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Conversation with Helen Sword

Writing With Style

Helen Sword is a scholar, award-winning teacher, and poet who has published books and articles on modernist literature, higher education pedagogy, digital poetics, and academic writing. Born and raised in Southern California, she received her PhD in Comparative Literature from Princeton University and now teaches in the Centre for Academic Development at the University of Auckland.  Her latest book is Stylish Academic Writing.

Can I start by asking you for your definition of style?

Yeah that’s an interesting one. In academic writing, style is quite a neutral word. That’s why I tend to use the word “stylishness” when I’m talking about what, probably in a more design and creativity context, you would just call style, but there are all these academic style guides that are really about rules, and not about style. So when people talk about academic style, often they just mean how do you cite sources? Where do you put commas to be correct according to this style or that style. That’s not necessarily my definition of style, but that’s the definition in the context I’m working within. Calling my book Stylish Academic Writing was an intentional oxymoron because people so often don’t associate anything academic with being stylish. The point I was trying to make is that everybody has a style.

When I was working on the book, I was thinking quite intentionally about comparisons with style in architecture, style in furniture, style in clothing, where we can probably all agree that there are a lot of different styles and we might have different opinions about what styles we like, or even what we would call stylish, but we generally agree on what is and isn’t an attempt to be stylish. To just kind of push the metaphor a bit further, a lot of academic writing, to me is kind of like the person who rolls out of bed in the morning, pulls on a pair of track pants and goes to work dressed like that, or worse yet, goes to a black tie reception or something. Whereas if somebody came decked out and a Mohawk or a bunch of piercings, you would at least say, well they’re being self-conscious about how they’re dressing. They’ve got a sense of style, even if I don’t necessarily like that sense of style myself. There’s a broad range of possibilities of what could be stylish writing, but the one thing they all have in common is that they’re all self-conscious. There’s a self-consciousness on the part of the writer. They’re making an effort. They’re making conscious choices.  They’re not doing the writing equivalent of rolling out of bed and putting on the dirty clothes from the night before that just happened to be lying there.

So, stylishness, by its nature, is deliberate?

Yeah, it’s a deliberate effort to dress for the occasion. If you look at academics lecturing, some people really dress up. Some deliberately dress down. They don’t want to invoke that sense of authority. And then some will not think at all about what they’re wearing. And they’re the ones we’d probably associate with the absence of style. Same thing with writing—there are so many people who write the way they do because they’ve kind of unconsciously absorbed the style of the discipline. And not because they’re making conscious choices about how to communicate effectively.

Why, in academia, is convention so often taken almost as if it is physical law?

 I think there’s a certain amount of resistance to stylishness in academia, not by everyone. But the idea that somehow, if you’re dressing things up, you’re therefore dumbing things down or you’re somehow not doing full justice to the ideas. One thing I found really interesting, researching the book, was the idea of ‘elegance.’  I could’ve called the book ‘Elegant Academic Writing’ and it would have sort of meant the same thing. In elegance, when we think about it in terms of again, clothing or furniture or something, we tend to equate it with a sense of style. Some indefinable sense of style. But in science and mathematics, it has quite a precise definition. Which is that it’s the shortest solution to a complex problem. That’s an elegant solution. So if you think about elegant writing in that way, it’s not necessarily shorter sentences, but it’s the best possible way of expressing what you need to express. And if you put that definition in front of academics, they’re very receptive to it. But if they think that what you mean by stylish is dressing things up, then they’re very resistant to that.

Is stylish academic writing always synonymous with clarity or might it also be more decorative?

Yeah, for me, it’s the gamut. And I come out of literary studies myself, and people who work in English departments will often value complexity. They’ll actually say I write these long, difficult sentences because there’s a kind of mental discipline that’s needed then, to be able to work through that complexity. I have some resistance to that—to the idea that you’re intentionally making things more complex to your reader, but I can understand the argument and I would like a definition of style or stylishness that allows for that choice. 

I love this example in your book of the Formula-1 pit stop crew that helps reinvent the organizational design and workflow of a hospital, making procedures more synchronized and efficient.  Can you speak to the importance of cross-disciplinary collaboration? Does style has everything to do with thinking across disciplinary lines?

I think it does. It allows you more choices and it makes you more self-conscious about what you’re doing, so it fits perfectly within that overarching definition of what it means to be stylish. What I really noticed, when I went out to read books and articles by people who have been identified to me by their own peers as stylish writers, or exemplary writers, was how again and again that they were making references to ideas from beyond their own disciplines. That just seemed to be such a component to their way of thinking. And that goes way beyond writing in style on the level of how you construct a sentence. It’s really a mode of thinking that shows intellectual curiosity and voraciousness. Does that mean that interdisciplinarity is a component of stylishness? Not necessarily, but I would say that you have a much wider range of styles or ways of thinking at your disposal if you have an interdisciplinary bent. 

Sep 07 2013

Musicologist Rob Bowman on Style

The Elements of Musical Style

In Conversation with Grammy-Winning Musicologist, Rob Bowman

 Bowman: It strikes me that style is a gestalt of practices, or a conglomeration of practices that marks a given entity - an individual, a genre, or a tradition - as being unique. Aretha Franklin has a particular style in approach to vocals. Al Green has a really unique style. I might argue that Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston certainly have style but they tend to be, how should I put it, closer mainstream notions of virtuosity. Style is a collection of practices, micro or macro, by a given entity, that gives an aesthetic identity to that entity.

Bolton: Why do you think style has proven to be such a useful way to classify music?

Bowman: We all need to typologize or categorize to make sense of all phenomena. Otherwise we can’t make sense of this word. Style is just one way of categorizing. In music we often use the word genres. We talk about the genre of Soul Music. Then we talk about sub-genres such as southern soul, Motown, Chicago soul, uptown soul and so on. For each one of those genres - we describe them with stylistic elements. When you say that Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters have similar style, you’re really saying that they’re both making a form of post-world war 2 bar band Chicago blues with certain things such electricity, distortion, aggression, 12-bar structures and so on. You’re saying there’s commonality. They’re different but there’s a commonality and these stylistic elements make up that commonality. I could go further and get into micro-details about vocalization - what separates one from another, even though to a more casual listener, it’s the same.

Bolton: Let’s break down some of the stylistic elements within singing.

Bowman: Timbre is a key element. Distortion is one aspect of potential timbre manipulation. Howlin’ Wolf’s got a very distorted voice, a very raspy and rough voice.  That said, if I do a micro-analysis of a Howlin’ Wolf performance, I could show you how in one lyric utterance, one line of text, he actually changes the level of rasp three different times, and he uses that as a way of structuring that lyric line and giving it meaning in sometimes subtle and sometimes more dramatic ways, giving shape to the music line helping to ascribe meaning to the musical moment. It’s a simple concept but it can get quite complex if you unpack it further. Another huge thing would be use of breath. Use of sibilance, words with S, is another huge thing. Some singers try to minimize the S sound, like Bing Crosby. I’ve heard Aretha Franklin deliberately draw out sibilance and use it the same that one might draw out rhyme or assonance within their vocal style. Timbre, use of breath, how much you hide it, how much you reveal it, it would be the use of sibilance. Phrasing is a really important aspect of style. Do you phrase in front of, behind, or directly on the beat? Is your phrasing primarily starting on offbeats or on-beats? Do you start phrases on beat one, or do you avoid beat one? And where do you place your accents on the down beats or the up beats? Does your framing tend to involve staccato or legato beats? Are you trying to slowly connect your notes or are you deliberately separating them? And of course different singers will do more or less of one or the other. Most will do both different times and its the characteristic ways that they use those two different concepts, moving at various points of a continuum that would be considered part of their style. Timbre, breath, sibilance, phrasing, accent, annunciation, dynamics or volume, intonation or tuning - are you in tune or out of town. At what point in a given scale and structure might you play with tuning. Manipulation of all these possibilities is style. Song choice has a whole lot to do with style too. Are you mostly singing ballads, or up-tempo dance tunes? Are the melodies conjunct, where they’re moving from C to D to E - notes that are adjacent to each other? Or do they involve leaps? Are the melodies humble ones that anyone can pick up and sing? Or are they much more difficult with big interval gaps? What kinds of repertoire are being sung? As we unpack this ides of style, you can see it’s unbelievably complex.

Rob Bowman is a musician, producer and professor of musicology at York University.  He is the author of Soulsville, U.S.A. - The Story of Stax Records. In 1996, he won the Grammy for Best Album Notes for his 47,000 word monograph accompanying The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles, Vol. 3: 1972-1975.


Sep 06 2013

In Conversation with Carol Stephenson, Dean of the Richard Ivey School of Business at Western University

*This conversation was originally printed in MISC Magazine’s Style Issue; December 2012

Leadership Styles

What do you think is meant when we talk about style in the business sphere? 

I think style is the leadership attributes that you bring when you are fulfilling your job.

What are those attributes? What are the elements of leadership style? 

There are a lot of them, and sometimes a dichotomy depending on your leadership style. You can be a very collaborative leader or you can be a very directed leader, in that you are making decisions based on your own judgment and not involving a lot of others. You can have a great listening style or you can like to tout your own ideas through speaking forcefully about them. You could be empathetic, or you could be not necessarily interested in other people’s point of view. So I think character comes in a lot with leadership. Your own sense of values, your own sense of integrity, how you build trust, to me, those are pretty important to style.

Tell me more about those dichotomies. How can one’s internal style tensions work to make that person a better or worse leader?

Most people have a predominant style, which they generally use but I also think you need to know how to adjust your style in different times, which will require different styles. So the typical one would be, if you’re in crisis, and you have to take action quickly you’re probably going to have to cut down on your consultation and collaborative approach to the extent that you might naturally use. It doesn’t mean that you don’t use it at all, but use it just as much as the situation requires. To me, a really good leader can be authentic about their own management style, but can also understand the environment enough to know when they might need to alter based on circumstances.

Were there ever any failings you identified in your own leadership style, which you had to adjust over the course of your career—some things that weren’t working about your leadership style?

Yeah, I think sometimes I would be a little bit too empathetic, where, at the end of the day you can’t please everyone. So I have recognized that it’s impossible to solve everyone’s problems in coming up with a decision. So I probably tailored that a little bit so that I put my own input to think about the situation and make a decision with more confidence.

 What are some of the early jobs that influenced your leadership style?

As a female leader, early on in my career, I had some pretty nontraditional jobs that women hadn’t done. So it was good and it was bad. The good end was that everybody was watching because you’re the first woman to do it—I was doing a plant job in Canada. I had sixty men reporting to me, I worked for a boss who didn’t believe I should be there. So some of those earlier nontraditional jobs shaped my leadership style and I would say because I didn’t know a lot about functions, it probably did encourage me to listen and learn from people actually doing the job but then holding them accountable to high standards and making sure they had resources and made decisions quickly. Some of those early nontrade jobs were actually very good for me. And I had a choice there. You can sort of go in as “I know it all, I’m the boss,” which would’ve been a disaster. Or you could go in with “I have a lot of knowledge around leadership and management. But I need to learn to understand this job and you can help me do that.”

How can clashing leadership styles be managed in an organization?

You have to allow for different leadership styles. I encourage people to say their point of view you need to tell people that point of view. You don’t want everybody exactly the same. But there are some standards that you want to uphold, like respect for each other, you don’t want bullying behavior, you want people to act in a certain way that encourages the culture you have, but doesn’t preclude people from having different styles of management and I see that every day. I think understanding different styles, what works and what doesn’t work, you actually have a better integration of people across styles under the umbrella of whatever culture and value have been established for the organization.

When recruiting and hiring, how do you know when you’ve found a right fit for an organizational culture and operational style?

Usually when I’m hiring somebody, I will have them meet and be interviewed by the other senior members of the team. To test the fit the style because you don’t want to hire someone you think is just like you, so I try and have a broad-based look at a person. I also think there’s an intuitive sense that I get about a person about fit and style. You certainly go through the interview process and how other people look at them, but I usually have an intuitive sense that I know influences my decision. If it’s the smartest person in the whole world, but I think, my god there’s no way this person can be on our team, I don’t think this is going to work for them or for us. But it comes through the conversation and through the intuitiveness. I know there’s testing and all these other things that people should do but in my philosophy, in the end it comes down to intuition.

How important are those factors—an organization’s culture and style—to mergers and acquisitions, or who a company partners with?

 I think it’s important. Not to say you can’t have different cultures who merge, but I think its important that you figure out a way to get the people who have the different culture aligned with you and your company. If you don’t, they will consider themselves not fitting. At Ivey, we talk about mergers and acquisitions quite a bit, and we introduced something called Cross-Enterprise Leadership. Mergers and acquisitions are the best example of that. Traditionally in business school, they think evaluating the company’s financial transaction, how you set it up, is the most important thing, so it’d be a finance class. What we all know is that it’s way more than that. How do you get the cultures to work together? How do you get two strong brands to work together? What do you do when the IT systems don’t work with each other? How do you get marketing working together? So to me, that’s truly cross-enterprise leadership. If you can’t do that well, I don’t think in the long run you’ll have a successful company. It doesn’t mean you can’t acquire someone who has a different culture but if you don’t have the tools to integrate culture into your company, then you probably won’t get the value out of the merger or acquisition that you hoped for.

Carol Stephenson is the Dean of the Richard Ivey School of Business at Western University. She currently serves on several boards for top Canadian companies and government committees.


Conversation with Nadine Chahine

*This conversation was originally printed in MISC Magazine’s Style Issue; December 2012

Designing Dialogue

What are some key words in the type designer’s style lexicon? 

In Latin type design the word style is often used to distinguish between structurally different models of reference. The roman and italic are two different styles that can be related as part of the same typeface family. Style can also be used to refer to other references such as serifs, sans-serifs, slab-serifs and so on. Some key concepts relating to style are the style of the serifs, the axis direction—changing it gives you variations from a Garamond to a Bodoni, the contrast—how much variation you have in the thickness of the stroke, and rhythm—a condensed style will have a tighter rhythm.

 Besides readability, what are the ‘ingredients’ of a great font?

It is very important to have well-drawn outlines and a visual impact that can fulfill the function that the typeface is meant for. A great typeface needs to work in its intended setting whether that is book, newspaper, and mobile. It is not about how good the individual letters look, but rather how good the words and texts are, and how the letterforms work together. 

What would you call that element - how the letterforms work together? Flow?

Yes that would be the flow of reading movement. Imagine driving on a highway, the less bumpy then the more enjoyable the ride. Each letterform creates a black and white element. Together, letterforms combine to create the text pattern. If these black and white elements flow smoothly together then the pattern is enjoyable and smooth.  

How do you describe your own style? What boundaries are you playing across?

Very function driven, and realistically experimental. I like to play within the boundaries of different styles and to create hybrids that feel authentic and are readily acceptable to those who are meant to read them. 

Tell me about some of those different styles and the challenges of creating hybrids from them.

We have many different calligraphic styles and the main two are the Naskh and Kufi styles. The first is round and organic, and the second more squarish. A hybrid blends the pen-based movement of the first with the rhythmic simplicity of the second. Frutiger Arabic is a good example of that. 

How do you set the limits of how far you’ll take your experimental work?

You design and test it out and see how people react to it. It’s a lot of trial and error, as well as the deep study of how letterforms are shaped and the logic behind the aesthetics.

How do stylistic variations of Arabic scripts affect the written text? 

The effects are as dramatic as the differences between an italic and a Fraktur. There is a wide range of visual expressions and the purely calligraphic references in Arabic are a good starting point to study. However, we have a lot of things to say that cannot be told in the traditional calligraphic nomenclature. So we need to mix styles and to push the envelop within the limits of public acceptance in order to be able to express concepts that were simply not present during the times of Arabic calligraphic innovations.

How have you successfully transferred elements of style from other disciplines to your own work?

I am very interested in international politics and cultural exchange and this has shaped my approach to design in general. I do not see a separation between typefaces and the environment they live in. Everything we do is shaped by how we live and that has been the strongest driver for me. I grew up in the middle of an ugly civil war, and the ability to engage in dialogue between opposing parties (political, typographic or otherwise) has been the guiding principle in all my designs. 

The Lebanese Civil War - Can you talk more about the different ways that dialogue shows in your work? Is it about making opposing ideas or styles appear complementary, or can it also work as more of a tension or clash?

The first typeface family that I designed is Koufiya, which is the first typeface family with Arabic and Latin companions meant for each other and designed simultaneously for the express purpose of harmonizing two scripts that are so different. Koufiya is the embodiment of my political beliefs, that we need to accept our differences, and that dialogue is possible even when those engaged in it are very different. We do not need to morph one to another in order to create harmony. Real equal dialogue comes through the understanding and acceptance of what makes us different. This is true for both typographic and political landscapes. Koufiya is also a statement of the relationship between the Arabic world and the western world. I prefer that we engage in equal-footed dialogue rather than hide behind stereotypes. It is the only way forward.

Nadine Chahine is an award winning Lebanese type designer with a special interest in Arabic typography. She won the distinguished Award for Excellence in Type Design from the Type Directors Club in New York in 2008 and 2011.

Sep 04 2013

Big Sean on Style and Influence

*This interview was originally printed in MISC Magazine’s Style Issue; December 2012

In Conversation with Big Sean

Sean: The origins of my style is just how I feel - what I wanted to do. It used to be way more formulated, but recently this year, I’ve just been having more fun with it, and since I’ve been having more fun with it and not really caring and getting caught up as much, it’s just been taking off more and more and more. I just try to be innovative, like how my heroes were like Eminem, Kanye, Jay-Z, Royce - them dudes would make up words. I just try to be creative and do whatever I feel.

 RB: So you named two rappers from your hometown out of that group. Would you say Detroit is in your sound right now?

Sean: Yeah, I think it’s definitely in my sound. It’s just certain aspects of the D. I think Detroit has a certain level of soul. And I feel like lately, I’ve been trying to put my soul in my music whether it’s party songs, whether it’s songs about waking up and grinding, whether it’s songs about being depressed, songs about your future goals. I just always make sure I put my soul into it and put real thought into it.

RB: When you’re working on those different kinds of songs, do you prefer a studio vibe to suit the song?

Sean: I’m always boring in the studio. I don’t do too much - I just get the work done.  I may drink a little something sometimes, maybe smoke something sometimes. My studio sessions are really kind of boring. I don’t have random people there. It’s just me, my home Zino, the engineer, my assistant. We’ll just be in the studio, kicking it, listening to the beat, writing, I freestyle. I just get to it. Sometimes it takes a couple hours to write a song, sometimes it takes a couple months to write a song. Sometimes I can’t get it. I listen to it for a few hours and just can’t come up with nothing and have to move on, come back to it a week later. It just all depends on the song.

RB: As far as inspiration, when it’s not rap or when it’s not music at all, are there other art forms that affect your sound and style?

Sean: I don’t know how I come up with what I come up with. I love movies. I’m a movie connoisseur. My favorite shows are American Dad and Family Guy.

RB: There’s a lot of that comedy in your style. When you’re writing a verse, are you thinking consciously about your flow, about pace, where you’re doing double-time, where you’re slowing down?

Sean: I just approach the song like ‘what would it be the best, most unique flow?’ It’s always different.  Everybody approaches verses different. Pusha T approaches verses different than me. 2 Chains approaches verses differently. Wayne and Drake approach verses differently. 

RB: With so much diversity on the Good Music team, how do you find that the different styles complement eachother?

Sean: Within G.O.O.D. Music, it’s great because we all just bring something different to the table. Everybody from Cyhi, to 2 Chainz, to me, to ‘Ye of course, to Common. But when it mesh, it just all mesh.

RB: The one-word punchline, the hashtag rap, the simile without ‘like’ or ‘as’ - is that your invention? Did you start it?

Sean: I don’t know if I started it, but I started doing it again. I can’t say I was the first one to do it. I was the first one to do it in the sense of how it was recently popular. I think Drake was the one who made it popular though, and Drake just got it from me - and he said that. I’m not trying to diss, it is what it is, it happens. I take flows from people sometimes - not really though.

RB: Is the influence you had with that particular form or device something you’re proud of? Because it’s been very influential on the way people rhyme right now.

 Sean: I don’t know if I’m proud of it, but it showed me how far I could go as an artist. I’m not trying to sit up here and take credit for that. I’m not trying to show boat, I’m just trying to get it.  It showed me that I could make styles up. It’s crazy how many ‘ass’ and ‘popping it’ songs came out after ‘Ass.’

RB: Those kinds of references are a big part of your style too.

Sean: That’s a big part of my style but that just shows me that I can set trends and be an influential artist. There’s a lot more to me than that and I think a lot of people are starting to realize and recognize worldwide and it’s exciting. I’m not going to let up man. I’m just getting started.

RB: What’s the best musical advice you ever got from Kanye?

Sean: To be the best. That mentality. The mentality to always go hard, always spit your best, always be the best, work on it no matter how long it takes until it’s the best and take advantage of your situation.

RB: Does he ever tell you to change something about your writing? “Don’t do it like that, do it like this”?

 Sean: On Mercy, I was just freestyling to Mercy. I didn’t want to say “drop it to the floor make that ass-shake, make the ground move that’s an ass-quake, built a house upon that ass, that’s an ass-state…” I didn’t want to say it and he really liked that and Kanye was like man, “please say that on there.” And I was like, ‘alright.’

RB: How come you didn’t want to say it?

 Sean: I just thought I could come up with something better. Sometimes its that simple. When I perform, everybody knows those words. Nas came up to me and said “I love your music, but I live to your verse on Mercy.” I’m like “you don’t gotta lie to me. How the hell you live to that verse?” And Nas was like, “nah man it just provokes some emotion in me. I just get so excited.” I see that in a lot of people and that’s just funny. Sometimes that’s therapeutic to just be able to scream that out and be feeling good.

 Big Sean is an American rapper signed to Def Jam Records and Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music imprint.  He has released numerous hit singles and worked with Lupe Fiasco, John Legend, Nicki Minaj and Jay-Z among others. His album “Finally Famous” debuted at number 3 on the US Billboard 200.  

Sep 04 2013

Interview with Fashion Prodigy Hogan McLaughlin

*this interview was originally printed in MISC Magazine’s Style issue, December 2012 

Born This Way

How do you characterize your style? How has it developed over the course of your career?

My own style draws from many different historical motifs, which I guess then gets mixed in with a subtle futuristic element.  This futuristic element is something I am never aware of, nor do I make it a point to include it. 

Over the last three collections, now beginning our fourth, I’ve tried to build on designs we’ve created previously by referencing familiar lines and shapes, but still keeping things new and interesting.  This really helps me understand, design-wise, what works and what doesn’t, what looks good on a dressform might not look so good on a person, and so on, but above all, how I can keep improving as a designer.  It’s a constant evolution.

What are some sources of inspiration that you’ve been able to apply transfer to your craft?

I tend to always to want to reference Medieval and fantasy elements, though not always just the clothing of that era but the architecture, furniture, pretty much everything.  Gothic cathedrals are a huge source of inspiration.  I’m a pretty big history buff, but really only for what I like.  If I become interested in something, I’ll exhaust all sources to learn as much as I can about that particular thing.  There is sort of an old Hollywood feel to the shape of some of the garments, and like I said, that neo-futurism always seems to creep in.

 What’s your ‘style bible?’

Art and photography books of all kinds.  One of my favorites is “Backstage Dior” in which photographer Roxanne Lowit captures behind-the-scenes images of John Galliano’s collections.  It’s so striking to see these other worldly creations in a less glamorous setting.

Hogan McLaughlin is a 23-year-old fashion designer, artist, dancer, and musician. He has produced pieces for Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way Ball” and has collaborated with Daphne Guinness.


Sep 03 2013

A Conversation on the Origins of Style with Director, Bradonio

Awkward Awkwardness and Happy Happiness

How do you define your style?

When I was younger, if I was left alone for too long I’d end up doing things like taking some Nilla Wafers, marshmallows, peanut butter, chocolate, whatever else I could find that was defined as edible, and test out various levels of layering and microwaving to make the perfect sandwich. 

My style is still very much like this. I hope to experiment, be direct, do something that makes me feel good to make it, and hopefully makes you happy while consuming it. Sometimes it’s visual and based off of movement and some camera experiment, sometimes it’s dialogue based with some sort of human interaction experiment, but my hope is that you always feel like the experiment tastes delicious.

How would you characterize the evolution of music video style as the form has moved from big budget and made-for-tv, to the viral videos of today? Are videos becoming increasingly conceptual? 

I honestly don’t know what my final opinion on this is. Budgets, distribution, and tools will change, but people will keep finding ways to create with the style that suits them best. 

If there are big budgets, some people will use that on tools to just to make something look visually sexy, and others will use those resources to create something very conceptual. If you have almost no budget, some people will decide to simply pick up a DSLR since it’s inexpensive and looks nice and just make something visually pretty, and others will use that low budget as a challenge to create something very conceptual. I believe that both ends of the spectrum send both styles of videos out into the market. So while there probably is an ebb and flow of the amount of conceptual videos made year after year, in the end I think it evens itself out. 

The 90’s had the likes of Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry enter the scene when budgets were much bigger, and they created some of the most conceptual and ridiculously creative work to date. This generation saw directors like Keith Schofield and the Daniels come up, who also are doing some incredibly original and conceptual work. Every time they post new projects, a little piece of me dies as I go, “Ah poop, why didn’t I think of that?” And I go make myself a Nilla Wafer marshmallow sandwich and say to myself, “There’s no way they could microwave something as absolutely delicious as I can, who’s jealous now?” and then I feel better about myself and can move on with my day.

Who were some of your film influences?

A lot of my influence comes from the camera itself. With so many parts to the cameras, lights, lenses, and everything accessible on set, there are just so many options of the things I can break! Growing up I would make short films with my older brother and one of his friends. We figured out that one button would invert the image to look like a negative and thus be used “to film ghosts,” we found that plugging our camera into a TV and then filming that same TV would create an endless portal to allow for “time travel,” and that by starting and stopping and restarting the camera people can “magically appear and disappear!” Man those moments of discovery were awesome. Every new button or perspective or technique that was stumbled upon were tested over and over again, and then a story was written around this new method we just discovered and we’d start filming again. A lot of what I do today is no different than that. Everything from finding those techniques to getting excited like a seven year old. 

 You’ve featured dancers in several of your videos and commercials, and even produced a documentary on the b-boy Krazy Kujo. Do you find elements of your filmmaking style correspond to the style of any particular dancer or style of dance? How do the two forms—film and dance—relate for you?

I’ve filmed with a good amount of traditional b-boys and b-girls, but also collaborate with a lot of nontraditional dancers that enjoy using a mix of styles from hip hop to ballet, martial arts to circus arts, to whatever else allows them to express themselves. That’s very much how I’d describe Krazy Kujo. I feel like he’s the Bruce Lee of dancing. He has a deep understanding of the foundations from many areas, but uses bits and pieces from each to create something very original.

At the end of the day I’m not usually trying to document a genre, I’m just trying to have some fun with movement and a camera. One of my favorite things to do is show up with a dancer, walk to find a location, brainstorm what we’re going to do for about five minutes, film for an hour, and then cut that together and see what type of 60 second piece we can come up with. An escalator, sand, parking meters, light, shadows, onlookers, the camera, whatever becomes the prop. It’s like an exercise in improv. There’s no pressure at all, and the results can turn out being quite nice. Sometimes the pieces are good as is, or sometimes they set up an idea for something bigger later on. Filmmaking can be such a long process that usually takes so much preparation and coordination, that to do something like this is the closest feeling I can get to being like a musician and just “jamming.” I need to do these types of shoots on occasion to keep things feeling fresh. As for film and dance, I feel like they have very similar elements. 

In normal everyday life, people use their bodies to sit, stand, walk, run, lay down, etc. Dance comes in and it pushes all of what is normal to the human body and creates a new perspective on what the body’s function is. It jumps and spins and contorts and freezes and pops and locks and climbs and slides. It shakes and flexes and taps and points and flips.

 And in normal everyday life, people use their eyes to see face to face, observe their environment, inspect objects as a function to aid their day, etc. With filmmaking, this vision is pushed to the extremes with viewpoints rushing towards the subject, to circling around, to focusing in and out on a certain point. It looks with a wide angle from one inch off the ground, to 10 feet above staring straight down. Light creates silhouettes in some moments, blasts out others, and softly accents yet some more.

 Both can be beautiful forms of expression, done in a way that isn’t ordinary to what we see and express in everyday life. It starts out as very human, but pushes into the extremes.

Bradonio is an international Director and Cinematographer. His clients have included such organizations as the World Health Organization, United Colors of Benetton, Subway, Aquafina, Greenpeace, MTV and National Geographic, and musical artists including Wax Tailor, Gramatik, Homeboy Sandman and RJD2.

Sep 03 2013

A conversation about style with Julie Klausner

Cross-Platform Hilarity:

What’s your definition of style?

Some sort of idiosyncratic, personal way of presenting yourself so you have some kind of visual stamp. 

 How has your comedic style evolved over the course of your career?

I used to do characters and write for myself in a way more structured way than I felt let me show who I really was. Now, with the podcast and with the various non-fiction writing I do, I can come as I am and present myself in a way less mannered method. I feel so comfortable in the podcast format speaking plainly, as myself, to an audience—like I would to a friend on the phone, but a little more presentationally. Also, I stop and listen to others when I talk on the phone. Just wanted to let you know that. I’m not a lousy friend! 

You’re working in several different mediums. Can you talk about the relationship between your style and the various mediums—podcast, television, web-series, theatre, long-form journalism, twitter? Is style a consistent expression of your character or does it change with the formal constraints of a given medium? 

If style is “voice,” I feel it’s consistent. Whether I’m writing Real Housewives recaps, personal essays in a book or online, Tweeting, or podcasting, you will know it’s me. 

How do the different kinds of work you do inform each other?

I learn from feedback I get from my audiences what people connect to and what falls between the cracks. I know that interrupting myself on the podcast has its charms, but I also try to finish a thought, whether it’s out loud or in print. I appreciate an editor around to keep me concise and less verbose than will serve what I’m trying to say. But I really do feel like it’s all coming from the same well. You know what you’re getting when my name is on something. It should have a particular sensibility. 

What are some surprising sources of inspiration that you’ve been able to somehow apply to your craft?

I have a lot of different influences, many of them from visual artists—I did go to school for illustration, though I have no idea how that manifests itself in my work. It might make me slightly more interesting at a cocktail party? I can talk about David Hockney or I at least know who he is? I like John Currin a lot, Lisa Yuskavage. But I love the commercial artists of the 1970s. Ed Fella, Ron Rae. I am a devotee to the aesthetics of the late 1960s and early to mid 1970s. I love variety show specials from that era very dearly. I was obsessed with The Monkees growing up.  

In my work, you may see more of the stuff I grew up watching than anything else. I was obsessed with SNL as a kid, Steve Martin’s early records, and John Waters. The B52s. Woody Allen. Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Mad Magazine. Letterman. In the past ten years I subscribed to the gospel that is Tom Scharpling’s Best Show on WFMU, I always liked The Kids in the Hall, I love standup and storytelling—Patton’s, John Mulaney’s, Jim Gaffigan’s. Sandra Bernhard’s show is fantastic, I’m a big fan of what she does. I don’t know if any of this is surprising for a comedy writer to say—maybe it’s a cliche! 

 Who would you say is your ‘kindred style spirit?’

I don’t want to insult her by giving her that moniker, but I will say that ever since I saw Kate Pierson, I’ve been emulating her style as closely as I could and can. She’s to me the way girls in college go berserk for Debbie Harry, or girls in high school dampen their Hanes Her Ways for Audrey Hepburn. I think she is just flawless and fascinating. 

Description: https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/images/cleardot.gifJulie Klausner is an author, podcaster and comedy writer-performer. Her memoir, I Don’t Care About Your Band recounts the romantic and sexual misadventures of her twenties. Her show, How Was Your Week, was named one of the best 10 comedy podcasts by Rolling Stone. She’s worked with Amy Poehler, Fred Armisen, Neko Case, Joan Rivers, and Sarah Silverman, to name a few.


Sep 03 2013

Style conversation with Rock-Jazz Pianist, Elew

*this interview was originally printed in MISC Magazine’s Style issue, December 2012

How do you define style?

Style is the expression of the condition of one’s sense of joy and power.

So, passion?

Yeah. I think that passion has a power behind it. And style is an expression of that.

 Where are you coming from, with that definition?

When you look at those wildlife channels and you see antelope or gazelle hopping during a rain, they’re full of joy, because the rain means they’re going to be able to drink and quench their thirstiness. It’s a very joyful thing. In our emotions. The clothes that we wear, the way we talk, all things style, are powered by something internal and I think a condition of one’s joy is born out or externalized through how we dress ourselves etcetera. Power has to do with clarity. The more powerful a person is, the more able they are to articulate what it is they want to articulate. Because power is a resource to make something happen. For instance, I play hard rock. I have enough muscle power and knowledge power to very quickly articulate what it is I want to articulate to my audiences. Similarly, when it comes to fashion, that type of style, its the power one has over one’s overall sense of self. That power helps one make decisions clearer that reflect how they feel. The condition of one’s power is reflected in the style they choose. In a game like chess, where it has nothing to do with muscles, and everyone is playing with the same pieces, power or the lack of power is expressed in the quality of moves that are made. It’s the same thing with style of clothes. Depending what they choose and choose not to wear, it demonstrates the condition of the type of power operating within them to make those decisions - which is why style is the expression of the condition of one’s sense of joy and power.

You touched a couple disciplines in that explanation. Fashion, your own work, and chess - how do these and other disciplines inform the style in which you play the piano?

Basically the term that I’ve become familiar with is ergonomics - a lot of disciplines coming together to serve a human purpose. Anything can be designed in many different kinds of ways, but ergonomics is the science of how to design things that really make sense for humans. I take an ergonomic approach when it comes to my music. I used to play primarily jazz, however a lot of obstacles and road blocks in terms of getting my career going. I ended up reaching to US Special Forces looking for another type of inspiration. I found that they were just like me. They improvised also - it’s just that when those guys improvise, their lives depend on it. I was inspired and wished that I could find within my self that type of feeling where each improvisation concept I come up with, I can approach with intensity that my life depended on it. I wanted to get that in my music. So they’re autobiographies. To hear how these guys improvise with their tools brought me to a different level of understanding. Then I started my own record company because no label would sign me, and I started reading books on branding, because now I’m the label president and the franchise artist, so I had to become well-versed in the instrument of a company. That’s when I came up with the name Elew for myself and the brand name for what I do with my genre which I call rock-jazz. Again this is improvisation on the instrument of business.

Aside from making you create a distinct and consistent sound, a name for that sound and a brand name for your self - did reading about business and branding effect how you make music in any other ways?

It made me focus in on the presentation physically, as far as how I bring sounds to people, from my hands to the piano, to their ears. It made me want to make my studio recordings opulent, full of wonderful ear candy type of style without the loss of all the fire and the hardness of the rock and the passion and the blazing quality of spirit that I like to infuse my work with. Reading about the business and the history of companies and the pathologies that are found in brands, made me want to think about taking care of the consumer and my clientele and giving them a very luxurious experience.

 In the visual aesthetics that accompany your music, there are a lot of imagery from martial arts, how do those ideas fall into the brand you’ve created?

I’m a big fan of martial arts. I studied taekwondo, jiu jitsu and karate as a kid. I also studied ninjutsu. I ended up calling my company Ninjazz, overlapping ninjas and jazz, or multiple ninjas. The whole idea of the ninja technique of hiding in plain sight and camouflage and special weapons and things of that nature, because when I was in that position of having won the biggest competition in jazz but still being shunned by the industry in general, I needed a way to get into the industry and get my music to the people. I needed to get past all the roadblocks. I had to reach into my martial arts training at the psychological training. I felt like they had betrayed the bushido - the honor - of jazz - by being so dismissive and non-supportive. Samurai’s operate in the code of bushido, but their have been stories of samurais who become ronins and then become ninjas because somehow that code got violated and they leave the whole bushido thing, chalk it up to politics, and become ninjas. That’s sort of the transformation that I had. That warrior imagery, and that story, wells with in me, it’s part of my fire, part of the ferocity, part of the lone warrior, the ronin thing. I go to the piano wearing armur because it reminds me of the fact that I am a warrior. It’s also part of my style. It’s unique. And it’s difficult to play in armor which is also why I wear it, to clarify the point that I can make things twice as hard for myself and still do it better than anybody. 

Elew is a composer and musician who has worked with Wynton Marsalis, Elvin Jones, Roy Hargrove, Cassandra Wilson and Lil Wayne. He won the 1999 Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition.


Conversation with Chess Grandmaster Magnus Carlsen

The Twenty-Three Year-Old Chess Grandmaster on Sport, Strategy and Style

How do you talk about ‘style’ in chess? Give me a sense of the vocabulary that comes up in a conversation between two chess players about their ‘style of play.’

For me, more than style, the main thing is to try to make the best move in any position. Having preferences regarding a certain style can be a weakness as you need to cope with any position. That said, most people have certain preferences. In the early time of modern chess, it was considered more prestigious to have an attacking, almost a romantic approach to the game. Today the level is very high and all top players found their game on positional principles.

How have you had to adapt your game over the course of your career as you faced increasingly elite opponents?

I was more aggressive in my early days. As the level of opposition increased, I had to adapt as they constantly showed deeper understanding and outplayed me. I try to be a fighter, but at the very highest level you can’t expect to win in great fashion very often.

How has training with the help of technology changed players’ styles over the years?  What’s been lost? What’s been gained?

I learned chess the old fashion way by playing a lot as well as reading magazines and books all the time. I think this was helpful for the development of my understanding of the game. Now the engines and databases are extremely important tools, also for me, especially when it comes to opening preparations. It’s also very useful to have the opportunity to access information of games played all around the world constantly to keep track of new ideas. As all players have access to the same computer programs and databases, it’s not enough to just try to copy lines. You need to develop own ideas, and use the computer to check if they are sound or not.

You’ve said that you have no preference of playing style. Talk to me about the benefits of stylistic versatility. Does your playing style adjust according to your mood, or do you only adapt in alignment to your opponent?

I try to find the best moves all the time, but it’s obviously easier to think if your mind is fresh. For me mood and energy are important, and physical training and the right food help me feel energized. A former trainer encouraged me to try new openings all the time when I was young. I think this advice helped me in developing a versatile style. It’s very easy for many to be stuck with a few openings and patterns that work well for them. 

How else do you keep your style unpredictable?

There are no tricks or easy routes, as all my competitors know all openings very well. I just try to keep putting pressure and force my opponent to be very precise. I try to steer the game in a direction where it’s hard for my opponent to do so.

Where in a game, the opening, middle or end game, does one’s playing style shine through the most?

All top grandmasters play the opening very well, and it’s not possible to obtain a decided advantage in this phase of the game any more. This is mostly a result of the strong computer programs that all use for their preparations. This is quite new in chess, as just 10 or 15 years ago this was different. As a result, chess has become a more fighting game. You need to really fight, often from even positions after the openings, to be able to squeeze out a win in the late middle game or the ending. I think the ability to be precise through a complete game is what divides the very best from the very good. The best players very often pick up points from games that seem to be drawish, as their opponent cracks in time trouble or loses concentration at some point.

What is the relationship between strategy and style? In chess, how do these two elements of your game work in conjunction toward the ultimate goal of defeating your opponent?

 I’m looking for opportunities in all phases of the game. Often I’m a bit too optimistic about my own chances, but in chess, I think it’s way better to be too optimistic rather than the opposite. Of course fighting abilities combined with skills is important if you want to be the best. For me it’s always the most interesting to play the very best grandmasters in the world. Then the battle of ideas are really challenging. A weaker opponent often allows you to complete your plans without too much resistance, and that’s actually not so interesting from a sporting point of view.

Chess is frequently used as metaphor for other situations in life. How does an understanding or the mastery of chess, inform other life situations?

A lot of people have views on this. For me, I think I have an understanding of what it takes to achieve something. And the importance of being precise in planning and execution. In my private life I follow my intuition and gut feeling.

How has your chess game been influenced by other disciplines? How have you integrated outside influences into your game?

I think the most important influence is from other sports. And how to be professional in all aspects of my career.

Magnus Carlsen is a Norwegian chess Grandmaster and chess prodigy. At the time of this interview he is the number-one ranked player in the world.

 *Thanks to Adam Rubin for contributing questions and helping to shape this interview.


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