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44 minutes | Apr 18, 2019
Give Everybody Everything: The Financial Life of Bernadette Mayer
If poetry makes nothing happen, it also makes very little in the way of income. Take the acclaimed poet Bernadette Mayer. Often aligned with the Language Poets, Mayer overcame entrenched sexism to establish herself as one of the most influential poets of her generation. At 73, she’s still producing work. And yet she only made about $17,000 last year. That’s hardly enough to live on, even after Mayer and her partner moved out of New York City. Tech moguls like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk talk about Universal Basic Income as a fix for increasing automation. But could poetry — culturally necessary but essentially unmarketable — provide an even more compelling argument for UBI? Some minimal allowance might deliver poets like Mayer from financial ruin. What do the rest of us lose when poets can no longer afford to pursue their life’s work?
43 minutes | Apr 4, 2019
The Narrative Line
What happens when the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves turn out to be wrong? And what if the attempt to shape our life stories to fit some formulaic narrative arc fundamentally distorts them? Could different narrative forms tell more honest stories? Or do all narratives falsify reality in their own way? Three artists suggest new ways forward for narrative storytelling and making sense of the world. Maggie Nelson seeks to write stories that, in place of a traditional plot, instead reflect a mode of being in the world. Visual artist Brian Belott blends found sounds, Groucho Marxian humor, and playful nonsense into anarchic vocal freakouts. And writer and artist Renee Gladman confounds the boundaries of reading, drawing, and seeing to connect thinkers with landscape and turn ideas into architecture.
31 minutes | Mar 21, 2019
Consider the Grackles
Buck Gooter is quite possibly the hardest-working band you’ve never heard of. Since forming in 2005, the band has logged 18 albums and 531 live shows. Their latest, Finer Thorns, just came out. But they’ve never had a hit, never been reviewed by Pitchfork. A punk duo from Harrisonburg, Virginia, Buck Gooter is Billy Brett, 33, and Terry Turtle, 66. On paper, they’re an odd couple, separated as they are by a generation and change. But on stage, they’ve formed a tight and incredibly productive musical collaboration. Together, Brett and Turtle criss-cross the country in a Subaru Forester to play heavy, abrasive rock music to small groups of 20-somethings in basements. They crash on couches, and when couches aren’t available, on floors. Buck Gooter is not alone — surely there are thousands of bands like this, releasing music to no fanfare and touring for little or no money. In this cultural moment, when it can seem like ubiquity is the only criterion for artistic success, what keeps a band like Buck Gooter going?
22 minutes | Feb 21, 2019
Death in Twin Peaks
[Explicit language] In 2017, David Lynch’s metaphysical detective soap opera Twin Peaks returned to cable television screens 26 years after its network cancellation. Most of the original characters resurfaced, but in several cases, either those characters or the actors playing them—or both—were dying. Over its 18 new episodes, this specter of commingled on- and off-screen mortality became as much the substance of the show as the narrative of mysteries, disappearances, violence, slapstick, romances, and resurrections that played out in the foreground. In the original series, Kyle MacLachlan, as FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, investigated the murder of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), the all-American high school student with a double life. From there, the show spiraled into a web of secrets, conspiracies, red herrings, in-jokes, and epiphanies. Twin Peaks: The Return jettisoned much of the original series’ plot-based baggage. Instead, it explored the abstract possibilities of the form, tracing mystical and mundane contingencies that ran along a live wire from Lynch’s 1977 film Eraserhead directly into the circuitry of present-day Twin Peaks. It is here critic Howard Hampton locates his own kinship with the world of Twin Peaks, together with the true source of the show’s screwball gravitas: the late Catherine Coulson as “the Log Lady,” Margaret Lanterman. Coulson had been with Lynch since his Eraserhead days. A beacon, a cipher, a beloved emblem of Lynch’s universe on the verge of death herself, she delivers a benediction disguised as an oracle’s warning.
22 minutes | Feb 7, 2019
A Call in the Night
On this week’s Organist, two stories about the surprising intimacy of anonymity. In the first, thousands of people sign up for a service, created by artist and programmer Max Hawkins, which wakes up thousands strangers with a phone call in the middle of the night then pairs them up at random and records their conversations. The vulnerability of that moment, and the anonymity of having a sleepy and total stranger on the end of the line, leads to recordings of astonishing intimacy. One night, a fighting couple, who have angrily retreated to their separate apartments, wake up to hear the voice of the other on the line, a one-in-four-thousand chance. After talking face-to-face has failed, can this weird art experiment bring them back together? In our second story, Vanessa Lowe—host of KCRW’s Nocturne, a sound-rich podcast featuring stories about the night—walks home from her favorite coffee shop to find a handwritten note sitting under a rock on her front porch. It's from an anonymous stranger, who has listened to her every word in the cafe. The note’s contents pull her into a series of increasingly anxious encounters. Has this process made her more sinister, alienated, and critical than the anonymous note-writer him or herself?
26 minutes | Jan 24, 2019
If you’ve lived in L.A. anytime in the last thirty years, you know Angelyne. She’s the blonde bombshell on the billboards that used to be studded like rhinestones all over the city. Angelyne rose to prominence in the ‘80s, and she was a mashup of elements from the pantheon of Hollywood starlets: platinum hair, an hourglass figure, and a breathy, cooing voice. But Instead of a movie or a TV show or an album, Angelyne’s billboards just advertised herself. A ninth-grader named Kate Wolf interviewed Angelyne at the height of her popularity by pretending she was a reporter for her school newspaper. Twenty-five years later, Kate wins a raffle for a ride in Angelyne’s hot-pink Corvette and asks Angelyne the tough questions about truth, image, aging, and her career as a looming pink archetype of gender.
24 minutes | Jan 10, 2019
This week we bring you dogs, many of them. So many dogs that you can’t possibly scratch the soft fur behind all of their ears or gently caress the scruff of all of their necks or pat all of their bellies when they climb onto your lap and roll over prone for your affection. To investigate the connection between humans and canis familiaris, we talk with acclaimed character actor Bob Balaban, who you’ve seen in dozens of movies and TV shows including Best in Show, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Midnight Cowboy, Seinfeld, Waiting for Guffman, Capote, and Moonrise Kingdom. You also might have heard him as the voice of King in Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs. When he’s not acting in dog-related films, Balaban is also the author of a series of children’s books about McGrowl, a courageous, bionic dog. We also talk with André Alexis, author of the novel Fifteen Dogs. Alexis got his start as a novelist while dog-sitting eleven huskies in rural Canada. As he sat at his desk trying to write, Alexis also tried to learn the dogs’ language. Could he howl so that they believed he was one of them? And what would the moral consequences of that howling be? This episode also features a short, absurdist radio fiction by Graham Mason in which you, the listener, encounter a highly skilled dog masseuse whose dog-petting prowess will drive a wedge between you and your dog forever.
37 minutes | Nov 15, 2018
The New World
Recalling the experimental films of David Lynch or Andrei Tarkovsky, Chris Reynolds’s comic books, newly anthologized as The New World, confound his readers’ expectations at every turn. In these dream-like narratives, Reynolds twists the trope of a space-helmeted comic-book hero into an uncanny figure. Comic-book plotlines, including kidnappings and interplanetary travel, dissipate as the story shifts to focus instead on ominous silences, images of weirdly depopulated cityscapes, and the mysterious appearance of a massive Roman archway. On this episode of the Organist, the artist speaks with the novelist and critic Ed Park. We also hear reflections from the celebrated graphic novelist Seth, who edited and designed this new collection, interwoven with audio adaptations of some of the more beguiling stories from the book.
32 minutes | Nov 1, 2018
Temple Grandin, an animal scientist and autism advocate, describes how she uses sound to make cattle slaughterhouses more humane. Journalist Bella Bathurst describes how she lost her hearing while conducting interviews with the last generation of Scottish lighthouse keepers and then how it felt, twelve years later, to regain it. Along the way, we’ll listen deeply to ABBA and the Beach Boys and hear an excerpt from Alexander Provan’s experimental essay/soundscape/bildungsroman Measuring Device with Organs, which explores sound connoisseurship and the tones that high-fidelity eliminates as unsavory. Provan’s work is available as both an LP and MP3 from Triple Canopy.
38 minutes | Oct 18, 2018
Between Speaking and Singing
This week we visit the shady glen where language and music make out with each other, in a field surrounded by phonemes, intonation, and the throw-away vocables of human expression. What’s important here isn’t what we say, but how we say it. We talk with artists working at the boundary between language and music: the composer Kate Soper, the poet Jeremy Sigler, and the drummer Milford Graves.
47 minutes | Oct 4, 2018
The Blindfold Challenge
This week, we explore how artists navigate disease, how disease can be both a stigma and an identity, and how artists both resist and embrace that identity even as it comes to define their work. We’ll listen to the audio diaries of multimedia artist David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992. We’ll also hear from author Sandy Allen, whose uncle Bob, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, mailed them a manuscript of the “true story” of his life, which Sandy has translated into a new book, A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise, which questions our ideas on mental health. Andrew Leland discusses the #HowEyeSeeIt blindfold challenge, which pitted the ideologies of two different blindness organizations against each other. David Wojnarowicz’s audio diaries are available as a three-LP vinyl release from the Reading Group record label and as a book, The Weight of the Earth, from Semiotext(e). Wojnarowicz’s art and music were the subject of a recent retrospective at the Whitney Museum. Lastly, you can read learn more about Sandy Allen’s book, A Kind of Mirraculus Paradise here.
32 minutes | Sep 20, 2018
The Secret Life of Plants
This week we explore two beliefs that persist in the absence of proof. In a recent appearance on Jimmy Kimmel, Donald Glover made comments linking him to a community known as “Stevie truthers,” conspiracy theorists who believe that Stevie Wonder is faking his own blindness. When Glover asks Wonder for permission to use one of his songs on his TV show Atlanta, he wonders how Stevie will be able to watch the episode—but Wonder’s work in soundtracks goes back to 1979, when he scored the New Age documentary The Secret Life of Plants, which proposes that plants are in fact conscious beings capable of communication (sometimes with aliens). That film abounds in pseudoscience, but it went on to make a lasting impact on both science and the arts. It set back the serious study of plant behavior by a generation, making the field itself a subject of ridicule in the scientific community, but also inspired musical experiments in which plants’ chemical reactions generate electronic compositions of real beauty.
58 minutes | Aug 23, 2018
Wendy Davis’s epic thirteen-hour filibuster made the Texas legislature’s livestream into a viral sensation. But Jen Rice, our producer in Austin, argues that beyond these viral scenes, its season-length, character-driven plot arcs make the Texas legislature—or as die-hard fans call it, “the Lege”—every bit the equal of prestige-television staples like Game of Thrones or Mad Men. In her recap of the 85th Texas legislative session, Jen brings us the escalating rivalries, tearful monologues, fighting in the middle of the night—all the pieces that build up to the climactic moments in the best show you didn’t even know you were missing. And Niela Orr, our contributing editor and a writer-at-large, tells us about two summer albums she’s been listening to: one dark, funny, and totally sincere; the other bright, anthemic, and basically empty. In different ways, they’re both perfect listening for the end of this hot, depressing summer. Lastly, we discover a new transmission from within the infinite hexagonal chambers of the iTunes Library of Babel, an alternate world which contains all possible podcasts. Aaron Thier, author of The World is a Narrow Bridge, brings us a city-council livestream, in which sentient trees, jars of radium, and severed fingers are all up for sale.
37 minutes | Aug 9, 2018
This week, two stories from the borderlands of the U.S. First, the story of poet Javier Zamora. When he was nine, he crossed the Sonoran Desert into the U.S. to reunite with his family, who had left home before him in order to escape the political violence in El Salvador. Years later, Zamora found a way to process this childhood trauma by writing furious, luminous poetry. In this interview, he describes indelible images from his border-crossing—guns, dogs, crawling through tunnels, conflicted border guards, and craving water—and how revisiting the experience through writing has brought him to a new understanding of what it meant. At a time when the relationship between the U.S. and Canada has become unusually tense, we speak with Porter Fox, the author of Northland, who spent three years exploring the 4,000-mile border between Maine and Washington. His writing illuminates a stretch of land unknown to most Americans, and engages with its history and beauty but ends up encountering a very contemporary narrative of an increasingly policed border and Native American protests in Standing Rock and elsewhere. Phonographer Ernst Karel explores physical space through sound. Using two microphones, each pointed at a different country, Karel created an uncanny soundscape of a triangular section of the border between Switzerland, France, and Germany, and how each uses the border region to different economic ends. Lastly, as part of our ongoing series, Vi Vered sends a new dispatch from the iTunes Library of Babel. You can read more from our interview with Javier Zamora at mcsweeneys.net.
58 minutes | Jul 26, 2018
Two Years With Franz
After the death of Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Franz Wright in 2015, his wife Beth gave producer Bianca Giaever 546 audio tapes that he made as he was dying. Unable to type because of pain in his wrists, Franz used an audio recorder to dictate his poetry, but it picked up much more: Franz talked with his wife, made phone calls, cursed at his cat, and fantasized about the first human to ever speak. Franz was known in the poetry world as a genius and a lunatic. His father was James Wright, who won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1972. Franz was plagued by mental illness and addiction, and he attempted suicide many times. When Bianca visited his apartment in Waltham, Massachusetts, she was amazed by what she saw. Writing covered the apartment. Franz wrote poetry directly on the fridge, painted poetry on the walls, and even scribbled on coffee filters. All over the house Bianca found love notes they had written to each other. Franz had been given a terminal cancer diagnosis, but the tapes record an incredible vitality in the face of death. His wife’s decision to give her these tapes changed Bianca’s life. You can find photos of the apartment Franz and Beth shared, including the poetry Franz wrote on a styrofoam Dunkin’ Donuts cup just after he awoke from surgery, at mcsweeneys.net. This story was produced by Bianca and Jay Allison, and originally aired on the public radio website Transom.org. You can find the original story and read about their process here. Support for this project came from the National Endowment for the Arts.
32 minutes | Jul 12, 2018
The Voice of God
This week we bring you voices from heaven, hell, and everywhere in between. In documentary films, the authoritative “Voice of God” style of narration presents a seemingly omniscient, impartial, deep-voiced male narrator. No one has had more practice with the role than Peter Coyote, best known as the narrator of Ken Burns’ documentaries (The West, The Roosevelts, The National Parks). Here, Coyote gives a master class on the major differences in meaning that arise from tiny shifts in register, pulling a story out of melodrama into an illusion of objectivity. Ellie Kemper (star of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) shares a mysterious sound that’s stayed with her for twenty-three years, and describes a high-school musical performance that changed her life. Penelope Spheeris is best known as the director of Wayne’s World, but while filming the legendary documentary The Decline of Western Civilization Part III, about homeless L.A. punks, she met her long-time boyfriend SIN, who performs dissonant guitar rock as psychological therapy to exorcise the demons in his mind: “It’s like listening to hell.” And our host describes his changing relationship to voices and narration as he adapts to his own degenerative blindness. Finally, we’ll inaugurate a new recurring segment, “The iTunes Library of Babel,” in which we present short excerpts from an infinite Borgesian library of podcasts. Produced by Myke Dodge Weiskopf, Jenny Ament, Ross Simonini, and Andrew Leland. Library of Babel excerpts produced by Fil Corbitt and Owen Poindexter.
2 minutes | Jul 10, 2018
The Organist returns Thursday
From KCRW and McSweeney’s, the Organist returns with its fifth season on July 12! We’ll be drilling down into pop culture to reveal its dark, beautiful, pulsating inner-core to bring you funny, sad, and surprising stories about the complex ideas and feelings behind the artists and thinkers that we adore. We’ll visit gutter punks and Pulitzer Prize–winners, we’ll talk to a poet who crossed the Sonoran Desert into the U.S. at nine years old, and a writer who traveled the entirety of the US-Canada border and stumbled into the beginning of the Standing Rock protests. We’ll binge-watch the Texas State House live feed like it was prestige TV, and study prop comedy like it was Marxist literary theory. The Organist is your indispensable guide to this twisted landscape of contemporary art, culture, and ideas. New episodes will magically appear in your feed every other week, starting Thursday. What, you don't already subscribe? Do it here. (And while you're there — maybe leave us a review?)
34 minutes | Apr 26, 2018
Bonus: Neighborhood Secret
The Organist is still in off-season hibernation, but we emerge for a moment in order to showcase KCRWâ€™s newest podcast: Lost Notes. In this episode, writer Donnell Alexander examines the racial politics of a strange chapter of early 80s pop-music history. To white America, Bostonâ€™s music scene was synonymous with the hard rock of Aerosmith and J. Geils Band. But alongside rock and roll was a vital tradition of talent shows in Bostonâ€™s Roxbury neighborhood which birthed the careers of Donna Summer and New Editionâ€”a group perhaps best known for launching Bobby Brown and Bell Biv DeVoe. Through the lens of New Editionâ€™s tumultuous career, Donnell Alexander lovingly, trenchantly, and often hilariously describes the groupâ€™s collaboration with Monkeesâ€™ songwriter Bobby Hart; Michael Jacksonâ€™s offer of clemency when New Edition faced a career-ending copyright-infringement suit; and how the boy bandâ€™s perceived betrayal of their roots at the height of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry drove a painful wedge into their fanbase. The Organist will be back with new episodes on June 28, 2018. Produced by Donnell Alexander. Lost Notes is produced by Myke Dodge Weiskopf and hosted by Solomon Georgio. Its executive producer is Nick White.
27 minutes | Dec 14, 2017
How to Be in Two Places at Once: The Firesign Theatre in the US and Vietnam
Between 1967 and 1975, the Firesign Theatre put out nine albums that carved out a new space somewhere between comedy, sound art, literature, and rock and roll. The music critic Robert Christgau called them “a comedy group that uses the recording studio at least as brilliantly as any rock group.” In this episode, we focus not on how those albums were made, but how they were heard. From teenage house parties to soldiers’ barracks in Vietnam, the Firesign Theatre infiltrated thousands of American headphones and hi-fis. Jeremy Braddock, a scholar and critic currently writing a book on Firesign, brings us the story of how the group’s psychedelic psy-ops tactics created a new kind of collective listening in America. Produced by Myke Dodge Weiskopf and Jeremy Braddock Image courtesy of Firesign Theatre
52 minutes | Nov 30, 2017
After King Kreon condemns her brother, a traitor, to rot on the battlefield, Antigone defies him, risking her own life, to give her brother a proper burial. This week, we present poet Anne Carson’s experimental translation of Sophocles’ play, an adaptation that incorporates within it 2,500 years of the play’s reception history, its performances (from Brecht to Vichy France), its interpretations (from Hegel to Judith Butler), and starring artist Margaux Williamson as Antigone. Many thanks to Anne Carson, Ella Haselswerdt, Katie Fleming, Hannah Silverblank, New Directions Books, and Michael Barron. Produced by Angela Shackel Image credit: Braden Labonté
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