Wednesday, 26 October 2016


The other day I came across some music by Laraaji (Edward Larry Gordon) on the radio, which was preceded by a short discourse on his mystical views. As well as being a recorded musician associated with Brian Eno he runs laughter meditation workshops. He has a strong belief in the power of laughter and gave some demonstrations on how to use it for therapeutic purposes. Being a rare combination of musician and stand-up comedian it would be easy to dismiss him out of hand as a serious contributor to psychology or medicine, but there is much to be said about laughter and its relation to music.

We know that humour is uniquely human and laughter (or the spasm of certain muscles) is not. Music is filled with human emotive sounds, operatic screams, tears, cries of pain and even some examples of laughter, but it is far less well represented. Why is this? 

As usual psychologists have taken this pleasurable activity back to early man and related laughter to fight or flight responses. Like an earlier discussion about whooping and group vocalisation for attracting females, (and remember we are talking about our great, great....grandmothers here), the collective sound of laughter is a signal. Unlike the whooping (though similar) laughter is supposedly a response to the passing of danger. I have witnessed laughter and danger responses frequently amongst groups of teenagers, particularly older teenagers who are experts at mocking laughter which usually suggests superiority, and on occasion seen the same group rapidly disperse when their victim turns on the group, after which the quality of the laughter takes on a different character. One may note that the Bible has very little to offer on the matter of laughter, but mockery and laughter gets a mention; the following passage relates to a group of children laughing at the prophet Elisha:

He went up from there to Bethel and, as he was on his way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Get along with you, bald head, get along.” He turned round and looked at them and he cursed then in the name of the Lord; and two she-bears came out of a wood and mauled forty-two of them (2 Kings 2:23).”

Despite its less pleasant aspects, laughter is the oil of society. Studies have revealed that people are far more likely to laugh in a group (a figure of x30 is given), that made me smile but then I was reading that on my own. I have only ever attended a stand-up comic's routine twice in my life, once to see Max Wall and once Bernard Wrigley (also a musician - a folk singer of remarkably odd and often amusing songs).

This link is to some sea shanties accompanied by Bernard's very deep squeeze-box, don't expect high art, this raw, but very effective communication.

Both of these performers for me support the idea of social laughter, after the Max Wall show I wondered what on earth was funny in the strange walks and contorted shapes he created on stage, as one might with the John Cleese movements in Monty Python and the Fawlty Towers episode "the Germans". It was as if some near magical trick had been played with my perception. I believe most musicians and composers recognise this magnifying effect of shared experience, and some  of the greatest composers have included the devices that create humour and laughter, namely playing with incongruity.

Laughter can occur at serious moments and important rituals in our lives. I recall an occasion when a funeral was taking place in my home town, it was late in the year, dark, cold, and most of all, wet. These conditions led to one of the officials slipping into the grave. There should have been shock, horror or at least concern, but several of the mourners broke out into laughter of the uncontrollable type. We laugh at what is unpredictable and confusing. Sometimes we also arrive at the same state from sheer exhaustion with banal repetition, a form of hysteria. 

There are very few characteristics that are shared by all humans, these blogs discussed the intervals of the major and minor third as sounds recognised for their emotive nature by all nations and cultures, laughter has the same quality. Any characteristic that has such currency has to have considerable significance for composers, and yet laughter plays a minor role in music, this may be in part due to the very negative outlook philosophy has had on the subject from the time of Plato onwards.

Creating an emotional reaction is useful to the composer, though at the present time emotion and music have a more difficult relationship than in the 19th century. Ligeti had the ability to make audiences laugh by having his performers act out in public the types of behaviour usually kept out of sight, tantrums and burping are two examples that come readily to mind. Le Grand Macabre (1977, revised 1996) has as its subject death and laughter. Music and death is a huge subject, and can be seen in hymns to the dead, death in opera, and more recently the idea of preservation of voices on recorded media (and the sounds of animals that have become
extinct). The 20th century added greatly to works dealing with death with very different responses, e.g. the music of the holocaust “Different Trains” by Reich, the loss of a generation of artists after WW1 as in the Piano Sonata by Frank Bridge, and the response to the use of the atomic bomb, Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima.

Le Grand Macabre takes a different approach to most artistic outlooks on death in that it turns to laughter, it is like the temper tantrum presentation, bringing its audience face to face with tasteless laughter. We are invited to laugh in the face of death.

“anyone who has been through horrifying experiences is not likely to create terrifying works of art in all seriousness” (Ligeti).

An extensive commentary on Ligeti’s opera in relation to death and laughter may be read here:

and in the work of a remarkably influential lecturer Richard Steinitz who took me as a student to a number of recitals of Ligeti’s music: György Ligeti: Music of the Imagination.

The theories of laughter have evolved over several centuries and make fascinating reading, one of the most recent is Incongruity Theory, and this is:
The perception of something incongruous—something that violates our mental patterns and expectations. This approach was taken by James Beattie, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, Søren Kierkegaard, and many later philosophers and psychologists.

The bringing together of unexpected combinations to create laughter should be one of the wealthiest areas of exploration with sampled sound. Not only can the composer create an environment for audience laughter but may use laughter itself as a sound source. This approach was taken in my Homage to Marcel Marceau, where the laughter creates a sense of ambiguity, distancing the audience from the original intention of the mime.

Returning to Ligeti this commentary on Apparitions gives a real insight into a huge variety of unexpected combinations:

 “sounding planes and masses… may succeed, penetrate or mingle with one another—floating networks that get torn up or entangled—wet, sticky, gelatinous, fibrous, dry, brittle, granular and compact materials, shreds, curlicues, splinters, and traces of every sort—imaginary buildings, labyrinths, inscriptions, texts, dialogues, insects—states, events, processes, blendings, transformations, catastrophes, disintegrations, disappearances.”

This blog arose from an e-mail from Nurtan who had shared a humorous composition of a gentle nature, the fact that he could compose a humorous work at a time of considerable difficulty shows how therapeutic and valuable laughter can be, and how much more it can become as the level of difficulty increases.

The next blog is on attention and memory, yet another source for laughter in our later years.