In Search of Unique Sounds

“For myself, tone color, texture and ‘unique sounds’ (growls, double buzzes etc.) …can be every bit as musical as harmonic expression can be, and ultimately I hope to meld [them] together hand and hand.” – Stephanie Richards

Trumpeter Stephanie Richards has performed and/or recorded with such luminaries as Henry Threadgill, John Zorn, Anthony Braxton, Butch Morris, and the Pixies. With her acclaimed debut solo album in 2018 Fullmoon, Richards announced her intention to expand the boundaries of contemporary jazz, and demonstrated the skills to do so. For her 2019 release Take the Neon Lights, New York City-inspired poems from cultural icons including Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou and Allen Ginsberg provide the backdrop for a sonic portrait of NYC that is equal parts dazzle and grit, like the fabled city itself.

Richards is a UC San Diego Music Department faculty member and co-director with trumpeter Dave Douglas of New York’s Festival of New Trumpet Music (FONT), and has inaugurated a West Coast version of FONT in collaboration with Fresh Sound, UC San Diego Extension, the San Diego Symphony, and others. In the FONT West concert, also entitled Take the Neon Lights, she performs at San Diego’s intimate White Box space with some heavyweight collaborators: bassist Mark Dresser, keyboardist Joshua White, bass clarinetist Brian Walsh, and drummer Andrew Munsey.

Richards’ interest in “tone color, texture and ‘unique sounds'” is on full display as the music ebbs and surges; at times lyrical, almost plaintive, while at others times it growls and roars. Underpinning these shifting sonorities is a sense of restless exploration; each band member probes the boundaries of conventional structure and their defined roles in a jazz ensemble while maintaining a three-way dialogue with fellow musicians and the listener. This is adventurous, challenging music that resists easy categorization, but the audience’s engagement is amply rewarded.

Take the Neon Lights marks Stephanie Richards as a talent to be reckoned with.

Watch Stephanie Richards: New Trumpet Music

Immersive Languages

It’s a misuse of terms to say that we have a natural language; languages are arbitrary and conventions of peoples by institution. – François Rabelais

Constructed languages, or conlangs, are popular features of many science fiction and fantasy tales. Examples include Barsoomian (Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter series), Elvish and Khuzdul (Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy), Klingon (Star Trek), Na’vi (James Cameron’s Avatar), and Dothraki and Valyrian (George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire). Thanks to the efforts of dedicated – some might say obsessive – fans, these invented languages occasionally slip the bonds of their native genres, as witnessed by Klingon translations of Shakespeare and the Bible.

Not all conlangs have roots in fantastic literature. The most widely-spoken “auxiliary language,” Esperanto, was created in the late 19th century by a Polish ophthalmologist, and was intended to be an easy and flexible second tongue that would foster peace and international understanding. UC San Diego Linguistics Professor Grant Goodall was fascinated by languages at an early age, and quickly found himself drawn to Esperanto; through his study of Esperanto he developed an interest in other conlangs.

In addition to Goodall’s remarks about his linguistic adventures in Inventing Languages, two of the most popular contemporary conlangs, Na’vi and Dothraki, are discussed by their creators. Paul Frommer was tasked by Avatar director James Cameron to create a language for his science fiction epic set on an alien world. Frommer describes a process which entailed setting certain rules for the new language, dubbed Na’vi, which were drawn from various Earthbound tongues, including English, the Romance languages, and several Eastern European languages. The primary challenge was to create a language that seems sufficiently alien to our experience, yet could be learned quickly by decidedly human actors portraying the language’s native speakers while also lending itself to a vocabulary that could be expanded on short notice.

David Peterson, co-creator of the Dothraki language used in Game of Thrones, faced a somewhat different set of challenges since the basics of Dothraki were established in the novels upon which the series is based (complete with translations). Peterson’s first task was to reconcile inconsistencies in spellings across various books, followed by establishment of certain rules of grammar and pronunciation based on common usages in various modern languages – key elements in Peterson’s ability to form new Dothraki vocabulary upon demand. Like Frommer’s Na’vi, Peterson’s Dothraki needed to sound exotic while retaining just enough familiarity for actors to learn and speak the language convincingly.

In recent years conventions, workshops, seminars, websites, and user groups have sprung up around fictional languages, including Na’vi and Dothraki, as fans seek an immersive experience based on their favorite novel, film, or TV series. Thus far none have yet achieved the international prominence of Esperanto, but devotees are convinced that it’s only a matter of time.

Watch Inventing Languages: A Conversation in Language Construction

Neuroscience, Mini Brains, and Your Health

“All the best models are the ones that you can improve in complexity to get closer and closer to the reality.”

The idea of a brain in a dish may sound like science fiction to some but scientists are becoming more and more adept at creating cortical organoids in the lab. The organoids are models of what is happening in utero as the brain forms. Being able to study this kind of human development not only opens new insights into neurological conditions but raises ethical questions.

Alysson Muotri, director of the UC San Diego Stem Cell Program, gives a look at how his lab is using these organoids to model specific conditions, treat disease, and explore fundamental brain mechanisms. Learn what the limitations, future projections, and ethical concerns are surrounding this exciting science.

Watch Re-constructing Brains in the Lab to Revolutionize Neuroscience – Exploring Ethics

Past, Present and Future

For the La Jolla Symphony’s 2018/19 season, Music Director Steven Schick chose the title and theme of “Lineage.” Among other things this word suggests a continuum, an unbroken linkage between past, present and future, and this concept is central to both the season and the “Deep Roots” concert.

The past is invoked by Anton Bruckner’s much-revised Symphony No. 3 in D Minor. In his day Bruckner was known for his devotion to Richard Wagner, yet there is no discernible Wagnerian influence in this music. Rather, Brucker drew on other sources for inspiration – classical form, sacred music (Bruckner was a devout Catholic), and the folk tunes of his Austrian youth – and synthesized them into a style further influenced by Bruckner’s experience as a pipe organist and characterized by long melody lines and large-scale thematic shifts. Above all, the Symphony reflects Bruckner’s love of brass instruments. Though despised by contemporary critics, his work was admired by other composers, notably Franz Liszt and Gustav Mahler, and has enjoyed a popular resurgence since the 1950s.

For the present the La Jolla Symphony turns to contemporary American composer Philip Glass. Glass created the scores for each of the experimental documentaries comprising Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi Trilogy, and the final film score, Naqoyqatsi (Hopi for “life at war”) provided the basis for his Cello Concerto No. 2. Glass dropped sections of the score and re-worked others to accommodate a more prominent (and difficult) role for solo cello. The music has all the hallmarks of Glass’s mature style, including insistent rhythms, rapid changes in meter, crystalline textures, and constantly-shifting tonal colors. Contrasted with the often-turbulent proceedings are reflective passages for the cello, either solo or with minimal accompaniment. Though derived from a film score this piece doesn’t attempt to tell a story; rather, it should be considered a purely musical experience.

Fittingly, the future is given voice here by the work of a young, up-and-coming composer, in this case Community Acoustics by LJ White. As White explains,

The phrase “community acoustics” is a name used by some scientists for the phenomenon of acoustic niche separation, in which sounds within an ecosystem organize themselves into distinct frequency layers and interlocking patterns, allowing for communication within species and overall ecosystem function.

In Community Acoustics White challenges the rigid structures of symphonic music and the customary classical concert format, providing an environment in which the music evolves along more egalitarian lines than is the norm. The players have greater control over their role in creating the sonic environment, and the audience are also encouraged to contribute at the end of the piece. “Community Acoustics” points out one possible path towards an active and immersive listening experience.

Watch Deep Roots – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

Americans’ Views on Healthcare

At the root, healthcare is a pocketbook issue. An increasing share of insured Americans report difficulty affording healthcare. Deductibles are rising – growing more than four times faster than wages – and causing worry, especially over unexpected medical bills that ripple families and their budgets.

Drew Altman, President and CEO of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, provides an analysis of the public’s priorities and opinions in healthcare as the new congress takes shape and the 2020 presidential campaign begins.

Using polling data, he shows that in the midterms, healthcare was a top issue for Democrats and Independents but not for Republicans. The Democrats perceived that the ACA was under threat and rallied behind that issue. That helped propel them to large gains in the House.

Altman predicts that with that new Democratic-majority some of the big moves proposed in the last two years will not happen. These include repeal and replace of the ACA, changing Medicaid to include caps or block grants, and changing Medicare to a voucher system. He further predicts that no major health legislation will be passed at all except perhaps some bipartisan legislation on drugs.

With the huge partisan divide on the ACA – 81% of Democrats approve versus only 17% of Republicans – there are obvious limits to passing any national health care reform, even though generally the public highly values many of the key benefits of the ACA. Simultaneously, public knowledge about what the ACA does is actually spotty. For example, Altman cites polls that show that 41% wrongly believe that the ACA established “death panels.”

As the 2020 presidential election heats up, Altman shows that healthcare will continue to be a big issue with Medicare-for-all perhaps out in front of the others. There are many misconceptions about this kind of plan including the costs and benefits of a single-payer system.

When it comes to Medicaid, sweeping change proposed by the Republicans is unlikely. Polls show that it is generally more well-liked than some people acknowledge, almost as popular as other big programs like Medicare and Social Security, in part because it covers almost 75 million people. There are lurking issues such as work requirements but most Americas want to keep it as it is, affordable insurance for low income people.

Watch The Pulse of the Public on Health Policy and Politics – The Chancellor’s Health Policy Lecture Series