A Double Life
Splitting the difference between Peter Schickele and his alter ego, P.D.Q. Bach
The actor whose role takes over his life.
The ventriloquist whose dummy has a mind of its own.
The milquetoast scientist whose potion releases an alter ego that's all raging id.
The hero bedeviled by a split personality has long been a literary staple, and he shows up so regularly on film and TV today that most of us can spot a psyche at war with itself from 50 paces. That's why the title of the program that Peter Schickele is bringing to the Long Center March 3, P.D.Q. Bach and Peter Schickele: The Jekyll and Hyde Tour, had us hearing a cry for help. After all, for 45 years now, Schickele has been playing second fiddle, as it were, to his infamous comedic creation – purportedly the last and least talented of Johann Sebastian's many children. Does this mean the composer has had it with those decades of schticking it to classical music via the satirical compositions of P.D.Q. at the expense of his own music and is creating a psychic divide between his highbrow and lowbrow personas?
By way of intervention, we put the question to Schickele, who took pains to point out that "this is a comedy show that we're doing. There are maybe two little things in it that are 'serious relief,' and the Peter Schickele stuff as well as the P.D.Q. Bach stuff is funny." He also set us straight on how his split personality isn't so split and how much of a debt – comedic and musical – he owes to that dean of musical spoofery, Spike Jones.
Austin Chronicle: Let's start with Spike Jones.
Peter Schickele: That's a good place to start. In a way, he got me into music. I was not a prodigy at all. I was not interested in music. But I was very theatrically oriented. My brother and I and our friends had a theatre in our basement, and we'd write plays and put them on. And in those days – we're talking the middle and late Forties – Spike Jones had a wonderful stage show. It was really sort of the last gasp of vaudeville. I saw that show twice, once in Washington, D.C., and once in Fargo, North Dakota, and the theatrical aspect of it really drew me in. So when I was about 12, I put together a little band – and when I say "band," I'm talking about two clarinets, a violin, and a tom-tom, that was the band – and it was definitely a Spike Jones imitation. It was called Jerky Jems & His Balmy Brothers. In those days, you made everything out of orange crates, so we had bandstands made out of orange crates with "J.J." on them. And my first music writing experience was doing arrangements for that band, things like "The Song of the Volga Boatmen" and stuff like that, and we had comedy routines for it. All I can say is, I'm glad there were no video cameras back then because I'm sure they were embarrassing.
AC: I'd think that anybody who's captivated by Spike Jones sort of absorbs an understanding of arrangement because you're hearing familiar music played by oddball instruments. What role did that play in getting you arranging music?
PS: It was very direct. Before I got interested in actually making music, my brother and our friends and I would sit around for hours acting out the Spike Jones records for each other. So when I started working with that little band, I mentioned the four basic instruments, but anything we could hit that made a sound, we would use. At the same time that I started making these supposedly funny arrangements, I also started arranging folk songs for the band – "Down in the Valley" and things like that. So right from the beginning, I was doing serious stuff as well as funnier stuff, and that has remained true for the rest of my life. I've always written serious stuff as well as funny stuff, and they're equally important to me. The funny stuff is not just a way of putting food on the table. I'm just one of those people who's a born entertainer. I love to make people laugh. But it would be sad if for any reason I couldn't do serious music. I've had a very lucky life in that I've been able to do both.
AC: Calling the concert you're bringing here the Jekyll and Hyde Tour plays off those separate personas, your serious self and your comedic self. But other comments you've made make it sound like those sides are pretty well integrated in your personality. Do you feel that way?
PS: Yeah, oh yeah. As a matter of fact, I've had sketchbooks that I've traveled with over the last 40 years, and if I get any ideas, I just write 'em down in there like an artist's sketchbook, and I sometimes have written down ideas without being sure whether they would end up being Peter Schickele or P.D.Q. Bach. There are a lot of Mozart divertimenti, for instance, that have passages – [singing] ya ta ta ta taaa, diddle a ta ta ta ta di pi da di pum pi pum – really peppy. They're not exactly funny, but they're witty, and that's very much a part of my so-called serious music, too. So, as you say, they are integrated.
AC: When you started to study music, were you influenced by what was going on at that time in the field – the push and pull of serialism and atonal music or the legacy of composers like Roy Harris and Aaron Copland?
PS: In my teenage years I was involved both in classical music and in Spike Jones. I was always drawn toward nonclassical kinds of music, too, and it was a little difficult then because my composition teacher when I was 15 or 16 had no use for popular music whatsoever. You know, at that age, the people you revere you want to please, so I thought I shouldn't like nonclassical music, but I did. And one of the things about growing up, of course, is that you learn that you don't have to choose. You can like both.
When I was at Swarthmore, I was the only music major there, and people sort of looked at me as "the classical music guy." There were people who played classical music, but I was the only composition and music major. And I can remember that there were people who were sort of unpleasantly shocked when I would go into the student lounge and put on the jukebox Elvis Presley and Little Richard, 'cause I loved that stuff, you know.
AC: It sounds like you had an unusual amount of opportunity at Swarthmore being the only classical guy.
PS: Exactly. When I was at Juilliard, once a semester or something, they would devote one session of the Juilliard orchestra's rehearsal time to playing student compositions. Now, the Juilliard orchestra in one session could play a piece better than the Swarthmore College orchestra after rehearsing for a whole semester. But the difference is exactly what you said. I stood in line at Juilliard to get a piece played. There were all sorts of other composers there, too. Whereas at Swarthmore, I had four orchestral pieces played during the time I was there, and that's because I was the only person writing orchestral music. So there were advantages about both, but by the time I went to Juilliard I knew that I was interested in more than classical music. I mean, I knew it all along, but I had accepted that.
It did take me a while to deal with that post-Webern revolution that you mention. It isn't my personality, atonality or an indefinite beat. On the other hand, the best of that music had so much energy that I couldn't ignore it completely. I graduated from Juilliard with my master's in composition in 1960, but I would say that it took me until 1966 or '67 to find my own voice completely.
AC: Sometimes there's the art that you like and then the art that you make. And there's a sifting process, where you say, "Well, I like this kind of art, but should I be making this kind of art?"
PS: In retrospect, you're sort of sad that you spend so much time wondering about that, but that's the way it is. I wrote pieces all along in there. I wrote pieces that I still like and had published, but I also wrote quite a few quasi-12-tone pieces that I have not kept in my catalog. They just don't interest me anymore. I never wrote an absolutely 12-tone piece. I just couldn't get involved in the arithmetic, couldn't stay interested. I did write atonal music and music that has no regular beat. But I remember, I think about 1967, writing a piece for clarinet and piano, and it was so Schubertian in a way – not literally, in that it would have been literally written by Schubert, but the gestures were sort of Schubertian – I remember thinking, "Can I really do this?" And I just decided that I'm gonna do it 'cause I like it. And that was an important point, I think, in my development.
AC: Do you have an audience in mind when you're writing a piece of music?
PS: I have an audience in the sense that I'm a born entertainer. My mother once said that I've been entertaining people since I was 18 months old. And I told that to a musician I work with in New York, and she said, "What took you so long?" I was definitely that kind of annoying kid who had to get up and give a little show, you know, and one of the interesting ways that goes over into serious music is, if I'm writing some very exciting, fast music that builds tension going up to the ending or something, I imagine the audience reaction to the ending. I imagine the applause. And it's not just the egocentricity, although there's that, too; it's also just being theatrical, I think. Mozart was a theatrical composer, and I think that imagining the response of the audience is simply being theatrical. So I don't apologize for that. Of course, when it's played in front of the audience, you see whether you get that reaction that you had imagined or not.
AC: Is there any more pressure when you're going for a specific joke or a humorous response?
PS: Definitely. You know the old cliché, I can't remember who said it on his deathbed, you know, that "dying is easy, comedy is hard," but it's really true because if you write a serious play and there's no particular reaction to it, you can say, "Well, they weren't involved in it." But if you do a joke and nobody laughs, there's no doubt about it. It's just clear-cut that it didn't go over. Bill Walters, the stage manager that I've worked with for practically my whole P.D.Q. Bach career, we say jokingly, if something doesn't go over, "Well, they didn't hear it."
AC: Do you feel like you're writing to an "in" crowd, the crowd that gets the very specific classical music references? Are there divisions within your audience?
PS: There are, and basically I go by my own sense of humor, and as you know, because you know Spike Jones, that includes everything from very broad things to the very sophisticated. As a matter of fact, some of Spike Jones' stuff is too broad even for me. So what I try to do is, I have visual gags, like the exploding piano bench and things like that ....
AC: The theatrical stuff.
PS: Yeah, right. Then there are the spoken introductions, which is basically stand-up comedy. Then there is the musical humor, with the quotations and the music going in the wrong direction from what you expect and everything, and I figure you can throw a few things in there that only the most sophisticated are gonna get, and they'll go over other people's heads. If you don't have too many of those, if the proportion isn't too high, then things will go along fine.
AC: The Sixties were such a fertile period for comedy, with the release of comedy LPs and comedians on television, and it seemed like there was room for all kinds of comedy, including comedy based in classical music. I remember Victor Borge and Anna Russell, as well as you. Do you think that's true today? Do you encounter anything like that in your travels?
PS: I encounter it in students somewhat. But I'm always amazed, looking at any given time, how few musical humorists that there are, period. In the Spike Jones days, he was just about the only one. And then, in a classic example of what I regard as a truism, which is that you can't make fun of things you don't like, [he couldn't make fun of rock & roll]. Spike Jones made fun of the music of his time, but when it came to rock & roll, he hated it. He thought rock & roll sounded like a parody already, and he couldn't do good take-offs of rock & roll. Then Stan Freberg came along, [who could]. Do you remember a group called the Harmonicats? They were harmonica players, and they had some very funny bits. But they weren't full-time comedy, as it were; they had comedy bits on their [television] show. If you look at any given time, there weren't that many people devoted to musical humor. In terms of people who have a real career and have hit records and things like that, there are never very many. I think there's always been more musical humor in the club scene that you don't know about. But on a professional level, I don't see much around now.
AC: Did you ever wake up one day and say, "Oh my god, I've become Spike Jones!"?
PS: [Laughs] Well, not exactly, because, in the first place, of course, my target has always been the classical side more than the pop side. In the second place, I've never tried to be – that traveling show that he had that we were talking about, that was really a huge endeavor. I mean, that was a cast of thousands and fancy props – now, I've had some fancy props in my day, but that was full of things like the back of a string bass opening up and a midget coming out, you know, real vaudeville stuff. I'm going with my daughter tonight to see what I expect is one of the last vestiges of a certain kind of vaudeville, which is the Harlem Globetrotters. I've never seen them, but I really like broad humor if it's done well – like anything, it's got to be done well. I've always regretted that I didn't see vaudeville back in its heyday.
P.D.Q. Bach and Peter Schickele: The Jekyll and Hyde Tour will be presented Wednesday, March 3, 8pm, in Dell Hall at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, 701 W. Riverside. For more information, visit www.thelongcenter.org.