Music and Humor : The Cartoon Music Aesthetic of Carl Stalling


Although the power of music to elicit emotions has been widely recognized, the capacity of music to produce laugher has been relatively unexplored. First of all, It is possible to create musical jokes? It is possible to address humor through music? It is possible to make people laugh with a piece of music?

In western music, the relation between humor and music can be traced to “A Musical Joke” (Ein Musikalischer Spaß) published by Mozart in 1787. In this work, Mozart included elements that were not expected by the audience of his time, elements that made the piece sounds funny, incongruous, and incoherent.  Some of these alien elements were the use of multitonality, whole-tone scales, and asymmetrical phrasing. Haydn, another composer from the classical period, also explored during the 18th century the making of musical jokes through the violation of audience expectations. Haydn included false endings (Symphony No.90, Quartets Op. 33 and Op. 50) and sudden loud chords in some of his pieces (fortissimo chord in the middle of the Andante of the “Surprise Symphony”) in order to produce a comic effect.

At the beginning 20th century, Charles Ives, experimented with musical humor challenging the expectations of the audience of his time. His singular way of making jokes was by mixing together long segments of well-known songs, hymns and tunes that were altered in their rhythms and harmonies. For instance, in the second movement of his “Trio” for violin, cello, and piano, entitled “TSIAJ” (This Scherzo Is A Joke) he superimposed and transformed four well-known tunes of his time (“In the Sweet Bye and Bye”, “Marching through Georgia”, “Old Kentucky Home”, and “The Fountain”). Other works in which Ives practiced this method of composition are “Overture and March ‘1776’”,  “Country Band March”, “Central Park in the Dark” and  “Washington’s Birthday.”

By the time Charles Ives was composing musical jokes by mashing up and transforming pieces from the popular repertoire, Carl Stalling was starting his musical career as a film accompanist in Kansas City. Some decades later, Stalling became the musical director of the Warner Bros. animation studio, and the composer of almost 600 scores for theatrical cartoons (1936-1958). As Mozart, Haydn, and Ives, Stalling addressed the relationship between music and humor by violating the expectations of the audience. His music is rhythmically complex with extreme tempos, meters, and dynamics shifts. It is a music that constantly changes style, orchestration, density, and texture All these changes make the form and structure of Stalling scores incongruous, discontinuous, and fragmented.

Instead of superimposing different songs as Charles Ives did, Stalling composed by putting together, one after the other, bits and pieces of popular tunes, classical greats, incidental music, and his own compositions. His music was composed as a “pastiche.” [1] This compositional method was an evolution of what Stalling learned at the beginning of his career as a film accompanist, playing the organ while the silent movie was being projected in the screen of the Isis Theater of Kansas City [2]. Film accompanists relied in thematic musical catalogs (also called “cue books”) for they improvisation in theatres. These catalogs had well-known musical works arranged for piano and indexed according to the mood and situations that they were most often associated. For example, the catalog “Motion Picture Moods for Pianists and Organists” (A Rapid-Reference Collection of Selected Pieces) arranged by Erno Rapee in 1920, provides fifty two different moods and situations such as battle, calls, chase, chidren, dances, festival, funeral, grotesque, gruesome, happiness, horror, humorous, hunting, love-themes, lullabies, misterioso, orgies, oriental, passion, pastorale, race, sadness, and western. The work of the film accompanist consisted in selecting the appropriate cue for matching the story and as well for manipulating the feelings of the audience.

At Warner Bros. Stalling not only had at his disposition the typical film musical catalogues that were plenty of Public Domain works (usually pieces from the classic and romantic periods), but also had access to a huge catalogue of popular tunes right from the Tin Pan Alley. Since the Warner Bros. started to control large music publishing houses (DeSylva, Brown & Henderson, Remick, Advanced, Harms T.B. Harms, M. Witmark & Sons) an extensive library of favorite melodies was available, free of copyright issues, for him to compose. As I mentioned before Stalling used these extensive music catalogues, databases or libraries, for extracting brief snippets of melodies. Since there were not computers available, Stalling had to retrieve the right musical piece from his human memory and select the specific segment that he wanted to adapt for his scores. After that, he proceeded to arrange and adapt the music in playful ways. For instance he elongated the pieces, stopped and started them at weird points, twisted them up, shortened them in very creatively (ear stretching exercises) and arranged them to a big number of musical instruments (The Warner Bros. orchestra was 50-piece ensemble).

Beyond the musical cues from classical music and popular tunes lies Stalling pure composing. His original music usually works as little transitions between the miscellaneous quotations he borrowed from other composers. Because of this fact, his melodies are usually abstract and lyrical enough to counterbalance the fast mixture of styles and genres quoted from the catalogues (ragtime, swing, jazz, foxtrot, classic, romantic, opera, sonata, aria, and Americana song). Stalling’s original cues are funny in its own right and enrich the cartoon score with a special flavor, often going from an extremely fast, dissonant, and violent section of percussion and strings to a solo of a piccolo in half a second. For his original music, stalling relied heavily in the timber of specific instruments to comically illustrate the visuals. For instance, he used the trombone slide for representing someone jumping or falling; the bassoons bouncing with the on-screen character’s step; the plucked cellos accompanied tiptoeing characters; violent outbursts of brass and percussion when a character was having a mallet in the face; and the crazy flurry of strings and woodwinds for a frenzied dash.

Even if Stalling music is funny with or without the visuals, it is important to recognize that the wonderful quality of this music, its humor, its timing, its changes, its interruptions, its pervasive sense of suddenness, were achieved by Carl Stalling in the specific and unique contest of the Hollywood Animation Studio of the middle of the 20th century, the context of the “Golden Years of American Animation”. Although I would not explore deeply the tight collaborative process that the animation studio production system allowed, I would mention a few things that are helpful to understand the beauty of Stalling music.

First of all, as Chuck Jones, one of the animation directors of the Warner Bros studio, said, “The music was never ornamental or merely supportive to the imagery, but integral.” This integral quality means that at “Termite Terrace” (the name in which the WB animation studio was called) the music was thought as an essential part of the visuals and the narrative. Actually, the composer, Carl Stalling, was involved as many of the other members of the studio, in the process of creating the story and the gags right from the beginning of a new production in what they called “gag meetings”. Music and visuals started to be composed from the same time in a very collaborative atmosphere. The collaborative practices and the convergence of technology facilitated the tight production schedule (a cartoon had to be released for theatrical projections in a weekly base). For instance, animators and musical composer shared “exposure sheets” that outlined and timed out the action frame by frame (24 frames per second gave the composer the beat).  This convergence of music and visuals in a piece of paper facilitated the mathematical precision in which the audio and the visuals were related to each other, their perfect synchronization. There were also “bar or detail sheets” that provided a more complete information about the music, dialogue, sound effects and as well the visual timing. At the production level of recording the music, Stalling invented the “click” or “tick” track system for ensuring the synchronization of music and visuals when the orchestra was playing the scores (each member of the orchestra had a steady beat on his from a telephone receiver). The dubbing machine also allowed them to record several tracks independently and later, into the moviola, splice and paste them together during the final film editing.

This close collaboration and convergence of technologies and practices, influenced very much Carl Stalling music and provided it with a sort of cinematic syntax that can be appreciated in the way he cuts and jumps between different snippets of songs, the way he cross-fades different melodies, and fades them in and out. This collaboration and convergence also influenced Stalling music with a specific kind of narrative style, the one of the slapstick comedy based on constant interruptions and absence of an overarching dramatic logic. The abrupt changes in consequence, the feeling that the narrative implies one direction but incongruently ends in another one, creates a persistent “suddenness” in the music that goes hand with hand with the one of the narrative where gags are sequenced in chain one after the other one, stitched together at a very fast pace and without any coherent logic.

I have been describing all the elements that characterize Carl Stalling’s music as well the production context in which it was composed,  with the specific purpose of defining what I would like to call “cartoon music aesthetic,” an aesthetic that push the relation between music and humor to its limits,  violating the expectations of the audience in a systematic way. This cartoon aesthetic is unique of Carl Stalling and the Warner Bros. studio and belongs to a specific period of time, the one that goes from 1936 to 1958. The specific historical, economical and technological contexts in which this aesthetic was developed created a number of coincides that propitiated such detailed, mathematical and collaborative way of composing.

[ 1] A musical composition consisting of a series of songs or other musical pieces from various sources. (The Princeton online dictionary: http://wordnet.princeton.edu/)
[2] As a curious note, it interesting to notice that in the same Theatre, at the same time in 1920, Disney was working as an illustrator of commercial slides. Although years later Stalling and Disney collaborated together in the Silly Simphonies their careers took different paths.

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