Tag Archives: Kurt Vonnegut


Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In The Barring-gaffner of Bagnialto, or This Year’s Masterpiece—one of several story synopses in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Breakfast of Champions—a government official spins a wheel to assign cash value to works of art submitted by the citizenry. The wheel lands on a painting of a house cat by Gooz, a humble cobbler who had never painted before. The simplistic portrait is appraised at eighteen thousand lambos, or one billion earth dollars. Crowds flock to see it at the National Gallery. Meanwhile, a bonfire consumes all the statues, paintings, and books the wheel has deemed worthless.

This satirical vignette highlights the disproportionate and arbitrary role of industry officials (governmental and corporate) in determining aesthetic values and tastes. The top-down model lampooned in the parable is not distant from commercial radio stations that weed out music before it ever reaches our ears. Cultural critics contend that decisions to promote or bury certain songs too often rely on extra-musical factors: image, celebrity, markets, studio backing, etc. This results in a homogenized soundscape, where listeners have limited volition over the music they hear. In Vonnegut’s hyper-cynical scenario, a completely random process shapes the masses’ artistic sensibilities. They flock to see an amateur painting of someone’s pet, and think nothing of other works—no doubt many of high quality—going up in flames.

To an extent, Vonnegut’s bleak parable was more applicable in 1973, when Breakfast of Champions hit the shelves, than it is today. The online availability of music, access to independent radio stations, and platforms for compiling digital playlists provide unprecedented opportunities to short circuit the music industry’s control. Democratization has dented the industry’s historic role in pre-selecting sounds. Individuals more directly determine what they hear and what becomes popular. Adrian C. North and David J. Hargreaves are optimistic in their essay, “Music and Marketing”: “the digitization of music means that psychological factors will become more important than economic factors in explaining the music that people listen to on a day-to-day level. In decades to come we…suspect that the importance of economic explanations [for listening preferences] will diminish” (from Oxford’s Handbook of Music and Emotion, 2010).

We are not there yet; the old tastemakers still operate. As the digital age has broadened listening options, corporate interests have narrowed their palettes. In a high-stakes industry faced with escalating costs, intense competition, and a perpetually volatile youth demographic, safe bets overwhelm the airwaves. The complaint that “everything sounds the same on the radio” seems truer now than ever before. Listeners who do not explore digital or other options, either by choice or by circumstance, are left wading in an undifferentiated pool of cookie-cutter consumerism. They are stuck gazing at the cat.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Scripted Thoughts

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A song consists of words set to music for the purpose of being sung. This definition is so basic that it hardly needs mention. What is perhaps less obvious is the power that language exerts on the music to which it is set. Lyrics give musical sounds a specific character, turning a notoriously abstract art form into a delivery system for potential crystal clarity—potential because, depending on the subject’s accessibility and the intelligibility of the language, a song can approach a level of directness rarely achieved in other modalities.

To be sure, lyrics can at times seem superfluous, regardless of how poorly or finely crafted they are, or how well or badly they merge with the music. For some people, the words are merely a doorway into a musical experience, and have little attraction in and of themselves (I tend to fall in this camp). Songs are also multidimensional artifacts, saturated with cultural assumptions, subject to critical judgment, and filtered through personal lenses. Moreover, each individual has heard songs wearing different sets of ears, sometimes gravitating toward the words and other times not. Still, despite this diversity of engagement, the greatest strength of song remains its capacity for clarity.

Lyrics have a distinct advantage over other types of linguistic expression. The placement of words in musical confinement yields many clarifying constraints and devices, including: metered stanzas that regulate the number of syllables; recurring phrases that eliminate ambiguity; familiar idioms and clichés that provide instant messages; choruses that reiterate central themes; poetic tools like rhyme, assonance and alliteration, which help weed out extraneous language. Of course, some songs employ these elements better than others, and there is room for nuance and creativity (and miscommunication), even with these controls. But, taken as a whole, songs are uniquely adept at compressing, containing and conveying streamlined concepts.

This unclutteredness runs counter to the human condition, which condemns our minds to endless and often-disjointed thoughts. True, most of us can steer ourselves into clear thinking when needed; but it is impossible to harness the mechanism at all times. The thought motor is always running, even in our sleep.

I’m reminded of a scene in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, when Mrs. Pefko complains to Dr. Breed, “You scientists think too much.” “I think you’ll find,” replied Dr. Breed, “that everybody does about the same amount of thinking. Scientists simply think about things one way, and other people think about things in others.” This is the blessing and burden of our species.

Songs embody the elusive ideal of lucidity. They are neatly packed containers, carefully arranged and efficiently delivered. They are, in short, the opposite of wandering words.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Music of Champions

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In the preface to Breakfast of Champions (1973), Kurt Vonnegut describes the book as a fiftieth-birthday present to himself. It is a gift more therapeutic than celebratory. He likens the novel to “a sidewalk strewn with junk, trash which I throw over my shoulders as I travel in time back to November eleventh, nineteen hundred and twenty-two.” The junk consists of childish drawings (of assholes, flags, underpants, and so on), characters recycled from previous stories, and absurd science-fiction plots he never intended to develop into books. At the end of the confessional prelude, Vonnegut assures the reader that while this garbage must be emptied, he does not want to throw away any “sacred things.” The sacraments he cites are Armistice Day, Romeo and Juliet, and all music.

The categories these things represent are fairly conventional. Most religious systems include holidays, stories and music deemed sacred. But Vonnegut’s choices are more personal. He was a humanist without creedal ties. Armistice Day, which happened to be his birthday, was an important part of his childhood (he had no similar regard for the Veteran’s Day that would replace it). He considered Shakespeare the wisest of human beings (though, he admitted, that wasn’t saying much). He was less selective when it came to music. In fact, he was not selective at all.

Is there any wisdom in Vonnegut’s view that all music is sacred? Strictly speaking, sacred music is an established taxonomic classification. It is music performed or composed for religious use and/or created under religious influence. It goes by many names: worship music, religious music, liturgical music, devotional music, ecclesiastical music, etc. But Vonnegut was not referring to any specialized musical purpose or context. To him, music—generically and without judgment—is a sacred thing.

To understand this viewpoint, we should look at the word “sanctity,” which derives from the Latin term sanctum, or “set apart.” (This is also the meaning of the Hebrew term kadesh.) Specifically, it denotes something that is set apart from the profane or ordinary.

Music fits this description in at least seven ways: (1) It is perceived as distinct from other noises; (2) Words set to music rise above everyday speech; (3) Our capacity for music-making distinguishes us from other animals; (4) Musical sounds penetrate otherwise untapped areas of consciousness; (5) Music has “extra-physical” power over our emotions; (6) Music is suggestive of a force greater than ourselves; (7) Any music can be set apart as special by an individual.

As inherently judgmental creatures, we might not agree with Vonnegut’s uncritical appraisal of music. We might also be cautious not to take his statement too seriously, given his track record of sarcasm and his usual penchant for sharp criticism. However, it is reasonable to accept his words at face value. All music likely was sacred to him, even as most other things were not (and many things were merely trash).

Breakfast of Champions was not the only place Vonnegut expressed this opinion. Elsewhere, he contrasted the brokenness he saw in the world with the purity he heard in music. This is most clearly written in his collection of essays, A Man Without a Country (2005): “No matter how corrupt, greedy, and heartless our government, our corporations, our media, and our religious and charitable institutions may become, the music will still be wonderful.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.