Borges, Stravinsky, and Badness in the Artistic Process

Let’s be clear: the fun part of this post is a summary review of some weird art, so basically it’s a bunch of wacky youtube clips. But first, I want to talk about a short story by Jorge Luis Borges called Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote and, um, music theory. Bear with me.

Part I

Pierre Menard is a story, published in 1939, styled as a critique of the work of a fictional author, Pierre Menard. Pierre Menard is a French writer in the mid-20th century who aspires to “author” Don Quixote, the 17th century Spanish novel by Miguel de Cervantes. The idea is, Menard so masters the 17th century Spanish written vernacular that he’s able to authentically write Don Quixote as a sort of period piece. At the same time, though, Menard can’t ignore all of the history and ideology of the intervening centuries, and so Menard’s Don Quixote is weighted with different symbolism than Cervantes’s—even though the two books contain all of the same words in the same order. The narrator of the story (the fictional art critic) posits that Menard’s Don Quixote is actually better, because our knowledge of who Menard is and what he’s doing and why and what it means makes the novel deeper and richer.

Pierre Menard is about a lot of things and it’s a really amazing story. One thing it is inarguably about, though, is how much authorial context matters when we think about art. And that is very important to artists, because one of the things you think about when you’re an artist is how much you can steal from other artists, and how and why you can get away with it.

I thought about this, and discussed it, a lot when I was in music school. I know this will sound crazy to anyone who has never been in art school, but the big debate truly at all times in music school was whether our music should sound pretty and be enjoyable to listen to. And in large part, what we meant by that question was whether our music should employ traditional western tonality, as opposed to inventing some wholly new musical language or at least borrowing musical language invented in the last few decades by so-called post-tonal composers.

I’m going to summarize literally years of arguments here, and if anyone who ever reads this has a music theory background wants to argue with me, the comment button is on so go to town. The logic of the dispute is basically this:

  • There is a tradition of “western music,” which basically means music now performed in global white culture, and includes basically all of the music we know and love including country or jazz or classical, but not ethnic music traditions that are generally unwritten and un-embraced by global white culture.

  • One defining aspect of the western musical tradition is that western music can be written down, through a notation system dating back to Catholic monasteries circa 1000 AD.

  • That notation system, and thus the musicality expressable through the system, had an inherently and almost exclusively religious function for its first 800 years or so.

  • Thus, when for instance J.S. Bach goes from a G chord to a C chord at the end of a piece of music, leading from one chord to another using what we call a “leading tone,” it not only sounds pretty but it sounds “resolved” in a way that was meant by Bach to not just be pretty but to (a) satisfy a theological directive of purposefulness in music, (b) sound good in a particular cathedral, (c) make some bishop happy so the Bishop would keep feeding Bach’s unbelievably enormous family, and thus (d) reinforce an 18th century politico-religious power structure.

  • Since that time, however, we compose music on different instruments, in different spaces, using different tuning systems (a whole other story), and so the things we think sound good are not necessarily the same things J.S. Bach thought sounded good, although we still like his music too. If you were to now write a piece of music that ends with a G chord going to a C chord using a leading tone, it’s not obvious why you would do it or why anyone would like it. You have to justify that choice as an artist.

So, to give you a sense of this, here is a very short piece by J.S. Bach (it’s in D minor but it uses the “leading tone” mechanism described above).

Notice how the piece ends in a major chord, even though it’s in a minor key. This is called the “Picardy Third” and was extremely common for hundreds of years. There are two basic reasons for it to exist: first, going back the full 1000 years, music historically ended on the “tonic” or the single key-defining note (so, not a C chord, but just a C). This was vocal music performed in very resonant spaces, which meant that the “overtones” (the sub-components of the notes being sung; any musical tone is composed of many overtones) could be clearly differentiated. The major third is a much lower and stronger overtone than the minor third, and so in a very resonant space, singing a whole bunch of the same note will actually begin to sound like a major chord. People liked that and got used to it, and when they started writing instrumental music meant to be performed in less resonant spaces they had to add in the major third to get the same effect.

The second reason for the Picardy Third is that it served a dramatic and social function. It created tonal contrast between the content of a minor-key piece and its ending. So if you were J.S. Bach and someone had paid you to write a piece about, say, the crucifixion of Jesus, you’d use a minor key to dramatize his human pain and grief and then you’d end it with a major third as a silver lining—hope, divinity, the resurrection, whatever.

Now consider that it is 1917, and you’re a composer and you have to abandon your home country, losing your home and property to escape the first war to feature chemical weapons and automatic rifles on a mass scale. The church is not paying your bills and the music of J.S. Bach just makes you angry because you don’t sympathize with a world in which the violence of the crucifixion leads, like a leading tone into a major chord, into anything better or more transcendant. Your perspective is that violence begets violence and shit sucks, fuck the people in charge. The idea of loyalty to the ancient artistic/social/political/religious tradition that requires ending every piece with a leading chord into a major chord actually nauseates you. So, maybe you write this:

To be clear, it’s been a long time since I studied Stravinsky and I don’t remember his particular reaction to World War I or whatever. Generally, though, the trend of artsy music composers in the early 20th century, like artsy sculptors and painters (think Marcel Duchamp), was to try to unroot themselves from all preconceptions of what sounded good and why. And, again oversimplifying, it’s hard to see that as anything other than the social and political structures of the time utterly failing and artists trying to find a why to a wholly new and better tradition that didn’t owe so much to those structures.

The piece above, Rite of Spring, at first caused a riot but within months had become extraordinarily popular. A lot of serious, artsy music from then until now sounds very dissonant, and it draws its roots in a compositional movement that began at that time.

(Actually, this 20th century dissonance movement is more associated with the “Second Viennese School” led by Arnold Schoenberg. Cutting a long story short, just believe me that Schoenberg really stuck with the difficult music thing—he went back to traditional tonality a little bit later in life, but he didn’t write a Pulcinella. It’s often observed that nobody really likes Schoenberg’s work, Schoenberg’s work is only interesting in that it stands for a whole lot of artistic choices that may or may not make sense for composers any longer.

At right is perhaps Schoenberg’s signature work, Pierrot Lunaire. I like Pierrot Lunaire, actually. I also like Rite of Spring. When I say I like those pieces, I mean I will listen to them about once every three years when I’m very bored, I’m at home with a good speaker system, and just kind of aching for some weirdness. I don’t put them on my headphones for my train commute. This has a very particular function. And even though I like Pierrot Lunaire, I definitely do not like it outside of its authorial context. I like that it’s weird, specifically because the artist chose to make something incredibly weird, for reasons I kind of understand and enjoy speculating about. It’s complicated, I can enjoy it on a lot of levels.)

What about art that wasn’t serious and artsy? That’s a good question. It’s important to remember that for most of western musical history, there was no distinction between the music we consider serious and artsy and the music that was popular at the time. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, all very popular during their lifetimes (although J.S. Bach lived long enough to fade away). Were there other composers that were super popular at the same time, who we have mostly forgotten now? Yes, but they were composing music that was virtually indistinguishable to a modern listener from the works of those famous composers, in every way except quality. By that I mean that the style, instrumentation, the length of the pieces, the people paying for them, and so on, was pretty much the same.

So, a few things happened as we entered the 20th century. One was a series of catastrophically violent wars. Another was that music started to get recorded and you could listen to it relatively cheaply, without having to either spend years learning an instrument or paying someone to do that for you. And another was that non-religious educational institutions began teaching music, which meant that they began hiring composers. And to get a sweet, cushy job teaching at one of these secular educational institutions, you had to demonstrate your greatness as a composer within the western tradition. So there began to exist a category of music made by people trying to demonstrate greatness as composers using the older musical structures, and that category was fairly separate from music made by people who had no interest in formal music education and were just trying to make music that could be played and performed cheaply on the new technology for the new market.

Now, there are a few ways to demonstrate your greatness as a composer. One way is to get people to enjoy listening to your music. Let me tell you: that shit is hard. Another way is to get the market to demonstrate your greatness, by becoming popular and making a bunch of money. That shit is also hard (and to some extent intertwined with people liking your music—but not totally!), and if you can do it, then you probably want to keep doing it and making a bunch of money rather than settling into a cushy but boring and not super well-paid teaching job. The third way to demonstrate your greatness is to write music that is very obviously complicated and difficult, because it at least takes a lot of education to write something complicated and difficult, and if something is very complicated and difficult it is also difficult for most people to confidently say whether it is “good” even if they dislike the experience of it, and so if you can make something like that you must have at least something similar to greatness, which might be enough to teach music at a university. (The other qualifications being whiteness, maleness, and…charm? Ha, no.).

So because of that incentive, because there was suddenly a significant market for educated musicians to get cushy long-term jobs in the 20th century, you suddenly had a whole class of composers that began writing complex, difficult shit that, from a mass-market perspective, nobody enjoyed. And although that music might have influenced people like Frank Zappa and John Lennon, it was increasingly divorced from popular culture.

On the other hand, you had some people, like Igor Stravinsky (that same guy from the clip above!) who thought, no, that’s really the wrong direction, and went back to what just sounded good to them. So, even within the serious, artsy music movement, you have someone who just wants to write something fun and popular and comfortable, which is how you end up with Pulcinella:

So now, let’s go back to Pierre Menard. Pulcinella was composed in 1920, and it’s a ballet using a story from the early 18th century and stock characters from an 18th century theatrical art form called commedia dell'‘arte. This is Stravinsky going almost full Pierre Menard - not re-writing any past work, but writing a piece of music that could’ve been written and performed without controversy 200 years prior, in a different country.

I really like Pulcinella. And to my ears, it proves the narrator in Pierre Menard correct—Pulcinella is better than 18th century Italian music, because it has behind it the full weight of Stravinsky’s choice not to go down the path of dissonance for the sake of dissonance. To me, Pulcinella is Stravinsky’s choice to embrace at least some of western history and culture rather than nihilism. Also, it’s very pretty and it’s not a complete pain to listen to, unlike some music I know. (Looking at you, everybody I knew in music school. Including me.)

Alright, so. Stravinsky is pretty good. But to really illustrate its goodness, we need a counterpoint that is not Stravinsky. A sample of something incredibly weird and dissonant. Aaaaaaand, go:

This is Gruppen by Karlheinz Stockhausen. This is a work for three orchestras. It’s expensive and difficult to perform. And I don’t particularly enjoy listening to it. Stockhausen was actually very successful in his lifetime, successful enough that he only occasionally taught music in secular institutions. I don’t know much about his finances—maybe he inherited or married into money—but it’s possible he made enough performing and composing when he wasn’t teaching.

Stockhausen is the anti-Pierre Menard. This is what happens when an artist decides not to rewrite the works of the past, at all. You end up having to invent a language nobody understands. How can that be enjoyable?

Part II

Reflecting on the above, I’m struck by the fact that, even though the literature and music I have enjoyed and emulated over the years challenges a lot of assumptions about what makes art good, there is one assumption that isn’t often challenged. And that assumption is, that the artist is a rational, relatable person whose motives can be understood. Thus, that the work itself can tell you something about who the author is and the choices they made and why, and that communication provides a layer of meaning to the work, that goes beyond whether you derived pleasure from the direct sensory input of the work itself, and thus adds to the pleasure of consuming the work.

So what if we didn’t have that at all? What is art like when we don’t know anything about the artist and their choices?

I point to Stockhausen above because to me, he’s the epitome of music that can be understood only within the authorial context of secular conservatory-led 20th century art music. If you don’t know the entire history - if you don’t have a formal musical education in which you learned about 10th century monastic chants, leading tones, and all the other trappings of traditional tonality and why they were abandoned in the early 20th century, the music of Stockhausen likely makes no sense to you and just sounds awful. (Or, as my brother remarked on hearing one of my own pieces, “this isn’t music, it just sounds like a dishwasher.” It did sound like a dishwasher.)

I think the best example of this kind of art would be art made by aliens. But I have to imagine it would be completely incomprehensible, or at least we’d have to have a different conversation about what makes it art and why.

What about music made by and for animals? We have music made by whales and birds. But even there, the concept doesn’t really apply: there’s some mystery to whales, sure, but generally I understand why Humphrey the Lost Whale chose not to use a Moog synthesizer. Generally, animals use their own body parts to make music, and the purpose seems to be to get somebody to have sex with them, which is probably also what human music comes down to, in the end. Again, you then have to question whether animal music is really “art,” given that it tends to have an apparently explicit non-aesthetic purpose.

(Interesting concept: music composed by humans, for animals, using sound patterns tested and designed to be pleasing for animals. This is a thing. But in a way it’s not the antithesis of the authorial context appreciation concept—it’s the ultimate. Per the video at right, I know exactly why and how this music was created, and who its intended audience is and why they might like it, and if I didn’t know those things I would absolutely never listen to the music.)

No, I think the real antithesis of this concept has to be art made by people whose motives are utterly incomprehensible from the work itself. I’ve been thinking about this recently and looking for examples. I was surprised to find that in every instance, my reaction is laughter.

It turns out that when you have no idea what the artist is trying to say to you, art is the fucking weirdest thing in the world. It’s just someone else’s tremendous waste of time.

And so, here are a few pretty goddamn amazing works of art.


I know it’s en vogue to rag on Cats right now because there’s a movie coming out and the trailer is super weird, but don’t get stuck on the trailer. Cats is so, so weird! What is it about? It’s a sort of revue of portraits of “Jellicle” cats. What is a Jellicle cat? There’s a whole song about that, that aggressively refuses to answer the question. The musical itself comes from a book of poems by T.S. Eliot. Have you tried reading T.S. Eliot’s book? The experience is very similar to watching Cats.

Who is this for? Who thought it would be a good idea? Why would anyone want to make this? I just have no goddamn idea.

I mean, I guess it’s for cat people? So you can be like “haha, yeah I have a cat who does funny things too, and I enjoy watching a person do an unbelievably extreme impression of my cat for two straight hours.” Humanity will not survive.

“You're the best girl
That I ever did see
The great Larry Byrd, jersey thirty-three
When you take a sip
You buzz like a hornet
Billy Shakespeare wrote
A whole bunch of sonnets”

Apparently this song was a gigantic hit when I was 13 years old. I went to an all-male Benedictine Monastery school, which did not really embrace things like pop music, or femininity, or, like, fun. And then I spent my summers at the family compound in Montana. I, uh, missed a lot of things. I had never heard it until my wife sent me the link above and was like “whoa, remember that song?” and I was like “no.”

What is this? It’s like when you’re seven years old, trying to write poetry, so you think of one thing to say and you’re like “I only know one word that rhymes with ‘see’ and so now this poem is about Larry Byrd.” (I mean, I have poems I wrote when I was seven that are like that. I wasn’t into Larry Byrd, so my poems were mostly about racial injustice. It’s…a running theme I guess.)

I wish I’d known that this was an acceptable way to make art. Like, you can just let it be weird and bad, and then it becomes good because you let your enjoyment flow into it. I feel like my whole musical career I just tried so hard to follow the rules so I wouldn’t create anything bad, and everything I made was complete shit.

Oh my god, why. Whyyyyyyyyyy.

THAT IS SEASON 2 EPISODE 40. People are dedicating entire lifetimes to building functional kitchens to make food, one half-mouthful at a time.

I just don’t get it whatsoever. But it’s a thing, people do it. I guess it must be a zen thing? Like, making or watching this stuff is just how you get to a state of relaxation so you can stop worrying about climate doom? I don’t know. Seems like a tedious route.


Ok, so you might recognize this one from the index page of this website. This is a painting that I actually bought. It was $10.

Where was the artist going with this, that they thought it could possibly turn into anything that wasn’t straight-up horrifying? If straight-up horrifying was what they were going for, why not make it, like, less hilarious?

What even is this? Is that a cape or is the figure lying down on its back on a rare steak? Likewise, is the crown flying off its head, or lying down on the steak? Is that a frog it’s gutting? If so, what happened to the frog’s legs? Why are the arms so hugely mismatched in size?

I gave this painting away to a friend after my daughter was born, because I knew it would scare a small child and it would be like fifteen years before I could explain to to her why I love this painting so much. BUT WHEN THAT TIME COMES, C———, I WANT MY FUCKING PAINTING BACK.

In addition to the examples above, I can think of many in the film world: Toys was my first thought. But movies are such a collective endeavor, it’s not usually one artist’s vision, and so you can generally see where at least some of the creators are coming from. (Without going into too much detail - Robin Williams was super hot and wanted a goofy solo vehicle tailored to the zany-but-family-friendly brand he was building. Barry Levinson was terrified of war games being made for children to train the culture for nonstop warfare, which seemed crazy at the time but was really just about 10 years ahead of us.) At any rate, Toys is pretty bonkers, and if you’re into this sort of question being asked of movies, you can check out the podcast How Did This Get Made.

Of course, one way you can create this kind of effect - you can mimic the effect of a work of art coming from an incomprehensible creator - is to deliberately remove context signifiers to accentuate the more incomprehensible elements of a larger work. Without further explanation:

And I think that’s all we need to say on this subject.