Clarity, with a Certain Descriptive Flair: Interview with Nate Chinen

by Kristen Holt-Browning

This is some town: last year, I received a notification from the library that a book I had requested had come in and was ready for me to pick up. As I walked in, I happened to run into an acquaintance, a fellow PTA mom at our kids’ school. She asked what I was up to, and I replied, “Oh, just picking up this new book on jazz. I heard it’s good, thought I’d check it out.” She gave me a quizzical look and asked for the title. Huh, didn’t know she’s a fan of jazz, I thought as I replied, “Playing Changes by someone, I can’t remember his name.” “Nate Chinen,” she said. “He’s my husband!” Naturally, I forced her to put me in touch with him so I could get him to join us at Get Lit! And, I snagged an interview:

GLB: I’m interested in how your own background in music—if any—shaped and influenced your writing career. Have you ever played an instrument yourself? Do you think a background in music is necessary to write about music? Why or why not?

NCI don’t think musical training is essential for a music journalist, any more than practical filmmaking experience is necessary for a movie critic. But there’s no question that fluency in music is extremely useful, and probably a crucial advantage. My own experience bears this out. I grew up in a family of entertainers, and I gravitated to the drums at an early age. I studied jazz drumming and thought it might be my career. I went to college in a city with a deep jazz pedigree, throwing myself into the local scene. At the same time, I was studying poetry as an English major, and somehow this led to freelance work as a jazz critic for the local alternative weekly paper. As I learned on the job, I realized that my musical background informed what I did, often in invisible ways. It wasn’t just the technical stuff — it was an awareness of the culture on and off the bandstand, and the way jazz musicians related to the world. That still guides my work.

GLB: Personally, I find the idea of writing about another art form fascinating. What, do you think, is the key to writing well about music? What’s the value of writing about jazz for your reader—that is, how does reading about jazz enhance or interact with the experience of listening to jazz, either live or recorded? 

downloadWriting about music is a slippery topic, because there are a handful of different ways to do it well. For me, the best approaches always combine clarity with a certain descriptive flair, along with some tether to a broader context (historical, biographical, cultural). And I’m the sort of writer who always seeks out the music in language, so it’s a fun challenge to evoke the texture of a sound, or the feeling in a room. When I was working as a critic for the New York Times, a lot of my job involved going out to the clubs and reviewing a show — with the idea that I was documenting something for posterity, but also providing a service for people who might want to catch the engagement later in the week. Now that I write mainly for the Web, in an era when anyone can cue up a song within moments, I’ve adopted a slightly different approach. The way I see it, the role of a critic has shifted from that of “gatekeeper” to “guide.” A guide is someone who can provide helpful context, or point out subtle details you might have missed, or show you how things connect, or keep you in the know. Ideally, the writing enhances an experience of the music — along with letting people know that it’s out there in the first place.

static1.squarespaceGLB: The people reading this interview are lovers of books, but might not know much about jazz. Can you give us a few recommendations? What programs or artists should we be listening to and following?  

One suggestion I always give people who ask this question is: find out whether there’s a scene in your backyard, and start checking it out. Jazz is a music that really comes alive in close quarters, and in real time. Those of us who live in Beacon now are lucky to have so much vital improvised music around us: at Quinn’s, and the Howland Center, and across the river at The Falcon. Go check it out! You’ll be supporting artists directly, and you’re sure to get something out of it.

That said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t put in a plug for WBGO, where I serve as editorial director. It’s a 24-hour jazz radio station that streams online, and I produce a ton of content for the website, (One popular feature is Take Five, an annotated list of five notable new tracks, posted every Monday. Follow those recommendations for a while, and you’ll have a good handle on the scene.) As for artists to follow, I’ll restate my endorsement of the artists profiled in Playing Changes, each of whom has kept doing fantastic work since the book was published. I’m writing these answers from a train in Holland, where I attended a festival and saw another mind-blowing performance by singer Cécile McLorin Salvant and pianist Sullivan Fortner — the first two artists mentioned in the book, on page 1 of the Foreword. It’s exciting how much energy is on the scene now. If you’re just getting into the music, you picked a great time.

Nate Chinen was a critic for the New York Times for more than a decade, and he is currently the director of editorial content at WBGO, the global leader in jazz radio. His book Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century, explores the many changes—ideological, technological, theoretical, and practical—that jazz musicians have learned to navigate since the turn of the century, touching on topics such as commercialized jazz education, the synergies between jazz and postmillennial hip-hop and R&B, and in-depth profiles of influential artists including the saxophonists Steve Coleman and Kamasi Washington, the pianists Jason Moran and Vijay Iyer, and the bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding.

He lives in Beacon with his wife and two daughters.

Nate will be our featured guest on November 10!

Observing the Living World: Interview with Melanie Challenger

By Julie Chibbaro

In my day job, I work as an editor for a bioethics research institute called The Hastings Center, in Garrison, N.Y. I spend much of my day reading the thoughts and analyses of multidisciplinary scholars who offer possible solutions to some of our most difficult ethical problems, like how to best face the technology that can change babies before they’re born, or how to deal with human research issues in an increasingly corporatized medical environment. I often get to meet interesting people at work, both staff and visiting scholars.

My author guest today is Melanie Challenger, who will visit the Center in November.


She is one of those unusually talented people: a singer, a writer, a researcher, a philosopher. She is relentlessly curious about nature and science, and manages to incorporate her passions into a field of study that is very much her own. I had the chance to ask her a few questions about her work, her visit to the Center, and some of her adventures.

GLB: What is the connection for you between the arts and science and nature?

MC: I have sort of wandered off course and ended up accidentally in what can loosely be called environmental philosophy. I didn’t train in philosophy, something that I was very anxious about for a while. Now I see it as its own quiet advantage. I began life as a student of English literature and language, and went from university into the arts, assuming I would be a creative writer. I wrote and published early poems, which led to collaborations with composers as a librettist. During my teens and twenties, I had also trained as a singer, and worked in education departments in classical music, so that was very much in my blood. Now, whatever muse I once had has also wandered off, although I continue to work in music. But this early training has allowed me a fleshed out understanding of different forms of human expression, and also a clearer idea of where one form ends and another must be taken up. When I began to battle with creative writing, I realized that I wasn’t anywhere near as interested in character or narrative as I was in ideas. I was always using writing to try to understand concrete ideas about what the world is and what relationship we can have with reality. It took me a long time to realize that – in my case – I couldn’t get the arts to sharpen the lens hard enough on the subjects and questions that interested me. Perhaps this was lack of talent. If I’d been Kafka, such failures might have been fewer. But even Kafka can only offer a prism through which questions can be shattered and given witness. When it comes to making real headway in very gnarly questions like what is a category like wildness? On what basis might it have value? The kinds of questions I realized I was desperately seeking answers to, nonfiction offered an easier way to lay bare some tentative answers. Initially, I dipped my toe in using creative nonfiction, which is really personal essay. This is a very effective way of reaching people with complex science or philosophy, who don’t necessarily want to read through technical ideas. But even this was a distraction for me. And while my latest book does contain the presence of me and the odd anecdote, I have tried to find a style now that is both accessible but much more directly about the ideas. So I guess what I’m saying is that the creative arts, humanities like philosophy, and science are often all interested in similar fundamental questions about the nature of reality. But how they can answer the questions are necessarily different. They are not alternatives to one another. Each mode places limits on what can be understood or expressed. But they are leaky containers, with the ideas from each freely flowing from one to the other, influencing the content of each. My only regret is that we still live in a world where science is reported as if it has anything to say about meaning. Science can give us some of the content for meaning, but the job of making sense of the value of science lies squarely with the arts. Sorry . . . that’s an awfully long and still impoverished answer!

mel book.jpg

GLB: What made you want to travel?

MC: There are two reasons I like to travel, one nakedly selfish and the other more sensible. The first is that I am a keen amateur naturalist and I derive an immeasurable amount of pleasure (and, I hope, some insights) from spending as much time as possible observing the living world. I’m lucky that I live in the middle of a forest down several miles of rough track. My neighbors are goshawks, hares, butterflies, stouts, adders. The only visible house is several miles away. We own only about 11 acres but we’re sat in around 30,000 acres, and even though this is managed forest, it still means that every day is an observation of the nonhuman world. But when I try to develop ideas about value or hypotheses about human nature or whatever, I think it makes an enormous difference to have at your hands a more intimate experience of other species and natural processes, their behavior and constraints. But I also travel to see people. A portion of my work is probably what we would call an anthropology of science. I have always been compelled not just to read other people’s technical papers but to go and talk with the person who wrote them (assuming they’re alive). I like to see the environments in which ideas are formed and the individual personalities doing the writing. This is what journalists also do, but in my case, it’s not about giving a personal touch to the story but a more specific, ethnographic way of making sense of cultures of knowledge. I continue to find this a powerful way of seeking out what information might help in answering very broad or complex questions. But it also can help prevent someone like me, who is doing very interdisciplinary work without being an expert, from impoverishing another person’s ideas or woefully misunderstanding them.

GLB: Can tell us about your work at The Hastings Center?


MC: I recently started as a member of the UK’s Nuffield Council on Bioethics. Bioethics is something that fascinates me, because it lies at the intersection of practical applications like laws and ethics, and the analysis of ideas about the life sciences. But I have really noticed, as I’ve worked more in bioethics, that environmental philosophers are curiously underrepresented. Now this, to me, is both curious and very important. There are panels working on subjects like, for instance, gene-editing or gene-drive for malaria eradication (via mosquito control) or synthetic biology, as another example, that have almost no expertise or even, in some cases, interest in the fundamental intellectual history that might shed light on questions of nature, ecology, or the value of other species. I am really passionate about trying to correct this, and looking at consensus building in philosophy will be the focus of my time at the Center.


Melanie Challenger studied English literature and language at Oxford University. She published a sequence of poems, Galatea, which won a 2005 Eric Gregory Award and was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Her first nonfiction book, On Extinction: How we became estranged from nature was published in 2011. It was selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the best nonfiction books of 2012. She was the recipient of a Darwin Now Award for her research among Canadian Inuit and the Arts Council International Fellowship with British Antarctic Survey for her work on the history of whaling. Her latest book, How To Be Animal: A new history of what it means to be human, is forthcoming in 2020.


Lee McIntyre: Post-Truth & the Perfect Fraud of Deepfake Video

By Flora Stadler

I remember once, back when I was a Very Serious Poet recently graduated from liberal arts college, I was talking to my mother about graduate school and she asked if I would consider journalism.

“That’s also writing,” she’d said.

“It’s not the same thing at all,” I replied, all righteous.

But 10 years later—after falling into a job as an editor at a local magazine and becoming a true believer in the connection between news and democracy—I did go to graduate school for journalism. There, I got an unexpected education in media literacy: I learned not only how to report news, but how to consume it—how to understand the sometimes subtle difference between fact and implication, the importance of source, the way language and even statistics can be manipulated.

But nothing could’ve prepared me for where we are now. News media, social media—it’s overwhelming and, honestly, discouraging.

In this bloody election cycle, I’m going to fall back on reporting and bring some nonfiction focus into the Get Lit online salon. I need truth to counter this confusing, divisive and downright Orwellian time, as we learn to consume new forms of media responsibly in the age of post-truth politics.

In my quest to separate facts from alternative facts, I found the refreshingly straightforward Lee McIntyre, Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University and author of Post-Truth, a very good (and kind of scary) book examining the path that led us here, and how we can tread carefully on it.

McIntyre isn’t just a nonfiction author. He also had interesting things to say about his fiction writing, a genre he described as “ethical thriller,” and how it impacted his work on this book: “Quite a number of philosophers read mysteries, all the way back to Wittgenstein. And one day, I was reading [John] Grisham and I thought, ‘I can do this, how hard can it be?’ It’s very hard, very hard indeed. But it’s made me better at writing nonfiction because some of the techniques used in fiction, like show don’t tell, really work in nonfiction. Sometimes what’s the most persuasive is to tell somebody a story. So Post-Truth would’ve been a very different book if I hadn’t written fiction… I had to tell a story that made sense in the overall arc of the argument.”

But let’s get to the juicy nonfiction, and to the root of my question:

Since you’ve written the book Post-Truth, what’s the one thing you’re seeing now that worries you most, and what should we be doing as news/social media producers and consumers to mitigate it?

“The most common question I get is, ‘Where do we go now? What can we do next?’ In order to answer the question, you have to play the ball where it lies, and it’s a slightly different place right now than it was when I turned in the manuscript for the book [in May 2017].

By far, the thing that I’m the most worried about is the extent to which post-truth is a precursor for an authoritarian government. We’re seeing more and more that lying by public officials—not just in the U.S., but in other countries—is a precursor for oppression and silencing of journalists and, in some cases, violence against journalists. Political leaders do that when they’re getting ready to take over, getting ready to accrete more power, and they want to shut up the truth-tellers.

The reason I’m more worried about this than I was a year-and-a-half ago is not only that political events have changed, but fake news has changed. At the time I wrote Post-Truth, the main kind of fake news we were concerned with was the type that was being produced in Russian troll farms and other places, that were these naked attempts to try to insert false stories into the news stream and get us to believe them. That still exists, but now Trump is making false accusations of fake news against legitimate news organizations, which can have a kind of ricochet effect.

And with the technological advances, it’s now possible to produce audio and audiovisual fake news. There’s a company called Lyrebird that has a very legitimate business: What they try to do is take a one-minute audio sample and use that to create a vocal dictionary. So they put it through a speech synthesizer and get you to say anything you need to say. Now, if you’re Stephen Hawking, that’s a good thing. But if you’re someone trying to produce fake news, that’s a terrible thing, because you can use someone’s voice to try to get them to say whatever you need to say.

There’s another project out of Stanford, a video project called Face2Face. What they can do, which is straight out of Orwell, is take a person who’s being videotaped on a screen, put a mask on a person who’s standing just offstage, and through a technology called ‘face capture’ make the image that’s being projected on the screen conform to the facial expressions of the person wearing the face mask, rather than the person in the screen. In real time, they’ll be able to digitally alter the facial expression of the person who is giving the speech. When that happens, I don’t know what happens next. At that point, it may be that people are so cynical and demoralized that they think everything is fake. And that puts us at enormous risk for authoritarian rule.

I think the only thing that we can do is be aware that it exists. We were enormously behind the curve on text- and picture-based fake news, and it’s taken us two years to get to the level of public education and literacy where people are beginning to be skeptical about news. I think it will take that long or longer for people to get to a similar level of skepticism about the new technology, which is called Deepfake tech. It is so compelling that even if you know it’s fake, it appeals to a certain cognitive bias that we have in our brain, where we might enjoy watching it. I remember after the Parkland tragedy, there was a fake photo that went around of Emma González ripping the Constitution in half. It was completely Photoshopped and fake. The sad part of it is that even people who knew it was fake shared it and loved it. So just imagine what will happen when we can share audio and video. Even if it’s fake, it’s still going to appeal to that cognitive bias that we have.”

Lee McIntyre is a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University and ethics instructor at Harvard Extension School. His many wonderful books on truth, science and philosophy can be ordered at Binnacle Books in Beacon.