Academic journal article Pynchon Notes

The Transcription of Electronic Music in the Crying of Lot 49

Academic journal article Pynchon Notes

The Transcription of Electronic Music in the Crying of Lot 49

Article excerpt

Even if Pynchon refers in The Crying of Lot 49 to electronic music only marginally, one may ask from a musicologist's perspective what motivates the contextualization of this phenomenon. In chapter 3, Oedipa and Metzger visit a bar called The Scope, where they are confronted with the "'Radio Cologne sound'" (48) in the form of a composition by Karlheinz Stockhausen. The first part of this essay analyzes the function of this episode in the novel, stressing the background against which the narrator revises the characteristics of electronic music. The second part focuses on the role of auditory perception in the novel, in which music and acoustic environments appear in ever different constellations.


My analysis of Pynchon's transcription of electronic music is based on Ludwig Jager's concept of Transkriptivitat, transcriptivity. (Pynchon's literary appropriation of a musical form of expression can be explained only insufficiently in terms of intertextuality.) Jager views transcription as the fundamental technique of producing and commenting on cultural semantics through media. According to Jager, every culture produces various instances of transcription, since it perpetually tries to make surprising processes and events "readable." This way of "sense-making" always involves a transformation of meaning because of the culture-constituting practices of transcoding (commentary, paraphrase) and the translation of one medial format into another. In Jager's terminology, the specific cultural phenomenon of the Radio Cologne sound may be conceived as a pre-text, which Pynchon transcribes into prose and therefore subjects to a completely different mode of reading. It is this mode that has to be decoded against the background of his novel. Of course, the term pre-text should not be understood merely in terms of writing, since in Pynchon's novel music enters the frame--a medium different from literature, the acoustic realization of which does not depend on textual formation.

Before tracing Pynchon's references to electronic music and his recoding of this compositional tradition which was establishing itself in the mid-twentieth century, we will look closely at the specific passage mentioned above:

The Scope proved to be a haunt for electronics assembly people from Yoyodyne. The green neon sign outside ingeniously depicted the face of an oscilloscope tube, over which flowed an ever-changing dance of Lissajous figures. Today seemed to be payday, and everyone inside to be drunk already. Glared at all the way, Oedipa and Metzger found a table in back. A wizened bartender wearing shades materialized and Metzger ordered bourbon. Oedipa, checking the bar, grew nervous. There was this je ne sais quoi about the Scope crowd: they all wore glasses and stared at you, silent. Except for a couple-three nearer the door, who were engaged in a nose-picking contest, seeing how far they could flick it across the room.

A sudden chorus of whoops and yibbles burst from a kind of juke box at the far end of the room. Everybody quit talking. The bartender tiptoed back, with the drinks.

"What's happening?" Oedipa whispered.

"That's by Stockhausen," the hip graybeard informed her, "the early crowd tends to dig your Radio Cologne sound. Later on we really swing. We're the only bar in the area, you know, has a strictly electronic music policy. Come on around Saturdays, starting midnight we have your Sinewave Session, that's a live get-together, fellas come in just to jam from all over the state, San Jose, Santa Barbara, San Diego-"

"Live?" Metzger said, "electronic music, live?"

"They put it on the tape, here, live, fella. We got a whole back room full of your audio oscillators, gunshot machines, contact mikes, everything man. That's for if you didn't bring your ax, see, but you got the feeling and you want to swing with the rest of the cats, there's always something available. …

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