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Originally published August 31, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 31, 2007 at 2:04 AM

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Composer's jovial shtick is serious musical business

He'll be known forever as P. D. Q. Bach, the imaginary composer whose works — dutifully "discovered" by professor Peter Schickele...

Seattle Times music critic

He'll be known forever as P.D.Q. Bach, the imaginary composer whose works — dutifully "discovered" by professor Peter Schickele — have convulsed audiences around the world in laughter (and wincing).

Schickele, who is composer in residence this week at the Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival, doesn't really mind that his so-called "serious" output as a composer is often overshadowed by his brilliant musical parodies as P.D.Q.

"I don't really like the term 'serious music' anyway," says the bearded composer, whose concert attire has been known to include a casual shirt and hiking boots. "It implies that other kinds of music, like jazz and folk, aren't serious. And a lot of my favorite classical music, by composers like Scarlatti, Haydn and Shostakovich, is sort of in between serious and humorous."

Does Schickele ever feel that his own alter ego, P.D.Q., has hijacked his composing career?

The composer laughs.

"There was a time when I got tired of the P.D.Q. tours. I gave up touring in 1992, for several years. But it's a two-way street with P.D.Q. One reason I always wanted to be a professor is that I wanted to have summers off to concentrate on composing. P.D.Q. tours made enough money for me in the winter months that I could afford to take time off for my other work."

And it's been quite a lot of work. Schickele's output as Schickele is astonishingly varied: more than 100 works in the genres of orchestra, chorus, chamber, song, film and TV, with a broad canvas of influences that all somehow come out as Americana. In addition to his musical satires as P.D.Q. (an output that includes some 100 pieces with such titles as "Oedipus Tex," "The Civilian Barber" and "Concerto for Two Pianos Versus Orchestra"), Schickele also created a long-running weekly syndicated radio program called "Schickele Mix," which won the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers' Deems Taylor Award. Along the way he also has won five Grammys.

His musical inspirations range far and wide, as evidenced in several of Schickele's works on the Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival programs. One piece (for piano, four hands) called "Morning Music" draws some of its forms from Indian ragas and has a distinctly minimalist flavor; other pieces sound like descendants of Copland and Piston. You'll hear elements of folk music, jazz and world music happily bumping elbows in most Schickele scores.

"I went to Juilliard with Philip Glass [the noted minimalist composer]," Schickele reflects, "and I went to his concerts since the beginning, when no one would have anything to do with him. Philip, Terry Riley and a few others were influences, along with a very strong strain of Brahms and Schubert."

Perhaps you don't think that Fargo, N.D. — where the composer spent many of his growing-up years — as a hotbed of classical culture, but Schickele swears that was the case. During his teen years in Fargo, he played a lot of chamber music, including tooting the bassoon in a community orchestra that played works of Olivier Messiaen and Shostakovich. Schickele's piano teacher led him toward works of William Schuman, Roy Harris and Copland. It was "a very lively scene," as Schickele puts it.

Almost everything that Schickele writes, however, has a tinge of humor here and there, even the so-called "serious stuff." His piece for the Orcas Festival, a quartet called "Music for Orcas Island," is fairly straight-faced — except for the insertion of a square-dance movement.

"One reason I resonate with Mozart and Schubert so much," he confesses, "is that they're both party animals. They loved to write music for friends and get-togethers."

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So does Schickele, which led him to "discover" several heretofore unknown P.D.Q. Bach scores for the entertainment and amazement of his friends. Soon these pieces became so popular that Schickele started touring, though it took awhile for that career to take off. "I took a 22-piece orchestra on tour, which is a very efficient way of losing money," the composer cheerfully reports.

All that has changed over time, and now Schickele's P.D.Q. tours are considerably more streamlined. In November, a recording of the latest "Jekyll and Hyde Tour," which includes "fun stuff from both P.D.Q. and Schickele," will be released. He also is at work on several commissions, including one for the Louisville Orchestra for a celebration of Lincoln's birthday. Not surprisingly, it will focus on Lincoln's humor; the Great Emancipator was quite a punster, according to Schickele.

"I've been very lucky," he muses. "In my life, I've always had a couple of irons in the fire, and when one goes away, another appears. I've been thinking about writing an autobiography, and from time to time I make a few notes and throw them into a file. But I'm not quite ready. Right now, I'm busy entertaining people; my mother said I've been doing that since I was 18 months old. Now I'm one of those obnoxious adults who still loves to entertain."

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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