From The Top
- The best-selling author Jonathan Safran Foer writes to interrogate his own past and all of our futures.
- Today, the superstar graphic novelist Nate Powell is known for beautifully rendered comics with a strong moral core. But, as Tori Marchiony reports, for more than a decade he was dedicated to serving those with developmental disabilities.
- The Venezuelan-born conductor Gustavo Dudamel is on a mission to sow harmony, in the concert hall and beyond.
Gustavo Dudamel is a celebrated conductor and social activist, and the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, one of the most innovative and acclaimed orchestras in the world. His accolades include a Grammy Award and a Gish Prize.
Born in Venezuela in 1981, he learned to play the violin through the country’s free El Sistema training program. He became assistant conductor of his youth orchestra at age 12 after picking up the baton when a teacher was late to class. By age 15, he was conducting the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, which began touring the world to enthusiastic reviews in 1999. He won the prestigious Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in 2004, became principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony in 2006, and joined the LA Philharmonic as music director in 2008, at the age of just 28.
Renowned for his energetic and creative conducting, Dudamel is also a proponent of using music for social change. He played key roles in founding El Sistema branches in Sweden and Scotland and in creating YOLA, a youth orchestra that mentors children from underserved communities of Los Angeles.
Jonathan Safran Foer is a bestselling author of fiction and nonfiction, known for his modernist literary techniques and weighty subject matter.
Foer was born in Washington, DC, in 1977. His mother was the child of Polish Jewish holocaust survivors. While studying philosophy at Princeton University he wrote a creative writing thesis on his maternal grandfather under the guidance of novelist Joyce Carol Oates. He expanded this thesis into Everything Is Illuminated (2002), a metafictional novel about “Jonathan Safran Foer” traveling to Poland in search of the woman who saved his grandfather. Elijah Wood starred in the 2005 film version. Foer’s second novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2005), set in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, was also a popular success adapted into a motion picture.
His bestselling 2009 nonfiction book, Eating Animals, details the ethical implications of industrialized meat. He has since written two more novels and another nonfiction book. Foer teaches creative writing at New York University.
Nate Powell is a groundbreaking comic artist and bestselling author. He is the first graphic novelist to win a National Book Award.
Born in 1978 in Little Rock, AK, Powell had an itinerant childhood as the son of an Air Force Officer. He began self-publishing comics while in high school in Little Rock and continued while a student at George Washington University and at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In 2009 his breakthrough graphic novel, Swallow Me Whole, won an Eisner Award, the comic world’s highest honor. His Ozark horror tale Come Again (2018) was nominated for two Eisners. He won a National Book Award in 2016 for illustrating March: Book Three, the third installment of a graphic biography of civil rights icon John Lewis.
Powell also managed underground record label Harlan Records for sixteen years, and toured nationally and internationally with punk band Soophie Nun Squad.
- Art & Design
Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores how creativity is the very bedrock of what makes us human. I’m Jim Cotter, and on this episode, From the Top. The bestselling author Jonathan Safran Foer writes to interrogate his own past, and all of our futures.
Jonathan Safran Foer: We’ve become too used to measuring our distance from some sort of totally unattainable ethical perfection instead of saying this matters to me, I’m gonna try, and I’m gonna try knowing that I won’t succeed perfectly.
Today, the superstar graphic novelist Nate Powell is known for beautifully rendered comics with a strong moral core, but as Tori Marchiony reports, for more than a decade, he was dedicated to serving those with developmental disabilities.
Nate Powell: The more I worked, but also the more I read, the more I realized that I already had grown with an instinctive means by which to navigate a lot of what makes folks with autism different or makes their brains operate in a different way.
And the Venezuelan-born conductor Gustavo Dudamel is on a mission to sell harmony in the concert hall, and beyond.
Gustavo Dudamel: Even if we are in the middle of this moment, if we disagree, if there is unrest, this anger, I believe that it will be a place it will be a moment where we encounter each other.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
Jonathan Safran Foer has found his own unique ways to understand the world. He’s the celebrated author of six acclaimed books, four fiction, two nonfiction, all of which capture and process the sensations, thoughts, and feelings that would otherwise be impossible for him to express.
Jonathan Safran Foer: I only feel lost most of the time, and through writing, I feel less confused, and less alienated from others, from myself, from my own weird stew of contradictory thoughts and feelings. Writing clarifies me to me.
Foer was just 25 when he exploded onto the literary scene with the international bestseller, and later critically acclaimed movie, Everything is Illuminated. It recounts his own real-life journey to Ukraine where he searched for details of his grandfather’s early life and his survival of the Holocaust. All this told through a fictional local guide, Alex Perchov.
(Excerpt from Everything is Illuminated):
It appeared that a part of him wanted “to write everything, every word of what occurred” into his diary, and a part of him refused “to write even one word.” He opened the diary and closed it. “Opened it and closed it,” and it looked as if it wanted to fly away from his hands.
The story was personal, insightful, and original, but it could easily have gone nowhere. After being rejected by more than a dozen agents, destiny made her long-awaited entrance.
Safran Foer: I finally found an agent. She sent the book to every publishing house in New York, and I mean the same book. Word for word, the same book that got published. And everybody rejected it. Then she fell ill, and I found a different agent who then sent it to many of the same editors who had rejected it, and suddenly there was a bidding war.
Safran Foer grew up in Washington DC with a lawyer father, a corporate VP mother, and two brothers. He was the middle child, sensitive and flamboyant, but at age eight he was changed during a summer program, a classroom experiment went badly wrong. There was an explosion, and Foer and three others were injured.
Safran Foer: So, one of the things that was difficult about that experience is that I was lucky. Of course, I was incredibly unlucky. I spent three days in the ICU, I had burns on various parts of my body, but I was relatively, relative to the two kids who were really severely injured, as lucky as lucky could be.
The explosion split Foer’s childhood in two, the before and the after, and for the next three years, he suffered what he’s described as a drawn-out nervous breakdown. It became difficult for him to speak in public or to ever be away from his parents. He frequently missed classes to take refuge in the principal’s office.
Safran Foer: I think what happened to me was that I learned a false lesson, which is that if somebody else has it worse, if there’s a pain greater than yours, then your pain doesn’t exist. That, unfortunately, is something that I really carried through my life.
AJC: Even now?
Safran Foer: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. Being the descendant of Holocaust survivors, I was always—
AJC: Puts it into context, right?
Safran Foer: Yeah, even before this explosion, very much aware that one shouldn’t really complain. That you should feel lucky and feel grateful, which by the way are good lessons. That’s not a bad lesson. The bad lesson, the problematic side of that is—
AJC: To dismiss your own pain?
Safran Foer: Yeah, when there isn’t room for that’s much worse than this, but this is still something that’s worth mentioning.
AJC: But that’s the right balance, right? It’s not everything, but it’s not nothing.
Safran Foer: Well, getting older. You know? Trying to learn. It’s been humbling to figure out how wrong I’ve been about how many things.
But Jonathan Safran Foer isn’t preoccupied with what he’s gotten wrong. He’s just trying to untangle the mysteries and contradictions of life.
Safran Foer: I think that a misunderstanding about writing, that it’s an intellectual activity. A book is not the outcome of a thought process. A book is a record of a thought process, so I don’t have ideas that I want to share. I don’t have ideas that are waiting to be put down on paper and codified.
Foer’s nonfiction explores that which most preoccupies him, how human behavior will determine the fate of the world. His 2009 book, Eating Animals, grapples with what it means to consume factory-farmed meat. 2019’s We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast, expands on the subject, exploring how our dietary habits contribute to climate change. And though Foer has described himself as a vegetarian since age nine, he admits he does still enjoy a hamburger every few years.
Safran Foer: I am in complete agreement with militant vegetarians, that we need to stop doing this. But I don’t necessarily see it as a question of identity, and I don’t see it as something with a religious certainty. We’ve become too used to measuring our distance from some sort of totally unattainable ethical perfection, instead of saying, this matters to me, I’m gonna try and I’m gonna try knowing that I won’t succeed perfectly, there’s not a vegan in the world who is completely removed from animal suffering. And I won’t let my fear of hypocrisy, either my fear of seeing myself as a hypocrite or as being seen as a hypocrite, stop me from doing what I know is right, which is making this effort by carrying on this argument.
AJC: The argument between you and yourself?
Safran Foer: Yeah. And it doesn’t work that you say “the environment matters to me, so I’m never gonna eat this, or I’m never gonna travel in this way, or I’m never gonna own a house like this.” In my experience, and in the experience of everyone I’ve ever spoken to about this, it has to be a perpetual conversation until norms change, at which point it doesn’t, and then we don’t have to talk about it all the time.
For now, these conversations must continue between Jonathan Safran Foer and himself, and all of us.
There’s a bestselling, groundbreaking maker of comics, who’s proving just how serious his medium can be. Nate Powell, the first graphic novelist ever to win a National Book Award has been making cartoons almost as long as he’s been reading them. Always drawn to stories of heroism, the young Nate was obsessed with the X-Men. He was also an avid admirer of G.I. Joe, that is, until his father, an Air Force Officer and Sunday school teacher, disavowed him of his unrealistic romantic ideas about what it means to be a soldier.
Nate Powell: He was very quick to point out that the older you get, the more you’re gonna recognize this is not about individuality. This is not about any of the glorified mess that you’re growing up with. This is a very different thing.
As he matured, Powell developed a keen social conscience, and an unrelenting desire to help address injustice. Throughout his 20s, he traveled the country with his punk band, Soophie Nun Squad, and supported himself by working as an aid for adults with developmental disabilities. Powell was uniquely suited to the job thanks to his older brother, Peyton, who today would be diagnosed with autism, but in the 80s when they were growing up there wasn’t a name for it yet. Still, the condition profoundly shaped both siblings’ lives.
Powell: So it was weird and difficult and confusing, but also, that was my life. That was my brother, that was my family. We got along. It wasn’t until I was almost out of high school that I realized, that I started to become aware, of how relatively different my family’s structure was in terms of adherence to certain kinds of routine, certain kinds of norms. The kinds of interactions my brother and I would have or we would have with our parents. I mean, for example, like some of the earliest realizations I had were like when I talk, I’m really handsy. When I’m thinking up stuff in my head, ideas for stories or songs, or even just like going over conversations or arguments, or things I should have said, a lot of the mannerisms that I’ll have in terms of like pacing and muttering and movements of my hands, I think a lot of these were modeled behaviors as a result of my big brother being who he is, and that being a natural function of what your bigger siblings pass down to you.
Powell took his job as a caregiver seriously but always continued making comics on the side. Essays about that period show up in two different collections, “Please Release,” and “You Don’t Say” in 2008. Powell’s world changed when his first full-length graphic novel, Swallow Me Whole, exploring the madness of adolescence, was published to great acclaim. Swallow Me Whole won an Eisner Award, the comic world’s highest honor, and became the first graphic novel to be nominated for the prestigious LA Times Book Prize, since Maus, Art Spiegelman’s seminal Holocaust allegory. Then, in 2016, Powell won the National Book Award for March: Volume Three, the final installment of the epic historical memoir about the iconic civil rights leader and congressman, John Lewis.
(Excerpt from John Lewis’ “March on Washington” speech):
We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of, for hundreds of thousands of our brothers are not here, for they are receiving starvation wages or no wages at all. While we stand here, there are sharecroppers in the Delta of Mississippi, who are out in the field working for less than three dollars a day 12 hours a day.
Today, Nate Powell has fully blossomed as a bestselling graphic novelist. His book, Any Empire, was celebrated for its vivid, disturbing depiction of what happens when child’s play turns into real violence. Next came Come Again, following the reckoning between members of a so-called intentional community in the Ozarks. It’s been called one of his finest works yet. But he’s also continued making shorter stories. In 2019, the online magazine Popula published his essay About Face. It echoes his father’s early warnings about the dangerously seductive power of the armed forces, tracing the evolution of various military symbols into everyday consumer goods. Powell cautions that this fashion is not harmless. It is its own show of force, a threat.
Powell: It’s not actually about a black and white American flag. It’s not actually about a blacked-out truck. It’s not actually about the Punisher skull. What it is about is understanding that style and aesthetic are signifiers and that these things are actually communicating something. So I try to lay out a breadcrumb trail that goes from military service and aesthetic choices in there into law enforcement and post-active duty service until they manifest themselves as civilian consumer goods. When they’re presented, divorced from any of their political associations, any of the reasons behind their designer existence, or any of their statements, or any statement that they’re counteracting. It’s once they’re presented in a more sanitized way, simply as something to buy, something as an extension of self, that they actually become really dangerous.
There is, it would seem, no limit to what Nate Powell will address through his work, no gray area that can’t be untangled in black and white.
On a spring day in 2019, the Venezuelan-born conductor and social activist, Gustavo Dudamel, is in Princeton, New Jersey preparing for a concert. It’s all part of a year-long artistic residency at the Ivy League school, but for most of the year, Dudamel and his wife, the Spanish actress Maria Valverde are based in southern California, where for the past decade he has served as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, one of America’s most forward-thinking orchestras. Gustavo Dudamel’s life has been shaped by music. Without it, he could not have become who he is today.
Gustavo Dudamel: Something that I remember all the time, and it comes to me, and it gives me this kind of bubbling feeling here in this place that we call soul, is that moment when I played the violin for the first time in an orchestra. That is always, I think every single day, I remember that. And I understood that my role was to serve to the music.
Dudamel is dedicated to serving not only the music but those who play and hear it and especially those whose lives can be changed by it. In Los Angeles, the Philharmonic’s community and education programs are the envy of the orchestral world. Since its founding in 2007, the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, YOLA, has served thousands of young students across the city. In 2016, 100% of YOLA’s graduating class completed high school. 90% went to college. Among these successes is John Gonzales, who after eight years of the Youth Orchestra, is now studying bassoon at the prestigious Peabody Institute in Baltimore, but when he joined YOLA as a fifth-grader, he was just looking for something to do after school.
John Gonzales: One day my mom came home with a Gustavo Dudamel poster with like this Youth Orchestra, the YOLA application, and at first I was nervous. I really didn’t listen to classical music much. I didn’t even know, it wasn’t a thing for my family, like for a Latino family. We didn’t really listen to classical music. But I decided to give it a go, and we started off with recorders, we did like “Hot Cross Buns,” we did like little arrangements of big symphonies, like just the melody parts. And then Gustavo came like four weeks later, and that was a huge deal. At first, I didn’t know who he was, but I recognized him because he was the guy on this poster with like a big baton. Yeah, he kind of, I don’t know, it was just something about his vibe that made it like, his energy was just so big, and he was really passionate. He moves a lot. He’s just crazy, and you just like it. Like you just wanna move with him.
Gustavo Dudamel was born in Barquisimeto, Venezuela into a musical family. His father played salsa trombone. His mother was a voice teacher. But Dudamel likely never would have reached the heights he has as a conductor without the vision of an economist, musician, and politician named Jose Antonio Abreu. Abreu was an influential member of parliament who later became minister of culture. He used his powers to create El Sistema, an afterschool program that would eventually guarantee instruction in a musical instrument for every child in Venezuela. An enthusiastic organist and composer himself, Abreu believed that giving children, especially the poor, to play classical program, would also give them the real-world skills to improve their lives. El Sistema began with Abreu teaching just a handful of kids in his garage. Today, it is a worldwide phenomenon with programs in more than 50 countries, and Gustavo Dudamel as one of its most lauded successes. He and the program first came to international attention in 1999 when the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, the showcase ensemble for El Sistema, began touring internationally, with an 18-year-old Dudamel conducting. This was a deeply satisfying moment for Abreu, who remained dedicated to El Sistema until his death in 2018 at age 78.
Dudamel: He gave his life for the opportunity of many. And that is what he built. Many people at that time thought he was a crazy man doing this, but he conquered this dream.
AJC: There’s been a very severe regime change in your country in the last couple of years, and he’s gone. Is it possible that this will survive without him there to—
AJC: It will?
Dudamel: Completely, because the dream is alive. The thing is that yesterday I was in meetings with the orchestras, they are playing concerts in the middle of all of this mess, but still, the dream, the desire, the hope is there.
In 1999, Hugo Chavez came to power, and in short order rewrote the constitution to allow himself to remain as president of Venezuela in perpetuity. When he died in 2013, vice president Nicolas Maduro took over, and things quickly fell apart. Under Maduro, economic policies enacted by Chavez failed catastrophically, as oil prices collapsed. Inflation skyrocketed. Among those who have spoken out against Maduro’s regime is Gustavo Dudamel, who has not been back to his home country since being forced to take his wife’s Spanish citizenship in 2018, and though Maduro publicly disparaged the conductor for daring to comment on politics, in truth, Dudamel may be very well-placed to offer advice on conflict resolution. The Greek root of the word symphony means to agree, yet that’s often far from the reality of putting 100 plus musicians in a room and asking them to, as it were, play nicely, yet making great music relies on other unity, something Dudamel believes will also be necessary to the survival of his native country.
Dudamel: Even if we are in the middle of this moment, if we disagree, if there is unrest, this anger, I believe that it will be a place, it will be a moment where we encounter each other and through that, because it’s very important, to build a country, we need everyone, another part on the other. We need everyone. And acting as an orchestra maybe not being angry of an interpretation or something, we create an interpretation together, a version, we create harmony, and we create what symbolized how our country can work.
Back in LA, Dudamel is staying true to his word. He has built one of the world’s most successful El Sistema programs outside Venezuela. One of its most important lessons, go to where the need is.
Dudamel: We cannot expect for people only to come to us. We have to go to the community because it’s a little bit sometimes to everyone that okay, you come to me, and I give to you, but that’s it. No. I think the orchestra, the dynamic of the orchestra have changed, you know. Working with the chief of YOLA, creating these spaces, dreaming to have a place where these children can build a dream, like they build it, like we built it. So all of these actions that have been happening in the last ten years, arrived to this time with thousands of children. We hope, our dream is to multiply and to keep multiplying.
Construction is underway on YOLA’s new home, a 25,000 square foot Frank Gehry designed multipurpose venue that will become a hub for generations of students to learn the real-world skills that dedicated practice brings. But even without the perks of a fancy multi-million dollar building, alumnus John Gonzales has been forever changed by Gustavo Dudamel.
Gonzales: It makes me want to share with others what the passion for music I have, and basically just stick with me ever since he first conducted us. And the more I’ve been able to be conducted by him, the more my passion for music grows and really makes me want to continue doing this.
Gustavo Dudamel has achieved much success and brought real change to many, but remains committed to constant growth, both in his life and in his music-making.
Dudamel: We have to understand things, to not be perfect, but to be special. That is something unique. I think we discover ourselves all the time that we are doing something, and that is something that I want to keep, and I think, and I keep for my personal life. Not to get to a routine dynamic, to keep surprising ourselves all the time, I think that’s something beautiful.