A boom box, lamp, L-shaped chair (a hipper version of Martin Crane's recliner on "Frasier") and a tall glass of orange juice set the Fine Arts Theater stage for a casual discussion with Harvey Pekar.
Known as the confrontational, famed author of the autobiographical comic book series, American Splendor, the topic of music seemed to smooth over the speaker's sharp edges. The Pekar that the mostly college-aged audience witnessed was about two parts contemplative, one part fussy.
"Agh! I can't see anybody!" Pekar said, squinting under the harsh lights. "I'll just have to hold my forehead like this the whole time."
"Harvey doesn't need an introduction, but--" the moderator began.
"I caught Brave Combo yesterday. Some of the stuff they were playing sounded like polka!" Pekar said. "But no, really, it wasn't polka, meter-wise. They always come to Cleveland where I live, and I think they just keep getting better and better.
"What I want to talk about is the avant-garde in art--jazz particularly, but in all art," Pekar says. "It's not being supported like it should. Like Van Gogh in the 19th Century. No one was buying his stuff! But after 25 years or so, they did.
"You want to keep the avant-garde going--I mean, I want to. Our society is an evolutionary one, and I like to see new things happening. And to see art evolve with the times. I mean, there's only like 12 operas playing today," he continued. "You may not like their stuff, but let's try. Let's give it a listen."
Pekar introduced freeform jazz artist Joe Maneri, whose track "Paniots Nine" opens the film-version of American Splendor" based on Pekar's life and starring Paul Giamatti. Maneri was influenced by "Viennese, atonal stuff" for clarinet and saxophone after dropping out of middle school.
"He was playing weddings, but he was building a real vocabulary [at the time]," Pekar said. "Maneri didn't really get discovered then; I don't know if he even has now. He was studying at the New England Conservatory of Music, so that says something--"
"HEY HARVEY, YOU WANT ME TO KILL THE LIGHTS?" the technician sounds from the box. Pekar was still wearing his hand-visor to shield the glow.
"WHAT HAPPENS IF YOU STAND?" someone yells.
Pekar stands, and the crowd whoops.
"YOU LOOK GOOD!"
"This sweater they picked out for me?" Pekar says, hunching in green wool. Photos flash as he poses awkwardly.
"But I mean... Are you gonna do something about the lights?" he says.
The audience chuckles. Maneri, long-time supported by Pekar, went on to form the Joe Maneri Quartet with drummer Randy Petersen, bassist John Lockwood and his son, violinist Mat Maneri. The moderator puts in a track by the Quartet, leans back and closes his eyes. Pekar sips on his juice and surveys the crowd.
This mind-music--free form, atonal jazz--runs from skippy to somber, leaping to falling, swooning to ticking. The audience listens self-consciously. A camera pans their reactions along with Pekar's gaze. The lack of a clear beat feels like a security blanket dangling out of arms' reach. It's good stuff, but it's different. Many probably felt out of their comfort zones.
The vibe was amplified by the antiqued auditorium, the remnants of a once-functioning theater.
"Does anyone out there like this?" Pekar says.
People cheer, "Oh yeah!"
"This was done in 1999. Oh, by the way. The reason I want art to evolve is if people do the same things day after day, it stays stagnant. It becomes like a folk art. That's why I want people to keep inventing stuff."
He pops in a contemplative swing tune in jarring nine-four meter, from Maneri's album "Paniots Nine". The sax, drums and jazz piano all interplay, both converging and diverging in such a way that leads each listener down a different journey. It's completely unpredictable, like a good suspense film that requires several viewings to "get it."
"People couldn't follow his music," Pekar says. "That's why I asked you if you liked it. This has been happening since the bebop era--in the swing era, everyone could follow it. Bop was a much more complex type of music.
"People couldn't hear the difference between the improvisation and the metered progression," he says. "It's understandable, but terrible, that people didn't appreciate it at the time."
What does this mean for avant-garde artists? "A lot of these guys give up. So that's a real dilemma. How are you gonna get people to understand this music when you really gotta have a lot of nerve to get people to even listen to it?" Pekar says. "I just hope things get better."
Aside from creating a new genre from scratch, Pekar says synthesis between different styles of music is another way to evolve music--like Brave Combo's "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White" which Pekar calls a "mambo...played like polka."
Pekar also turned the audience on to saxophonist Josh Smith--who helped transform Pekar's own libretto into a jazz opera entitled "Leave Me Alone"--and drummer Carmen Castaldi. He says neither Smith nor Castaldi has received his due credit.
"[Castaldi] never left Cleveland--like me! But I've got a bigger following than him, maybe. So here's something else you'll probably never hear again," Pekar says.
Improvisational trumpet-player Nate Wooley and saxophonist Jack Wright fill the theater with hissing, bubbling and sky-high siren sounds. It sounds strangely of...indigestion. The moderator asks if Wright's blowing water through the sax.
"I don't know," Pekar says. "But it's all from their instruments."
"WHAT ARE YOU SUPPOSED TO DO AS YOU LISTEN TO THIS?" someone shouts.
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"Well, I don't listen to it all that long," Pekar responds.
"Is it the fault of the musicians for not making this stuff accessible?" someone else asks.
"That's a good question. But these people are real invested, and they're hoping that people will start to catch on to it," he says. "I mean--Jackson Pollock. At least the collectors shell out for his stuff. These guys are hardcore. They're not gonna stop what they're doing."
Maybe it's culture's conditioning into three-four meter, Top-40 hits and otherwise product-based "art" forms that dominate the airwaves today, or simply a linear mentality that still affects the mainstream. At the top, business models are formula-based. But each industry is learning that old formulas are failing--music, newspapers, and everything else falling into the gutter with America's economic shift. Resurgence of innovation--of freeform--may be the solution waiting on the horizon.