Am I Getting Overexposed Yet?

My new book was mentioned today in the New Yorker, and my music in the New York Times. The latter sort of implied that my Disklavier music is “silly.” Personally I think classical music should lighten up and indulge a joke now and then, but I’m finding that when you write a humorous piece, people are just disturbed by it. I guess it’s back to solemn and portentous for me.

UPDATE: The worst experience I ever had in this respect was the only performance I’ve ever given in Germany, in Hamburg in 2007. I had somehow willfully forgotten that Germans are not particularly internationally admired for their sense of humor, and with questionable judgment I decided to regale them with my Disklavier piece Petty Larceny, completely composed of quotations from the Beethoven piano sonatas. I think of the piece as something more than a joke: it keeps every quotation in the original key, and pairs lots of early and late sonatas to show, I think, that Beethoven tended to use certain chord progressions in certain keys. But it was certainly humorously intended. (Heck, Stockhausen did a Beethoven-quote piece too, called Opus 1970.) So I played the piece, and as I looked at the audience afterward, every man jack of them wore the exact same expression, one which haunts me to this day. It was an expression you might elicit from a complete stranger you sat next to at the beginning of a transcontinental plane trip, if you introduced yourself by earnestly detailing a plan to end world hunger by eating Jewish babies: a mixture of revulsion and despair, nuanced by a transparent veneer of polite restraint. Intermission followed, and as I returned to perform Custer and Sitting Bull, I saw that fully half the audience had fled. Those who remained were mostly graduate students who had agreed to carry away the electronic equipment afterwards. It was easily the worst performing experience of my post-college life. 
But never mind that. I’ve now had my music played at BAM. In the music scene I chronicled at the Voice for 19 years, this was the highest possible honor. I have attained the Downtown Valhalla, and can die a happy man.


  1. Michael says

    This is completely unrelated to this post, but comments were disabled on
    ‘Too Soon To Celebrate’ where it probably would have fit better…
    Have you heard that Ingram Marshall and Lou Harrison are on the Shutter Island soundtrack? Nice to see some recognition of that kind of music in mainstream Hollywood.
    KG replies: Yes, I’m going to have to go see that.

  2. Tobi Tobias says

    Hello, Kyle!
    If you have a free minute, go to my AJ blog SEEING THINGS for my review of the Mark Morris Dance Group. If you’re really pressed for time, just read the last 2 sentences.

  3. says

    Congrats. Yeah, I think I know what you’re talking about — I had a phase few years ago where I was writing peices with lots of sarcasm and ironic humor…got a few laughs from a few people I knew but the vast majority of the audience just sat there and politely clapped at the end of the piece as usual. Guess the concert tradition sort of conditions you to react that way…there’s a number of composers who actually have a pretty good sense of humor but you rarely see people who’s willing to laugh above the silence of the crowd.

    Or I guess you could do what Peter Schickele has done and brand yourself as a “humorous” composer but then you get the opposite problem of getting people to take your works seriously. It’s weird how everything is all compartmentalized nowadays…you’re allowed to laugh at concerts specifically designed for humor, but otherwise, keep your mouth shut!

  4. Herb Levy says

    “Going to have to go see that” is probably something of an exaggeration, at least for the music.
    Shutter Island’s not about a cadre of new music fans going to concerts and talking about the music they’ve heard. The soundtrack uses excerpts of recently composed music to add to a spooky mood. It’s great that the composers or their estates are getting the royalties from being in top-selling film, and the soundtrack album (which (mostly) has the complete works) may get the works heard by a lot more civilians than usual, but Hollywood’s been using “weird sounding” music in thrillers & sci-fi films for a long long time.
    KG replies: Not necessarily a bad thing, either. I just played Dallapiccola’s Piccola Musica Notturna for a freshman theory class. They said it sounds like “movie music,” and I explained that in the 1930s Schoenberg lived in Hollywood and some of the film composers studied with him – thus the atonal style made its way into film. I also explained that film music tends to pick up idioms that classical music was using 20, 30 years earlier. It seemed to give them new respect for classical atonal music. And if I can now sell them Ingram and Lou because it’s music from Shutter Island, all the better. I love it when Hollywood makes my job easier.
    And I got a good laugh from the thought of it being a movie about new-music fans.

  5. says

    Okay, okay, okay – I just ordered the book. Damn effective forms of self-promotion! You one-man multinational you!
    KG replies: Ohhhhhh, no. Just because you buy the book doesn’t exempt you from future onslaughts of publicity for it. Do all of your *friends* have it yet? Does your *mother*?

  6. mclaren says

    Getting an audience of Germans to flee in disgust is a mark of honor. Now, if you can get a Juilliard professor to call you a baboon and entice the fun folks on Sequenza 21 to proclaim “I doubt you are even a composer,” you’ll have won the trifecta.
    KG replies: Touché.

  7. says

    Just a note to say: “No Such Thing As Silence” is a rare achievement, both accessible to the non-specialist and still very interesting to someone who is already very familiar with the material.
    Seriously, Kyle: it’s going to show up on a lot of Required Reading lists in the fall, and rightfully so. Bravo.
    KG replies: Thanks, Eric.

  8. Prent Rodgers says

    A very nice mention of “No Such Thing as Silence” on a popular Econ blog, Marginal Revolution here:
    He says: “There are over twenty-four recordings of this piece and skeptics can consider that an attempt at competitive rent exhaustion. Yet probably none of those have come close to David Tudor’s presentation of the work at its premiere.”
    I can’t wait to read it.

  9. Martin Walker says

    Actually, what you describe as “a mixture of revulsion and despair, nuanced by a transparent veneer of polite restraint” is just the usual expression of Hamburgers. I lived there for a while. It’s by no means typical of Germans, who like to singalong, or argue about dialectics. Here in Berlin they blow (or throw) whistles. But hey! don’t roll over Beethoven.
    I am just listening to the Transcendental Sonnets: what a great gift to us all – thank you.
    KG replies: Glad to know it. And perhaps they habitually leave at intermission? I did comment at the time that I left town as quickly as Brahms did after the premiere of his First Piano Concerto.