For this feature, we set our writers a brief: write about the most disturbing music you own, or have ever heard. The responses were varied. 'Disturbing' is a broad term, and the resulting 40 pieces of music, compiled below, plumb all manner of darkness.I wish I had thought of this! Mind you, I don't have forty people to consult. But if you want to weigh in in the comments, please do. Most of the selections are from pop music, but there are some classical choices:
Composer György Ligeti is one of the few artists to even come close to getting a glimpse of what a possible image of the absolute could be. Having in his youth experienced the horrors of the Nazi death camps and the brutal totalitarianism of Soviet-backed Hungary, he was ready to push the boundaries of what we call music beyond any accepted boundaries, systems, or ideologies to try and find a musical riposte to the horrors of the 20th century. His most profound statement was with Requiem.Also:
Along with 'First We Take Manhattan', 'The Future' is one of the most illustrative and potent of Leonard Cohen's brilliant mid-period albums when he managed to combine superficially cheery production values with prescient lyrics of humanity out of sorts with itself - or as he so brilliantly put it, "the blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold / and overturned the order of the soul". All you really need to do to point out why this is one of the most chillingly disturbing songs of all time is to read the lyrics in one browser tab and the day's news in another. Leonard Cohen saw what was coming. Leonard Cohen was right.
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Finally a scientific "study" that makes some sense: Playlist of the Lambs: psychopaths may have distinct musical preferences.
Contrary to the movie trope epitomised by Alex in The Clockwork Orange and Hannibal Lecter in the Silence of the Lambs, psychopaths are no fonder of classical music than anyone else, though they do appear to have other musical preferences, psychologists say.In a study of 200 people who listened to 260 songs, those with the highest psychopath scores were among the greatest fans of the Blackstreet number one hit No Diggity, with Eminem’s Lose Yourself rated highly too.
Well that makes more sense, doesn't it? I often wonder if a lot of nonsense that we seem to put credence in isn't just the attempt of some director, columnist, writer, somewhere to "push the envelope." More from the article:
Kevin Dutton, a psychologist at Oxford, and the author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths, has been gathering data on musical tastes and other preferences for a psychopath study with Channel 4. More than three million people have responded so far, and while online surveys have serious weaknesses, the results so far suggest psychopaths favour rap music over classical and jazz. They also seem more likely to read the Financial Times than other newspapers.Regardless of its accuracy, Dutton suspects movie directors like the idea of classical music-loving psychopaths because of the “irresistibly alluring” juxtaposition. “The coming together of the dark, visceral, primeval psychopathic mind and the higher aesthetic of classical composition is inherently incongruous, and there is a whole body of literature on the creative potential of incongruity,” he said. “It is the hypnotically captivating and age-old appeal of the ‘beauty and the beast’, only under the same cortical roof.”
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This seemed so interesting that I wanted to share: Three wild speculations from amateur quantitative macrohistory. I know it is rather off-topic, but we talk a lot about music history here and the contrast between that and world history is rather interesting. We sometimes have the feeling that there was a kind of aesthetic peak somewhere in the past--different times and places according to taste--and that we are now living in an age of aesthetic decline. There may be some truth there. But taking a wider view, the lot of humanity was pretty bad for nearly all of history, then, at the time of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, everything got fantastically better:
In How big a deal was the Industrial Revolution?, I looked for measures (or proxy measures) of human well-being / empowerment for which we have “decent” scholarly estimates of the global average going back thousands of years. For reasons elaborated at some length in the full report, I ended up going with:
- Physical health, as measured by life expectancy at birth.
- Economic well-being, as measured by GDP per capita (PPP) and percent of people living in extreme poverty.
- Energy capture, in kilocalories per person per day.
- Technological empowerment, as measured by war-making capacity.
- Political freedom to live the kind of life one wants to live, as measured by percent of people living in a democracy.(I also especially wanted measures of subjective well-being and social well-being, and also of political freedom as measured by global rates of slavery, but these data aren’t available; see the report.)Anyway, the punchline of the report is that when you chart these six measures over the past few millennia (data; zoomable), you get a chart like this:
|Click to enlarge|
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Anthony Tommasini, the chief classical music critic for the New York Times, pens a piece talking about his job:
Music, especially purely instrumental music, resists being described in language. It’s very hard to convey sounds through words. Perhaps that’s what we most love about music: that it’s beyond description, deeper than words. Yet the poor music critic has to try. Musicians can use a precise terminology to describe music. But I have to assume that these complex terms — chromatic harmony, canon, tone row — will baffle the majority of readers, even amateur music lovers who go to concerts all the time.
Well, perhaps, unless you make the minor effort now and then to acquaint your readers with their meaning? Chromatic harmony: chords that use notes not normally part of the key; canon: when the same melody overlaps with itself as in "Row, row, row your boat"; tone row: all the notes available arranged in a certain order--used by modernist composers to avoid any suggestion of a key. There, that wasn't too hard, was it?
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This piece at NewMusicBox is almost a demonstration of the problems of using a psychological approach to aesthetics--what I was talking about in my post a couple of days ago on Aesthetic Objects:
At its most simple, [post-genre] is a system of thinking about music that steps away from using genre as the main method of characterization and appraisal. Post-genre thinking seeks to move away from objective judgment of music towards a subjective reality, where the emphasis is no longer on whether a certain piece fits/does not fit a pre-conceptualized genre “bin.” Instead, the emphasis is on the individual intent of the composer.
"Genre" is a word standing in for all concepts of aesthetics that involve an objective element. Instead, everything is subjective. Which makes evaluation impossible, of course.
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I just don't seem to have anything frivolous for you today, well, except for the NewMusicBox theory of aesthetics! So let's have a lovely, light and airy piece of music as our envoi. This is pianist Grigory Sokolov playing "La Poule" by Jean-Philippe Rameau: