Might Ugly Be Harder to Define Than Beautiful?

Might Ugly Be Harder to Define Than Beautiful?

During the past few months I’ve probably been inside more planes, trains, and automobiles than at any other point in my life. So I’m glad to be finally home and not taking any other trips for a while. However, having just returned from the 2010 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute, which—as per usual—was an extremely satisfying and inspirational experience, my mind is still partly there. In fact, I’m still thinking about a particular discussion I had with this year’s Composer Institute blogger, Taylor Brizendine.

Taylor composed a provocative five-minute orchestra piece called Mandragora Officinarum (the original title is Mandrake is seeded by the ejaculations of hanged men) which is something of a confrontation to traditional orchestra expectations. He eliminates the viola section, emphasizes extreme ranges (lots of high piccolo and low contrabassoon), and employs frequent metric shifts and pauses and percussion figurations which don’t always line up with what the other musicians are playing. He was inspired by the legend of the mandrake root which healed the plague but killed people who tried to pluck it from the ground by emitting a deafening and lethal shriek. As a result, his goal—as he repeatedly stated early in the week—was to write something that was ugly and real instead of something beautiful and pristine.

While what he wrote and what the orchestra played was frequently visceral and anything but lulling, it hardly felt ugly to me or anyone else I spoke with who heard it including Taylor, who ultimately ceased to explain the piece as ugly. All of this led to a fascinating and perhaps irresolvable query: Is it possible to write music that a majority of people would think sounds ugly for an orchestra playing their instruments using established and accepted techniques? Might there be something about that particular combination of sonorities that defies such a response? Would certain extended techniques have yielded a different outcome?

In James Saunders’s Geometria situs, performed on the final concert of the 2010 Donaueschinger Musiktage, the string section covered up the strings with cloth before bowing (yielding a pitchless screech) and sometimes even bowed on Styrofoam, but to my ears that still sounded beautiful. To me, most things do, except for maybe the piercing and often painful sounds that Merzbow ekes out of electronic distortion. But if those sounds were possible to produce somehow on conventional orchestral instruments, and if the volume could somehow be more contained and nuanced, would they still sound “ugly” to me?

Then again, can Merzbow’s self-described “noise music”—or any other music for that matter—be objectively described as “ugly” in a world where beauty cannot be universally defined? It troubles me that I find Merzbow’s music ugly, even though that seems to be its explicit goal. Since hearing beauty in something is essentially a positive response and hearing ugliness is negative, might it ultimately be more difficult for an open-minded listener to define ugliness than it is to define beauty?

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17 thoughts on “Might Ugly Be Harder to Define Than Beautiful?

  1. MarkNGrant

    Frank, though I don’t mean this to horn in on your own well-stated ideas and their inevitably ensuing responses on this thread, I previously addressed many of the issues you express here in my Chatter post of 9/24/2007 entitled “Beauty is the New Wallflower” at http://newmusicbox.org/chatter/chatter.nmbx?id=5251 — particularly in regard to “ugliness” in music. Then, and probably now, many people disagreed/will disagree with me, but, in response to your essay at hand about ugliness in music, I maintain the opinion I expressed then.

  2. Colin Holter

    The danger of chasing ugliness as a composer isn’t that it’s too easy to produce – as Frank pointed out, it’s not! – but rather that ugliness is something to which we can become reconciled very quickly. Because the reason why it’s hard to find ugly music is simply that an informed listener is likely to have a very broad and ever-broadening definition of beauty, I think the takeaway from this line of thought is that the beautiful/ugly axis is so overdetermined and heteronomous as to be just about meaningless.

    If I were a betting man, I’d bet that in five or six years Frank won’t even find Merzbow’s music ugly.

  3. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    Maybe- as Colin and Frank get at in their own ways- despite the fact that those of us familiar with the modern and confrontation will often find it beautiful, beauty is really only in the intention of the creator….

    I like Merzbow, I like Xenakis. The end of Jonchaies hurts my ears when I listen to it at a sufficient volume, but I love it. But maybe that’s not the point. Is it possible that Merzbow’s music really is ugly, if only because he means for it to alienate the listener, to confront us with its volume, unpredictability, and snubbing of all conventions musical? Personal taste is what it is, and a relativistic approach really IS the only way evaluate art. But maybe there exists the quantifiable intention of the composer, either to create something beautiful, something ugly, or something elsewhere on the spectrum.

    Besides, the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th isn’t all about compositional skill- it’s about communicating pain, and the beauty of the harmonies can’t be compared to the last movement- they do something different, and although I love the second movement more than anything, maybe it can be called ugly….. That is, if we really want to.

  4. jgrossnas

    Any description of music is just as individual and subjective as the terms we use for its genres, like jazz or classical or rock. It’s ever evolving based on artists and audience perceptions. For instance, all types of jazz were thought of by many music scholars and writers as unlistenable ‘jungle music’ when it first emerged in popular culture.

    Merzbow specifically works in the medium of noise music. But it’s not just a chaotic mess per se- he’s worked on this for years and released many albums of his work. Seeing him live, you can watch how carefully he constructs his work. It might seem like a mess as much as Pollock’s splatter paintings but similarly, there’s a lot of thought, method and intent behind the work also.

  5. dB

    Mark, you must understand that the type of beauty you’re talking about is only a very narrow subset of possible sounds. Yes, a great deal of artistry is necessary to achieve that type of beauty, and yes, pretty much any artless sound–honks, squeaks, belches–falls under the catchall of “ugly,” but that doesn’t mean that all ugly music is inherently artless.

    The best analogy I can think of is shapes. You are saying that because squares have very strict rules that define them (four sides of equal length, four right angles), and because any scribble can be described as “not square,” that only squares require any intelligence to make. Obviously, that opinion is based on incredibly faulty logic.

    Furthermore, your response misses the entire point of Frank’s excellent post–that the lines between “beauty” and “ugly” are in the ear of the beholder, and for some of us, that line is hard to find (if it exists at all). I’ll spare you the finger-wagging over opening your mind and just state that it’s an extreme act of ego to write off all music you dislike as simply lacking in artistic merit. I don’t particularly like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novels, but I wouldn’t say his writing is lacking in artistry. If anything, it’s me who’s lacking–in either patience or context–to appreciate the works of a great author. Rather than put one of his books down to find a book by another author I’m already equipped to enjoy, I can put in just a little effort to expand my concept of a “great novel,” and in turn open up a new area of art to explore.

  6. MarkNGrant

    You’re right, some ugly music is artfully wrought, for sure. I never said that “all ugly music is inherently artless.” You’re converting my argument into a reductio ad absurdum.

    And I agree with you and Frank that there is a kind of beauty in certain “ugly” characteristics in much musical repertoire, and that opinions, tastes, and perceptions will always differ. I didn’t miss the point of Frank’s post, I merely felt that the issues I had previously raised impinged on the present argument.

    But what you’re proposing is another kind of reductio ad absurdum– the notion that all efforts at artistic creation are inherently praiseworthy and of equal merit simply because they are efforts at artistic creation. I’m a lot more open-minded than you’re crediting– you evidently don’t know me– but I don’t go with the idea that no judgments or criticism are possible because, ipso facto, aesthetic intention trumps both. Some work is ugly just because it is ineptly made, not because it is intentionally and ingeniously ill-wrought. And I don’t think it’s intellectually honest or responsible to pretend that there isn’t a difference.

  7. dB

    Mark, I didn’t mean to reduce your argument, but I find it hard to believe that the title of your first comment, “It takes talent to create beauty; none is required to create ugliness,” isn’t intended to say something about the artfulness of “ugly” music. That type of blanket statement would be dangerous if we hadn’t already all agreed that what we’re talking about is a matter of personal taste.

    While I probably do believe that “all efforts at artistic creation are inherently praiseworthy and of equal merit simply because they are efforts at artistic creation” (because, honestly, what other criterion do we have for judging such things other than personal taste?), my point was that dismissing art you don’t immediately find beautiful is a lost opportunity to expand your tastes. Too often I’ve known people to avoid composers, genres of music, even entire periods art based on a very limited exposure (and, in my mind, very little thought as to the nature of that particular art). I didn’t mean to lump you into that crowd, but that attitude just drives me up the wall.

  8. MarkNGrant

    No. We’re not just talking about “a matter of personal taste.” I thought I had stated the matter as clearly as I could above, but I’ll say it again: If I sight-sang F sharp for a written F natural, my error would not be a question of taste. And the capacity to recognize such unintended technical ineptitude is not a matter of taste either. “Taste” is not some chimerical, whimsical catchall that sweeps all before it, including logic and common sense, some exculpatory, extenuative banner to be clutched to one’s breast like the flag of one’s forefathers as the last refuge of an aesthetic wannabe who lacks technical competence. I want to make that unmistakably clear. (This question has nothing whatsoever to do with an openmindedness to diverse aesthetic styles, either. I like the practitioners of some wildly cutting edge styles and dislike others.) If you disagree, fine. Let’s agree to disagree.

  9. dB

    I thought I had stated the matter as clearly as I could above, but I’ll say it again: If I sight-sang F sharp for a written F natural, my error would not be a question of taste.

    If your point all along has been regarding mistakes in performance, then no, that wasn’t made clear. Both Frank’s post and the one you linked to focus on the problem of composition, not performance. Obviously, singing the wrong note wouldn’t be a question of taste, but we’ve been talking about the question of writing the “wrong” note.

    Your comments here seem to suggest that if you dislike a piece, it is due to the ineptitude of the composer, and anyone who does like the piece is also too inept to know good music from bad. While this attitude sets you as the sole arbiter of what is and isn’t praiseworthy, what I find particularly appalling is that it completely devalues taste as the very thing that explains why one person can like something that another doesn’t.

    You’ve given a very specific description of what you believe taste not to be, but what do you think it is? I’m given the impression that what I call “taste,” you might call “varying degrees of correctness,” but I’d like to hear your take.

  10. maestro58

    I know I’m getting late into this discussion, and as this is coming out of left field it may not be tolerated, but here goes:

    Consonance + Consonance = Consonance

    Dissonance + Dissonance = Consonance

    Dissonance + Consonance = Dissonance

    These formulas can be applied to linear melody, vertical harmony, and even stylistic juxtapositions.

    Your Millage May Vary.

  11. MarkNGrant

    I wouldn’t normally reply to your tedious and tautologous response, because my answers to it were already clearly embedded in my previous answer. But you’ve got brass orchises to insert the word “appalling” with an arrow pointing at me. Let’s look at who’s really appalling here.

    Consider a jazz string bassist who consistently plays with poor intonation. In fact, he never hits a pitch squarely. It’s not a question of bending the pitch or sliding into it; he hits his false pitches square on. And it’s not that he’s exercising an artistic choice to play out of pitch: he simply doesn’t have the ear and chops to find the pitch. The more you hear him play, the more self-evident this is. He can’t play in orchestras, obviously, where his intonation would get him fired. But he manages to play jazz solos and commands a small following. Any musical listener, no matter what his taste, cannot but notice the fingernail-on-chalkboard-sounding out-of-tune notes the bassist emits. But a few renegades among them decide he is an “artist” for his “original stylings.” Perhaps they applaud him for “microtonalism,” even though it is a totally scattershot microtonalism– there’s no systematic scordatura or temperament to it at all. Perhaps they think he is playing the bass as if it were some other instrument outside western culture– the erhu, the sitar, whatever. So a minority jury of “taste” has decided that this player is an artist, maybe an inspired one, even though it is self-evident that he is balls-out incompetent in the most fundamental parameter of string playing– intonation. Oh, and his playing also lacks a keen sense of rhythm. Oh, and also, it sounds palpably ugly and formless. But never mind. Since taste expands infinitely to accommodate whatever artistic expressions exist in the observable universe according to Mr. dB, it is poor taste to opine that this player, very possibly, is a fake, a charlatan, a fraud who has bamboozled some people into thinking his playing represents a sincerely pathbreaking form of artistry. (BTW, I have heard jazz cellists who play in pitch-bending ways that I find very artful. They, however, can play in tune when they choose.)

    But then, according to dB, it is “appalling,” and epistemologically impossible, to make any informed criticism of just anything, including another person’s “taste.” In fact, dB is suggesting that criticism itself is ipso facto politically impossible, because someone else’s taste, no matter how debased, might be offended– notwithstanding the uncontrovertible fact that some people are inept and uncultivated in their appreciation of art.

    In regard to your remark en passant that “While I probably do believe that “all efforts at artistic creation are inherently praiseworthy and of equal merit simply because they are efforts at artistic creation”, let us consider the art of one Joseph Pujol, aka Le Pétomane (1857-1945) who could play operatic arias with his anal sphincter. That certainly took quite an “effort.” Can I safely assume from your statements above that Le Pétomane was, indeed, as artistically meritorious as the late diva Joan Sutherland?

    By the same token, would say that Susan Boyle and your local dive bar’s karaoke singer are on an equal plane artistically with Lotte Lehmann, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and even Frank Sinatra? That “American Idiot” and “Green Day” are on a par of artistic merit with Janacek’s “From The House of the Dead” or Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” simply because you or somone you know like them and they appeal to your taste?

    If so, then, sir, we have nothing further to say to each other.

  12. dB

    Your example of the bass player still doesn’t fit with the argument. We’re not talking about precision of intonation or rhythm, where labels like “write” and “wrong” could at least be logically applied. We’re talking about the decision to write music that somebody might call ugly.

    My point all along regarding taste is that what one person finds ugly, another may not. Neither one of them is right or wrong in the way that you suggest.

    You’ve made it very clear that you value your education, and that art you don’t like, as well as the people who like it, are below contempt. What isn’t clear is what makes your opinion of music better than theirs. You don’t hold Susan Boyle in the same esteem as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau for the exact same reason that somebody else might: your own personal taste.

    All of these extreme examples are a bit exhausting, so I’d like to pull it back to a more applicable level. I’m not a big fan of the work of Messiaen. I’ve tried. I’ve listened to and studied a great number of his works, but they still leave me cold. Does that make me an idiot? A charlatan? Is my reaction to his music “wrong” because a critical mass of intelligent people have agreed that liking it is “right”?

    I’m hoping on that scale, we can both agree that it is possible for two different opinions of something to exist, informed by nothing other than the tastes of the people involved. I don’t think it’s out of the question to extend that view even to art we really love, or really despise. I’ve pulled my hair out trying to convince people of the value of the work of John Cage, and I’ll never understand the appeal of the Insane Clown Posse, but I would never claim to be “right” in my opinions because I’m simply smarter or more educated than the people who disagree with me, precisely because my opinion of those musics is only based on my own personal tastes.

    Again, I ask you: what is taste? Do you even think it exists?

  13. MarkNGrant

    You don’t hold Susan Boyle in the same esteem as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau for the exact same reason that somebody else might: your own personal taste.

    “A fool is accountable only to himself.” (with apologies to The Parable of the Rich Fool from The Gospel of St. Luke)

  14. Juan Calderon

    “Again, I ask you: what is taste? Do you even think it exists?”

    I’m not sure it exists, but I know one develops tendencies to like certain things, and that if you keep liking those things, you develop a discerning turn of mind about them. This out of personal experience of course.

    When I began to drink Sake, I could drink about anything I found, and that only after I developed a “taste” for it.
    Same with everything else, right? Literature, etc…

    What I wonder is if there’s an actual increase in quality after one develops a taste for something, or if it is just a matter of becoming increasingly bored with one’s current taste.

    Why is it that after all the education, I keep coming back to a lot of the same crassly crafted ‘crap’ I grew up listening to? Has my taste developed, or just widened?

    I remember some years ago knocking down Villalobos because it was too syrupy and mellow for my Xenakis-atuned ears… I took it back recently.

    Some Music

  15. TJOG

    It seems to me that one of the things that MarkNGrant is talking about has to do with the limits of personal taste. Yes, our aesthetic choices can be to some extent based on personal taste, but it is also possible to admit that one has a fondness for some music that one knows is not really great music. It has long been established among aestheticians that you can prefer A to B while admitting, and even providing evidence to “prove” or “find” (as a jury finds a prisoner guilty) that B is the superior work. In other words, you can say “I much prefer listening to the music of Tommy James and the Shondells than to the music of Bach” (i.e., it is closer to your customary “tastes” in music), but you understand from an examination of the qualities of both styles of music that the music of Bach is in many ways superior (whether that be in terms of level of sophistication, substance, craftsmanship etc. would presumably be part of the argument).

    My impression is that MArkNGrant is simply saying that the whole aesthetic venture does not boil down simply to “my taste” versus “your taste” and that there are some criteria we can use to measure quality or greatness independently of taste.

  16. dB

    Thanks for the level-headed explanation, TJOG!

    While I’ve definitely had the feeling of preferring art I find aesthetically inferior to other works I’m less drawn to, I’m not sure there are criteria we can use independently of taste. Even the strictest rules for counterpoint and tonality evolved from the tastes of composers, patrons, and critics. Granted, when one is adhering to those rules, fidelity to them could be a kind of quantitative measure of success, but I think we can agree that absolute fidelity to those rules does not necessarily equal a successful piece of music.

    The fact that the modern composer can choose to follow any or none of these or any other rules only increases our reliance on taste to make aesthetic judgments. A consensus of the academic community often acts as a measure of quality, but history has overturned too many of those opinions for them to hold much water.

    The best criterion I can think of to measure the quality of a piece of music is the clarity of the score. A crisp, clean, easy-to-read score demonstrates attention to detail far beyond anything we can hear. After all, there’s no way to tell if a series of cluster chords was intentional or somehow accidental, but an unclear, collision-ridden score is always an accident (aside, of course, from the few exceptions that prove the rule).

  17. wanderso

    It’s a wonderful question.

    Listening is creative. An account of a listening is an assertion. The assertion comes out of the creating that came from the listening.

    So for me, when I hear something ugly, I try to figure out what the composer is trying to do. If I can come up with an interesting story about that, then the composer and I have succeeded.


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