In 2014, John Nolan, a graduate student in music composition at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, started a blog called Composers Doing Normal Shit. Still thriving in 2021, the site was one of the first to unite classical music with memeified internet humor. Now based primarily on Facebook and Twitter, CDNS is one of the few reliably charming places left on the web.
Besides posting pictures of things like Krzysztof Penderecki drinking alone or Claude Debussy barely tolerating a picnic, Nolan releases his own music under the name Folk Physics, and plays guitar in an indie folk band from Maine called The Ballroom Thieves. He has a family and a dog named Charles Mingus. We caught up recently on video chat.
VAN: How did the blog version of Composers Doing Normal Shit start?
John Nolan: There was this site called Rappers Doing Normal Shit. That’s where the idea came from. It was Kanye paying a parking meter, Warren G at the dentist, Snoop Dogg getting his heart checked out. I was like, “That’s perfect.” I had just started grad school. I just thought it would be a good idea. I’ve been doing it forever now.
So how do you find all these amazing pictures?
I might be a better musician if I spent more time practicing than I do looking up dumbass pictures. In grad school, I’d go to the library, find stuff there. I’d go to Boston Public Library sometimes, or the local library wherever I lived. I moved around a lot, so whatever local library in the town I was in. I get submissions. I spend a stupid amount of time just googling the dumbest shit imaginable. [Laughs.]
Give me a sense of what a stupid amount of time means.
It’s just a little hobby, part-time, fun thing. In grad school, I’d be studying or writing in the library, and I’d be like, “Let’s take a little break.” Then an hour later I’m just standing in the stacks, trying to find whoever.
Is there a certain kind of book that yields good Composers Doing Normal Shit pictures?
Some of the books that you wouldn’t pick up… I have no proof behind this, but I think shitty books couldn’t afford great pictures, because of the copyrights. So they would just find some picture of, I don’t know, Sibelius in a hammock. They’d be like, “Throw that in there, that’ll be fine. Nobody cares. Nobody’s going to read this.” I’m going to read it.
They couldn’t afford a picture of him conducting, or working on a score, so they took whatever they could?
Totally. Have you seen the one where he’s sitting for his bust, and he just looks so unhappy? The bust looks just like him, and it looks so unhappy. That’s one of my favorite pictures.
How would you define a Composers Doing Normal Shit photo? The Sibelius one is a great example, because it is hilarious—but it’s definitely not normal.
Sure. Some of the stuff isn’t normal. I get that comment a lot.
Is it more about finding funny pictures?
Yes. Sometimes it’s normal, like Schoenberg playing ping-pong. Sometimes it’s Bernstein in the tub smoking a cigarette with his granddaughter. It’s under the same umbrella.
A lot of your pictures are captioned with, “[Composer] having a miserable time [doing activity].” Did you get that from Rappers Doing Normal Shit?
Rappers Doing Normal Shit didn’t do that. The captions are something I added, but I don’t get cute. Recently I posted the Stravinsky one, having a miserable time at dinner. That’s what it is. He just looks off. He looks miserable.
Then some of the videos I take are just so stupid, like the one of Philip Glass eating a snack. I think it was his birthday when I posted that. I went through so many. I was like, “There’s got to be something of Philip Glass doing something.” I made a GIF out of it. That stuff takes a bunch of time. It’s so annoying. My wife is like, “Can you just watch the kids for 20 minutes?” While I find a freaking stupid video of Philip Glass eating a snack for four seconds.
Do you have Google search strategies that you use to come up with this stuff?
No, not really. But I used to google things with a random word. If you just googled a composer and then a random word something would pop up. Especially for newer composers or later composers. Just their name in quotes, and then “beer,” or “swimming.” Or library archives have pics: some random college in the United States or in Europe that has archives from a composer that was there 45 years ago.
Have people ever asked you to take a picture down?
Never. I’ve never been told to take anything down. I don’t sell them. I don’t make any money. I don’t profit from it in any way, unfortunately.
I did do merch once, and it was a catastrophic failure. [Laughs.] This was a long time ago, but I still have 265 Sad Picnic T-shirts in my basement. You know that picture of Debussy and his daughter? I said that he was having a sad picnic. For some reason it was on Tumblr. That’s where it started. Everyone thought it was really funny. I was like, “All right. Whatever.”
It was really funny.
Then I started finding other pictures. There’s one of Vaughan Williams having a sad picnic with his wife. That’s what it is. They’re sad. They look sad. They don’t look like they’re having a good time. It’s a fucking sad picnic. I made some Sad Picnic T-shirts. Dude, I thought it was going to be… I just bought them. I just paid for them. To my wife, I’m like, “It’s going to be great, we’re going to sell them.” I just give them to people now. I sold 12. [Laughs.]
On Twitter now, basically every picture you post goes semi-viral.
I’ve been on Twitter for a long time, but that’s been relatively recent. In early 2020, I had about 25,000 followers. Then through the pandemic and everyone just being on the internet all the time, I got a lot more. Now it’s at 65,000 I think. Every picture gets a lot of likes because it’s that many more people looking at it. I can start using older photos from five years ago, like Arvo Pärt combing his hair—which is my favorite, period.
Now that the pictures are getting so much attention online, do you ever hope to use that attention for something? Maybe a new round of T-shirts, or for you as a musician?
This is the best thing I’ve done. I wish the best thing I had done could make money. [Laughs.] Not a lot of money. I don’t want to be rich and famous. Just any money would be awesome. I was thinking about doing another round of shirts at some point.
Do you have a white whale composer that you haven’t found a picture of, but who you really want a funny picture of?
I feel like there are some Wagner pictures that I’ve never seen. There’s got to be. He’s right on the cusp of that time. There’s a lot of pictures of him—but they’re not that great. ¶
Correction: A previous edition of this article stated that John Nolan teaches music at Fitchburg State University. Nolan formerly taught music at Fitchburg.