We began by scoping street art in Lisbon. We walked the stories, past and future, of Houston and Turin. Now, for our third step for sustainability, we explore the idea of resiliency, what makes a city resilient, and find ourselves wholly entertained by the sounds of Milan and Memphis.
Resiliency is a term often mentioned in the discourse of sustainable development and climate change mitigation. At its core, resiliency is about fortitude and conviction, staying the course even when externalities become existential threats. For cities in the 21st century, resiliency is as much about preparation as reaction. Building a post-carbon future, for example, is a pro-active step in ensuring a city’s resilience to both economic uncertainties and environmental challenges.
But resiliency can also be pejoratively described as stubborn or inflexible, unwilling or unable to change and adapt to realities. We can refer to climate change skeptics as resilient in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. There are other words we could use as well, but you get the idea.
So what kind of resilience are we looking for when it comes to the post-carbon cities of tomorrow? How can cities respond to the impending external pressures they are certain to face while maintaining the dynamism of their identities? Maybe if we reverse the equation, if we start by fortifying dynamism (I swear that’s not a paradox), celebrating the identities of these cities, we’ll find ourselves One Step Ahead on the path to resilient post-carbon cities.
Now, let’s lay some vinyl.
If you already followed that last link, you probably know where we’re headed, or at least how we’re going to get there. But first we’ll stop in the second Italian POCACITO city, Milan (remember Turin?). To the uninitiated observer, the Milanese might seem fashion and finance obsessed, too busy rushing (particularly when driving) to the next trend to appreciate the city’s cultural heritage. But in truth, the Milanese embody the city’s culture. Even the stereotypes about fashion and finance are part of that story—Milan is arguably the world capital of high fashion, with the omnipresent decadence of ‘quadrilatero della moda’, and the grand Teatro alla Scala served simultaneously, if secondarily, as a casino, with the orchestra providing the colonna sonora, or soundtrack. Life in Milan, in fact, seems permanently set to music.
If the soundtrack of Milan begins at La Scala, then the overture was undoubtedly composed by Giuseppe Verdi. Perhaps the greatest opera composer in history, Verdi’s professional success began with personal devastation. His first opera, Oberto, was well-received upon its premiere at La Scala in November 1839, but by then his two children had died, neither having reached eighteen months of age, and his wife Margherita died soon thereafter while Verdi was at work on just his second opera, an abject failure. Despite reported vows to never compose again, Verdi went on to create the most famous melodies ever heard, including “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” (il Brindisi) from La Traviata, “Pace, pace mio dio” from La Forza del Destino, and “La donna è mobile” from Rigoletto.
Perhaps the greatest testament to resiliency among the works of Verdi is his Messa da Requiem, composed to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of Alessandro Manzoni, author of I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), the novel credited with unifying the varied Italian languages and, thereby, making possible the political unification of Italy. If that sounds unduly excessive or extravagant, just watch.
Extravagant and eccentric, rather than excessive, are often attributed to Luciano Berio. Berio studied at the Milan Conservatory, and after encountering the still-experimental world of electronic music, he opened his Studio di Fonologia. Whereas Verdi’s oeuvre can be regarded as dynamism fortified, Berio’s compositions are a veritable celebration of identities, particularly in his near-half century exploration of the possibilities of individual voices collected as Sequenza. It began with the flute in 1958, and culminated with the cello in 2002. Yet each stage of Sequenza, from accordion to a woman’s voice to trombone, is a creative disruption of our preconceptions of sound. Each voice becomes a hybrid, at times melodic, at times atonal, and always distinctly rooted in the same source.
In Milan, even hybridization can be stylized. For Adriano Celentano, the ragazzo della via Gluck (boy from Gluck Street), bringing rock to La Scala remains a dream. But the telegenic performer ably used a more modern medium to reach his audience. From the Rai television studios in Milan, the charming Celentano captivated the country and the world with iconic solo performances like this one and this duet with his wife, Claudia Mori. But it is Celentano’s Prisencolinensinainciusol (don’t waste time trying to figure out the pronunciation—just follow the link in a minute to hear the master do it) that speaks more to our topic. The song is pure gibberish, and not in that negative way your parents (no matter how old you are) complained about. The lyrics, which were written the year after they were sung, are not in any language, though they are meant to sound like American slang to an Italian ear. Celentano wanted to create a song about dis-communication, but the result was a dynamic anthem that used rhythm as a universal language, a hybrid that actually expanded the possibility for communication—some music historians consider it the world’s first rap song. In this way, Celentano shows us the unifying potential of stylized hybridization. He also shows us he can really dance.
If you watched any of the links about Celentano, it won’t be hard to believe who is idols were: Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis (yes, the world is that interconnected). Though they both came from towns a bit further south along the Mississippi River, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley achieved stardom in Memphis, Tennessee, another of our POCACITO cities.
If Elvis is the King and Aretha Franklin, a Memphis native, is the Queen of Soul, then Memphis is about as high a ground as we can find in the music world. Sun Studio recorded Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Rosco Gordon, and Roy Orbison here. And then there’s B.B. King and Beale Street. But despite the grandeur of the old guard, Memphis’s modern-day music scene is not humbled by the past; rather, it honors it by being a part of it while pushing it forward. It other words, music Memphis-style is the definition of culturally progressive resilience.
We won’t go into the history of the city here—we wouldn’t do it justice in this format. Suffice it to say, Memphis has always had a reason to sing the Blues. So let’s start there.
Kid Douglas ran away, guitar and banjo in hand, to Beale Street at age 13, playing her Kidman Blues on street corners. After a multi-year touring gig, she returned to Memphis with a new name, Memphis Minnie, and the contracts were there to greet her. She was Pickin’ the Blues for years, performing and recording on her way to Chicago, then Indianapolis and Detroit, before returning to Memphis for her final years. At the end of her life, her government income was so meager, magazines pleaded with her fans to support the Bad Luck Woman—and they did.
If the Blues individualizes the narrative of human resiliency, soul music collectivizes it, or orchestrates it, as Memphis’s own Isaac Hayes proved. Isaac Hayes’s first instrument was his own voice—that voice, but at a very young age, the musical prodigy taught himself to play the piano, flute, saxophone, and Hammond organ. Much like Luciano Berio, Hayes pushed the boundaries of possibility with the sounds of these instruments. But Hayes then brought these voices together, compounding them into lush harmonies (‘hot-buttered’, he would say) that rewrote how people heard music. Hayes’s music incorporated a community (if not an orchestra) of sounds that conveyed the dynamic possibilities of inclusiveness—something we can call Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic.
Whether Milan or Memphis, we’ve seen the fortification of dynamism and the celebration of identities that we were looking for in our search for resiliency. We also used examples from Milan to identify hybridization as a form of progressivism. But does Memphis’s music scene offer the same potential for adaptability, an ability to integrate contemporary realities while staying true to its identity?
If a night out in Memphis does not include at least one live music show, you aren’t doing it right. Music is everywhere in Memphis, just as it ever was. What can be difficult for visitors, however, is putting a name to the sounds emanating from local venues like the Hi-Tone, Young Avenue Deli, or Murphy’s. And then there’s always Beale Street. Without a doubt you’ll hear blues and bluegrass, rock and jazz, heavy metal and hip-hop. But you’ll also hear variations on a theme (not quite Paganini style), such as trip-hop, psychedelic rock, post-punk, folktronica, and glitchcore.
So what is it about Memphis that makes it fertile ground for this multitude of compound hybrid music genres? Some ascribe it to Sun, Stax, Easley McCain, Goner, and other recording studios that have for generations attracted some of the most progressive international musical magicians to the area. Others view it as a natural evolution of the city’s own complex history, harmonizing diverse experiences into a collective cultural identity. Undoubtedly, it is both, and it is the manifestation of resiliency.
In contemporary urban planning discourse, resiliency is often used to discuss whether a city is prepared or able to respond to the economic, environmental, and demographic pressures it will face. Our POCACITO project focuses, for example, on water management, sustainable mobility, and energy efficient buildings. Before we start drawing up blueprints and digging new canals, however, it’s wise to take our cue from the communities—so sit back and listen to what resilience sounds like. We’ve put together a colonna sonora (via Spotify) to get you started.