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Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

previous   August 21, 2006   next

Composers are dreadfully unfunny.

Oh, they can be ironic. Irony is the heavyweight of composer humor. And there are allusions to other pieces that cause a wry recognition. Of course there's the broad burlesque of Peter Schickele's P.D.Q. Bach, and the storytelling of Anna Russell that only works because Wagner is so miserably unfunny -- right through & including Meistersinger, and Brünhilde's cheerfully perverse horse-love in Götterdämmerung.

Humor is time-sensitive, so I have no clue what might have caused a chuckle in Bach or Mozart, the one-liners in Haydn (yeah, I get the surprise already; now can we just start it later, and forget the exposition repeat?), or even Stravinsky. Xenakis? That Oresteïa is a knee-slapping rip. But heck, I don't even get the humor in Shakespeare, having sat straight-faced through every supposedly comedic line uttered in his plays. Really, I love funny stuff. But Bard Bill's gravemaker sketch grows sand crystals in my eyes.

So who was funny in nonpop? How? Composers are funny, personally funny, and that's been a privilege to watch. Charles Coleman and Gene Pritsker, who took the former Kalvos & Damian slot with Noizepunk and Das Krooner, are sidesplitting in a college locker room informed by musicology kind of way. Noah Creshevsky is the composing world's Woody Allen -- the old Woody, the funny one who used words for meaning rather than patter. Maria de Alvear will knock you out of your chair with jokes and puns, and the aching pun-meister himself is Clarence Barlow, who will slowly wiggle his puns through multiple languages. David Del Tredici is full of good-humored sexual intimation, and Barry Drogin reeks of fast-talking New York humor that only the sidewalks can understand. Matt Fields is funny in that midwestern way -- the punchline always arrives tomorrow. Howard Fredrics, ironic. Laurie Anderson, ironic (though her Dr. Miller is funny). Mary Jane Leach, ironic. Scott Johnson, painfully ironic. Daron Hagen, broad. Yvette Perez, wacky. Pamela Zero, Laurie Spiegel, both wacky. Peter Zummo, dry as toast. Michael Manion, dry as dry toast. John Trubee laughs at his own jokes recycled from high school. And Alex Shapiro -- stay well out of the way of that well-oiled verbal weedwhacker.

But that's not the music. Identifying funny music is tough. Any joke limps away when it's explained, doubly so with music. Good music seems to avoid humor. Harry Partch was funny in Delusion of the Fury in a verbal way that's become a quaint artifact. It's hard to tell how much of Ives was tongue-in-cheek, and the same goes for Satie. Robert Ashley's opera Dust is wry and clever and borders on funny, but without the words it's enchanting but smile-free music.

Remember Bernstein's humor in music riff from the Young People's Concerts? I do. And nothing made me laugh. Twirling flutes, Rameau's hen, especially not Mozart's Musical Joke. After a serious concert, that joke is funny in the way breaking wind is funny during a love scene -- though at some concerts that would be a welcome relief and occasionally indistiguishable from the rest of the music. And forget the clever grandfatherly bassoons and portly tubas and cheerful piccolos. Nothing to be found there, move along.

Okay, some music is initially funny because of expectations. James Bohn's serious player piano music is ticklish at first, Boudwijn Buckinx's thousand violin sonatas seem perversely good-humored, my own extended voice works draw guffaws. Sigh. What am I hunting for? Maybe humor just doesn't exist natively in music. Funny pop depends on words. Yet we have visual humor, physical humor, verbal humor. (Away mimes! I'll have none of you and your invisible boxes!) Other expectations are political, and political satire seems to work if it's burlesqued hard enough. Shostakovich and his Age of Gold, and even François Couperin's Les Fastes de la Grande et Ancienne Mxnxstrxdxsx. But without context, the music seems just jolly or wry.

Wacky isn't quite funny. When Yvette Perez teams with Birdbrain, the results are wacky from the unexpected moments and the wild technique. Then there's clever. David Barnes gives us some of that in his Hinges pieces. Ross Bolleter's Unfinished Business is so off the wall with its recording of an abandoned piano, but it is quickly subsumed by sadness and mystery. (That's good; multiple levels of sensibility make fine composition. But funny, no, not after the first minute or so.) Judy Dunaway's balloon music is visually funny, but the results, the acoustic-only recordings, are serious compositional business. I could plump my own two Car Horn Symphonies which, though not intended to be funny per se, can't avoid it by their very construction from real cars & motorcycles and conducting with giant cards held up while standing on a truck bed, and the hubcap riot conclusion.

Maybe music is other-animal stuff. It's said that humans are the only critters that can laugh. But I don't see our cats sidling up to the speakers in passion to Henryk Górecki or arching their backs in drama to Carson Kievman. Irony maybe, but cats do that anyway. Essentially, they twitch at intense electroacoustics and curl up through the rest. Our horses pointedly wandered to the other side of the paddock when Barry Drogin started singing his love songs to them. But the cats & horses have heard it all.

Okay, you're thinking, Dennis is just too serious. But no. My favorite publication is Funny Times; I'm probably a charter subscriber. Comedy Central was the reason I signed up for cable. I can't resist the classic comedians such as the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges and Lucille Ball; borscht-belt comics like Myron Cohen and Rodney Dangerfield; the incomparable chameleon Dave Chappelle; contemporary standups including Greg Geraldo, Rita Rudner, Aisha Tyler, and Marsha Warfield; the physical comedy of Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean, Tony Shalhoub's Monk, and Chris Tucker; Monty Python (to whom David Gunn introduced me in 1974 during their early appearance on U.S. television); recent political humor from Lewis Black and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and older stuff from Lenny Bruce and George Carlin; and even the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. Not funny? Jay Leno (except for his "Headlines" segment), Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Joan Rivers, Martin Lawrence, Billy Crystal and most of the ancients (such as Bob Hope, Steve Allen, Mickey Rooney, Henny Youngman, Will Rogers) whose humor no longer touches on my cultural milieu.

Back to the funny, the abstractly funny. There are the cartoon music comedians such as Carl Stalling, who wrote the abbreviated sound clips for more than seven hundred cartoons, but those depended on the visual. John Zorn's Cat O'Nine Tails pays homage to Stalling, but Zorn is clever funny. The avant-garde was full of confrontational humor, whether the tongue-in-cheek of Cage or the performance pieces of Nam June Paik, such as Danger Musik for Dick Higgins, whose instruction reads "Creep into the VAGINA of a living WHALE." There was the immensely good-natured Paper Piece of Benjamin Patterson which was a brilliant study in noise but almost impossible to keep a straight face during, and Henning Christiansen's Incompatibility, whose "Version A: for an excellent audience" calls for them to interrupt the performers who are reading, requiring them to begin again until the first of the several performers is finished.

On the erstwhile Kalvos & Damian, we tried to find funny with the 1996 show "Straining the Humerus" -- but we found little more than a combination of bad music and bad performances, with a few exceptions. Since then, an additional sprinkling has appeared.

Jolly music bordering on funny came from the pen and ensemble of Frank Zappa, from the Mothers' Uncle Meat through the Stravinskyesque Peaches en Regalia and the cheerfully perverse Dinah-Moe Humm. A serious composer on the periphery of the nonpop world for most of his early career, Zappa's pop- and nonpop-culture sendups took place as much in the music as the words -- so mark one up to Frank Zappa as "funny." (Phew! We got there!).

Once you've got Zappa on the mind, though, you're led directly to Nick Didkovsky and his ensemble Dr. Nerve. My first encounter with the good doctor was in 1992 in Amsterdam, about which I wrote, "One enthusiastically received group was Dr. Nerve, a New York octet whose combination of Zappaesque rhythms and attitude and conservatory exile performance skills made them a perfect example of the super-controlled, vacuous, post-noise-band sound: precise playing in highly accurate intonation, repeated sets of complex 13th-chord rhythmic and cross-rhythmic modules, a discontinuous module-solo-module-ensemble-module-break-switch (etc.) pattern, no development, and pseudo-anarchic tongue-in-cheek avant-gloss. John Trubee and his Los Angeles-based Ugly Janitors of America were doing this in 1978, with more freshness and original drive; Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, of course, had the original sound in 1968. The audience, however, was wildly appreciative; interestingly, Louis Andriessen and other composers in the new music genre attended."

Damn. What a curmudgeon I was. In fact, Dr. Nerve was funny as well as technically remarkable, and I later learned that Didkovsky had lectured but never met John Trubee, an old friend from my Delaware Valley Festival of the Avant-Garde days. As the lineage became clearer and Dr. Nerve moved on, they became sparer, more angular, and full of reference and musical amusement with marvelous recordings such as Skin and Every Screaming Ear and Binky Boy that included tunes like Egil the Skald, Unnas Rumpus, Out to Bomb Fresh Kings, and We'll Ask the Questions Around Here. So Dr. Nerve. Scratch up two for funny.

Onward to a group of gentlemen whose collective name is "N.N. und Ähnliche Elemente," and two of them also work as "Erika Jürgens." They are Jürgen Richter, Erik Mälzner, and Klaus Schneiderheinze, and their work is wry, witty, ironic and occasionally sidesplittingly funny. With or without words, the collage of extant and original sounds creates an indescribable environment of imminent comic cascade. Their CD titles alone are wacky, from Autoradio e.V. & Hearing Aid Society und Andere Melomanen through Top 12 Charts of Prenatal Music (numbered backwards) and including pieces such as Intermezzo Patetico Stringendo and Yohimbin, Rondate, Desire and Stain Sheets as well as the single tune entitled Ulrike Dommer & the Firemoon Five: Holiday Cottages - The Boys Jenja and Yannic - Scientific Reports - A Bunch of Keys - The Young Lady in a Bergmann - And Brazen Lies - Go - Round (Dizzy Turn Rhapsody). So a hand for N.N. und Ähnliche Elemente as, yes, funny.

Finally -- and really, this isn't favoritism! -- there is David Gunn. A longtime collaborator in festivals and concerts and productions and our radio show, David spent many years writing serious music he didn't want to write. And then came the epiphany: He could combine his love of wordplay and puns into a musical play and punning. Instead of the broad burlesque of P.D.Q. Bach that wears easily, Gunn's music is made up of compositionally serious work that at the same time references pieces and techniques in quodlibet fashion, by variation, and with stylistic playfulness. The titles (Billions of Brazilians, Cowbellies, Contra Diction, Faux Pastiche, Hunting Tuna -- variations on the early American tune "Huntington" -- In-a-Gadda-da-Babylon -- yup, that one -- Katmandon't, Khartoumaraca, Mass of Mercury -- a full Latin Mass -- Out of Cahoots, A Tangoed Web, Transcendental Medication, Urban Renewaltz and many more) form the iceberg tip. Below is solid musical structure. Some are viral music, such as Somewhere East of Topeka (the title tune of his CD), a quiet joke that is also an ineffably unshakable melody. The Help Me Rondo is, well, a rondo, but its joke is the starting point, not the heart of the composition. So the last real funny composer is David Gunn.

Know something really funny? Tell me!

Dennis with Richter and Malzner
Dennis (center) with Jürgen Richter and Erik Mälzner at Feedback Studios in Cologne in October 2005.

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