Welcome, music lovers, to the cheerfully deranged world of Thomas Pynchon!
Over the years, Tyler Burba of the band Visit had accompanied a number of my talks on music in Thomas Pynchon’s work. One evening, I suggested he record an entire album of Pynchon’s songs. He gave it two solid seconds of thought: “Sure, if you’re going to produce it.” There’s a first time for everything, and, karmically speaking, becoming a music producer most certainly beats being the President of, say, the United States of America, no matter which faction of the Business Party he, she, or it belongs to.
There’s no denying that Pynchon and music go together like Frank Sinatra’s horse and carriage. The historical musical references alone span an impressive eight hundred years, with the largest cluster from Pynchon’s own lifetime. There are instruments galore, uncounted puns, and philosophical discussions worthy of a musicologist equipped with sly humor, a dictionary of a certain size (not to say grandeur), and a healthy measure of empathy with the disinherited, the lost, and the lovelorn.
I always enjoyed reading the songs sprinkled throughout Pynchon’s novels, but I couldn’t always put the lyrics to music in my head, particularly when the rhythm was not evident to me. That’s why I called on Tyler to create original work.
This is not the first time someone has ventured to record a selection of the 200-odd song lyrics scattered throughout Pynchon’s work, occasionally complete with measure, tempo, instrumentation, and even choreography. The first recording I was able to trace was “The Eyes of a New York Woman,” by The Insect Trust (1970), a pretty tune from the novel V. best remembered for what may be the most interesting recorder solo in the history of popular music. Pynchon and his novels have also inspired musicians to create their own works or to pay tribute in other ways. Among these musicians are the likes of Richard and Mimi Fariña (Gravity’s Rainbow is dedicated to Richard Fariña), Soft Machine, Bill Laswell, John Zorn, Devo, Mark Knopfler, and Radiohead. Laurie Anderson, whose “Gravity’s Angel” on Mr. Heartbreak is dedicated to Pynchon, chose not to turn Gravity’s Rainbow into an opera after being given permission to do so provided the only instruments used were banjos. Well over a hundred musicians have found inspiration in Pynchon’s oeuvre, from do-wop to punk, from electronic to new classical music. Just type “Pynchon on Record, Vol. 4” into the Search Engine of Your Choice and follow the yellow brick road. If you’d rather browse through the music Pynchon referred or alluded to, type “The Pynchon Playlist” instead. And if you’re even more deeply interested in the topic, you might want to check out my book Pynchon’s Sound of Music, which ought to come out around the same time as this CD.
One difficulty of the present album is balancing textual and historical accuracy with how the lyrics speak to us. Do we really need a Farfisa Mini Compact Organ because Pynchon specifies one? Should we have a bass clarinet in an eighteenth-century setting when Adolphe Sax invented the instrument in the nineteenth? While it is evident that “Middletown New York” should be a country tune—and we really wanted that pedal steel break Pynchon indicated—, it’s not inconceivable that the Dylan-inflected “They’ve Been Sleeping on Your Shoulder” will come as a surprise to many a listener. I’m sure that some of the choices we made will disappoint some readers of Pynchon, and perhaps the Author Himself. However, if it’s a good tune, and if that’s how the text spoke to us, how wrong can it be?
We have included songs from each one of Pynchon’s novels, from 1963 to 2013 (except for Against the Day, that 1200-plus-page tome high up among my all-time favorite novels). We hope you’ll enjoy them as much as we did when we recorded this album.
Christian Hänggi, March 2020
PS: The second part of the liner notes are available for those faithful listeners who purchased the CD.