Friday, January 12, 2007

So on the way home this evening, I pick up some reading material: Updike's "Rabbit Is Rich" (the series has me hooked), Rick Moody's "The Diviner" and Jonathan Lethem's collection of stories, "Men and Cartoons". I begin the first piece in the latter on the PATH train home, "The Vision", concerning the remeeting of the narrator with a childhood acquaintance who used to dress and make himself up and speak like the Marvel Comics character of the same name. On page 2, Lethem writes:

Now the Vision was a grown man in a sweatshirt moving an open Martini & Rossi carton of compact discs into the basement entrance of the next-door brownstone. I spotted Captain Beefheart, Sonny Sharrock, Eugene Chadbourne.

OK, if any direct correlation between visual art and music is iffy, it's ubdoubtably more so between music and literature. But here we have a pretty well known writer (his "Motherless Brooklyn" has been optioned for film by Edward Norton) making reference to one cult rock figure and two musicians who, what? 5% of his readership may have heard of? Now I happen to know, second hand, that it's unlikely Lethem consulted his weird-music friend for some names. Lethem knows his music fairly well and I don't doubt he's a fan of all three. But what I wouldn't give to know what percentage of his readers know to whom he's referring here. Beefheart? Sure, certainly a majority would know the name (though I wonder about it at the lower age range of the spectrum) and I imagine a healthy minority, say 25%, would count themselves as fans. But Sharrock and Chadbourne? Even citing Sharrock on his own is a little odd as his only solo albums, if I'm not mistaken, were things on Enemy and to the extent he's know at all, I think it's as a member of Last Exit, Pharoah Sanders' bands, etc. It's interesting that he'd use these three because you assume he's constructing the charater, giving his readers clues as to his make-up. How do most people read this? "Huh, one weirdo and two guys I've never heard of, probably also weird." fwiw, Moody knows his musical stuff as well.

No particular point to make with this....


jon abbey said...

"Even citing Sharrock on his own is a little odd as his only solo albums, if I'm not mistaken, were things on Enemy and to the extent he's know at all, I think it's as a member of Last Exit, Pharoah Sanders' bands, etc. "

Ask The Ages on Axiom is probably his best known work, FWIW.

robert said...

I bet "the kids" know Sharrock the best from the Space Ghost Coast to Coast soundtrack...

Herb Levy said...

I understand that your main point concerns the relative reception of adventurous artists working in different fields, but it seems to me that with this post you've presented an excellent counter-example of how people respond quite differently to new work in differing genres.

I'm not dissing your taste in writers, but despite Lethem's ability to recognize the efficacy of obscure recordings by three relatively obscure musicians as a way to define aspects of a character & your report of Rick Moody's adventurous listening habits, all three of the writers you've cited are working in a far less adventurous vein than either the eai musicians you appreciate or the ever-popular Brice Mardin. They generally stick pretty close to traditional standard narrative structures in a way that is decidedly not parallel to the way that Mardin deals with the pictorial or eai musicians deal with the melodic/harmonic.

In my experience, there are very few people who consistently appreciate and follow cutting edge (sic) work in every discipline and genre. It's far more common for fans (and practitioners) of avant garde visual arts to listen to, say, alternative rock, or for fans (and composer/performers) of avant garde music to read, say, mysteries or conventional fiction, etc.

This situation, combined with the earlier-mentioned fascination with the prices of visual art and the Romanticized notion of the heroic struggle of the individual painter with his/her materials, psyche, etc. (as well as the previously unmentioned fact that much of Brice Marden's work can be seen, in an admittedly oversimplified way, as being "merely" decorative) seems to me to go a long way in explaining any discrepancy in the relative audience size between the genres.

Brian Olewnick said...

Herb! Long time, no see!

I think you're probably correct in that people pick and choose in which area they exercise their avant tastes though some (to me) would seem to overlap more naturally than others.

I'd been thinking about the literature angle (vis a vis avant music and visual art) and--though don't by any means look at me as terribly well-versed in the area--it struck me that there are few if any writers on a "well-known" scale with whom I can draw any decent equivalency. Brion Gysin? I'm sure they exist, though I have in my head someone stringing long lines of vowels...

There might be some shared substratum but I fear it's well beyong my ability to say. Though humans, as pattern recognizers and creators, like stories and (I think) tend to perceive what we've relegated to different areas (art, music, writing) in story fashion at some level. Maybe. So, when the form is one of words, it's tough to get away from the "story" as such.

Don't know if this makes the slightest bit of sense.

Herb Levy said...

Hi Brian,

I'd put it that humans as pattern recognizers and creators, like patterns and creations, some of which resolve into stories, some don't.

The fact that most things with words are read as stories, even abstract things like, say, Stein, or some of the more recent writers I cited, is often a triumph of pattern recognition on the part of the reader as much as on the part of the writer. One of the all-time best-selling poetry books in Canada is called Eunoia by Christian Bok (umlaut over the o; pronounced "book"), and the title poem is a long poem in five sections, each of which uses words that include only one of the five vowels in the English language; even though there is no way for a character to have a consistent name in such a work, it is perceived of (correctly, I think) as a "narrative" poem. Some people hear improvisors like Cecil Taylor and Derek Bailey as grand story tellers, some hear random noises. One of the possible readings of the recording by John Tilbury and MIMEO is that of an unusual type of the "heroic" concerto form.

This aspect of art is partially dealt with by "reader-response theory" in literary criticism circles.