Studio 360 2008.10.31 – Music, Memory and My Mom

In the Summer of 2008, I decided to finally put together a piece about my mom and her singing. In 2003, she was struck by a massive stroke, which took out her language. My mom’s loss of language rocked us all, especially because she was an acutely verbal person all her life, acing us in Scrabble and racing through the New York Times Sunday crosswords. After six month of total silence, she started to sing. And sing she did. She remembered melodies of her favorite divas – Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday – and could sing along on just about anything. Before her stroke, I would characterize my mom as a hesitant singer. Now, she sang with confidence and bravado, accessing a corner of her brain that was intact and could access words through music.

Right after I started to create this piece, my mom’s health plummeted. I tried to record her, but she was too weak to sing. I gave up on the piece. Then, rummaging around in my files one day, I discovered a cache of recordings I had made of the two of us singing that I had completely forgotten about. I forged on, and created this piece. I interviewed my sister Gabrielle through the public radio station in her hometown in Chico, CA. I got in touch with Daniel Levitin, the neuroscientist and musician, to get some of his insights. Before it aired, my mom and I listened to it together – and she said, in her stroke-affected drawl – “Good. Very good.”

My mom passed away on December 8, 2008, 4 days after her 80th birthday. As I drove by myself to the funeral home in Kingston, NY to pick out an urn for her ashes, I noticed a call had come in on my cell phone. I pulled over to the shoulder to check the message – our piece had been selected for a program called “Best of Public Radio 2008.” I looked up and gestured to my mom, and we smiled at each other across that great divide.

icon for podpress  Sylvia and Gideon D'Arcangelo [9:02m]: Play Now | Play in Popup | Download


Weekend America 2008.10.11 – Listening In on the Schooner Anne

On April 23, 2007, Reid Stowe and Soanya Ahmad set out from New York harbor on an ambitious sailing voyage. Their goal was to sail for 1000 days without touching land, carrying all their provisions with them. Reid and Soanya set out to beat the world record of endurance sailing – sailing without resupply – which currently stands at 658 days, held by Australian sailor Jon Sanders. As of this broadcast, their voyage had lasted just under 540 days. In this installment of the “Listening In” series, I talk with Reid and Soanya to find out how music helps mark the time out on the open seas.

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Weekend America 2008.08.02 – Listening In at the Paralympics

Mary Stack is an amazing athlete who has followed her prowess as a lifter all the way to the Beijing 2008 Paralympics, representing the US proudly. I spent the day with her as she went through her workout routine at the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor. She let me in on her playlist for powerlifting, which ends with a rip-your-face-off “So What” by Metallica. For Stack, this song means the waiting is over, there’s no more getting ready, it’s time to get out there and go for gold.

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Weekend America 2008.05.08 – Listening In on the Space Shuttle

Astronaut Steve Frick Every morning on the Space Shuttle, a song is the first thing the astronauts hear. It is played by NASA Mission Control in Houston to rouse the astronauts from sleep. The songs are chosen for the astronauts by their friends and family, and played on days when they have a special job to do – like take a space walk or pilot a rendezvous with the International Space Station. In the next installment of our “Listening In” series, I checked in with some Shuttle astronauts (including Commander Steve Frick, pictured) to find out what they like to wake up to when they’re orbiting the Earth.

Hear the original broadcast on Weekend America

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Studio 360 2008.04.11 – From Addis Ababa to Boston with Mulatu Astatke

Mulatu Astatke In this piece, we meet Mulatu Astatke, the father of Ethiopian jazz. A pioneering ‘global citizen,’ Astatke became in 1959 the first African to ever attend the famous Berkelee College of Music in Boston. He played with Duke Ellington in the 70s and has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in the US since Jim Jarmusch featured his music in the soundtrack to the film, “Broken Flowers.” Astatke is famous in Ethiopia for modifying the traditional instrument, the krar, so it can play jazz scales. American bandleader Russ Gershon calls Astatke “a conduit,” who has brought modernism and jazz to Ethiopia while bringing Ethiopia’s extremely diverse tribal culture to the world stage. As part of his constant ebb and flow between the US and Addis, Astatke is now at Harvard for the year, where we talk with him about specific contributions he maintains Ethiopian culture has made to jazz as a whole.

Hear the original broadcast on Studio 360

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Weekend America 2008.03.08 – Listening In in the O.R. with Dr. Atul Gawande

Dr. Atul Gawande

Indie rocker Kim Deal from the Breeders crooned from the iPod docked in the operating room where Dr. Atul Gawande and his team were performing a thyroidectomy. Wearing something that looks like a shower cap, and booties over my shoes, I felt like another member of Dr. Gawande’s team, which is made up of several people: the senior resident, the anesthesiologist, the circulating nurse, a medical student and the scrub.

“Something of a myth about the way people understand the operating room is that it’s not all about the surgeon,” Dr. Gawande laughs, “or about whether my hands are shaking. Absolutely I have to be able to concentrate and know what I’m doing, but so does everybody else. And having a good operation for each of the patients I take care of in a day means making sure that we can all function as a team. And I find that having music helps us all perform well, as a team.”

To the strains of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” Dr. Gawande’s team busily prepared the area on the patient’s neck for the operation. In this episode of Listening In, I got a chance to go to Boston and hear the playlist that Dr. Gawande plays in the OR, and talk to his staff about how it flows with their work.

Hear the original broadcast on Weekend America

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Weekend America 2008.01.19 – Listening In with Daniel Libeskind

Architect Daniel Libeskind listens to a solid block of uninterrupted music in the morning to start his day.  “It’s not something of a luxury, it’s almost a necessity.  And it’s not background,” says Libeskind.  “I don’t do it as the hustle bustle of domestic life and in the background there’s music, I sit down, when I have time, and mostly I do have time early in the morning, just to listen to a piece of music.”  In his downtown New York studio, Libeskind and I listened to the music that focuses him for the day, the music that “furnishes his mind”:  Cab Calloway doing “St. Louis Blues, ” Glenn Gould playing the Well-Tempered Clavier, the 20th organ music of Olivier Messiaen, and the free jazz improvisations of pianist Keith Tippett.
“It’s the equivalent for the soul what running and jogging would be for the body.  It’s not for the body, it’s for the soul.  But the soul also needs to be fed.  Otherwise it’s empty.  And that music, when you fill your mind with it, your mind isn’t empty during the day.  It’s furnished.”

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Studio 360 2007.11.16 – Migrant Worker's Love Song

I went to China to see what kind of musical culture I would find among the migrant workers there. I had heard that there is a floating population of over 100 million migrant workers there, mostly from the south and west, mostly coming to work construction jobs in the booming east coast cities. Every year, they ebb and flow, almost to a person returning to their hometown for Chinese New Year. Then, they head to another place, wherever the work is. It is well known that this is a hard, hard life, and hard lives often result in some special form of music – a melancholic complaint, a crying out. In the US, the hard migrant life was acknowledged in the books of John Steinbeck and the songs of Woody Guthrie, to some extent in the songs of Bill Monroe and the bluegrass songwriters who wrote about their lost home and life in a big, unforgiving city.

Was there something like this going on in China now, now that migration is happening there on an unprecedented scale? I tried to find out, by walking cold into construction site after construction site in Beijing, with my fearless translator Flora Wang. These migrant workers downloaded bootleg mp3s onto their cell phones, and they would listen at night in isolation in the grim little shacks that sat right on the construction site. The name “Chen Xing” kept coming up – his songs, many of the workers said, spoke directly to their experience. I sought out Chen Xing, and had a chance to record some of his songs in a casual, acoustic setting. This piece for Studio 360 is the result of those sessions.

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Weekend America 2007.11.10 – Listening In on the Creative Process

Visual artists listen to music in their studios to get their creative juices flowing, to lose themselves in their world, to focus their energies. Natalie Frank, a great young painter (a mere 27 years old!) let me into her listening process and her creative process in her studio. It turned out to be quite structured and complex and cool. She listens to blues and solo singers and songwriters – like John Lee Hooker, Dylan and Nina Simone – in the personal, imagination-trawling phase when she’s conjuring up the characters for her paintings. When she’s composing her paintings – thinking in the big picture sense – she listens to opera and classical music, like Beethoven’s “Kreuzer.” Music is an intricate and orchestrated part of her creative process.

Painting above by Natalie Frank, “Portrait,” 2007, Oil on canvas, 18 by 16 in. 45.7 by 40.6 cm.

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Weekend America 2007.09.15 – "Listening In: The Delivery Room"

Music is a phenomenal way to control your environment – to make a room “yours”.  More and more expectant mothers and fathers who want to make the delivery room feel more like home are bringing their music with them. Birthing clinics are starting to feature iPod docks as standard equipment, and parents come in with their “giving birth” playlists ready to plug in.

Many fathers who get involved are in charge of the technology – and so we find the new role of “DJ Daddy Doulah” – who is doing what he can to set the right mood in the room. In this piece, we speak with Eric Wallach and Belinda Blum about their experience of giving birth to Ruby (pictured) and how Eric spun the tunes. They gave the idea to Emily Conrad and Jeff Galusha – who take us through their Baby Pumpkin playlist, a week before the birth of their daughter, Blue.

We also put a call out to Weekend America listeners to tell us the songs that worked for them during childbirth. The Weekend America “Giving Birth” Listener-Generated Playlist is here.

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