There’s a great profile by Michael White in Sunday’s New York Times of the Really Terrible Orchestra.  This amateur orchestra apparently has quite a cult following and will be performing the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh this coming Sunday.

The orchestra is comprised of amateur musicians who are successful at their real jobs but not at all good at their instruments.  Principal bassoonist Alexander McCall Smith, who is apparently a best-selling children’s author, explains: “But I have trouble with C sharps “” a design fault of the instrument, I think “” which means I don’t play them. . . And some of our members are really very challenged. We have one dire cellist who has the names of the strings written on his bridge. Otherwise he can’t remember what they are.”

White makes an interesting and apt comparison with Cornelius Cardew’s (in)famous Scratch Orchestra and its spawn the Portsmouth Sinfonia, and asks the question “Why do people love bad art?”  He offers two answers.

The first is schadenfreude, which seems adequate to explaining how we enjoy the humor value of bad art.  Much in the way that the sitcom relies on putting its characters in unpleasant situations, we enjoy laughing at the exceedingly poorly crafted.  Douglas Adams’s brilliantly awful Vogon poetry, which I reference in the title of this post, is a classic example of the hilariously bad, but on a more mundane level, who doesn’t enjoy making fun of bad celebrity fashion, and there’s nothing like a yo mamma joke.

White offers a second, more serious explanation as well: “But there’s another reason, surely, for the cult of bad art, and it has to do with liberation: the anarchic pleasure of disorder, the repudiation of established rules of judgment. Bad art is an invitation to escape the formal boundaries of adulthood and be a child, delighting in the rude and raw.”  This seems true as far as it goes.  Allowing oneself to enjoy art which fails to conform to normal standards of beauty and quality can be liberating–can offer a measure of freedom from the hegemony of the established aesthetic order.  More than mere experiential pleasure, we also get the joy of defiance; by loving the bad we establish ourselves as individuals, as contrarians, as masters of our own aesthetics in spite of the pressures to conform to society’s expectations.  That really bad art serves better than merely mediocre art for this purpose may be because with mediocre art we run the risk of being seen as appreciating it for the wrong reasons””that maybe we actually have poorly refined taste and think the work is good.  An ocean of lawn ornaments is aesthetically much more acceptable than a single pink flamingo, because the single flamingo smacks of an attempt at refined restraint.

I think there’s one more reason we love bad art, though: it can be a source of actual beauty””beauty that only exists in the “bad art” context where you have to hear past the ugly to get to it, but beauty nonetheless.

This American Life no longer offers free webstreams of old episodes, but in January of 1999 they had a show about “people trying to use numbers to describe things that should not be quantified.”  In Act II, we hear about Alex Melamid, Vitaly Komar, and David Soldier, who conducted a survey to find out what people wanted and didn’t want to hear in music.  They then wrote two songs, one based on the most wanted characteristics and one based on the least wanted characteristics.  It turns out, of course, that the “Most Wanted” song is horribly saccharine and in most ways pathetic.  Not “bad” per se, just not worth hearing.  The “Least Wanted” song, however, is amazing.  Here’s the description from their website:

“The most unwanted music is over 25 minutes long, veers wildly between loud and quiet sections, between fast and slow tempos, and features timbres of extremely high and low pitch, with each dichotomy presented in abrupt transition. The most unwanted orchestra was determined to be large, and features the accordion and bagpipe (which tie at 13% as the most unwanted instrument), banjo, flute, tuba, harp, organ, synthesizer (the only instrument that appears in both the most wanted and most unwanted ensembles). An operatic soprano raps and sings atonal music, advertising jingles, political slogans, and “elevator” music, and a children’s choir sings jingles and holiday songs. The most unwanted subjects for lyrics are cowboys and holidays, and the most unwanted listening circumstances are involuntary exposure to commericals and elevator music. Therefore, it can be shown that if there is no covariance””someone who dislikes bagpipes is as likely to hate elevator music as someone who despises the organ, for example””fewer than 200 individuals of the world’s total population would enjoy this piece.”

The result is terrible, and yet. . . strangely genuinely aesthetically satisfying.  The reason, I think, is that by combining these unlikely features the composer has stumbled on good material that he would never have found if he had set out to write a good piece.  It’s sort of like what Robert Altman used to say about his movies””that the handful of best moments were always accidents, but he worked in ways that cultivated those happy accidents.  Or it’s like the “Oblique Strategies” card deck for provoking unconventional artistic decisions.  But the sheer badness of the song is also important here””the context of badness washes away our standard criteria for aesthetic judgements and allows for the unfettered perspective on the material that permits us to see the value of the interesting moments.

Perhaps a better example to illustrate that last point is the cult film “Faster Pussycat Kill Kill.”  Truly this is an awful movie, and as I recall the packaging declares it to have been “filmed in glorious blue and white.”  Sure enough, it was shot in monochrome, but instead of black and white it’s blue and white.  I doubt that very many “good” movies could pull that off, but it’s actually a rather beautiful way to capture images.  Because blue and white is compatible with the badness of the rest of the film, we’re actually in a position to appreciate its beauty whereas if the movie were good the blue and white would seem out of place and we wouldn’t be able to appreciate it.

Returning closer to the work of the Really Terrible Orchestra, there can also be beauty in accidents.  Composer and Sound Artist Brenda Hutchinson (speaking of bad movies, she did the soundtrack for “Liquid Sky”) has a piece that illustrates this point well.  Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find a reference to it on the web, so Brenda if you’re out there please forgive any errors in my description.  As I recall, she was walking home late one night in New York and carrying her tape recorder when she came upon a group of guys who were totally drunk and trying to sing barbershop.  They had good voices and sang with the exaggerated confidence of the inebriated.  She asked them to sing “America the Beautiful” for her, and she recorded it, adding a gradually swelling reverb to the recording in post-production.  It’s not a good performance””they hit wrong notes all over the place””but the mistakes often “work.”  The don’t necessarily work in ways where you would be able to do an arrangement of the song incorporating their mistakes and have it sound good, but in the context those mistakes are beautiful, and the final piece is breathtaking.  These are similar discoveries to the sorts of things that Cage and Ives were looking for, but it turns out that in addition to finding them through chance processes and collage you can also find them just by being really terrible.

So to the Really Terrible Orchestra I have this to say: You suck!  And that’s probably for the best.

7 Responses to “O Freddled Gruntbuggly: The Beauty of the Ugly”
  1. Simplistic anti-elitist sentiments and ultimately anti-art. Our society can no longer celebrate achievement of any sort. It now relishes solely in its own demise. Boo hoo hoo…

  2. Rodney Lister says:

    I’m not sure that I exactly agree with you assessment of either the Most Wanted or the Most Unwanted Music. I actually play them often to students and friends. If there are only 200 people in the world who like the Most Unwanted Music, then I’ve met everyone of them. One of the jokes is that people actually love it–well like it alot–and everybody hates the Most Wanted One. I suppose there is something to what you say, in that somehow criticisms aren’t valid–for instance it’s certainly too long, but then it’s SUPPOSED to be the least like length, etc. I actually love the lyrics of the jingles–particularly the ones for Easter, Yom Kippur, and Ramadan.

    Actually I’ve come to like the Most Wanted Music. It’s actually pretty skillfully done. I also like in both of them the way Wittgenstein keeps creeping into the lyrics.

  3. Jeff– Are you saying that what I’ve said here is simplistic and anti-art? If so, I could hardly disagree more, but I’ll save my rebuttal until I find out whether I’m understanding you correctly. I’m not sure I see the anti-elitism component, but I’m perfectly happy to be interpreted that way.

    Rodney–You obviously have much more familiarity with the Most and Least Wanted songs, as I’ve only heard the excerpts that were played on This American Life. I should probably order the CD. But I’m not sure we disagree–I’m not at all surprised that in your experience most people dislike the “Most Wanted” and love the “Most Unwanted” songs, and that’s actually integral to the point I was trying to make. I’m thinking of the “Most Unwanted” song as a quintessential example of “so bad it’s good”–I didn’t find it good in the way one normally thinks if things being good, but I loved it anyway. And I think I loved it because by being so bad it contained elements that are genuinely aethetically valuable but which you only find in “bad” art. Sorry if I was unclear in my initial explanation.

  4. Jeff says:

    No, I’m saying these groups are inherently anti-art through their self-indulgently anti-elitist stance. What you’re saying is just nonsense. ;)

    This stuff has nothing to do with Faster… which I love; that was kitsch. This if very different. It wallows in very specific cliches of tuxedos and the pretentions BECAUSE they require brainpower. It is mentally narcissistic in a way that for me, is just not silly enough to be really funny. The amateurness encourages a faux silliness that is merely narcisstic role-playing.

    It’s like nerdcore. Nice idea. But what it says is just blech.

    Again, it’s ultimately misantrophic. It mocks human achievement through ‘mis-achievement’ and in so doing attempts to do damage to elitism. The end result isn’t comedy. It’s merely nerdy pseudo-anti-intellectualism. It’s power is in the chaining of the ism’s unto recursive nonsense – thus the Wittgenstein quotes. But what it is really doing is saying, “Mastery, achievement, creation, art itself is elitist”

    Fuck that.

  5. Bad art can be very interesting – if either it’s truly outrageous, or if it’s truly well-done. It strikes me as a little simplistic to say ‘we’re going to achieve a bad orchestra by using only bad players’. Indeed, self-indulgent.

    But then, take Mozart’s Musikalischer Spass, which is hysterically funny in its total badness. I’ve always been wondering if there are any other similar attempts are deliberately incompetent music by great composers? & I don’t mean mere programmatic imitations of bad or drunken music in operas, say – I really mean the composer sitting down to write a Bad Piece. I can’t think of any, but perhaps anybody else here?

  6. James Sproul says:

    I don’t know if I agree with the comparison with Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra. The Scratch orchestra wasn’t about being bad musicians or playing music that sounded badly and laughing about it because they can’t do any better. Cardew was about allowing (and believing) that anyone could come and make music. That is why he used graphic scores, so that those who could not read music, or at least not very well as most people in the group were actually fantastic musicians, could participate and the main emphasis on what they did was improvised music. This orchestra just sounds like a bunch of people realizing that they were the amateurs of the amatuers and decided to start an orchestra because they thought it was funny. (And it sounds like some of them aren’t amateurs, they are practically beginners) Which, I don’t necessarily have an issue with, if they are having a good time and blowing off steam, that is fine, but don’t call it art. Good-art, bad-art, makes no difference, bad art is still art, because there is the attempt to be art, this is not bad art, nor is it art at all.

  7. Lane Savant says:

    I write bad music by trying to write good music.
    Yet, I still believe that, “there is a symphony in each of us”
    Not every clown hides a broken heart, but every clown is a significant human being.
    Feel free to laugh .