Musicians And Their Favorite Books: Izzy True – “The Spring Tune” by Tove Jansson

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(Photo: Isabel Reidy)

Welcome to ‘Musicians And Their Favorite Books’. Once a month, a musician writes about one of their favorite books and how it influences their work.

Izzy True is a musician and cartoonist living in Trumansburg, NY. She plays music about her comics with her brother Silas Reidy and her friends Angela DeVivo and Jon Samuels. Izzy True’s debut release Troll EP is out now on Don Giovanni Records.

The following piece is in Izzy’s own words:

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“The Spring Tune” – Tove Jansson

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes a song last. Typically I listen to music in the same sweaty, desperate way I do pretty much everything else. I love songs briefly and intensely – something about it will catch me and I’ll have to listen to it over and over and over until the fever breaks and I’m done with it. I listened to Steely Dan’s “Peg” about 300 times over the course of a single week this Summer (my brother, who was stuck in a car with me at the time, was not stoked about this.)

Then there are those other songs, the ones that I will probably listen to my whole life. These songs don’t get hollow and stale with repetition, but instead reveal more of themselves each time I hear them. It’s a tricky business trying to nail down exactly what qualities makes a song stick in that way.

Moomin Characters(tm)

(Photo: Moomin Characters)

Whenever I try to put my finger on it “The Spring Tune”, a short story from Tove Jansson’s Tales From Moominvalley, invariably comes to mind. It’s about a wandering musician named Snufkin and the night his song writing is interrupted by a lonesome, pathetic Creep. In addition to containing the single best description of what it’s like to write a song I’ve ever read, “The Spring Tune” has a beautiful passage about the song that Snufkin was working on:

“‘It’s the right evening for a tune.’ Snufkin thought. A new tune, one part expectation, two parts spring sadness, and for the rest just the great delight of walking alone and liking it.”

I think that’s what makes a song last, more or less. A little bit of that soft, underlying melancholy that you can never quite shake, a nod to loneliness, and a joke about the whole thing. Because, ya know, who are you, anyway, and who really cares? Sometimes you need big, wild songs for big, wild feelings, but I think the songs about the quiet pauses in between those feelings have the most longevity for me.

Cameron Pollack

(Photo: Cameron Pollack)

I grew up reading Moomintroll. For anyone unfamiliar, they are Finnish children’s books about a family of weird creatures who live by the sea. The stories are wHiMsY rIcH and funny, but also deeply sad. All of the characters seem to be a bit lonely in one way or another, and their adventures take place as much in the strange world they inhabit as they do in their sort of sad experiences of each other.

I’ve reread them a few times now that I’m older and am always shocked at their depth. I wonder how much of that stuff I was able to pick up on as a kid, I can’t really remember much more than the fact that I loved the books. However much of it I grasped back then, Moomintroll had a lasting effect on me.

These days when I write a song or make a comic, I’m always hoping to catch that ~Moominvalley vibe~… that Jonathan Richman “Summer Feeling”.

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You can find Izzy True via:

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Musicians And Their Favorite Books: PJ Sauerteig (Slow Dakota) – Leaves Of Grass

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(photo: PJ Sauerteig)

Welcome to Musicians And Their Favorite Books. Every month a musician writes about one of their favorite books and how it influences their work.

PJ Sauerteig is a recent graduate of Columbia University, and a classically trained pianist from Fort Wayne, Indiana. Aside from his work as Slow Dakota, he also manages the boutique label, Massif Records, split between New York and Indiana. This past June, PopMatters argued that Bürstner and the Baby was the best concept album of this decade so far. Slow Dakota’s new double LP is due out Spring 2016.

The following piece is in PJ’s own words.

“Leaves Of Grass” – Walt Whitman

I bought Whitman’s Leaves of Grass my freshman year of college, but didn’t end up opening it until the beginning of senior year. The poetry is so divine, so transformative, that I remember feeling like the first 21 years of my life had been wasted; for to see the world without Whitman’s clarity seems a blundering, pointless affair. It is that moving. And there is no other book I know (besides The Holy Bible, perhaps) that makes me feel like a more complete and compassionate person every time I pick it up.

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Leaves of Grass is effectively Whitman’s life’s work – a massive volume of poems spanning the years of Whitman’s life. Inside, one finds poetry of all shapes and sizes: tiny little whispers nestle up against massive works like “Song of Myself” – perhaps the most famous of Whitman’s poems. A collection so sprawling cannot be summed up; it is, like The Holy Bible, about simply everything. One page shows brotherly love, while another depicts The Civil War; one depicts lilacs in bloom, the next: slaves at auction. Science, religion, the stars, the sea, the trees, death, eternity, and the sweetness of touch; America’s greatest poet leaves no leaf unturned.

If there is a nucleus to Whitman’s magnum opus, it is the divinity of mankind – a devout reverence for the limitless power and beauty of the human race. Indeed, Whitman seems to ache with love for his fellow man – to the point that it nearly overwhelms him. More specifically, Leaves of Grass spells out a throbbing and moving image of the American Spirit: the eternal vigor of farmers, of blacksmiths and laborers along the frontier; nascent democracy; New York; and the unspoiled fields through which Whitman walks with his friends and lovers. But he turns his eyes also to firemen, and grief, and the smoke flickering after a great battle. To read Leaves of Grass is to peer into our history when it was still budding and incomprehensible.

“If Whitman’s work teaches young writers one thing, it is that not all great poetry is melancholy.”

Whitman’s life and persona are just as fascinating; on paper he is larger than life – a magnanimous bonfire of charisma and affection (both platonic and erotic) for everyone around him. All-seeing, all-understanding, and full of both ego and grace: Whitman often seems almost Christ-like in his magnitude. (In one poem, Whitman even speaks to Christ with an intimacy that only comrades share: “My spirit to yours, dear brother/… We few, equals.”) For, as a poet, Whitman understood that myth supersedes fact. In his personal life, he would write anonymous reviews of his own work, and submit them to be published in different newspaper and journals. An iconic photograph of Whitman shows a butterfly perched on his outstretched finger, signifying his deep communion with the natural world. The butterfly, it turns out, was fake, and made of cardboard. What’s even more curious is the amount of Leaves of Grass Whitman wrote from the confines of New York City.

Screen shot 2015-09-27 at 8.45.19 PM(Photo: Jaq King)

Given that this is a music blog, after all, I’ll briefly mention how Whitman has shaped the way I write song lyrics. Slow Dakota’s first three records came out before I’d read any Whitman, but Whitman plays a central role in our upcoming double LP, The Ascension of Slow Dakota. And I mean that quite literally; the album’s final song is an imaginary conversation with Walt Whitman on an airplane. When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d (Whitman’s great elegy for Lincoln) is also a tremendous influence on the album; and lilacs pop up in several songs as a symbol of both grief and new life. The Ascension also aims to be expansive (at around 15 songs), and to cover a grand host of themes and topics – taking an obvious cue from the size and scope of Whitman’s masterpiece.

And finally, if Whitman’s work teaches young writers one thing, it is that not all great poetry is melancholy. No, no: Whitman shows us that great poetry can boil over with unrestrained joy and celebration – miles away from anything like The Wasteland. In this way, his work defies our cultural archetype of the suffering genius, the hopeless poet. And so, he urges me to not rely on darkness as a necessary tool, and that profundity doesn’t have to be so damn gloomy. Most of all, I read Whitman to be reminded that kindness – and affection – have a great wisdom all their own.

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Musicians And Their Favorite Books: Jonathan Ben-Menachem (Whitewash) – Gravity’s Rainbow

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Welcome to the first installment of Musicians And Their Favorite Books. Every month I feature a NYC musician who writes about one of their favorite books and how it influences their work. I also take a photo of the artist with their own copy of the book.

Jonathan Ben-Menachem is the bass player of Whitewash, whose latest album Shibboleth is out now on Sad Cactus Records. He is also the mastermind behind No Smoking Media. The following piece is in his own words.

Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon

I first came into contact with Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow in my senior year of high school. My AP English Lit teacher had a tradition where the seniors would read Mason & Dixon, Pynchon’s other great encyclopedic work of fiction, but since he was retiring that year he decided to screw with us and give us a much weirder/more difficult read.

It’s hard to introduce this work in only a few words – if I had to compare it to something else, it would most likely be Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, which roughly translates to “total work of art.” Gravity’s Rainbow is not merely a work of fiction: it also exists as a volume of page-by-page illustrations which act as a companion to reading (actually all drawn by a pornstar – buy it here), and it includes intertextual references to things which aren’t really traditional ‘texts’ at all (early 1900s films, statistical formulas, cultural tropes, limericks, and so on).

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The plot centers around the creation and use of the German V2 rocket (which led to space travel) and the Battle of Britain. The main character, Lt. Tyrone Slothrop, is a victim of infantile psychological experimentation who finds himself used by various nationalistic and scientific entities over the course of his life. Basically, as an infant, he’s conditioned to be sexually stimulated by certain materials which are later involved in the construction of V2 rockets, and when he matures, his penis is intrinsically linked to the V2 rocket impacts (the ‘hook’ of the novel is that he keeps track of his sexual exploits with a date-and-time map that has the exact same statistical distribution as every single V2 rocket impact – so, does his dick call the rockets, or are the rockets making him aroused?).

The entirety of the 800-page plot is also based on Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, matching the elevation and eventual impact of the spiritual (literally God-like, worshipped) “00000” V2 rocket – the myriad of plot arcs and intertextualities makes Gravity’s Rainbow more than just a novel, a work that can probably never be fully understood.

In any case, this relates to Whitewash because we actually got our band name (in part) from flipping through the pages of the book. It’s included in a small lyric poem that a military official sings to himself (“whiter than the whitewash on the wall”) as he psychologically prepares himself to be sexually dominated by another military hiree.

I’m actually the only guy in the band who’s read the book (Sam Thornton [lead guitarist] found “whitewash” at random flipping through its pages), but I’m qualified to say that the intertextuality and reluctance to stay in just one artistic medium match our style pretty poignantly. It also incorporates our knack for choosing nontraditional references in music – it’s not too revolutionary to choose literary or theoretical song titles (the meaninglessness of “Logocenter,” the existential affirmation of “Saudade”), but many of our references span the weird boundary between personal experience and the stuff we think relates to our personal experience. You’ve only seen a little bit of this if you’re familiar with our work to date (see: “Reagan’s Death Star“), but our upcoming album(s) will feature a lot more obscure sample work and sound collaging that matches the sort of cinematic-yet-referential tone of Gravity’s Rainbow.

A point of difference, perhaps, is that we all find Wagner pretty effin’ dumb as far as the Gesamtkunstwerk is concerned, and we want to incorporate more contemporary hip-hop culture / less dead white male references.

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Gravity’s Rainbow is important to me as an artist because it’s always a humbling re-read. I read (most of) it on a yearly basis, and every time it’s revisited I become aware of how much I have (or haven’t) learned that year. That’s right – one book is an effective litmus test of my artistic knowledge, just because it has THAT MANY references and high-falutin’ theoretical goodness. I want to make art that does the same thing – maybe not ‘complete work of art opus magnum’ levels of intensity, but at least a work that people will want to revisit when it’s not ‘hip and trendy.’ The music industry is full of buzz bands who will be forgotten in six months – I don’t want Whitewash to be that. I would rather have fewer fans who are truly hardcore than ten times as many fans who just like our singles and not our deep cuts.

Gravity’s Rainbow is so rich in meanings (there’s a real excess of significance) that an artist was able to illustrate each and every page and have that be an independent work which makes sense even without the novel as a companion read. I want people to be able to make individual art pieces that correlate with our work just as much (or more) as I want them to sing along to our hooky choruses. Maybe that’s a lot to ask without being signed to like Sub Pop, though…

please enjoy this humorous Matt Groening reference.

(Pynchon is a hermit 8~) )

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Upcoming Whitewash NYC shows:

9/5 Elvis Guesthouse (Raccoon Fighter, Shana Falana)

9/15 Baby’s All Right (Diane Coffee, the Lemon Twigs)

9/25 Don Pedro’s (God Tiny, Living Hour, Frog)