Banjoist, New Yorker Cartoonist Explore Art-Music Intersections

January 27, 2010

Tunes and ‘Toons: Banjoist Tony Trischka, New Yorker Cartoonist Matthew Diffee Explore Intersections of Art and Music

January 25, 2010

Groton, Mass., a town that thrives on its history, probably owes as much to roots music as it does to the American Revolution. Each year, the small New England town transforms itself into Banjo Camp North, attracting hundreds of musicians for a weekend of classes, concerts and conviviality. Matthew Diffee, a cartoonist for The New Yorker, and five-string banjoist Tony Trischka ’88 met there four years ago and have since become good friends.

“Tony was one of our instructors, and was pretty amazing,” recalls Diffee. “But to put me and him in the same sentence as banjoists is kind of ridiculous. I just play for fun.” Trischka is quick to return a compliment: “I know very few people who can draw and play as well as Matt. He’s a real Renaissance man.”

Last fall, College of Arts and Sciences professors Cathryn Newton and Samuel Gorovitz invited both men to participate in HNR 250, “Linked Lenses: Science, Philosophy and the Pursuit of Knowledge,” a popular course they team-teach for the Renée Crown University Honors Program.

For nearly two hours, Trischka and Diffee explored the cross-pollination of music and art, showing how one form influences the other. Diffee drew. Trischka played. At one point, Trischka drew and Diffee played. “I imagine that Syracuse students don’t sit around all day checking out bluegrass on their iPods, so I commend them for exploring other cultural intersections,” Trischka says. A return to alma mater was bittersweet for Trischka, whose late father, John Trischka, taught physics there. “Leading a class made me realize just how much I miss the whole intellectual environment,” he says with a trace of emotion. “For a moment, I was my father’s son.”

Some students, including sophomore English major Nicole Peters, were initially skeptical about the pairing, but doubt gave way to enthusiasm once Trischka and Diffee launched into their bit. “It was intriguing to see how they took two professions and combined them into something new,” recalls Peters. “Their performance showed me how nothing is disconnected from anything else and that there are infinite connections to be made in the world. We just have to open our minds to them.”

Sophomore bioengineering major Alex Weiss ’12 echoes these sentiments and says the performance was one of the highlights of the fall class. “It was a pleasure to watch them play off of one another’s abilities, as they joked, sketched and performed,” says Weiss, adding that both men exemplified the “inspirational joy” of lifelong learning. “They clearly love their arts.”

Trischka and Diffee’s visit to SU was inspired by “The Steam Powered Hour,” a show conceived by Diffee about a year ago. Part music, part visual art, part comedy, the program relies on performer improvisation and audience interaction.

“It’s the hippest hootenanny in Manhattan,” proclaims Diffee. “Our goal is to get a bunch of seemingly unrelated people onstage and see what happens.” Guests have included Roz Chast, a fellow cartoonist at The New Yorker; comedians Steve Martin and Demetri Martin; and the folk duo of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Trischka has been on the marquee a handful of times. “Tony works with music and words, and I work with pictures and words. When you combine them onstage, you have four different things going on at once,” Diffee says. “In the end, it’s all about telling stories.”

The interdisciplinary connection was not lost on Gorovitz and Newton, who extended an invitation to the pair last year. “They are a remarkable combination of virtuosity and intellectual scope,” observes Gorovitz.

Newton agrees. “Each of them pursues an unusually wide range of interdisciplinary collaborations across the arts and is energized by working with emerging artists,” she says.

Locals remember Trischka as the star banjoist of the Syracuse-based Down City Ramblers. As the ’60s gave way to the ’70s, Trischka—eternally three credits shy of an Arts and Sciences degree—left home to make a big noise in bluegrass. He hung out in Bob Dylan’s hotel room, broke bread with Bill Monroe, and opened for Earl Scruggs.

Trischka later carved an impressive niche for himself as a bandleader (Skyline and Psychograss), film musician (“Foxfire” and “Driving Miss Daisy”), radio star (“A Prairie Home Companion” and “Mountain Stage”) and banjo teacher. “Wherever Tony goes musically, he always keeps it interesting,” declares Grand Ole Opry star Del McCoury.

Since that big splash, Trischka has kept busy: touring in support of a new album, “Territory” (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2008); creating a website devoted to banjo scholarship; and writing a Civil War-inspired album. In May, he joined Béla Fleck onstage at Madison Square Garden for Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday bash. “I remember sitting next to Béla and looking out and thinking that this is really cool,” he recalls with pride. “How often do two banjoists get to play for 17,000 people?”

Despite its deep African roots, the banjo—and old time and bluegrass music, in general—remains the province of white, mostly Southern musicians. “A lot of Northerners like me started getting into bluegrass in the ’60s because it had a certain mystique to it,” says Trischka. Still, the instrument is not without some unfair stereotypes. Two that come quickly to mind are “The Ballad of Jed Clampet,” the Flatt & Scruggs classic that help put the banjo (and “The Beverly Hillbillies”) on the map in the early ’60s, followed a decade later by “Dueling Banjos” in the movie “Deliverance.”

“Steve Martin talks about that ‘happy banjo sound,’ but he’s really saying it with tongue in cheek. The instrument also has some darker tonalities,” Trischka points out, making reference to the comedian’s acclaimed solo album, “The Crow” (40 Share Productions, 2009). “It’s a complex instrument that is easily misunderstood.”

Diffee echoes these sentiments. Part of the impetus behind “The Steam Powered Hour,” he says, is to bring together farmers and lawyers alike. “I noticed that as I went around and did different New Yorker and bluegrass events, the audience was mostly the same,” explains the Texas native. “You’d have this smart, urban crowd, respectful of rural traditions, and then you’d see this guy wearing a John Deere cap. I think there’s room for both audiences.”

A self-professed former “art snob,” Diffee didn’t discover cartooning until his late 20s. Prior to that, he struggled to make ends meet as a visual artist and a stand-up comedian. No one was more surprised than Diffee when he won a single-panel cartoon contest in 1999 sponsored by The New Yorker’s business department. Cartoon editor Robert Mankoff ’66 picked up on Diffee’s rapier wit and encouraged him to write more. “It takes a certain energy and persistence to write cartoons,” explains Mankoff, who rejects about 90 percent of Diffee’s submissions. “Matt has a good gag sense that reveals a deep, intelligent cynicism.”

Actually, Diffee is what is known as a “contracted cartoonist.” (There is no such thing as a “staff cartoonist” at The New Yorker.) On average, Diffee sells about 30 cartoons a year to the magazine. Rejects are flung off to other publications, reworked and resubmitted to Mankoff, or packaged in books, such as the two-volume best-seller “The Rejection Collection” (Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2006 and 2007).

“Being funny is a subjective thing,” adds Mankoff, who spoke at the 2004 Syracuse Symposium on humor. He says Diffee’s most popular cartoon, by far, depicts Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara sporting a Bart Simpson T-shirt. “The New Yorker is nuanced and subtle. It’s not belly-laughing stuff.”

Sophomore Ashley Williams, an undecided major in the Whitman School of Management, was struck by Diffee’s and Trischka’s message about success and failure. “If you give up after one idea fails, you’ll never know what other ideas might have succeeded,” she notes. “They reminded us that you can’t give up. You must keep trying.”

Diffee and Trischka embody this ethic, onstage and in the classroom. The result is invariably some low-brow humor and high-end art. “Tony respects what I do, and I really, really respect what he does,” says Diffee.

Trischka goes a step further: “Bill Monroe once said that he could write a song in 30 seconds to a minute. In a way, that’s what Matt and I do together. Coming up with a catchy song or punch line on the spot is not easy, but the rewards are definitely worth it.”