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The Orbiting Human Circus of the Air

October 13, 2016

Julian Koster’s work tends to be fractal in nature. Each new piece, whatever it happens to be, appears to contain everything he made before it. This is true of many artists, of course, but Koster especially seems to approach his work like Russian nesting dolls, constructing each new thing precisely to envelop what came before it. Thus every new piece has the aura of a magnum opus, not merely the newest piece but the jewel of his career. At least until the next one arrives.

Koster’s new podcast, which debuted this week, fits this description. Those who have followed Koster’s work will see references throughout the first episode. Its very name—The Orbiting Human Circus of the Air—references an idea for a floating circus he’s been talking about for at least 20 years. The “Night Janitor” play he put on in New York last year has many of the same elements that appear in this episode (namely, a bumbling night shift janitor). There’s similarities to the Traveling Imaginary tour and his caroling tours, not to mention his Music Tapes albums and their shows. The common theme of imagination and absurdism as a defense mechanism is fully apparent through the Vaudevillian structure of the show, even when it gets kind of metafictional.

What has always stood out to me about Elephant 6 projects (and i’ll include this one under that umbrella just because Koster and Robbie Cucchiaro are involved) is their scale. They always feel handmade even when they’re sprawling, as though they cannot be corporatized and mass produced. Far from being a well-oiled machine, the collective operates like a delicate Rube-Goldberg made from chicken wire, old luggage and fifth-hand furniture, but the fragility is entirely the point. It sounds like it could come apart at any time, but so sharp is its authors’ focus, it rarely does. It is rickety and ramshackle by design, such that it can exist only at a human scale. Any larger and the imperfections loom too large, and where duct tape and chewed gum once held things together, cracks must be soldered, blemishes paved over, roughness sanded down and buffed, until the whole contraption is polished into something unrecognizable from the original. Simply, the Elephant 6 pathos must exist on a human scale if it is to exist at all.

The Orbiting Circus is slick by Elephant 6 standards.The production values are of broadcast quality. The cast features some big names. You can now make the argument that John Cameron Mitchell, Mandy Patinkin, Mary Elizabeth Ellis and Charlie Day are members of the Elephant 6 (I won’t, and partially because I want to finish this book sometime this century). While this podcast makes it all feel noticeably less intimate than Koster’s usual stuff, it feels no less mystical. It’s all over the place and at times difficult to follow, but it is also impossible to reverse engineer. It sounds the way seeing a magic trick leaves you wondering how it was done. And if you don’t believe in magic per se, it’s almost more compelling. Real magic requires a real magician. Magic tricks just require a trickster, and anyone can be a trickster.

I am very curious to see where this goes. Koster is a very nimble trickster.

In other news, Stereogum published a piece I wrote about the 20th anniversary of the Olivia Tremor Control’s Dusk at Cubist last month. You can read it here. I’m very pleased with how it came out. Even if the other 2,000 words I cleaved from it were pretty good too.

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