Humor in Music: Interview with Makis Salomos

Translation: Jeremy Drake

In 2002 I was invited to France to take part in the Second International Forum of Young Composers, hosted by Ensemble Aleph. As well as twice-performing one of my chamber works, Quintus, I was interviewed for their Logbook, a document containing interviews from the nine composers who were invited from around the world. This interview took place in France’s magnificent countryside at the Moulin d’Ande in Normandy. Makis Solomos, a Greek musicologist, author who teaches in Paris and noted authority on Iannis Xenakis and his music, interviewed me.


You said during your talk in the Moulin d’Ande that you like to include humor in music. Can you give examples of humor in other composers’ music?

Among the composers that have inspired me and that I think are humorous are Satie, Haydn—who is funny in a more subtle way, and Poulenc. Some American composers are funny, whether or not they mean to be, such as John Zorn. Sometimes moments are humorous in music that are not perhaps meant to be funny, but I think they’re funny. Humor does not necessarily have to be explicit. A precise example would be the fourth movement of Haydn’s ‘Farewell’ Symphony, but it’s more humorous if you know the story behind it, about how his musicians supposedly wanted to have time off to go home and see their families, but the Prince kept them back, so Haydn wrote the piece as a subtle hint that they all wanted to go.

Does there have to be a story for music to be humorous?

No. Specific sounds can be funny because they may relate to something familiar, a grunt, for example, or a laugh. People will laugh at something that sounds like laughter or cackling through a process of association. But there is also very clever humor, and that’s what l’m usually after, rather than the more obvious type of humor. I like clever humor that is based on a historical quote or on something deeper.

Is it possible to define humor in music in very general terms?

That’s really difficult for me to answer. I would define humor in music as something that gives a rise in the listener in a way that makes him feel giddy, as opposed to sad or angry. In music this is not caused by any one thing; it could be an explicit or implied reference, or a historical reference. But whether people will laugh depends on how you place these moments, and whether they recognize the reference. Without that reference point, people might not find it funny: it can be a gamble. In my Sextet, for example, there is a reference to Salt Peanuts, a standard jazz tune often played in America. To me, that’s funny, but I also related it in the piece to an allergic reaction you can get from eating peanuts! Some jazz players have heard this piece and asked me if that was Salt Peanuts; when I told them it was, then they chuckled. Unless you know the tune you might not think the piece was related to anything else, which is fine by me. Something might be funny to one person but not to someone else.

Can you give other examples of humor in your music?

There is a fine line between humor and shock. Sometimes when people are shocked, they will laugh in spite of themselves, as, for example, in slapstick humor. This is a type of comedy in America where, to make sure the audience laughs at a joke, a drummer will perform a short burst as a kind of signal for people to laugh. In a similar way, in my Sextet there are police whistles; it’s such an odd sound! In Quintus, the piece played by the Ensemble Aleph, there is a very subtle reference to Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps, a little four-bar section of trills. I usually indicate this kind of reference in a footnote in the score, but I thought the Messiaen quote was too subtle for that, as most people would not get it. Another example: the second - and most humorous - movement of my String Quartet n° 1 parodies a group of musicians from the southern USA playing a ‘country waltz’. The Northerners often poke fun at people from the south, calling them ‘hicks’ or ‘rednecks’, as though they were all ignorant peasants. It’s all done in good fun. A lot of people in the north don’t like country music, which is very laid back and has some roots in jazz and fiddle playing it’s the kind of music that most southerners listen to. For me, to return to this kind of music in a string quartet is humorous, because in America, at least, a quartet is seen as a lofty, serious form. (There are exceptions, John Zorn’s quartet, for example, written for the Kronos Quartet, who do some of the most adventurous quartet programs.) In my quartet the violist has to strum his instrument with a plectrum and the cellist plays like a stand-up bass player; all of this takes the string quartet out of its historical context. At the end of the piece the players are feeling sick from eating boiled peanuts, a common roadside snack in the southern USA, but they are still trying to play, so the music is really ‘gluey’ and mushy. That’s one of the few places in my music when people chuckle even if they don’t know what the reference is, because it sounds funny, it sounds ‘drunk’, as though something is wrong with it.

What else can be the reference?

There is something I would call a ‘primitive’ reference to maybe human or animal sounds, to nature, and people will often find that funny. Not with Messiaen, who is very serious in what he does, although even he has humorous moments. Some composers will use a bird-like sound, and people will say, "Oh, that’s a bird" and chuckle. In Respighi’s Pines of Rome, for example, there is a recording of a real nightingale (I heard it performed with a bird whistle) and I find that rather funny because I know it’s obviously not a typical orchestral instrument.

You mean that Respighi’s naturalism seems ridiculous nowadays?

Yes. Something can seem ridiculous, and that is perhaps a form of humor, but maybe it’s just a different way of looking at it. Some people might just think it’s beautiful, and then it’s not funny or ridiculous at all. There is no black and white definition of what humor is in music. It’s different for everybody. Music is such an abstract art form, it’s not usually visual (unless it’s stage music), and that’s why it’s so difficult to make someone chuckle.

So humor in music always needs a reference?

Actually, it can result from something that is completely unexpected. I recently wrote a work entitled Symphony in Three Movements [formerly titled Chamber Symphony], and the cellists decided, at a given moment in the last movement—without telling me—to spin their instruments during the premiere! I was watching, and all of a sudden, when the music gets a bit ‘drunk’, stops, and goes into a kind of 1920s flapper-style section, the cellists started to spin their instruments all together, and the audience just burst out laughing! I laughed too, but almost out of shock, because I hadn’t written that, but now l’m going to include it in the score because I think it’s so funny. That is one of the reasons why I like being open to performers making suggestions or giving their unique interpretation.

That was a visual situation.

Yes, I would call it theatre. There were other, more subtle examples of humor in that piece, but it was so unexpected for something theatrical to happen, especially in such a conservative setting! It was the first new commission the orchestra had performed in something like twenty years. The audience hadn’t listened very much to new music, yet they gave the piece a standing ovation, so l suppose it worked! On the other hand, they might have thought the piece was too radical and not laughed at all, and that’s when humor becomes sad!

Is humor a way of avoiding seriousness?

To be serious in music, at least for me, is much easier, because you can create sounds that make people feel austere or serious or earnest, but the irony is that if composers write music that is humorous, they are looked down on, at least in some artistic circles. One of my teachers said to me once, "I can’t write humorous music"; he’s a very serious man with an extremely dry sense of humor, and he doesn’t understand why somebody would do that.

Is it for you a need to define yourself in contrast to some composers who are too serious?

A little bit, yes. I have been struck by how serious most composers are today, especially in contemporary "art" music. So for me it’s partly a conscious decision to be unlike them, but it’s also that l’ve written a lot of what I consider to be somber and serious music and I didn’t want to link myself to that; I want to give myself the broadest range of emotion possible. I like writing serious music, and I know there will be moments in my life that will be extremely sad, for example, when someone close to me dies. I’m a very emotional person and when that happens l’m going to want to write very somber music. Some composers write what they like regardless of that sort of thing but external factors do influence what l’m feeling at the time. For now l’m feeling pretty happy—I’m not entirely broke yet!

Are there different kinds of humor?

Yes, like snowflakes - and l’m not smart enough to define them all! For me it starts with a feeling. If I think something will be funny in some way I might try it in a piece of music, though there is no guarantee that anyone else will think it at all funny.

Does it have something to do with playing a game? Sylvie Drouin from the Ensemble Aleph told me your music was ‘ludique’, that it’s like ‘game play’.

I think so. I definitely like to feel l’m pulling people along. I often think of my music as narrative, as a story, and one thing I love about some other people’s music is when they—in contrast—write music that is poetic or sculptural, or almost like a painting. To them it’s the moment that matters; they are not thinking so much of a story. I like to pull people along and consciously play with their expectations. That’s why some of my music is very sectional, though I feel I need to work at achieving more dramatic contrasts. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why I love the music of Beethoven. He was a genius at that; his contrasts were brilliant, and I miss that in some composers’ music today. I like dramatic contrasts, things that shock people.

Do you see this use of contrast in any contemporary music?

Oh, yes! In America I would say the number one composer with whose ideals I currently feel a kinship is Christopher Rouse; his music tends to elicit very dramatic emotions. I like Magnus Lindberg for the same reason, and Xenakis as well. Xenakis always makes me feel extremely emotional, and I enjoy his music for that. Three other works that have greatly inspired me and are also wonderfully dramatic are Berio’s Sinfonia, the Chamber Symphony by John Adams and Aaron Jay Kernis’s Colored Field for cello and orchestra. There’s Chen Yi in America, who wrote a piece called Sparkle, which to me is a very emotionally charged piece. As far as drama is concerned, there is John Corigliano, another American composer whose music is colorful and dramatic. I really pride myself on being able to enjoy listening to a wide variety of music. I’m very open-minded, to just about anything, so long as it’s been created well. I’m not the kind of composer who only sticks to his own world. All the music I have heard in the Moulin d’Andé has been very enjoyable. I say this because I don’t think every composer is like that, and I find that sad. Composers tend to close themselves off, and that’s good in a way because for their own music they have to be very focused and driven. But if you sometimes open yourself up to other people’s music you might learn something, and l’ve been learning while l’ve been here. For example, I’ve learned that spectral music (and I certainly haven’t been into it as much as some of my friends) is now something old, which is very fascinating. Now I shall return to the USA with a completely different impression. Over there, it’s fresh, for some reason. And that makes me wonder, if that’s not fresh, what is?

To return to humor: you said that Beethoven played with expectations in a dramatic sense, but would you say that the composer who plays with expectations in a more humorous way is Mozart?

That’s true. Mozart is definitely a better example where humor is concerned. Some of his music is extremely clever and funny. Beethoven, especially in his later works, is really not as humorous as Mozart, but his contrasts are really dramatic and the changes, say from one key to another, can be surprising. I like that, even if I don’t think of keys at all as those composers did. I’m sure there are humorous moments in the music of both Mozart and Beethoven that go right by me. I have heard stories and read articles that mention something here or there in a piece, but now, hundreds of years later, it’s completely out of context. Back then it could have been funny, I don’t know. I just love listening to it because it sounds so good!

Should performers feel the humor in your music?

If they want. I hope that if they think something in my music is funny they will try to help the audience to hear it as well. The starting point is that they should learn the basics of what’s on the page, and then after that, if they want to push and pull tempos or alter various parameters to create something that’s unique to them, that’s fine to me. It’s absolutely necessary, at least for my music. I don’t view performers as machines, and as a performer myself, I know what it feels like to be viewed as just an automaton. Performers have so much to give. I’ve been grateful for having worked with some excellent performers who have given a lot to my music and not taken anything away. Only bad performers take something away from your music.

You said in your talk that humorous indications in your scores are also a way of making the performers think, of stimulating them.

I frequently put markings in my music that the audience will never see but that the performers might think are funny, or strange, or shocking, and maybe it will provoke them to pay more attention to the different sections. Sometimes these little descriptions in the scores might just be distracting for the performers, but I include them on purpose because I want the performers to feel they have a connection to the music that is their own. Sometimes the markings make them giggle or even say something disparaging, but that’s important. If they want to be disparaging about my music, that’s OK. It makes them feel less scared. Some performers, even the Ensemble Aleph, can be very timid with composers. But when I smile and am very relaxed it makes them feel better; they know they have the upper hand. Of course I don’t know what they’re saying anyway because my French is very bad—and maybe they’re making fun of me!

Performers can also have a sense of humor?

Of course! But there’s more to it than that. Serious music can get them down, even if it makes them feel like working hard. Here’s an analogy: I’m inspired by symbiotic relationships in nature, for example when little fish feed off or clean bigger fish. You might think that kind of relationship would be bad, but in fact it works out well in nature. So, if something in the score seems weird, and the performers don’t understand it but still go along with it, it may have the desired affect of making them concentrate more. At any rate, I wouldn’t want to take the comments out of my scores as I am getting good performances and so can only think that they are working.

Are these comments a way of breaking the ice?

Yes, but they’re not random; they usually describe what l’m thinking. They do mean something, though they’re not important enough for me to put them in a program note. In fact, if the audience wants to read the program note for one of my pieces that’s fine, but it doesn’t really matter to me. The most important point is that they like my music without reading the program note, without knowing the title: no references other than the sound and feeling something unique to themselves. Enjoying the sound for what it is: that’s what I care about the most. If they want to go further and read the program note or even look at the score, that’s just another level of listening.

Humor in your music is only a means?

As much as I enjoy writing pieces that are humorous or have humorous moments, it’s only one of many facets of the music I try to write, and I don’t always try to be funny. In my  Symphony in Three Movements; the third movement was humorous, but the first two were not humorous at all. I strive for dramatic diversity between the different movements of a piece, so much so that sometimes audiences wonder how the movements relate. In fact they can be often related through thematic continuity: themes are reworked differently in different movements, and I like audiences to find that out for themselves by listening carefully.

You have also said you like to invent gadgets.

I love gadgets! I’m embarrassed to say I love cooking and I love kitchen gadgets. I’m very intrigued by machines, computers, unique tools. So it intrigues me when performers do interesting things with their instruments. In Quintus, for example, I put in some multiphonics for the clarinet; to me they’re musical gadgets, even though they’re nothing new. I like novel techniques on instruments, not for the sake of novelty but as a seamless part of the music. George Crumb is very good at using exotic techniques (for example, playing inside the piano, using slide-whistles, pitch bending) in a way that makes his music sound uniquely his own, and also very elegant. He uses them not to be different but because he needs them. I admire that. After a long rehearsal period, contemporary music performers often play some Classical or Romantic music to give themselves a break. They smile at each other because they enjoy playing music that feels elegant. String players especially love to sing with their instruments. That’s really interesting to me; it’s like a wakeup call. It’s important to me to write music the performers are going to fall in love with. I write for human beings, not robots. However, next year I plan on exploring the creation of electroacoustic music, but so far l’ve been very happy writing for people.

July, 2002