The World’s Ugliest Music? Nice Try . . .

So Dr. Scott Rickard thinks he’s composed the world’s ugliest music using fancy math.  I’m not convinced, but you can hear for yourself: the piece, written for piano, starts at 7’48.

Rickard is not the only one to use fancy math to write music. Most notably, Iannis Xenakis beat him to the punch nearly sixty years ago. Nor is it the only piece to rely on chaos to make itself unpredictable. Alvin Lucier’s  “Music on a Long Thin Wire” does that pretty well, too. In both Xenakis and Lucier, there’s an elemental beauty I find attractive (even though I wouldn’t want to listen solely to their work), and Rickard’s new work, I would argue, fits in that vein—that is, making music out of non-musical processes.

Concerning Rickard’s “pattern-free” claim, that’s certainly true if you’re looking for motives, but Mr. Rickard clearly hasn’t read Meta-Hodos (in addition, at 6’12, to misrepresenting Schoenberg’s motivation in creating the twelve-tone method. Fail.). Try as he might, he can’t de-musical-ize music. As Tenney explains, because Rickard’s materials are differentiated, relationships inevitably emerge. The most simple of these inadvertent relationships is agogic accent. While the piano piece has no definitive melodic cadences, it does have clear clusters of events, the boundaries of which are determined by the longest note in a local area. To my ears, it sounds like a series of elided phrases. Another set of relationships emerges because of the clear differentiation of registers. Particularly at the extremes of register, you hear a sense of interrupted continuity. The notes group themselves because they sound similar with respect to pitch-height. To put it simply, “random notes” can never sound random.

That said, even though I hear musical patterns within the texture, I don’t think these relationships are nearly as important as the overall sweep of the piece—in the same way that, although you can segment a performance of “Music on a Long Thin Wire,” the segmentation of it isn’t really the point. In fact, I would say that Rickard was actually quite successful in creating a work in the “acoustical positivist” vein. In both the Lucier and the Rickard, the sum texture, incorporating all internal variation, is the music. What makes such works beautiful is that even though they are, in effect, static objects, you don’t experience them statically. Only on reflection do you realize, “Wait, this is all of a whole.” There’s a serenity to such music that’s quite similar to listening to a stream or the wind (a comparison that, if I remember correctly, Lucier himself makes).

Now, if you really want to write an ugly piece of music, your best bet is to go the route of tedium. The careful use of repetition gives you a far better foundation with which to defy expectations and create a perpetual sense of anticlimax. Throw in some bad voice-leading and gratuitous dissonance, and you’re on your way. Incidentally, another group of scientists did something like this, although they approached the effect on a tangent.

Also incidentally, I really need to go to bed. So good night.

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1 thought on “The World’s Ugliest Music? Nice Try . . .

  1. BUSNINJA - 12 February 2012

    I don’t mean to be a snob . . . wait, yes I do. I could have refuted his claim about Schönberg as a sophomore Composition student.

    Also, for being “pattern-free,” I thought it was odd that sometimes as many as six notes in a row sometimes belonged to the same triad.

    Just a couple of random thoughts. The rest of my opinion is pretty much in line with yours and Tenney’s observations.

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