Transformative Sounds: Ann Arbor's Emilie Lin was a PhD psychologist who left that career to pursue her love of piano

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Emilie Lin

Emilie Lin has been a pianist her whole life. She began as a youngster in Taiwan, continued studying when she moved to the U.S. as a teenager, and eventually achieved a master's degree in piano performance from the University of Michigan, which gave her a full scholarship. In fact, Lin was a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at U-M when she decided to leave that role in order to refocus on her life as a pianist.

But despite devoting her life to music, Lin had never released an album.

Then, in less than 365 days, the Ann Arbor artist released two: 2020's Transforming and 2021's Love Endures.

"I never thought of making an album in the past until my oldest son moved to a different state to start his business in January 2020," Lin said in an email interview. "With more freedom to pursue my own goals, I became curious about my ability to compose beyond educational piano music. I was thinking how it would be so cool if I could be like Yiruma, whose 'River Flows in You' captured my husband's heart to make him stop by my studio and asked me whose music it is when I was playing it years ago. That was the first time he ever liked a piece I played well enough to ask who the composer is. I've played classical music almost all the time, a genre of music that does little for him, so I thought it's probably time for me to compose and play more contemporary classical music."

Ann Arbor native David Blixt discovered a cache of long lost novels by journalist-adventurer Nellie Bly

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Writer David Blixt and covers for the lost Nellie Bly novels

In December 2019, while researching a novel series based on the life of journalist Nellie Bly, Ann Arbor native David Blixt—a Greenhills and EMU grad who’s now a Chicago-based theater artist and writer—made an astonishing discovery.

“At that point, my office was right next to the kitchen, and Jan [Blixt, David’s wife, and the producing artistic director of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival] was in the kitchen late in the afternoon that day,” said Blixt. “I was going, ‘Honey, this can’t be real. This can’t possibly be real. … Surely everybody knows about this, right?’”

Wrong. Blixt, following what seemed an unlikely-but-possible hunch, had stumbled upon 12 long-lost serialized novels that Bly wrote after her famous trip around the world concluded in 1890.

Born Elizabeth Cochrane in 1864 in Pittsburgh, Bly got her pseudonym from her first newspaper editor, who named her after a popular 1850 song by Stephen Foster. Scholars and biographers have long known that Bly wrote fiction for publisher Norman Munro’s New York Family Story Paper—she’d signed a lucrative, three year $40,000 contract—but few to no copies of that publication have survived, so Bly’s fiction has largely been lost to time for well over a century.

Until now.

Caroline Kim's characters in "The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories" ask what is most important in life

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Caroline Kim and her book The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories

A woman loses a child and yet she helps another, Suyon, pregnant with a baby rumored to not be by her husband, give birth. Then, with war breaking out in Korea, the woman meets an American, marries him, and moves to the United States. There, she finds herself engaging in animal husbandry and applies the same tactics she did with her acquaintance:

You get good at birthing horses and people send for you when they have difficult cases, mares too frightened and in pain to calm down, to do what is good for them.

You whisper the same nonsense you told Suyon: that they are beautiful and perfect and doing everything just right. Everyone, everything in the world loves them. 

This woman’s dedication and strength to carry on through these significant changes in the short story “Arirang" attest to the resilient characters in The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories by Caroline Kim. It also shows how universal and necessary that encouragement and support can be, something we all need.

Kim’s stories in her new collection ask what is most important in life, with the options ranging from fortune or pride to family, truth, connection, and expressions of love. When a woman breaks down in “Magdalena,” a mother and daughter who attend the same church try to help, despite not wanting to be associated with her. They grapple with whether to address the woman’s dire situation or to judge the woman and try to distance themselves. As the mother tells her daughter about the woman: 

Smooth Transitions: From opening for Jay-Z and a residency at Ann Arbor’s Alley Bar to spinning online, DJ Graffiti is in the mix

MUSIC INTERVIEW

DJ Graffiti at Live Ann Arbor

DJ Graffiti spinning at Live Ann Arbor. Photo courtesy of DJ Graffiti.

From opening for Beyonce at the Palace to dad, entrepreneur, and local DJ, and back again—this is the story of Martin Smith aka DJ Graffiti and how he made the dream of becoming an internationally renowned DJ work during a global pandemic.

Let’s start at the start—the rise of DJ Graffiti. A young man, attending underground hip-hop shows, meeting DJs, starts making his own music, performing, and carrying around a box of mixtapes wherever he goes. He starts getting recognized.

This leads to mainstream DJ gigs, which Graffiti slays, opening for a Jay-Z tour at the Palace, then a Beyonce tour at the Palace, on the bill with Big Sean, opening for Dave Chappelle at the Fillmore. He expands his territory—hitting Chicago, New York, Miami, L.A., and Detroit after every major mixtape release. Then DJ Graffiti goes international. Tours the Caribbean. Goes on a European tour with Phat Kat—part of the extended family of Slum Village and J Dilla.

And that’s when things change.

U-M Zell visiting prof Sumita Chakraborty’s "Arrow" displays the poet's exploration of words' contradictory meanings

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Sumita Chakraborty and her book Arrow

Going into reading Sumita Chakraborty’s debut poetry collection, Arrow, it’s not a secret that the book follows traumatic experiences. As she describes in “Sumita Chakraborty on writing Arrow,” which was shared with me by the publisher, Alice James Books:

Much of this book resides in a range of aftermaths: in the aftermath of the severe and prolonged domestic violence I experienced as a child and adolescent; in the aftermath of sexual violence; in the aftermath of my sister’s death; in the aftermath of breakups; in the griefs and anxieties that follow in the aftermaths of unending sociopolitical events; in the aftermath of unending ecological devastations.

Knowing this informs but does not explain the poems in Arrow, but it sets the stage for the intense emotions and scenes depicted in them. 

Taking the Hit: Ann Arbor singer-songwriter Lily Talmers explores big questions through small details on her excellent album debut

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Lily Talmers

Lily Talmers photo by Alex Gallitano.

When Lily Talmers sings "Is there anybody listening to me? / From the middle of America you scream out to the ocean, it gets lost" it's not just a plea by a 23-year-old Ann Arbor singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist who wants to be heard.

"Middle of America" also addresses a potential lie to "people at the border," a father's decimated pension fund, and a lost Lady Liberty.

The song is neither didactic nor overly sentimental, though it is pointed and nostalgic. It's both specific in its details and nebulous in its meaning, a feeling that runs throughout Talmers' debut album, Remember Me as Holy, one of the finest debut singer-songwriter albums I've heard since Phoebe Bridgers' Stranger in the Alps.

EMU professor Christine Hume's "Saturation Project" offers a lyric memoir composed of three essays

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Christine Hume and her book Saturation Project

Three essays fill Saturation Project, a new book by Christine Hume, a professor at Eastern Michigan University. Described as a lyric memoir, the text obliquely depicts various moments, ranging from Hume’s childhood to interactions with her daughter.  

In the first essay, “Atalanta,” first-person accounts about personal thoughts, family, and a daughter intermingle with Greek mythology and examinations of feral kids raised by bears. Wanderings in the woods and through memories merge with ancient stories and animals in such a way that the distinctions between them blur, as Hume elaborates: 

I read the story of Atalanta as if I were swallowing it, but it swallows me. Then I tell it to my daughter because I don’t have a childhood I can tell her about yet. I steal Atalanta’s, which is like mine in that the most longed for moments are inaudible.

It’s as if the essays are a way of remembering, but recollections are transposed, taking inspiration from other places. 

Afa S. Dworkin on the Sphinx Virtuosi and their UMS concert "This Is America"

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Afa Dworkin and Sphinx Virtuosi

Afa S. Dworkin photo by Kevin Kennedy. Sphinx Virtuosi photo by Brian Hatton.

Classical music has had a long history of lacking diversity, which is why Aaron P. Dworkin founded the Sphinx Organization in 1997 to encourage and support minorities in this art form. The name was inspired by the iconic Great Sphinx of Giza statue in Egypt, which “reflects the power, wisdom and persistence that characterize Sphinx’s participants," according to the Detroit-based organization's website.

Today, the Sphinx Organization’s programs reach more than 100,000 artists and students, while performances by the orchestras and ensembles are viewed and attended by more than two million people each year.

UMS recorded a special performance by the Sphinx Virtuosi, an orchestra of the Sphinx Organization, for its 2021 season of virtual programming, and the concert is streaming for free on ums.org through February 8. The program is titled This Is America and includes works by Michael Abels, Jessie Montgomery, and Xavier Foley. On the final day of the stream, there will also be a special conversation with three Sphinx artists: Gabriel Cabezas, Bill Neri, and Melissa White. Each musician will discuss the performance as well as talk about their musical careers. You can download a PDF for the This Is America concert notes here.

A 2005 MacArthur Fellow, Aaron P. Dworkin was dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance and is now a tenured professor of arts leadership and entrepreneurship at SMTD who also hosts the weekly videocast Arts Engines; he currently serves as a strategic advisor for Sphinx. Afa S. Dworkin, his wife, is a celebrated violinist and educator who now leads the Sphinx Organization.

Afa S. Dworkin, who has been honored with the Kennedy Center’s Human Spirit Award and was named one of Detroit Crain’s 40 Under 40, has expanded Sphinx's outreach and range enormously during her tenure as president and artistic director.

I spoke to the Ann Arbor-based Afa S. Dworkin about the Sphinx Organization and the Virtuosi concert recorded for UMS.

The Ark's Ann Arbor Folk Festival goes virtual for its 44th edition

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

The Ark by Dwight Burdette, Creative Commons

Photo by Dwight Burdette.

Like any town, Ann Arbor has annual events that help define the place: Art Fair, University of Michigan's first home football game, the summer closings of nearly every road in downtown due to construction.

The Ark's annual Folk Festival is an important part of that list, too, but with the Covid-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on traditions big and small, the venue was forced to take the fest virtual for the 44th edition. This year's Folk Festival happens on January 29 and 30, along with a bonus show on the 31st featuring several of the previous days' performers to celebrate the life and music of the late John Prine, an Ark regular.

Friday's lineup includes Raul Malo, Colin Hay (Men at Work), Alan Doyle, The War and Treaty, Kiefer Sutherland (yes, him), Joe Pug, Glen Phillps, Amythyst Kiah, Gina Chavez, Willie Watson, Ron Pope. All these acts' performances will be remote other than Michigan's The Accidentals with special guest Kim Richey who will play The Ark's stage.

Saturday's concert offers Bruce Cockburn, Dar Williams, David Bromberg, Todd Snider, George Winston, Vance Gilbert. Dom Flemons, Matt Andersen, Crys Matthews. Sierra Ferrell. and Andrea von Kampen performing remotely, with Ann Arbor's The RFD Boys playing at The Ark.

Jeff Daniels will be the MC both nights.

Sunday's Prine tribute will feature The Accidentals, Al Bettis, Annie and Rod Capps, Chris Buhalis, Dave Boutette and Kristi Lynn Davis, Dick Siegel, Erin Zindle, Jill Jack, Joshua Davis, Matt Watroba and Robert Jones, May Erlewine, Michigan Rattlers, The RFD Boys, Seth Bernard, and The War & Treaty.

"Remote performances have all been prerecorded by the artists," says The Ark's marketing director, Barb Chaffer Authier, "but specifically for the festival—no 'recycled' material—so only the opening set each night will be live in real time."

All performances will be viewable through February 7.

We talked with Authier about what it's been like for this historic music operation since the pandemic started and what it was like to book a virtual Folk Festival, the nonprofit's most important concert event every year.

Aw, Yeah: Ypsi-filmed YouTube show "Renting and Raving" offers silly humor and strong characters

FILM & VIDEO INTERVIEW

Renting and Raving

Bret (Eric Pullins), Basement Guy (Cameron Greig), and Evan (Evan Grieg) are the core characters of the Ypsi-filmed comedy series Renting and Raving.

The first time Basement Guy ate real cat food was the last time.

"Next few instances he was eating chili in a cat-food can," says Evan Greig, the director, co-writer, and co-star of Renting and Raving, a YouTube comedy show shot in Ypsilanti. "The fact that a lot of people find the cat-food scene to be gross is great. To me, it means we made it feel real—because it was."

"I remember we were shooting that night and the plan was to empty the can out and fill it with tuna," says Eric Pullins who co-stars as Bret and is a co-writer, prop master, and production designer for the show. "[B]efore we could do that Cameron just dove right in. Cameron is our star and he really commits. I would not have committed that hard."

The committable Basement Guy is played by the committed Cameron Greig, who is also a co-writer and key grip on the show.

This trio of characters comprises the core of Renting and Raving, which makes up with oodles of charm and smart-to-low-brow humor what it's missing in a budget and the occasional incongruity.

All 10 episodes of the first season, filmed before the pandemic, are now available on YouTube, and it's a labor of love for Greig, Pullins, and Greig, along with cinematographer Johannes Pardi, production manager Emily Weir, script supervisor Brent Bergeron, who also plays Evan's shady pal Tito on the show. Also, the brief but ear-worm-worthy theme song by Jeremiah Heiss will get stuck in your head and have you mumbling "Aw, yeah!" to no one in particular.