Technical Skill Applied to Terrible Ends

In the past few weeks I’ve attended several musical performances; I enjoyed some, but not others. One thing that they all had in common was that each featured performers with high technical skill and mastery of their instruments. This commonality made the enjoyable performances better, as one would expect, but made the unenjoyable performances—not necessarily worse, but interesting in a way I hadn’t thought about.

In general, I think that competent execution of a task or skill is an attractive thing to watch. The spectacle of a concert pianist’s hands is a performance in its own right, apart from the sounds that they provoke.

But what happens when the sounds that those expert hands produce is a carefully orchestrated cacophony? Here, I’m not talking about discord that makes contextual sense (it sets the stage for resolution into some kind of harmony, or relief of tension, or something). I’m talking about ugly sounds that exist as the primary focus of the performance, absent context that would give them relevant meaning.

In competent hands these sounds have a complex structure, and often as a result hint at some kind of resolution or context—but never provide it. In addition to aural displeasure, the music is a repeated shattering of expectations and refusal to provide relief.

If it is a musician’s goal to produce exactly those emotions, then, while the music won’t necessarily be pleasant, it can be potentially interesting in the context of a musician’s goal. Sometimes the point of music is just to stimulate emotion, and exploring emotions, even the kind that correspond to “repeated shattering of expectations” can be an interesting exercise. In the same manner, I might see a horror movie—in that space it’s safe to explore darker emotions and fears.

But not all art is good, or is done with good intentions (which I know is controversial to some), and that can include music.

Bad art, when paired with—and produced by—competent displays of technical mastery, is emotionally confusing. I’ll come back to the piano: watching a skilled pianist’s hands, absent sound, is sufficiently wonderful for a show. But if they produce bad music, I can’t turn away as easily as if some toddler were mashing their hands down on the keys—it’s a different kind of bad, one with delicate structure. I’m not sure if it’s like a car crash—I can’t look away because I’m sort of incredulous that such a thing is happening—or because I wish that somehow the competence of execution would bleed over into the aesthetic and aural quality of the music. To be determined, I suppose.

In any case, I would gladly just put on noise cancelling headphones and watch such a pianist play.


This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.

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