What Else Can This Thing Do?|
An Interview with Kenneth Goldsmith on Radio Practices
Conducted by Ben Baumes, Repellent Magazine, Brooklyn, New York, 2005
You don't hear coughing on the radio. You just don't. So when the coughing goes on ... and on and on and on and on -- on a loop for something over 5 minutes -- you can hardy make sense of it. Infact, you can hardy do anything but try and restrain the cramping in your stomach. No one expects that of radio (even the Howard Stern fans), and no one turns to their computer and actively types in w w w dot w f m u dot org and calls up a live stream for a show called "Anal Magic with Kenny G". Because that's absurd and seemingly shouldn't exist in any sort of reality.
But it does. And thank high heaven.
For years now, the members of the tri-state area that foolishly tune in 90.1 or 91.1 FM or the intrepid souls that call up a live stream at wfmu.org (and even the supremely weird cases that actually listen to archives of this lunacy) on a Wednesday afternoon between 3 and 6 have had to deal with the absolute horsepoop of one Kenny G, a certain individual intent on having a go with what radio should or could be and happily presenting the most intensely trying - yet somehow amazingly enjoyable -- show on radio.
Kenneth Goldsmith, ehh -kay-ehh Kenny G, is actually a bratish pain in the words rump that grew up on Long Island, went to art school, and then somehow (sorry mothers) made a career out of being a difficult artist. Actually, Kenny worked damned hard to sell some sculptures and visual art works only to decide he'd rather be a poet. After producing a series of fake books, Kenny wrote some real books including 111, a collection of words and phrases ending with the schwa sound arranged as an epic poem, Soliique, a exhausting transcript of every word uttered in a week, and Fidget, a running commentary on every movement the author made in a day arranged, again, as an epic. Kenny concurrently turned his attention to Ubuweb, a collection of strange utterances, sound poetry, and concrete poetry easily lost in the maelstrom of modern thought and cultural production. Despite all of that, Kenny also maintained a strange and severe love of music and collecting. To focus that energy, he kept up a radio show on Jersey City's WFMU, a free-form, non-profit station supplying the world with unexpected sounds and, more importantly, character.
"The Kenny G show with Kenny G", formerly known as "Anal Magic with Kenny G", attacks the airwaves, ushering forth horrible karaoke, silly gags, strange sound poetry, the singular works of People Like us and Ivor Cutler, weird effects, random ranting, and all the other stabs at what a radio show could or should be. Yet, every week Kenny takes the Path train across the river to New Jersey in order to provide what noone else can -- a three hour tour of life through the looking glass, the sleepy-headed musings of Finnegan's Wake during waking hours, and a world where context shifts from expected to sublime and back to hysterically mundane every few moments. It is thee most annoying three hours on radio and the most enthralling bit of broadcast available for experience. The thought of some poor soul managing to stay in line and avoid shuttling a vehicle into the Hudson while listening to the show while traversing the George Washington Bridge is horrifying. The fact that the grand Boston to Washington suburbopolis can hold it together under the weight is staggering.
Why, why, why, why? Kenny and I exchanged a few emails to get some sort of grip on it:
Ben Baumes: You are known for art in a couple media, but primarily as a poet. Where did the dj thing come from? You have spoken of living in the nightmare of Americas suburban parking lots as a child; do you think that played into your interests as a music lover?
Kenneth Goldsmith: I've always been a collector of things, an accumulator. Early on, I began accumulating records. I had an uncle who worked in a vinyl warehouse and he would take me there on Saturdays to pluck as much from the stacks as I could hold. It being the early 70s, I plundered all the Beatles records, salivating over the gorgeous gatefolds. My first LP was The Monkees "Headquarters" and it was all Beatles until junior high, when I fell into Sabbath, Zeppelin, Yes... typically suburban stuff. A little later, through all the pretty girls who loved CSNY, I discovered Neil Young's "After The Gold Rush" and from there I went into his darker stuff -- "On The Beach", "Time Fades Away", "Zuma" -- and never recovered from it. Early Mothers opened my ears up to collage, 20th century classical, jazz improvisation. So, yes, it was a typically suburban musical trajectory.
BB As it stands now, your show tends to contain some massively challenging material, was that something you moved towards or was that always part of the goal?
KG: I began on WFMU in January of 1995. I had this idea of freeform radio as a magical sort of space. I grew up listening to WLIR, coming out of Garden City, Long Island, which had, to my immature ears, an incredible freeform sound. It was a left-over from the 60s -- they ran Flo and Eddie's nationally syndicated show every Sunday night -- and, at times, sounded like "We're Only in it for the Money" or "Absolutely Free." So, when I got to WFMU, I tried to replicate that flavor, but take it to another level, using obscure, as opposed to familiar materials.
For the first few years, the show moved along those lines but as time went on, I began to get curious about what more could happen in that space -- mixing, layering those materials (sound poetry over rock, for example) -- and I began pushing in every direction to see what the medium was capable of holding. WFMU is an extraordinary place and as long as you don't violate FCC codes, you are literally free to do what you want. I wanted to take advantage of this freedom to see how far I could take it. I'm still pushing the boundaries and with each passing year, I seem to discover yet more ways that radio can be experimental. And WFMU is the perfect platform for this inquiry -- both the listenership and management couldn't be more supportive (and patient!).
BB: Your work with text and poetry brings up the natures of mediums; how do you think sound or music brings out different features and delivers information differently from text? How does that effect your consideration of either medium?
KG: Text is magical simply because it conforms to any form you pour it into. I've taken texts of mine and created drawings, dresses, sound works, radio shows, books, posters, websites, and so forth. I know of no other medium that has the fluidity and flexibility of text.
Cage taught us that there is no difference between what is called "noise" and what is called "music," just as Duchamp taught us that there are no distinctions between what lives on the shelves of a store and what sits on a pedestal in a museum.
I'm interested in extending these ideas, dissolving traditionally constructed boundaries and definitions between art and life. I feel that the art of the 20th century was only the tip of the iceberg in terms of investigative possibilities.
BB: With some of your other works, like Figet you seem less interested in deconstruction and that brand of questioning criticism than actively recontextualizing or remixing the syntax to create something altogether different. Do you attempt to work more actively than critically?
KG: You are implying that my work is more reconstructive than deconstructive; you are correct. Deconstruction importantly did all the work it needed to do -- shredding inherited fictive systems -- but after the demolition, it never gave us a hint about how to rebuild. I'm interested in doing as little as possible, in terms of manipulation, with existing materials. Instead, I'm interested in re-presentation, re-contextualization so as to make the familiar, the mundane, appear new to us. This query clearly extends to my work on the radio.
BB: Clearly. So much of DJing is juxtaposition and positioning in general. How does that affect the way you do a show? Given that yr on at 3 in the afternoon, is the context of the broadcast something you even acknowledge?
KG: In my show, I try to acknowledge every external condition happening at the moment. I'm interested in pulling back the curtain on radio, making visible what is always hidden. When I first started on WFMU, [Station Manager] Ken Freedman requested that I speak more like a person and less like a DJ, "Put a few ums, and uh's into your mic breaks". It was an eye-opener for me.
Radio was is basically existential. You are sitting alone in a room, talking to tens of thousands of unknown people at any given moment. What do you do in a situation like that? Do you try for intimacy? Do you try to please everyone? Annoy the listenership? It's impossible to arrive at any consensus as to the mood of your listenership. And just because it's at 3 in the afternoon, doesn't mean a thing -- some are at work, some are at home, some are in bed; for many listeners, thanks to webcasting, it's early in the morning or late at night. For others, due to archiving, it's not even Wednesday, the same season, or even the same year. Broadcasting has changed considerably in the ten years that I've been doing radio. When I started, I was on the graveyard shift -- 2 to 6 a.m. --- and you could anticipate a general mood. Now it's completely de-centered.
BB: We've already talked a bit about the characteristics of different mediums -- treading heavily on all the Marshall McLuhan I once read. How do you think syntax relates to the medium, especially sound and radio?
KG: You can never read too much McLuhan! To answer your question, though, I once did a book called Soliloquy which was every word I spoke for a week, unedited. I taped myself over the course of a week, from the moment I woke up Monday morning until the moment I went to bed on Sunday night and transcribed it. When it was published, it was over 600 pages long (I talk a lot). The experience of this book changed my relationship to spoken language and syntax forever. I began to listen to how language is spoken -- it's very disjunctive: thoughts dropped mid-sentence, interruptions, ums and ahs everywhere, etc. -- as opposed to how it's written (see Walter Ong's Language and Orality for a deep investigation of these phenomena). During that week, I had to do my radio show, which appeared in the book, accurately captured and transcribed. In other words, the medium of radio -- a medium that makes on extremely self-conscious of one's speech -- was incorporated into a work that puts everyday language under a magnifying glass. It's really a hall of mirrors -- McLuhan-esque extensions of nervous systems into various mediums. The moniker for the book was "If every word spoken daily in New York City were somehow to materialize as a snowflake, every day there would be a blizzard." It's about making language -- the most abundant (yet most ignored) human product -- visible.
BB: Talking like this threatens to take the fun out of your show, but let's touch upon how you view your role as a radio/web DJ. How do you approach it; do you see yourself as someone who looks to extend access to some material people would otherwise struggle to know about or find?
KG: What I play is so obscure and is mixed-up live on the show that there's pretty much no way to track what it is I'm playing, even though I keep playlists. I can barely stand to play a track straight through without altering it in some way. You see, DJing in the traditional sense is incredibly boring, just sitting there playing one song after another and backannouncing. I wanted the show to become more entertaining and challenging for me, so I began doing a huge amount of performing and manipulating during those three hours each week. I figure that I have the freedom to do what I want, so why not take it?
BB: How much do you consider yr show a performance? Recnt shows have included loony karaoke with Irwin (Chusid: the DJ on before Kenny's show) remixed "chats" with Irwin ... and then there's the shows consisting of 1 minute or 30 second songs ... there seems to be some performing there.
KG: As time has gone on, I've considered my show to be more of a performance and an extension of my work in other fields. Some shows have been entirely performative -- whispering the Communist Manifesto for three hours while dressed up in a $1000 suit, bound and gagged for three hours to Vicki Bennett, playing the 1010 WINS one-minute weather reports for the past year for my year-end wrap-up shows, singing horrible karaoke for three hours on my own, and so forth. Also, when I'm playing "straight" material, much of it is from the website I run, UbuWeb. As well, I'm always plundering and poaching my own writings for my own show. And it's a delight to be back to back with Irwin -- for years people have said that we are the same person because our voices are almost identical. So one week, we switched and pretended we were the other DJ. The listenership couldn't tell the difference!
BB: How do you work on putting a show together? When putting a show together, how does your understanding of the listening process shape your selection process?
KG: My whole process of listening has changed since I've been doing a radio show. I no longer listen to music for pleasure; instead I listen with an ear as what to play next week. Filling three hours each week with fresh material requires an incredible amount of listening and hunting. Thanks to the web, it's become much more interesting. I get most of what I'm playing these days from websites and file-sharing. One day I'll go back to listening to music again -- after I finish doing radio, that is.
BB: You also do a bit of music writing; how do we start talking about the avant-garde in a way that confirms the spirit of experimenting while also allowing people access to things that aren't always easily understood, or enjoyed?
KG: I think the problem with most writing about the avant-garde is that it's as dry and as intimidating as the avant-garde itself is. I, on the other hand, have always felt the avant-garde to be really funny, really entertaining, and have strove to communicate that in my writing about it, my radio work around it, and my teaching of it. The sort of world that would place a premium on a Duchampian gesture like putting a urinal on a pedestal and call it art is the kind of world I want to live in.
That sort of world, where the far out is both hilarious and impressive, is the world Kenny's show soundtracks. For three hours a week, nothing makes complete sense and everything is possible. WFMU Station Manager Ken Friedman explains, "before he came along, I felt that FMU had explored all there was to explore in terms of experimental approaches to radio, but he carves out new territory and approaches every week". That said; Kenny will be off the air until February 9th. In the meantime, there are years of shows archived on the station's website to peruse while you wait to hear exactly what Kenny will do next.