliest mosaics, where the beauty still pervades but the style is yet uncertain and the craft a bit undisciplined, a striking contrast to the main building itself, a juxtaposition of the artist as a novice with the artist as grand master.

It’s true that the mosaics are deeply personal. To put one’s life into every facet of their art can be seen as an act of the highest narcissism. At the same time, it takes courage to expose oneself as being human — which Zagar does, not just stylistically but visually, rendering himself in various degrees of nakedness, free from societal shame. That Zagar’s autobiographical work is also a visually arresting tour de force is a happy coincidence, and a great gift to the people who happen to find themselves in Philadelphia.

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February 24, 2010 at 10:11 am

From the Department of Big Announcements

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For those who haven’t heard, and are rightly wondering why the hell not, here is the news: this week I am traveling to Buenos Aires. How long I’ll be there, I have yet to determine, but it’s a goal I’ve set to make something for myself in a different culture while my spirit is still restless. Naturally, I’ll be blogging the whole experience, and I may even get a Facebook account very soon. (Yeah, finally.) So if I have any more Big Announcements, I won’t be so remiss in getting around to them so late. Promise.

As I post this entry, I am on board a Megabus in the middle of the New Jersey Turnpike. Ah, the miracles of wifi and electrical outlets on a moving bus. (Yes, Vash, there are outlets on this one.) 😉 Philadelphia is behind me. Soon, the whole homeland will be too. I’ll miss it, somewhat, I admit. So best to enjoy the luxuries while they last.

Written by cwmote

February 22, 2010 at 9:25 am

The Steps during the Blizzard

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If you can’t run up them, go sledding down them:

Don’t have a sled? A flattened cardboard box or a cookie tray will do.

You’ll get to the bottom…eventually.

And then hurry back up the side of the steps to the top. (But, save the fist pumps for another season, okay?)

Written by cwmote

February 16, 2010 at 6:57 pm

Jennifer Montone and the Penderecki Horn Concerto

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Courtesy of the Curtis Institute of Music

On Sunday afternoon before the Super Bowl, I made it down to the Kimmel Center to catch the Curtis Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Robert Spano. The main attraction was the new Concerto for Horn, which premiered two years ago, by the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. Once an avant-gardist whose dissonances reflected — and in other cases, subverted — the chaos and political brutality of the middle of the 20th Century, Penderecki, now 76, has generally mellowed and returned to more tonal fancies with the arrival of the 21st. The mood of the horn concerto is dark, sometimes tauntingly so, but it reaches for the heroic and even the humorous to keep it from overwhelming the audience. The trajectory of this twenty-minute piece suggests the act of finding one’s way out of a disquieting wood.

The aesthetics of the Penderecki are ultimately less impressive than the demands of the horn part itself. The showmanship of the French horn doesn’t come from swift fingers, but from versatile lips. The art of extracting notes of radically different pitch and shape from the same instrument cannot be appreciated in the visual sense as much as mastery of the piano or the violin. But with Jennifer Montone on hand, it was difficult not to be bowled over by the sheer force and subtle range of the part. Montone, the very talented (and photogenic) Principal Horn for the Philadelphia Orchestra, stands among the superlatives. Her interpretation of the Penderecki brought out the full range of the instrument, and demonstrated its formidable, brassy power while also capturing its lighter and more gracious side. Through her performance, and the student orchestra’s reliable accompaniment, one can readily appreciate the influence of the great horn composers (especially R. Strauss and Mahler) on this otherwise contemporary composition. The optimist can take it as a sign that, despite the obituaries for classical music that regularly pop up, there can still be a dialogue with the past to produce something alive and fresh for newer audiences.

There may not be many concertos in the horn repertoire, but as long as there are virtuosos like Jennifer Montone there will be composers to keep writing them.

Written by cwmote

February 12, 2010 at 7:09 pm

If the view from your window is this

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…get off the computer and start shoveling. Right now.

And when you’re done, come back and send me a shout-out.

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February 6, 2010 at 11:39 am

Posted in Philadelphia

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Map of the Day: Languages in Iberia

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A history of languages in southwestern Europe, from AD 1000 to the present (click on the image if the time lapse doesn’t work):

We know Castilian better as Spanish, but it’s hardly the only language of Spain. One millennium ago, it had one of the smallest influences on the peninsula, a smaller area than even Basque. As the rise of little Castilian and the retreat of big bad Arabic reveal, linguistic influence and military might often go together.


  • The only non-Romance languages on the map are Arabic & Mozarabic, Basque (a language isolate), and German, of which only the latter belongs to the Indo-European family.
  • Langues d’Oïl refers to the various languages closely related to French. Of course French existed before 1800, but it did not have official clout across the country until relatively recent. The same goes with Italian, which became a national language only after unification.
  • Diagonal lines indicate official status within political boundaries. Castilian prevails in society even where people widely speak Galician or Catalan.
  • Galico-Portuguese remains quite stable from 1350 onward.
  • Arabic was still being spoken widely enough on the continent as late as 1600.
  • Interesting to see the influences on Sardinia, especially how Catalan finds its way in to a tiny area (Alghero, I believe).

Source: GNUware, of course. Maybe not completely accurate, but good as a general guide.

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February 3, 2010 at 2:02 pm