Pretty Ugly // Ugly Pretty

My old classmate Brooke*, a visual art major, painted and pasteled the wings of fantastical butterflies. Exalted Tree of Life circulatory systems. Her own conventionally beautiful visage in buoyant soap-shimmering orbs. Her rainbow-age was as extra as Lisa Frank’s, but more graceful.

All of this was both her great endowment and her great curse.

“I’m trying to force myself to make more ugly art,” she said one day, after what I think must have been a workshop or a session with a mentor.

I didn’t question this. It seemed obvious, necessary, that one would challenge oneself in this way.

This resolution yielded multiples of a different kind of self-portrait. She began rendering herself nude but purposefully un-erotic, severe, contorted like rawhide knots in extreme yoga poses (of which she was also a master). There were also likenesses of her face that displayed a drawn gauntness and exaggerated lines that weren’t yet the truth.

The first boyfriend she had as a freshman – who would later become, and still is, her husband – was a VMI cadet who seemed anything but. He was on the slender side with laughing eyes and an empathetic smile. My memory is hazy, but I tell myself she was talking about deep tissue massage when she said, “Sometimes he does it so hard, it, like, almost hurts – and I LOVE it.”

Again, I asked no questions.

Though my exposure to them was limited to the odd glimpse on social media, over the years I’d see them embark on rigorous fitness together, scale mountains together, take the all-consuming risk of having a child together – and the art on her online store settled back into its original brightness (perhaps with an extra measure of friendly mommy vibes). But I still reflect on the period in which she formally pushed herself to hunch and twist and distort. The yoga boot camp over which she’d eventually preside spoke to the hardcore, perfectionist disposition that can often lie behind excellence. I wonder if her “ugly” output from then was really that much of a stretch after all.

I’ve been thinking about her lately since starting work on my new full-length album. The contradictory features of my work that have come more and more into conflict over the years are beginning to battle it out once again in this newest project. My voice, though occasionally sandpapery and sometimes given to too much treble, is nonetheless mellifluous and cut-crystal clear; if I didn’t know better, I’d think it was intelligently designed to harmonize with itself in soothing swells (akin to Karen Carpenter’s or Anne Murray’s, perhaps). An old collaborator once described it as “universally loved” (in contrast to his own, which proved divisive), and this caused me no end of concern. Then there’s my melodic sensibility, which, try as I might to cleave more closely to the slink of Trent Reznor’s more restrained works, inclines more toward the lilt of collegiate 60s folk (minus the righteous indignation).

On the other hand, the content – while I know better than to call myself “dark” or “edgy” – betrays a fixation on withering relationship autopsy, a natural unease among fellow humans, and an unabashed defeatism re: the futility of communication. It analyzes and calls out deeply flawed characters. It claps back at transgressions that took me years to recognize. Congruent with these thematic obsessions, my taste in others’ music, while fairly eclectic, gives top billing to that which is at least somewhat abrasive: shot through with sounds like the creaking of a junkyard gate, the clatter of sheet metal, the sear of the dot matrix printer.

I also harbor a deep fondness for guitar distortion, though, not being a guitarist, the extent of my ability is inserting stabs here and there as punctuation marks. Only recently have I begun using a RAT pedal to distort that “universally loved” (I know I am asking for it here) vocal instrument of mine.

But what I can manage for myself never seems enough to satisfy me – to convey outwardly what I feel is the essence of my music. For this reason I have been seeking exposure to sounds that go too far in the other direction, in the hope that they will rub off on me at least a little bit.

One step in this direction has been to sign up for an online workshop, scheduled for February, on composing experimental music. The instructor is Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu, an act named after the ceaselessly abused heroine of a harrowing film set amid the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Their sound gets classified as things like “avant-pop” and “art rock” but might be better described as the sonic transmutation of trauma. (Though Stewart the human is charismatic and erratically hilarious.) I was unfamiliar with Xiu Xiu until a friend excitedly divebombed me on Facebook after learning of my interest in the course.

My toe-dipping into Xiu Xiu thus far has me weighing and measuring. Am I unnerved by this material? If not, why? How far is it outside of the realm I inhabit, or ever could inhabit? It might just be my tendency – a truly annoying character trait – to counterbalance whatever the prevailing opinion happens to be, but I often fail to be shaken in the face of art widely deemed disturbing.

On the other hand, as discussed elsewhere in this blog, I often see darkness where others do not. Plus, the music that often feels most unsafe to me (don’t misunderstand: this is a compliment) are brutish slabs of post-punk and math rock comprised of absurdity and non sequitur, that terrorize the listener with their violent refusal to be apropos of something.

In any event, expect a post-workshop debrief here, and probably more mulling over of these opposing qualities of mine.

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