SOUNDSTAGE! ON HIFIFeatures Archives

March 1, 2003


Does Humor Belong in Music?

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Savvy readers will recognize the title as a theft from the great Frank Zappa, a man with an unfortunate amount of experience in how little people value humor in music. Because of his weakness for bad puns and scatological humor, many people still have a hard time taking Frank Zappa seriously, even though his bona fides are impeccable. In fact, on March 2, the American Composer's Orchestra will present a concert pairing several of his works with those of emerging contemporary composers. In his program notes for the concert, Steven Ledbetter observes, "Zappa's music embraces the fullest range of American popular culture while simultaneously satirizing American political and social convention. Its energy, many layers of activity, sly quotations, and cross-references have continued to arouse interest and comment since the composer's death a decade ago."

The fact is that it's hard to get respect when you're funny.

But, as the quote attributed to many noted thespians would have it, "Dying's easy; comedy is hard." It's awfully difficult to be funny -- it's even harder to be funny and smart.

These thoughts were inspired by seeing Polygraph Lounge recently. You may not have heard of the band . . . yet, but if there's any justice, you will.

Polygraph Lounge is Rob Schwimmer and Mark Stewart (and, if you're lucky, Melissa Fathman).

Schwimmer is a composer, pianist, thereminist, synthesist, singer, and arranger who has performed and recorded throughout the world. In fact, if it weren't such a left-handed compliment, you could call him the best-known theremin virtuoso in the world -- except that there are no well-known theremin players (even the most famous one of all times, Clara Rockmore, is all but unknown to the world at large).

Stewart is a multi-instrumentalist, singer, composer, and instrument designer. He's toured with Paul Simon as a guitarist, was a founding member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, a member of Steve Reich and Musicians (as a cellist), and is part of David Krakauer's Klezmer Madness, The Fred Frith Guitar Quartet, Arnold Dreyblatt's Orchestra of Excited Strings, and Zeena Parkins' Gangster Band.

Melissa Fathman is a classically trained singer who has performed Mozart in Merkin Hall, Steve Reich in Indiana, Anthony Braxton in Hell's Kitchen, Gershwin in Saint Louis, Medieval motets in the base of the Brooklyn Bridge and "The Theme From Goldfinger" in dives all over New York with the Polygraph Lounge.

Polygraph Lounge concerts are like putting all of contemporary popular culture in a blender. In the course of a single hour, the performers probably refer to, quote from, parody, or pay homage to about 500 songs, ranging from works by Laurie Anderson and Steve Reich to Paul Anka and Blondie. The pace is breakneck: The instrumentalists leap from instrument to instrument -- some homemade and some quite obscure -- but one thing remains constant and that is the level of musicianship is astonishingly high.

The humor, on the other hand, is not always so elevated. Some of it is (and requires almost as encyclopedic a knowledge of pop and classical forms as that evidenced by the band -- although few of us have that much musical savvy on tap), but some of it is accessible to any fifth grader. The night I saw the band, they performed a twenty-minute epic on Moby Dick, which ran the gamut from quotes and allusions to George Crumb and Laurie Anderson to song parodies like "Moby I'm Amazed," "Torn Between Two Blubbers," "A Whiter Shade of Whale," and about 30 others. They performed a Valentine's Day tribute that included a version of the Nutcracker, replete with a "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" played on a trio of slide whistles and synthesizer and portions of the main theme that incorporated duck calls and a note-perfect rendition of "Good Vibrations," wherein Schwimmer played the famous theremin solo using a vibrator as a "plectrum."

It's two parts Weird Al Yankovich blended with an equal measure of Peter Schickele, but played back at the speed of light. The hour I spent listening to Polygraph Lounge went by at lightning speed, but it didn't feel short at all. That's partially because the band sprays jokes, puns, and musical references at a rate of about 10 per minute and even the quickest among us was only catching about seven of them. That lag meant I continued to get references for days after the show was over.

As good as Polygraph Lounge is, I doubt they'll ever really get credit for their skill. They're funny as all get out and smart as can be, but they wear their erudition lightly, so few people will ever realize just how smart they are -- or how talented as musicians.

Maybe a decade after their deaths, they'll begin to be appreciated as they should be, but why wait? Go hear Polygraph Lounge the next chance you get. You'll have a fabulous time, although your abs might hurt for a week, and you'll be supporting several of the smartest, most talented, and funniest musicians you'll ever have the privilege to hear.

And, like me, you'll probably answer the header's question with a resounding YES!

...Wes Phillips

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