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Do what you love and don’t care who likes it. Joyce DiDonato, !llmind, and Kenneth Goldsmith articulate how.

Segments

08:40
  • Music
The Beautiful Mind of !llmind
A model of perseverance, producer !llmind began his career in his parents' basement.
Season 3, Episode 3
The Beautiful Mind of !llmind
11:32
  • Music
The Irrepressible Joyce DiDonato
As opera star Joyce DiDonato has proven, the road to success is a winding one.
Season 3, Episode 3
The Irrepressible Joyce DiDonato
06:21
  • Literature
Kenneth Goldsmith: Context Is The New Content
Poet Kenneth Goldsmith has disrupted his field by rejecting the idea of originality.
Season 3, Episode 3
Kenneth Goldsmith: Context Is The New Content

Transcript

Coming up on Articulate, why keep getting up when life insists on pushing you down? Because as the opera star Joyce DiDonato has proven, sometimes life doesn’t know who it’s dealing with.

Joyce DiDonato: If I’m honest, there’s a streak inside of me going, “Oh yeah, okay, I’ll show you.” There’s a defiance in me that I don’t like being told I can’t do something.

If you want to learn to do something well try spending six years held up in your parents basement obsessing about your craft. The music producer Illmind did just that and it worked.

Illmind: How do I sample? How do I manipulate what already exists? And how do I sound like my heroes and produce like a hip hop producer? It’s paying off now.

And the poet Kenneth Goldsmith has disrupted his field by rejecting the very notion of originality.

Kenneth Goldsmith: We still find ourselves in these age old battles of plagiarism. And the fact is, all we’re doing is copying and pasting and retweeting and sharing and mirroring, and in fact everybody still is demanding everybody to be, or artist anyway, to be as original as they once were.

That’s all ahead on Articulate.

Joyce DiDonato is one of opera’s biggest stars, but she doesn’t love the form unconditionally.

Joyce DiDonato: I think opera is the stupidest art form, if it’s not utterly committed and about storytelling. The only way I can justify what opera is, is that we’re dealing with human emotions that are so vast and profound that they have to be sung. Speaking it simply isn’t enough. That it has to come from the deepest part of you—anything less than that, for me, I just think it’s ridiculous.

DiDonato’s own story would itself make for a very compelling opera. She grew up in a Midwestern Irish Catholic family. Her late father, Donald Flaherty, was an architect whose own father had disparaged his singing ambitions. But though he encouraged his daughter to make a go of her dreams, she was told by seasoned instructors in Houston, Philadelphia, and Santa Fe that she had little talent and would never make it. Nevertheless, she persisted and eventually proved them all wrong.

AJC: Let me say something that is well observed about people who are successful. They have enormous self-belief and huge self-doubt—a weird mixture of the two. And you have that. Or you had it.

DiDonato: No, I still have it in a different capacity, I think, in that I’m almost 20 years in career, I suppose—plus 10 years of training before that—and there’s a confidence that comes, and there’s a self-belief that comes just from looking back and saying, “Okay, I’ve not imploded yet. And I stand on the stage, and so I must have something.” Self-doubt, certainly in the beginning for me, was, “I don’t know if I belong here. I don’t know if I have it.” It was more insecurity on that level.

AJC: Not helped by the fact that, along the way, there were a lot of people who weren’t very encouraging.

DiDonato: I wasn’t an obvious star.

AJC: No?

DiDonato: And I wasn’t the one going, “Oh, we’ve got to get her.” No, I was a slow burn. I think maybe that’s where some of my confidence came from, because I had to find it within myself. It wasn’t coming externally to any large degree. And so I had to say, “Okay, if I want to go on this, do I really have something to say? And do I have it within me to produce this?” And happily, I found a way to make that happen—to find that within myself.

AJC: Why didn’t you stop?

DiDonato: It was bigger than me. I mean, this desire and the need to communicate, I think, was bigger than “little old me.” And that questioning idea of if I can make it. And also, if I’m honest, there’s a streak inside of me going, “Oh yeah? Okay, I’ll show you.” There’s a defiance in me, that I don’t like being told I can’t do something. That’s true, too.

That Joyce DiDonato has made it from her hometown of Prairie Village, Kansas to the stages of the world’s great opera houses, marks a level of success way beyond anything she or her dad could have dreamed of.

DiDonato: I’m at the Met, I’m at La Scala, I’m at the Royal Opera House, and he would say, “You’re really doing this!” There was a kind of incomprehension on his part, and there was, I think, always a cautious part—“I hope it’s going to be okay.” I was like, “Dad, Dad, no I’m loving… It’s good, it’s good!” Sharing that with him was one of the greatest joys of my life and I miss that deeply. I’ve—in all humility—I’ve gone legions farther than I ever dared dream or possibly could have imagined. And I just think he would have gotten the biggest kick out of it. And I think he would have been very proud to see how I’m using it kind of as a vocation. I grew up Catholic and “vocation” was the big word around the dinner table and going onto stage felt very selfish to me. I said, “I like it too much, it’s too fun. It’s not service, it’s not vocational.” And he really was a guiding factor for me, in how I use my music in this incredible gift of a career. I don’t want it just to be about center stage and applause. I want to change people’s worlds with it, and that comes from him.

AJC: But that’s everything, right? Because the money, and the fame, and whatever it is the people are giving to you, and how people react to you in the moment…

DiDonato: It’s all temporary. It’s fantastic, and it’s a wonderful moment to live, and I give myself full permission to breathe it in and say, “Great.” And then, the next morning, you have to wake up, and life goes on. There’s going to be another Joyce DiDonato coming, and another recording, and another Rosina. Okay, great, fantastic.

Right now, DiDonato is unparalleled as a singing actor. And though much of her great prowess on stage is founded on years of study and practice, she says there’s no teacher quite like life experience.

DiDonato: When I was young—younger—people used to say, “You have to suffer to be an artist.” I went, “No, no, no you don’t! You don’t have to suffer.” I would never make an all-inclusive, universal truth for all artists because, hopefully, each one is unique. I am, I think, a richer singer for having lived through some of the big experiences I’ve lived through. You know, I was on stage at the Paris Opera a few weeks after I lost my father, who was a soul mate of mine, actually—I guess, how I would describe him. And it was… My world has not been the same since he left. The earth shifts under you. And I was on stage just two weeks later, singing the role of Idamante, who is a boy, and has not known his father his whole life, and only yearned to meet him—and when he meets him, loses him immediately. I had to recoil like a child in a fetal position singing this aria: “I’ve lost my father.” And I did the role before, when my dad was still here. I sang it really well. It was heartfelt, it was moving. But it goes to a different place when you have a reservoir of pain and experience, because it also connects you to other human beings, in a way. When I hear now, somebody says they’ve lost their dad, I go, “I’m sorry.”

But while hardship has helped her grow, Joyce DiDonato has learned to stop making things more difficult for herself than they need to be.

AJC: We all have a very unpleasant inner monologue, unless we’re really good at controlling it. And if anyone ever works it out, I’d love to meet them. How cruel is your inner critic now, versus how he or she was 20 years ago?

DiDonato: Oh, so much nicer. I was horrified, and I really choose that word carefully. I was horrified when I first tuned into it—because for most people, it’s happening, and we’re not even aware. It’s just constant. “Well, that’s not fat. Well, they’re not listening to you. Well, they don’t like you. Well, you look terrible. What are you thinking?”

AJC: You’d never be friends with that person, right?

DiDonato: You would never speak to a stranger… I mean, some people would post it on the internet, as a comment or whatever, but most human beings would never speak to strangers the way this inner voice. And it horrified me. But also, there was this part of me thinking, “Oh no, no, no, but that’s making me a better person because it’s keeping me on track. And it’s not letting me get a big head. And it’s keeping me humble.” Such bull. It’s a cancer. It’s actually, I realized, it was keeping me from being what I am. And presenting that to the world, without apology, and without disclaimer. And some days it’s a good day, and some days it’s a bad day, but it’s me.

Though you may not know !llmind, you may have heard his music. He’s worked with hip-hop A-listers, including 50 Cent, Drake, J. Cole, and Ludacris. It all began in the early 2000s, when he started making his now-ubiquitous “Blap Kits”—premade collections of sounds and samples for other producers to use for their own creations. He’s always been a self-starter.

!llmind: I’m competing with myself. I’m consistently outdoing what I did last year, right? So if I’m doing drum kits, I want to double up this year on sales, on innovation, on originality. If I worked with five major label artists last year, I want to work with 15 this year.

But it wasn’t always so clear to him what his career might look like. !llmind was born Ramon Ibanga, Jr. to Filipino immigrants in New Jersey. After high school, he spent six years holed up in his parents’ basement, exploring hip-hop.

AJC: That’s not the immigrant experience. Like normally, Mom is, “Go off and become a dentist or a lawyer. We didn’t come to this country so you could sit in the basement, messing around with hip-hop.”

!llmind: Exactly. The pressure was on. Every day.

AJC: And how did you deal with it?

!llmind: I dealt with it through the music. I dealt with it through patience. You know, really just swallowing my pride every day. And shout out to my older brother. I have an older brother who’s two years older than me. He was always, like, the successful sibling. He was prom king, he was captain of the basketball team. You know, successful job, went to school, finished all four years. So I guess I was sort of the “bad seed.” But, you know, at the time, it was definitely rough, but it was sort of half and half. My mom was like, “Okay, any day now, you’re going to go back to school right?” Or, “Any day now, you’re going to get a job.” And my dad would be kind of up in the air. He would tell my mom, like, “You know, just let him do his thing. He’s finding himself. He’s composing music.” So my dad definitely understood what was happening. And so, pressure was definitely on, for sure.

AJC: I mean, you are very musical but you spent six years becoming musical? What was the six years doing—sitting in your mom’s basement, doing what?

!llmind: So the six years in Mom’s basement was me trying to figure out how to do it. So it’s like, okay, I hear a piece of hip-hop music. I’m sitting there figuring out, “Where were they getting these samples? How did they program their drums? What are drum breaks? Why did some hip-hop music sound like it was looped from older records, and how do I do that for my music? Do I need to play instruments? What kind of software do I need? What kind of equipment should I invest in?” So a lot of it was trial and error. A lot of it was me messing up a lot. The fun part of it was really what kept me going, because it’s literally just all I wanted to do. I didn’t want to go out and have a social life. I didn’t want to get into a relationship. I didn’t want to play sports. I didn’t want to do anything else. So I was just answering myself and fulfilling my need to just create music.

AJC: But it’s very different from the path that, say, composers in the previous 800 years would have had—which is, you sit at a keyboard and you try to create something unique and new.

!llmind: Yeah.

AJC: You’re not sitting there trying to write the next pop classic. That’s not what you’re trying to do.

!llmind: Not at all.

AJC: So how do you know that that’s the path you’re supposed to go down at this point in time?

!llmind: I didn’t know. I didn’t know. It was super reckless and super curious. I was super curious and—

AJC: Did you ever try to sit down and write “Hey Jude”? I mean, did you ever sit down and say, “I’m going to write a song. It’s going to have a verse, chorus, verse. It’s going to have lyrics. It’s going to be about love.” Did you ever sort of go that traditional song route?

!llmind: Eventually.

AJC: You did. Okay.

!llmind: Eventually, yeah.

AJC: But, at this point, not in your mind?

!llmind: At this point, not even in my mind. In my mind it’s, “How do I sample? How do I manipulate what already exists? And how do I sound like my heroes?” And that’s what it was, and it was me figuring out the different techniques of sampling. And then from there, then I started to think deeper and say, “Okay, well, if I’m sampling music from the past, how do I compose my own music so I can sample myself?”

AJC: Trying to create a hook.

!llmind: Trying to create a hook, right.

!llmind’s break came when one evening, on a whim, he offered a collection of samples for sale on his website. He woke up the next morning to find thousands of dollars in his bank account.

AJC: Besides the market telling you they were any good, when you were making them yourself, what was your quality control of them? So you would put, I don’t know, 20 snare sounds.

!llmind: Right.

AJC: To get 20 snare sounds, how many were you rejecting? Or were you rejecting any?

!llmind: I didn’t really reject much. You know, it’s funny because when I was making my drum kits, I would always make them with the intention of, “Would I use these myself?” And I think that those drum kit sounds really were able to translate to the general public because I liked them. And I’m hoping that they also really saw the amount of time and love that I put into those sounds. It’s paying off now.

One such door led to Lin-Manuel Miranda, when Atlantic Records commissioned !llmind to produce three songs for The Hamilton Mixtape, a hipper version of the original Broadway soundtrack. It wasn’t long before Miranda called !llmind with another opportunity.

!llmind: So he’s like, “Hey, so I’m working on this song for Disney, and I’m wondering if you can produce it for me.” I told him, “Yeah, I’ll do it!” So I’m listening to it and I have, like, these weird dry vocals of The Rock singing. And so I took it and I sort of created my own version of it. And I sent it over to Lin, and he loved it. He immediately said, “Yup, this is it. This is the one.” Then the guys over at Disney heard it, and they loved the first version that I did. I was expecting to do multiple versions of this. Fortunately, I got it right the first time.

AJC: What’s the special sauce? Why are they calling you?

!llmind: I think that they just think that what I bring to the table is cool and fresh and new and weird, in a way.

Today, !llmind holds workshops for budding hip-hop producers throughout the country. He says he’s happy to share his knowledge with the next generation, while making them understand that the most important aspect of his work can’t be taught.

!llmind: I believe that you can’t be extraordinary at something unless you love it. So there’s kids out there that, unfortunately, are doing it for the wrong reasons. There’s kids out there that are doing it saying, “Hey I can make a couple hundred grand a year from selling kits or selling beats.” But they don’t really love doing it. They’re not getting up at 6 a.m. and going to bed at midnight, listening to music, and creating music, and becoming obsessed with texture and composition. Those kids are going to fall short. But I believe that if you love it enough, and you push yourself enough, you can get to where you want to be.

AJC: It will love you back.

!llmind: It will love you back. And there’s only one percent of them that do.

The disrupters, those game changers who disregard tradition, are much admired in today’s individualistic society, but difficult to embody or even observe in the wild. And then, you encounter the poet Kenneth Goldsmith.

Kenneth Goldsmith: If I’m doing a piece of writing and I ask myself, “Can this in some way be construed as not being writing?”—then I know I’m on the right road.

Goldsmith is a pioneer of what he calls “uncreative writing”—an idea that hinges on his belief that, in the digital age, it’s as acceptable for a writer to appropriate other’s words as for an artist to riff on corporate logos. But the literary world hasn’t always been in lock step behind him.

Goldsmith: I mean, nothing I’m doing in literature is new. It’s all secondhand ideas from the art world. And with the advent of the digital, it all made sense to bring these things into literature. People didn’t like that. It continues, I believe, to upset people to have those ideas. But I’m thinking, “These are codified, mainstream ideas in other fields. Why can’t literature get up to speed with this? It’s not so hard.”

Goldsmith: The idea that you could copy and paste language revolutionized writing. Now, that hasn’t changed at all. And yet, we still find ourselves in these age-old battles of plagiarism. And the fact is, all we’re doing is copying, and pasting, and retweeting, and sharing, and mirroring. And, in fact, everybody still is demanding everybody to be—or artists, anyway—to be as original as they once were.

But for all the ways he’s embracing the digital, Goldsmith can’t seem to let go of the printed word. He’s the author of 11 books, none of which could be described as page-turners.

Goldsmith: The books are really interesting to talk about, and really interesting to think about. They’re sometimes less interesting to read, but that doesn’t mean they’re uninteresting to read. That just means that it’s a different type of reading.

Take, for instance, Soliloquy, which was a record of every word Goldsmith spoke in one week in the spring of 1996. On June 16th of the following year, Bloomsday, he wrote down every move his body made during a 13-hour period. But Goldsmith’s most famous work is Day, a retyping of one edition of The New York Times from September 2000.

Goldsmith: There’s something about cutting and pasting that I like conceptually. And I believe, in the future, generations will be able to simply cut and paste and claim it as their own. Myself, I’m still a little bit old-fashioned. When I type it, and when it appears in my Microsoft Word document, in my font, it looks like my writing. And it becomes my writing, in a sense. Walter Benjamin said, “The difference between reading something and copying something is the difference between flying over a landscape in an airplane and walking along that road.” It’s not prescriptive, either. I’m not saying this for everyone. I’m just saying, “Let’s admit this into the toolbox that we have as writers.” Right now, it’s really verboten.

AJC: But, by and large, is it not your intention to shock?

Goldsmith: No, it’s not my intention to shock at all.

AJC: No?

Goldsmith: It all makes sense to me. It’s not about shock. People sometimes find that idea’s provocative, but that’s not my intention.

AJC: Are you hurt by it when people, then, are shocked, or have the wrong reaction to what you intended?

Goldsmith: No, I assume that my ideas are somewhat unconventional.

Kenneth Goldsmith has dedicated himself to the project of uncreative writing for the last two decades. And though his core philosophy hasn’t changed much, he says there are things about his younger self that he both admires and abhors—among these: brashness, insensitivity, and self-righteousness.

Goldsmith: And all of that made, I believe, great art. That person has matured, at this point, and doesn’t feel the need to make those kinds of statements. When we first started off saying, you said, “Haven’t you sought to shock?” And I would have said, “Yes, that earlier artist did seek to shock.” And now, this person seeks to reify those shocks, and to explain those shocks in ways that I had no patience earlier to explain them and reify those things.

AJC: Interesting.

Goldsmith: Become a little bit more generous, I think. I hope.

AJC: The counsel of the years.

Goldsmith: I’m 56, and I’ve been doing this project—this one specific project—for 20 years. In a sense, I think my work is done. If I never wrote another book, it really wouldn’t make much of a difference. You know, I think about this all the time because I’m really on the cusp of a third act. Maybe the first act was being a visual artist, the second act was being a poet, and the third act remains to be seen. I’m looking. I’m shopping for ideas.

And regardless of what that idea turns out to be, rest assured it will continue Goldsmith’s pursuit of the unconventional.

The disrupters, those game changers who disregard tradition, are much admired in today’s individualistic society, but difficult to embody or even observe in the wild. And then, you encounter the poet Kenneth Goldsmith.

Kenneth Goldsmith: If I’m doing a piece of writing and I ask myself, “Can this in some way be construed as not being writing?”—then I know I’m on the right road.

Goldsmith is a pioneer of what he calls “uncreative writing”—an idea that hinges on his belief that, in the digital age, it’s as acceptable for a writer to appropriate other’s words as for an artist to riff on corporate logos. But the literary world hasn’t always been in lock step behind him.

Goldsmith: I mean, nothing I’m doing in literature is new. It’s all secondhand ideas from the art world. And with the advent of the digital, it all made sense to bring these things into literature. People didn’t like that. It continues, I believe, to upset people to have those ideas. But I’m thinking, “These are codified, mainstream ideas in other fields. Why can’t literature get up to speed with this? It’s not so hard.”

Goldsmith: The idea that you could copy and paste language revolutionized writing. Now, that hasn’t changed at all. And yet, we still find ourselves in these age-old battles of plagiarism. And the fact is, all we’re doing is copying, and pasting, and retweeting, and sharing, and mirroring. And, in fact, everybody still is demanding everybody to be—or artists, anyway—to be as original as they once were.

But for all the ways he’s embracing the digital, Goldsmith can’t seem to let go of the printed word. He’s the author of 11 books, none of which could be described as page-turners.

Goldsmith: The books are really interesting to talk about, and really interesting to think about. They’re sometimes less interesting to read, but that doesn’t mean they’re uninteresting to read. That just means that it’s a different type of reading.

Take, for instance, Soliloquy, which was a record of every word Goldsmith spoke in one week in the spring of 1996. On June 16th of the following year, Bloomsday, he wrote down every move his body made during a 13-hour period. But Goldsmith’s most famous work is Day, a retyping of one edition of The New York Times from September 2000.

Goldsmith: There’s something about cutting and pasting that I like conceptually. And I believe, in the future, generations will be able to simply cut and paste and claim it as their own. Myself, I’m still a little bit old-fashioned. When I type it, and when it appears in my Microsoft Word document, in my font, it looks like my writing. And it becomes my writing, in a sense. Walter Benjamin said, “The difference between reading something and copying something is the difference between flying over a landscape in an airplane and walking along that road.” It’s not prescriptive, either. I’m not saying this for everyone. I’m just saying, “Let’s admit this into the toolbox that we have as writers.” Right now, it’s really verboten.

AJC: But, by and large, is it not your intention to shock?

Goldsmith: No, it’s not my intention to shock at all.

AJC: No?

Goldsmith: It all makes sense to me. It’s not about shock. People sometimes find that idea’s provocative, but that’s not my intention.

AJC: Are you hurt by it when people, then, are shocked, or have the wrong reaction to what you intended?

Goldsmith: No, I assume that my ideas are somewhat unconventional.

Kenneth Goldsmith has dedicated himself to the project of uncreative writing for the last two decades. And though his core philosophy hasn’t changed much, he says there are things about his younger self that he both admires and abhors—among these: brashness, insensitivity, and self-righteousness.

Goldsmith: And all of that made, I believe, great art. That person has matured, at this point, and doesn’t feel the need to make those kinds of statements. When we first started off saying, you said, “Haven’t you sought to shock?” And I would have said, “Yes, that earlier artist did seek to shock.” And now, this person seeks to reify those shocks, and to explain those shocks in ways that I had no patience earlier to explain them and reify those things.

AJC: Interesting.

Goldsmith: Become a little bit more generous, I think. I hope.

AJC: The counsel of the years.

Goldsmith: I’m 56, and I’ve been doing this project—this one specific project—for 20 years. In a sense, I think my work is done. If I never wrote another book, it really wouldn’t make much of a difference. You know, I think about this all the time because I’m really on the cusp of a third act. Maybe the first act was being a visual artist, the second act was being a poet, and the third act remains to be seen. I’m looking. I’m shopping for ideas.

And regardless of what that idea turns out to be, rest assured it will continue Goldsmith’s pursuit of the unconventional.