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Monday, Dec. 23, 2013

Sigmund Snopek's Avant-Pop

Book ranks Milwaukee musician among the greats

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Sigmund Snopek III is keeping good company these days. The veteran Milwaukee recording artist is included with Frank Zappa, Yoko Ono, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Sun Ra and James Brown in a fascinating examination of late 20th-century music, Adventures in Avant-Pop. Although author Bob Mielke has been teaching English at Truman State University for many years, his hometown is Milwaukee, where he encountered Snopek during the performer’s progressive rock phase in the ’70s.

But if local ties explain Snopek’s inclusion in Avant-Pop, the Cream City connection isn’t the only thing in the artist’s favor. Mielke argues that like his book’s better-known subjects, Snopek was part of a cultural trend melding “high” with “low,” blending and bending genres. Much like Zappa, Snopek’s diverse catalog includes symphonies, rock operas, rock songs and novelties, although it’s unlikely that Zappa ever sang a polka. As with Zappa, 20th-century composer Edgard Varèse was a major influence.

If the seven artists scrutinized in Avant-Pop seem to make odd companions, Mielke maintains that each one “bridged the hypothetical divide between popular music and avant-garde composition.” The elastic thesis starts to snap when stretched to include James Brown, one of the most influential innovators in popular music, but with no discernable links to any artistically self-conscious “avant-garde.” Avant-Pop is occasionally infuriating, inevitably thought provoking and probably the most fascinating study of music out this year. Mielke is a fan, but Avant-Pop isn’t another blabbering fan book; he’s a cultural scholar, but without being embedded in unhelpful, academic cultural theories.

On Sunday, Jan. 5, Sigmund Snopek will mark the release of Avant-Pop with a day and night of concerts showcasing the breadth of his work. At 3 p.m., he will perform compositions for organ with Jane Latva at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (914 E. Knapp St.); at 5:30 p.m. he moves on to Villa Terrace (2220 N. Terrace Ave.) for a performance of song cycles with vocalist Emily Wolfersberger and other musicians; and at 8 p.m. he concludes the evening with a rock show and book signing at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn (1001 E. Locust St.).

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