Kieran Hodgson is more of a comic actor than a stand-up. An excellent impressionist, his earnest, if ironically-titled, YouTube series “Bad TV Impressions” made him a viral lockdown hit. Yet he’s more interested in constructing narratives, on topics ranging from Lance Armstrong to the European Union, than improvisatory muscle-flexing. At London’s SoHo Theatre, he recently revived his 2016 show “Maestro,” which tells the story of his love for classical music, particularly his deep obsession with Gustav Mahler (which led to him wanting to become a romantic composer), and his trials and tribulations writing the Hodgson Symphony No. 1.
Of all Hodgson’s videos, the one that gets me the most is his take on Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” revised as a camp monologue. Resembling a young Alan Bennett on speed, Hodgson takes us through Joni’s best lyrics. His version of the line “There were lots of pretty people there, reading Rolling Stone”—pause to lean in and whisper—“reading Vogue” implies tremendous gossip about nothing in particular. “The wind is in from Africa,” says the same flustered figure. “And last night, I couldn’t sleep!” It’s digital perfection.
Hodgson still plays the violin on occasion, although he’s without an orchestra after relocating to Glasgow with his partner of 12 years. From his new place, he speaks generously about his belief in subsidized music education for all—his was a cultural upbringing funded mostly by his local council—and sharing classical music with fellow comics. “There are islands of that conversation but mostly, I think I’m ploughing a fairly lonely furrow,” he told me. Most noticeable of all is that his passion for artistry —not just music—remains remarkably undimmed by a 15-month hiatus from live gigs. It’s the kind of passion you rarely get from an uninterested person; his partner recently suggested a new show where Hodgson lists his strange infatuations, called “Only Boring People Get Bored.” In truth, he’s anything but.
VAN: I read you’ve been getting into Brahms during lockdown.
Kieran Hodgson: Brahms is a good combination of breadth and serenity in a time when I’ve been trying to not plumb the depths emotionally. It’s not to say that Brahms isn’t emotional, but I feel sunlight and confidence when I’m listening to Brahms, whereas I feel terror and the feeling of needing to fight someone if I’m listening to Bruckner.
I had a New Year’s resolution to have a “work of the week” that I listen to on repeat all week. I’ve got a Spotify playlist here actually… [clicks] I got hooked on Caroline Shaw’s “Partita for Eight Voices.”
Yes! That was a work that I hadn’t really sat down and listened to until the past year.
It seemed to match the topsy-turviness of January, sitting here and gazing out at the locked-down world.
That unbridled angst… the Passacaglia “Ahhh”s!
It’s a lot of people screaming on your behalf.
It’s been five years since you first performed “Maestro.” What’s changed in your relationship with classical music in that time?
I’ve fallen off the composing wagon. That show represents a weird high point of my musical creating. Whenever I perform it again, there is a feeling of slight regret that, in the show doing so well and my comedy career picking up afterwards, I don’t have the time, energy or inclination to do the thing I’m describing in the show.
But I suppose in other ways, it’s pretty timeless: how I describe my relationship with Mahler in it, that’s not going anywhere.
There’s something quite teenage-angst about Mahler and lots of the late romantic works you’re drawn to—big emotions, big hammers… When listening now, are you looking to be transported back to that teenage time? Or is there something more?
In particular relation to Mahler, the relationship changes as the years go by, and that’s what keeps it alive. They make a joke about it in “Frasier,” but I remember loving the “1812 Overture” when I was 13. You come back to it now, and you’re like Hmmm, okaaaay… You’re just remembering how you used to feel.
With Mahler, I find new ways of feeling. I’ve listened to the first movement of the Ninth more than any other bit of Mahler’s music. I still cannot really fathom what it’s really about, how it’s put together, how it gets to where it’s going, where it’s going to.
I was struck a couple of months ago that I have a longer relationship with that music than Mahler would have had. He died like three years after he’d written it, and I’ve been listening to it for 15 years. I can’t begin to penetrate it; that’s something quite unique and unsettling about classical music.
What was the last thing you composed, or have you kept that box firmly locked post-“Maestro”?
Well, does [what I do now] count as composition? I keep trying to put songs into my shows. I’m not getting any more competent or talented, but I am getting a greater sense of self belief when it comes to putting songs into comedy. But does that count though? I’m not so sure.
Part of me wonders if you ever really left that composer part of you behind. Even if they don’t include any music, your one-man shows seem quite composer-y to me: They take a long time to write, you’re quite fanatical in the way that you edit, your performances go “to a tee” every time, and if something untoward happens on stage, you freeze… They’re all quite “composed.”
I think my base unit of measurement for a work of art is a symphony, and it’s hard for me to break out of that as a template for what a show should be. An Edinburgh [Fringe] show or a decent romantic symphony are more or less the same amount of time…
It’s murderously pretentious to say out loud, but a symphony is a good thing to aspire to, in that different moments through that hour of comedy have to have different atmospheres and different energies, and yet simultaneously be united by common themes and a common direction. The ending of a good comedy show, like a good symphony, should have some sort of synthesis and apotheosis.
I certainly come to my shows with a Mahlerian mindset, as opposed to a Sibelian one, in that I don’t work from small ideas and let them grow organically. I start from a top-down view of a journey, and try to break that down into the composite parts: “This show is about Lance Armstrong; this show is about classical music; this show is about the European Union.” The hard work starts once you say, “These’ll be the keys, these’ll be the movements.” What is note-by-note, what is line-by-line.
Once the “ink” has dried on the “score,” it’s to be performed like that. I’m not going to be freewheeling and running with it: This is the script, this is the performance, and this is how it’s going to be.
On your relationship with your audience, you’re quoted as saying: “Comedians never have the luxury of leaving the audience behind you,” unlike composers. I contend that some of my favorite comedians (Stewart Lee, et. al.) do the whole “lose the audience, find them again” shtick, as do some composers. Is a big part of your art keeping the audience on your side, and within the narrative that you’re constructing?
You’re right in that there’s no one-size-fits-all rule, and often those comedians who succeed in breaking the mold are those who have the bravery to leave the audience behind and drag them to a place they didn’t think they wanted to go to. However, I am too cowardly.
I’ve not yet got to the stage when I’m going out to prove a point in spite of the audience. For now, I’m tied to this idea of: If they’re not laughing for 30 seconds, I’m not doing the job they have paid me to do as an entertainer. I quite enjoy the challenge of introducing new subject matter without losing sight of the baseline, which is: We should be finding this funny. With comedy, where you get found out very quickly is if you’re not being genuine. Everyone is different, and everyone comes at that challenge from their own angle. I would never try to prescribe to others the thing that works for me.
[Sighs.] Whoosh! Does that make sense?
But yeah, I love Stewart Lee; of course I love Stewart Lee. The first ever stand-up DVD I got was “Stewart Lee: Stand-Up Comedian” at Huddersfield Market for £5. I spent the afternoon shrieking and terrifying my parents.
Lee always defines himself as the jazz comedian; he aligns himself repeatedly with jazz musicians. Coming out of Sixth Form having done A-Level music, I always thought he was like Beethoven, because he takes very simple, uninspiring ideas and out of them builds great, complex, surprising structures and journeys involving endless repetition and deconstruction. Like, that’s just like Beethoven Seven.
I love the way that you talk about being an amateur musician, and about how being with other amateur musicians transforms your experience. It seems like a state of mind—
What, being an amateur? [Laughs.]
No, but lots of the discourse on amateur music is made by people who do it for a living and are a bit sneery. The way you describe it, there’s so much joy and pride in it.
Joy and pride and delight at getting to be part of the party. I remember the first time I heard the opening movement of Dvořák Nine; I was 11 and I was bowled over by it. When we played it 15 years later, at our first week of rehearsal, we got to the final page of that first movement, and I was just shaking with excitement and delight that I’d been allowed inside the machine. It’s totally life-giving and devoid of any pretensions that I could ever do it for a living, or on a higher level. Don’t care; don’t need to. Very happy to play three concerts a year, and then they get me to draw the raffle. ¶