Saturday, February 11, 2006

On not valuing humor...

"Dying is easy—comedy is hard."

I teach music theory, after a fashion. Mostly I try to get my students to think, and most of them don't like that too much. Much of my time as a theory teacher is spent explaining (at least to the extent that I myself understand them) the harmonic activities of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, along with Chopin, Schumann and my own favorite, Schubert. Our society has a comfortable distance from these characters and we've elevated them to a sort of secular sainthood, thereby stripping them of their humanity. For me, one of the predominant features of their music, particularly in Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, is its humor. My teacher Albion Gruber once said that there should be "peals of laughter in the concert hall" when we listen to their music. When's the last time you heard someone laugh out loud at a Haydn piano sonata? Or did so yourself? Only in the context of his operas do we give ourselves permission to laugh at Mozart's music, and Beethoven, who could be a sort of musical Jim Carrey at times, we don't regard as having a sense of humor at all.

More recent figures have had difficulty as well. Frank Zappa's music has never gained traction in concert culture largely due to its irreverent humor. Also, as his copyist David Ocker pointed out, symphonic patrons have some unease about works with titles like "Bogus Pomp" or "Mo 'n Herb's Vacation." Peter Schickele fences his humor off in a musical alter ego—P.D.Q. Bach. John Adams's hilarious "Grand Pianola Music" is in my view one of his finest works, and is the one most savaged by critics. (Good for J.A. for frequently conducting F.Z.'s "Bogus Pomp," too.) Poul Ruders told me that he thought Cage's finest quality as a composer was his sense of humor, but I'd bet that that's what most bothers his detractors. "Seriousness" takes precedence in our culture, and Cage sure didn't appear to be serious by any normal standards.

I recently ordered Kyle Gann's cd 'Nude Rolling Down an Escalator—Studies for Disklavier' and when it arrived found myself laughing in delight at several of the pieces. Kyle has a great musical wit and lovingly deploys it, celebrating different musical styles and lampooning them at the same time. I played a couple of examples to my theory students, particularly one piece wherein Kyle whizzes through all twelve major keys in the space of 48 measures, and in unexpected ways. Since the focus of our theory class for months has been studying techniques of modulation, I thought, "Wow, here's a great illustration of the expressive potential of modulation!" Dumb me. They sat mute, in (as far as I could tell) blank comprehension of the music. Not a smile was cracked, anywhere in the room.

Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick's recurring trope was the idea that if mankind loses its capacity for empathy, then the very notion of humanity is compromised, perhaps lost entirely. If our sense of humor passes away, are things much different?

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