This morning I was looking through the evaluation file of a colleague who’s up for tenure. He’s someone who uses abundant humor in his work, and one of the external evaluators, noting that humor is always risky, said something so striking that I wrote it down: “Humor in art is an audience divider; you are automatically paring your viewership to a core that shares your sense of humor and sensibility.”
Never thought of that before. I rather pride myself on some of my pieces being jokes, even if I think they’re rather deep and extended and insightful jokes, and would like to think that Ives, Satie, Haydn, and I have that in common. The pieces of mine I consider funny include several Disklavier pieces, such as Despotic Waltz, Petty Larceny, Tango da Chiesa, Nude Rolling Down an Escalator, and Bud Ran Back Out; Scenario; the second movement of Echoes of Nothing; “Uranus” from The Planets; Scene from a Marriage; The Aardvarks’ Parade; and “The Goodbye Fugue” from Implausible Sketches. I’ve never heard the ending of the first movement of Sunken City fail to produce a general chuckle. I certainly feel that I have proudly turned my back on the pervasive contemporary aesthetic that deems it necessary to be so goddamned serious and solemn and angst-ridden all the time, that sees every recent Columbia comp graduate as in immediate competition with the late works of Beethoven (which, actually, are sometimes pretty witty). I tell my students that profundity is an occasional and unpredictable side effect, not something one can reliably hit by assiduously aiming at it. Like happiness, it shows up when one isn’t looking for it.
I hope it goes without saying that I do not at all consider my funny works lightweight or lacking in depth, any more than Ives’s TSIAJ (“This scherzo is a joke”) or Haydn’s “Joke” Quartet. But I suppose I should face the fact that people who don’t share my allegedly peculiar sense of humor (which I suspect is a good 90 percent of the population) aren’t going to appreciate the music either. I am haunted to this day by the audience reaction I received in 2007 in Hamburg to Petty Larceny, which is a collage entirely composed of quotations from the Beethoven sonatas. I think the piece rather cleverly demonstrates how Beethoven tended to gravitate toward certain chord progressions in certain keys, but when it ended I looked out at the audience and saw the most uniformly distraught and horrified group of faces I’ve ever seen in my life.