Off the Record: Interview with Record Appreciator Rachel Kessler

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rachel Kessler, 1/2 of the poetry & science team Vis-a-Vis Society. Rachel will be giving a lecture on THURSDAY at The Henry, in conjunction with the current exhibition, titled The Record.

Rachel gave me sneak peek into the content of her lecture, as well as talk about Seattle school districts, the disconnect of being a food critic relying on food stamps, and the importance of the “cranky socialist” persona.

Read Rachel’s interview below, come see the lecture on Thursday, and make sure to check out other works by the Vis-a-Vis society!

Nelson (left) and Kessler (right) of the Vis-a-Vis Society.

The interview:

You plan to discuss your appreciation of records, what are you going to talk about?
The first thing I thought about discussing was about my childhood experience with records. When I was growing up my dad was a musician and very obsessive. Particularly with me, since I was the oldest, he would sit us or lay us down in front of those giant 1970s speakers, in the middle of the floor in the living room and have us listen to certain songs and the specifics of each song. I just sort of picked that up from him, and didn’t realize until much later than not everyone does that. I continue to do it. I have a prayer rug that I like to sit on when I listen to records.

I was also going to talk about to that sort of mediative listening that occurs particularly with vinyl. I think the format of the album helps with that, since the album is so large. I feel like I am predominately a writer and poet, and when I think about books of poetry, I feel the same way about it. I was going to talk about the relationship of books of poetry and whole record albums versus anthologies or singles, and how import it is to put something in the context of the whole. I was thinking about liner notes, too. It’s important to do something with your eyes when you listen to music.

I have records from when i was little when i was like 5 that i was going to bring in. like Havin’ Fun with Ernie and Bert–it’s really interactive. It has informed my art so much. Everything I’ve ever done comes from that album. The other record I listen to most is Peter and The Wolf, narrative by Leonard Bernstein. The different instruments represent different characters; there is a definite story telling element.

At some point in my childhood, my family became Born Again Christian. Before this time, we had a garage that was converted into a listening room, full of records. Then when we converted my father got rid of all of those records. They were replaced with Christian music and gospel records, so I’ll bring in some of that to share as well.

How distraught were you when that happened?
We still listened to just as much music after the conversion. There was a lot of Christian rock happening in the 70’s that was very controversial at the time. Kind of when Bob Dylan had that converted record. My dad couldn’t stay away from it, so when my mom was gone we would listen to secular music on the radio, and in my own time I would listen to this Cyndi Lauper tape. I got caught in middle school.

How do you bring these experiences to your poetry and writing?
It has had a lot of influence on me. Sierra Nelson and I made a record and album together, sort of a workbook with guided meditations and listening experiences. The idea was that it would not be a “headphones” album, but a “listening together out loud” album, kind of inspired by those interactive children’s books–you know where Tinkerbell would make a noise to indicate you to turn the page.

Tell me about Vis-a-Vis Society, your ongoing project with Sierra Nelson?
We’re poets–poet scientists. Poetry and science use really similar muscles in the brain, and they have a lot in common. For Sierra and I, its very important that we are explorers of the world around us. We are fascinated by poetry and science in the mundane and everyday things. When you look closely, you can see that something really beautiful is going on. The Vis-a-Vis Society a very interactive experiment that was born out of a piece we were working on with (previous artistic project) The Typing Explosion, where we surveyed people. Its always fun to take a survey–it’s really relaxing. We did this piece where we built a song off of audience response, and it was so much fun. For this project, we decided to incorporate the scientist personal as well, where we could kind of hide behind of goggles anda lab coat. From there,  we started to really explore the forum of the survey, while being inspired by natural sciences also the poetry forms and scientific structure. For example, looking at how the scientific method could be used in poetic form. 

Many thanks to Rachel for the interview & sneak peek. See you all on Thursday!

Signing off,

Olivia Olive

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