Jack is a writer from Chicago, now based in New York. While his writing spans a broad range of interests, its most consistent focus remains music. His work has appeared in
Paste Magazine, The Street, and Columbia University’s longform magazine, The Eye, where he served as an editor. Jack Meyer's Articles A Start-Up Is Monitoring Space Junk to Enable a More Sustainable Space Economy In February 2009, some 500 miles above the Siberian tundra, a defunct Russian satellite and a U.S. communication satellite collided with massive force and shattered to pieces. Circulating low Earth orbit at speeds north of 20,000 miles per hour, the two instantly broke into thousands of fragments of aluminum and titanium space junk. Of these bits of debris hurtling at hypervelocity, only a fraction of them were large enough to be accurately tracked. And of those roughly 2,000 fragments that have been tracked, they’ll continue circulating for anywhere from 20 to a hundred years or more from the time of impact. “Seed Detective” Adam Alexander Imagines a Better World—Through Rare, Endangered, and Unusual Vegetable Varieties For British author, TV gardening producer, and “seed detective” Adam Alexander, the supermarket serves as perhaps the finest symbol of our modern food systems and their discontents. Of course, there’s undeniable quantitative material abundance, with aisles upon aisles of vegetable varieties—chopped, pickled, canned, and fresh—all that one could imagine within the confines of some idea of a generic palette. But it arrives at a qualitative price, and not just in terms of flavor, but also in context, in our ability to see this food as a part of our own story—as a connection to the land we live on or a cornerstone of the traditions we uphold. Vegetables are more than just so many anonymous pounds on a scale. “This strong connection with the land and what we grow and what we put in our own mouths has been lost, especially in the U.K.,” Alexander says. “To me, it’s really important that we try to reconnect and recognize that these vegetables are part of our human story and, in that way, we can do a lot to serve rare and endangered varieties.” An Album of Cover Songs Honors the Legacy of Leonard Cohen Though nearly six years have gone by since Leonard Cohen’s passing, the long shadow cast by his legacy as one of the 20th century’s most esteemed and idiosyncratic singer-songwriters shows no signs of lifting from the public’s imagination anytime soon. From the enveloping warmth of “Suzanne,” to the high drama of “Hallelujah,” to the chilling minimalist and gospel juxtaposition of his swansong “You Want it Darker,” Cohen managed to constantly reinvent himself, leaving behind the rare achievement of a musical body of work whose most impressive moments exist across eras. An Energy Summit in the Netherlands Imagines a Solar-Powered Future As changes in weather patterns, economic realities, and public perception have triggered a wave of climate consciousness over the past few years, renewable energy sources have enjoyed a newfound level of attention, no longer relegated to the status of a far-off potentiality, but elevated, at least in the nebulous promises and sloganeering of powerful institutions, to that of an urgent necessity. Included in all of this is the long-sputtering industry of solar power. Factoids like how an hour and half worth of sunlight hitting the earth could provide the world’s total energy consumption in a year have been employed to tease out the industry’s transformative power for decades. Now, with technological advances making solar energy cheaper and more efficient than ever, it seems better poised than ever to take on a greater role in weaning humanity off of its fossil fuel and coal dependencies. An Exhibition Ponders Technology’s Grip on Human “Reality” In 2016, a stampede of people flooded the streets of Taipei, stopping garbage trucks and buses in the wake of their single-minded pursuit. What unified so many to disrupt the rhythms of everyday life couldn’t be seen by anyone outside of the crowd, because it wasn’t anywhere “outside” for them to see. The answer rested in the smart devices of the procession’s members, leading them on through the popular Pokémon Go app, a game that—this should seem obvious now that we’re in 2022—lets users look at an augmented world through their phone’s camera, overlaying reality with virtual Pokémon to be discovered (in the case of the Taipei crowd, an ultra-rare Snorlax). MSCHF Highlights the Absurdities of Modern Consumerism—and Makes Money Doing It An ice cream truck selling $10 popsicles in the shape of Zuckerberg, Bezos, and Musk’s multibillion-dollar visages. A service delivering A.I.-generated foot images with Magritte undertones. A $1,000 chimera of extracurricular participation trophies made for Tiffany’s. These high-concept pranks are the sort of off-kilter creations one can expect from the Brooklyn-based outfit MSCHF, a start-up accelerator of absurd and attention-grabbing stunts. A Podcast Covering the Vanguards of the Sustainable Food Movement Food has become increasingly difficult to understand in isolation from the political forces, economic logic, and environmental footprint that accompany its journey into our fridges, pantries, and stomachs. While the nature and the consequences of our diets are irrevocably bound up in the practices of the major players that supply our grocery stores, there’s a growing hunger to learn alternatives to the ecologically damaging practices of the food industrial complex. How a Master Organist is Making the Archaic Instrument Cool Again The organ often shocks by the strength of its scale alone. Few other instruments, after all, can be so large as to necessitate being woven into the very architecture of the building that holds them. While its grandeur might be intimidating, conductor and organist Anna Lapwood is looking to change that. Taking up the organ at the age of 15, she quickly mastered the instrument, becoming the first woman to receive one of the prestigious Organ Scholarships from Oxford’s Magdalen College in its 560-year history and, shortly thereafter, at age 21, becoming director of music for Pembroke College, Cambridge, the youngest ever to hold such a position within an Oxbridge college. David Wallace-Wells’s New Climate Newsletter Is a Must-Read for Anyone Concerned With Our Future The climate writer and essayist David Wallace-Wells has a knack for translating the unimaginable into the painfully real. Amidst an ongoing maelstrom to clearly and effectively communicate the dire urgency of the climate crisis, his 2017 article for New York magazine and subsequent book of the same name, The Uninhabitable Earth, played a critical role in jolting the conversation, detailing the varied plagues and, finally, apocalyptic conditions humanity faces across increasingly severe warming scenarios—some only grim potentialities, others seemingly beyond prevention. Thankfully for us, and for the planet, Wallace-Wells was recently hired by The New York Times, who added him to their Opinion section, where he has begun a weekly newsletter to reflect on the latest in our Anthropocene Age. In Rural Germany, a Six-Century-Long Performance of a John Cage Organ Composition Is Underway On first glance, the German town of Halberstadt may seem like any other. Winding rows of timbered houses line cobbled streets, broken up by the occasional remnant of gothic architecture. Within the quaint trappings of this berg, though, rests one of the most ambitious and odd musical experiments to see life: a six-century-long performance of legendary composer John Cage’s piece “ORGAN²/ASLSP.” Nicolás Jaar Launches a Grant Program to Uplift Emerging Electronic Musicians Few musical genres capture the dizzying creative potential and sobering commercial realities of today’s moment quite like electronic music. With fast-evolving technologies regularly opening up new possibilities in sound, aspiring artists have vast, evergrowing resources with which to prod the limits of music. But concurrent realities abound, such as the often-prohibitive costs of digital tools, industry hyperfixation on the most dominant trends (see: the ever-bloating corpse of lo-fi beats playlists, or the number of times the word hyperpop entered a conversation in 2020), and federal disinterest in funding young musicians in any category beyond classical, opera, or jazz. Emerging electronic artists—especially those experimentally inclined, or coming from outside places of privilege—face steep barriers. On the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s New Podcast, Materials Get the Spotlight On any visit to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, a certain sense of abundance weighs. Works by Rothko, Calder, and Rashid Johnson rest only a quick walk from rooms stuffed with the shadowy canvases of Caravaggio and Rembrandt, which spill into sun-soaked halls of classically sculpted marble figures, which then carry over into, say, the living room of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Francis W. Little House (1912–14) or the glass-walled, light-filled atrium containing the Temple of Dendur (15 B.C.). The museum is indeed a lot to take in. And while trying to process this aesthetic overstimulation, one can be forgiven for looking past the many materials these works are made of and from. For this, there’s now the institution’s new Immaterial podcast.
Hosted by writer and poet Camille T. Dungy, Immaterial takes up a different art material as the subject of its bimonthly, 40ish-minute installments. At the time of this writing, only the first two episodes have been released. Focused on paper and concrete, respectively, they’re presumably an intentional juxtaposition of the most ephemeral and, well, concrete of substances.
The episodes aren’t expository so much as a game of free association, with a material as prompt. In the first episode alone, about paper, everything from comic books, to Gilded Age belly-dancing celebrities, to bespoke Valentine’s Day cards, to Bangladesh’s War of Independence comes up. Dungy explores the material not by, as one might assume, walking the listener through a linear history of its uses and maybe zooming in on one or two of its more colorful moments, but by rotating through a cast of artists, curators, academics, and the like as they discuss their personal views on the material’s significance.
This method can take Dungy into intensely personal territory, like when the artist, activist, and visual artist Taz Ahmed talks with her about her mother losing a beloved collection of Archie comics in the process of fleeing Pakistan, teaching her that paper— specifically books—tend to be the first things we leave behind. Her approach also opens the floor for plenty of philosophical musings, like when conversations with a professor on the contradictory physical qualities of concrete feed into thoughts on the material’s architectural symbolism as both a utopian promise of the future and a reminder of the failures of that promise. Technical discussions—the methods by which these materials are made and how they’ve come to be—figure into the episodes, too, but they’re peppered between personal stories and perspectives that make up the meat of the show.
This personal approach serves as an additional means for peeking behind the Met’s curtain and into the maze of facilities and specialists that keep the world’s fourth-largest art collection running. Paper conservators, resident chemists, department of ephemera associates, and valentine card researchers are only some of the institution’s many denizens who take time to shed light on their highly specialized corners within the museum.
All this makes for a not necessarily comprehensive, but nevertheless satisfying and engaging, rumination on what goes into art. Dungy does an admirable job of exploring the significance of these materials in ways that extend beyond the museum’s halls. She shows how, in no uncertain terms, we can see with fresh eyes and a broader imagination the everyday objects around us. Ambient Church Gives Electronic Music a Surreal, Spiritual Home For Brian Sweeny, the line between performance and religious experience is ambiguous to say the least. Starting in 2016, through an initiative called Ambient Church, he began renting churches for musicians to perform their interpretations of meditative, devotional, and minimal music, quickly drawing in both a host of dedicated ambient practitioners and experimental sets from crossover artists including Weyes Blood, Julianna Barwick, and Caroline Polacheck—all accompanied by stunning, site-specific light shows that transform venue walls into strobed, psychedelic canvases. What began as a Brooklyn-focused experiment has since ballooned into a cross-borough and -country endeavor, filling churches across New York and Los Angeles with an eclectic gamut of immersive, unconventional sounds.
Sweeny comes from a D.I.Y. background, having been a founding member of Brooklyn’s Body Actualized Center—a storefront he and his friends transformed, using found and Craigslist-sourced materials, into a yoga studio that morphed into a venue for events including raves, film screenings, and New Age concerts at night—until its 2014 closure. Ambient Church continues this penchant for idiosyncratic expressions of spirituality and spectacle, but in a more inward direction. This time, the crowd is a silent partner to the acoustic and visual might of a given space. It all makes for a singular, cerebral experience that blurs the boundaries between sacred and secular, while opening some of the most sonically-adept venues out there for a wider audience to appreciate.
We recently spoke with Sweeny about his roving multisensory project, the allure of ambient music, and what’s behind its distinct ability to impact listeners in deep, visceral ways.
Along with the acoustic benefits and aesthetic backdrops that churches provide, what do they bring to the performances you stage that more traditional venues can’t?
Some music is really delicate, especially when performed indoors, and needs complete quiet to be enjoyed—no clinking of the bar, no audience banter, no slamming of doors. When I first started Ambient Church, all of the art-focused venues in New York that could facilitate this kind of atmosphere were ruled by strict curatorial bodies that didn’t take contemplative space music seriously. I’ve always felt this music deserves the grandest stages, and the grandest accessible stages happen to be within the resonant walls of beautiful, historic churches.
What draws you to ambient music?
I tend to think of ambient as more of an adjective, describing a sound or approach to musical creation rather than a genre. I love all music, and regularly go on all-night internet rabbit holes to the farthest reaches of any given category. The music I discover that ends up on repeat is the trippiest and most interesting, but it also has this ineffable spiritual resonance. I love exploring sound worlds that ebb and flow, seemingly without direction but always end up somewhere surprising. Any music like that belongs at Ambient Church. Lately, I’ve been enjoying a new wave of music that you could classify as “fourth world.” Acts like Salamanda from Seoul, YAI from Brooklyn, and Carmen Villain from Oslo come to mind.
You call these performances “community experiences,” and never “concerts.” What makes you draw this distinction?
The concert is a cultural construct that Ambient Church certainly overlaps with, in that we feature amplified and unimaginably beautiful performances. But I feel use of that word pigeon-holes the experience in a way that may unnecessarily evoke preconceived notions of what to expect to those who have never been in attendance. Concerts are also for fans of artists, to the exclusion of all those unaware. We like to host sound and light experiences in beautiful spaces that are open to all, featuring pioneering, notable, and emerging artists.
The use of concerts in this context also doesn’t give deference to the jaw-dropping visual performances that occur at all our events, and are integral to the experience as a whole. We love working with visual artists to create site-specific works that highlight the architecture of these spaces. Some artists are particularly great at this, such as Eric Epstein, who has been blowing audiences away with his visual artistry since the beginning of the project.
How has your approach to Ambient Church shifted over time?
The vision has changed mostly in terms of its inclusivity. In the early stages, the audience I was trying to attract was mostly my peers in New York’s weird-music scene and their friends. Now it’s become more ambitious to include a wider audience and in less culture-dense geographic areas.
The initial idea was to simply throw the perfect show. What I’ve realized over the years is that all the building blocks of what I felt it took to create this resulted in a hybrid experience of musical discovery and group healing. People take away either one or both, based on their individual needs. In Detroit, McArthur Binion and Henry Threadgill Salute Their Decades-Long Friendship Through Song A composer, saxophonist, and flutist on the cutting edge of jazz since the ’70s, Henry Threadgill became one of only three jazz musicians to have received a Pulitzer Prize in 2016, for the radical stylings of his masterful quintet, Zooid. Meanwhile, artist McArthur Binion, having honed his craft of painting and drawing deceptively complex, minimalist patterns over several decades, rocketed to long-overdue prominence in the 2010s. His work featured in a slew of high-profile gallery exhibitions and the 2017 Venice Biennale, and was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Detroit Institute of Arts, among others, for their permanent collections. Three years ago, following this newfound recognition, Binion established the Modern Ancient Brown Foundation in Detroit, where he earned his B.F.A. at Wayne State University (and later, earned his M.F.A. from Cranbrook Academy of Art, located in nearby Bloomfield Hills). The organization aims to elevate the city as a dynamic center for contemporary artists, to support its artists of color through a mix of residencies and grants, and to steward a growing collection that includes work by emerging and established practitioners, such as the photographer Jules Allen, whose work is currently on view at the foundation (and who knows Binion and Threadgill well).
Through and well before these recent achievements, Binion and Threadgill have been close friends. Their camaraderie began in New York in the ’70s, when they ran in the same circles of artists, musicians, writers, and dancers during the halcyon days of the city’s avant-garde scene. They met in their early 30s, when Threadgill was already a widely renowned artist (in no small part due to the singular output of his former pianoless ragtime trio, Air). “Back then, the city was very small, so everybody knew each other,” Binion says. “It was an amazing time.” Binion refers to the period’s artistic community—mentioning figures including composer Butch Morris and artist David Hammons—as the second-generation Black Avant-Garde, successors to the likes of John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, and Miles Davis. While he and Threadgill worked in different mediums, being steeped in the moment bound them with a shared aesthetic sensibility: a fondness for many of the same artists, and a sense of coming from the same mindset. As Binion puts it, “There’s a certain lyricism we share.”
Now, with the accumulation of triumphs achieved over the long arch of each other’s artistic lives, Binion and Threadgill’s respective creative geniuses are poised to intersect. “We come from the same place, but we’re also now at the same place [in our careers],” Binion says. To mark the occasion, he commissioned Threadgill to compose and conduct a 75-minute musical piece, Brown Black X, which will be performed at the Detroit Orchestra Hall on June 24. The work will honor their abiding friendship as well as the Modern Ancient Brown Foundation and the elder Black and brown artists who were a part of the movement Binion and Threadgill shared in. (Allen, the photographer, will document the festivities.)
Listeners can look forward to hearing Threadgill’s enduring musical brilliance in real time. (“I gave Henry total creative freedom,” Binion says of his brief to his friend.) For the free, ticketed performance, Threadgill will bring together Zooid and several Detroit-based musicians to play his new score. Last week, Threadgill was still working through his ideas for the piece, waiting to see how playing it would sound before shaping it further.
Still, a few of his remarks hinted at what to expect from the show. Morse code, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and the pace of the human heart have all been guiding influences in Threadgill’s previous compositions. This time, looking to Binion’s work for inspiration, Threadgill points to the ways his friend encodes information into repeating motifs. Take Binion’s “DNA” series, for example, in which paintings that appear from afar as simple, geometric patterns up close reveal themselves to be intensely personal collages of objects including birth certificates, identification cards, childhood photos, and handwritten notes. “Things are hidden in the pictures,” Threadgill says of the series. “Information is coded there in what appears to be repetition, and that’s something I’m interested in: how to deal with repetition in a different way.”
How that will manifest in the score itself remains to be heard, but with a decades-long friendship and two vital artistic legacies to reflect on, the performance will likely be a cerebral spectacle and celebration. PJ Vogt’s Crypto Island Podcast Explores the Wild Wild World of Digital Currency By its name alone, the podcast Crypto Island stands to entice just as many people as it’s likely to turn off. Don’t be fooled, though. The series isn’t some well-trod, suspect attempt to proselytize the word of virtual money and its messenger, the blockchain. Nor is it several sustained hours of handwringing at the wastefulness of it all. Instead, it is sociological in bent, and an almost heroic attempt to withhold judgment while investigating one of the most divisive topics out there: cryptocurrency, and the puzzling culture it spawned. Experiencing the Satisfying Sensations of A.S.M.R. in Real Life A disembodied rubber tongue juts from a brass contraption upon a wall that links it with motors, tubes, and metal. Artificial saliva running down its painstakingly rendered elastic taste buds, the organ wriggles this way and that—a mute reminder to the eye of the swanlike exertion lurking in the mouth. This tongue is the work of Swedish artist Tobias Bradford, titled “That Feeling/Immeasurable Thirst” (2021), and if it sounds in any way appealing, you’re likely the right audience for “Weird Sensation Feels Good: The World of A.S.M.R.” (through October 16), a new exhibition at London’s Design Museum. Virginia Heffernan’s Sonic Deep Dives Into Pop Culture Virginia Heffernan is concerned. The seasoned journalist (who was the guest on Ep. 5 of our At a Distance podcast, in 2020) spent the better part of the last four years co-hosting Slate’s Trumpcast, a podcast dedicated to the Sisyphean task of preventing the normalization of the former president’s actions. During this time, Heffernan saw a political left so occupied with responding to the ever-more concerning behavior wriggling out from under the emboldened right that they inadvertently ceded much of the cultural conversation to the droning microphones of the relatively unconcerned center-right, or the “apolitical.” Commentary from the Rogans, Shapiros, and Petersons of the world—with their MMA zeal, not-so-surprisingly restrictive definitions of what constitutes music, and endorsements of all-meat diets—ran through the ears of the curious masses. These Scented Bowling Balls Help Players Reach Their Flow States Walk into any bowling alley, and you’ll quickly find yourself caught in an olfactory battleground. Whiffs of floor polish mingled with shoe disinfectant face off against the stale spector of popcorn and Miller Lite beer. Meanwhile, the must of ancient cigarette butts clings to the carpeting, as if stitched onto its very being, in imperceptibly small patterns. Curiously, the one thing that doesn’t leave a distinctive mark on the nostrils is the bowling ball itself, a neutral party in the olfactory conflict. That is, unless the ball in question comes from the factories of Storm Products. Stories of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated People, Reflected in a Soul-Stirring Album What does healing look like, and in what ways does the American carceral system obstruct it? How can we care for each other through seasons of pain? These are just a few of the questions that musician, filmmaker, and composer Samora Pinderhughes has been unpacking over the past decade. Pinderhughes, who studied at Juilliard and is currently a doctoral candidate in Harvard’s School of Music, regularly focuses on social change through his work, which includes The Transformations Suite, a 2016 project that combined music, theater, and poetry to examine the history of resistance within communities of the African Diaspora, and Black Spring, a 2020 collection of songs that took inspiration from ’60s protest music to address the current cultural and political climate.