LAST YEAR, at the Adventures In Modern Music festival at the Empty Bottle in Chicago, I saw Keith Rowe and trumpeter Axel Dörner performing as a duo. Just a few minutes into their set, a young woman was led away, clutching her mouth. Initially, I thought she was about to be sick but as she brushed by, I realised she was suppressing a fit of giggles. Could it be that she had been reduced thus by the way Dörner, with Keatonesque solemnity, seemed not to be blowing but systematically sucking the oxygen from the venue with his mouthpiece? Could it be that Rowe’s tabletop performance, conducted with the methodical, unhurried air of an autopsy and turning upside down the conventional relationship between performer and performed-to, had caught her funnybone amidships? Or, as I inclined unfortunately to suspect, could it be that, this being a mixed bill, she had come upon this set by chance, had never seen or heard anything like it, couldn’t believe that such noises could possibly be regarded as musical, or that people would pay to listen to such stuff as if it were perfectly normal? Humour and music, runs one school of thought, are like custard and gravy — they simply don’t mix. This argument has some merit — to extract pleasure and fulfilment from music is, in many ways, a mirthless experience, mutually exclusive from the sort of catharsis afforded by a hearty guffaw. Attempts to merge the two result in half-assed zaniness, the effect of humour on music being puncturing.
There’s another mindset, meanwhile, on permanent, clenched vigilance against ‘pretentiousness’ in all its forms, which is convinced that humour and music certainly don’t mix when it comes to the avant garde. All that po-facedness, all those stern-looking Frenchmen, all that shapeless, atonal racket regarded with polite scrutiny by weirdos and beardos who are under the delusion that what they are venerating is anything but fraudulent, noisy nonsense. Humour is as absent from this vision of things as the Emperor’s new clothes. Such is the dim and distant caricature of the avant garde from ‘infield’, whenever they bother to glance this way at all. The only relationship humour can have with such music is to mock it. And so, with a sigh, one must stoically endure feeble cracks about ‘plinky plonky’ music, comparisons with washing machines, quips about mice running up and down keyboards (mea culpa — I’ve made one or two such jokes myself, but, of course, in a spirit of knowing irony, you understand …).
Such mockery echoes the sort of angry derision with which dada and Futurist events, and even the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring, were greeted in the very early 20th century. Abstract visual art is less prone to such attacks nowadays — Tate Modern is packed every weekend with people who gawp reverentially at avant garde objets d’art, who know that to jeer at the supposed formlessness and mess of a Jackson Pollock would expose them as the sort of ignorant philistine lampooned in the Tony Hancock film The Rebel as long ago as 1960. Yet many of these same people would feel that it’s intellectually respectable to deride Stockhausen as random, anti-musical bleeps and bloops.
There are reasons for this anomaly. Despite the age of mechanical reproduction, abstract art originals can still command vast bids at Sothebys, and are thus taken seriously. Avant garde music, by contrast, must subsist in relative, contemptible penury. Moreover, our relationship with sound means that abstract music remains a more disconcerting, challenging experience. You can’t walk away from, say, a Phill Niblock or Tony Conrad performance the way you can a Rothko at the Tate. You’re in for the long haul and if you are simply posing to yourself, the way you can by visiting an art gallery, you’ll bloody well be found out. What those legions who remain confounded by the music of the far leftfield fail to grasp is that what is truly risible in the 21st century is that, despite the vast expansion of new technologies and the additions they have made to the lexicon of sound, despite the multilayered, multi-ethnic simultaneist cacophony of modern urban life, with its endless chance encounters and juxtapositions, strange inter faces between the ‘real’ and the media environment, so many people cling to the safe, the tried and trusted, the 20 times warmed over, the fiercely orthodox in modern music, like nervous tourists at an unfamiliar resort who would rather sit in their bathtub in their room than swim in the sea, too obtuse to think of taking on board ideas that were established by, like, 1911. What’s also unrecognised is that humour and music are compatible, but in more subtle ways than are dreamt of by the gurning, would-be ‘pretentiousness prickers’. A great deal of the music in Wireworld is undergirded and informed by vital insertions of wit, absurdism and levity — and it has been from Erik Satie (whose Memoirs of an Amnesiac is the perfect literary accompaniment to his delicate pianistic strategies) onward. Take Kraftwerk — as they stepped effetely into the fray of 70s music, in their impeccable business suits or rouge lipstick, they were greeted with condescending scorn by the more conventionally ‘rebellious’ hirsute and open-necked rock community, as if they’d strolled into the wrong joint by accident.
But who was mocking whom? In their deadpan and disingenuous way, it was Kraftwerk who were doing the laughing, provoking and implicitly sending up as they did the hopelessly Luddite and profligate histrionics of 70s rock. And it was Kraftwerk who would have the last laugh as the old dinosaurs became extinct. Interesting that Krautrock and much German music that followed has a rich seam of humour running through it — from Holger Czukay to DAF — which, coming from a nation where humour is supposed to be as alien to the culture as vegetarianism, is telling. Such humour is a vital component in the avant garde’s mission to interrogate the absurd assumptions of the straight, the sane, the sensible, the normal.
However, even when not engaged in such missions, there are parallels to be wrought between the operations and motions of extreme or far-flung music and great comedy — rules of timing, delay, of weighting, spontaneity and recurring motifs, rules which both Thelonious Monk and WC Fields played by. Sometimes you cannot fail to smile at the sort of dialogue achieved at an especially inspired Improv set, or the pitches of hilarity reached in the exchanges between a sitar or sarod player and his tabla sidekick during a lively raga. One might go even further and suggest parallels between John Cage’s use of ‘silence’ in ‘4’33″‘ and the way British comedian Tony Hancock used dead radio air in one especially brilliant episode about a boring Sunday afternoon — a series of lengthy pauses between vast, futile sighs (“Doesn’t the time drag?”). Both were doing the same thing essentially — making something out of nothing.
Ironically, however, a performance of Cage’s ‘4’33″‘ was the victim of a gross misapplication of humour at last year’s Uncaged festival at the Barbican. The conductor over-egged the performance calamitously, ostentatiously mopping his brow between movements, while The BBC Symphony Orchestra added their own bits of theatre, noisily turning the pages of the score. This wasn’t an example of why humour and music don’t mix, nor was it an act of pertinent irreverence in keeping with the spirit of the piece. Rather, it completely missed the damn point. A more deadpan, graver approach would have exhibited the true conceptual wit intended by Cage.