Ha Ha, or Perhaps Not

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.


  1. BillB says

    And I have always thought that “Petty Larceny” was more than just clever, it is one of the most brilliantly crafted and concentrated (given the parameters of the sources which are both very limited and completely inclusive) quodlibets I have ever heard. Alas, am I now to be ashamed that I listen repeatedly to your humorous or light pieces and always smile when they get used as end-of-the-hours filler on WQXR?

    KG replies: Thanks, Bill. As you’re not one of the “serious” composers, I think you can withstand the taint.

  2. mclaren says

    Sorry, but the claim ““Humor in art is an audience divider; you are automatically paring your viewership to a core that shares your sense of humor and sensibility” epitomizes the vacuity of AmeriKKKan musiKKKal academia. The plain fact of the matter remains that any quality in art (or music) acts as a potent audience divider; no matter what quality you choose to emphasize in your art or music, you are always automatically paring your viewership to “a core that shares your…sensibility.”

    Compose intensely acoustically rough music without recognizable melodies, sans functional harmonies, lacking an underlying rhythmic pulse, and devoid of audible musical organization? You automatically pare your audience down to “a core that shares your…sensibility.”

    Compose music dominated by acoustically smooth intervals with recognizable melodies and functional harmonies and an underlying rhythmic pulse and exhibit audible musical organization? Once again you automatically pare your audience down to “a core that shares you…sensibility” — as your previous article “Zombies are Composers Too” points out. Sizable audiences exist that hate music dominated by acoustically smooth intervals with recognizable melodies and functional harmonies and underlying rhythmic pulse and audible musical organization. That kind of music gets excoriated in certain quarters as “wornout” and “lazy” and “infantile” and “trivial” and “boring” and “a relic of the dead past” and [fill in the blank with epithet of your choice].

    Compose stylistically heterogeneous music with alternating acoustical rough sections sans recognizable melodies, harmonies, underlying rhythmic pulse or audible musical organization, and acoustically smooth intervals with disernible melodies and harmonies and rhythmic pulse and overall audible musical organization? Yet again you automatically pare your audience down “a core that shares your…sensibility” because some audiences cannot stand stylistic heterogeneity and demand a stylistic monoculture in their music, viewing abrupt and drastic changes of style within the same composition (or even within the oeuvre of the same composer) as alleged evidence of “confusion” and “immaturity” of the composer.

    Your yakademic colleague who made that fatuous comment evidently hasn’t yet realized what Leonard B. Meyer recognized back in 1967 in his book Music, the Arts and Ideas: namely, that we now live in

    “…a period not characterized by the linear cumulative development of a single fundamental style, but by the coexistence of a multiplicity of quite different styles in a fluctuating and dynamic steady-state.” [Meyer, L.B., Music, the Arts and Ideas, 1967, op. cit.]

    Music after modernism did not narrow down to a single “universal style” which represented the end of musical history (as falsely predicted by the modernists). Instead, music after modernism has exploded into an ever-expanding universe of mutually coexistent yet radically different styles and sensibilities. Like galaxies flying apart after the Big Bang, current music now occupies many different incompatible island universes. And most of ’em can’t even communicate with one another because they use entirely different critical languages and incommensurable value systems. Values like “authenticity” or “new modes of listening” considered essential and plenipotent in one musical island universe have zero or negative value in other musical island universes. Indeed, the ceaseless quest for novelty in new music gets slammed by Jean-Jacques Nattiez as “neopathy,” the pathological and destructive quest for shock value to the exclusion of musical excellence:

    “As long ago as 1954 Harnoncourt saw an interest in early music as being a `symptom of the loss of a truly living contemporary music’ (1988: 14-15). Along the same line of thought, could one not suggest that `authenticism,’ bringing to music lovers of the 1980s the novel sonorities of period instruments rather than a would-be faithful restitution of the past, was responding to a `neopathy’ which also explains the late-sixties infatuation with contemporary music?” [Nattiez, J.J., Le Combat de Chronos Et D’Orphée, pg. 138,1993; English trans. 2004]

    And Nattiez’s attitude is no outlier. Rather, Nattiez represents a sizable contingent of contemporary composers and critics. Meanwhile, the neopathic post-competent Devil’s Brigade of contemporary composers and their gebrauchmusik opponents both get marginalized and treated with disdain by the audiences for pop music and jazz, as this remarkable “google timeline of contemporary music” displays so perfectly.

    Classical and serious contemporary music music do not, of course, exist, according to this timeline. Essentially all the music I regularly listen to cannot be found anywhere on this graphic.

    So the notion that avoiding humor in music will somehow magically avoid splintering your audience down to a tiny fraction of available listeners represents an ignis fatuus. All audiences for contemporary musics (plural: there is no singular) represent a tiny fraction of available listeners. “Market segmentation” looms as the fundamental reality of the 21st century. It remains as true of lowest-common-denominator mass media like TV shows as for niche-audience forms like contemporary music. The days when Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz commanded a stupefying 50% share of all TV sets in America have departed as long ago as the days when Leonard Bernstein broadcast a weekly Saturday morning TV show presenting classical music on the NBC network to an audience of young people.

    What’s wrong with humor in music? Worked for Zappa. Worked for Zoltan Kodaly in his Háry János Suite. Worked for Erik Satie with his wacky performance instructions and “Three pieces in the shape of a pear” and “Truly flabby preludes for a dog.”

    Pay no attention to the naysayers, Kyle. Compose more funny pieces.

  3. says

    It’s good to see an academic evaluator concerned about the audience. I’m not sure that making one’s work humorless is the best outreach, though. And “viewership”? Does your colleague have a TV show?