Monday, March 17, 2008


Is bad music good?

Well, here’s a strange one: an op-ed piece in the New York Times by Alexander McCall Smith who started an intentionally bad band, called the Really Terrible Orchestra, and subsequent letters to the editor about it.

The op-ed piece sets it out:

Why should real musicians — the ones who can actually play their instruments — have all the fun?

Some years ago, a group of frustrated people in Scotland decided that the pleasure of playing in an orchestra should not be limited to those who are good enough to do so, but should be available to the rankest of amateurs. So we founded the Really Terrible Orchestra, an inclusive orchestra for those who really want to play, but who cannot do so very well. Or cannot do so at all, in some cases.

Now, the thing here is that they were up-front about what they were doing. People knew they were going to hear bad stuff, and that’s even without having any bagpipes in the mix. And what happened is perhaps a bit odd: their (free) concerts have been packed from the beginning, and people are actually buying their CD, “to our astonishment,” as Mr McCall Smith puts it.

Who knew? And who, indeed, would imagine?

Why would people go to see bad music, and even buy the CD? The letters give a clue. One letter takes them to task for it; the writer considers it demeaning to the hard work of those who actually go to the trouble to be good at this stuff. But the other letters are supportive. It seems that people who play music badly... remind us of ourselves. I guess it’s rather like those to whom George Bush appeals because he’s everyman (or, at least, everyman with the brain of a duck, you know) — these guys are just as bad as you and I are (well, as bad as I, anyway; I can’t speak for you).

In the letters, Mr Beattie says this:

As an elementary music teacher, I roundly cheer Mr. McCall Smith and his compatriots. I only wished I lived in Edinburgh so that I could enjoy and maybe even play in their group.

Every day, I see the joy that music making can bring to a person’s life even in the absence of talent.

...and Ms Bedway adds
Bravo to Alexander McCall Smith and his orchestra.

I’m afraid that for my part, I have to go with Ms Perl, who disapproves. I’m all for folks playing music for the love of it, even though it be bad. But, well, I don’t want to listen to it. As long as it’s clear what one is getting, those who can cheer them on should enjoy doing so, by all means, and it’s nice that the band has an audience.

But I won't be in it; I’ll be elsewhere. Call me an elitist, but there it is.


lidija said...

I have always taken much solace and pleasure in playing music (badly), but have never, ever, ever, made anyone listen to it (or even charge them for it!). Well, save for my parents, who had to come to the recitals and I reckon they thought even bad stuff was good. Although I cannot understand this phenomenon myself and I am proud to be a snob in this case, I am tickled by the variety of what people want and will pay for.

Julietta said...

How DARE you insult ducks?!?

Barry Leiba said...

Well, it's another one of those "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" references, innit?

lidija said...

I assume this is the same McCall Smith of the Detective Agency books?

Barry Leiba said...

Yeh. At the bottom of the op-ed piece it says this:
Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the forthcoming novel “The Miracle at Speedy Motors.”