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Emily Grossman


November 15, 2011 at 10:11 AM

I was supposedly listening to the world's ugliest music. Mathemeticians used the same prime number theories that developed unpatterned pings for sonar technology to remove any sense of pattern from composition. All 88 keys were systematically used, but in a way that none of them created any semblance of pattern, in interval or rhythm. Yes, it takes up a specific amount of time, is composed of tones, is performed on a stage, and can be replicated.

But is it music? When I listened to it, I thought about how I was feeling. Did it conjure up any particular emotion? None that I could think of, really. It didn't really remind me of anything, either, and usually, music reminds me of something or gives an impression: it has shapes, colors or tells a story, perhaps. This piece definitely lacked plot. No conflict or tension could be resolved. The only way you could tell it was reaching the end would be if you were to to count all 88 notes in anticipation. Each note spoke as its own entity, unassociated with the surrounding notes, sometimes spaced sparsely, and sometimes in groups.

I took a walk with George, exploring ideas as the snow squeaked under our feet. The unpatterened notes, could they perhaps remind me of stars? Stars appearing one by one in the night sky? But even the stars appear in order of brightness, so not exactly. Does it have any shapes? If anything, I'd say the piece in its entirety had the shape of... flat. Okay, so flat, but was it textured? Like this snow? No. It was not smooth; it was scumbled, like these tire tracks--but tire tracks repeat patterns.

Is unpatterned music really ugly? Lacking shape, color, feeling and patterns it may have been, but ugly takes you in a direction, away from that which is beautiful. If they wanted to create the world's ugliest music, they would have to do away with the beautiful elements. They would have to change instruments, because even a single note on a nice piano holds a certain amount of beauty. An ugly piece would need to be performend on an ugly instrument, like one of our summer camp's clunkers. And secondly, they would need a work crew kid to play it, because the current performer evidently has skill. Skill is a thing of beauty.

I thought about work crew kids banging on clunker pianos in the dining hall while I was trying to bake during the summer. Their music was much uglier, mostly because it usually consisted of multiple people banging away at once with no apparent skill or desire to create a musical phrase whatsoever. No, they seemed hell-bent on destruction most of the time when they sat at the keys and pounded. I would say unpatterened, but if you closed your eyes, you could see elbows and fist shapes in the note clusters, and often the banging had a rhythmic sense to it. The chaos had authorship, in the form of the untrained, abusive fingers and limbs of work crew kids.

Then I thought about the one camper a few years ago who had a mental disability. (I'm not sure what it was, exactly.) He loved to play the piano, and although his version of playing consisted of grabbing random notes all over the keyboard, he did it in such a way that they soothed the soul and set the listener in a trance. George and I would sit and listen in serenity, and I had to reconsider my inclination to judge music's value by its brilliance. His was valuable because it so intimately connected us with the expressions of his soul, which had its own element of beauty.

Each of these examples contains a sort of human thumbprint, and although not very musical, they still revealed something about the one playing, and so it communicates to the listener. So, music is partly defined by its ability to communicate. Birds, for example, make music because their phrases are repeatable, consist of specific tones, and are used to communicate (i.e. territorial ownership, courtiship).

Though unpatterned music didn't communicate anything to me, I couldn't charge it with ugliness. Its meaninlessness set a neutral scape that begged my mind to go in search of the shape of music. Bouncing off ideas and examples, it came back to me with a clearer picture than before I'd listened to it. Suddenly, in revelation, I stopped in my tracks and laughed out loud. "Amazing, George! Simply amazing!" Could it be mere coincidence that this piece, composed using the same principles used to create sonar, caused my mind to grasp in the darkness and achieve a better scape of music? I don't think so.

Prime number theory strikes again.

From bill platt
Posted on November 15, 2011 at 6:44 PM
Nice analysis!

I will add that when I listened to it last week, what I noticed was that I kept reacting thus, "I thought I already heard that note" which I realized is because (1) I don't have "perfect pitch" and (2) that pitches or intervals near each other even if not the same, would have some reflection: in other words I was trying to pattern it using my own automatic means, and so in effect, it was quasi-patterned in my experience.

Relative to Shostakovitch, it was flat. It wasn't sad, or morose, or depressing, or despairing, or vaulted, or exhalted, or airy. It was neutral. That is how it felt. Very interesting.

From Sean Gillia
Posted on November 15, 2011 at 7:19 PM
I had a similar reaction when I listened to it. Not ugly...because even ugliness can have a certain beauty. Not pretty. Neutral. Exactly. And, yes, like Bill, I felt my brain trying to organize the sounds as I listened...and failing. It was very different from my experience, say, when listening to Ligeti's Poeme Symphonique for 100 metronomes, which was filled with complex and changing rhythmic patterns and was alternatively mesmerizing, boring, funny, and even insanely suspenseful as the metronomes gradually slowed and stopped, until only one defiant metronome was left. Most people wouldn't classify Ligeti's piece as music (and I have no idea how I would classify it), but in retrospect, and in comparison, it was so much more like music than the ugly music, if pressed, I guess I'd have to take random over patternless...
From John Cadd
Posted on November 15, 2011 at 8:25 PM
I heard a very familiar pattern. It sounded like most modern music. Very high notes combined with very low notes. What they call rubbish. The Yamaha keyboard is trash with high notes. I`ve heard much sweeter sounds on an old Bluthner. The player made some expressions as if he was injecting some feeling. Just out of habit? It demonstrated the drawbacks of pianos more than anything. You might have enjoyed a violin version. Would vibrato be allowed for that ?
From Trevor Jennings
Posted on November 16, 2011 at 1:30 AM
This music is not only random, but goes beyond randomness in that there are no patterns to be found. The generation of a truly random set of numbers is difficult (it is is usually initially done by non-mathematical procedures) and the set will, by definition, be littered with little scraps of recognizable pattern. A pseudorandom set is generated by a mathematical algorithm and has its own fingerprint which may give a cryptanalyst an entry into a decryption process.

However, this "ugliest" music also has a hidden signature, or fingerprint, in that it is generated by one or more mathematical algorithms that lie as an invisible layer beneath it. I wonder if, as we realize in listening to this music that it lacks any pattern whatsoever, we can become subconsciously aware that there is "something else" there apart from the notes.

If a violin piece were to be generated covering, say, no more than the first 3 octaves then I think it has the potential to be no less attractive than some of the better atonal or 12-tone music. It would certainly be an opportunity for the performer's own creative interpretation – a true tabula rasa to work on, in fact. I look forward to the first posting of such a piece on YouTube by "HenriVieuxtemps" :)

From Mendy Smith
Posted on November 16, 2011 at 2:53 AM
I must be an engineer, I actually enjoyed it in a weird sort of way. I could not anticipate what would come next, so simply listened and stayed in the moment. It is not often I have the opportunity to do just that.
From David Burgess
Posted on November 16, 2011 at 10:28 AM
I'm sufficiently inspired that I'm planning to write a novel composed of random words. ;-)
From Emily Grossman
Posted on November 16, 2011 at 10:32 AM
He brat bought howl rather splurge effecient cowl leather spleen.

(No, I didn't use a formula, so there's bound to be some random association in there.)

I think you should invest in a program to speed your progress. Then you could boast authentic ping technology. That kind of stuff sells.

From David Burgess
Posted on November 16, 2011 at 11:29 AM
"He brat bought howl rather splurge effecient cowl leather spleen."

I agree, and am deeply moved.

From Sean Gillia
Posted on November 16, 2011 at 2:25 PM
I think Joyce might have been using that program when he wrote Finnegans Wake:

Tolv two elf kater ten (it can't be) sax.
Pedwar pemp foify tray (it must be) twelve.
And low stole o'er the stillness the heartbeats of sleep.

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