Fruit of the brain

Bruce Adolphe and Kevin Kallaugher head to Boulder for a night of music and drawing

Kevin Kallaugher

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A political cartoonist and a classical musical composer meet at a neuroscience conference in Austria. As the scientists try to nail down just how creativity manifests in the brain, the cartoonist and the composer become friends and eventually plan to spend an evening in Boulder exploring their respective crafts…

OK, the joke needs some work. But for some laughs in the meantime, you can head to The Academy on Jan. 21, for a night with composer Bruce Adolphe and cartoonist Kevin Kallaugher. The night will feature audience participation and improvisation from both artists. And just as they did when they met at a conference exploring creativity, the two will detail their processes and delve deeper into the artistic mind.
“There is crossover in the way you think in creative terms, whether it’s music or drawing, and we want to explore that a little bit,” Kallaugher says.

Bruce Adolphe mixes classical composers and well-known tunes to create his Piano Puzzlers for NPR. Courtesy of Bruce Adolphe
Bruce Adolphe mixes classical composers and well-known tunes to create his Piano Puzzlers for NPR.

Both artists will connect their work with humor and show audiences the anatomy behind what we laugh at. As a writer, musician and professor, Adolphe says music can be funny even without words or images. He cites Joseph Haydn and Ludwig von Beethoven as classical music jokesters, among others. The humor can lie in scherzo movements or dance segments; the music can go off beat and shift, producing surprising rhythms or strange harmonic endings.
“In order for something to be funny, you need to have references to things that change your expectations, just like a joke,” Adolphe says. “You set up something then it takes a strange turn.”

Beyond his own compositions, Adolphe is also known for his Piano Puzzlers segment on NPR, in which he takes an easily identifiable song and plays it in the style of a classic composer. Listeners then call in and try to guess both elements. Some examples include “A Hard Day’s Night” in the style of Frederic Chopin, “Over the Rainbow” through Felix Mendelssohn and “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” played by Johannes Brahms. The juxtaposition can be tricky to dissect.

“Children’s tunes for example … I’ll play it in a romantic style, and the tune is actually there completely in the clear, but the harmonies and moods are so different that you don’t even hear it.

“I’ve done a couple versions of ‘London Bridge is Falling Down,’ and almost every time I do it usually people can’t hear it the first time. Then when I point it out you can’t help but hearing it. It’s almost like an M. C. Escher drawing or an optical illusion.”

Kevin Kallaugher inks political cartoons for The Economist and The Baltimore Sun. Courtesy of Kevin Kallaugher
Kevin Kallaugher does hours of research to keep his political cartoons pointed and original.

Putting the songs in a new environment helps you get a fresh look at each element, which is similar to Kallaugher’s work. He has published more than 8,000 cartoons for publications around the world, and has worked for The Baltimore Sun for more than 20 years and The Economist for more than 35.

When sitting down to do a cartoon, his process takes about 10 hours and starts with thorough research. He then narrows down his idea and begins to draft a sketch, thinking about composition, caricature and calligraphy. His ultimate goal is to polish his ideas in a crisp, amusing way.

“You want to find something that hopefully isn’t being an astute observer of the obvious,” he says. “You want to say something thought-provoking and also something, in my view, that moves the conversation forward that tries to get people talking and thinking about what’s happening next.”

Kallaugher says there are a hundred cartoons you can do on any given subject, with a million things that could be said about the upcoming election. If he were to have a conversation with someone about Donald Trump, he says, each observation could be turned into a cartoon.

It’s important to be open for inspiration, and Adolphe says an idea can strike at any time.

“Once I was watching a Fred Astaire movie with my daughter and ‘Cheek to Cheek,’ which is an Irving Berlin song, came on and there was a chord progression that reminded me of (Beethoven Sonata Pathetique),” Adolphe says. “So the reason that reminded me of that is because I write puzzlers all the time, so connections just hit me. It was a small connection, only about a few seconds long. But immediately I grabbed the two and put them together.”

Adolphe’s ultimate goal is to make sure the songs seem like they belong together. Sometimes the union is effortless. Others need to be forced together, and those can be more special.

“Sometimes when things don’t seem to fit together, it’s more fun when they do,” he says. “It’s not always about finding connections, sometimes it’s the exact opposite. I’ll take some that absolutely should not fit, and I’ll make it fit, and that’s often funnier when it works.”

Buzz 1-21 3Kevin Kallaugher

For Kallaugher, his obstacle is keeping his work pointed, original and relevant — not what’s funny today, but what’s interesting today. When the whole world is talking about one issue, it’s hard to elevate the conversation.

“How many times can you say the debt is bad or there are too many guns? You have to find new ways of saying that, and that can be a challenge,” Kallaugher says. “And to me that’s the most fun, the challenge of finding a new way, poking and stoking the creative juices to find a fresh dynamic possibility.”

Both Adolphe and Kallaugher are masters of their craft, which is essential when trying to infuse humor into something as complex as a classical music composition or a political cartoon. It’s only with deep institutional knowledge that one can properly deconstruct to reconstruct.

Buzz 1-21 4“I try to find, what I call, the scene of the story. The part of a story where it’s the weakest, where you can put your fingers in it and pull the threads apart to peek in behind and underneath the story and reveal a lot of what goes in it,” Kallaugher says. “To me that’s where you start dealing with satire. Satire is about finding the delicate underbelly and tickling it a little bit in order to get a point across.”
While neurologists are still trying to logistically map creativity, sometimes it’s necessary to kick back with artists like Adolphe and Kallaugher and just enjoy the fruit of the brain’s labor.

“The creative process is a mysterious thing,” Kallaugher says, “but to me it’s also so much fun.”

On the Bill: The Dairy Presents One Night Only: Cartoons & Hidden Tunes. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 21, The Academy, 970 Aurora Ave., Boulder.