Isn’t It Ironic, Don’t You Think?

I had an enjoyable conversation the other day about the challenge of writing music that’s about triviality and superficiality, but is neither trivial nor superficial. Unfortunately, the court of last resort for deciding whether a piece really is the thing it purports to address seems too often to be the composer’s biography. If I want to know whether the Diane Warren quote I just heard is an earnest tribute to the master or a merciless skewering of assembly-line songcraft, all I have to do is see if, where, and with whom the composer studied, which awards he or she has or has not received, etc., and I feel I can render my judgment with smug confidence. Obviously this is grossly unfair, but be honest: When you learn that whoever wrote the jaunty rag you just heard apprenticed under Clarence Barlow or Cornelius Cardew, you have to consider the possibility of irony a bit more seriously. Debussy broadcasts pretty clearly that his Wagner reference in “Golliwogg’s Cakewalk” is satire, but would we know that if we weren’t familiar with the ponderous prominence of Tristan und Isolde in the musical culture that socialized him?

Although I’m not dealing in Diane Warren quotes per se, the piece I’m hip-deep in right now is sort of ridiculous. But does that mean that it will be ridiculed? I have to accept that it might, and I don’t want to rely on my bio for the wink and nudge that assure listeners I don’t really mean what my music seems to be saying. So how, materially, do you make your intentions clear? I have a few ideas, but it’s impossible to know whether they’ll work. I suppose that’s why they call it experimental music.

You might also enjoy…

15 thoughts on “Isn’t It Ironic, Don’t You Think?

  1. rtanaka

    Only the composer really knows what he or she intends…largely it’s a process of being honest with yourself and seeing if what you’ve intended matches what actually happened at concert. I believe that it’s important to pay attention to audience reaction, whether it might be good, bad, or indifferent. It’s the only way to learn.

  2. tbriggs

    Colin, in my experience irony can be one of the hardest things to convey. Even people who know me very well or have known me for a long time and know a lot of things about me, biographically speaking, can’t always tell what I really mean when I say certain things or say things in a certain way. For example, it can be hard to tell if someone is being facetious when their delivery is deadpan. (Think of how hard it can be to pick up on irony in print media.) In other words, we listeners don’t only hear what you say but also how you say it. Maybe the wink and nudge aspect of the work lives in how you present your material just as much as in the material itself. I think it could be fruitful to consider how one conveys irony in conversation and apply analogous considerations to your music.

  3. philmusic

    Colin-I don’t know the quote you refer to. Was it about Bert Bacharach? As for “Irony” it seems the basis for a whole lot of recent music, especial of the post-modern type. As for me the problem with Irony is that it can be too text or editorial based, and further, sometimes is the “real thing.”

    That is- Irony can be a code word for “spin.”

    Phil Fried

  4. rtanaka

    That is- Irony can be a code word for “spin.”

    Irony is usually the act of highlighting or pointing out contradictions and self-contradictions that exist within certain contexts. It can’t really spin anything on its own, really — in fact, it has the opposite problem of getting into a recursive loop of endless criticism without being able to establish an agenda of its own.

    Irony tends to appeal to young people mostly because a lot of us have grown up observing adults contradict themselves over and over while pretending that these contradictions don’t exist. So naturally, something like the Daily Show would appeal toward that kind of demographic. it’s our form of rebellion, really.

  5. philmusic

    Ryan, it is quite posiible to present a so called “ironic” event that has no incongruity at all.

    I stand by my statement.

    By the way, my Mother who is 85, loves the Daily Show. As do all her friends.

    Phil Fried

  6. rtanaka

    Ryan, it is quite posiible to present a so called “ironic” event that has no incongruity at all.

    Can you give an example? I’m genuinely curious, because most dictionaries have incongruity as part of the definition of the word itself. It wouldn’t be ironic if something within the context wasn’t misaligned in some way.

  7. philmusic

    Ok Frank Zappa wrote a song called “Valley Girl”. Like many of Zappa’s texts it was a severe put down, in this case, of Valley Girls and their mangling of the English language.

    Oddly, it sold like hot cakes. Not only did it end up promoting a trend I think it was Zappa’s biggest selling song as well.

    The public just didn’t get it–they thought the song was a “celebration” of “Valley speak”.

    So an ironic and satirical put down song becomes a celebration of the thing it seeks to criticize.

    Hardly what Zappa intended–or did he?

    Phil Fried

  8. rtanaka

    There’s similar stories about that sort of thing happening — like when they played “Born in the USA” at Republican rallies when in fact the song was meant to be an anti-war song. A lot of the sarcasm went over people’s heads, it seems like.

    I dunno, the Zappa example seems kind of ironic to me, although we might have different conceptions of what the term is supposed to mean. If Zappa intended for the song to be consumed in such a fashion, then he was being very clever. If it wasn’t, then it would be ironic.

    I guess this discussion came full circle onto the topic’s original point about irony and intension, hah.

  9. dheila

    In my relationship with audiences I have come to a place where I no longer am concerned with whether they “get it” or not – whether they apprehend the meaning in the music. This is due to continued experiences of audiences/audience members creating their own meaning, not the one with which I was trying to imbue the music. In addition, I believe this rift is far more common than any sympatico connection between myself and the listener.

    After deciding to accept the audience’s meaning as valid I then stopped trying to achieve meaning via composition. I now believe the creation of meaning by the listener is the most vital part of their role in new music. A role I have no right to tamper with.

    I now work at presenting opportunities for meaning and struggle to achieve integrity – from my life style to my aesthetic alliances down to the choices made in the composition process. This integrity, I believe, can be comprehended by an audience and can lead to meaningful experiences as an audience member.

    So, in short, I would say don’t stress about whether folks will understand your piece as ironic or not. Some will, some won’t – I don’t think there is much an artist can do about this situation. Indeed, in my own work, I embrace it whole-heartedly.


  10. philmusic

    “..After deciding to accept the audience’s meaning as valid I then stopped trying to achieve meaning via composition…”

    Well then Daniel you would agree with Randy who has noted on more than one occasion that music has no meaning.

    It seems inconsistent that music for the listener might have a meaning but for the composer no dice. Most composers no matter what their point of view do expect their listeners to get something out of the listening experience after all.

    Yet if music has no meaning and I’m thinking about absolute music here, as visual images and written editorials do tend to lead one in a direction, the concepts of integrity, irony and struggle are irrelevant

    Phil Fried

  11. dheila

    My work definitely has meaning for me. I no longer hope or strive to transfer this specific, personal meaning to listeners. For now, I will say that in my experience music is meaning. Or, music is a meta-meaning.

    I would also argue that music carries as much baggage as visual art as far as pre-established meaning. We are all subjected to huge amounts of aural stimulus on a daily basis and each particular physical or emotional space that we are in when we process sound (absolute music, organized sound or noise) leaves its own indelible mark on our memories as well.

    My observations are not that meaning is unimportant or not present in the processes of conceiving, composing, performing or witnessing/hearing music but that my attempts to control, to imbue music with or to bring to an audience specific meaning is fruitless.
    This is because the pre-existing meaning that dwells in the audience’s memory is far more powerful than any abstract meaning that I associate with my efforts.

    I see this as a wonderful actuality. It brings me into a peer relationship with my audience as my experience is not necessarily superior to theirs. And, it allows the audience to actually complete a work via their responses.

    The work is a way for the audience to bring their reservoir of aural memory into focus along with the emotional memories the sounds trigger in a new experience specific to them but common with other audience members, performers and the composer.


  12. philmusic

    I understand your point Daniel but I also see some contradictions.

    Though it is true that all arts have baggage some of it we are not aware of. That is some of us carry certain baggage and some of it appears in advertisements in magazines we have never read. More people read text than read music, so the baggage of text is far more familiar and powerful to most folks than music is. Also studies have shown most humans are visual learners. Advantage visual.

    Seeking to be on an equal plane as your audience is interesting. For myself as a composer I merely seek a disinterested audience and I certainly don’t believe in the existence of a “monolithic” audience. There are just too many different auditors out there. How can an group of of college professors be compared to a group of 3rd graders?

    Does an “Egoless” artist actively present their work? How does one describe an artist that claims to have found a solution for a problem that threw Frank Zappa for a loop? You chose not to discuss his work-but your own -of which I am unfamiliar. Doesn’t this kind of argument just devolve into spin?

    Anyway “Egolessness” goes against the grain of today’s professional outlook.

    Well kudos for that.

    Phil Fried

  13. dheila

    This will be my last posting on this thread.

    In my previous post I would change the word “peer” to “open”. In other words, the relationship with the audience reaches across social, professional boundaries and acknowledges the valid role of the audience in the completion of a work.

    I don’t aspire to be ego-less when I work. I do try to bring into being musical situations that I wouldn’t necessarily achieve if I exerted meaning-full control. I like to be surprised by the results of my labor – whether that leaves me comfortable or uncomfortable.

    A disinterested audience, one that brings nothing of its experience, taste, biases or meaning to a listening situation, seems not only fictional but quite monolithic.

    I accept my audiences’ musical experience or lack of, and work to create a valuable experience based on previously mentioned efforts toward integrity.

    I do not know Zappa’s work very well as it has never held my interest. In my initial posting I was addressing Colin’s concern that folks wouldn’t recognize the irony in his work. I stand by my comments on the strength of the audience’s memories and associated meaning.

    As far as going against the grain of today’s professional outlook, I guess I will be sending my promo material to tomorrow.

    Thanks, it’s been fun spinning out this conversation (I didn’t even know I was arguing!). Looking forward to more.

    Now, it’s off to making saurkraut.


  14. philmusic

    “Get it” was my my phrase I think.

    “..As far as going against the grain of today’s professional outlook, I guess I will be sending my promo material to tomorrow…”

    Actually Daniel you already have.

    Phil Fried

  15. philmusic

    Twisting my words to dismiss my opinion does not have the added benefit of making your views on the “audience” correct.

    How Ironic.

    Phil Fried


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.