Beyond the Status Quo

This Week: Esperanza Spalding's Discipline(s) Highly distinguished musician, Esperanza Spalding does more than just make music: Lee Child: Not "The Man" Lee Child left his former life behind to author and unlikely hero - Jack Reacher, a vagrant vigilante who reaps justice for the underdog; and Nick Phan: Forging Connection: The award-winning tenor, Nicholas Phan explores the world in song.

AIRED: March 13, 2020 | 0:26:46

(gentle music)

- Welcome to "Articulate,"

the show that helps us explain who we are

to ourselves and to others.

I'm Jim Cotter, and on this episode,

"Beyond the Status Quo,"

the highly distinguished musician Esperanza Spalding

does more than just make music.

She's trying to change the world.

- I think stepping into the work of engaging

and activism as this sort of big umbrella term,

which hopefully means acting

on your impulse to serve and to help,

to not just be angry 'cause stuff's messed up.

- [Jim] Lee Child left his former life behind

to author an unlikely hero, Jack Reacher,

a vagrant vigilante who reaps justice for the underdog.

Over the course of the past two decades,

Child and Reacher have sold millions of books worldwide.

- There's a passage in one of the books where Reacher says,

"Well, you know, I just wanna look after the little guy."

And the friend's skeptical, says, "Really?

"You care about the little guy?"

And Reacher says, "Eh, not really, I just hate the big guy."

- [Jim] And the award-winning tenor Nicholas Phan

explores the world is song, merging cultures

while uncovering immense value in all of our differences.

- Ultimately, I think the greatest naivete about it

is this idea that anybody is just one thing.

- [Jim] That's all ahead on "Articulate."

(lively music)

♪ Touching surfaces every day

♪ Feeling no spark

♪ Of tenderness within

♪ Touch in mine

♪ Touch in mine

♪ Touch in mine

♪ Touch in mine

- [Jim] Esperanza Spalding's life in music

has been dense with accomplishment.

She picked up the violin at age five,

led an orchestra at 15,

and was teaching at her alma mater,

the Berklee School of Music, by 20.

Now in her mid-30s, she's released seven albums,

won three Grammys, teaches at Harvard,

and has been a longtime activist for the likes

of the Innocence Project, The Trust for Public Land,

and Bienestar, a nonprofit that builds low-income housing.

But at the outset, "There was no ambition," she says,

"only a deeply felt compulsion."

- Playing music and coming up with songs and practicing

just felt better than everything else.

That's why I kept at it, and when you're young,

and you find something you're good at,

you of course are drawn to it.

It's such a surprise to discover that you have an ability,

that sets you apart from other people,

anyway, in some way.

♪ No more acting

- [Jim] Spalding has continued to set herself apart

in lots of ways, since. ♪ Unconditional love

(electricity zapping)

♪ Could we be real love

Her name, Esperanza, means hope in Spanish,

and after the release of her eponymous 2008 album,

the wordplay was irresistible.

But it went too far, to the point that in some circles,

she was held up not just as a new hope,

but as the Savior of Jazz.

And so pervasive was this sentiment

that it was even expressed in the Obama White House!

- [Announcer] The brightest young star on the jazz horizon,

(audience applauding) Esperanza Spalding.

- [Jim] Pressure mounted in 2011,

when she beat out a host of mainstream pop stars

to win the Grammy for best new artist.

(audience applauding) - Wow!

- [Jim] But when Esperanza Spalding's mother named her,

it was more a wish than a declaration.

- She was in a moment of severe crisis.

It was a horrible time in her life,

and she was barely surviving, had my big brother,

and found out she was pregnant,

and my father had just been arrested,

and he wasn't gonna come back,

and she didn't want him to come back,

and it was like total chaos!

And she was like, "Okay, I don't know

"if this is a boy or a girl, but whoever they are,

"this is gonna be a turning point in my life."

- Worked out okay for her, I think.

- Yeah, I was a pretty wild child, but yeah,

I think it was, not just my birth, but you know,

we always have that power, I think, in some ways to decide,

like okay, (inhales loudly) time for a change!

And her pregnancy with me was that catalyst.

♪ Radiates x-ray like

♪ To the heart behind the mask

- [Jim] Spalding was not content to be branded

as a jazz artist for long.

The label, she says, was not fair to her or to jazz.

- It's really sensational,

but certain entities around me stood to benefit

from me doing well within a field that didn't have

a lot of people who looked like me in it.

And my love for the music, also, I wanna be at a festival

with all these mofos, of course!

So I wasn't gonna be like, no, don't book me at North Sea.

It took a while to kind of catch up

to the disparity, though.

I felt like, oh, you know, the truth is,

I'm not thinking about or pursuing a jazz aesthetic,

whatever that means anymore, in the music,

and actually, I don't want what I'm doing

to be held up as the canon of this music,

'cause that's not fair to the real canon of the music.

♪ Your mind

♪ Round every wound

♪ You just needed some time

- [Jim] Spalding's 2018 project

was one of her most adventurous yet.

Each track on "12 Little Spells" was created

to evoke sensations in specific regions of the body.

But whether or not the spells actually work

is academic to Esperanza Spalding.

- Whatever happens, it's good music, you know?

That's how I feel.

I will pursue, explicitly, a degree

that's grounded in the psychology and the neurobiology

of healing through the lens of music therapy.

So I sort of see this as my freebie, you know?

This is where I get to explore those themes

without the burden of a degree that says,

you have to back it up with the scientific data.

So this was a place to explore these themes

basically through intuition and experience,

which is what artists are always doing.

So this is my freebie to just use that

mode of inquiry to create these spells.

And tracking them myself, (laughs) in my own body,

and tracking it with the co-creators of the videos,

of the show, musicians in the studio.

We would sometimes, when we were working on an arrangement,

refer back to the intended effect of the spell,

and how I had written, I had written it to have that effect,

and we would use that to inform how we did the arrangement.

("12 Little Spells")

♪ Twelve little wells

♪ Of golden ink

♪ Bone bottles stacked

♪ Mouth to tail

♪ Arcing your back

♪ Into the same curve

- [Jim] Though Esperanza Spalding has been

willing to indulge her instincts,

she also believes in rigorous study.

One of the courses she teaches at Harvard,

Applied Music Activism,

requires students to methodically evaluate

their efforts to propagate social change,

something she wishes she had been

forced to do a long time ago.

- Nobody else held me accountable

to show that what I was doing was actually

moving a needle on anything,

and I didn't really even know how to do it.

And I would get involved in other people's campaigns

and sometimes feel like,

is this just to make us feel better?

Is this to just make us, us 35 people

in this house in Hillsboro, Oregon,

who believe in the ACLU, feel better,

like we've done something today?

And if so, that's not enough.

So really, what we're talking about

is the practice of holding ourselves accountable

and doing the work to design a campaign that we can track.

I think stepping into the work of engaging

and activism as this sort of big umbrella term,

which hopefully means acting on your impulse to serve

and to help, to not just be angry 'cause stuff's messed up.

Within that, can we develop a practice

whereby every time we engage,

we're bringing with it a certain set of standards?

♪ Sea

- [Jim] And so, Esperanza Spalding continues

to offer new, often surprising perspectives,

each project undertaken with curious optimism, with hope.

(ethereal music)

(bright music)

(suspenseful music)

For more than 20 years, millions of fans,

readers, moviegoers, even music lovers,

have followed the adventures of Jack Reacher,

a former U.S. military cop turned vagabond,

a latter-day Robin Hood, who hopes for the best,

plans for the worst, and always helps out the underdog.

- I'm more critical of him than you would expect.

I dislike him more than you would expect.

- [Jim] Jack Reacher is a maverick,

tied to no place, person, or profession.

But when the British author Lee Child

created this all-American hero,

his own life was in turmoil.

In 1995, in a flurry of corporate restructuring,

Child lost what he had thought to be a job for life

as a mid-level manager and union organizer at Granada,

the TV network in the northwest of England,

where he'd worked for almost two decades.

Prospects in his field were bleak,

so a 40-year-old Child decided to try something new,

writing a hit crime thriller series.

- It was about forging forward and saying,

I've done the good corporate thing.

I've been a loyal employee, it got me absolutely nowhere,

and now I'm gonna work for myself, I'm gonna do it my way.

- Were you always fighting the Man, then?

Jack is clearly not a big fan of the Man.

- Yeah. - You were a union

shop steward protecting people from the Man.

- I hate the Man, and there's a passage

in one of the Reacher books where his friend says,

"You know, you could have been anything.

"Why did you become a military cop?

"You coulda been Delta Force,

"you coulda been Armored Division,

"you coulda done whatever you wanted!"

And Reacher says, "Well, you know,

"I just wanna look after the little guy."

And the friend's skeptical, says, "Really?

"You care about the little guy?"

And Reacher says, "Eh, not really, I just hate the big guy."

And that's very much me, that I hate it when bullies,

people takin' advantage of their situation,

just cruel and heartless type of behavior,

that really gets to me.

So in a sense, yeah, the entire Reacher series

is about stickin' it to the Man!

- [Jim] And Lee Child and Jack Reacher

have been sticking it to the Man for more than 20 years.

And with over two dozen novels,

selling more than 100 million copies worldwide,

Child and Reacher still begin a new adventure together

on September 1st of every year.

Following two hit films starring Tom Cruise,

Child is now developing a Reacher TV series for Amazon.

Who will play Reacher is yet to be confirmed,

but other creations in the Reacher universe

have come to life far more quickly,

like the 2018 10-song album "Just the Clothes on My Back."

It took just two sessions for Child and his friends,

Jennifer Ferguson and Scott Smith of the band Naked Blue

to pen an entire record inspired by their hero.

♪ I am cut from canvas

♪ You are cut from lace

♪ I am all rough edges

♪ To your perfect grace

- That a very (laughs) daunting task, we thought,

because it's his baby, and we were like,

"Can we do that, can you do that?" (chuckles)

"Sure, I can do whatever I want!"

Which was actually great, because we've been readers

since the first book and are huge fans.

So you feel like you know the character

and the story and the style and all of that,

so it made it actually easy to hone in

on this one guy and his perspective.

- The three of us were very nervous,

but I think Jack Reacher demands,

you know, we all know him so well,

and we just gave him what we thought he would want.

- [Jim] Wherever Jack Reacher goes, he avenges injustice,

violently when necessary.

But unlike other heroes, he has no tragic flaw.

He's not a broken man, he doesn't need to be fixed.

- I don't know, 30, 40 years ago, we had the introduction

of the dysfunctional hero, the damaged guy--

- And it's become a trope now.

- Totally. - You can't have one

who's not damaged! - No, you know,

they were alcoholics or recovering alcoholics,

and then divorced recovering alcoholics

whose teenage daughter hates them,

and maybe they made a mistake,

they were on a stakeout at night

and they shot at a fleeing suspect

and it turned out to be a 14-year-old boy,

so they're totally traumatized and they have to go

and live in a hut in the woods.

There was that terrible sense of misery.

And I thought, well,

nobody really wants to read about miserable people,

so I wanted him to be free of all of that stuff.

He has not flaws, no traumas in his past,

no horrors to escape, none of that.

The central tension in Reacher

is that he loves his solitude,

but he's simultaneously worried about being lonely.

- That's the point, alone but not lonely!

- Yeah, and he suffers from that, I think,

inasmuch as you wanna sort of have

a psychological aspect to the character.

He's caught between two stools, and that is a tension

that he may never resolve. (ominous music)

- [Dick] He liked to sit outside in the summer

in New York City, especially at night.

He liked the electric darkness and the hot, dirty air,

and the blasts of noise and traffic,

and the manic barking sirens and the crush of people.

It helped the lonely man feel connected,

and isolated, both at the same time.

- [Jim] In a world of thugs,

Reacher is a straightforward, benevolent cowboy,

an avenging hero we can root for.

- When I was little, I loved David versus Goliath,

which is the ultimate paradigm for a conflict story.

We've lived with it forever.

But I liked Goliath better, you know.

I wanted Goliath to be the good guy,

I wanted Goliath to win!

And so I just, when I came to writing the series,

I thought, all right, can we have Goliath as the good guy,

can we have the good guy utterly physically unchallengeable?

And again, I think that works as a consolation for people,

because in real life, we're not, you know?

In real life, we're always just

a little nervous about something or other.

- Has he ever lost a fight?

I'm trying to think. - Very--

- He's temporarily lost.

- He's had his nose broken and he once had a headache,

but basically, yeah, this is a paradigm

that this guy will not be beat.

And that ought to be a short-circuit dramatically,

but people love it.

The drama comes from solving the mystery

or sorting out the situation, but yeah,

Reacher is a knight errant, in that old-fashioned sense.

I mean, you mentioned cowboys, and most of the people say,

yeah, Reacher is this Western figure,

which of course, he is in a sense,

but that figure was not invented by the Westerns.

- No, true. - It was imported

from medieval Europe, when medieval Europe was scary

and there was a frontier feel.

Then later, of course,

Europe became more settled and civilized,

so that character was literally forced out,

to where there was still a frontier,

which was either Australia, lots of similar legends there,

or America, of course, in the West.

- The classic avenging hero, then.

- Yeah, and universal in world culture, actually.

There's a Japanese trope, the ronin,

who is the samurai disowned by his master

and sentenced to wander the land doing good deeds.

This trope has been around for thousands of years,

because we want it, you know?

If you're in trouble somewhere, sometime,

you would love it if some guy would show up,

solve your problem, and then, crucially, leave.

Because it's the transience that's really

important to that myth.

They can't stick around.

The only time, in legend or myth,

any one of them has ever stuck around

was the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

He stuck around because he didn't get paid.

And then he killed all the children

by marching them off a cliff.

It's a nightmare if they stick around!

So the idea is, they show up, they solve the problem,

they leave, and that has been happening

for thousands of years.

So it is permanent in our culture.

- [Jim] And Jack Reacher, it seems, is here to stay.

The cultural icon, guardian of the little guy,

enemy of the big Man, always on the road

to his next great adventure. (dramatic music)

(bright music)

(mysterious music)

When the philosopher and historian Hans Kohn

recorded this rosy sentiment in his 1944 book

"The Idea of Nationalism," two world wars

had already proven that conflating one's birthplace

with one's identity was a powerfully double-edged sword.

After the Great War and the dissolution

of the Austro-Hungarian Empire,

national borders throughout Europe were redrawn

along more culturally cohesive lines,

thus giving smaller ethnic groups

greater autonomy over their own affairs.

- Inherent in freedom is chaos,

and inherent in defining oneself,

one has to define the Other.

Ultimately, I think

the greatest naivete about it

is this idea that anybody is just one thing.

(singing in foreign language)

- [Jim] The internationally celebrated lyric tenor

Nicholas Phan has just completed an exploration

of the role of the art song defining national identity.

But even before this, he had already struggled to balance

the different parts of his own identity.

Phan grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the 1980s

to a second-generation Greek-American mother

and a father who was born in China.

Both were deeply connected to their cultures of origin.

As a result, the young Phan felt alienated

from the place where he grew up.

It all came to a head in 2003, when a 24-year-old Phan

entered the BBC Singer of the World competition.

- I always describe it to people as Miss Universe

for voice (chuckles) and opera.

- [Jim] Competitors were asked to bring

songs from their home countries.

But while the other singers easily

embraced this directive, Phan faltered.

- I didn't feel American enough.

And I was afraid of appropriating

something that wasn't mine.

- What did you end up singing,

and what would you sing today, were the circumstances

to be presented to you again?

- What I ended up singing were some songs by John Musto

that were settings of Langston Hughes poems.

I think in the end, I probably would've chosen

"At the River" by Aaron Copland,

but I did not have that courage, at that time.

- [Jim] A decade later, the question of who is entitled

to what national identity came up for Phan once again.

His first two albums were of music by the great

20th century British composer Benjamin Britten.

Both were well-received,

in part because of Phan's outsider perspective.

- The thing about the experience was,

I thought, revelatory to me, because it actually showed me

that, oh, I can have that courage.

But for some reason, because that was Other, that felt safe.

I can have the same courage with my own music,

with American music, and so, in this roundabout way,

I feel that I have found my own courage

to perform our music,

by going through these European composers,

and having the boldness to interpret their music, as well.

("At the River")

♪ Yes, we'll gather by the river ♪

♪ The beautiful

♪ The beautiful river

♪ Gather with the saints

♪ By the river

♪ That flows by

♪ The throne of God

- [Jim] Today, Nicholas Phan is a bold explorer

of far-ranging musical traditions.

He believes that music should invite outsiders in,

and act as a reminder of the things that we all share.

His most recent project examined how music,

specifically the art song,

has been used as both a hammer and a mirror,

forging and reflecting national identities across time.

He looked first to France during its Belle Epoque.

This was a golden age of prosperity,

productivity, and peace that began in 1871

in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War.

- They are trying to define a French aesthetic

in response to this Austro-German

thing that dominates Europe at the time.

And so you have this hotbed of intellectual

and artistic activity happening, and out of it is born

this French nationalist movement in art.

And most specifically, in poetry and in music.

(singing in foreign language)

- [Jim] For the early part of the 1900s,

creativity flourished, especially around Paris.

But everything changed in 1914.

The Great War devastated the entire nation.

Hardly anyone survived without scars, physical or emotional.

But from the rubble emerged some of the most remarkable

works of culture of modern times.

Phan sees this as a natural reaction to great loss.

- It destroyed families.

It's a traumatic event, I think, on so many levels,

and one of the ways we, as humans,

try and grapple with such large concepts, is through art.

It's how we come together, it's how we express our emotions.

- And how we feel, collectively.

- Yeah.

(singing in foreign language)

- [Jim] Without borders, Nicholas Phan explores

the musical territories that captivate him,

and in doing so, reminds us of what we all share.

For more "Articulate," find us on social media,

or on our website,

On the next "Articulate," world-renowned architects

Tod Williams and Billie Tsien

are united in vision and practice,

in their lives together and in their work.

It's a strong foundation

for their partnership and their buildings.

Carmen Maria Machado is self-assured and outspoken,

often turning a mirror not only on herself,

but, as Tori Marchione reports,

on society's unchallenged biases,

to create immersive fiction.

I'm Jim Cotter.

Join us for the next "Articulate."

(lively music)

- [Announcer] "Articulate" with Jim Cotter

is made possible with generous funding

from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

(bright music)


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