Chamber Music Northwest review: Comedy in Context

Peter Schickele and Igudesman & Joo's classical music comedy get summer festival all joked up.


At a certain moment in a famous comedy sketch by musical humorist PDQ Bach’s 1712 Overture, the tune “Yankee Doodle” suddenly appears, and the audience laughs almost every time, as they did in Portland last month when the fictional PDQ’s alter ego and creator Peter Schickele played a recording of that musical spoof on Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture during his presentation on humor in music at Chamber Music Northwest on July 19. Then Schickele played the famous opening chord progression of Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde, which sends chills down the opera connoisseur’s spine — but Schickele put the tune into a totally incongruous tango. Again, much of the audience giggled, but not as many this time. Nor did my 15 year-old son Joshua, who doesn’t know the tragic and depressing plot exploited by Wagner and parodied by PDQ Bach. Upon hearing this and other musical quotes given by Schickele, Josh told me “I knew these were funny, but I didn’t know the music so I didn’t totally get it.”

Peter Schickele (l) watches from his throne as Chamber Music Northwest musicians perform at his 80th birthday concert at Portland's Gerding Theatre.

Peter Schickele (l) watches from his throne as Chamber Music Northwest musicians perform at his 80th birthday concert at Portland’s Gerding Theatre.

Context, context context is the mantra of musical humor, said Peter Schickele in his CMNW lecture on musical humor. Schickele recounted a story of performing a mashup including Stephen Foster songs in London and no one laughing, because the English audience didn’t know this quintessentially American music and therefore didn’t get the jokes.  Similarly, the Tristan joke fell flat for Josh because he didn’t have the context to understand why it was funny. Both Schickele’s own performances in his PDQ Bach guise, and the July 20 CMNW concert featuring A Little Nightmare Music by the classical music comedy team of Igudesman & Joo, showed how performers’ ability to match joke to context ultimately determines how funny their shows will be — or won’t. I had a great time at both events, yet even so, I saw the professionals struggling with something that’s of high concern in my own show: How to relate to a new and wider audience who may need us to provide a different kind of context, or different kinds of humor that fit their own context, which may be different from that of classical music insiders.

In his talk at Portland State University’s Lincoln Recital Hall, Schickele first drew a distinction between our planned performance of humor, humor written in pieces by the original composer and unintentionally funny musical mistakes. For example, the bassoon solo in Beethoven’s 8th symphony may seem funny to some, but quite serious to Peter Schickele, an old bassoonist himself. “Why is that funny?” he asked. “Just because it was a bassoon?” Instead, Schickele says
humor is purposeful jokes done with the music contingent on the audience and context.

Kooky Quotations

Schickele then listed four categories for humor in music. The first, kooky musical quotations, is the toughest area and depends completely on the audience, which is why most of the CMNW listeners laughed at PDQ Bach’s Wagner parody, but Josh didn’t. He was too young to get the joke. Even more experienced listeners might miss clever musical in jokes. In fact, Debussy parodically quoted this chord progression in “Golliwogg’s Cakewalk and I, a pianist and teacher, didn’t put that together even after working weekly with a student on this piece for six months. Wagner is first quoted at the anacrusis to measure 62 or at 1:10 on the recording. In my opinion, there is something sinister about putting tragedy into children’s repertoire. Fortunately, Claude didn’t consult me on this one. Schickele put this same Tristan and Isolde progression into a tango, but because Josh didn’t know the original, the whole skit was lost on him. “Young people don’t get it because they don’t understand the context,” Joshua explained.

- Peter Schickele lectured on "What's so Funny About Music?" in Lincoln Recital Hall. Photo: Jonathan Lange.

– Peter Schickele lectured on “What’s so Funny About Music?” in Lincoln Recital Hall.
Photo: Jonathan Lange.

Yet with a little set up, even the youngest audience member can feel the absurd contrast between the heartbreaking, tragic opera chords combined with the sultry, sexy dance rhythm. Dramatic facial expressions, some over-acting sobs and posture change with dance like movement can easily sell this combination. To bring this up to date, perhaps we could add a twist here of a spoof on Miley Cyrus’s twerking in place of tango gesture.

Another example of quotation was Igudesman & Joo’s fusion of the serious and breathtaking second movement of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, which deteriorates into Joo’s hilarious sobbing vocal of Eric Carmen’s self-pitying 1975 hit “All By Myself.” Even if young people don’t know the dated Carmen tune,  which borrowed Rachmaninov’s melody, Joo’s exaggerated crying compels the audience to laughter. Then, Igudesman takes us over the edge as he is emotionally overtaken by his counterpart’s depression and loses composure himself. That’s funny for all of us.

Silly Sounds

I & J have mastered Schickele’s second category of humor in music, silly sounds, with Igudesman’s snoring violin and Joo’s karate-style piano playing. Even a two year old can perceive a bassoon breaking wind or a violin making cat calls.  Joo quotes the famous Twilight Zone TV series theme on the piano strings to introduce the alien violinist. The appropriately dressed alien plays sadistic screeching sounds until Joo introduces and instructs the alien to quote the theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The same hilarity appeared in PDQ Bach’s Pervertimento, which combined some unusual instruments: an old fashioned siren from a bike wheel, a bike handlebar to create a horn and a bagpipe without the drone. Schickele played a recording of this piece and Josh didn’t need to see the bagpipe player or the siren to find the sound of the music outrageous and worthy of convulsive laughter.

Schickele said he discovered another function of funny sounds, sound effects that speak to the literal meaning of parody lyrics, from Spike Jones on records at the music store in the ‘50s. On one Spike example, “You Only Hurt the Ones You Love,” the phrase ”you always break” uses a sound effect crunch at 2:20 in the clip. In Nightmare Music, Igudesman uses improvised bird calls on the violin as Joo sings the “especially for Portland” tune about his favorite cow, Bessie. Unfortunately, this song went on too long and should be put out to pasture. Joo’s puns on moo-sic were funny and Igudesman’s coweography was moo-ving, but the song itself was not. Perhaps the jet lag that Igudesman referenced from their preceding Seattle gig was the culprit. Either way, we herd enough of Bessie.

Juxtaposition and Wrong Notes

Schickele’s third category involves two related tactics. First, juxtaposition, combining two types of music or two songs that don’t fit, as in recordings Schickele played during his lecture including the Wagner tango, the marriage of Richard Strauss’s orchestral music to a country western tune or the example of yodeling to the William Tell Overture. Creative, but doesn’t get my ticket sale. But another example, I & J’s delightful and amusing skit Mozart Bond, is effective even if you don’t know the main theme of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G Minor or haven’t watched any James Bond movies. The pieces fuse by staying in the same key, but the collision of obviously opposing styles makes the skit funny. I & J highlight it further by including the audience in a vote with vigorous applause for our preference by cheering for either Mozart or Bond. This quick and involving set-up makes this work. Both sides won when the pair performed their fusion.

Igudesman and Joo accomplish juxtaposition again by changing modes in Mozart’s Rondo alla Turka. Even if you don’t know this A minor tune concluding Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11 K 331, we all get the gist of the piece when it is introduced in their dialogue. The duo begins as Mozart composed it, in the key of a minor, and Joo decides that we in Portland look happy and need a cheery rendition. But after they switch to a major key, drawing giggles from the audience, Joo is still not satisfied, because the music needs the feel of “Oriental, Turkish, Arabic, Jewish [or is that Joo-ish?], Chinese, Asian, you know Yin Yang….*&%#!!!…..Ping Pong.” Joo then shows Igudesman how to feel his B’s lower with gesture toward his crotch (slapstick) and he plays Bb instead. Now we have the Hebrew scale and the music moves through the Horah, traditionally danced at Jewish weddings.

To illustrate he second example in this section of Shickele’s talk, wrong notes, he cited Wolfgang Mozart’s A Musical Joke, which uses asymmetrical phrasing, not phrasing by groups of four but five measures at the beginning of the first movement; secondary dominants where subdominant chords are required; discords in the horns to depict amateur musicians’ inability to perform well (first exposed at 5:40 on recording); whole tone scales in the violin’s high register at 16:27; a silly attempt at a fugato in the final Presto movement at 17:30; and a polytonal ending in the final three chords. Here, the horns alone conclude in the tonic key of F Major while the lower strings behave as if the tonic is B-flat, and the violins and violas switch to G major, A major and E-flat major, respectively. These few musical jokes are spread out within 21 minutes of music — way too much time and set up required to pull this off in a skit for youngsters today. Schickele did say that musical comedy can take considerable set up time. Here is a classic example.

Peter Schickele at Chamber Music Northwest

Peter Schickele at Chamber Music Northwest

Next, Schickele cited the infamous soprano Florence Foster Jenkins, who sold out concerts in New York (and soon movie theaters, with Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant) “not for the reason she thought,” but for audience entertainment. She earned fame through the unintentional hilarity resulting from how close she couldn’t come to the notes written in the score. Joo incorporated the wrong-note technique in his skit that features a piano that requires frequently swiping an ATM card to be played. After a series of one-sided, machine-like exchanges with the instrument, Joo finally gets to the advanced level of piano use: the famous opening bars of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor. His first round has wrong notes that cause the automated voice to say “not very accurate.” On his second and perfect round, the piano’s voice replies, “much better.”

Exaggerations and Slapstick

Schickele’s fourth and final category involves physical humor, which we saw at Chamber Music Northwest when Joo did a scalar run up the keys and fell right off the bench, and when hornist John Cox collapsed off his chair after falling victim to an excessively long phrase in PDQ Bach’s Schleptet for Winds in Schickele’s Friday night performance at Portland Center Stage. This is one of Victor Borge’s stunts that I use in my own comedy act, and it gets a guffaw every time. Igudesman’s swiveling, gyrating hips put Elvis to shame and brought down the house. You don’t have to be a musicologist to find that funny.

One point that Schickele brought up that fuels my own comedy show is that TV comedy comes fast, but music comedy takes time. The unfortunate scenario is that younger audiences don’t do long anything. It is our goal to cut down on set-up required. I & J got away with this by including the audience in the vote for Mozart Bond. Speed is key and was lacking at points in A Little Nightmare Music, which in this performance at least suffered from occasional lulls in between lines that may have been due to an off night for the duo; Joo’s occasional voice cracks suggest he was fighting some kind of cold. Or, perhaps it’s the internet age that makes all of us forget that real time is just plain slower than condensed YouTube clips that drive to the punchline and don’t lag.

Being a comic pianist myself, I leave no down time after a laugh has been committed. To give seconds of silence in between line, laugh and next line is seconds TOO long, especially for younger listeners raised in an era of instant information and entertainment. Again: context. Even if a performer uses all four of Schickele’s devices, if the context is wrong, the joke won’t fly. Or moo.

Beyond Comedy

This question of context may apply to more of classical music’s future than just humor. In both lecture and performance, I was happy to see a few young people, but the majority was still gray heads. I dye my hair red or I would be one of them, too.

In Joo’s interview with ArtsWatch, he explained how the duo works on this connection with all audience members. “We write on many levels. We try to appeal to as many different audiences as possible. Our whole thing is, ‘let’s not alienate audiences.’ We cannot resist musical jokes for insiders because we are musicians, but we’re aware that not everyone understands them so we add another level that others can understand. For example, in “A Little Nightmare Music,” we have this joke about Rachmaninoff, and for someone who knows Rachmaninoff and knows that piece we’re playing, they will understand that those chords are just so big — there’s even one chord notated that’s impossible to play. Those who have no idea about that will see some slapstick acrobatics, visual humor and physical comedy that’s really for everyone.”

I agree 100 percent with Joo here, but believe there is yet another layer to go. If we want Generations Y & Z to seek out these concerts, we need to get our heads into their music and culture. Much of our language in humor is based on Boomer-and-before slang. Perhaps instead of my expression “kick-butt,” I need to say Pwned which came from a spelling mistake on Generation Z video game chat. Who would know, but the young ones?

The first step is to check in with young people and listen to them talk. Then we can talk their talk and our jokes will be in their vernacular. In I & J’s show, the physical cues were strong enough for us to know when to laugh. The kiddos probably got most of the jokes, but if we want more kids in the audience, we have to keep slapstick, beef up the funny sounds and quote their classical music, the music of video games, anime series and YouTube viral music hits. The musical quotes need to get outside the classical repertoire box, because today’s young people don’t have the same repertoire vocabulary that we gray heads do. A timeless quotation in Rachmaninov/Carmen could be “Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, think I’ll go eat worms.” Know the song or not, the lyrics remind all of us of our tortured junior high days. Or to keep current, slip in Adele’s “Someone Like You.” Again, the facial expressions, overacting and sobbing would still be obvious, but it would be us gray heads who aren’t on the in.

For example, my comic show inspired by Victor Borge, Dianne Davies Has Fallen Off Her Bench… includes Chopin’s Prelude in c minor, opus 28, number 20 and “Could It Be Magic,” a 1975 Barry Manilow hit based on it — the exact scenario we have with Rach and Carmen. Manilow connected with the gray heads, but I finished with a Justin Bieber “Baby, Baby, Baby, Ooooo” for Gen Z. It worked even better, because by this point, Bieber Fever was a lingering illness and no longer vogue. A punchline for both ages gives the audience double for the money. Our Davies Family Trio perpetrated a parody on “The Fox” with the repetitive chorus of “What does the fox say?” by Ylvis that went viral in 2013. When we took this current hit we called it “The Band” with “What do the drums say?” five-year-olds to 85 year olds were dancing or bobbing their heads. This way, the audience was on even ground and all were in on the joke as well.

Igudesman & Joo performed at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: © Julia Wesely

Igudesman & Joo performed at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: © Julia Wesely

Finding common ground transcends comedy. Along with including more context for younger audiences, in my own act, I try to reach broader audiences by playing new music that focuses on themes that affect all of us and communicate that beyond just performing the music. Young and old, we all have experienced loss or sadness. When I perform Ghosts and Machines by ArtsWatch contributor and Oregon composer Jeff Winslow, I share my story of the loss of my sister when I was 11 years old in a personal narrative. Every human being, even the youngest in a family is touched by loss; from the loss of a family pet to separation from friends due to job change and relocation. If I play music by a dead man, I relate what was happening in the composer’s life to what is currently happening in my own life in original and personal narrative. To play classical music for the sake of playing classical music does not reach my kids or many of my students.

After his lecture, I had the privilege to speak with Dr. Schickele, who has been performing humor for over 50 years, and I asked him for advice on my act. “Find places to perform,” he said. “You can’t figure it out on your own. I’ve been doing comedy for years and I’m still learning. I don’t know if a line is going to get a laugh until I do it.” Igudesman and Joo and I owe a lot to pioneers like PDQ Bach and hope to carry the torch to the next generation of classical music performers — both comic and “serious.” But that fire won’t ignite if it’s not fueled by the oxygen of contemporary context: references that today’s audiences can recognize, and laugh at. Otherwise, the joke’s on us.

Dianne Davies is a Portland pianist who is hungry for the stage and performs her comedy show “Dianne Davies has Fallen off her Bench,” influenced by Victor Borge, Liberace, Tom Lehrer and P.D.Q. Bach to current stars like Igusdesman & Joo and Weird Al. The rest of the time she performs new repertoire by living composers. It is her passion to share new music with audiences in a personal way. She extends this to the next generation by connecting young piano students and their teachers to new music by co-chairing the “In Good Hands” concert sponsored by Cascadia Composers.

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