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Jazzing up Rube Goldberg's creations

He was a cartoonist, not an inventor. But for more than a half century, Rube Goldberg developed some of the most intricate -- and absurd -- machines in human history. In his panels, Goldberg took the simplest of tasks and turned them into a complicated web of processes. Want to snap a photograph? All you have to do is get a pneumatic cushion to float an ice boat into a lighted cigar that . . . well, eventually leads to a picture.

 

That was Goldberg's trademark, for which he won a 1948 Pulitzer Prize and became the first figure to see his name added to the dictionary while he was still alive, according to his biographer. There was just one thing Goldberg could never do. His work remained on the page, dancing with absurdity, but silent.

That's where Andy Biskin comes in. He's a 48-year-old video designer who lives in New York and plays the clarinet. Biskin has long been fascinated by Goldberg's work, generally a riff on the idea of making simple things more difficult.

Goldberg's drawing style has also influenced countless others, from Disney artists to gonzo cartoonist R. Crumb.

But as far as Biskin knows, he's the first to create a musical show inspired by the work of the late Goldberg. Tonight, Biskin and his jazz band perform their own Goldberg variation at the Institute of Contemporary Art. The concert, part of the ICA's "Splat Boom Pow!" show of cartoon art, will feature Biskin's group playing 12 pieces alongside a Goldberg animation video the clarinetist has created.

It's a production that's been seen only once before, in May at New York's Symphony Stage. Biskin's hoping the Boston gig will help him get Rube on the road.

"It's not like this is my mission," says Biskin. "But I think he deserves more attention."

Goldberg poked fun at 20th-century man's propensity for overcomplicating matters. His concept of one machine, titled "Keep You From Forgetting To Mail Your Wife's Letter," required 15 separate actions, from the kicking of a football through a goal post to the arranged walk of a bird onto a perch. The complicated process ends with a window shade being pulled down to remind the user "YOU SAP, MAIL THAT LETTER."

Though he died more than 30 years ago, Goldberg remains the ultimate reference point, used to describe everything from complicated legislation to the style of the recent "Cat in the Hat" movie.

Biskin has always wanted to set Goldberg's cartoons to music. His style, a quirky brand of clarinet-driven Dixieland jazz, would have been a natural fit in the Goldberg era. Biskin had applied for grants over the years, but nobody seemed interested. But then a friend in New York, who helps program Symphony Stage, told him she would love to hear it.

That's all Biskin needed.

"I thought [Goldberg] was a kindred spirit," says Biskin. "My tunes are a little quirky, and they're episodic the way his machines are. I said, `well, this would be fun music to write,' where you have music that represents the gear turning or the water falling or the hammer hitting."

It's no surprise that Biskin's been the first to come up with this idea. He's always embraced the unexpected. He grew up in San Antonio, the son of piano teacher Bayla and tympanist Harvey. As a child, Biskin picked up the clarinet. In high school during the early '70s, he formed a polka band named "The Hungry Five."

After graduating from Yale with a degree in anthropology, Biskin worked for the late field-recording master Alan Lomax before eventually getting a job as a video editor at B Productions.

He also kept playing music, forming bands and eventually releasing his first album, "Dogmental," in 2000.

When he settled on the Goldberg music, he contacted Frank Wolfe, a friend of Goldberg's living sons, George and Tom, and the head of Rube Goldberg Inc. Eventually, Wolfe gave Biskin permission to use Goldberg's drawings. He also saw the Symphony Stage performance.

"It's very natural," says Wolfe. "If you go back to the days of silent cinemas, what did you have? Here you've got a modern musician that takes these cartoons, which were drawn 60 or 70 years ago, and puts them to music. It's as if they put a soundtrack on an animation. It fits in pretty well and carries you along with the them as well."

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com

The Andy Biskin Jazz Sextet will perform at the Institute of Contemporary Art tonight at 8. Tickets are $16 for general admission and $12 for students and seniors unless otherwise noted. Tickets are available in advance at Twisted Village, 12 Eliot St., Cambridge, 617-354-6898, or tonight at the door. For more information, call 617-266-5152.

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