The Influential Madness of Sigmund Snopek III

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Why you should care

Because this guy is in the Wisconsin Music Hall of Fame, and you had no idea that existed.

Through the 1980s and ’90s, Milwaukee-based Sigmund Snopek III (yes, that’s his real name) came to be known primarily as a sideman, playing keyboards, flute, horns and sax for fellow Milwaukeeans the Violent Femmes. But long before the Femmes were formed, Snopek had already established himself as a legendary figure in the Beertown music scene and a quietly influential composer among international musicians. That his name is not more widely recognized may be blamed on the fact that he’s been cursed to work at least 10 years ahead of his time. Snopek’s wild range of styles and musical experimentation have earned him comparisons with the likes of Zappa and Sun Ra but, y’know, different.

Beginning in the late ’60s with his prog rock band the Bloomsbury People and continuing on through the next four-plus decades’ worth of eclectic solo recordings, Snopek has remained utterly unclassifiable. Albums like 1986’s Wisconsinsane may be thematic wholes, but within that framework, individual tracks might be labeled pop, folk, country, jazz, comedy, avant-garde, classical or some improbable blend of anything and everything. Although recurring themes (memory, roads, movies) do keep cropping up in his lyrics, casual listeners playing two random albums back to back might find it hard to believe that both had been crafted by the same musician. For all the deeply layered musical complexity, Snopek’s lilting, wistful melodies remain maddeningly catchy. His “Rose of Wisconsin” — which seems an excuse to cram the names of as many small Wisconsin towns as possible into a single song — has been stuck in my head for three years running.

His prescient First Band on the Moon album let us know exactly what we’d be hearing throughout the 1980s long before Foreigner or REO Speedwagon hit the airwaves, and by the time they did, he’d already moved on. Other albums have presaged New Wave, avant-pop and the forthcoming unprecedented resurgence of polka.

Similarly, when pop stars like Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello get to feeling ambitious and compose a big classical piece, everyone makes a big hoo-ha about it. And when modern classical composers began writing pieces for electric guitar in the ’80s, they were hailed for their radical innovation. But Snopek was writing classical works before his first band was formed and has since composed song cycles, symphonies, operas, chamber music and works for pipe organ, and his first classical composition for electric guitar premiered in 1968. Now 64, Snopek is gearing up to premiere a new oratorio and is at work on his latest commission, a string quartet he’s writing in conjunction with his work for a children’s music program in local schools. Along with the classical pieces, Snopek is recording two new albums that will extend his Baseball 70-song 2007 box set and also co-wrote and produced the new Harper Rose album, scheduled for release this spring.

Beneath the serious composition and tireless musical brilliance, Snopek is, at heart, kind of a goofball, but a proud Wisconsin goofball who never misses a chance to pay homage to his oft-maligned home state. His 1998 album, Beer, in fact, is one long, sloppy, drunken celebration of all those things that make Wisconsin great — Friday-night fish fries, the Brewers, ice shanties and, of course, beer. And his signature anthem, “Thank God This Isn’t Cleveland,” may one day soon become the new state song.

As he explains, in the early ’70s, he decided to look at his entire life as one long performance art piece, which then became the singular driving philosophy behind all the composition and performance that followed. Music, whatever form it may take, however it might be labeled, wherever it might be played, is simply what he breathes. In April, he was inducted into the Wisconsin Music Hall of Fame.

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