Tag: humor

Why Even Try?

When I made the videos above to promote Sybarite5’s new album Outliers via my new side hustle Bright Shiny Things, one of my fantasies was that someone in an office somewhere saw a video, cracked up, and then said to their office mates, “Hey, come over here and see this funny-ass video from Sybarite5.” I then, in my mind’s eye, pictured the entire office crowding around one screen to watch our videos, laughing and chanting, “We love Sybarite5!” for 5-20 minutes/hours. I know this is exactly what happened, at least on a few occasions. Please don’t tell me otherwise, as my fragile ego cannot take it.

Anyway, I sincerely hope the videos contributed to our fans’ enjoyment, as well as to the album’s #1 debut on the Billboard Traditional Classical Charts.

(Now, we know there are those who will throw their arms up and scream, or quietly mutter under their breath, that we’re cheapening this classical art music by adding humor. These are probably the same people who think we need to only wear tuxedos on stage forever. These people likely want us to be something other than what we are.)

So why do it? Why do I go to the hassle of doing this for “new music?” It’s not for the money, and it’s not for the fame. No one is #newmusicfamous or #newmusicrich.

Here are the stock answers: The work is fun, and I believe in the project. I believe in the ensemble, music, and the composers. I know this music needs to get out into the world, and I want to see that happen in any way possible. So if I need to make some videos, FINE.

But I think I can dig a little deeper. The next answer is still pretty simple—we as artists continuously need to find new ways to talk about the music and the art we are creating. And I’m not afraid to make funny videos about something that people may consider “serious” art. I’m just not.

There are many choices I make because I am afraid of the judgment of others, so now what I want to understand is why I’m not afraid to do something so I can live with less fear.

Now we get to the deep water—I have to admit to myself right now that it’s not easy for me to say that I’m not afraid of something. In our modern, social media-driven world, there is certainly at the very least a perception that there is a lot to be afraid of.   I’ve recently come to realize that there are many choices I make because I am afraid of the judgment of others, so now what I want to understand is why I’m not afraid to do something so I can live with less fear. I think that making promo videos or marketing materials has something to do with the fact that I see performing on stage and interacting with our audiences online as not being so different.

If I’m doing my job well on stage and if Sybarite5 is doing its job well, we share something with the audience. And we get something back as well. There is a relationship. There is intimacy and laughter, which are related by the way.

To truly laugh with someone—not at them or near them, but with them—requires a certain amount of intimacy. Because laughter, like any emotional expression, requires the safety to express that joy. The trust that your expression won’t be dismissed. The openness and sharing of the moment. It requires an understanding of why the moment is funny, and why the shared experience is important. —ourbodiesourselves.org

I see our social media accounts, videos, albums, printed and online materials as part of a conversation happening within the context of our on-stage relationship with the audience. And so to some degree, because we are sometimes funny on stage, we can certainly make some funny videos. It’s an authentic presentation of who we are as artists and as people.

Perhaps I’m particularly mindful of this because as I began my own career, I took a few wrong turns before I found my confidence and got going down the right road for me.

When I started my professional life in music, there was no path forward to have a career as a double bassist in chamber music. It simply didn’t exist. Most of my training was focused on getting a job in an orchestra, which I eventually did. And, while performing orchestra masterworks is something that gives me great pleasure and satisfaction, I knew very early on after getting an orchestra job that I would never have a say in the artistic production in a way that was deeply meaningful to me. So a search began. The search was within myself, and outside myself. I asked lots of questions. Is this an expansion of my education? A means to an end? Do I have already the answer? Is there an answer? I didn’t know. I just knew I needed to search. This wasn’t going to be easy, simple, or quick, and I knew it. Nevertheless I went there. I played for a lot more people and sought out new teachers. I eventually came up with musical and artistic growth as a path. I founded Sybarite5 and soon that became a vehicle for my artistic and musical growth in a more profound way than the orchestra.

Discovering this path took some time. I say to a lot of friends that I probably spent about five years scared shitless to even mention out loud that I wanted to have a career in chamber music to most of my teachers. They’d laugh out loud, right? I thought these people were orchestral gods of bass, and I think they would have seen chamber work as a total cop out to getting a “real job” in an orchestra. And, if I’m being honest with myself, which I am, those choices were being made because I was afraid of the judgment of others. This was often counterproductive to my artistic and musical growth. I’m mentioning this again now because if I had known what I know now then, just maybe I could have made my decisions a little quicker or with more ease, and it’s my hope that maybe some youngster will read this and they can skip the five-year indecisive torment plan.

It’s my hope that maybe some youngster will read this and they can skip the five-year indecisive torment plan.

Actually, it probably took me eight years to really make a decision to put the majority of my energy into a career in chamber music (and therefore not into orchestra auditions). Oddly enough, the single moment that I can say I chose chamber music was when the New York Philharmonic called me to play as a substitute and I said nope, I had to study chamber music in Aspen. I wasn’t afraid, and I was too naïve to know that they’d never call me again. But in hindsight, I made the correct, if subconscious, choice by going with the thing that fed my artistic inner self. I took a path that had more potential for growth.

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about fear and judgment, and how those two things influence the majority of the decisions I make. But there is one place that they don’t get a say, and that’s when I’m on stage performing new music. Why is that?

I guess I’ve got a week to figure it out and let you know.

Robert Dick’s The Other Flute Mocked on Network TV

Robert Dick Photo by Carla Rees Dawson

Robert Dick
Photo by Carla Rees Dawson

Composer and flutist Robert Dick, or rather his much-praised manual on extended techniques The Other Flute, made an unexpected appearance on network TV this week thanks to a Jimmy Fallon sketch. The segment was devoted to a short stack of books that Fallon suggested “you probably should avoid reading this year.”

It’s perhaps naive to expect sharp, music-based humor during late night television, but the 50 seconds Fallon devoted to talking about the book consisted exclusively of sexual innuendo and character assault related the book’s title and the author’s name. During Fallon’s final remarks on the book, he turns the author shot towards the camera and asks, “Does he look like a dick to you?” The audience cheers.

(Fallon’s comments on The Other Flute begin at 2:18.)
The responses under the YouTube posting of the segment are peppered with an uncharacteristic level of smart criticism, and now Dick himself is asking friends and colleagues to reach out to the Tonight Show and support his appearance on a future episode to play The Other Flute and “blow the minds of the national TV audience.” Those who wish to add their comments can contact the show online via the network’s website or Fallon’s Facebook page.

Meanwhile, it’s a book about modern flute technique. Can someone write Fallon some better material at least?

Unfamiliar with Robert Dick’s pioneering work? Catch up with this NewMusicBox piece or buy his book.

UPDATE: Robert Dick offers this further personal insight into the matter.

When I first saw the sketch “Do Not Read — THE OTHER FLUTE” on the Tonight Show, I was incredulous, hurt and angry. This was the same, lame, “dick humor” that I first encountered at age 5. And the jokes were way far from the best I’ve heard (or sometimes made). Then I realized that, in its own bizarre way, a unique opportunity had fallen out of the sky. Because my public persona is really funny and entertaining, I might have the chance to speak up for everyone who has been mocked for being different in some way. Can you hear me, Willy the Whale, with your three voices, shot dead on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House? (I might have gotten the whole multiphonic idea from you, pal!)

And, I might have the chance to play my music for a huge audience and to show the world just how cool creativity really is. That’s why I’m asking everyone to contact the Tonight Show through their FaceBook page or to Tweet them (#InviteRobertDick @FallonTonight) to let them know that you’d love to see me on the show and that I will rock them to the core of their being.

The outpouring of support has touched me deeply. Oft times, we creators in the non-commerial realm feel that very few are listening to our music — in the last couple of days I’ve felt, as never before, that my life and work have made a difference to very many people. I’m truly humbled and grateful.

So please keep the flood of FaceBook posts and Tweets going to Tonight. If its going to happen, it will happen fast, so please act right when you read this.

With gratitude,
Robert Dick

Laughing at Ourselves

We are a serious bunch, here in the community of composers and performers of new music. We did not arrive at our place in the world by accident. Years of study and practice, pain and suffering, fighting the good fight in the face of derision and confusion by most in the traditional music community, and ignorance among the general public has forced us to put up a united front of strength; our music is hard, our music is smart, our music is not for the faint of heart or the brief of attention span. Our styles may differ—we may call for extended techniques or groove-based looping technologies or derive our material from plainsong or hipster bands or the spectral analysis of the lowest note of a bassoon—and yet no matter what niche we find ourselves in, you can be damned sure that we are serious about it…because we are a serious bunch.

It was this über-seriousness that Los Angeles-based composer/percussionist Benjamin Phelps decided to poke fun at in a blog posting this past week entitled “How to win composing.” Coming more or less out of the blue (since Phelps seems to only post every six months or so on his personal blog), the post lays into one of the biggest and most satisfying of piñatas within our community—the composition competition—with no mercy. Outlining a step-by-step approach to (supposedly) winning composition contests, Phelps systematically skewers a handful of issues with which anyone with a smattering of experience within the world of composition competitions (either entering them, judging them, or performing the selected works) would be familiar.
Compared to mainstream attempts at finding humor in the new music community, Phelps deals less with stereotypes than with funny-but-true aspects of being a composer in today’s art vs. career world through the lens of competitions. From obnoxious titles and nested tuplets to the overuse of crotales and triangles, he calls out some of the more obvious (and no less funny) characteristics of much of today’s new works. Of course he’s generalizing, but these things do carry baggage with them; if one compares a work with simple rhythms to a score full of nested tuplets, it’s an easy knee-jerk reaction to assume that the latter is not only more complex but took more time to write and exhibits more attention to detail, thereby increasing the “seriousness” of the work and the composer, no matter the reality of the situation.

Phelps precedes these characteristics with two other items that have more to do with the judging process in competitions but could be extrapolated out to the entire new music industry. His first “step” deals with success begetting success:

The first thing (step 1) that will really help you win competitions is to have won a lot of competitions already. This is very important. Many committees don’t want to go out on a limb and decide that something is good for themselves—they feel much more comfortable selecting winners that other committees have already put their stamp of approval on. You will find that a small number of contestants tend to win the majority of competitions. This is not only because they are the best composers, but because they have a proven track record of success and so must be the best.

The tone may be tongue-in-cheek, but if one considers how composers are selected for performances, residencies, and various other opportunities, the reality (or at least the perceived reality) isn’t that far off. With so many composers to choose from, it is natural for many in the selection process to pick composers who are known—either by reputation or through personal experience—to them in some form rather than someone who is unknown and therefore riskier. Is that inherently wrong? Not necessarily, but care should be given to ensure that familiarity not be the only driving force behind such decisions, and composers should be aware of the ramifications of a reclusive, anti-social lifestyle.
His second “step” is a bit more dicey, but no less telling:

If step 1 proves problematic for you, I suggest applying to competitions where your teacher sits on the judging panel (step 2). Often the most prestigious competitions are reviewed by panels of older, respected composers who themselves have won many competitions and most likely teach at prestigious universities. This makes sense because who is better at judging hot new trends in music than old people? Study with them. Many of them will want to secure their own legacy as important composers and teachers by demonstrating that their students are very prolific competition winners, who themselves will one day make excellent competition judges. Take advantage of this.

Again, looking past the character that permeates the post, Phelps is touching one of the unspoken third rails of new music—the perceived notion that the playing field upon which awards, residencies, prizes, etc. are given is not level and that the relationship between the contestants and the judges (through either direct or indirect experience) has a strong bearing on who is chosen. The fact that these prizes and residencies can have an immense impact on future opportunities for a composer, especially at the outset of their career, makes this issue that much more delicate. No one except those on the selection panels can know what all goes into the decision process of this or that award, but it does the entire community little good when winners of awards and prizes turn out to be studying with one of the judges. It’s always perplexed me why this issue could not be avoided. We have such a rich supply of talented top-shelf composers in this country, and yet so often we do see the same names being asked to oversee these important opportunities. Food for thought…

In addition to being a serious lot, composers tend to be both competitive (as the lifeblood of our art—performances—are of a limited supply) and not a little sensitive about their own self-perceived flaws. Humor, therefore, is a rare bird for the most part—not only amongst the ranks of composers but in concert music in general (Matthew Guerrieri, Tone Deaf Comics, and “Who’s Minding the Score?” from Adaptistration.com are a few illustrated exceptions). While humor can be a devastating instrument if not used with care, the occasional parody such as Phelps’s blog post can not only entertain but generate discussion (and perhaps even change) as well.