16 December 2011


Whereas the place of humor in concert music is relatively secure, the types of humor appropriate to given musical demands and the degree, in both frequency and intensity, to which one might properly appeal to them in a musical work can still be contentious issues. For years in Minneapolis, I've frequently encountered a particular strain of humor among musicians which I find counterproductive and distasteful. Finding it in evidence here at CalArts in almost identical form, I'm compelled to attempt an analysis.

One most often encounters this type of humor in student work, but it is by no means limited to students, and occasionally ends up being consolidated into something even more stifling and insidious, if often subtle, in more mature work. I would label it Resentful Humor, or Humor as a Defense Mechanism. To be sure, it is sometimes hard to know whether one is observing a constructive criticism of someone or something, or simply a childish display of petty resentment and insecurity. It is by no means unusual, though, to know immediately, and among those clear-cut cases that I have witnessed, the majority have been of the latter type.

The telltale characteristics of this dynamic are not necessarily unique to it, and are seldom present all at once; hence, there is no airtight formula for determining its presence or absence. That being said, here are what I perceive to be its primary fingerprints:

(1) Humor is overused.
I am referring here not to the emotive intensity of the humor, but to its pervasiveness throughout the work, thereby comprising a substantially larger portion of the piece's content than any obvious structural or aesthetic necessity would seem to dictate.

(2) Humor is used purely to fill time.
In a sense, this is just one particular instance of (1), but its ubiquity earns it a category of its own. It is more or less specific to improvised settings, but is observable in all types of them (i.e. harmonic-structural, totally free, and everything in between). In structured settings, this is a way to "just get through" a final chorus; in freer contexts, it is typically the end result of a gradual devolvement of focus and intention, to the point where the player(s) don't know what to do, but, contra Miles, insist on doing something anyway. (Yes, those same dozen jazz-world anecdotes do get tiresome, but seriously, don't you think Miles hit this one more squarely on the head than maybe even he could have imagined? And if his own sense of humor was ever in question, is this not due as much to his restraint in appealing to it as to his infamously surly stage presence?)

(3) The aesthetic dimension of the work is wholly incidental to the gesture of mocking/deriding a particular piece, composer, band or musical style.
Here I am referring to something beyond (or perhaps falling short of) parody or satire, devices which I would take to entail a certain sophistication, and which can be directed at extramusical targets as well as musical ones. Conversely, I would define the particular dynamic in question here as unequivocally about music, and also unapologetically inelegant, often resorting, conceptually at least, to brute force in order to make a disproportionately simple point. And as with the previous items on this list, the void where any more specific musical intent or personal/spiritual necessity might normally exist is palpable.

(4) The work is "epic."
Obviously, this is the most subjective thing on this list, but I see it everywhere, and conveniently, there's a word for it that you might even hear it uttered before or after the concert. Don't quote me as I'm an avowed homebody with a phobia of pop culture, but it seems to me that events which occur outside the realm of idle leisure and/or affect people other than the utterer seldom qualify as "epic." This usage is, I suppose, a sarcastic gesture in and of itself, the reclamation of an ultra-serious-sounding word on behalf of all things inane, kind of like bad meaning good, but more complicated than that (and obviously incubated in a very different subculture). "Epic" is inherently conflicted in nature, complimentary on the surface while always a touch self-depricating-verging-on-resentful on its deeper levels. It is laughing both with and at oneself rolled in one gesture, perhaps ultimately unsure of which, if either, is more deserved. Not all music we might dub "epic" in post-concert small-talk is of the resentful type, but all of the resentful music I am attempting to describe could reasonably be labeled "epic" given the current (and no doubt temporary) meaning of this promiscuous piece of slang.

Having voiced my contempt for this resentful, "epic" music, I'll grant that if it is truly your music, then you should go make it. Study it, nurture it, and consolidate it until it reaches rapturous heights of bitterness and inelegance. If you have something important to say that can only be said by mocking the Count Basie rhythm section, then that's your work and you should go do it. If improvised music is a blank slate for us to explore who we really are and you thereby discover yourself to be a masturbating parakeet who can't stop laughing hysterically at itself, then more power to you. Resentment runs rampant in our musical culture, and you shouldn't let anyone else tell you whether or not yours is justified. As for the healthy bit of resentment I myself harbor towards much of the world, "epic" obstinate crudity strikes me as among the least constructive of the possible responses. Such works do nothing to remedy any petty misjudgments or outrageous injustices that might have inspired them; if anything, they gratify the perpetrators, who get to watch their victims writhe impotently with anger rather than channel it constructively into the kind of work that might someday do future generations the favor of exposing them.

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