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Jandek
Jandek (Sterling R. Smith), a reclusive musician from Houston, Texas, performing at Anthology Film Archive on Sept. 6, 2005. (Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times)

Who is Jandek?

In recent years, the reclusive artist has surprised fans by taking the stage. That doesn't make him any less of a mystery.

H e's released 48 albums, been the subject of a documentary film, and inspired a devoted cult following but, technically, Jandek doesn't exist. The man who makes the music on Jandek's records is officially known as "a representative of Corwood Industries." Corwood Industries is a record label in Houston . If you write to Jandek in care of Corwood Industries requesting an interview, as Deerfield-based music writer Byron Coley did some years ago, you might receive a curt reply handwritten on a catalog list.

"Corwood does not do interviews."

If you write a check to Corwood Industries, it will come back endorsed by Sterling R. Smith, who is probably the wholesome-looking fellow in the blurry album cover photos, who is probably Jandek, or the representative, or . . . you get the picture. A journalist named Katy Vine once tracked that guy down and had beers in a Houston bar with him and his friends. But the man, dressed impeccably in a suit and cuff links, steered the conversation away from musi c and she didn't press him. Respect for the Jandek mystery is staggering.

And then there's the music, which is as enigmatic and elusive as the man. When Jandek began releasing albums in 1978, the songs were made of torpid plucked notes on a seemingly untuned guitar and ghostly, stream-of-consciousness moaning. In the '80s Jandek began collaborating with other musicians; whispers turned to howls, and his sound became harsh and electric. Later he released a series of impenetrable voice-only discs. To say that Jandek isn't for everyone is to diminish the staggering weirdness of his catalog.

"The idea of musicianship is totally submerged in the idea of getting across the emotion," says Coley, who's written extensively about Jandek for (now-defunct) Forced Exposure and Spin magazines. "The fact that they're homemade records done in a very anonymous way makes it more interesting. It's an archetype of loner music."

In 2004 the reclusive artist sent shockwaves through his small but ardent community of fans when he turned up in Glasgow to perform an unannounced live show. Since then he's played two dozen more and will appear tonight at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Stacie Slotnick, founder of concert production company the Critique of Pure Reason, is curator of the ICA summer music series. She's a big Jandek fan and she knows the drill. On the advice of an aquaintance who'd booked a Jandek show, Slotnick wrote a letter to Corwood Industries asking if they would be interested in having a representative play at the ICA. The response was yes, and several phone conversations with Corwood, which is how Slotnick refers to her correspondent, ensued.

"It was a very straightforward and pleasant experience," Slotnick says. "The process was very collaborative."

As will be Jandek's show at the ICA, where he'll perform with three Boston musicians he selected from a list of 20 Slotnick sent him: saxophonist Jorrit Dijkstra , trumpeter Greg Kelley , and percussionist Eli Keszler . Jandek will play bass, his recent instrument of choice. The ensemble will have one rehearsal, on the afternoon of the show. At the suggestion that seeing Jandek in the flesh is fraught with man-behind-the-curtain-caliber potential to disappoint -- that the mystique might be just as vital as the music -- Slotnick doesn't bite.

"It's going to be like seeing any performer I've only heard on record."

Coley agrees. "Since he started playing live I think it changes the equation," he says. "It begins to take away the people who view it as a freak show."

Angela Sawyer, who works at Twisted Village records in Cambridge, has seen several of Jandek's shows. One, in New York City, was "heavy, long, and glacially paced. It was such a heavy thing," Sawyer says, "almost like seeing a really good metal band. Everybody was wiped out. The next night, in Brooklyn, was much more high-energy, with a smaller ensemble. As soon as Corwood figures out there's a box people are putting it in, it changes."

Live, largely improvised recordings seem to be Jandek's new thing; since 2005 he's released four live CDs and two performance DVDs. The artist reportedly writes new lyrics for every show, which he sets on a music stand during the performance. Some shows last an hour, some three times that length. Several observers have seen him smile under the brim of his black hat. But Jandek has never spoken to or even looked at the audience.

"There's not going to be a People magazine spread where Jandek tells you his favorite sweater colors," says Sawyer. "It's not a balloon that can be popped."

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com. For more on music visit boston.com/ae/ music/blog.

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