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  1. Don’t be fooled by the “lighthearted” music of They Might Be Giants.
  2. Sylvia Plath should be remembered as more than a poster girl for despair.
  3. An artist falls in love with an engineer. Perspectives shift.

Segments

08:29
  • Literature
  • Music
Sylvia Plath: The Iconic Sad Girl
Sylvia Plath should be remembered as more than a poster girl for despair.
Season 4, Episode 12
Sylvia Plath: The Iconic Sad Girl
08:20
  • Music
They Might Be Giants: Cultivated Eccentricity
Don’t be fooled by the “lighthearted” music of They Might Be Giants.
Season 4, Episode 12
They Might Be Giants: Cultivated Eccentricity
09:50
  • Literature
  • Art & Design
Oliver Jeffers: Principled Uncertainty
An artist falls in love with an engineer. Perspectives shift.
Season 4, Episode 12
Oliver Jeffers: Principled Uncertainty

Transcript

Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores how creativity is the very bedrock of what makes us human.

On this episode of Articulate, on first listen, the music of They Might Be Giants can come across as light hearted, even glib. Don’t be fooled.

John Flansburgh: Most people who work with us quickly come to understand that we are control freaks.

Sylvia Plath is known equally for her prowess as a writer, and for the tragic end to her life. But as Tori Marchiony reports, she should be remembered as more than a poster girl for despair.

Sandra Beasley: She took her depression and the sadnesses of her life and did the best she could to make them fuel for the creative fire.

And, an artist falls in love with an engineer. Canvases filled with equations, perspectives shift.

Oliver Jeffers: It’s asking the questions, and not necessarily thinking you’re gonna get the answers.

That’s all ahead, on Articulate.

On first listen, the music of They Might Be Giants can come across as lighthearted, even glib. Don’t be fooled.   

(Performance of ‘Doctor Worm’)

For two high school friends who started out with a guitar, an accordion and some prerecorded drum tracks, John Flansburgh and John Linnell of They Might Be Giants have had a very good run indeed. In the past 35 years, they’ve released 20 albums, and contributed songs to films, TV and most recently, Broadway. But one thing they’ve never managed is a US hit single, and that, says John Linnell, has turned out to be an advantage.

John Linnell: We’re not annoying the hell out of anybody, you know. There’s not something in our repertoire that people are groaning about. I think the people who recognize us and remember us do so generally with a kind of pleasant feeling.

More than just a pleasant feeling, but a level of devotion that keeps them singing along three decades later. Generations of die-hard fans have been taken with the Giant’s infectious melodies, and reliably clever, occasionally absurd, lyrics.

(performance of ‘The Mesopotamians’)

But while this music sounds like fun, the group’s founders are deadly serious.

Linnell: We are very uptight, in a way, about what we’re doing.

John Flansburgh: Most people who work with us quickly come to understand that we are control freaks, and I am very specifically, like, this huge gatekeeper. I’m more than happy to be the bad cop if a bad cop is needed.

If the duo is particular, it’s because they’ve been captains of their own, fairly offbeat, creative ship for a long time. Even now, John and John retain the gritty ‘do-it-yourself’ attitude that brought them success early on. In 1983, they started Dial-A-Song, which offered new They Might Be Giants songs as the outgoing message on the answering machine at John Flansburgh’s Brooklyn apartment. Their early music videos, mostly homemade on a shoestring budget, earned them national exposure on MTV. But their real breakthrough came in 1990, with the band’s third album, Flood, which has sold more than a million copies worldwide to date, thanks in part to ‘Birdhouse In Your Soul’, quirky tales of ancient history, as told by a blue canary nightlight. It reached number six on the UK pop charts.

(performance of ‘Birdhouse In Your Soul’)

And though the group’s light-hearted approach resonated with British audiences, some in the media were less amused.

Flansburgh: “Admit it, this funny thing can’t last.” “What were you thinking “when you thought you could succeed “with this humorous music? “Doesn’t it seem like a mistake “that you’re doing music with a sense of humor?”

Linnell: The same question over and over.

Flansburgh: The reiteration of the same question over and over again. And we’re just like “Yeah, lady, it’s cool.”

Flansburgh: We don’t have a problem like, saying very glib things about our work, but we really have a difficult time hearing other people say it.

But this sense of humor that so offended that reporter has made They Might Be Giants a big hit with young children, for whom they’ve made several albums.

Linnell: We didn’t want it to be some kind of remedial, good-for-you type of thing.

Flansburgh: I mean, I don’t think we’re uniquely qualified for many things, but I think what happened with the kid’s stuff was we actually had a transferrable skill.

Of their four children’s albums, three have gone gold. One even earned a Grammy, but the duo still writes mainly music for grown-ups. Despite its title, their 2018 album, I Like Fun, explores more weighty topics.

(Performance of ‘I Left My Body’)

AJC: ‘I Left My Body’ is what it suggests?

Linnell: Mm-hmm.

AJC: It’s a visit to the pearly gates?

Linnell: Possibly, that’s one, yeah. I mean, I think we don’t, we’re not nailing everything completely down, but there’s a strong element of death throughout the album, but there’s also fun. You know.

Flansburgh: The fun of death.

AJC: There’s also some fairly unveiled references to opioid addiction, if I’m not mistaken?

Flansburgh: ‘I Like Fun’ is about prescription drugs, which of, I guess there are some.

Linnell: Could be opioid.

Flansburgh: It’s in a sense a cautionary tale, it’s sort of, I think one of the things that people, when people talk about drugs, is so strange to me, is the reason people get into drugs is that it’s fun. So, it’s like, you know, that part they skip over really gingerly, and the song is kind of about that confusion. How can something as simple as the idea of fun get so messed up by this, by this addiction stuff?

(Performance of ‘I Like Fun’)

With each new project, Flansburgh and Linnell strive to impress their most difficult critics, each other.

Linnell: I put something together and I think “What will John think?” And even without him there, I’m already, I can see it possibly curdling, you know.

AJC: Oh, so you’re almost self editing before it gets to the other person?

Linnell: Yeah, absolutely, yeah, yeah.

AJC: Oh, that’s interesting.

Flansburgh: I think the idea of the other person being the first audience is very, in a way, I think that’s what defines us as a group more than anything else. That’s a part of, sort of invisible, part of the collaboration, it’s that, you know, you just wanna kind of impress the other person.

(Sylvia Plath reading ‘Lady Lazarus’)

Lady Lazarus…

There is a charge for the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge

for the hearing of my heart­­­­––

It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge

For a word or a touch,

Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.

Sylvia Plath, that immortally mortal poet once described the human heart as so deep and tremulous that it can either sing or weep. Ruled equally by ambition and emotion, she turned her own life into not only poems, but also, into myth. Plath, of course, is no longer alive. In the early dark hours of a miserably cold February in 1963, she famously sealed the rooms between the kitchen and her sleeping children, turned on the oven and inhaled the deadly gas. She’d had great aspirations, and success as a poet. She’d had enormous responsibilities and heartbreak as the wife of the philandering Ted Hughes and the mother of his two young children. She was only 30 years old when she died.

(The Prettiots performing ‘Suicide Hotline’)

On a scale of one to Plath like a floor

My head’s not in the oven, but I can’t get off the floor

It’s not that bad, I won’t take it too far

I see a good shrink

And hey, dream boy’s no bell jar

For many, like Kay Kasperhauser of the indie band The Prettiots, Plat’s iconic melancholy lies at the core of her enduring power.

Kay Kasperhauser: If you were a sad teen girl, you definitely read Sylvia Plath. Like … There’s just something about that unique sadness, and it’s sort of like you’re reaching out into the abyss for something you can identify with to tell you that you’re not completely alone in these feelings, and then you find that. For me, and I think for most teen girls, it’s The Bell Jar. It’s beautiful and it’s simple and it’s complex and it’s a love story, and it checks all the boxes and at the same time, you leave it with this feeling of like, okay, well what I’m feeling is real. It’s not like there’s some happy-go-lucky resolution necessarily, but I’m also not alone in it.

But for the writer Sandra Beasley, Plath should be remembered as a poet, and not a martyr.

Sandra Beasley: I probably encountered some of her individual poems early on, without learning about that larger narrative of her life and death. And then when I was a college student, someone made passing reference of Ariel. I was embarrassed, I didn’t really know the book, and so I got it from the university bookstore and devoured it. And it just really resonated. The dreams that I would have on a night that I had read Sylvia Plath would be different, because of her. She was a fierce, technical craftsman, with a great sense of humor, and a wild set of images, and she took her depression, and the sadness of her life and did the best she could to make them fuel for the creative fire. And that fire ultimately consumed her, but it wasn’t because she wasn’t trying, and it wasn’t because she wasn’t tough.

Among the many facts that the mythologizing of Plath have helped to obscure, are the deeply human, and in many ways ordinary instincts that impelled the poet over the course of her brief life. Plath was intent, says Dorothy Moss, curator of painting and sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery, on knowing herself. This desire can be found in her earliest creative output.

Dorothy Moss: When I took a look at the archives where her mother placed all of her younger years material such as her journals, and her artwork from elementary school and high school, I noticed that she drew a lot of portraits, and a lot of self-portraits, and this continued on into college. In her journals, you see often sketches of herself, where she would take photographs and paste her face into the journal and then write about the mood she was experiencing to kind of write her way out.

Plath was a daughter who had lost her father to complications of diabetes, young. She was the child of a hard-working, financially pressed mother. Early on, she understood that words were more than ideas. Words represented, potentially, income.

Moss: The first piece of writing that she published in the Christian Science Monitor, she knew she would be paid for. It was something that became a professional goal. She wasn’t writing just because she loved to write, she was writing because she knew that she could support herself through writing.

Plath also knew, it seems certain, that she had true talent. In this reading of Lady Lazarus, her voice is strong, her delivery self-confident.

(Sylvia Plath reading ‘Lady Lazarus’)

Dying

is an art, like everything else.

I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.

I do it so it feels real.

Other artists have used Plath’s life and work as their own creative touchstones. Feminists have claimed her as their own. But we must be careful not to impose our own era’s experiences, expectations or politics onto the poet.

Beasley: You have to remember, a book like The Bell Jar was written pre-pill, pre-women’s movement. A lot of the things that we think of as catalyst points for feminism were not really on her consciousness. When people read The Bell Jar, or read Ariel and seize on it as a meaningful tract that enervates their own feminism, what they’re seeing is a woman who’s being honest about the struggle of selfhood, and the power dynamics.

Throughout her life, Plath was driven by two opposing forces, to live so that she might create, and to die so that she might stop hurting.

Beasley: So, in that period of time between when she first started publishing, and up through her early age 30, she had been able to do the series of prestigious awards and scholarships, she got the Fulbright, she got the Saxton, and if you imagine, that’s both a great reward and also tremendous pressure. Because you have to win everything. You have to be first in everything. I think that she had a history of suicide attempts, including several car crashes and the famous attempt where, she was 20, took pills, crawled under the house. We’re not talking about someone who made a previously unheard of decision in her timeline.

There’s an irreparable vacuum in the wake of any life ended too soon, but Plath’s quest to find herself through the lines on her page is a more lasting legacy.

Oliver Jeffers is forever striving to better understand the world around him. His musings have populated canvases, galleries and books. But in 2015, Jeffers faced his most daunting blank slate, his first child Harland, who was a stark reminder of what it means to start from scratch.

Oliver Jeffers: We brought him home from the hospital and quite comically, I started giving him a tour of our, then, One bedroom apartment, you know, like “This is the living room, this is where we keep our chairs, chairs are what you use to sit in.” “This is the kitchen, this is where we cook food. Food is what you eat.” And I was like, “You really know nothing, “you know absolutely nothing.”

On behalf of his newborn, he reevaluated everything he thought he knew about the world. Letters to his son took on a life of their own, eventually turning into a best-selling picture book, called Here We Are.

Jeffers: I try to be very, very careful about not putting anything in there that’s opinion, but only factual, so people come in all shapes, sizes. We may all look different, sound different, but don’t be fooled, we are all people. That’s a truth. There are animals too, even more shapes and sizes, that’s a truth, you know.

AJC: Some of them can talk, “I can!”

Jeffers: Yeah, yeah. Everything in there is, no matter your religious, or your political beliefs or anything, there’s nothing in there that you could really take up against.

AJC: What are the parenting dos and don’ts that you got from being a kid yourself, and how is that then reflected both in the books you create and in your own parenting style?

Jeffers: Well did you notice there’s a quote from my dad in the back of the book.

AJC: I did.

Jeffers: All the way through, growing up if you ask any of my brothers “What were dad’s three words?” It was respect, consideration, and tolerance.

These words were particularly powerful in the 1970s Belfast of Jeffer’s childhood. The so-called Troubles, the ethno-nationalist conflict that killed an injured thousands, was still decades from a truce. The circumstances weren’t ideal for raising a family. Indeed, mister and missus Jeffers had tried moving away to Australia, where Oliver was born. But they returned to Ireland when his mother began showing the first signs of what would later be diagnosed as Multiple Sclerosis.

Jeffers: Which she was afflicted with for the rest of her life and died, what year is this? 18 years ago, from that. But in a way, yeah, everybody is going, if it works the way that it’s supposed to work, everybody will lose their parents at some point or another, and in a strange way, I feel like me and my brothers were given a bit of secret weapon because of the way she decided to treat her illness and treat us and treat her own… I suppose, reason for living. We, I think, at a young age, more earlier than most people, got a sense of perspective of what is actually important and what is not, and what is worth worrying about and what is not. And in a way, we celebrated her life rather than mourned her death, whenever she passed, and it felt empowering, very, very empowering, and actually my book, The Heart and the Bottle, was about that, but not in the obvious way. It wasn’t my relationship with her, but it was more a comment on, I remember watching a couple of different friends lose people close to them, and the way in which they mourned was very aggressive and sort of inward facing and quite destructive. And I just thought… Well we were actually, we had been quite fortunate in the way in which we’ve embraced this loss, this death in a way in which it was not hidden, it was not, not a sad thing, but it was celebrated and it was out in the open and it was talked about. And I think we have a much more healthy perspective on life and death, simply because of that.

From a young age, Jeffers knew that given his druthers, he would grow up to become and artist. He tended to spend his time with creative people, pursuing philosophical conversations. But when he met the woman who would become his wife, Suzanne, an engineer by training, they both discovered new ways to think about the world.

Jeffers: The reality dawning on both of us that art and science or logic and emotion were two totally different but equally valid ways of interpreting the world around us, and the mathematics and science at a very high level is not that different from philosophy in art, it’s just asking questions and not necessarily thinking you’re gonna get the answers. Like many things, immediately I was struck with a visual, I wonder if I can try to explore, if it’s possible, to look at one thing from two totally different perspectives at the same time. And that’s when I started making these figurative paintings and putting mathematical equations over them. And so the very first one was this glass of orange, and then I picked an equation that showed how light refracts when it hits curved glass, and then created that as the light source. So that was that. Then I was like “Okay, that’s an interesting thing.” And I may well have just left it at that one painting, but then, it was exhibited and bought by this, a doctor of quantum physics, Hugh Morrison. And he got in touch with me and said “I am fascinated by what you did,” “clearly you’re making work about Bell’s string theory,” can we meet for a cup of coffee?” And so I met him for a cup of coffee and was like “I have never heard of Bell’s string theory.” “What is that?” And we started having these conversations, and he was interested in talking to me because I was coming at these scientific problems from a completely different perspective than any of the students that he would be teaching.

AJC: And a far more, probably, naive post?

Jeffers: Much more naive. But he said that naivety was actually an advantage in a lot of ways, cause I wouldn’t get tripped up in the same reasoning that other people would take for granted.

Those conversations resulted in a series of paintings about equations as explained to him by Morrison, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Of the many theories they discussed, Jeffers became particularly interested in something called the uncertainty principle.

Jeffers: Which as he put it, proves mathematically that you can’t prove anything mathematically.

Also known as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, it states that both the position and the velocity of an object cannot be measured simultaneously, even in theory. This, despite the fact that an object must, of course, exist before it can move.

Jeffers: So, sort of making art, and then hiding it in as a way to explore. Even though the art is underneath there if you can’t see it, does it still have these properties that you would attribute to it, like beautiful or ugly or whatever it might be. When I saw the end result, there’s something really intriguing about this, just how crisp that line is at the top that’s made by gravity. But I didn’t quite understand what it was about yet, and I left it there at that point. And then, it was, I suppose, months later the painting was exhibited, and caught a little bit of a life online on its own, and people would ask “Did you really paint the whole thing? “Or did you just paint the top half?” I was like “No, I really painted the whole thing.”

But Jeffers didn’t have any proof until a year later, when a picture of the original finally surfaced.

Jeffers: When I saw this photograph of this painting I made over a year prior, it looked completely different from how I remembered it. I find that really jarring. And then, the same day, my younger brother was over visiting, and he started telling the story, to a group of my friends, about my mother. And he started telling the story wrong. And normally as a big brother, I would feel a moral obligation to publicly correct him, but I didn’t this time, because it happened the same day that I had seen this photograph. I was like “Wait a minute, maybe he’s not wrong. “Maybe I’m wrong.” At that point, the whole project clicked into place, and I wanted to try and recreate the circumstances around the first performance, and look at what is this idea of… an objective truth, and is it really there? So I started making these paintings, not photographing them, then recreating the ceremony, inviting people, getting them to leave their phones, cameras at the door, so the only way in which they could be at the performance was to just look at it with their eyes. Then, dip it in sort of this quite ceremonious way, then afterwards, ask them to speak on camera about what they remember seeing, and then follow it up a year later with “What do you remember seeing now?” and I, without realizing it, I was tapping into this whole thing about the way in which people basically create their own identities, and the more I was doing this, the more this sort of vast truth was sinking on me which is that any person is no more than the stories they tell, the stories they are told and the stories that are told about them, and that’s it.

Oliver Jeffers has once again woven stories from his own life into a pair of books. The Working Mind and Drawing Hand of Oliver Jeffers, and The Boy, His Stories and How They Came to Be. They collect some of his best-loved tales, along with behind the scenes sketches and anecdotes.