Friday, November 24, 2006

People Feature: Lester Brown Breaks it Down

that's Beijing, November 2006

Getting China and the world to tell the "ecological truth"
text by Alex Pasternack

In 1995, a little book about food security and the environment entitled Who Will Feed China made him an enemy of the state. American economist and head of the Earth Policy Institute, Lester Brown’s demand for “ecological truth” left him lambasted by scientists and officials for his “anti-China stance.” But as the country’s environmental crises became harder to deny, Brown could no longer be ignored. When he visited last autumn, Premier Wen Jiabao requested a meeting; months later, Wen reportedly quoted Brown in a speech. His last book earned him a book award from the National Library of China and an honorary professorship at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. When leaders ask him if the world can afford to carry out his recommendations – which, in his latest book, Plan B 2.0, are estimated to cost USD 161 billion – his response is simple: “The question shouldn’t be can we afford it; rather, can we afford not to do these things?”

tbj: You’ve gone from pariah to hero in China. What happened?
Lester Brown: China’s grain production peaked in ‘98 and has declined since then. At first they were amazingly critical [of my views on Chinese agriculture]. I hadn’t realized at the time how sensitive food security was. No one in an official position could say the grain supply would decline because that would mean China would have to become dependent on the outside world – and that was simply anathema. So they attacked [my] analysis.

It took about a year. They were forced to redefine what self-sufficiency was. Soon it became [acceptible among government officials to say], “It’s okay to import a little bit of your food, a small share of our grain supply.” The first publisher who wanted to publish me, from Guangdong, was denied. Now the People’s Publishing House publishes all my books.

tbj: What’s the biggest environmental problem facing China now?
LB: Water pollution is a big problem, especially when it reaches a point where underground water supplies are being polluted. Surface water flows fairly fast. But it’s difficult because we don’t have many measurements, we don’t know the concentrations of pesticides or heavy metals, and we don’t have enough data to know what kinds of health problems are likely to result. We know that certain types of pollutants cause certain types of health problems. But we don’t have the data on the pollutants themselves to reach any conclusions. We know that three million people die each year from air pollution, but we don’t have a comparable number for the number of deaths from toxic water supplies.

A much more visible problem is the loss of vegetation in the west and north, and the formation of a huge dust bowl there. The expansion of deserts is getting worse year by year. [The resulting sandstorms] are clearly affecting the Koreas and Japan and, to a much lesser degree, the US. One of the things happening at the ground level is that a lot of villages are being abandoned – we’re talking about thousands of villages, not a dozen. According to Wang Tao [Director of the Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute], 24,000 villages have either been abandoned entirely or partly depopulated. In this war against the deserts, China is losing. And with the degradation of the land comes environmental refugees, which means even more people moving to the cities.

tbj: You’ve written before that China’s grain woes may mean it could soon compete with America for the US grain harvest, driving up food prices and leading to potential food shortages. How pressing is China’s food situation now?
LB: Grain production has dropped since ’98, recovering a bit in the last few years. Meanwhile, China’s soybean production hasn’t increased much at all in the past few decades, though consumption has. Ten years ago the country was self-sufficient. Now it’s importing 60 percent of its total annual supply of 29 million tons. Japan by contrast imports only five million tons of soybeans a year. It’s ironic because China gave the world the soybean.

It’s been partly a loss-of-resource problem and partly an incentives problem. They’ve strengthened incentives – that’s why we‘ve seen an upturn in production that puts China in a much better place than it was three years ago. But it’s still losing cropland each year, and still losing water resources. At what point the loss of underground water under the north China plain will directly affect food production remains to be seen.

tbj: Even as arable land is decreasing, China has reported an increase in its grain supplies. And the new five-year plan calls for more farming protections. Do you think the Chinese government is approaching the food problem in the right way?
LB: I think the government has to assume a strong leadership role on that issue and devise some way of buying out herders or paying them to reduce the size of their herds, in order to systematically reduce the pressures on grasslands to a level that is sustainable. Otherwise, the dust bowl will continue to get bigger, dust storms will get worse and deserts will continue to expand. Aside from the government asking herders to reduce herds by 40 percent, I’m not sure what they’re going to do.

tbj: These days, China is depicted as an environmental nightmare by the West. At the same time, the West has been criticized for outsourcing its carbon emissions along with its manufacturing. How should the world be thinking about China’s environmental woes?
LB: In some areas the US gets a lot of blame too. China is only doing what the rest of us did earlier. It’s so big and it’s doing it so fast, that it kind of overwhelms the ability of natural resources and the ability of the environment to deal with waste and carbon emissions. I see China as providing a wake up call for the world.

The US is now no longer the world’s major consumer of resources. Only in oil [consumption] does the US still lead. That gives us license to ask the next question: What if China catches up to the US in terms of resources per person? If China does reach the US’s current income level, which it’s supposed to do by 2031, and if they spend their money more or less the same way, they would consume twice as much paper as the world now produces – there go the world’s trees; they would drive 1.1 billion cars (the world currently has 800 million) and consume 99 billion barrels of oil a day. The world is producing 84 billion barrels right now and it may never produce much more.

The Western economic model of consumption – the fossil-fuel-based, auto-centered, throwaway economy – is not going to work for China. It’s not going to work for India or the other industrializing countries that are dreaming the American dream. And it won’t work for any other country either. We’re all competing for the same oil, grain, and steel. China is making it clear that we have to build a new economy, with renewable sources of energy and a much more diversified transport system – an economy that reuses and recycles everything.
Lester Brown’s Plan B 2.0 is readable online at

Permalink 17:20:20

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Towering Ambitions

Ole Scheeren of OMA is driving the world’s largest architectural project, Beijing's CCTV+TVCC

by Alex Pasternack

Important architects tend to look and sound as ostentatious as their designs, which is why you may not immediately recognize Ole Scheeren. The angular 35-year old German was sitting in a coffee shop in the Central Business District recently, wearing a shirt with an open collar, a pair of jeans, a day-old beard on his schoolboy face, and none of those self-consciously eccentric glasses by which architects are sometimes known. Discussing his latest project, his speech was unassuming, thoughtful, and curious; he even arrived early. He hardly seemed, in other words, like the lead designer behind the CCTV Tower, the hulking loop of a building that, two years from completion, has already become both Beijing’s controversial new icon and the world’s biggest architectural marvel.

“If you would preoccupy yourself with feeling so great about what you’re doing, there is an implicit loss of criticality vis a vis what you’re doing,” he says in his light, clean European accent about CCTV going to his head. “And in the case of this project it would be a fairly fatal to the momentum. It requires total attention at every point at time. There’s very little time to think about it.”

Nor does the project give Scheeren much use for the sort of rhetorical flourishes for which architects, like his famous Dutch mentor and co-architect on the project, Rem Koolhaas, are sometimes known. And when Scheeren does say things like “this may be the most complex building ever built,” he’s not kidding.

Since it was approved in an orgiastic moment of development in 2002, the 450,000 square-meter glass and steel China Central Television headquarters literally twists the conventional skyscraper into a gravity-defying three-dimensional trapezoid in the impossible style of M.C. Escher. Nearby sits a companion building, the public-oriented Television Cultural Center (TVCC), which resembles a cubist boot. They’re a feat of architectural gymnastics (and careful diplomacy) that has left many confused, worried, or downright disbelieving. One might just be just as incredulous about the architect’s age.

“Being 35, in a lot of professions, you’re a grandfather already, but in architecture you’re seen as being young,” he says. Raised by an architect-father, and harboring building aspirations early on, “in a way I have the feeling that I started quite early, so I don’t feel quite that young anymore.” But, how prepared could he be to manage a team that at one point exceeded 400 architects and engineers? When I marveled aloud that this project would be the biggest, in terms of scale, that he or OMA had even built (his last project was a triplet of Prada stores in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco), he replied with a slight grin: “Actually, it’s one of the largest buildings ever built.”

Scheeren isn't worried about his relative lack of experience. “First, you have to ask what type of experience is relevant to run a project like this. It’s a project that exceeds the scale of anything done so far, and so experience is not valid in the traditional sense,” he says, without a note of pretension. “And it takes an enormous energy that you can hardly generate in your 60s,” an age group that Koolhaas recently reached.

“The point is to say you don’t know how it works, and don’t know how the context works, and to develop a structure that allows change within the process.” It turns out that that sort of radical thinking informed the design all along, from its hastily-imagined loop to the lattice external steelwork that supports the building. But such uncertainty—and at such cost, with an initial reported budget of $700 million—didn’t sit well with either critics or the authorities. A year after a contract was signed, the government ordered a review of all new buildings, and (so rumor went) the television building was to be taken off the air. For one and a half years, the CCTV construction site sat untouched. When the cranes rose again, following a rigorous official review, the budget had reportedly grown to $1.2 billion. But Scheeren wasn't fazed.

“The thing is, we never stopped working on the project,” Scheeren says. Continuing work in offices in Beijing, Rotterdam and London not only helped to maintain the schedule, Scheeren maintains, but also preserved precious morale, which is hard-won in a profession so vulnerable to the kind of political shifts and opaque bureaucracies which are rife in China.

But Scheeren also acknowledges that such a daring design could not have been undertaken anywhere but in Beijing, with its racing-car economy and cosmopolitan aspirations. This is not to indicate that China is a “wild east,” a vertiginous playground for foreign architects to test-drive their imaginations, he says. “I find that repulsive.” On the contrary, China’s progressive architectural vision and ambitious plans have placed on the architect a particular burden and opportunity: nothing less than helping usher in a kind of revolution-through-design. “It’s not a condition you can take lightly,” he says of building in China. “It’s a chance to make yourself part of a progressive environment.”

To be sure, the CCTV project—with its radical shape, recreation areas named the “fun belt” and the “fun palace,” and a section specially designed for visitors—seems an unlikely undertaking for one of the world’s largest propaganda machines, and a government famous for concealment. This (disturbing) irony hasn’t gone lost on Scheeren. Indeed, he practically revels in it.

“[Building] CCTV was seen from the beginning as a tool for change from inside the company,” he says, alluding to a cadre of risk-taking “younger people leading CCTV, lying beneath the skin of the older generation,” who championed the design. When he talked about the building recently at an exhibition in its honor that he curated at the Courtyard Gallery and soon to move to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Scheeren practically avoided discussing the design, focusing instead on what the building’s open layout might mean to the everyday Beijinger, and for a 21st century China. “It’s a change that exists beyond the realm of architecture. I’ve always been interested in that.”

Indeed, dramatic change and breadth have been the motif of Scheeren’s work as much as his life. It was an early introduction to the profession through his architect-father and his first commission at age 21 that initially burned him out. For a while, playing rock music seemed more appealing. “You’re so close to it, it’s uncomfortable,” he says of his architecture pedigree. Things changed when he heard a presentation by Rem Koolhaas, whose own interests beyond architecture (he had once been Holland’s most promising young screenwriter) reignited Scheeren’s interest. “I realized that someday I wanted to work with him.”

After butting heads with teachers at the design academy in his home town, the south-west German city of Karlsruhe (“They were impressed but not in a pleasant way…At the end of the year, all my models were destroyed with the excuse that they fell off the shelf”), Scheeren decided to continue his studies in London. On the first day of school however, he found himself driving to Rotterdam, where OMA’s main office is located, in a friend’s borrowed car. It mattered little that when he woke up at a local youth hostel, he found his car ransacked: he marched over to OMA with all that remained, the clothing on his back and his portfolio.

“In retrospect, it’s hard to figure out how it all happened,” he says as he stares at the table, slightly smiling. “Maybe I had the feeling that I had nothing else to lose.” Koolhaas threw Scheeren onto a project that seemed on the verge of failure, with two weeks until deadline. The 18­-hour days paid off, he says proudly. “It was the only competition oma had won in a year and a half.”

But the restless Scheeren left OMA almost as quickly as he had arrived, taking a graphic design gig in New York, and reenrolling at school in London. But he stayed in touch with his mentor-cum-colleague Koolhaas. When the designer Muccia Prada called on OMA to design some new boutiques in the U.S., Koolhaas called Scheeren. “I never wanted to go back to Rotterdam,” he says, “but the project was so intriguing.”

When OMA bid on the CCTV project in 2002 (declining an invitation to make a proposal for Ground Zero), Scheeren made his biggest shift yet, from designing clothing boutiques to constructing one of the largest buildings in the world.

Having relocated to Beijing that year, Scheeren discovered that the first challenge was figuring out how to explain the wacky design. The initial model for the building, which, cast in plaster, looked more like a deranged sculpture than a television headquarters, proved unimpressive to some of CCTV’s leadership. “It’s a very direct, literal culture and that’s an issue that you have to deal with when you enter the realm of conceptual issues,” Scheeren says. He and Koolhaas scrambled to build a more literal, transparent model, and weeks later a contract was signed.

Aside from not having enough time to study Chinese (“it’s the biggest frustration of being here… My plan is that before the building is finished. I need to get a whole step ahead”), Scheeren is still adapting to the process of constructing buildings in China, which “at such a breathtaking speed, cannot happen in a fully coherent matter.” But he hopes to inspire some change, too.

“I think part of the role of architects coming to build here is not only to bring a different sense of design but to try to step back and urge them,” planners, developers, clients and contractors, “to open up more lines of communication.” Scheeren says he aims for slower, careful consultations when proposing projects, like his successful bid for a new Beijing Books Building and a Prada “epicenter” store in Shanghai (When we met, Scheeren said OMA’s chances to renovate the stock exchange in Shenzhen were “promising.”)

Though the CCTV Tower’s exterior design work is essentially complete, and the first floors have started to peek above the scaffolding, Scheeren and his 20-person Beijing office have shifted to working on the building’s interior. And then there’s the job of still convincing people that the building is actually going to be built.

“Many people still don’t believe it’s going to happen,” Scheeren says, with some exasperation, but also a bit of delight. The truth is, neither can he.

“You think it can’t happen. And then you finally see the piles being driven into the ground, and the steel rising,” he says, with a faint smile. “These are the only moments that you believe that it is really happening.”

this article was published in an abridged version in that's Beijing magazine (tbjHome), August 2006

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

City Scene: Who Needs Friends When You Have Money?

that's Beijing, August 2006

A salesperson robotically waving a wand that distributed a light mist, another dispassionately demonstrating a spinning top to a couple of curious African men, two of a handful of customers, while a television showed a program about the Olympics. On display were jade sculptures, silky qipao, a paltry assortment of tea, and a selection of benign English-language paperbacks. All the typical tchotchkes of friendship – that is, diplomatic, state-sanctioned friendship: business as usual at the Beijing Friendship Store.

Just when things couldn’t look any more stereotypical, the ever-ebullient Mark Rowswell – known to television audiences as Dashan – strolled off the escalator and onto the second floor. Somehow it made sense: China’s most famous laowai shopping at Beijing’s most famous laowai institution.

Built in 1964, the Friendship Store catered exclusively to tourists and diplomats, who could find along its aisles some of the Western goods and souvenirs that were unavailable in other state-run shops. State media have announced that by the end of the year, the store will be torn down to make room for two office towers, a serviced apartment building and a new eight-floor department store. Dashan was undisturbed on hearing the news.

Developed in part by Macau-based casino impresario Stanley Ho, the new complex is supposed to be finished in 2009, at a price tag of around RMB 4 billion. That’s about RMB 4 billion more than the store made in 2005, when it took home a net profit of RMB 79,200; an improvement over a loss of more than RMB 3 million in 2004. The planned-economy, Soviet-styled relic – with its famous Soviet-style customer service – just hasn’t been able to keep up in the unfriendly free market of modern Beijing.

Didn’t the store at least have the market cornered when it came to friendship? China’s top foreigner let out a chuckle and delved into the history of “friendship.”

“In the ’60 and ‘70s, ‘friendship’ meant ‘preferential treatment’ or ‘cheap,’ and had the connotation of a kind of third world brotherhood,” he explains. “But ever since the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, as a foreigner in China you’d always avoid anything with the word friendship on it,” because it meant paying an inflated price.

Alex Pearson, a Beijinger since 1982, remembers when the Friendship Store was an oasis of convenience. “We could find things like milk, yogurt and cheese, and Walkmans, radios, Hi-Fis …”

Lynn Gan, Rowswell’s wife, remembers the store differently. As a Chinese person “you had to have some kind of connection to come in here,” she said of the days when the store required that customers have foreign passports and Foreign Exchange Certificates as currency.

A cheery young sales clerk acknowledged the store could use an upgrade, but with some regret in her voice. “It’s going to become stricter,” she said of the management.

Would the new Friendship Store at least be friendlier?

She thought about it for a moment. “It’ll probably be more expensive.” Alex Pasternack

City Scene: Water-less World

that's Beijing, August 2006

Beijing has invested billions of yuan in massive projects to increase and improve its water supplies, but with a new initiative to change how the public uses the wet stuff – from raising the prices of water to promoting cutting edge toilets – do we sense desperation?

The driest major city in the world keeps getting drier, with an annual reserve of about 300 cubic meters of water per person; an acute shortage is generally considered to be 1,000 cubic meters or less. 2006 marks the eighth consecutive year of drought in the North China Plain, the longest drought since the founding of the People’s Republic according to the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA). “It’s as bad as Israel,” says Ma Jun, the president of the Institute of Citizens and the Environment. “It’s hard to be optimistic.”

“They are moving in all directions now, including the right ones,” says Christoph Peisert, a conservation expert with the German Agency for Technical Cooperation, who advises the government on water management. “But there’s not yet enough public interest in reducing the waste of water.” Last month, Ma Weifang, an official with the city’s sustainable development promotion committee, said that based upon the city’s current water consumption and efficiency levels, Beijing could face one of the worst droughts in its history at the same time as hosting its “Green Olympics” unless citizens learn to curb water consumption and use recycled water more efficiently.

To encourage these steps, the Beijing government in May issued its tallest water orders yet: It has promised to investigate water usage at construction sites, golf courses and saunas, imposing fines of up to RMB 10,000 if necessary. There’s also a mandate to install water-saving faucets in Beijing’s households. Recycling water is another strong focus, especially at car washes. While one car wash tbj visited was already using recycled water, no worker, or any other Beijing residents we’ve surveyed had heard about the recent water-saving campaign. Ma says, “At the moment, when they open the tap, they don’t realize what the effects are.”

While water consumption has reached a tipping point, Ma points out that the government’s conservation efforts can only do so much to ease the city’s shortage. Diminished ground water, for instance – which has caused Beijing to sink 10cm per year, reportedly threatening the stability of the new, heavy Olympic venues – can only be countered by improved irrigation and continued rainmaking, says Wen Bo, a local environmentalist. “Right now the government seems to have no way out.”

Replenishing the city’s water resources will require an even greater effort. The government recently announced plans to divert water from a Yangtze River tributary, which lies 1,200 km away from Beijing and whose polluted waters are an environmental concern. “I don’t see so many problems with the idea,” says Peisert, with a tone of resignation. In any case, it’s clear that further efforts need to be made to address both China’s ongoing environmental problems and the capital’s chronic water shortage – never before has a new water efficient toilet sounded so good. Alex Pasternack

Saturday, June 24, 2006

On the Road Again

From TIME asia Magazine, June 26, 2006 Vol. 167, No. 25

Ma Jian envisioned Tibet as Nirvana. The book he wrote after his journey offers a darker vision

In 1985, writes Ma Jian, he headed from Beijing to Tibet hoping to "work out what I should be doing with my life." Ma, like so many discontented romantics, envisioned the Himalayan land as a spiritual refuge from the modern world. But it was just a dream. What he discovered instead was a place whose heart had been ripped out. The few temples that remained after years of cultural and political purges by the Chinese government were guarded by soldiers and littered with slogans instructing allegiance to the Communist Party. The Dalai Lama had been exiled for more than three decades, and those who had stayed behind seemed consigned to a ruined fate.

In an afterword to Stick Out Your Tongue, a newly translated collection of short stories he wrote following his three-year journey to Tibet and other far-flung parts of China, Ma says he returned home more confused than before, feeling "as pathetic as a patient who sticks his tongue out and begs his doctor to diagnose what's wrong with him."

The diagnosis from Chinese officials, when Ma's book was released in 1987, was that his treatment of Tibet was "filthy and shameful" and had "nothing to do with reality." Every copy was ordered to be destroyed. But the collection quickly became a hit among the samizdat set; some enterprising black marketeers even copied it out by hand. Ma, who had once worked as a government propagandist, thus found himself forced into hiding. After stints in Hong Kong and Germany—with the occasional secret return to Beijing—he ended up in London, where he wrote a superb memoir, Red Dust, which appeared in translation in 2002. Where that narrative bounces along China's dusty roads and industrial backwaters like a better, eastern On the Road, the five short stories in Stick Out Your Tongue paint a more meditative portrait of a land that barely seems to move at all.

That's not to say the book isn't moving. In cool, spare prose, Ma powerfully conveys the double dislocation at the heart of his stories: a people estranged from their own home are described in four of these tales by the same Ma-like narrator, a dissident writer whose own life has been uprooted, too—not only by cultural crackdowns but by a string of failed loves. A Han Chinese in a land where the Han are despised, he has abandoned any fantasies about Tibet's peaceful locals: instead of sticking out their tongues—a customary greeting in Tibet—they throw stones at him. The glistening lakes and wide plateaus of central Tibet—where we find the narrator at the start of the hypnotic opening story—offer no solace either. Potentially sublime rustic experiences are tainted by brackish water or the stench of manure and animal hides. The narrator's hunt for enlightenment has already ended, and the traditional Buddhist sky burial of a young woman beaten to death by an abusive father is little more than an exotic photo-op. Just as the ritual of dismemberment ends, when "every piece of her had vanished from the site," the emotionally distant narrator remembers his appointment to go fishing with the woman's former lover.

The mistreatment of women by men is a common theme in all five of these stories. Beneath Tibet's enchanting surface, suggests Ma, lies the reality that its women are routinely forced into marriage, sex, prostitution and drugs. Yet Ma's bleak descriptions of their lives are not without a dreamy—though somewhat perverse—sense of redemption. A feisty, unfaithful wife burns and withers on a bronze stupa that her husband has built, only to be rolled up by her lover and devotedly draped on his wall. The final story—the tale of a young female monk forced by her elders through abusive rituals of spiritual enlightenment—ends the book as it began, with a beleaguered corpse that again seems to disappear, magically, into the scenery. This time, however, the woman isn't destroyed but transmuted like a bodhisattva, her body transparent: "A fish that had somehow gnawed its way into her corpse was swimming back and forth through her intestines." The narrator, who buys the woman's skull as a souvenir and hopes to sell it to finance his travels, writes her story "in the hopes that I can start to forget it," but the memory will not disappear.

Nor will the impression left by Ma's book, with its captivating blend of despair and hope, violence and dark humor, death and regeneration. In Ma's ambivalent portrayal, Tibet is as uneasy a place to live as it is to describe, and Tibetans possess a nuanced humanity often denied them—on the one hand by the idealized fancies of the Western imagination, and on the other by the Chinese government's oppression. The tongue of the book's title, then, is not only a reference to the traditional Tibetan greeting, but a complex symbol of ridicule and illness and vulnerability—and an invitation to see inside Tibet's dark mouth some precious signs of life.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Russian Doll

It's an old story: Wide-eyed nine-year old Jewish girl flees Russia to the shores of New York with her parents, who barely make ends meet while she passes her time exploring their Bronx neighborhood, the old Tin Pan Alley, and the piano keys — a remnant from years of practice in the old country and exposure to the classics (Chopin but also Pushkin). Soon, the setting becomes a downtown Manhattan nightclub, and she's stringing ragtime ballads, jazz standards, folk renditions, energy and vaudevillian pizzazz across the keys. Sheer talent plus a twist of fate would attract the attention of a snazzy producer and a wealthy band of patrons and ta da: Our heroine enters a world of minor celebrity nearly as surprising and strange as her musical narratives.

"We stopped at this truck stop in Colorado, and I'm in the fucking Subway, and there was a girl there getting a sandwich," Regina Spektor recounts a few weeks ago, using the f-word in the most excited, innocent way possible. "I saw her staring and she saw me and I thought about going up to her, but I thought maybe she was just staring, you know, didn't know who I was. Well. I got on MySpace today and someone wrote ‘I love your music and I smiled at you in the Subway.' I mean, wow."

Regina Spektor is running into fans in the strangest places; she's playing sell-out shows in the English countryside; she's getting written about on a hundred message boards and websites; she's on the phone from a hotel room at her latest tour stop, San Francisco. She also has a new album on a major label, Begin to Hope, a follow-up to 2004's Soviet Kitsch. It was a rough version of the latter that first pricked up the ears of the Strokes, who invited her on tour with them, and their producer, who recorded Kitsch. Almost three years later, and 17 years after fleeing Moscow, wow is still very much the theme. When on stage, perched on the edge of her stool, playing with her hands, chatting, the 26-year-old SUNY Purchase graduate still seems amazed, impressed, perplexed by it all, as if she's still learning something big from the crowds fawning over her.

"I can't imagine that kind of devotion, it's really beautiful," she says of the dedication which pushed fans across multiple states to see her play in Colorado in early May. "I played a show in Scotland where kids said they flew from Australia. In Bristol, people had come from Berlin," she says. The curly-haired Russian Jew from the Bronx with real estate on MySpace is trying to figure out where she is, and why people would bother coming that far. "I don't even know how to drive."

When she gets behind the keyboard however, Spektor could hardly sound more in control. From her measured debut, 11:11 through the more fanciful Songs and through the rich Kitsch, Spektor's fingers have learned to dance in jazz and pop and blues rhythms — occasionally parting ways to handle a drumstick on the nearest chair — with a precision matched by a voice that soars and halts aspirated, speaks in tongues and Russian and French and New Yawk accents, raps and, when a chair isn't available, carries the percussion too, beatbox style. On "Twenty Years of Snow," a new song that imitates a Polish mazurka, Spektor's plaintive minor chord progressions twinkle rapidly beneath a voice that ranges from fragile to breathy to speak-y before rolling into a rap that beckons a bop interlude before the recapitulation, where she stutters it all to a close. Such idiosyncratic stylings have earned her the fad label "anti-folk," along with comparisons to Tori, Bjork, Norah, Fiona, Ani and Joni. While perhaps flattering, these names don't do much more justice to Spektor's style than, say, likening her to Ronnie Spector. "Associations are associations," she shrugs, "but I definitely feel like my songs are my songs."

Whereas the adventurous vocal experiments of Soviet Kitsch could sometimes border on preciousness, Spektor's verbal tics on Hope — grunts, breaths, word-bendings and so on — become neater devices for her four-minute fables. The addition of electric guitar courtesy of The Strokes' Nick Valensi and the machinery of producer David Kahne even uncover a new, upbeat poppiness ("Fidelity," "Better," "Hotel Song"), while making room for even more improvisational tricks (see the Billie Holiday tribute "Lady" and the funky admonition "Edit"). Spektor recalls her reaction to first hearing a finished Hope: "I was like, ‘I love you, record." While she only had two weeks to record Soviet Kitsch, Spektor had a leisurely two months for her latest. "It's the first time in my life where I'm so excited that I want people to hear it, where I'm not giving a record to people with a disclaimer that it's not what I wanted it to be. I made it how I wanted to make it."

When asked about what inspired the record, Spektor characteristically points to nothing smaller than the world. "It's so diverse, it's a dream for anybody documenting anything. It's here! The world, write it down!" Her reluctance to talk shop is less a sign of coyness than honesty. "You know — a lot of it is imagination." And this is what most makes the record Spektor's: as usual, each of her songs is a character study in which love is cradled by the tragic knowledge that it can't last. The effects differ, as seen in the heartbroken biblical riff "Samson" and the exhilarating Joni Mitchell-flavored ballad "On the Radio": "This is how it works / you're young until you're not / you love until you don't… you hope it don't get hard / but even if it does, you just do it all again." Her large revelations writ small are sung with the same naïve wonder and confusion and graciousness she shows before her audiences — and which her rapt audiences in turn often show before her.

From a distance, the paradoxical feelings of her song-stories appear as echoes of lost nights, secret loves, and, inevitably, of her own complicated bond with the motherland. Mention returning to Russia, and Spektor sighs. "It's actually really complicated. I haven't figured any of that out. I definitely want to go back but haven't figured out when, or how. It's intense." When her family fled Russia, they were, as Jews, legally considered aliens within their own home. "I definitely love the culture, the people. But it's also very anti-Semitic, lawless, harsh. It's a place where I don't really feel like it's my home at all." Her first lyrics in Russian come in the album's most haunting ballad "Après Moi," where she quotes the poet Boris Pasternak: "February. To take ink and weep, / To write, sob your heart out, sing."

Spektor acknowledges the influence of another Russian literary genius, the tragic comedian Anton Chekhov — but not because of the dramas for which he's famous. "In the plays, he gets too rambly or too philosophical or something, which ends up pushing you out, and reminds you you're a reader or an audience member." It's an impression that hasn't gone lost on her own work. To her, his short stories are more compelling. "They're amazing because they're completely all encompassing. He takes you within them."

Begin to Hope is out on Sire Records on Jun. 13.

This story was published in Paper on June 13, 2006.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

City Scene: Sizing Up our Newest Sibling

that's Beijing, June 2006

Eager to make friends with the rest of the world in advance of the 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing’s vice mayor Sun Anmin jetted down to New Zealand last month to toss another municipality into its pile of “sister” cities, which already includes Madrid, Athens, Budapest, Bucharest, Havana, Manila, and even Tokyo. Though Beijing treated Wellington to the longest Chinese New Year fireworks display the Kiwi city had ever seen two years ago, no such large public events have yet been scheduled in Beijing to celebrate its link with the Kiwis. For now, the cities are relying instead on what Chinese state media calls “very strong” cultural, economic and political ties. Which consists of? “Well, for one, there’s the obvious connection – they’re both capitals,” says Grahame Morton, the first secretary at the New Zealand embassy. “Also, Wellington is a cultural center; and Beijing would like to think of itself as a cultural center in China.” It’s also worth mentioning that New Zealand’s famed kiwi fruit – one of the country’s biggest exports – is a native fruit of China, known as “mihou tao” (monkey’s peach) or Chinese gooseberry. If that’s not enough for you, here are some pointers to guide you through Beijing’s latest international sisterhood: Alex Pasternack


Large public gathering
Watching the Wellington Hurricanes rout other rugby teams


Current large-scale Municipal Project
The renovation of the Queens Wharf Events Center, adding 538 additional seats

Epic similarity
Home to Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, it was the main construction sit
for “Middle Earth.”

Place to find Beijingers
Haining Street

Outdoor athletics
Mountain biking on beautiful Mt. Victoria

Hometown hero known for violent outbursts
Wellington-born Russell Crowe

Strong winds blowing in from the gorgeous Cook Strait

At the center of Wellington’s ten-year plan is the “proposal to improve the region’s passenger transport system through new and refurbished trains and better bus services after 20 years of under-investment in this service.”


Large public gathering
Watching the Beijing sandstorms rout badminton players

163,824 times 87

Current large-scale municipal project
The construction of the National Stadium, or “Bird’s Nest,” which will contain 91,000 seats

Epic similarity
Now extending to the Sixth Ring Road, it’s the main construction site for “The Middle Kingdom”

Place to find Kiwis
The New Zealand Embassy

Outdoor athletics
Combat biking on, um, scenic Guloudong Dajie

Hometown hero known for violent outbursts
Beijing-born Jet Li

Strong winds blowing in from the Gobi Desert

Country’s five-year plan calls for “comprehensively strengthening economic, political and cultural construction, and the development of a harmonious society.”

City Scene: How to Repel the Sand

that's Beijing, June 2006

In the old days, village officials in China’s arid north would pray to the gods for rain. These days, when rainfall is badly needed to end droughts – or, increasingly, to clean up the city in advance of Beijing’s “Green Olympics” – the government doesn’t need to offer sacrifices to the heavens: it shoots chemicals at them with anti-aircraft cannons.

While China has been using rainmaking technology since the 1980s to stem droughts, the worst rash of sandstorms to hit Beijing in a decade has given officials new cause for aiming at the skies: giving the city a good rinse. After the roughest of last month’s sand attacks dumped 330,000 tons of sand on the city, the government responded by launching seven rocket shells and burning 163 pieces of “cigarette-like sticks” containing silver iodide. And voila! “The heaviest rainfall in Beijing this spring,” reported Xinhua.

While the effects of rainmaking on local ecosystems and health still remain unknown, there’s something disconcerting about forced rainfall (and it’s not just because cleaning the city apparently must involve chemical apparatus suggestive of a cigarette). “It’s a passive solution, it’s not a solution at all,” says Wen Bo, the local representative for the San Francisco-based group Pacific Environment. Like the “green wall” of trees currently being built to shield Beijing from sand, Wen says rainmaking is at best a quick fix to the sandstorms, which magnify the health dangers of the city’s already heavy smog. Beach weather in Beijing would be better addressed, Wen says, by local governments in nearby Hebei and Inner Mongolia making greater efforts to improve irrigation and vegetation practices and replanting trees.

Complicating the matter, as two recent government studies demonstrate, is disagreement over the cause of sandstorms. One study blames traditional spring ploughing techniques, which loosen topsoil prior to planting, while another identifies the routes that such storms take to reach Beijing, pinpointing the origin not in Chinese farmlands but in the deserts of Mongolia. Whatever the causes may be, Wen worries that rainmaking in Beijing threatens to “wash away not just the dirt, but people’s memory” of the actual problem – a case of saving face, but not necessarily the environment. Alex Pasternack

City Scene: Quincy’s Olympic Theme

that's Beijing, July 2006

When Quincy Jones came to town in late May – to announce, according to a press release, that he would “write songs for the Beijing Olympic Games,” tbj naturally had a hundred questions to ask the 71-time Grammy Award nominee. Unfortunately, the press conference answered few of them. For instance, will his song actually be used?

The organizers are running an open competition for Olympic theme music that has just entered its fourth round and will continue until 2008. This is not unusual – while every Games employs the original Olympics theme song, “Bugler’s Dream,” a fanfare written in the 1950s by French composer Leo Arnaud, each host city traditionally chooses another piece of music to mark its turn.

What was unusual was the lack of consensus about Jones’ involvement. Before they began their press conference, Jones, the executive vice-president of Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad (BOCOG), Jiang Xiaoyu, and some advisors held a planning meeting in a side room, during which Jiang seemed to say that, once finished, Jones’ song would be thrown in with the work of the contest winners for a final assessment.

The misunderstanding didn’t stop there. Jones underscored that instead of a song, he’d be working on theme music. “Do you know the words to Star Wars?” he asked, then da-da-da-daa-dah-ed the famous theme by John Williams (an erstwhile Olympics theme composer himself). “You catch my drift? Theme music, it doesn’t have words.”

Regardless of the end result, Jones, who was encouraged to participate by his pal Jackie Chan, said that he would not accept money for his piece. And while he hasn’t started writing it yet, he imagines his theme would be a “global gumbo,” incorporating pop music, Western themes, and of course, traditional Chinese stuff.

“I love that instrument, the one with the strings,” he said pantomiming the guzheng, or zither. But that certainly wasn’t all the impresario loved about China, which he considers “awesome,” as he told the room of reporters.

“I’ve several times considered selling my home in California and staying here,” said Jones. “Between the food, and the culture, and the beautiful people – the beautiful ladies, incredible ladies, the most beautiful, beautiful women I’ve ever seen in my life, whaaaaow! Oh, good God. I don’t know how you’re going to translate that.” Alex Pasternack

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Review: Jel / Soft Money (Anticon)

The Sunday South China Morning Post, March 25, 2006

“Don’t buy this product, you don’t need it,” is a curious way to start rapping on your solo debut album. As Soft Money opens with To Buy a Car, Jel, nee Jeffrey Logan, is soberly imagining the click-y, breakbeat advertising jingle he’d write for a fleet of “street legal war vehicles.” But he’s also winking at the doting avant garde hip hop heads who just purchased—or more likely downloaded—his album.

The Chicago-born producer/MC doesn’t need such slogans to prove his anti-corporate mettle. As one of the founding members of hip hop’s best known underground collective, the Oakland, Calif.-based Anticon, he shaped the intricate musical bedrock for the lyrical acrobatics of groups like Themselves and Deep Puddle Dynamics. Fortunately, after the early proselytizing on that first track, Jel jumps off his soap box to grab a drink and slide back behind his old samplers to kick off this chill-out session.

What pretensions he may betray in his self-righteous lyrics—on a later track the war on terror becomes his easy target—he often abandons in an unusually accessible hip hop orchestration. The quick beat changes, strange syncopations, blurred samples and sheer noise that have lately become the heavy grist of “nerd rap” millers like Prefuse 73 are all but absent; in their place are spacious beats, cinematic cellos, twinkling Rhodes pianos and processed vocal snatches that make tracks like No Solution and Nice Last sound like the soundtrack to a gritty sci-fi movie, or to a pre-dawn repose after a night at the club.

It’s a testament to Jel’s talent as a producer that these songs aren’t merely background music. On top of his facility with samples and beats, Jel proves he’s more than capable of mixing in hip-hop’s most exciting ingredient: collaboration. To wit, All Around, relying on the ethereal vocals of electronica chartreuse Jessie Bohm, is the album’s hypnotic pop pinnacle.

Though Jel’s worn critique of the war on terror threatens to ruin the party on Soft Money, Dry Bones, rapper Wise Intelligent’s take on a corporate accession to war machines on WMD is as good music as it is protest. Such things don’t always go well together, but like many moments on the rest of the album—a mixture of dark electronics, pop, and mostly lyric-less hip hop—sometimes they can, well, gel.