The Thomas Pynchon Songbook: reading literature from a distance

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From the first page of his first novel, music plays an eminent role in Thomas Pynchon’s work. Along with film, it is his most important cultural reference point. This is evident when looking at the figures: Pynchon wrote lyrics for more than two-hundred songs, adding up to 2600 lines; he has 720 references to 137 different musical instruments and 925 references to musicians or works of music; words such as “music,” “song,” or “singing” occur on average much more frequently than in the corpus of English-language literature.

After presenting close-readings on the role of the kazoo and the harmonica in Pynchon’s work at thefidget space in Philadelphia in 2015, Christian Hänggi will now assume a bird’s eye view and attempt a distant reading through statistics such as the above. Contrasting the coldness of those figures, guitarist, singer, and poet Tyler Burba will accompany the talk with interpretations of some of the many songs for which Pynchon wrote the lyrics.

 

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Tyler Burba is a songwriter/musician performing in the bands Visit, a country and anti-gospel band that performs existential hymns, and the Adam Lakes Band, a rip-roaring rock band that performs heartbreak music. His philosophical work “The Ecstasy of Difference: The Phenomenology of Repetition and Variation in Music” in the book On Becoming-Music:Between Boredom and Ecstasy (with Peter Price) is available on Atropos Press. He lives and teaches in Astoria, Queens.

Christian Hänggi is a media ecologist and a literary scholar currently finishing his dissertation on music in Thomas Pynchon’s work at the University of Basel, Switzerland. His previous dissertation, Hospitality in the Age of Media Representation, was published with Atropos Press and Passagen Verlag. He edited Peter Price’s Resonance: Philosophy for Sonic Art and has been a scholar-in-residence at thefidget space where he also presented talks on Philip K. Dick, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Thomas Pynchon. He is a member of the Association of American Kazoologists and plays the baritone in the Swiss Saxophone Orchestra.

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