Creation Stories, David Lynch, Existentialism, and Jazz: Instrumental Review
By Colin O’Neill
There are two passions in my life (three if you count beer, and four if you count crippling self-doubt): Comics and music. They tend to overtake one another consistently. In junior high music was life. Days in class would be me simply daydreaming about playing a massive stadium packed full of people as I’m shredding a Gibson SG through a Marshall stack with a plethora of effects pedals at my feet to create noises that change lives. In high school, I quit guitar lessons because I became jaded after joining miserable bands with egotistical musicians and offered to play in worse ones playing genres I considered vapid and uninspiring (wow, somebody’s a pretentious teenager!). In high school it became comics after reading Watchmen by Alan Moore, David Gibbons, and John Higgins for the first time. Instead of buying metal and blues albums, it turned into four-colour funnies. Why the fuck am I telling you this? Because, dear reader, transitions and inflated egos are my thing! Nothing melds these two worlds quite like Dave Chisholm’s newest comic AND album Instrumental from Z2 Comics.
Instrumental is the passion project for cartoonist and jazz musician and music teacher who lives in New York State. It’s a comic with a soundtrack, or depending on how you want a see it, a record with an accompanying comic. The album has seven tracks, and the comic has seven chapters each of the same names, respectively. In the intro for the book, Chisholm notes: “One person might find that some of the music illustrates the events of the chapter. Another might find that the music serves more to enhance the mood of the book. Yet another might decide to consume the two works separately.” Personally, I listened to the album after I read the book and flipped through each chapter that coincided with each track and realized that it’s not so much like a film score, but rather music that takes influence.
For example: The intro track “The Void,” definitely takes from the first two pages where we see blank nothingness coming to form what appears to be a Star of David whilst quoting John 1:1. The music has a very ethereal, foreboding atmosphere that is
reminiscent of the instrumental from the title track of David Bowie’s final release “Blackstar.” However, as a score to the comic, beat for beat, it doesn’t really mesh as well as I hoped. That certainly isn’t to demerit the album, because it’s actually
phenomenal at capturing the moods of each chapter wonderfully. Don’t think straight up score as in a film, but rather an accompanying musical interpretation of the story. Admittedly I was hesitant to review the album portion as I feel there are better music critics who can explain music better than I ever could, however it is a part of the package therefore it would do Chisholm a disservice to not discuss it analytically and critically.
As an album it really surprised me. And what I mean by that is that I figured it would be a “Jazz” album in the vein of things like big band and my notions of what jazz are (which, admittedly I’m not a massive fan- not out of apathy, but rather out of lack of trying to immerse myself in the genre). The album is very dark and progressive, which happens to be something I very much enjoy in music. There are moments of hope and joy in the second and final tracks, respectively. However, the album holds a lot of mystery and intrigue- like a good Angelo Badalamenti score. Chisholm himself performed the trumpet (which he is incredibly proficient at) the synths (which can either have an eerie, atmospheric quality- or a very sunny rainbow after a rainfall quality), and vocal harmonies. Accompanying Chisholm are musicians Noah Berman on guitar, Aaron Staebell on drums (whose time signature changes are fantasic), Ben Thomas on bass, and Mike Conrad on piano, respectively. The album very pleasantly surprised me, and even if you don’t read the comic (spoilers: You should), please listen to the record.
Now, the meat and potatoes: The comic. The story follows a trumpet player named Tom. Tom plays gigs every week in a flower shop that’s owned and operated by his keyboard player, and the crowds are small if they even exist at all. One night a
member in the audience tells him bluntly how bad his performance was, and hands him more than advice: An old trumpet, that seemingly makes Tom play better. However, like everything, there’s a catch: The trumpet is seemingly cursed.
What I enjoy about this premise is that it takes the Needful Things horror trope and uses it in a non-horror setting, and uses this trope to explore a fun avenue. Every musician has played an instrument that has seemingly inspired them or made them play better, yet that’s kind of preposterous when you think about it- instruments are just objects meant to project sound, not totems that have spiritual connections. Yet, to a musician they can be these spiritual, pseudo-religious items that have a higher meaning of purpose than just to make pretty music with. What is also great about the premise is that you really explore the ego of Tom, and thus the ego a musician can have. Anyone who has played in a band knows the kind of assholes musicians are. Self-centered, ego-driven maniacs, they are. The worst! Chisholm takes that notion and amplifies it up to 11 with the character Tom. He stops sleeping, gets paranoid, and only wants to play his music and get fame.
As all of this transpires, there is a religious cult that is out looking for the trumpet and trying to hunt down Tom. Now, what I enjoy about this integral side-plot is that it gives the narrative a very Lynchian feel. For those unaware, David Lynch is a surrealist director responsible for such films as Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire, etc. He is also one of two co-creators of the cult classic television series Twin Peaks. I love Lynch. If you’re reading this, you probably love Lynch. And it’s apparent Chisholm has some inspiration from Lynch and Lynchian style. Lynchian, for those unaware, is defined by post-modern author David Foster Wallace as “… a particular kind of irony and macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.” Wallace uses an example in real life by saying, “Ted Bundy wasn’t particularly Lynchian, but good old Jeffery Dahmer, with his victims’ various anatomies neatly separated and stored in his fridge alongside his chocolate milk and Shedd Spread, was thoroughgoingly Lynchian.”
The Lynchian nature in Instrumental comes from not only visual calls to Lynch (the priest from the music cult looks like Kyle MacLachlan from Dune, Blue Velvet, and Twin Peaks- respectively, and two church members who chase Tom look like the
characters BOB and Mike from Twin Peaks), but they also come from the fact that a beautiful trumpet sound that creates the best going jazz performer kills people in horrific ways, and causes natural disasters I would argue is Lynchian. Plus, there’s a funny scene where it shows the bassist in Tom’s band going on the subway with his upright bass and everyone mistakes it for a cello, to his great frustration. When someone finally calls it for what it actually is it brings him great joy. This is a scene that I could totally see in Twin Peaks, just because. I also found it quite endearingly funny.
Another aspect of Instrumental I very much enjoyed is that while Chisholm is a jazz artist and loves jazz, the book isn’t really ABOUT jazz. It’s about music. It’s about the cultures music arise from. There’s a lot of correlation with biblical creation stories from many different religions and cultures, and their relations to music. One such interesting example is the usage of dead musicians meeting with Tom as they discuss music, philosophy, higher purpose, etc. These philosophical musings are fun and intriguing and give the book some great intelligence. In chapter 3, for example, Tom finds himself in this weird cabaret room that looks like the Black Lodge from Twin Peaks (again with the Lynch, and he even comes out from a movie theatre where the billing reads “RETURN OF COOPER”) and gets into a conversation with two dead musicians: Wolfgang (obviously Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart), and Hildegard who turns out to be Hildegard of Bingen, who was a German Christian mystic who believed her singing connected her with God. There are three other musicians who are in here who discuss their philosophies and such and I’m not going to spoil them. They’re a great addition to the plot, and what I most enjoy is that Chisholm doesn’t spoon-feed you who they are. You really have to dig into it to find out their identity, unless you’re well versed in music.
Now, if the story impressed me, the art was the real showstopper. Dave Chisholm combines the best from cartoonists like Craig Thompson, David Lapham, and Paul Pope and comes out with something utterly unique. He holds a lot of fluidity in his art, movement feels real and not static. The bold squiggles of ink brush heavily adorns the page to add to the motion and atmosphere. The best parts visually in this book are when Tom is playing the trumpet, and he transcends the comic book page, literally, as pages with panels (some inactive, some with corresponding scenes on them) are around him as he seemingly rises above them, coming out of the comic. At first I thought this for mere aesthetic, but it does tie into the plot but I’ve said too much. The penultimate chapter has very good usage of raw pencils being juxtaposed with fully inked panels and figures. Even the lettering, which Chisholm does himself, is fun to read!
What is apparent mostly from Instrumental is that this book and album seem to be a labor of love. What is so wonderful to see is this person, Dave Chisholm, who is in- between two worlds- comics and music- make a project that encompasses both. It is incredibly rewarding and awe-inspiring to see these worlds be meshed and compliment one another. Instrumental is a phenomenal work from a powerhouse of a talent who deserves all of the credit in not just one medium, but two.
Photo Credit: Nathan Boone
Colin O’Neill lives on a tiny island in Canada that you’ve never heard of. When not thinking about comics, he’s trying different kinds of craft beer or attending open mic shows. He studied political science in university, and drinks to forget the perils of neo-liberal globalization. He was also voted most clumsy in high school, but wasn’t present to accept the award.