Playfulness in Music

Sonic Mosaics: Interviews with Composers
by Paul Steenhuisen, November 2003.

STEENHUISEN: In your dissertation, you write that it’s “a defense and celebration of the playful in music and art”. You mention a number visual artists (Jeff Koons and Marcel Duchamp, for example), but I’d like you to talk about examples of the playful in music.

PALMER: At the time I wrote that, I was very excited about C.P.E. Bach’s music. Its over-the-top rate of change borders on the comic. I wanted to look at his music more closely and understand how it works. I was also drawn to Franco Donatoni’s music because his outward stance was so playful, though I suspected it was a kind of deep silliness. I wondered how his music might manifest that attitude. His piece Refrain hints at jazz, but it isn’t jazz: it teases you into listening in a way where you’re going to be frustrated, or disappointed, or surprised. That approach intrigues me because I’m interested in music that isn’t what it seems to be. For me there’s no appeal in writing a piece that’s a convincing example of a particular style. I’d rather write a piece that seems like it’s one thing and then it’s not. It fools you. Then your whole understanding of the genre or style is altered. It’s that alternation between different states and different ways of thinking that attracts me.

It’s expectation?

Frustrating expectation. I started thinking about it as an oscillation between different states. In that oscillation energy is released. Think about a kid’s game like Peekaboo. What’s so funny about that? I mean it’s just…someone’s there, and then they’re not. And yet it’s hilarious. So, an alternation between two extremely different states can bring humour, but humour is extraordinarily perplexing to comprehend or to plan.

What’s an example of humour in contemporary music?

I find a lot of my own music funny.

Humour is pretty subjective though.

It is, and highly contextual. A lot of it has to do with timing, but obviously humour relies on a language that people share. If you’re using a gesture, which to that particular audience has become hackneyed or a signifier of a certain situation or language or style, then the way you use it can have a humorous effect. But if your audience isn’t party to that, then it’s lost. How is Beethoven funny? Or the Haydn symphonies? It’s hilarious how they end because there’s a convention of the cadence, but he repeats it the nth degree so that it becomes ridiculous.

I’ve never thought of Beethoven as funny.


What would you consider to be unplayful in music?

Music that takes itself so seriously. Rather, the composer takes themselves so seriously that they lose sight of the connections between their own art form and the outside world, or other art forms. There is no sense of a play between ideas — it’s just a presentation of technique, or a manipulation of musical materials.

How did this become an issue for you? Did you feel there was an absence of playfulness in contemporary music?

Yeah, that’s why I was talking about a defense of playfulness, because I felt there was this pressure to be serious, to somehow embody a particular set of ideals that made your work Authentic Contemporary Music. That was very interesting to me.

Were you reacting to your own choice to go to Princeton, one of the more serious places?

It is and it isn’t. Steve Mackey, who I studied with, has an incredible amount of humour in his pieces. Ideas that are just off the deep end. He has an orchestra piece where at one point there’s just this recording, quite a hokey recording, from a boombox, of his dog barking, which is so well integrated that it goes beyond any gimmick. I guess that’s what I’m talking about by playfulness — not necessarily humour, but allowing your imagination to take flight beyond convention.

What’s the line between that and entertainment?

There’s still an element of seriousness involved in the endeavour. What we’re playing with is our ideas. Before coming to Canada I had heard that Cirque du Soleil was an incredible postmodern circus, so when I saw them I was really disappointed: it’s just entertainment. There’s no deep intellectual rigour to what they’re doing.

How are these ideas evident in your own work?

Many of my music theatre works are obviously playful. For instance, back in 1999, I went to the composition atelier Voix Nouvelles in France. Les Percussions de Strasbourg were there that year, and somehow or other, I ended up having to write a music theatre piece. I immediately thought of Maurizio Kagel’s music theatre works, but from everything I’d seen, I really disliked them. I didn’t find them at all funny, though I felt they were meant to be funny. So I took upon myself the challenge of exploring that language — all the more tricky as the piece was entirely in French. It was a way too of reappraising Kagel. The audience seemed to find the piece funny, although the material they were confronted with was quite bleak. Of course humour can be a way to approach material you otherwise couldn’t face head on. In this case it was the futurist writings of Marinetti glorifying speed and violence. One stand-out line says people should ‘follow a constant hygiene of heroism and every century take a glorious shower of blood.’ It’s a high-macho position that I wanted to subvert.

What piece is that?

It’s called Bloodshower. I ended up with a weird, almost sadomasochistic relationship between the two performers. They work with Marinetti’s text, a drumset and some very everyday objects: a ton of beer bottle caps, a lot of water, buckets, chairs, jars… In the final scene they’re just sweeping the floor, cleaning up, singing a bizarre love song: “and yet it feels so sweet to cause you pain”. It’s a painful text, but it’s presented in a humourous way, so that it sneaks in, and you can digest it later.

Kind of like how some games are really borderline funny, but also disconcerting?

Disconcerting is a very good word to use. Someone once said that my music almost grooves, but never lets you feel like you’ve quite got a grip on it. Either I’m a louser groover or, more to the point, I’m interested on riffing on the idea of grooving. How do you set that up and then thwart someone’s expectations, disconcert them, so that there’s a gap between what you expect and what you get? I believe that in that gap, people enter into the piece. I think if something is too expected, there’s no room for anyone enter into a dialogue. You neeed to have some kind of discrepancy or flaw that lets people into the music.

Do you think things like timing and expectation change with the decades?

Acting and singing styles definitely change. And certainly, timing is key to a lot of those changes. So, yes, it’s certainly possible. If you’re wondering whether those changes might affect how a piece is received in the future, I’d say I’m not so worried about posterity. That’s more a ‘composer-hero’ thing. But I think performers are adept at making sense of music from the past, at adjusting the music’s pace to our own. In 1990 I worked with a Chinese poet called Gu Cheng. His poetry was simple and jarring, very present-tense — a bit like graffiti. I wrote a couple of pieces with him including Self for three percussionists. It’s a very physical piece, where the performers’ movements embody the text. At one point they run as fast as possible around the entire percussion battery playing and speaking. Their panting afterwards is as much a part of the piece as the sounds of the gongs.

When you’re talking about the pieces it’s as though the elasticity of thinking and that quality you’re looking for really is concentrated more on theatre than it is on how you deal with materials.

No, not necessarily. I think it manifests itself that way in a music theatre piece, but in a concert piece like Mother Hubbard it was the compositional process itself that was playful. I wanted to see what would happen when I cut together instrumental transcriptions of found sounds with the original source material from the internet. If I cut them into small enough pieces and mixed them, would they start to form a new substance? In a way I’m playing a game with these materials, and the listener and myself get to judge what the result of that game is. Does that seem like a game to you?

Yes. It has that quality.

It was an experiment: how much would I edit that process before it was presented? Mother Hubbard is one of the more raw examples that I have unleashed to an audience. The piece is different every time because the ensemble is not chained to the CD part. They’re just playing along separately — when they collide, they collide. If something beautiful happens that’s serendipity. If I did that piece again, I’d like to deal with individual sound files and silences, with some triggering from the ensemble or conductor. Still playfulness and unpredictability, but more causality .

One consistent factor in your pieces is that they constantly look outside of themselves.

Absolutely. For me to sit down and play a chord on the piano, starting at the beginning, and to go from there plucking pitches from some beautiful pure soundworld hovering around me…I don’t work like that. There will be something that strikes me in my everyday life. Take the sound in Mother Hubbard. The computer part all comes from one little audio clip of the Quebec Summit protesters that I found on CNN’s website. The other sound is a burst of digital distortion which my computer added somewhere along the line. What pulled my ear to that particular clip was the incredible emotional depth in such a flattened sound. The sound quality is really wretched, but there’s this amazing sense of so many people gathered together to fight this huge machine of corporate globalization. Just the sounds of their voices and their drumming were incredibly moving. More recently I wrote a piece for l’Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal, and was inspired by being sandwiched between Stravinsky’s Firebird and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. I ended writing a piece called Buzzard, which is a hideous-looking bird that doesn’t even sing. The music is completely scavenged from those two pieces.

So, in looking outside of the pieces, you’re wanting to tap into signification?

Yes, I’m not interested in a pure music. I’m very engaged in the world around me. I don’t know if it’s a political music. That’s a very slippery term. I’m not sure whether political music even exists. But, I certainly can’t separate my political concerns from the way I would approach music or what would motivate me to write a piece. You don’t want to beat people about the head on an issue, but I also don’t want to put my time and energy into something that is simply entertaining or decorative.

Each of the pieces you’ve mentioned also deals with juxtaposition?

That’s true. That’s an essential condition of how we live. Particularly now. We’re not living in a holistic, agrarian culture where I grow a tree, make it into the beautiful chair, sit on it and eat a bowl of barley that I grew in my garden. We live in an age of juxtapositions where geographic and temporal realities are constantly colliding. Those kinds of juxtapositions permeate my music…to me, it seems inevitable.

Can you talk a bit more about that, specifically in relation to Secret Arnold?

When asked to write the piece in 1999, I said, “what am I listening to?” And I was listening to Portishead and a fairly obscure dub album by Clive ‘Randy’ Chin. I was also reading Bernstein’s The Unanswered Question. He writes about the last movement of Schoenberg’s second string quartet where the soprano suddenly comes in out of the blue, singing “I feel air from other planets” and the language moves us into the new realm of the twelve tone. So, in that piece, I wanted to create a space where these three very different musics could cohabit. What was fun about it, was that once I started to break them down, there were so many areas of overlap. It was kind of spooky. The Portishead and the dub clip, shared this wonderful harmonic space, and then the Schoenberg formed a counterpoint…it was surprising how they opened up to each other, like characters finding things in common and making music together.

Do you try and achieve a unity between them or separately amongst them?

At times they’re playing with each other, so to speak. And other times, one strong identity interrupts. So, there is that juxtaposition of very different musical materials. That being said, some of the most extreme juxtapositions are of materials derived from the same composer. I’m not keeping one person’s identity so intact that they’re the same throughout the piece. It’s more what happens if you speed the Portishead up and slow down the Schoenberg.. Do they start to ooze into each other? I think of that process as a way of re-listening and re-hearing music that’s already familiar to you.

Are you seeking out connections between them despite their disconnection?

Yeah, but I don’t want to homogenize them into each other. It’s more an experiment of what happens when they share the same space.

How do you want it to be perceived?

In that piece, I felt there were elements of humour in the interpolations of the contrasting materials. But also there are moments that turned out to be very beautiful, where you heard something that in dub is raw and funky, but when orchestrated becomes luscious and Mahlerian. That’s fascinating to me — a character showing another side of themselves that you hadn’t realized was there.

That’s a recontextualization thing?

Perhaps. I hope that people who think these divergent musics have nothing in common would maybe think again, would open their ears in a new way.

What would Schoenberg have to say about that?

I’m sure he’d be fine with it. I followed dodecaphonic procedures throughout (laughing).

How have these ideas come together in your recent work?

I just had a piece mindmeat premiered in New York, which was for piano and percussion. The texts were by Dennis Lee, from his new book UN. The players had wanted something theatrical, but in fact, the theatricalities ended up being pretty subtle. They don’t really move, other than to play their instruments and to sing and speak the text.

What is the subject matter of the texts?

It’s a cycle of 54 very short poems. The language itself is breaking down and reconstituting itself into words that don’t exist, but which make absolute sense. It’s about the destruction of our world. There’s a cyber-apocalyptic-bebop feeling to the whole book: the poems are utterly dark yet beautifully musical. In some movements the words aren’t heard explicitly, but in others the players sing or speak them. The performers (Danny Tunick and Kathy Supové) were blown away by Dennis’ poetry. It’s very bleak, but the energy of the poems sustains you through that bleakness. I’m also writing a piece for Continuum for February. Each of the players is keeping a dream diary. It’s kind of an alarming prospect, but I thought I’d like to hear the music of their dreams.