Friday, March 1, 2013

The Musical Grotesque

One of the things that we know music can do is make beautiful sounds. There is a particularly lovely duet from the opera Lakmé by Delibes. This may sound familiar because it was used in a commercial for British Airways. Of course, in the commercial, they did a vile arrangement with thudding percussion. Here is the original, sung by Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca:

But music is also capable of precisely the opposite: ugly sounds. I'm going to refer to this as the musical grotesque. Shostakovich had a bit of a gift for the grotesque. This arrangement for string quartet of a polka from his ballet The Golden Age is an example:

The presto from Shostakovich's 9th Symphony starts quite nicely, but grotesque elements start to appear after a bit:

Musical grotesqueries are almost a specialty of Russian composers. Here is the "Gnomus" movement from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition:

But for sheer, unrelenting unpleasant sounds, I think some non-classical musicians take the cake. I'm reminded of this by the New York Times article in yesterday's post where someone was suggesting that a baby be exposed to non-stop Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. I seem to recall reading a similar suggestion a year or so ago, but I can't recall who was making it. In any case, this seems like a bad, bad, bad idea. Why? Because this is ugly music. Grotesque. Let's listen:

Now I have tremendous respect for Frank Zappa, one of the most original, creative and brilliant minds in, well, what do we call it? Alternative music? Plus, fierce guitar player. But, I'm sorry, his music just sounds ugly. It is a combination of a number of choices: the way it is mixed with a kind of sludgy wash, the harsh and weird sonorities and the awkward rhythms. And, of course, Captain Beefheart is even worse:

What can you call that? Blues from the fifth circle of hell?

There can be many rebukes to the point I'm making here. You could say that it's not ugly, it's just, oh, intense or uncompromising or original. Sure, but it is those things by being ugly. Perhaps you like ugly music and think beautiful music "sucks". Ok, that's a point of view I have heard.

Don't get me wrong. I would prefer this kind of music to the soggy, maudlin, throbbing falsity of a lot of so-called 'pretty' music. (cough) Andrew Lloyd Webber (cough) In fact, good music needs an admixture of the cutting, severe, or harsh to offset the smooth, flowing and mellow. The best music has both. But the problem I have with Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart is that they rarely show the other side. It's always the ugly side.


Craig said...

Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca. *sigh*

This was a great way to start the day.

Bryan Townsend said...

As long as you didn't listen to the rest of the clips!!

Shantanu said...

For some time, I was diving into more and more grotesque music to find the bottom of it all. I would listen to a lot of Frank Zappa, and I found it inventive, in a sense that Mozart was inventive. But after a point, we do listen to music to feel better, not worse. And Zappa evokes a lot of nasty and negative emotions.

Also, what you see as grotesque can change, and sometimes seemingly grotesque pieces can reveal beauty and depth, which is exhilarating. An example would be Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht. It has a moving, ugly charm which is as irresistible as it is off-putting.

Bryan Townsend said...

Shantanu, I agree with you completely. My typical example is Shostakovich who uses grotesque passages to contrast with beautiful ones. Yes, Verklärte Nacht has some grotesque elements. We also find them in Mahler. But they really became prominent in 20th century music.