Christine Lavin's "Sesquipedalians" from her new album Spaghettification
In astrophysics, spaghettification—which is sometimes referred to as "the noodle effect"—is the theoretical stretching of an object as it encounters extreme differences in gravitational forces.
In music, it’s the title of contemporary folk queen Christine Lavin’s just released 23rd solo album, which features the voice of famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who also turns up in the lyrics.
“For the uninitiated, spaghettification is what happens when you get too close to a black hole in space,” says Lavin. “The extreme gravity immediately pulls a human body into infinitesimally thin ribbon-like strips of atoms—the noodle effect.”
Lavin, whose 2009 album Cold Pizza for Breakfast is also the title of her memoir, came upon spaghettification when she was doing the research for the album’s second track, “College Fight Song for Sesquipedalians.” The song contains 58 words that most people will need to look up to understand, also including pantagruelian (ironical buffoonery), illywacker (a small-time confidence trickster), argle-bargle (copious but meaningless talk), capernoited (muddleheaded, peevish), brontide (muffled sound like distant thunder thought to be caused by feeble earth tremors), and fankle (confusion)—all of which appear in the first verse.
“I had to look them up while writing it, so don’t feel stupid if you have to,” says Lavin, who adds, “It’s no secret that we are living in politically ‘dumbed-down’ times, and do you know who are most discriminated against during days like these? Sesquipedalians! Yes, people who use big words unnecessarily--so I knew I had to write them a fight song to bolster their eroding confidence in the face of such blatant 21st century anti-elitism.”
It was while poring through the dictionary that Lavin discovered “spaghettification,” and in trying to decipher its meaning stumbled upon a video of Tyson describing what exactly spaghettification is.
Besides his mention in “College Fight Song for Sesquipedalians,” Tyson is heard introducing Spaghettification’s live version of Lavin’s performance of her song “Planet X,” which she sang in 2015 at one of his Astronomers & Comedians shows at New York’s Beacon Theater. The lyrics to the song, from her 1997 album Shining My Flashlight on the Moon, concern the trials and tribulations of Pluto’s planetary status, and were included in Tyson’s 2009 book The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet.
Lavin’s interest in space, incidentally, is further represented by her song “If We Had No Moon” from her 2001 album The Subway Series, which was also included in To Touch the Stars: A Musical Celebration of Space Exploration, issued by the Mars Society in conjunction with the National Space Society. Additionally, she plays a prized acoustic guitar custom-made for her by world-renowned Canadian luthier Grit Laskin and featuring a solar system inlay--and a Pioneer spacecraft emblazoned with a figure of Lavin in performance.
Meanwhile, Tyson also appears in the video Lavin created for “College Fight Song for Sesquipedialians,” along with such other luminaries as Christine Ebersole, Julie Gold, Noel Paul Stookey, Tom Paxton, Tom Chapin, Suzzy Roche, David Amram, Holly Near and Karen Mason. The video consists of Lavin’s beautiful indoor and outdoor photographs (including the Empire State Building from Julie Gold’s terrace, and “a house in Santa Monica I would like to live in”).
“The video is two-fold,” explains Lavin. “I snapped all the pictures on the road, so it’s a travelogue of trips crisscrossing America while teaching the viewer the 58 new big words to add to their vocabularies. As a bonus, there's a special appearance by noted jazz violinist Aaron Weinstein in the music under the credits.”
The clip concludes with the wish “May none of us ever know what it feels like to experience floccinaucinihilipilification,” or, the act or habit of describing or regarding something as unimportant. Lavin says that the Facebook version tallied 159 views in less than an hour.
“I’m hoping the song will turn into a singalong of epic proportions,” she says. “I’m going to challenge my Facebook friends: If they can memorize it, they’ll get into my concert for free—if they also agree to come onstage and sing it with me. I’m just not sure if I should allow them to read the lyrics!”
Produced by Brian Bauers, Spaghettification also has songs about ugly babies, getting dissed by a party invitation, peanut butter soup, funeral planning, guns, sinkholes, the Empire State Building, and having dinner in the 1980s with “one of the most reviled humans on earth” (Roy Cohn). Top New York musicians joining Lavin are violinist Weinstein, accordionist Robbie Kondor, harmony vocalist Emily Bindiger, bassist Steve Doyle and drummer Daniel Glass.
Lavin recently held a “pop-up” CD release event at Birdland during the club’s Monday night Jim Caruso's Cast Party—and gave everybody in the audience a free CD. And the indefatigable singer-songwriter is already hard at work on album No. 24. It’s working title, she volunteers, is “Preantipenultimate.”