Every program on WFMU is a unique mixture of loam and silt, manure and peat, each lovingly tended to to bring the finest harvest of ephemera, flotsam and mixed metaphor that can be guaranteed. In this installment Kurt Gottschalk explains what makes his garden grow.
It's not like I don't have enough to do. I mean, I'd love to say my show flows like freestyle rhymes from the soul of some hookah smoking caterpillar or something, but it just isn't like that. I watch the DJs who have gone before me and admire the ease with which they ply their craft: Bryce moving through the library like the Silver Surfer with hiccups, sliding records from the wall while I panickedly prepare for my show; Dave Mandl sequencing songs as effortlessly as a Jack Bruce solo while I'm losing a game of hot potato with the new bin. I watch them in wonder and in awe.
I share with Bryce, Dave and many others at the station a love for improvised music. I play it on my show. I write about it. I spend my evenings going out with it and I share my apartment with thousands of hours of it. Sometimes I even attempt it. It's not the only music I like, or play on my show, of course. I have soft spots for The Carpenters, Kraftwerk and Arnold Schoenberg, to name a few. But listening to a masterful improviser makes me feel I'm living in the song “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”
But here's the rub: I can't improvise my show. Not for all the alligator clips on Canal Street could I improvise my show. My show is not a saxophone solo. It's a long, obtuse and haphazardly crafted essay in which I imagine I'm arguing beyond any rebuttal such ill-conceived propositions as “loud is the same thing as quiet” or “pianos sound better broken” or “sometimes melodies are nice.”
The way it works is this: I have a milk crate next to the sofa in my living room. Into it are thrown the pieces of a puzzle not yet taken shape: Ornette Coleman and Morton Feldman, Diamanda Galás and the Shirelles, Of Montreal and Thai Elephants, KISS and Prince, all tossed in, the reasons forgotten quicker than the jewel cases can break. Next to the crate is the legendary-in-mine-own-mind box of 45s I found, each of which will provide both bed music and thematic link in some indecipherable way for an individual broadcast. There they sit collecting dust until some Sunday night when I start molding them back into lumps of airtime designed essentially to further my desperate and unquenchable efforts to keep myself amused. Two different songs with the same title? Hilarious! The same trumpeter on three different tunes? Fascinating! People singing in different languages? Worldly! Every record is a sentence. Every set is a paragraph. Every program is a treatise which I'm not smart enough to understand. Or perhaps too smart, as I trust, gentle listener, are you.
And if, dear listener, you wonder why I might get testy about requests on occasion, it's simply because I don't have the intellectual capacity to switch gears in the way that would entail. It'd be like … well, it'd be like doing something that you don't have the intellectual capacity to do, I guess. I'd like to add that I of course do not look down on you, WFMU faithful, for failing to follow my fickle flights of fancy. No, in truth it is all an exercise in self-pity, a cry for help, a yearning to be noticed. But if in the process just one person says “Huh, maybe ELO weren't so bad,” then my work is done.
Illustration by Emma Ball