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?