Friday, 22 October 2010

Comics | Music | Polymathematicism and Peter Blegvad

The LRB personal/classified ads often represent, as a lot of people know, little spurts of back-page brilliant. A spirited reflection on the fact that, alarmingly, they’ve appeared to be adopting rather more American – read ironyless – tendencies in recent months appears here, by way of introduction to the uninitiated. One of the ads that attracts the superb Booktryst blog’s ire, however (incidentally, here’s a link to their take on the apparently zeitgeist-tastic subject that is typography) deserves defending alongside the more immediate examples they stick up for. Here are a couple of the latter:

Without my grandfather’s contribution to agricultural reforms in 1912, this nation would currently have to import its turnips. While you think about that I shall remove my clothes. Man. 55.

I tested well with the 38-50 demographic. The same demographic also enjoys healthy cereal breakfasts and is open to product offers from financial institutes. If you’re 38-50, like museli, and would consider a savings account that gives you a 6.1% return on balances over £5000, write now to Eddy ‘Babycanon’ Mulligan.

And here’s the one I wish to defend:

Attractive, polyglot M, 49 would like to meet female in London for conversation in a language of their choice.

I like this one. It’s short and witty, both of which are hard things to be. It also includes ‘polyglot’ which, along with its brother ‘polymath’, represent words what I love describing abilities what I admire immensely. Wittiness and polymathematicism y’say (I daresay there’s a better way of expressing the noun of the adjective, as it were, but this’ll do for now): this can only be an introduction to the work of the most treasured of all the national treasures, STEPHEN JOHN FRY!



It’s not that I hate Stephen Fry at all, he’s fine, he’s okay, he’s done some fun stuff and, say, hating on his rahrahrah I’m not really high-born, I got expelled from Uppingham for goodness’ sake rahrahrah smugness would be vulgar – although his obvious idolisation and emulation of Wilde and Coward is something that probably deserves to be broken down more, based on particularly the latter’s rampant and repellent elitism. It is, rather, the apparently universally-held opinion that Fry represents ‘our’ most dazzling polymath – let’s face it, an extraordinary compliment – despite the fact that his contributions to film, television, literature, journalism and so on are all MATHEMATICALLY identical. It’s like saying Baron Lloyd-Webber is a master of mixed media because he’s written one musical about cats, another about Jesus and two about a third degree burns victim. The shamelessly complacent Fry is good at one thing. In a world that has produced a handful of people gloriously gifted when it comes to many things.

At the minute, I got two fave polymaths. One’s called Brad Neely. The other’s called Peter Blegvad. I’ve got no idea if they’re at all aware of each others’ existence. It wouldn’t surprise me if they are, for no reason other than the fact that both are best known (probably) for their work as comic book guys. Blegvad for Leviathan, a strip about ‘Blank-faced, questioning infants, Wise feline pets with stripes, Pointy-eared bunny toys, Discursive dogs and Tintinnabulating milkmen’ (thank you, Believer magazine) which appeared in the review section of the Independent on Sunday for most of the nineties and which also happens to be one of Matt Groening’s favourite cartoons (‘give me Leviathan or give me death!’). And Neely for Creased Comics and China, IL which was, thank Christ, finally given a run at proper television by Cartoon Network’s [adult swim] in 2008.

(Actually, Neely is most famous for the spectacular Wizard People, Dear Reader, a complete re-dubbing of the first Harry Potter film described here and viewable in full on YouTube – here’s the best bit, far as I’m concerned – which represents a completely new literary form and deserves a fuckton of attention and even more imitation. Indeed, I intend to give the technique a go in the near future. Blegvad definitely should. In fact it is this, above all, that makes Neely one of The Western World’s great polymaths, an inventor of new genres to excel at. But the focus of this post is supposed to be on Blegvad, for reasons that will quickly become clear, so I’m going to put Brad Neely to one side for one moment, difficult as that is.)
Now, to pay lip-service to this week’s theme for one minute, this apparent coincidence poses some interesting questions: is it surprising that comic book artists are polymaths (perhaps I should express that as, polymaths are comic book artists) when such artistry requires intimidating ability in the fields of both drafting and draughtsmanship? Is comic book artistry therefore polymathematicism in its own right, regardless of the kind of parallel musical, teaching, poetic and so on pedigree Blegvad displays without batting an iPad?

Not that Blegvad uses iPads, particularly – Apple worship is the preserve of Stephen Fry, but it was too good a punning opportunity to miss. And while we’re on the subject, have you ever seen a comic book authored by Fry? No? Then he’s not a polymath. That, friends, is a syllogism we can all be proud of. Indeed, here’s what the cuddly ol’ pseudo-polymath had to say about the great polymathematical mode:

Personally, I’d never seen a graphic novel. I knew they existed because friends of mine like Jonathan Ross collect them and some very literate and intelligent people really rate the graphic novel as a form.

Jonathan goddam Ross. Jesus.

Anyway, Blegvad As Polymath: first, a couple of introductory quotations. Here’s one, courtesy of a lengthy interview with the man himself that appeared in a 2009 issue of the Believer:

I’ve always had an immature horror of being defined, so that’s part of it too. Would I have made more progress or been more successful if I’d devoted myself to just one form of expression? Who knows? I’m not thus constituted. I’m a dilettante, “polymorphously perverse,” a perpetual amateur. But let us not forget that amateur derives from amor. The miracle is that at fifty-eight years old, I’m still being paid to do things I love doing and no one’s ordering me to change it to fit some target audience.

And here’s a perceptive spot of patter from a Rain Taxi review of The Book of Leviathan, Blegvad’s collected strips, as it were:

I immediately conjure up the poet Clark Coolidge’s semi-famous lecture on “arrangement” (given at Naropa and published in Talking Poetics), which includes the reiteration of a sci-fi story Coolidge read as a young boy… “. . . that story now comes back to me with all the feelings of great discovery and mystery and desire to do something with this . . . and this . . . and this. Where do I put it? What happens when I put it there? What does it do to this? How close is it? Does it repel me? Does it repel you? How much does it weigh down the table? Can I look through it? What do I see when I look through it, and another whole vector of stuff coming in visually? . . . it took years to begin to articulate that in a form of art.” “Arrangement” is absolutely a value Blegvad understands, and torques for a variety of effects, in his work.

Where do I put it? What happens when I put it there? What does it do to this? How close is it? Does it repel me? Does it repel you? How much does it weigh down the table? Can I look through it? These questions are at the heart of what my Music As Reading project is all about and, I’m delighted to say, certainly inform (or at least describe) Blegvad’s own polymathematical experiments exploring expansive relationships between music and literature. Live, he also performs songs accompanied by captioned graphic art, but Music As Drawing As Reading is a bit of a stretch, even after Music As Eating last week. But yes, basically, all of the above is a very, very long way of introducing this week’s mixtape whilst simultaneously tying it in with this week’s theme. Because this week’s mixtape bloody deserves it.

Basically, Peter Blegvad has given Silkworms some original material that we have decided to combine with Spotify’s already enjoyably plump selection of Blegvad’s work in order to bring you a kinda biographical sketch of the man’s experiments with Music As Reading – which has the additional benefit of being TOTALLY GODDAM UNIQUE. One of these days I’ll draw together a ‘reading’ of Blegvad’s oeuvre that attempts to actually, y’know, make sense of what his various plunges into the polymathematical pool teach us about the advantages and disadvantages of such modes and juxtapositions of expression and comprehension. But for the moment, we’ll just leave it at a stack of super-rad tracks for you to pick through at your leisure. And by super-rad I mean fucking weird.

The actual mixtape won’t go up until Sunday, by the by. But here’s the gist. Also, I’ve snuck a Leviathan cartoon into each section for the thematic win.
Music As Reading: Mixtape XIV, Polymathematicism, starring Peter Blegvad

The Seventies: Slapp Happy and Henry Cow

We’ll start with ‘Casablanca Moon,’ a track that Blegvad described as ‘our biggest hit (not that it was a hit of course)’ at, of all places, the ‘Avantgarde Festival, Schiphorst 09’. So expect couplets along the lines of, ‘He used to wear fedoras, now he sports a fez / There’s cabalistic innuendoes in everything he says.’ Alongside this are a couple of tracks what appeared on the record of the same name… Actually, that’s not quite true: it was originally released as a self-titled record, and the versions you’re hearing are from a Virgin-demanded re-recording, including strings and session musicians and so on. The original recording featured FAUST AS A BACKING BAND, for goodness’ sake, and is available under the title, Acnalbasac Noom. For this anagramatical reason, the accompanying Levi strip to go with the section is this one. But anyway, a couple of tracks what are Blegvad-only compositions, on one of which you can hear his voice behind Dagmar Krause’s wonderful gargle.

Then we’ll go with three tracks celebrating the best of Slapp Happy’s surprisingly productive short marriage with Henry Cow, a band Jonathan Coe memorably described in The Rotters Club as ‘The Yardbirds getting into bed with Ligeti, then driving through the ruins of a divided Berlin.’ ‘Riding Tigers’ and ‘Strayed’ are, once again, Blegvad solo-comps – and ‘Some Questions About Hats’ is included because it’s utterly frightening, frankly. All three are from1975’s Desperate Straights.

The Eighties: John Zorn and solo records

I’m going to quote the following direct from Wikipedia, because it’s one of those occasions where its passionless prose describes something more effectively than I ever could:

Zorn’s early major compositions included several ‘game pieces’ or ‘game theories’, which he describes as ‘complex systems harnessing improvisers in flexible compositional formats,’ and which ‘involved strict rules, role playing, prompters with flashcards, all in the name of melding structure and improvisation in a seamless fashion. These works, in which groups of performers improvise whilst following structural rules, were often named after sports…These compositions use cues, rules and strategies to combine and contrast improvisations in various, sometimes extreme ways…In 1981, Zorn was ‘blowing duck calls in buckets of water at fringe venues,’ which included 8BC, Roulette, Chandelier, and Zorn’s own clubhouse, the Saint…Zorn’s early small group improvisations are documented on Locus Solus (1983), which featured Zorn with various combinations of other improvisers.

This strikes me as an appropriate Leviathan reflection for silly old John Zorn, who people really should listen to more.

Anyway, this stuff counts as eighties Blegvad because it was released then, even though he remembered it, over email, as being ‘1978 or ’79 I think.’ He added: ‘That’s my youthful self getting well avante-garde. Hilarious.’ We’ll go with three Locus Solus tracks feat. Blegvadian contributions.

Then, three tracks from The Naked Shakespeare, mostly produced by XTC’s Andy Partridge. And one very 80s number from Knights Like This, the prevailing opinion of which seems to be it might have been better if it had been produced by Andy Partridge too – rather than overproduced into next week by David Lord. ‘Irma’ is particularly worth drawing attention to by the by – very Laurie Anderson-esque, I reckon.

The Nineties and Noughties: Slapp Happy reunited, an Eartoon and some recent spoken word

Slapp Happy reunited in 1998 to record Ça Va, a lovely record bookended by Blegvad solo-compositions which are included here. And then some treats: first, a NEW VERSION of the first ever ‘eartoon’ he recorded for the BBC, along with a ‘montage of all the various takes I recorded’ for the same – as I say, UNIQUE. He describes the eartoons project thus (thanks, again, to the Believer):

For the past six years I’ve been writer/actor/producer of short radio routines I call “eartoons” for a weekly magazine program about language on BBC Radio 3 called The Verb. They’re three- to seven-minute-long dialogues between the two halves of my divided self—with occasional guests. I’ve done about sixty. The subjects have included “Words of Power” in early rock and roll (“Poppa ooma-mowmow,” “Wop bop a loobop,” “Diddy Wah Diddy”), initiation ceremonies, the Phraselator translation device used by the US Army in Iraq, universal languages, book burning, and screams. They aspire to strangeness and comedy, in the vein of Ken Nordine’s “Word Jazz,” but they’re quite didactic as well—there’s an aspect to them of the illustrated lecture. Teaching is a form of show business, as Steve Martin says in his memoir.

Actually, instead of linking to another Levi cartoon, here’s another example of an eartoon THAT YOU CAN SEE THIS TIME…

Then a couple tracks from another collaboration between Blegvad and Partridge, Orpheus the Lowdown, which dropped all traces of the ol’ 80s neo-pop in favour of an insanely textured spoken word. And rounding everything off, a NEW TRACK, ‘We Fell Thru a Crack’ recorded in 2010 and with a title spelt in a manner that Prince would approve of. One thing I must draw attention to: using iTunes, when I attempted to ‘get info’ re. ‘We Fell Thru a Crack’, I found the following little textual fragment, a testament to Peter’s ability to find amusing space for writing in even the most unlikely liminalities and, therefore, a perfect note on which to conclude:

Featuring John Guerrasio (screams)


Sam Kinchin-Smith
Music Editor

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