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On the Humorous Aspect of Complex Music

[The following is a response to a question regarding my blog post "The Leap of Faith: New Sincerity as Compositional Discipline"]

Q: Re-reading [David Foster Wallace’s] Octet, I noticed that one is constantly being distracted from the question of sincerity/insincerity on the part of the writer by the fact that it is frequently very funny. Could you comment on the humorous aspect of this text and its possible impact on a compositional strategy derived from it?

Further, since it seems that the dynamics of Wallace’s text are being “imported,” as it were, into the formulation of this strategy on a rather abstract level, could you explain what sorts of actual musical resultant you might expect, or at least allow for, in the “output” of such a strategy?


A: In my personal experience with Octet, the moments I find particularly humorous are those that are most familiar. For example, the narrator’s persistent second-guessing of his word choice: “That may not be the right word—too pedantic; you might want to use the word transmit or evoke or even limn (palpate’s been overused already...)” ¹ In these moments, I recall personal experiences of paralyzing, perhaps neurotic, self-critique. It’s one thing to remember having such moments but another to see them given form on the page; their tortured appearance and the sheer amount of space they take up comically reframes them. I think: “Is this what goes on in my head? This is madness!” At the same time, I see myself as an unreflective participant in the absurdity and neurosis, and this realization is simultaneously humorous and instructive.

Interestingly, when I talk to peers about Octet or the question of sincerity vs. insincerity, I’ve noticed that what others find humorous is also rooted in this idea of the familiar. Wallace holds that irony has affected modern communication because we now tend to operate with insincerity as our default.² Nowadays, we assume what a politician says is a lie or gross exaggeration. We are dubious of the claims made by advertisements. We think someone only tells us we look nice today because they want to be seen as a swell citizen. This default assumption of a gap between what one says and what one really means has become a protection mechanism. It protects us from being taken advantage of or lied to while perpetuating a chasm between individuals. The fact that it is useful to us causes it to disappear into its usefulness and function unreflectively—even in mundane conversations.

For example, you walk into a coffee shop, the barista says, “how are you today?” and before you can even think, you find yourself replying with, “I’m fine” even if at this moment you are everything but fine. When I mention this interaction, the person I’m speaking with often flashes a smile and a brief laugh. Again, there seems to be humor in the sudden realization of something that eluded refection, the sudden realization of one’s unreflective participation in a slight and seemingly universal absurdity.

Likewise, I’ve noticed that my recent compositional experiments influenced by New Sincerity literature often elicit laughter from the audience for similar reasons. For example, I recently collaborated with a group of dancers. I created a live SuperCollider patch that plays a pre-recorded track if a certain decibel threshold is crossed. The track plays continuously when the decibel threshold is set to -infinity db. If the decibel threshold is set to, say, -50 db, the track will only play if a sound occurring in the room is louder than -50 db. Once the sound falls below this threshold, the track will be cut off. The dancers are given the following task: make the track sound continuously. The catch is they can only make noises using their bodies and flimsy, soft objects (paper, cardboard, foam, cotton balls, shoelaces, toothbrushes, etc.) The piece begins with the threshold set to -infinity db and gradually increases. When it reaches approximately -30 db, the track will start to cut in and out, and the dancers’ actions become increasingly frantic until the track stabilizes again. Eventually, the threshold is set impossibly high, and the performers can no longer sustain the track despite their sincere and energized attempts. At this point, the audience understands that the presence of the audio track is contingent upon the performers’ actions.

In this performance, the audience began laughing when the performers became more frantic in their attempts to trigger the track despite the track’s continued absence. The audience seemed to recognize the futility of their struggle. The earnestness of the performers, despite this futility, thus provided a comedic element; the dancers had become clowns, beautifully performing continued failure for the audience. In Octet, the narrator is doing something similarly futile, attempting to convince the reader of his sincerity despite his flagrant use of self-reference and irony, two devices he claims to be responsible for sowing distrust in modern communication.

In the case of the dance experiment, it is unclear whether this humor is rooted in the absurdity of the action (e.g., “Look at these people trying to make a loud sound with a cotton ball, how absurd!”) or empathetic identification (e.g., “Ha!, I’ve been in a similar futile situation before.”) In my experience thus far, I don’t think humor distracts from the question of sincerity vs. insincerity. I believe these humorous moments open spaces where the observer can see themselves in the performers’ absurd actions. This recognition translates the abstraction of the possibility of sincere communication into a familiar experience, therefore, increasing the question’s importance. However, it should be said that this humor was unintentional. I imagine that if I approached the composition with the intent to be funny, there would be an increased risk of distraction.

In terms of the music resulting from the application of New Sincerity ideas to musical composition, I would first like to recap the role of the composition. In this music, the composition functions as a destabilizing force. It distances performers from learned performance habits and agitates physical and perceptual limitations. To this end, these works often employ novel notational formats (graphic notation, text scores, animated scores, audio scores, video scores, and combinations) and require virtuosic levels of technique. Ideally, these materials’ overwhelming nature and ambiguity pull performers from unreflective immersion in their habitual performance methods. When the performer is distanced from these habits, they may stumble upon new performative approaches.

To illustrate this, imagine you are a builder. Over the years of mastering your craft, you’ve become intimately familiar with your particular workshop. You no longer need to think about the locations of tools or the quirks of specific machines; this knowledge has become reflexive. One day, you walk into your workshop to find everything re-arranged. Your tools are in different places. You are given unfamiliar versions of familiar machinery (e.g., the on/off switch for this new saw may be on the side of the machine when you are used to it being on top.) You remain a skilled builder; you know what needs to be done on the project. However, how you proceed will be significantly different given that you’ve lost familiarity with the particular space. You can no longer rely on an unreflective understanding of the space, but you can rely on your intuition as a skilled builder and seasoned problem-solver. You may fumble around as you look for a particular saw or hesitate as you approach an unfamiliar machine, but progress still occurs. Through this struggle, you can discover alternative forms of being and different ways of approaching a familiar goal that may cause you to reflect upon your past operating practices or allow you to learn a new skill.

The sounds and theatricality of the performance of these works are similar to this anecdote. The sounds in these works vary wildly from piece to piece and even performance to performance. Still, I imagine the sounds as communicating the hesitancy and vulnerability of an individual untethered from their usual means of operation. In a piece, like i say ‘me’ guided by a blind instinct, the sounds are quite fragile and corporeal. We can hear the performer’s bodies begin to shake as they run out of breath, the squeak of their attempt to push air through a highly constricted larynx, the sudden catastrophic loud burst of air, and how their instruments filter these sounds. In a piece like One faces, we can see and hear the performers interact with the space as they work through the piece’s game-like structure. We hear the squeak of shoes as they shift their weight, the rustle of clothing as they rotate their body in search of material, the sounds of them preparing to perform material, as well as the occasional sigh of frustration or a performer softly counting to themselves. In the aforementioned dance piece, the sounds are never loud but possess an intensity and urgency. As the performers futilely attempt to make raucous sounds using plush instruments, we can hear the sounds of their rapid physical motions displacing air and the panting accompanying their physical exertion. It should be said that in the cases of the dance piece and One faces, there is much importance placed on a performance’s visual and theatrical elements. In fact, I think that for these sounds to be interpreted as part of the piece, they need to be seen in the context of performance. Otherwise, the sounds of shoes or weight shifting or panting may be considered peripheral instead of integral.


[1] David Foster Wallace. “Octet.” Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (2000): 155. [2] For more on this, see Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.”

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