Peter Schickele: Humor in Music

Composer and Humorist

Frank J. Oteri: We’ve never done one of these in a kitchen before.

Peter Schickele: But a kitchen is where a lot of people spend most of their social lives. You go to a party and everyone ends up in the kitchen, so it’s a good place to do it.

Frank J. Oteri: Doing this in a kitchen brings up an interesting metaphor, because in a way a composition is a recipe. We did come here to talk about the very different ingredients you use as a composer—it’s almost schizophrenic if I may be so bold as to call it that—and how it all began, and this whole question of whether serious music can be funny. It’s sort of an oxymoron.

Peter Schickele: Uh-huh. [laughs] Well of course the term serious music is a comparatively recent one. I mean, I don’t think they used it the way we do in the 18th century. My mother once told me that I’ve been entertaining people since I was eighteen months old. I told that to one of the cellists in the P.D.Q. Bach Orchestra here in New York and she said, “What took you so long?” I’m sort of a born entertainer in that sense. Unlike many composers, I was not a child prodigy at all in term of music. I liked music when I was a kid. When I was eight years old my parents said I had to take piano lessons for one summer and if I didn’t like it I could quit. I didn’t like it and I quit. It wasn’t until I was about twelve years old that I started to fool around on a clarinet that my mother had played in college.

Now, when I was around ten years old, which was the mid ’40s, there was a very popular comedy band called Spike Jones and the City Slickers. They did take-offs on the popular songs of the day, but also on some of the most popular classics like the Nutcracker and Carmen. I became a Spike Jones freak. I spent much of my allowance money on Spike Jones records. My brother and I and our friends would sit around, particularly in the summer, lip-synching these records for each other for hours on end. Years later when I turned my own kids on to the records, I found I could still lip-synch them syllable for syllable.

During my early teenage years my brother and I put together a band that consisted of two clarinets, violin, and tom tom called Jerky Jim and his Balmy Brothers—I think you can see whom we were imitating there. So I sort of backed into music through the theatrical or comedic side of it. What happened was I started making arrangements for this dorky little band for our funny stage show—I’m sort of glad that there aren’t any movies of that because it was probably much less funny than I thought it was at the time—but I also started arranging folk songs for the group that were perfectly straightforward. I was literally learning how to put notes on paper and everything. Looking back on it, that’s a pattern that has remained true my whole life: just doing humorous stuff and serious stuff side by side. By the end of my freshmen year in college—I went to Swarthmore before I went to Juilliard—I knew that composing was what I wanted to do. So that schizophrenia that you referred to was sort of built in from the beginning.

Frank J. Oteri: The description of you in the Grove dictionary—the end all be all source for music history—refers to you as: American composer, arranger, and humorist. Is that accurate and fair?

Peter Schickele: That seems fair to me. I don’t do much arranging now, but particularly in the late ’60s I arranged for Joan Baez and Buffy Sainte-Marie. I arranged some of the music for Fantasia 2000, a Disney thing. The composing of course for me is on two sides, but they’re not as separate for me as they are for a lot of people. I have sketchbooks that are sort of my musical diary in a way. I think there are forty of them now, going back to 1960. Sometimes it will be just a chord or two measures on a page, sometimes it will be a whole movement that I wrote on the road. Once in a while there is a sketch that goes into one of those sketchbooks that I’m not sure is going to be a Peter Schickele piece or a P.D.Q. Bach discovery. I feel like they’ve influenced each other. But obviously anyone who has seen—even heard the albums—but certainly seen the live performances of P.D.Q. Bach knows there is a lot of spoken and visual humor in addition to the musical humor. So, that seems like a good description to me.

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