Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Most unwanted

Let me start by saying that This American Life is always worth listening to.

But this last weekend, it was especially so.

It was a rerun from 1998 (Episode 88: Numbers -- you can download it for free until next weekend, or you can stream it anytime), but not one that I've heard (or, at least, I don't remember hearing it before, but I think I would remember this). I was listening to this at the gym while doing leg lifts, and I nearly hurt myself trying not burst out laughing at one point in the episode.

The second story of the episode is about two artists (Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid) who set out to create the "Most Wanted" and "Most Unwanted" paintings, based on a survey conducted in fourteen countries. The elements that most people wanted to see in the US were traditional photorealistic landscapes including mountains, a lake, trees, a family, deer and George Washington. So that's what they painted for the US (click above to enlarge). (Incidentally, mountains, lakes, trees, families and the color blue figured pretty heavily in the "Most Wanted" paintings of the majority of the countries in the survey.)

As a follow-up, they did a second survey about people's "Most Wanted" and "Most Unwanted" songs. According to Komar and Melamid's description,
"The most unwanted music is over 25 minutes long, veers wildly between loud and quiet sections, between fast and slow tempos, and features timbres of extremely high and low pitch, with each dichotomy presented in abrupt transition. The most unwanted orchestra was determined to be large, and features the accordion and bagpipe (which tie at 13% as the most unwanted instrument), banjo, flute, tuba, harp, organ, synthesizer (the only instrument that appears in both the most wanted and most unwanted ensembles). An operatic soprano raps and sings atonal music, advertising jingles, political slogans, and 'elevator' music, and a children's choir sings jingles and holiday songs. The most unwanted subjects for lyrics are cowboys and holidays, and the most unwanted listening circumstances are involuntary exposure to commercials and elevator music. Therefore, it can be shown that if there is no covariance—someone who dislikes bagpipes is as likely to hate elevator music as someone who despises the organ, for example—fewer than 200 individuals of the world's total population would enjoy this piece."

They played several excerpts from the "Most Unwanted" song, and that's when I nearly hurt myself. I have ordered the CD, just because I now simply must hear the entire 25-minute epic.

Rather than try to describe it, I'll just strongly suggest that you listen to th
e episode.

While I'm recommending TAL episodes, one of the best episodes of all time is the one entitled "Music Lessons" (Episode 104, also from 1998), which includes David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell and Anne Lamott, all three wonderful. Also, if you've not heard it, check out "Act V" (Episode 218, from 2004) about Death Row inmates performing the fifth act of "Hamlet."

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