Photo by Ryan Suzuki
Why is it that humor seems to be absent in the contemporary arts, including music? Art can be political, if not politically correct. It can wax philosophic. Art is used to make social commentary and advocate for social change. It is often self-important, if not self-inflated, whether introspective or bombastic. Art is, of course, a serious endeavor and its seriousness has been taken to the Nth degree, full of Weltschmerz and enough angst to choke a horse. Art may be about truth and beauty, grandeur and dreams, joy and ecstasy, but for some reason, we are less likely, even unlikely to accept or attempt humor in music. Solemnity, reverence, transcendence are commonplace in the arts, yet humor is often considered beneath the composer if not beneath contempt.
It has not always been so. Indeed, the literary arts often embrace humor. Where would Shakespeare be without his comedies? Of course, comic operas are a very important part of Mozart‘s oeuvre. There are other examples such as Mozart’s A Musical Joke or Haydn‘s “Surprise” Symphony and the Opus 33, Gli Scherzi string quartets.
Humor need not be of the knee slapping or gut-busting variety. A bit of levity can go a long way. The comical elements in the surrealist films of Luis Buñuel such as The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty are obvious to all who see them, but I doubt that any would call them comedies.
Of all the composers of the 20th century, no one is more associated with humor than Erik Satie. From funny and absurd titles such as Dessicated Embryos to Truly Flabby Preludes, or the inscrutable and bizarre instructions for performers, such as “grow pale in the crux of your stomach,” to the seemingly mindless repetition of banal music hall style motifs in his musique d’ameublement (a.k.a. furniture music), it’s outright funny (though it is meant to be both more and different). I know, as every time I play it for my students, they laugh.
It seems that Satie has been marginalized partly owing to his use of humor. One gets the sense that Satie appears in music history texts much to the chagrin of historical musicologists. They feel forced to include him, by dint of tradition alone; everyone else does it so they must, albeit with furrowed brow and a lack of understanding. They wonder why he is included when his music is so simple and full of absurd titles and instructions. Can anyone really take seriously a composer who says the music should sound “like a nightingale with a toothache,” or who instructs the performer “to be visible for a moment”? But more on that in a later column…
Of course, humor is not altogether absent in contemporary music. The humorous potential and the likelihood of humor being read into 4′ 33″ could not possibly have escaped Cage when he composed it and subsequently programmed it into a concert. Clearly not intended as a joke or a comical piece, whatever element of humor one might find in 4′ 33″, it is coupled with Cage’s most profound ideas about the power and meaning of music.
Fluxus, the neo-Dadaist movement of the 1960s, was built around irreverence and humor. Compositions where the keys of a piano were nailed down, a guitar kicked through the streets of Manhattan until it completely disintegrated, or a bale of hay was fed to a piano were laugh-out-loud funny and downright silly. That being said, like Satie, Fluxus remains overlooked, misunderstood, and marginalized by art and music historians and critics, even though it anticipates Conceptual art, and Minimal art and music, and gave us the likes of La Monte Young, Nam June Paik, Yoko Ono, Philip Corner, Dick Higgins, Jackson Mac Low, Henry Flynt, George Maciunas, George Brecht, and a host of others. No doubt, part of the reason Fluxus remains on the fringe in the minds of historians and scholars is its love of the joke and its perennial silliness.
Absolutely hilarious was the music performed by the Portsmouth Sinfonia. While they did not play contemporary music, their aim was squarely in the experimentalist camp. The orchestra was comprised of musicians, artists, students, and other non-musicians—and a rather heady group it was. Members included Gavin Bryars, Michael Nyman, Brian Eno, Christopher Hobbs, Michael Parsons, Steve Beresford, and others. The members of the ensemble chose instruments that they did not play or have training in. However, some chose instruments of the same family of that which they were schooled in. For example, Bryars, a double bass player, chose the cello. On the other hand, Eno played the clarinet, an instrument with which he had no experience. Playing popular classics such as the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or Rossini‘s William Tell Overture, the idea was for each member to play the music to the best of her or his ability and see what would happen. The music, captured on three albums, is recognizable but laden with mistakes. Eno recounts that the results were both musical and hysterical because of the commitment to the performance coupled with the lack of technique and experience. When members intentionally tried to be funny and make mistakes, they were invariably found out and subsequently thrown out of the orchestra. The most musical and hilarious moments derived from the orchestra’s best efforts. Take a listen to their rendering/de-construction of the first movement of Tchaikovsky‘s Piano Concerto No. 1 on the album Hallelujah recorded live at Royal Albert Hall and you will see what Eno means. Risk, danger, and experimentation in music may yield risky, dangerous, and experimental sounds, but it may also result in hilarity. Cannot both be viable in music?
There are many, many examples of humor and lightheartedness in contemporary music. Charles Amirkhanian‘s text-sound composition “Just,” with its incessant repetition of commonplace, yet somehow amusing words: rainbow, chug, bandit, and bomb, especially in their juxtapositions, tends to raise a smile. The humor is intensified by a related composition, “Heavy Aspirations,” in which Amirkhanian fragments, loops, and layers the voice of Nicholas Slonimsky (a joy to hear in and of itself) as he describes “Just.” Anyone who listens to Phillip Kent Bimstein‘s The Louie Louie Variations for mandolin quartet and especially Garland Hirschi’s Cows, which samples, loops, and layers fragments of speech by farmer Hirschi talking about his cows coupled with a synthesized accompaniment and samples of the cows mooing tunefully, and doesn’t crack a smile is in serious need of some therapy. Anna Homler‘s quirky invented languages in her lovely but oddball songs and her table full of toys, gizmos, and noisemakers are a joy.
These represent but a handful of works and composers who use humor in their work. Still, there can be no denying that humor is seldom found in contemporary music. With so much to say through music and so many possibilities in the multitude of musical styles and languages, should we not make a little more room for humor in music? It could be a tonic for the soul.