Harriet Tubman’s new album Araminta has a joyous aura of creative destruction.
In 1967, Thelonious Monk wrote his only waltz: a slow, sweet, faintly melancholy tune he called “Ugly Beauty,” which appears on his album Underground. The title is probably Monk’s translation of jolie laide, a French expression for a woman whose less pleasing features somehow make her more attractive—though I suspect that Monk had more gnomic intentions in deploying the phrase. The idea that beauty might arise out of asymmetry—out of irregularities, imperfections, and apparent flaws—would no doubt have appealed to the composer of “Off Minor,” with his predilection for dissonant intervals, altered chords and rhythmic displacement. Monk’s music was a world of ugly beauty.
The story of musical modernism could also be told as a story of ugly beauty—of the steady triumph, in the face of critical resistance, of deviation, dissonance, and rupture. Many of the sounds we now consider beautiful were at first experienced as strange, unsettling, even frightening. In the feverish rhythms of The Rite of Spring, Adorno detected a fascist call for obedience. Philip Larkin accused John Coltrane of trying to be “ugly on purpose” with his severe, probing improvisations. Some American supporters of the war in Vietnam are said to have heard sacrilege, if not treason, in Jimi Hendrix’s electrical rewiring of the national anthem at Woodstock. The reasons for such resistance are as much political as aesthetic. As the philosopher Jacques Attali put it, “noise is violence: it disturbs.” The struggle to create new sounds, Attali argues in Noise: The Political Economy of Music, is usually received as a “simulacrum of murder” because it challenges the existing musical order. Read More