Friday, February 22, 2008

Let's not take this too seriously . . .

One of my favorite little discoveries in my first year of blogging (anniversary coming on Sunday!) is this exchange between British composers George Benjamin and Luke Bedford:

GB: where do you find your inspiration for new pieces?
LB: I'm still most inspired by the music of the 50s and 60s, people like Stockhausen, Xenakis, and Boulez. But I'm also fascinated by comedy. I find I can learn things technically from shows like Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
GB: My great friend, the composer Oliver Knussen, loves Curb Your Enthusiasm, and he's trying so hard to convert me. Every other conversation we have, he will drop it in. But I'm succeeding so far in resisting him, although it's very hard to resist Olly.
LB: I really love the way the stories converge in Curb Your Enthusiasm.
GB: I find that Fawlty Towers does that magnificently. In the beginning of a Fawlty Towers episode, reality is disturbed. You get about five different types of character, and they all send out their tendrils, and by the end of half an hour, they're all connected in the climax in the most atrocious ways. It's a mix of inevitability and awful, agonising surprise: and that really is a lesson in composition. You set up things that disturb normality in the beginning; by the end it's culminated in something surprising. It's as if in bar five of a piece, you plant a tiny little detail which shouldn't be there, and that little moment grows into the biggest element in the music 10 minutes later.

I thought of this recently when I confessed to rating A Mighty Wind as one of my three favorite movies of all-time. The skill involved in making the best comedy work is inevitably (and, perhaps, happily) underestimated because of the generally lighthearted tone. Bedford and Benjamin are correct to point out the sophisticated "compositional" way in which a comedic scene can weave various strands together, and everyone knows that timing (rhythmic sensitivity) is what makes comedy work. However, there's a different musical point to be made about A Mighty Wind, which is that the best comedic actors and impressionists tend to have amazingly good ears for the subtlest of details.

Yes, such skills can be used for pure silliness (nothing wrong with that), but they also can enable really convincing acting. I honestly believe that Christopher Guest, Catherine O'Hara, John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch, and Ed Begley, Jr. gave Oscar-worthy performances, so spot-on and believable are the folks they created. Guest amazes me more than any of them, because his Alan Barrow is so beautifully underplayed that the acting disappears; Guest lost himself equally well as Harlan Pepper in Best in Show. That movie is sillier and less realistic than AMW, but even if Fred Willard steals the show, Harlan helps ground it in reality - a very strange reality, but still.

It's surely not coincidental that improv comedians with great listening skills were able to create some of the most convincing musical characters in cinema history. You can't fake being a musician without an ear for music; of course, many of these actors are musicians to some degree or another. The Folksmen (Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer) even live alternate musical lives as Spinal Tap, and John Michael Higgins, who stars as the leader of The New Main Street Singers, arranged the vocal harmonies for this psycho-happy group. (Having grown up hearing The New Christy Minstrels on multiple Goodyear Christmas albums, I can confirm that Higgins and Co. got the psycho-happy thing down right.) And who knew that Eugene Levy could flat out sing? Granted, becoming a convincing folk musician is easier than becoming Jacqueline du Pré, but you can't fake being musical. (By the way, I can forgive Emily Watson for not becoming a great cellist, but she could learn a lot from Christopher Guest about subtlety in inhabiting a role.)

Finally, as a musician, I value comedy not just because it requires great timing and a great ear, but because it reminds us not to take things too seriously. More and more, I find myself wanting to focus on enjoying music more than treating it as some sort of high-stakes artistic endeavor. I was recently rehearsing a Beethoven sonata with a violinist and I found the inevitable discussions about matching articulations, and subito pianos, and settling on a tempo to be so beyond the point. I know that those things do matter, and having been trained to take them seriously can make music-making more satisfying, but the music is pretty satisfying just played for sheer pleasure. Like in this fabulous deleted scene from A Mighty Wind (although even the Folksmen get bogged down in a little rehearsal obsessiveness):

"Iron law, Alan: nonny before ninny. That's just all you need to know."

[Two posts in one day? Ah, the beauty of a snowed-out rehearsal.]
UPDATE: As if to make my point, immediately after finishing this post, I saw one of the most flawlessly constructed half-hours in TV history, the "Room Service" episode of Frasier. The performance of the waiter ("Ohh-kay...") alone is a pitch-perfect example of perfect timing. He's just a bit player, but Lilith proves to be one of the few characters who can hold her own on screen with Frasier and Niles. If only Roz, Daphne, and Martin had been that virtuosic.

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