Technical Skill Applied to Terrible Ends

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.

A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words, but a Song’s Worth a Million

A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words, but a Song’s Worth a Million

After writing yesterday’s post, and realizing that I tend to attach music to my essays to give them depth, I thought I’d just write a musical essay. Below, you will find a list of songs, all of which I consider to be profoundly provocative for one reason or another. I’ve also tagged each with an emotional association.

A note: most of the pieces don’t have vocal parts, and if they do it is in the form of an accompanying choir. Some of the pieces are long(ish), and I consider these to have value in their buildup. The final release and climax of the songs are just that, and they have the same sort of emotional rhythm as sex (I don’t consider this to be crude–it just is, and it is beautiful).

There are so many more songs than these that I love, but I’ve only included eleven, and they are all roughly on the positive side of the emotional spectrum. But there are plenty of songs that I love that make even rage and wrath seem beautiful. For a Spotify link to the playlist, click here. Otherwise, I’d recommend copying and pasting the song name and source into YouTube for the full length of each.


1. “Forbidden Friendship” from the How to Train Your Dragon soundtrack (my favorite soundtrack):

  • Emotional associations: discovery, soaring above clouds to meet the sun, triumph, self-actualization.
  • Emotional climax begins at 2:48.


2. “Coming Back Around” from the How to Train Your Dragon soundtrack:

  • Emotional associations: earned happiness, sweet reward, celebratory triumph.
  • Buckle up at 1:08, and remain seated until the song’s conclusion. I listen to the part at 2:18 at full volume. It’s worth the ear drums. Do not listen to this while driving a car unless you are fine with your foot involuntarily accelerating the car in response to the music.


3. “To the Spaceport” from the Treasure Planet soundtrack:

  • Emotional associations: sense of adventure.
  • If you don’t want to hop a steamship to the new world by 1:14 in this song, we are very different people.


4. “Romantic Flight” from the How to Train Your Dragon soundtrack (you thought I was done with it. I’LL NEVER BE DONE WITH IT).

  • Emotional associations: beauty, romance, sweetness
  • Brace for the part at 1:27.


5. “The Ludlows” from the Legends of the Fall soundtrack:

  • Emotional associations: a sunset over the full big sky of the American plains, connection to the events of long ago.
  • 4:44 adds the final bittersweet tinge to this song.


6. “Planet Earth II Suite” from the Planet Earth II soundtrack

  • Emotional association: pure, unadulterated exaltation. If I were to start my own church, this song would be its anthem and only hymn.
  • This song is short, and yet takes a while to build. It is possibly my favorite piece of music. The brief hint of profundity that appears at 1:42 only increases until the climactic end of the song. It’s like the feeling of waves going in and out at high tide. The water leaves, and comes back a little higher. It leaves, and then comes back a little higher. All at once, without noticing, you’re inundated at the 3:00 mark.


7. “Alice’s Theme” from the Alice in Wonderland soundtrack:

  • Emotional associations: to abscond, to flee to adventure, the feeling of being surrounded by old New England brick and lore, “follow if you dare.”


8. “No Time for Caution” from the Interstellar soundtrack:

  • Emotional associations: inevitability, accepting mortality, foreboding, finality.
  • The organ introduction at 0:44, and the way the instrument is woven throughout the rest of the song, gives it all meaning for me.
  • When I listen to this song on a high quality sound system, my body jerks at the impacts beginning at 2:35–they’re such that the audio feels like it should be a solid impacting mass.


9. “Heart of Courage” by Thomas Bergerson (the only song on this list not from a soundtrack):

  • Emotional associations: this is Sparta, ferocity, resolution, strength.
  • It really is Sparta.


10. “Hedwig’s Theme” from the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone soundtrack:

  • Emotional associations: connection with humanity (humanity has few things in common, but Harry Potter is one of them), deliberate progression and pressing forward, flying over and under and around.


11. “God Yu Tekem Laef Blong Mi” from the The Thin Red Line soundtrack:

  • Emotional associations: the relief that follows bereaved weeping; a soul departed to peace.
  • This song comes and goes in waves, with repetitions on the theme building as the song goes. 1:29 is its height.


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.