Intro from Jay Allison: The Kitchen Sisters are fun. They just are. If you're having a party, invite them. If they invite you to work with them on a major radio series, do it. We first hung out together in Alaska. After the oil boom, there was money to bring up independent public radio producers, of all things, to wander around teaching in places like Dillingham, Bethel, Kodiak, Sitka, Ketchikan, etc., places where PUBLIC radio was the ONLY radio and was tied to community in a way that's unimaginable in an urban market. The Kitchen Sisters were perfect in that atmosphere. They were giddy communicators, interested in hearing about EVERYTHING, ALL THE TIME and then passing it on. They charmed everyone in sight as they still do, so beware! They're about to charm you. P.S. Their names are Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, and no, they're not sisters.
Notes From The Kitchen
Notes From The Kitchen – Part One
“Radio to me is a living thing… sound give it to me, give it to me.”
Sam Phillips, Founder, Memphis Recording Service, Sun Studios, WHER
I still can’t put my finger on it. What exactly it is about sound, about sound coming out of a radio that captures me. But whatever it is, it does. I recently read a quote from Marcello Mastrioanni about his feelings about working in theater, about “his devotion to an art form that evaporates.” That quote says some of what I find so mysterious and compelling. I also feel radio is like food. You spend days and months and hours gathering the ingredients, cutting, mixing, making it cook. The minute it hits air/the table, it’s gone – but its transformed. The memory of it lingers, almost like a dream. Hopefully, like a good meal, it gathered people together in some way – opened up the senses – sparked emotion and conversation.
Sometimes Nikki and I talk about creating radio you can smell. Sometimes it’s a movie we’re making when we set out with our dat machine and microphone. If you can’t see it or smell it, you probably can’t hear it. I don’t think we set out consciously in the beginning to make cinematic radio, but it seems to be one of the main ways we work. History with a theatrical twist. Archival artifacts merging with stories from people whose voices don’t often make the airwaves merging with music. Ricky Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, The Maysles all have a place in the inspirational pantheon, as does The Grand Canyon. Layer upon layer of rock that is layer upon layer of time. Bright angel shale into fluted shist, into the tapeats formation. Sounds stacked and stretched, individual stories building into a bigger story, human stories so minute, detailed and particular, that when layered they become the universal story.
Possessed By Sound
I was possessed by sound at an early age. I grew up in LA and heard the hopped up voices of AM disc jockeys squeezed out of transistor radios, and it was all over. I started writing fan letters when I was about ten to Robert W. Morgan and The Real Don Steele. KFWB, KRLA. I critiqued their work, told them what I loved about their show, their voice. I wanted to do a show too. I was the Noon Disc Jockey in my high school in The Valley. I wrote my high school career notebook on whether to be the first woman Supreme Court Justice or a disc jockey.
I got side-tracked by radio again at UC Santa Cruz at the campus station KZSC. Then I got a tape recorder and started wandering around Santa Cruz talking to old people. I heard the words “oral history” and it sounded like what I was doing, what I wanted to do. Then I met Nikki Silva.
Notes From The Kitchen – Part Two
Davia arrived at the doorstep of the museum where I worked one afternoon to brainstorm about oral history and Santa Cruz and her radio show. I can see that day – bright, blue – sitting on the porch of the tiny Natural History museum on the cliff above Seabright Beach. She arrived around 1 – and left about 6 – I’m sure, we must have talked some about oral history, but all I remember was spilling my guts about the current status of my love life, laughing a lot, and being captivated by her ability to tell a story. And that’s pretty much how it is to this day.
At that time I wanted to be a filmmaker. I’d just returned to Santa Cruz from a year in New York City where I’d been working on a museum fellowship. I’d just finished a 16mm “documentary with a twist” about the Metropolitan Museum of Art through the eyes of a museum guard who lifts weights amidst Rodin sculptures in the basement of the museum during his lunch break. Oddly, in making the film, the only part of the process I couldn’t relate to was the sound – I just couldn’t see it. I think a lot of what Davia and I have been doing together all these years has been trying to make sound you can see (and as she said, smell, taste and maybe even feel).
About the Telling
I think telling “story” is what propels me the most – through sound, exhibits, writing, films – I love to listen to good tellers put the words together. In all this Transom discussion about narration/lack of narration, I think it boils down to whatever works best. In my mind, Kitchen Sisters pieces are highly narrated, even though our voices are rarely heard.
I just listened to an aircheck from 1980 of a Kitchen Sisters’ show on KUSP-FM. It was like watching home movies. There we were pitching during the annual pledge drive, playing snippets of some of our early stories – “The Road Ranger,” “Miss California,” “Les & Stevie Liebenberg, Trainers and Tamers of Wild Rattlesnakes.” We used to do a live 2 hour show each week which became the test tube for our early produced pieces. (This weekly show contained all the kernels of what would twenty years later reconfigure and become Lost & Found Sound).
We had never heard NPR before – no one in our region aired it and no one around us was doing produced pieces. And I think we honestly thought we were inventing “the mix.” I remember coming home from one of our four hour interviews with Lola Galli, a 60 year old champion cowgirl and quickly realizing that no one – not even us – would enjoy listening to this story unfold in real time.
Notes From The Kitchen – Part Three
Davia back with Nikki here…
Meanwhile, someone at the station taught us how to use a razor blade and we began to edit furiously. Whittling, honing, little snippets of tape, labeled with grease pencil, taped to the walls all around us. We began to work in a method that we have continued and evolved over two decades. We do extremely long interviews – our average is two hours, but we’ve been known to go up to sixteen hours over the course of a month or so. These epic conversations are contemplated, cut, re-cut, distilled to their essence – we couldn’t bear to leave out a particular phrase, a tangent, a moment that made us laugh – the pieces become highly composed – writing with other peoples’ words. We are committed to never altering the spirit or intent of what someone says, but we do cut the hell out of them.
Along with this reputation for no narration (which we think more of as a sort of ventriloquism) – we speak through other people and other people speak through us, what probably makes our work a bit different is collaboration. There are two of us, two opinions, two minds and spirits and hearts, two approaches to story-telling, to sets of ethics, two senses of humor. Two people to worry about getting lost on the way to the interview, being on time, and who’s going to remember to charge the battery.
In the Sharing
At first we thought we were unique in that regard, producing nearly all our radio work in collaboration. But we just made it official, gave it a name. The Kitchen Sisters. A radio identity that made it more fun and mysterious and was easier to pronounce than Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva. But when we look around the public radio landscape, stealth and not so stealth collaborations lurk everywhere.
Jay Allison is probably The King of Collaboration. Carmen Delzell, Marjorie van Halterin, Carol Wasserman, Steve Rowland, Christina Egloff, all of Life Stories… the list goes on. David Isay and Stacy Abrahamson, David Isay and Beverly D’Onofrio. David Isay and Henry Sopitnik and Yair Reiner. Ira Glass and every writer in America. Ira and They Might Be Giants. Mary Beth Kirchener and Nick Spitzer. Or the Hearing Voices Rat Pack – Barrett Golding, Larry Massett, and Scott Carrier (whose windswept voice and stories always make us ache). You get our point. There’s a lot to be said for not doing this work entirely alone.
First of all it’s not so lonely. Because as inspiring and educational and challenging as producing radio documentaries is, it can get long and lonesome driving in the middle of nowhere to an interview, listening back to tape that only you hear ’til it’s all cut and produced and on the air, and you couldn’t figure out how to keep the best line of the whole interview in, and so now no one will ever know it but you. Or being holed up editing and mixing for days on end. Or writing grants by yourself. Let’s face it, the money sucks, you’re not in this work for money. (Though you deserve it.) So you might as well get the deepest, most imaginative, and compelling parts. And have someone to rail and celebrate with.
The idea behind Lost & Found Sound is just that. Collaboration on a grand scale, Deep storytelling from a variety of perspectives, in a variety of styles and formats. An experiment in working with hundreds of others like we work with each other. That’s what this all is, isn’t it? An experiment.
The Kitchen Sisters
Nikki Silva & Davia Nelson