From The Top

Jonathan Safran Foer: Illuminating Everything-Best-selling author Jonathan Safran Foer writes to interrogate his own past, and all of our futures.;
Nate Powell: Drawing on Experience-Superstar graphic novelist Nate Powell is known for beautifully rendered comics with a strong moral core;
Gustavo Dudamel: Playing Nicely-Venezuelan-born conductor Gustavo Dudamel is on a mission to sew harmony.

AIRED: February 21, 2020 | 0:26:46

(inspiring classical music)

- 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.

- 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.

- [Jim] 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 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.

- [Jim] And the Venezuelan-born conductor Gustavo Dudamel

is on a mission to sell harmony

in the concert hall, and beyond.

- 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.

- [Jim] That's all ahead on Articulate.

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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.

- 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.

- [Jim] 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.

- [Narrator] "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."

- [Jim] 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.

- 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.

- [Jim] 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.

- 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.

- [Jim] 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.

- 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.

- Even now?

- Yeah.

Yeah, for sure.

Being the descendant of Holocaust survivors,

I was always--

- Puts it into context, right?

- 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--

- To dismiss your own pain?

- Yeah, when there isn't room for

that's much worse than this, but this is still

something that's worth mentioning.

- But that's the right balance, right?

It's not everything, but it's not nothing.

- Well, getting older.

You know?

Trying to learn.

It's been humbling to figure out

how wrong I've been about how many things.

- [Jim] 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.

- 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.

- [Jim] 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.

- 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.

- The argument between you and yourself?

- 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.

- [Jim] For now, these conversations must continue

between Jonathan Safran Foer and himself,

and all of us.

(inspiring classical music)

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- [Tori] 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 GI 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.

- 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.

- [Tori] 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.

- 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.

- [Tori] 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 Spiefelman'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.

- 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.

- [Tori] 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.

- 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.

- [Tori] 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.

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- [Jim] 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.

(exciting orchestral music)

Gustavo Dudamel's life has been shaped by music.

Without it, he could not have become who he is today.

- 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.

(rousing classical music)

- [Jim] 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.

- 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 rally 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.

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- [Jim] 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.

- 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.

- 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--

- Completely.

- [Jim] It will?

- 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.

- [Jim] 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 Madura

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.

- 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 agree

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.

- [Jim] 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.

- 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.


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 that.

- [Jim] 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

multimillion dollar building, alumnus John Gonzales

has been forever changed by Gustavo Dudamel.

- 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.

- [Jim] 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.

- 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.

(rousing classical music)

(audience applauding)

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- [Jim] For more Articulate, find us on social media

or on our website,

On the next Articulate, Tori Marchiony

profiles former UK poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion.

Five decades in, he's still finding room to grow.

Among the most highly regarded jazz pianists of his time,

Vijay Iyer has made his instrument of choice

an instrument of discovery,

and Susan Choi's books reflect her skepticism of authority

as Tori Marchiony reports, she even questions

the credibility of characters she creates.

I'm Jim Cotter.

Join us for the next Articulate.

(inspiring classical music)

- [Announcer] Articulate with Jim Cotter is made possible

with generous funding from the Neubauer Family Foundation.


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