The first time classical music humor on the internet was funny can be dated to approximately September 22, 2016, the launch of the page Classical Music Memes for Contemporary Teens. Once ruled by “Bach to the Future” and “You Can’t Handel It” type jokes, classical music humor now referenced Ferneyhough and conservatory anxiety and caused me to spit various fluids at my computer and cellphone in an array of embarrassing situations. (Shoutout to Quirky Cadential Memes as well.)

Rhys is a composition student at an Australian university. (He asked me not to print his last name, so that his compositions wouldn’t be overshadowed by his memes forever on the internet.) He got inspired by CCMfCT, made a few fan submissions, and then started his own page, Poor and/or unaesthetic art music memes for placeholder teens. He’s now surpassed the original with over 20,000 likes. Recently, I spoke with him on Skype.

VAN: Your page has gone pretty viral. Why do you think you’ve been able to reach so many people?

Rhys: It’s relatable content that fills a niche, I suppose. It’s not edgy in the slightest—I try and only post stuff that I’d be comfortable showing my mom. It’s sort of evolved, I didn’t intend for it to be completely safe for work. But that’s the audience that’s been attracted to it. So I thought, I might as well go with that.

When you say you didn’t intend for it to be completely safe for work, what did that mean? More swearing and nudity?

I steer clear of controversial opinions and just keep it music-focused. I don’t get into gender issues or politics; the page is meant to be for music fans, regardless of race, gender, or creed. I don’t particularly want to have my personal politics enter into it, since none of that is relevant to classic music humor.  

It may not be edgy in that way, but it does seem pretty deeply cynical to me.

It’s definitely cynical, but not the kind of edgy that’ll get your university calling you up and saying, “We’re sorry, but we’re going to have to let you go. We can’t have you here.”

Do you think people like your page so much because so many of them feel cynical about their chances of having a career in classical music?

It does hit hard in that you either laugh or cry. [Laughs.]

Take me through the process of how you make a meme.

I usually find one of the memes either on a Facebook page or on Reddit. Then I’ll take that, and I’ll usually have an idea of some sort of musical topic to relate it to. Although sometimes the idea for a classical music meme or joke comes first, and I’ll google in a roundabout way to find something to adapt, and fit in a new text.

So I’ve actually learned so much, it’s like I’m taking an extra class on incredibly obscure music references. Except this class is one that I only do to procrastinate from my real classes.

One of the things that I’ve learned about is, there’s this chap called Rued Langgaard, and he’s got an orchestral piece called “Music of the Spheres.” And the meme was—I’m explaining a meme in an interview, this is exceedingly surreal—but planet earth says something, and then all the other planets move away. And what I put planet earth saying was, “Let’s play ‘Music of the Spheres.’” Because it’s an orchestral piece that has a lot of spacial elements, there are parts of the orchestra in different spaces. It works on two levels: they could be moving into position for the piece, or they could be moving because they hate Langgaard.

So that’s how you first heard of Langgaard’s piece?

Yes. One of the things is that I get submissions from people, and they’ll recommend pieces, which has been really great for discovering hidden gems that I wouldn’t normally come across.

How would you define the difference between a Classic FM meme and the new memes, which are actually good?

I think I’ve had two memes shared by Classic FM. Essentially, they’re catering to the lowest common denominator. Which is Beethoven, Mozart, “This is a piano, it has 88 keys, hurdy-dur.” It’s very bottom-of-the-barrel stuff. I’m not saying that it’s bad—I mean, it is, but that’s not the reason. There is stuff that can cater to everyone that is quite funny. But [Classic FM] is lowest common denominator, and I make memes for myself. I do things that I find funny. And my tastes are a bit more than just Beethoven and Brahms, I suppose.

To me it almost feels like a generational thing. Internet humor right now is often extremely niche.

If you compare the memes of nowadays to 2010, or 2006, you don’t see any “I Can Has Cheezburger” or that kind of stuff. It’s all very surreal, absurdist humor.

When Classic FM shares your memes, does it feel like they’re getting stolen, or are you happy that more people are seeing them?

The first one actually wasn’t my meme, it was by someone else who submitted it to the page. It was about how all the modes are beautiful and then one is, NOT YOU. And then it actually got shared by somebody on Tumblr, and Classic FM shared from that Tumblr. I wasn’t being credited then, which was pretty annoying, so I messaged them and they fixed it.

But I honestly don’t care if they share my memes or not. The thing with having Classic FM share my memes is that, yes, the page sees another 3,000-4,000 people liking it, but it also means that those are the people who like Classic FM, and they don’t necessarily understand the humor. Since I’ve had them come over to the page, I’ve had a lot of posts of “this is not funny or “all atonal music sounds terrible.” That sort of thing. It’s like, Come on, man! It’s my page. Love it or leave it.

What do you do in that situation?

I don’t care, I’m being funny for me. I don’t really care what anybody else thinks about the page, at the end of the day. I do think I have a duty not to cause distress. But I’m not a dancing monkey.

What comes more naturally to you, making memes or jokes with friends in person, or both?

I can make jokes about how music school is the worst and not have my girlfriend go, “Oh my God, are you OK?!” I’m able to draw a line in the sand. But I do like to think I’m funny in real life. But it’s a different type of humour—I keep the page separate from my identity, because I don’t want to be known as “the composer who does the memes.” It’s not a secret, but I don’t flaunt it. And I’ve had friends in real life that are unaware I run the page tag me in my memes, being like “who did dis hahaha” and I just think to myself “me. I did dis.”    

Does that mean you don’t hate music school as much as someone might think from your memes?

No. It’s all an act. I don’t believe half of what I post on the page. I posted something about Wagner being terrible. And I like Wagner! He’s got some good tunes. But it makes a good meme, so why not?  

Have your posters been selling?

I’ve made a total of $4.22 [he gives me two-thumbs-up]. Look, I’m not in it for the money. Though if the opportunity to sell out presents itself, I 100 percent will. I’m totally happy to sell out. If you know of somebody who wants me to do memes for them, I’m totally willing. But it’s just memes. I’m not flogging it on the page that much. It’s just in case someone wants to have a sticker that says “honk.”

Do the memes that you think are funniest correlate with the amount of likes they get?

No. The lowest common denominator is always the one that gets the most likes. Because if you have some really obscure meme, only a handful of people are going to get it—even if it is incredibly funny. That’s just—oh well. But I’m not doing it for the likes, I’m doing it for fun. ¶

Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.