Peter Schickele: Humor in Music

How to Make Music Funny Frank J. Oteri: A lot of the P.D.Q. Bach stuff that is funny is extramusical—the titles, the stage antics—but there are also things that are sonically funny. So what makes something funny as sound? What makes something funny that’s exclusively musical? Peter Schickele: I think that’s a very interesting question… Read more »

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.

How to Make Music Funny

Frank J. Oteri: A lot of the P.D.Q. Bach stuff that is funny is extramusical—the titles, the stage antics—but there are also things that are sonically funny. So what makes something funny as sound? What makes something funny that’s exclusively musical?

Peter Schickele: I think that’s a very interesting question because at any given time I think there are very few musical humorists if you discount funny words. Even Victor Borge, whom I loved, a lot of his shtick was his not getting around to playing the piano. He’d start to play and then he’d think of something more to say. With Stan Freberg, much if not most of the humor was the words. It’s tricky and it had a lot to do with context. One of my favorite P.D.Q. Bach pieces is the Cantata “Blaues Gras”, the “Blue Grass Cantata.” Part of the fun in that is the incongruity of the banjo with a Baroque orchestra, and yet the banjo is actually quite close to a Japanese instrument like the koto; it’s not inherently funny in the sense that the planets go around the sun.

Frank J. Oteri: And the banjo sounds somewhat similar to a harpsichord.

Peter Schickele: That’s right. A lot of it has to do with context. I have an old album, for instance, of old Japanese court music—very austere music, some of the most serious music ever written—but many Westerners when they hear that for the first time are going to laugh. [sings and imitates Gagaku] It sounds funny out of context if you don’t know the background.

To answer your question systematically, one category is funny sounds, which we may think of sometimes as being inherently funny but it is culturally biased. For instance there’s a P.D.Q. Bach instrument called the tromboon, which has a bassoon reed inserted into a trombone instead of the mouthpiece and you get a sound sort of like a sick cow in the upper register and a squadron of planes going over in the lower. It really sounds funny in a classical context, but, for instance, we all know there’s jazz where they get really growly sounds not meaning to be particularly funny, just meaning to be very down and dirty. Another area of funny sounds is things you don’t even associate with music like pistol shots. Spike Jones always had a pistol player in the orchestra and he also played on tuned coffee cans—they were actually cowbells. Another sound he used was breaking glass, for instance, to illustrate a word or something like that. So those are sounds we don’t even think of as even having to do with music. Then another one, as you mentioned, is funny words. We’ll leave that because there’s less to say about titles and lyrics. Then the other one is the humor of how the music behaves. Here again that’s very culturally oriented. Many P.D.Q. Bach pieces, particularly the earlier discoveries, tended to start off being somewhat normal for awhile to sort of establish the norm before weird things start happening. There are several categories of weird things I guess. One is if all of a sudden some jazz lick comes in or some rock ‘n’ roll thing.

Frank J. Oteri: Something unexpected.

Peter Schickele: Right. Those particular notes wouldn’t necessarily be funny in a jazz context or in a roll ‘n’ roll context, but they are coming after a Mozartian phrase. Then another one that you often find in P.D.Q. Bach is just taking certain compositional tendencies to an extreme. In other words, if the scale goes up, then have it go right down in a similar, not to say simple-minded sort of way. One of the things that my conductor and composer friends and I sitting around the cafeteria table at Juilliard used to do is think of great themes by great composers and just change them slightly as if they had been written by second-rate composers. [sings a square/quantized version of a Beethoven melody]. Instead of [sings the same melody correctly] which is what Beethoven did. That’s very cultural, too.

Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, [sings the beginning phrase] you can say that’s sort of simple-minded—that’s the exact same rhythm and then it’s sort of backwards. So here again it’s sometimes borderline. Mozart is one of the few great composers to have written a whole work called A Musical Joke. Some of the stuff is sort of broad—for instance, everybody ends in a different key—it’s a terribly dissonant chord. Now, I studied with Vincent Persichetti at Juilliard and he used to say, “That’s a good chord. What’s wrong with that chord? I don’t see what’s so funny about that chord.” He knew of the incongruity, of course, but his point was it’s not inherently funny. It’s only funny following ordinary Mozart.

There’s another place in the Mozart piece where the violinist has a cadenza, and he goes way up and gets completely lost. It just meanders around. And finally he just plucks an open string to reestablish where he is. There are a couple of places in the horns where they have obviously wrong notes written in. The reason I bring this piece up is if you’re not into classical music, you wouldn’t necessarily find it particularly funny, because if you don’t know the norm this won’t seem that strange.

Frank J. Oteri: Well, with all of this stuff, with the funny context in particular, in classical music, serious music, whatever we want to call it, this term is about music that we assume lives on and gets played again, and again, and again. A joke is sometimes only funny the first time you hear it. The “Surprise” Symphony isn’t a surprise once we know when the surprise comes.

Peter Schickele: Yeah, but on the other hand there are plenty of comedians who have made albums that people listen to again and again, you know. Actually I think a sign of good humor, in certain areas anyway, is that you do enjoy it more than once. A Henny Youngman thing where you’re literally just saying one-liners—A guy goes into a psychiatrist and says, “Doctor, nobody will listen to me,” and the doctor says, “Next!”—a joke like that, there’s not going to be much there the second time. I think that if you watch a TV show that you like, like Seinfeld or something, it’s not just literally the gags but it’s the acting and the timing that people enjoy more than once. To me, the secret ingredient in P.D.Q. Bach is that ideally the music should be fun to listen to more than once, even though you know a gag—a funny note in the trumpets or a place where it goes wha-wha-wha.
Even though you know that’s coming, the music itself is fun to listen to.

Frank J. Oteri: You’re saying that music should be fun to listen to. You were at Juilliard at a very heady time, the early ’60s. Now, you were teaching there at some point. Things have changed a great deal there now, but you were there roughly at the same time that Steve Reich and Philip Glass were there…

Peter Schickele: Yes. It was actually the late ’50s that I was there as a student. Phil was a good friend. We were there together. Steve was a little bit later. I taught there in the early ’60s. But the thing about Steve and Phil is, they weren’t Philip Glass and Steve Reich yet. Philip was writing in a style that had nothing to do with the style he developed later.

One of the things I liked about Juilliard is that there was not a school style. There were some conservatories where there was one composer who was sort of ascendant and he was likely to have acolyte students. Juilliard was not like that. There were a lot of different styles. Nevertheless, a lot of music being done then was what you might call university avant-garde. Although beautiful music has been written using the 12-tone system, it was never my personality. I quit teaching at Juilliard in 1965 for several reasons. I had just done the first public P.D.Q. Bach concert and wanted to be free to take it on the road, but also I just wasn’t comfortable in academic surroundings then. I also liked the idea of not just doing concert music. The later half of the ’60s is when I did all that arranging for folk singers. I did four feature films and some shorter ones. I loved doing that—that whole thing that bothers some people about having to write something that’s exactly ten and a half seconds long; I love those constrictions. I wanted to get out of the academic situation and I’ve never regretted that because my own musical personality is very lyrical, open, and accessible… It’s interesting. It’s not that I or a lot of other composers sit down saying, “I want to write music that people will like.” I’m writing music that I like. I have a rather open personality and I don’t work well in the constraints of the mathematically-, or at least arithmetically-oriented, 12-tone system. </p