Surfing Indra's Net

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

John Aielli won't get out of bed. He's trying to recall a piece of music. In fact, he's been trying to recall it since yesterday, when a song he played on the air at KUT, Rufus Wainwright's "Barcelona," tickled his memory, reminding him of some other piece of music. Now, a full day's worth of conscious rumination and a night's worth of unconscious reflection have failed to turn up the song's name, and it's bugging him. So, he decides, I'll just lie here. I won't leave this bed until I think of it. It's a trick that's worked in the past, but this morning he hasn't enough time to see it through. He's due at the studio, and 8am, the hour his show Eklektikos begins, won't be put off.

He climbs out of bed, and as he's done for more years than most students on the UT campus where he works have been alive, gets himself ready to spend six hours in front of the microphone. He goes through his morning routine and makes his way to the corner of Dean Keeton (26th) and Guadalupe, and every minute, every step of the way, he keeps trying to clear his mind and allow whatever strain of melody was suggested by Wainwright's tune to bubble up from the shadowy depths of his memory.

Then, just as he's approaching the big brown block in which KUT's studios are housed, whatever anchor has kept this recollection submerged in darkness is dislodged, and the sound he's been wracking his mind for rises into his consciousness. He's got it, at last. And it shows. Upon seeing him for the first time that morning, KUT librarian/cohort-in-broadcast-crime Cheryl Bateman remarks, "You made your connection, didn't you?"

Indeed. And for the first two hours of his program that day, he shares the connection with his audience, playing the languorous, melancholic "Barcelona," then Brian Eno's wistful, ambient "Music From Airports" again and again, back and forth, choreographing an audio pas de deux between the two pieces of music, which, while distinct, share in their moods and sounds and structures some precious parallel movement, some sweet synchronicity.

In the world of John Aielli -- and yes, that is how it's spelled -- this is all in a day's work. Regular listeners to his show Eklektikos -- and yes, that is how it's spelled -- have come to expect this sort of fluid, free-form, idiosyncratic, intensely personal disc jockeying on the weekday morning program. They know that on any given day, Aielli is liable to play any piece of music, from a Gregorian chant to a novelty tune, a Handel oratorio to a TV show theme, an Indian raga to a cowboy ballad. His tastes are as expansive as the Texas sky, under which he's lived since his family moved to the state when he was eight years old, and he may be inspired by music of any age, any genre, any culture (and that includes pop).

Through the quarter-century of the program's existence, Aielli has been captivated by works as varied as Don Walser's Rolling Stone From Texas, Julie Brown's "The Homecoming Queen's Got a Gun," Angelo Badalamenti's theme from Twin Peaks, Jennifer Warnes' album of Leonard Cohen songs, The Famous Blue Raincoat, Ennio Morricone's soundtrack to Cinema Paradiso, the disco-saturated soundtrack to The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the old novelty number "I'm My Own Grandpa," an aria from the opera Lakmé, and one of his most recent faves -- and a prime indicator of how truly eclectic and offbeat the deejay's tastes are -- the Smithsonian collection of field recordings of frog sounds.

Such fare was not always served up on Eklektikos. In the show's early days -- we're talking before Car Talk, before Twine Time, before All Things Considered, even -- in the days just after station manager Bill Giorda christened the program, Aielli was restricted to playing classical music; Giorda's concept of an "eclectic" playlist being something beyond the familiar symphonies of the "Killer Bs," stuff like chamber music and the occasional aria. But Aielli kept pushing the envelope, adding in music like film scores ("Hey, Korngold gets played in concert halls!") and Indian classical works ("It may be Eastern, but it's still classical"), until eventually, he won the right to play whatever captivated him.

Now, when Aielli is captivated by a recording, that means it gets played on his show. A lot. Occasionally several times in one six-hour show, certainly several times over a period of weeks. And that sometimes translates into the recording becoming a modest hit in Austin record stores. Aielli's infectious enthusiasm for a song or CD is caught by his listeners, so they seek the piece out for their personal collections. On my own music shelves at home, copies of They Might Be Giants' Flood, the soundtrack to the BBC miniseries Brideshead Revisited, and the Ralph Vaughan-Williams orchestral work The Lark Ascending owe their presence directly to their repeated airplay on Eklektikos.

But Eklektikos fans -- who are legion, as is clear from any KUT fund drive -- will tell you that the breadth of musical programming is only the jumping-off point for the program's singular and compelling broadcast mix. What makes the show more than just an alternative to commercial radio, more than just entertainment, something that approaches -- hang on, readers, I'm really gonna say it -- art, is Aielli's willingness to use any piece of music as a point of departure for some sort of journey: an exploration of theme, of musical form, of cultural commentary, of artistic interpretation.

When Aielli is struck by a lyric about, say, fatherhood, as he was last week, he may be inspired to string together a dozen songs on the subject, playing in succession John Prine's "Unwed Fathers," Randy Newman's "Texas Girl at the Funeral of Her Father," Pete Seeger's "My Father's Mansion," and so forth. When he's intrigued by some commemorative occasion, be it the anniversary of an artist's birth or some historical event, he may line up recordings that comment on the event: songs that have Lucy in the title for St. Lucy's Day; symphonies, arias, and chamber works by Mozart on the composer's birthday; songs about war for Veteran's Day. The Eklektikos calendar is dense with days Aielli traditionally devotes to thematic broadcasts: the Hunter's Moon, Joan Sutherland's birthday, Bloomsday, each having its own signature recordings with which Aielli has marked the day for years; Eklektikos listeners know it's really Halloween when they hear that old record of Boris Karloff genteelly reminiscing about his career in horror films.

Then there are the times when, as with the Rufus Wainwright song, Aielli is struck by a piece of music that to him echoes some other pieces of music in structure, style, or sound. Then, he's stimulated to find those works and play them together, revealing to his listeners the similarities within works, which may spring from very different times, very different settings, created by very different artists to evoke very different reactions or feelings.

A vivid example of this came in 1989, the day Aielli got his hands on the soundtrack to Batman. The film's main theme by Danny Elfman was fairly appealing to Aielli, a quirky, postmodern pop movie theme, beginning with ominous, glowering pretensions to tragic opera, then bursting into frenetic, spy-movie jazz. What got him worked up, though, more than the composition itself, were the numerous echoes of other musical works -- dozens, it sounded like -- that could be heard in the motifs and arrangements that Elfman had employed (a less charitable soul might say ripped off).

The piece sent Aielli into a genealogical frenzy, digging up every piece of music that represented the antecedent to some snatch of melody or orchestration in the Batman score. For hours that day and throughout the week, Aielli played them on the air, a bit of the Batman theme, then Irving Berlin's "Let's Face the Music and Dance"; another bit of Batman, then John Barry's "James Bond Theme"; more Batman, then Richard Wagner's overture to Lohengrin; and on and on, connecting this piece, and this one, and this one, and this one ....

This above all else is what distinguishes Aielli as the host of a radio show: his gift for making connections. He has an ear for connections every bit as remarkable as his ear for music, and he employs it every day on his program. He can establish the link between Randy Newman and John Prine and between John Prine and Pete Seeger, and while he may be prompted by a search for songs with "father" in their titles, when he pulls them and plays them, the connections are audible, literally. We can hear the times that shaped these artists' sounds and the continuum out of which they arose, the generations of American songwriters that passed the form to them and that also wrote songs of fathers and sons.

He can establish the link between the 26-year-old Mozart who composed Abduction From the Seraglio and the 35-year-old Mozart who composed The Magic Flute, and while it's easy enough to play works by artists at different stages of their careers, Aielli can lead us to the points wherein we can hear the essence of that composer's personality that persists through changes in age and experience and the fashions of court. He can establish the link between Danny Elfman and Richard Wagner, not just in the way one lifts from the other, but in the way both employ rhythm and tempo and instrumentation to signal drama, and the ways in which our response to that kind of drama has endured over the century between the two composers' careers.

And if it's not in the music he plays, it's in the interviews he conducts; the conversations with writers, actors, musicians, conductors, filmmakers, photographers, even other interviewers. Aielli finds the relationships between their experiences, their passions, and his own, or those of someone he knows, and even those described in some other work of art. Something is always linked to something else, and John Aielli's life -- at least as expressed in this six-hour-a-day, five-days-a-week program on a public radio station -- is about reminding us of those links, of the interconnectedness of all things.

The man himself is receptive to the idea when the idea is suggested to him. His eyes flash with an extra gleam of light -- a sign of enthusiasm you can practically hear over the radio -- and he says in that voice like burgundy aged in an oaken cask, "Like Indra's net."

The reference is drawn from Eastern mythology and figures prominently in Chinese Buddhism. It posits a heaven across which is spread a net of infinite proportions, and set in each eye of the net is a jewel, a jewel so brilliant that it reflects every other jewel in the celestial net, and more than that, every reflection in every other jewel in the net. The image suggests a cosmos in which all things are infinitely inter-related. That's a cosmos that John Aielli recognizes, and he's made a career for himself in the heart of Texas celebrating those inter-relationships, jumping on one jewel and using those reflections to take him down another line to another jewel, and another, and another, surfing Indra's net.

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