Talk with Ira Glass, David Rakoff an Intimate Evening with Familiar Voices


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For a delightful but all too brief moment on Saturday, Zellerbach was transformed into a recording studio with guests Ira Glass, host of the Chicago Public Radio program "This American Life," and regular contributor David Rakoff. Packed to capacity with enthusiastic listeners, the evening turned out to be less about getting a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the making of the beloved show and more about spending an intimate few hours with voices as familiar as-perhaps even more so-those of neighbors and friends.

Since its 1995 debut broadcast, "This American Life" has grown into one of National Public Radio's best known staples. 2 million listeners tune into their local NPR station on any given Saturday to hear Ira Glass and his staff of reporters explore the marvelous in the quotidian.

"This isn't how we actually do the show," Ira cautioned as he settled down behind a table topped with a mixing board and CD player to begin the live demonstration that kicked off the evening. With his slightly pompadoured hair, thick black glasses and gray suite, Ira looked like a Buddy Holly reincarnation going out for a job interview.

Standing on the opposite side of the stage behind a music stand, David-more casually dressed in cuffed jeans and a black hoodie-began slowly, "Nothing assails the writer's credibility like a happy childhood." The duo launched into a piece that was something between performance and confession delivered above music by the likes of Philip Glass (who, incidentally, is Ira's first cousin once removed).

What Ira and David did was simple enough: David read a piece and Ira cued him in while potting music up and down. Uncomplicated as it appeared, the demonstration was a mesmerizing orchestration that augmented the richness wrought of simplicity that is at the heart of "This American Life." This humble performance begged the question: How can something so simple be so entirely enchanting?

Well, as it turns out, first and foremost there are the ways in which music is employed to "manipulate people's attention." David demonstrated using a song's vamp, or crescendo before a melody line begins, to score the buildup to an epiphanic moment and how dropping the music out entirely makes almost anything you say sound important. The point being that the show's emotional effects have as much to do with clever editing and mixing as with the astounding stories themselves. "The radio makes me sound a great deal smarter than I actually am," David confessed with his patent humility.

Admittedly, the program maxed out on its intimate charm early on, but not by any fault of its special guests. The live demonstration was followed by an on stage interview with Cynthia Gorney, a writer for the New Yorker and professor at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, who seemed hell bent on deconstruction. In addition to her excessive exaltation thinly disguised as interview questions and an inexplicable penchant for interrupting the witty banter between Ira and David, Gorney's determination to get Ira to elaborate on precisely how he decided to mix in one song over another was an utter failure.

"I just pick what songs match the story," Ira explained on the verge of exasperation, "I really wish there was a smarter explanation for it." What Gorney didn't seem to understand was that imploring Ira to illuminate the inner workings of his creative process was a lot like asking a musician why he or she improvised one way or another; it's clearly a process that the artists themselves don't entirely understand.

Not surprisingly, the best moments of the interview were those when Ira and David just got to talk-or "jam" as an audience member suggested. There was something altogether magical about the evening, harkening back to times in our collective memories when people used to gather around their radiosets.

"On the radio you're creating a dream," explained Ira. And for just a moment, that dream was palpable and real and we were part of it.


Find the marvelous in the mundane with Sofia at [email protected]

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