Solar Tensions

Virtual Reality, Aliens and Space-Time Compression

Artwork by Andro Wekua | NeueJournal Issue 1

Jaron Lanier, the philosopher, classical music composer, and inventor considered the Father of Virtual Reality, rhapsodizes with physicist and saxophone player Stephon Alexander about the crazy, far-flung theories that could ruin their careers.


JARON LANIER: Over the years, we’ve had a lot of crazy ideas that we kept secret. The reason we didn’t share these crazier ideas, if I remember correctly, is because your mother was concerned it would ruin your career and you’d never get tenure.


STEPHON ALEXANDER: Yes, she was certain it would.


JL: When you ended up at an Ivy League university, I wondered if you were going to publish the weird stuff. I don’t know if it is ever safe enough to pub- lish the strangest stuff.


SA: I don’t either. So over the years, in our friendship and collaborations, we’ve been talking about the basic problem of cosmology. We once toyed with an idea—as crazy as it was—that the entire universe was a virtual reality simulation.


JL: This idea that we’re already in virtual reality has become a very popular question. Virtual reality is the science of experience. All data, all input, and all scientific reasoning must all arrive through experience. We can holistically study human experience through virtual reality. There is no way that virtual reality isn’t going to become fundamental to science. There are a lot of opportunities for people to do stupid things with virtual reality and ruin science by living in fakery instead of in reality. It challenges us as well as giving us some options. It’s not going to be easy.


SA: As a quantum cosmologist, I want to address the hard question in quantum mechanics and in quantum cosmology: How do you reconcile an observer, ideally us, with the happenings of the universe? We know that we have no reason to expect that there were typical observers 14 billion years before structure was even formed, but somehow structure did form. Because quantum mechanics is mathematically incompatible, just as a mathematical structure, you need to reconcile it with the observer.


JL: The observer is essential to the universe, even if the observer comes late in the universe. In my view, computer science also has an observer problem. If you find a really weird alien that’s not human—from one of the many planets we now know are out there—and you give them a present day laptop, what do they see? Since they don’t have any cultural context to interpret the object, it would be equivalent to a lava lamp, something that’s making patterns. It emits heat. The patterns grow deterministically. It won’t mean anything. The point is that without a cultural context, ultimately an idea has to bottom out in somebody’s experiences to mean anything. Information is an alienated experience.


SA: In quantum cosmology, you have this idea that the entire universe is described as a quantum moving function. The entire universe is a very complex waveform that reapplies itself, but there is no intrinsic time for this wave function. It’s timeless. Is it okay that I’m late for my meetings and stuff since time doesn’t really exist?


JL: Well, as a saxophone player you get some dispensation to be late to a certain degree but if you want to be really late you have to take up the drums. You know, time can be treated as the foundation from which everything hap- pens. Make time equal to nature. Make time the starting point for everything. I’ve thought a lot about whether aliens would have the same math we do.


SA: That’s an ongoing discussion.


JL: If any two alien species could figure out a way to have a meeting of minds, they could be similar enough to actually talk to each other and recognize that each other exists. However, you might never have encountered the same ideas. It seems plausible to me that you could have non-overlapping worlds, that each have integrity and are hypothetically compatible with each other except that they have never met. When you start thinking about math on those terms there is an interesting thing that happens. Growing up, I thought that math was beautifully regular and perfect, and that reality was messy. I used math to approximate reality, but reality was always messy compared to the beauty of mathematical equations.


SA: That’s interesting, because it reminds me of something that I’m struggling with as we speak. There are certain things about nature that can never be described with mathematics. Where does that leave us as scientists and as people who use this specific language at the end of the day to make the next, better cell phone?


JL: This brings up something that’s been bugging me lately in the virtual real- ity world. You know I love virtual reality. I think it’s a fascinating window into human experience, but there is something strange about the current revival. The fundamental purpose is to create and push directly against nature as much as possible. Entering into artifices, entering into little mini puzzles that other people make up, should be treated as dangerous, or as a bad way of doing things, in the information age. It distracts us from reality and it turns computation into amusement, making reality smaller for us. I’d much rather see people using virtual reality in a creative, improvisatory way.


SA: It’s very interesting that you mentioned it, yeah. Can virtual reality one day enable me to be a better jazz improviser? Can I create a virtual reality space where I’m engaging in real time? One of the things that I like most about playing and improvising is the collaborative aspect. Obviously there is no such thing as improvising in a closed room by yourself.


JL: True. We’re working within these information artifacts built by other people. There is something about it that’s very limiting. You know, I remember when you were a grad student. I was basically in your fan club and thought that you were so exceptional and creative. It’s been really exciting to watch your career and see your papers published. It has been really great.


SA: It’s weird and strange and eerie to me that some of this crazy stuff that we were talking about ten or fifteen years ago actually seems to be on the horizon of issues that people are talking about now. It’s crazy.

Artwork: Andro Wekua for NeueJournal

Nile Rodgers

A Timeless Sense of Rhythm and Melody

NeueJournal Issue 1

If ever there was a renaissance man in pop culture, Nile Rodgers is it. With the exception of Prince, it’s hard to find a musician who’s been so perennially cool for so long. Like all truly talented artists, the fact that Rodgers has once again reframed his position within the pantheon of pop music with the 2013 success of Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories” (“Get Lucky”, “Lose Yourself To Dance” and “Give Life Back To Music” are signature slices of Rodgers styled funk) and is set to release a new Chic album, “It’s About Time” on a major label, for the first time in a couple of decades, speaks volumes about the guitarist’s ability to survive and thrive. Reinvention somehow seems the wrong word because he’s always done what he’s done. Rather, different generations (by my count three) have gravitated towards his timeless sense of rhythm and melody to invigorate their own music.


I first interviewed him in the early 1990’s when Chic (including now deceased co-writer/producer and bassist Bernard Edwards) briefly reformed. Then, a decade or so later when Sean “Puffy” Combs and Will Smith were sampling his grooves (“Mo Money Mo’ Problems”, “Get Jiggy With It”) and riding the top of the charts I headed out to his beautiful Westport, Connecticut home overlooking the bay to spend the afternoon in his studio and talk about his work, not only with Chic, Sister Sledge (“We Are Family”) and Diana Ross (“Upside Down”) but Madonna (“Like A Virgin”) David Bowie (“Let’s Dance”) and Duran Duran (“Notorious”) back in the days when single producers made entire albums. We also spoke in depth about his battle with cocaine and alcohol, his subsequent rehab and determination not to squander all the good fortune life had thrown his way. At that time, he played me a video of a hip-hop group that he had signed and asked me my opinion. “I’m old school man,” he confessed. “I’m a musician. I don’t know what to tell these guys but I know they’re good.”


His reformation of Chic shortly after and their extensive live work seemed to indicate that Rodgers was embracing his legacy and that his future lay in celebrating his past. But he wasn’t built to be a legacy act. His footprint in pop culture was too indelible and far reaching to be consigned to treading the old school R&B boards. Success and tragedy/self-destruction, though, have have been dueling components in his life. Raised in a household of bohemian drug addicted parents, it was only when he defeated his demons, endured the loss of Chic bandmates Bernard Edwards and drummer Tony Thompson that he was able to stabilize his career. To achieve greater success, there was another health hurdle he had to overcome. Cancer. Diagnosed with “extremely aggressive” prostrate cancer in 2010, it was soon after he had been declared cancer free did Daft Punk come calling.


I meet Rodger’s at Neuehouse’s NY offices during  a frantic day of interviews to talk about the Fold Festival, a two musical event which he is co-promoting featuring Chic, Duran Duran, Q-Tip, Beck, Keith Urban, Chaka Khan and others held on August 4th & 5th in Riverhead, LI and his seemingly endless staying power.


JEFF VASISHTA: What inspired you to take on promoting The Fold Festival?


NILE RODGERS: I did this show originally a few years ago in Switzerland as part of Montreau Jazz festival. What I was trying to show was the evolution of dance music. I play guitar but dance music is now 90% electronic. I tried to show the connection between what I do and what Avicii and Daft Punk do. Even before Daft Punk I did an event with Mark Ronson, Jonny Marr and Felix The Housecat, Grace Jones, Martha Wash, Taylor Dayne and lot of acts. The concept is that it’s not the genre. I like The Clash, just as much as I like Public Enemy, Donna Summer and Miles Davis. It’s all good music to me. I love it all I wanted to put together a festival that showed people that they do too. It was a sell out. Then, I brought it to New York to the same venue – Riverhead, two years ago I had Avicii, Adam Lambert, Chromeo, Chic, Prince Paul and some other DJ’s. People loved it.


JV: The one thing about your music, no matter who you’ve worked with, whether it’s been dance or pop acts is that the music has always grooved. There’s always been a funky undercurrent. What’s in your secret sauce?


NR: That’s how I hear music. I come from old school R&B that’s governed by certain rules. Of course those rules are meant to be broken every now and then and I can apply them to different genres. I’m naturally a complicated person and my music is so but then I can feather back and simplify things.


JV: I can instinctively tell when I’m hearing your guitar playing. Your style is so distinctive and other players don’t seem to be able to emulate it.


NR: My partner Bernard Edwards was a guitar player before he was a bass player so he taught me that chuggin’ style. He taught me that if I could take that style with my harmonic jazz knowledge and figure out a way to do melodically what he does on the bass, all of a sudden a regular song isn’t a regular song. “We Are Family” is a perfect example. I play the piano part in the song and the piano part doubles me. About two years ago I discovered to my own amazement how I’d describe my own style of playing. It’s the right hand of the piano. That’s what my style is.


JV: Many musicians have a hard time balancing the creative and business sides of their life. How have you fared in that department?


NR: The best part of my life is that I’m not overly concerned with material stuff. I’ve made and lost fortunes over and over again. When you produce “Like A Virgin” you can retire. I was young and stupid. I would meet some really cool girl and say, “Hey you wanna have lunch?” And I’d buy a ticket on Concorde and fly to Paris and have lunch and fly back and it’s still the same day!” You want to impress a date – now that’s impressive! I did whimsical stupid stuff like that. Expensive, cars, boats, holidays that are absurd. That’s all in the past. It’s so funny now to hear the new generation of guys making way more money than I made, saying I went here and there and I’m laughing. I went there 30 years ago.


JV: What are the best and worst investments that you’ve made?


NR: Best investment is in myself. I think I make more money than anything I’ve ever invested in. I earn more than my money earns. My accountant always tells me, “I’d like to have your money work for you.” I tell him “Let the money rest. I’ll do the work!” Worst investment I ever made dollar for dollar was when there were a number of tech start ups that seemed like good ideas at the time but they weren’t. Also I was involved in that huge Michael Milken scandal that everybody was taken for. I was on the front of the NY Times with a bunch of other folks. It was like Bernie Madoff.


JV: You beat addiction and cancer and now seem to be working more than never. Is it because you have your own mortality in mind?


NR: It’s because of cancer. Once they told me how extremely severe my cancer was it made me want to work harder and not reflect on what I’ve done. Think about it, if all you ever did was write “We Are Family”, that’s pretty damn cool. It’s like writing the Star Spangled Banner or something. I know “We Are Family”is going to outlive me and the reason I know that is not being  egotistical it’s because little kids come up to be and their teacher taught them “We Are Family” and they think their teacher wrote it. Composers are fairly anonymous but melodies and songs live on forever.


JV: Health wise, how bad did it get?


NR: My heart stopped 8 times in one night. People have said every time you flat line a certain amount of years goes off your life. I think, I’m 62 and I flatlined 8 times. How old am I gonna be? Death is an absolute inevitability. I just want to have as much mobility, fun and artistic creativity as I can during the minuscule amount of time I have on this planet.


JV: The chemistry you had with the musicians in Chic – Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson – was incredible. Have you ever experienced anything as magical since? Surely it doesn’t get any better than coming up with “Everybody Dance” and “Good Times”?


NR: I just had that feeling with Duran Duran. We had a blast. It was great to play with all the guys at one time. Had that feeling with Hall & Oats. INXS, Joss Stone. As a studio musician that’s what I do. Think about how I felt playing “Lose Yourself To Dance” They’re playing a demo and it has chord changes and I’m like, “Well what about THIS?” And it blows their mind. It’s like magic. I’m so fortunate that most of my life has been like that.


Photography: Manolo Campion for NeueJournal

Nneka Lucia Egbuna

On Life on the Road, God, and Darkness

Photography by Patrice Bart-Williams​

In 2008, Nneka’s Heartbeat charted across Europe and elevated the previously unknown Reggae/Soul singer to celebrity status. Since then, she’s been putting out emotionally and politically charged records that are both graceful and empowering. Nneka is currently touring Europe following the release of her latest full-length album My Fairy Tales. I caught up with the singer in St. Petersburg, Russia, to chat about life on the road, God, activism, and the music that inspires her.


Parker Menzimer: So you’re almost done with your Euro tour.


Nneka Lucia Egbuna: Yes, we still have Russia and then I think a festival in France.


PM: Any highlights?


NLE: Yesterday, actually, I thought I wasn’t going to be able to deliver because I got ill the day before. A friend of mine spoke to me before I went on stage and said, Nneka, if you need strength take a cup of water and pray over it. I said ok, I didn’t take it too seriously, but in the end, five or ten minutes before I got on stage, I decided to do what he said and the energy came.


PM: Is religion important to your music?


NLE: It’s in everything I do. I have conversations with God constantly, even while I’m on stage. He just reminds you: “Listen, I’m in charge. Take a chill pill and sit back.” I have my own demons, but I try to be strong and also encourage others. You’re not alone in your struggle, you can get along if you have God. That’s it. Point blank.


PM: You founded an NGO whose mission is to educate young Nigerians in the arts. How can art help Nigeria’s political and humanitarian situation?


NLE: In Nigeria, when you talk to your elders, you look at the ground. You respect them, but at the same time you fear them. That leads to anger, because if you can’t express yourself you get agitated. If we had more institutions where kids could speak or express themselves, put their pain into learning an instrument or sewing, that would broaden their perception of life. We need NGOs to help out. We need rich people to be a bit more generous with their money and get involved in supporting children’s futures. People need to talk, people need to express themselves.


PM: Off the top of your head, what are three words that describe your last record?


NLE: Strong, edifying, and painful. There was a lot of pain. I was having doubts about God and myself. Boko Haram was intense. I started questioning.


PM: “My Fairy Tales” is an interesting name. You think of a happy ending, but the album itself deals with such dark themes.


NLE: Up until now I’ve been very blunt. It’s like, “Nneka, why are you always so miserable and melancholic?” So I wanted to package reality and wishful thinking at the same time.


PM: So, in the end there’s optimism?


NLE: Yes.


PM: Do you remember the first song you learned how to play on guitar and sing along to?


NLE: It was my own version of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.


PM: What records inspired you to create your own music?


NLE: I listened to a lot of Nigerian music, but also Western stuff like Mariah Carey, Boyz 2 Men, Dolly Parton, and Rod Stewart [laughs]. It’s a mix of worlds. Really white and really black stuff. But that’s my heritage.


PM: Who are some current Nigerian musicians who are worth checking out?


NLE: There’s a young man called Jessie Jagz. He’s good. There’s also Keziah Jones. He did blue funk. We have Wizkid and we have Shay Shay. And then there’s this other girl called Yemi Alade, her track is called Johnny. The band that I’ve been taking along is this young man called Afrikan Boy. He’s very good.


PM: Will your label “Bushqueen Music” serve as a platform for other artists?


NLE: We had two artists. Now we have just one apart from me. Genda kind of went his way because I didn’t have much money to support his career. Now we have an artist called Oranmiyan who’s amazing.


PM: How’s the next album coming?


NLE: It’s pretty much done, so hopefully by February we should be releasing.

Wyatt Cenac

The music behind the comedy

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Open The Gallery

I first met Wyatt Cenac when I moved to New York, several years ago. I was familiar with his work as a comedian and writer, but what intrigued me most was that I would always run into him at the illest music shows. If I saw him, I knew I was at the right place. His presence at a show was a litmus test for the quality of the music that I was about to hear. Now that we’ve gotten to know each other and become friends, I wanted to connect with him to talk beats, rhymes, and life.


Ant Demby: I always need to ask audiophiles this question–what is that one record you feel birthed your love for music?


Wyatt Cenac: Quincy Jones’ “Summer in the City.” Somebody once played that Quincy Jones record and it blew my mind because ‘Passin Me By’ by The Pharcyde had just come out and they had looped that song. It sent me on a quest for years to find that record, which was no longer available at that time.


I know you love to collect rare vinyl. What is the craziest thing you’ve had to do to get that one record that you can’t live without?

I haven’t had to do anything too crazy…yet. I think I’m still at a manageable stage as far as collecting. My biggest problem is that when I’m on the road, I’ll wander into a record shop and walk out with a bunch of records–and no proper luggage to carry them home.


What made you release your Netflix special BROOKLYN on vinyl?

I am a fan of comedy records and collect them. Most of those albums were recorded in small clubs where you can hear the sounds of the room. You can hear seats shift and glasses make noise as they land on the table. Everything about the sound really helps to illustrate the time, and I liked the idea of trying to capture an element of what it’s like to do a show in Brooklyn.


If there was one song that represented the gentrification of Brooklyn in your eyes, what would it be and why?

Roy Ayers’ “We Live In Brooklyn Baby.” It is a great song and an anthem of pride for people who were making a home in Brooklyn in the seventies, when it wasn’t a trendy place to live. And the song has been sampled by a bunch of artists, which could kind of be looked at as a kind of audio gentrification.


Do you ever use music to prepare for doing stand up?

I’ll listen to music before shows. I generally try to listen to mellow stuff, just to relax.


I know that you and Questlove are good friends. If I were a fly on the wall in one of your conversations about music, what would I discover?

That I do a lot of listening, by choice. Whenever I can get Ahmir to talk music, I just want to hear what he has to say. It’s like getting to sit with Gandalf or something. He knows so much and I just try to soak up as much as I can.


You and I are both disciples of Dilla. If he were alive today, who would you want to see him in the studio with?

So many people. I think it would be cool to see him in the studio with folks he’s already worked with like ATCQ and Madlib, but also it would be cool to see him work with somebody like Joey BADA$$ or J Cole.


You and I are both huge fans of Stevie Wonder and I know that you particularly really dig his album “The Secret Life Of Plants”. What about that particular album speaks to you?

It’s a cool album when you realize that it’s a score for a movie about plants. He’s scoring things that are being described to him and that’s amazing not only because of the degree of difficulty, but also because he makes it work.


Who are your Top 5 emcees of All Time?

That’s tough and I’m going to do it in a weird way because I think there are great duos who work together and play off each other so incredibly well that I can’t discount one for the other. For example, Andre 3000 is an amazing writer and emcee and so is Big Boi, but what works best is the interplay they have. They are stronger as a unit and it would be a disservice to ignore one in praise of the other. It’d be like only talking about Muhammad Ali’s right fist without ever realizing that he needs his left jab to properly get that right cross off.


That said, here goes (in no particular order):
Black Thought
A Tribe Called Quest


Honorable Mention:
De La Soul
MC Lyte
Little Brother

Benjamin Verdoes

The Future is a Bandit

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Benjamin Verdoes, a songwriter from the Pacific Northwest, sings “The Future is a Bandit,” from his latest album “The Evil Eye,” in NeueHouse’s recording studio.


In the last decade Verdoes, who is well known for his unorthodox style, has written four albums – two as a part of Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band. “The Evil Eye,” which he began composing in 2011, is his first solo recording released under his own name.