Blue Notes, February 2019
Updated: Mar 1
Vampire Weekend’s hipster-preppiness has remained a dominant strain in the Northeast’s collegiate aesthetic for over a decade, but the band’s contemporary appeal among Columbians must also rest on the abiding thrill of parsing their Core-inspired lyrics and a sense of collective relief that at least some of our alumni aren’t football moguls or Gyllenhaals.
Last month, after six years of silence, Vampire Weekend released two singles, “Harmony Hall” and “2021,” to great fanfare on campus and beyond. Noticeably absent from the tracks are Rostam Batmanglij’s sinuous vocal solos and instrumental riffs. In 2016, he announced his departure from the band to pursue a solo career and in 2017, he released Half-Light, which the critic Hua Hsu called “surreal and mysterious.”
While Vampire Weekend’s new tunes blared on speakers from Riverside to Morningside, Rostam performed at Lincoln Center’s Appel Room for an intimate Thursday crowd that seemed to comprise bespectacled Brooklynites, boorish industry types, the artist’s mother, and two Columbia first-years craning their necks to catch a glimpse from their stools in the far-left mezzanine.
Illustration by Kate Steiner
It was an evening of humble experimentation. Rostam’s accompanying string octet flirted with a classical piece the artist wrote over a decade ago, and they crescendoed on the remarkable “Gwan.” Rostam’s lyrics soared: “Wisdom comes to your heart / Down a shaft from afar/ Pulls you out of bed and into the noise.” The encore, a cover of Van Morrison’s kaleidoscopic classic “Astral Weeks,” felt perfect, or hauntingly close.
After an acoustic rendition of “Campus,” an ode to our Beaux-Arts environs that Rostam penned at age twenty-two, he determined aloud that the tempo had been unsatisfactory and asked the audience if it might let him attempt the number again. The teary-eyed Lions in the balcony were all too pleased to oblige.
— Sam Needleman
For Dr. David Eisenbach, CC ’94, falling in love with New York City was easy. He spent his undergraduate years at Columbia racing between boroughs on the subway and embracing the “adventure of it all.” Eventually this love developed from passion into purpose as he saw the New York he knew and loved fall away before his eyes, culminating in a highly active and ardent campaign for New York City’s Public Advocate.
“I fell in love with the vibrancy of the streets, just being able to walk around and find something new,” says Eisenbach. Now, Eisenbach advises Columbia students to look around Morningside Heights where local establishments are being replaced by empty storefronts or large chains. A pattern of repeated rezonings and luxury tower constructions have increased property rates throughout New York City, translating to an ever-increasing plight for small business owners and, accordingly, demarcating one of the key concerns of Eisenbach’s campaign.
Eisenbach sees the public advocate as the “voice of the city” to call out “waste, fraud, and corruption.” Moreover, he feels his background in academia has prepared him for the particulars of the position. “I don’t have the skillset to be mayor,” Eisenbach says, “But I can lead a conversation, and there are a lot of conversations that New York City needs to have.”
As a Lit Hum student turned Lit Hum professor, Eisenbach has spent countless hours discussing the literary greats and, to the chagrin of current freshmen slaving over Dante’s Inferno, found that the issues of justice and morality unpacked within classroom walls often directly inform modern thought or, at the very least least, they’ve affected Eisenbach’s self-concept as he moves into the final weeks of his campaign. “There is a need to be and have a Socrates who’s going to call out the injustice around him,” Eisenbach states. “That’s a job I’ve embraced as a teacher. And I feel that this role of the public advocate is an extension of something I’ve been doing every day here in Morningside Heights.”
Take everything to heart that you see etched in stone, and you might be misled by this campus, whose engravings on Butler imply that only men write books, on Schermerhorn that it “advances” something, rather than confusing everyone, and on a bench at Barnard that—surprise—eugenics are awesome.
I’ve seen the bench before, framed by scaffolding for most of my time here (thanks, Milstein), but have never put much thought to the slogans emblazoned on its front — “Stupid people shouldn’t breed,” right below “It’s crucial to have an active fantasy life” — chalking up its objectionability to some conceptual art piece.
Illustration by Helen Becker
And conceptual art it is, I learned recently, one of the only pieces of fine art displayed anywhere on Columbia or Barnard’s campus. The bench is from a series called Truisms by Jenny Holzer, a feminist artist who created the series to make people aware of the “usual baloney they are fed” by making even-more ridiculous signage, according to the Tate museum.
Though no single person is likely to encounter more than one of Holzer’s pieces, the tongue-in-cheek nature of her artworks, nearly 253 in total, with different sayings—on benches, buildings, and billboards around the globe— becomes apparent when considering them as a collective. Many of the works contradict each other: Maybe stupid people shouldn’t breed, but there’s some neon sign by Holzer, somewhere out there in the world, telling us that “you can live on through your descendents,” no IQ test required.
After learning about Holzer, passing that bench is an exciting experience, and not just because the scaffolding’s gone. Now, I can’t help but hope that, like with the bench, there might be an alternate-universe Columbia campus where Schermerhorn has “DO NOT ENTER” proudly engraved on the front and Butler names really do range from Sappho to Woolf. I suppose Holzer is right on one count: it is crucial, at least during my treks to Milstein, to have an active fantasy life.”