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Actor Patrick Warburton

Actor Patrick Warburton is best known for his recurring role on Seinfeld as Elaine laconic boyfriend, Puddy. Though he only appeared in nine episodes, he became one of the show favorite characters. Warburton currently stars in the new FOX show The Tick. He could also be heard as the voice of Joe on Fox animated series The Family Guy and has been in commercials for American Express, Cadillac and M&M's. He starred in the movie The Woman Chaser which was critically acclaimed at the New York Film Festival and The Sundance Film Festival, and he was in the Australian film, The Dish. His upcoming films include, Big Trouble, Joe Somebody, and Men In Black 2.

21:43

Other segments from the episode on December 12, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 12, 2001: Interview with Patrick Warburton; Review of Pink's new album "Missundaztood;" Interview with Jay Kernis; Review of the anthology "Poetry speaks.

Transcript

DATE December 12, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Patrick Warburton discusses his acting career
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

"Seinfeld" fans know my guest Patrick Warburton as David Putty, Elaine's
boyfriend who sold cars, the boyfriend who listened to Christian radio
stations and told her she was going to hell. He made a big impression in the
nine "Seinfeld" episodes he appeared in. He also makes a big impression in
the totally different type of character, a man without a conscience, in the
independent film "The Woman Chaser," based on a novel by hard-boiled writer
Charles Willeford. That film received limited distribution, but has played on
the Sundance Film Channel. Warburton also co-starred in the film "The Dish"
and on the CBS sitcom "Dave's World." He's in the movies "Joe Somebody,"
which opens December 21st. You can also see him on his new Fox TV sitcom "The
Tick," which is based on a satirical comic book series about four misfit
superheroes who join forces to battle evil while constantly squabbling with
each other and dealing with their own insecurities. Here's Patrick Warburton
in the opening of the first episode of "The Tick."

(Soundbite from "The Tick")

Mr. PATRICK WARBURTON: The life of the superhero is a lonely one filled with
hardship and danger. The few who answer the call must leave comfort, safety
and often sanity behind. But someone's gotta stand the heat and stay in the
kitchen. Someone's gotta don the oven mitts of all that right and strangle the
red-hot throat of all that's wrong. This is that someone's story.

GROSS: Patrick Warburton, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. WARBURTON: Terry, how are you?

GROSS: What kind of superhero is The Tick?

Mr. WARBURTON: He is a very enthusiastic one, said with much enthusiasm.
He's an enthusiastic superhero. He has no super powers. He's very strong.
He has no alter ego. There's no Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent underneath the blue
suit. He's just simply The Tick.

GROSS: You want to describe the costume you have to wear?

Mr. WARBURTON: Gee, it's a big blue rubber Latex thing. It's very tight.

GROSS: Does it have the outline of like muscles and all the contours of your
body?

Mr. WARBURTON: Yes, those are all the contours of my body.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. WARBURTON: Yeah, the good thing about the costume, The Tick costume, is I
can throw that thing on and really just sweat off any extra pounds.

GROSS: Uncomfortable under there, huh?

Mr. WARBURTON: Because it--well, it's--I'm not gonna lie and say it's the
most comfortable thing I ever wore, but it ain't terrible. It's just, you
know, binding. I'm in a big blue--you know, like a wetsuit, and it gets kind
of hot and sweaty in that thing, but I don't--you know, I really--it's not
horrible. In effect, really, I love the character. I love the character, The
Tick, and I felt from, you know, day one that if we were gonna make this show
and if I had to wear this costume and if that were to be the cross I had to
bear to get to be The Tick, then that's fine.

GROSS: Now a lot of people were introduced to you through "Seinfeld," where
you played Putty, Elaine's boyfriend. Was the character created for you?

Mr. WARBURTON: Well, initially I did a guest spot on the show, and it was
just--I think the character was just written in one episode basically to fill
some shoes. I think he was more or less just a means to an end, you know.
The episode, one of the story lines was about Jerry divulging to his mechanic,
you know, a sexual secret, something he does in the bedroom with girls, and
now his mechanic is now dating Elaine and he's doing the same thing. And so I
don't--there really wasn't anything too definitive about the character at
first, and I remember going in and seeing the other guys that were reading for
the character and they were, you know, like Tonys and Vinnies and more
Italian, you know, guy. The way I saw it was if they were looking for a New
York City mechanic, that's more the way they're gonna go, and I just thought
that it would be fun to do something different. If I have any shot at all of,
you know, getting this guest spot on the show, that I have to do something a
little different.

And I thought, well, what if I just made this guy strange? I thought, you
know, if Putty wasn't anything else, he was strange, you know. Make him
strange. Now it was not--now I'm not gonna say it wasn't really in the
dialogue, it wasn't really written there, it was really more he was just
basically there to serve, you know, a means to an end. He was just there so
that they could go through with the story line. He was eccentric. He wasn't
eccentric like Michael Richards was eccentric as Kramer, but he was eccentric
in another way in that you really just didn't know what the hell was going on
in the back of this guy's head, you know. He just...

GROSS: Now how did the writers work with you when you got the part, after
the--not for the initial guest shot, but when it was actually written as a
recurring role?

Mr. WARBURTON: Well, if you--hopefully you can do something, see, and then
inspire writers. You can't--you know, you do something and they look at you
and go, `Hey, wouldn't it be maybe fun to take this guy and put him in this
situation?' Which is fortunately what ended up happening with "Seinfeld,"
'cause I did that episode, "The Move"(ph) episode, where I was his mechanic,
and then two weeks later they called me back to do this other episode where
we're all going to the hockey game and Putty's a face painter, so now I get to
go back and have some more fun with this character. And everything looked
wonderful and I thought, this is a much better episode than the first one I
got to do was. So now, you know, the "Seinfeld" door has opened and the
writers seemed to be inspired to write for this character, and Jerry
apparently loves the character because everybody on the set is telling me that
the week I was gone, Jerry was, you know, imitating me on the set. Now as an
actor, you can't hear anything better than that, than the star and producer of
a show loves your character, he's impersonating you, and now they're having
you come back to do another episode. So everything seems to be working out
just great, and--but I'm already contracted to do another show, which I had to
do for the next two years.

GROSS: That was "Dave's World"?

Mr. WARBURTON: That was "Dave's World," and so for the next two years I got
calls here and there from "Seinfeld" asking about availability, and I couldn't
go back and do the show.

GROSS: That must have really broke your heart, because you were on a show
that wasn't doing all that well, had to pass up the opportunity to do
"Seinfeld."

Mr. WARBURTON: And I'm not--yeah, and I'm not gonna, you know, say--"Dave's
World" was a lot--you know, a lovely, little bit more family show, and--but,
you know, we were somewhere around 70, if I believe, in the ratings at the
time, and I'm getting calls from "Seinfeld," and I can't do "Seinfeld" for,
you know, those two years. So "Dave's World" got canceled, and then
fortunately for me I was able to get on "Seinfeld" during the last season and
do another seven or eight episodes.

GROSS: Well, anyone who thinks of you only as Putty or only as The Tick on
your new series should watch a movie called "The Woman Chaser" in which you
play a character who's an incredible contrast to those two characters. And
this was a movie based on a hard-boiled Charles Willeford novel. The movie
didn't get much distribution. It played in a few art houses around the
country, but it's been shown a lot on the Sundance Channel. And the story's
built around a guy who has no empathy for other people. The only purpose that
other people serve in his life is to serve his needs, get him what he wants,
whether it's sex, money or the chance to make a movie. This movie is very
hard-boiled, but it's also very funny because your character is just the
extreme version of a very selfish, self-deluded person, the extreme version of
the kind of person you might see every day, and it also becomes a great satire
about a self-absorbed artist. I'd like to play a clip from this movie to show
your voiceover narration. So early in the movie you buy a used car lot,
because you know you can make money with it, and then you decide you need an
outlet for your creative expression, and here you are in the car thinking of
what you will do.

(Soundbite from "The Woman Chaser")

Mr. WARBURTON: I knew the time for fooling around was over. The time had
come for me to create something. One creative accomplishment that would wipe
away the useless days, tie up in a single package my reason for being here.
As an artist, I was limited to what I could do: painting, sculpture, music,
architecture, writing a novel. All of these art forms take years of
apprenticeship. But I knew I could write and direct a movie. I knew it. I
knew what movies were all about. I had seen thousands. And Leo would help
me. Hell, yes, I would talk to Leo.

GROSS: The Leo who you're referring to in that scene is your new stepfather,
who's a kind of washed-up film producer, and you figure he'd be perfect to
produce this movie that you want to make, so you write a movie in your head.
You know, you come up with the premise for it, and then pitch it to Leo. And
this picture's actually very funny. You interrupt yourself several times to
say, `This would be a good place to put in some symbolism,' and things like
that. Patrick Warburton, did you enjoy the idea of this kind of obsessive and
mad filmmaker?

Mr. WARBURTON: Oh, absolutely. Just the tremendous ego, only a story, you
know--I have the grandest story of all to be told and everyone will see it and
love my story. I have to tell you, the process of making an art film, because
one of the things that made "The Woman Chaser" so much fun was just all the
absurdities that we witness in the process of this man's mind and his process
of making this picture, his perspective of all these things. You know, the
way he put everything together. Just the absurdities. Well, the absurdities
within making the picture, "The Woman Chaser," were every bit as grand, you
know. We had--the fellow who plays Leo, his name is Paul Malevich, I
believe--a wonderful man. He's the midnight dispatcher for the Long Beach
Police Department.

GROSS: No.

Mr. WARBURTON: Oh, yes.

GROSS: And he plays your, like, wimpy stepfather.

Mr. WARBURTON: He plays my stepfather. This man, you know, was--he'd never
acted a day before in his life, and Rob knew him from a suicide helpline that
the two of them would, you know, participate in together and help people with
phone calls. And Rob loved faces, and so Rob casts Paul in the role of Leo,
and just, you know, basically carried him through the role. Now Paul did a
fine job, but Paul's wife would show up on the set and say, `Paul, you have to
go home now.' And Rob would be begging, `We have got to shoot this scene.'
`Paul, you have got to get to work.' And Paul would be, you know, saying to
Rob, `Rob, I really--I have to go. I--I'--and he'd be standing in the doorway
with his wife on one end and the director on the other. This was what it was
like making this movie, "The Woman Chaser." It was just absurd, you know.

GROSS: How did you get the part?

Mr. WARBURTON: I read for Rob probably four times. I went in and, you know,
had to convince him that I was right. And this was right after, you know, the
final season of "Seinfeld," and you know, there I am going in and battling to
get a job where, you know, not only am I not gonna get paid, but it's gonna
ultimately end up costing me a few thousand dollars because they came to me in
the midst of shooting this thing asking me if I'd like to be an investor.

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. WARBURTON: Yeah. Yeah. Well, that means one thing. It means, `We're
running out of money and'--you know.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. WARBURTON: `So here's $5,000, that's all I can do for you.' I'm--you
know, and I have my wife. My wife's calling up the director and yelling at
him, and Rob, he's a very talented man. He's a pain in the ass to work with.
He's--no, he's gonna be huge someday because he's a brilliant director. I
really think that a lot of--this was his very first effort.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. WARBURTON: This was his first picture. He made his first picture for
$150,000 and got in the New York Film Festival.

GROSS: Yeah, it's really great. Yeah.

Mr. WARBURTON: Yeah. My wife would call him up and yell at him, you know,
and she'd tell me, `He's taking advantage of you,' 'cause I'm working 16-hour
days here. I gotta explain to my wife, `This is how an independent film gets
made, honey. Everybody has to make sacrifices.' Everybody there is working
for nothing, you know, and ultimately it's just all about the film, you know.
Hopefully you're gonna produce something that's, you know, unique and
different and watchable and all those wonderful things that a nice little
independent film can be. But that's it.

GROSS: My guest is actor Patrick Warburton. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Patrick Warburton. He played David Putty on "Seinfeld."

Now your mother was an actress.

Mr. WARBURTON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: She worked under the name Barbara Lord?

Mr. WARBURTON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What was she in?

Mr. WARBURTON: Well, she never worked professionally during my lifetime.
But before she had a family--I have three younger sisters all within four
years of age, so she--once she started having babies, that was it, and my
dad's a surgeon. He took her out of the business. He said, `You know, you're
gonna take care of these kids and that's that.' And so that's back when, you
know, women would listen to their husbands, I guess. Excuse me. That, you
know--but professionally she did a little bit of Broadway. She did lots of
television. She did shows like "Dobie Gillis," "One Step Beyond," "Gunsmoke,"
"Alfred Hitchcock," "Naked City," shows like that. In "Gunsmoke" she actually
died in Matt Dillon's arms. Yeah, oh, it's a wonderful episode. Matt
Dillon's escorting her from, you know, all across the land to her fiance,
who's in the military, and en route, they, you know, they grow--they have
feelings for each other, and she dies in his arms. And I think it was a
tremendous episode. It was really neat. It's--she got hit by an arrow.

GROSS: So was Matt Dillon ready to cheat on Miss Kitty?

Mr. WARBURTON: Yeah, other than Miss Kitty, it's the, you know, other real
like romance you ever saw him have on the show. It's fun to watch her. It
was always fun to watch her do stuff, but...

GROSS: Did that have any effect on your desire to be an actor?

Mr. WARBURTON: That didn't. What did was going to watch her do shows, the
community theater in Orange County. She would do "See How They Run" at the
Westminster Community Theater. As a 13-year-old, I might go back and hang out
with her backstage and watch them rehearse and watch them do the shows, and I
just loved it. It just looked like so much fun, and you know, one of two
things are gonna happen when you're 13 years old and you're hanging out with
your mom backstage. You know where I'm going with this. You're either gonna
be gay or you're gonna become an actor.

GROSS: Or a gay actor.

Mr. WARBURTON: And--or a gay actor, you know. Not that there's anything
wrong with that. But, no, I got inspired to be an actor early on.

GROSS: Now I've read that when you were growing up your parents were very
strict Catholics. You went to Catholic school. Did you share the intensity
of their faith?

Mr. WARBURTON: No. You know, I wouldn't say that I shared the intensity of
their faith. We've, you know, butted heads on a number of different issues,
you know. My mother--I look at--you know, I have to laugh because she crosses
so many boundaries. Now I consider myself to be a believer and my children
and my wife and I, we all say our dinner prayers. But if I were to be raising
my children in the way my parents raised me, I think that they would go
through all the same guilt and misery and, you know, horrible stuff that I
went through as a child, and it's just not gonna be that way. And I think so
much of it is misguided in an old school. You know, my mother went to school
with the nuns, and my father was actually in the monastery for a short period
of time, really seriously considering a life as a monk, you know. If I were
to walk the line my folks did, then I'd be doing nothing but, you know, "The
Wonderful World of Disney" or "Little House on the Prairie," you know.
There's almost nothing I can do professionally that...

GROSS: Certainly not "The Woman Chaser."

Mr. WARBURTON: Certainly not "The Woman Chaser" and certainly not, you
know--the first time I did "Seinfeld" I got hate mail--what I would consider
hate mail--from my parents, and that's any mail that--where there's, you know,
negative--you know, anything negative.

GROSS: What didn't they like about "Seinfeld"?

Mr. WARBURTON: Oh, well--oh, let me tell you. I got two letters, OK? Two
negative responses. One from a politician in Orange County who says, `You
don't know me, but I've known your parents for years and I know how devastated
they must be that you've chosen to do this.' And he must have been right,
because the other letter was from my dad, and it was a six-page letter that he
was devastated that I would do something where there's given no sanctity to
the act of sex. There was just no sanctity...

GROSS: Oh, is this where you steal Jerry's move?

Mr. WARBURTON: Jerry's move, yes.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. WARBURTON: And, you know, it's like I had to explain. I said, `Listen,
let's lighten up here, OK. It's a 9 PM show. It is more of an adult
audience. It is not explicit and, you know, it's not for children. And you
as a parent have got to watch your children come the 9 PM hour if there's
something that has something of, you know, more adult nature.' You know, sex
is a part of life, and that seems to be another thing, too, that my parents
never understood. You know, I was always afeared of, you know, losing my
virginity 'cause that meant I was going straight to hell if I wasn't married.
You know, that's their background.

And in regards to overstepping bounds, it's really very funny, I think, with
my folks. Like we have two gay neighbors, and my mother would send them
anonymous mail--listen to this. They started getting anonymous mail from Gold
Beach, Oregon, and my parents live in Gold Beach, Oregon. They moved up
there. There are maybe 50 people--well, OK, maybe a few hundred people that
live in Gold Beach, Oregon, my parents being two of them. And now my
neighbors are getting, you know, propaganda in the mail of how they can go
from being gay to straight. So I have to call up my mom and say, `Mom, it's
really not a secret where this stuff's coming from. We really think we've got
it narrowed down. You know, Gold Beach, you and Dad.'

But my mother--my mother, when I worked on "Seinfeld," wanted me to bring a
videotape that converted a lot of her Jewish friends and give it to Jerry.
You know, Jerry, Jason, anybody else who was Jewish on the show. And this to
her--there's no--you know, and not giving them that tape, I'm standing in the
way of God's work. Years later I found out that since I wouldn't bring the
tape to work, Mom just decided to send it to Jerry on her own.

GROSS: Oh, no. Did she take credit for sending it? Did he know who it was
from?

Mr. WARBURTON: Yeah, oh, yeah. Well, I don't think Jerry ever got it, and I
just crossed paths with him in Minnesota about six months ago and told him and
he got a big kick out of it and claims that he never saw the thing. So I'm
sure his people intercepted it. But this is my mom, you know. She's--I
personally love her to death, but I think she's a bit whacked, I really do.

GROSS: One last question.

Mr. WARBURTON: Yeah.

GROSS: When you played Putty on "Seinfeld," Elaine was shocked to find that
in your car all the presets on the radio were tuned to Christian radio
stations. Did your mother like that subplot?

Mr. WARBURTON: You know what? I think they thought that was funny. As I
recall, they did, and so that's, you know, kudos to them for being able to
have a little bit of a sense of humor in that area, whereas oftentimes they
don't. But I thought that it was a bit of a coincidence that that's what we
ended up shooting three weeks after I share with Jerry and Jason and all of
them that my mother had a videotape she wanted me to give them. I had to tell
them. You know, I knew they'd think it was funny and they did, and then here
we are shooting this episode about a month later.

GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. WARBURTON: Thank you, Terry. It's been a pleasure.

GROSS: Patrick Warburton stars on the new Fox sitcom "The Tick." His movie
"The Woman Chaser" is on video.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Aaron Jay Kernis. His new
composition "Color Wheel" will be premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra this
weekend. Also, Maureen Corrigan reviews the new book and CD "Poetry Speaks,"
and Ken Tucker reviews Pink's new CD "M!ssundaztood."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Pink's new CD "M!ssundaztood"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Pink is the 22-year-old singer who may be best-known as part of a group of
women artists, including Christina Aguilera and Lil' Kim, who did a remake of
"Lady Marmalade" for the soundtrack of the recent movie "Moulin Rouge."
Pink's first album was primarily a hip-hip effort, but rock critic Ken Tucker
says that her new collection, called "M!ssundaztood," benefits from its pop
music influences.

(Soundbite of "Missundaztood")

PINK: (Singing) I might be the way everybody likes to say. I know what
you're thinking about me. Uh-uh. There might be a day you might have a
certain way, but you don't ...(unintelligible). And it's me. I know, I know
my name, because I say it proud. Everything I want I always do. Looking for
the right track, always on the wrong track, but are you catching all these
tracks that I'm laying down for you?

There's a song I was listening to up all night. There's a voice I am hearing
saying, `It's all right.' When I'm happy and I'm sad, but everything's good.
It's not that complicated, I'm just misunderstood. There might be...

KEN TUCKER reporting:

There are few tropes in pop music more tired than the concept of the
`misunderstood artist,' the performer who feels his or her creations and image
have been misinterpreted or criticized with undue harshness, either by the
sheeplike public or mean, old critics. Being misunderstood is a way for a
performer to be self-pitying while asking her adoring fans to identify with
her alienation. And Pink plays this game as well as anybody can on her new
album, which is so into the concept that the entire enterprise is called
"M!ssundaztood."

But self-pity so often leads to self-indulgence or self-parody that it's
startling to realize that this is a much better collection of songs than
Pink's debut album from last year.

(Soundbite of song)

PINK: (Singing) I never win first place, I don't support the team. I can't
take direction, and my socks are never clean. Teachers dated me, my parents
hated me. I was always in a fight 'cause I can't do nothing right. Every
day, I fight a war against a mirror, and I can't take the person staring back
at me.

I'm a hazard to myself. Don't let me get me. I'm my own worst enemy. It's
bad when you wouldn't know yourself. I'm so irritating. Don't want to be my
friend no more, I want to be somebody else.

TUCKER: There you go, more autobiographical complaining but done with a
redeeming self-deprecation. At one point, Pink says she's, quote, "Tired of
being compared to damn Britney Spears. She's so pretty. That just ain't me."
Well, I haven't heard too many Britney vs. Pink comparisons, actually.
Pink's pink-haired, punky, tough-girl image has little to do with Spears'
`Oops, is that my cleavage?' peekaboo act. For the teens that admire her,
Pink offers lots of positive image exhortations, such as this one.

(Soundbite of song)

PINK: (Singing) Hey, hey, man, what's your problem? I see you trying to hurt
me bad, don't know what you're up against. Maybe you should reconsider, come
up with another plan, 'cause you know I'm not that kind of girl that'll lay
down and let you come first.

You can push me out the window--you can--I'll just get back up. You can run
over me with your 18-wheeler truck, and I won't give up. You can hang me like
a slave. I'll go underground--go underground--you can roll over me with your
18-wheeler truck, but you can't keep me down, down, down, down. You can't
keep me down.

TUCKER: Hey, it's not a masterpiece of thought, but the `respect yourself'
messages Pink delivers throughout "M!ssundaztood" are both tuneful and useful
to her audience. She may be overreaching with a song called "My Vietnam."
Older listeners might be offended by her appropriation of that metaphor for
her own waring emotions. But the song's not for baby boomers, anyway, and its
sentiment has the kind of florid directness that people respond to. And I
kind of like the way she becomes painfully earnest on "Family Portrait," a
song about divorce written from a kid's point of view that you and I might
find simplistic, but which millions of young listeners might find comforting.

(Soundbite of "Family Portrait")

PINK: (Singing) Mama, please, stop crying. I can't stand the sound. You're
pain is painful, and it's tearing me down. I hear glasses breaking as I sit
up in my bed. I told Dad you didn't mean those nasty things you said.

You fight about money, about me and my brother. And this I come home to, this
is my shelter. It ain't easy growing up in World War III, never knowing what
love could be, you see. I don't want love to destroy me like it has done my
family.

Backup Singers: Yeah, we work it out.

TUCKER: Over all, what Pink has accomplished over the course of this new CD
is considerable. She's expanded her musical range beyond white girl hip-hop
to include lots of well-crafted pop songs that prove she's got a way with a
melody, some command of wordplay and a better voice than--well, than Britney
Spears. She's pulled off the trick of sounding lively and tough while being
inspired by sensible solutions to coping with alienation and anger. Parents
could do a lot worse than recognize that some of the messages that they're
trying to hammer into their kids are `prettier in Pink.'

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly.

(Soundbite of "Get the Party Started")

PINK: (Singing) I'm coming out, so you better get this party started. I'm
coming out, so you got to get this party started.

Get this party started on a Saturday night. Everybody's waiting for me to
arrive. Sending out the message to all of my friends, we'll be looking flashy
in my Mercedes-Benz. I got lots of style...

GROSS: Coming up, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Aaron Jay Kernis. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Aaron Jay Kernis talks about his music compositions
TERRY GROSS, host:

The Philadelphia Orchestra is leaving its long-term home, the Academy of
Music, for its new home, the Kimmel Center. This new performing arts center
opens this weekend. On Saturday, the orchestra will premiere a new work
commissioned for the occasion called "Color Wheel." My guest is the composer,
Aaron Jay Kernis.

Kernis grew up in Philadelphia. In 1998, he became one of the youngest
composers ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for music. Since 1998, he's been the
new music adviser to the Minnesota Orchestra. Last month, he received the
University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for music composition, a $200,000
prize. He won it for his composition "Colored Field." It was inspired by a
trip to the death camp Auschwitz, which he made while he was in Poland for a
series of concerts. This movement is called "Pandora Dance."

(Soundbite of "Pandora Dance" from "Colored Field")

GROSS: The part that we just heard of "Color Field" is "Pandora Dance." So
what's a dance doing in the middle of a work inspired by Auschwitz?

Mr. AARON JAY KERNIS (Composer): The image I had for that particular
movement was that of evil coming out of Pandora's box, and sort of the active
dissemination of that. In Birkenau, I had a very surprising and hallucinatory
experience. At first in Auschwitz, I felt very numbed by what I was seeing.
It's a very clinical, very cold, very--more like a prison. But in Birkenau,
the sort of long cabins where the inmates were living are placed in beautiful,
lush fields that were green and blowing in the wind at that time.

I happened to meet up with a family from Brooklyn, of all places, and we were
walking along. And their two children sat down in the grass and started
eating blades of grass. And somehow at that point, I saw the ground open up
and rivers of blood in front of me, and was very profoundly shaken by this
vision.

A few years later when I was asked to write an English horn concerto, this
image came back to me. The first version of this piece was for English horn
and orchestra. It came back to me because I'd imagine the solo instrument,
the English horn or the cello more recently, as this single, lone, human voice
placed against this huge sort of crushing machinery of the orchestra.

GROSS: And there's a new composition that you wrote for the Philadelphia
Orchestra, that the Philadelphia Orchestra will perform Saturday night at its
new home, the Kimmel Center, which is a new performance center in
Philadelphia. One of the outstanding features, we understand, about this new
performance center is the acoustics. Did you try to write a piece to show off
these acoustics?

Mr. KERNIS: You know, in a way, yes. I met with the architect, Ratael
Vignoly, and the acoustician, Russell Johnson, a few months before I started
the piece just to get a general idea of the plans, the renderings for the
hall, the philosophy--and the philosophy of the space, really. During the
previous year, I'd been asked to write music that would be installed in the
new Space Museum in New York City that's adjacent to the American Museum of
Natural History. And the idea of writing music to fill a new space was very
exciting and continues to be very exciting to me. So I chose to write a piece
that would show off the orchestra as the virtuoso instrument that it is, but I
very deliberately chose to show off the widest degree of range and dynamic and
color of the orchestra.

GROSS: We're talking a little bit about the acoustics of the hall. Are
acoustics often an issue for you when a piece of yours in performed? Do you
ever sit in the hall and think, `I don't like the sound of this room' or,
`This room isn't showing off the tonal quality that I expected to get'?

Mr. KERNIS: Not so much of that, because sitting there in the hall, I know I
can't do much about the hall itself. But what I can do is suggest to the
players that they--maybe if it's a very dry hall, they play a little faster so
that it doesn't seem bogged down. Or especially if it's a very wet and
resonant hall, that they take a little bit more time to let the music speak,
often to bring certain ideas in the music out a little bit more clearly
because of overly resonant acoustics. So I'm always thinking about these
issues and trying to tweak performance, if possible, a little bit.

GROSS: My guest is composer Aaron Jay Kernis. He won a Pulitzer Prize in
1998 for his "String Quartet No. 2." Why don't we hear an excerpt of that
string quartet? Why don't you introduce for us the opening of the final
movement of the piece?

Mr. KERNIS: Well, this is another sort of dance movement; very high-energy
music. But it's based on the final movement of one of the Beethoven
Resenofsky Quartets(ph). And it's sort of my take on older classical music.

(Soundbite of "String Quartet No. 2")

GROSS: It's the opening of the final movement of Aaron Jay Kernis' "String
Quarter No. 2," performed by the Lark Quartet. And that's the composition
that won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1998.

Composers often react against the orthodoxies that they were taught by their
teachers in music school. I'm wondering if that was the case with you.

Mr. KERNIS: I grew up at a very interesting time, where it felt like there
was some established orthodoxies of--and this is very much a simplification,
so I almost hesitate to mention it. But there was a great premium placed on
being new and being cutting edge and being complex, and more and more, more
complex. But at the same time, I was hearing other music that was reacting to
that or was finding its own way. The music of Philip Glass and Steve Reich,
their early minimal pieces. I was hearing music that fascinated me a lot from
Eastern Europe, music of Zenoks(ph), Penderecki. And I was taking all of this
in, but I found myself gravitating against dryer music. My natural expression
is one of singing, is one of lyricism. I feel a large part of what I do is
about an inner--an utterance that needs to come out from inside.

GROSS: When "Color Wheel" is premiered, will you be sitting in the audience
conducting--kind of like air conducting, you know, just conducting in your
seat or moving your lips, mouthing the melody, singing quietly to yourself
when the orchestra plays it?

Mr. KERNIS: Well, I hope no one's looking at me. I find it--what I mean is
that sometimes I just involuntarily move, again, because it's so physical to
me. I mean, I created it and imagined it. Mostly I'll be crushing my wife's
hand next to me. And, yeah, shifting around a lot, but I know I'm in really,
really good hands.

GROSS: Well, good luck. And thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. KERNIS: Thank you, Terry. A real pleasure.

GROSS: Aaron Jay Kernis' new composition, "Color Wheel," will be premiered by
the Philadelphia Orchestra Saturday evening at the orchestra's new home, the
Kimmel Center.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews the new book and CD "Poetry
Speaks." This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: New book and CD collection "Poetry Speaks"
TERRY GROSS, host:

"Poetry Speaks" is a new book and CD collection of the work of some of the
most prominent British and American poets of the past two centuries. Book
critic Maureen Corrigan says some of these poetic voices are so startling she
can't quite believe her ears.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:

Book critics don't make a lot of money, but we do get a lot of free books. So
come the holidays, some of us less scrupulous types gift wrap the choicer
review copies we've gotten and present them to unsuspecting or easygoing
friends and relatives.

Back in October, when I opened up my review copy of "Poetry Speaks"--list
priced at $49.95--my first, lowly thought was, `Wow, this'll make an
impressive gift.' But I couldn't part with it, and here's why. This big,
beautiful volume includes poems from 42 English-speaking poets, all of whom
happen to be dead; everyone from Alfred Lord Tennyson to Ogden Nash to Sylvia
Plath.

"Poetry Speaks" also includes brief, biographical and critical essays on those
poets written by their still-breathing colleagues, like Robert Pinsky, Anne
Stevenson, Seamus Heany and Sharon Olds. The real thrill here, though, is the
set of three CDs included with the book, on which you can hear the featured
poets reading from their own work. This dead poets society' chants, rocks,
declaims, lilts, bebops and bellows. I haven't had this much fun listening to
a gang of poets read their lyrics since way, way back in college when I went
down to St. Mark's in Greenwich Village and heard a looney Gregory Corso
heckle Allen Ginsberg as Robert Lowell, who had just been released from yet
another sanitarium, visibly struggled to maintain his grip. Lowell and
microphone hog Ginsberg, who made zillions of recordings, are represented in
"Poetry Speaks," although other poets I'm curious to hear, like Siegfried
Sassoon, Edwin Muir and especially Stevie Smith, are no-shows.

Another minor, discordant note in this otherwise terrific gathering of voices
is the fact that Charles Osgood acts as master of ceremonies on the CDs.
Osgood is the bow-tied host of the CBS show "Sunday Morning," where week after
week he exhibits a relentlessly hearty approach toward art. Here, Osgood
tut-tuts over Ezra Pound's fascist leanings and regrets Dorothy Parker's bouts
of depression. Parker's own world-weary reading of her poem "Resume,"
however, is the perfect put-down to Osgood's appreciation of art as uplift.

(Soundbite of "Poetry Speaks")

Ms. DOROTHY PARKER (Poet): (Reading) "Resume." Razors pain you, rivers are
damp. Acids stain you, and drugs cause cramp. Guns aren't lawful, nooses
give. Gas smells awful, you might as well live.

CORRIGAN: The curiosities in this collection are three recordings that date
from the late 19th century. Shortly after Thomas Edison invented the
phonograph, three aged, literary lions, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning
and Walt Whitman, made wax cylinder recordings of their poetry, although I
should note that there's still some dispute over the authenticity of the
Whitman recording.

Here, incredibly, is Tennyson sounding like a dead, white man squared, reading
from his most famous poem, "The Charge of the Light Brigade."

(Soundbite of "Poetry Speaks")

Lord ALFRED TENNYSON (Poet): (Reading) Forward, the Light Brigade! Was there
a man dismay'd? Not tho' the soldier knew someone had blunder'd. Their's not
to make reply, Their's not to reason why, Their's but to do and die: Into the
Valley of Death rode the 600.

CORRIGAN: The Browning reading, which is just as sepulchral, ends touchingly
when Browning and his audience cheer, `Hip, hip, hooray,' at the successful
conclusion of the recording.

And as for Whitman--well, I hope this voice is his because he sounds the way
Walt Whitman should; unaffected and confident. Here's Whitman, possibly,
reading his poem "America."

(Soundbite of "Poetry Speaks")

Mr. WALT WHITMAN (Poet): (Reading) "America." (Technical difficulties) equal
daughters, equal sons, all. All alike, endear'd, grown, ungrown, young or
old. Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich. Perennial with the Earth,
with freedom, law and love.

CORRIGAN: Other poets' voices sound like those of imposters because they're
so wrong for the poems and personalities they express. Say it ain't so. This
is Gertrude Stein? She sounds like Margaret Dumont, the actress who always
played the high society dame in the Marx Brothers movies. The typically
cryptic poems she's reading from is called "She Bowed to Her Brother."

(Soundbite of "Poetry Speaks")

Ms. GERTRUDE STEIN (Poet): (Reading) The story of how she bowed to her
brother. Who has whom at his? Did she bow to her brother when she saw him?
Any long story of how she bowed to her brother, sometimes not. She bowed to
her brother...

CORRIGAN: That was illuminating, wasn't it?

The poets' voices become more relaxed in the mid-20th century, whether their
tones be deliciously acid, like Philip Larkin's, or mournful, like Robert
Hayden's. Hayden, who's not as well-known as many of the other eminences
collected here, was the first black American to be appointed poet laureate.
His great poem, "Those Winter Sundays," is a quiet masterpiece about loss.

(Soundbite of "Poetry Speaks")

Mr. ROBERT HAYDEN (Poet): (Reading) Sundays, too, my father got up earl and
put his clothes on in the blue-black cold. Then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather, made bank fires blaze. No one ever thanked
him. I'd wake and hear the coal splintering, breaking. When the rooms were
warm, he'd call and slowly, I would rise and dress, fearing the chronic angers
of that house; speaking indifferently to him who had driven out the cold and
polished my good shoes, as well. What did I know? What did I know of love's
austere and lonely offices?

CORRIGAN: Enough. It's gray outside and the world is a scary place this
winter. So, like Charles Osgood, whom I've just mocked, I find myself wanting
uplift, consolation, even laughs for my poetry. Let's end then with the
jubilant New York poet Frank O'Hara, who died much too young at age 40 in
1966. O'Hara's poetry celebrates the wondrous ephemeral of American pop
culture. Here he is reading his poem "Lana Turner Has Collapsed."

(Soundbite of "Poetry Speaks")

Mr. FRANK O'HARA (Poet): (Reading) "Lana Turner Has Collapsed." I was
trodding along and suddenly it started raining and snowing, and you said it
was hailing. But hailing hits you on the head hard, so it was really snowing
and raining. And I was in such a hurry to meet you, but the traffic was
acting exactly like the sky. And suddenly, I see a headline: `Lana Turner
Has Collapsed.' There is no snow in Hollywood, there is no rain in
California. I have been to lots of parties and acted perfectly disgraceful,
but I never actually collapsed. Oh, Lana Turner, we love you. Get up.

(Soundbite of audience laughing)

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Poetry Speaks."

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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