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Blogger Book Club II: Wrestling With Beauty

By Alexandra Gardner

Okay, I admit it–this book made my head spin. In order to reframe some ideas that I absolutely do find applicable to music, I kept imagining silly scenarios that would illustrate the different ways in which beauty can be dangerous.


Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!

Attention spectators!

Welcome to a rivalry that is centuries old. These two opponents have been challenging one another for as long as anyone can remember, and every match is different. One never knows how things will play out between these two!

In one corner we haaaave….BEAUTY!!
(crowd goes wild, clapping, stomping, yelling)

And in the opposing corner please welcome….CONTENT!!!
(smattered clapping, low murmuring…a little hoot from the nosebleed seats)

We’re VERY glad we could engage them both today! When Beauty shows up alone, the situation quickly becomes gooey and sappy and self-indulgent. Content alone is just as bad, especially when it brings along a translator to help out, such as the dreaded program note (*gasp*) which can be long-winded and monotonous.

So let’s go, people! Get ready to rumble!! (Referee blows whistle)

Scenario 1:
Beauty and Content dance in a circle around the ring. After a few spins, Beauty, who is looking quite dashing, lunges towards well-dressed hipsterish Content, grabs it and lifts it up overhead. The two remain in this pose triumphantly as the crowd cheers enthusiastically for both. Win-win!!

This is Beauty for the Forces of Good–in my world, anyway–drawing the spectator into Content that it might not normally look at/listen to or have any knowledge about. It is the sort of beauty that Hickey describes as “vaguely surprising”, and that can serve as an agent of change. Too much independent thinking can be dangerous from the point of view of the Institution (whatever that may be). A personal example of this harmonious integration of beauty and content is Steve Reich’s early tape piece, Come Out, which pretty much altered the course of my life when I was a college student. I was flabbergasted at the way he took a recording of someone describing a very bad situation and transformed it into something totally beautiful, without altering the politically charged nature of the content.

Let’s play this out another way:

Scenario 2:
This Beauty is Very Expansive, Frilly and Strangely Alluring–so much so that the audience can’t help but stare. Beauty immediately slams poor little bookish Content onto the floor, then dives on top of Content, pinning it and completely obscuring it from view. Audience is stunned into silence. (Cue crickets chirping)

Sometimes Beauty can be so overwhelming that it lulls people into complacency, masking Content. For instance, the Sting Song “Every Breath You Take,” has been played at weddings everywhere, having been totally misconstrued as an earnest romantic love song, rather than the ranting of an obsessed stalker that it is….much to the dismay of the artist. This situation presents a danger to the artist and to the audience by twisting the message into something it’s not.

There is another danger here–this scenario may also make certain artists and audiences skeptical of beauty, and dismiss a work of art without giving it a opportunity to communicate something. In the same way that extremely beautiful women are presumed to be not so bright, if a work of art is TOO beautiful, it is often thought to be devoid of content. It has no teeth.

Plenty of composers struggle with beauty vs. content. Just the other day in a rehearsal I heard a composer tell the performers, “When I was working on this section, the music just became more and more beautiful, and I didn’t know how to handle it….I kept wondering, what will people think??”.


  1. Nicely done, Alex!
    It seems to me that Hickey is referring to beauty in a formal sense, not the kind of sentimental Hallmark version of beauty that rears its head in Scenario 2.
    Head spinning indeed… Even though he says the essays are not about defining beauty, it would be really helpful if there was something like a definition for the reader to grasp!

  2. Hi Corey – yes, I think you’re right about formal beauty as opposed to sentimental beauty. I really did want some definition of beauty, as a little something to hold on to!

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