from Friday, May2nd of the year2008.
Reprinted from The Guardian’s Friday, May 2, 2008 Issue. Original Here. I am going to try to do more writing of this style, just little thoughts/opinions about the nature of things. Whereas a lot of composers spend time in their teens and 20’s thinking about the Way Music Goes, I somehow got caught in a wormhole of Anglican choral music, Stravinsky, and now I’m happy to have the luxury of being asked to think about things again.
A couple of years ago, there was a song by Sigur Rós that seemed inescapable – I heard it on every mixtape, student film soundtrack and college radio station. It is the third track from the band’s untitled album (the one that’s sometimes written down as “()”) from 2002. The song is sometimes titled Samskeyti, which can be variously translated from the Icelandic as juncture, joint or seam. There are no words, just five chords repeated without pause for six minutes. As the chords get louder and louder, a piano arpeggiates above them, ecstatically jumping up an octave at the climax. The song is undoubtedly very effective, but also seems to explicitly resist referencing any traditional episteme through its strange titling, lack of lyrics and solidly ambiguous textures. It is a winning formula; other songs on the album similarly resist meaning: the lyrics are almost entirely in an invented language and sung in an inscrutable falsetto.
What, then, to make of a younger generation of musicians who seem to be eager to link up their music with larger patterns of “meaning”, specifically religious structures? A few weeks ago, I got a CD called At War With Walls and Mazes by a young American composer going by the name of Son Lux. Immediately, my ecclesiastical bells starting ringing faintly; both those words have buried religious code. In addition to a Prologue and an Epilogue, there are nine tracks called Break, Weapons, Betray, Stay, Raise, Tell, Wither, Stand, and War. “All right!” I thought, “here are some patterns for me to sink my teeth into.” We have two violent bookends, and then six pretty explicitly, religiously charged keywords. The 30-second prologue begins with a ghostly pair of voices intoning: “Put down all your weapons/ Let me in through your open wounds.” This melody becomes a sort of ur-melody for the entire album, reappearing many times as a chant, always in the same key. It also quite explicitly points to various places in the Bible – both New and Old Testaments – notably: “And with his stripes we are healed” from Isaiah, or the moment where Jesus has Thomas stick his finger in his gash to prove that it is, indeed, Him. Salvation ensues, via the open wound.
Like the Sigur Rós song, the Son Lux song Betray is an endless cycle of hymn-like chords that we have heard before – they are familiarly cyclical. A compressed bass plays little jagged 1970s licks over a clean funk beat on distressed-sounding drums. Woodwinds trill between chords, making a halo around the sound. It is gorgeous. A voice intones: “You will betray me, baby, and I will be true/ I only ask, ‘May I share dinner with you?'” This is explicitly from Mark 14:18: “And as they sat and did eat, Jesus said, Verily I say unto you, One of you which eateth with me shall betray me.”
However, is this not, in a sense, a universal emotion? You have that last dinner, no matter how high the stakes or fraught the relationship. It’s unclear if the shuffly beat modernises the story or if the lyrics historicise the beat; in either case it is a beautiful moment that spans the profane and the secular to the detriment of neither. What I find exciting about this is the way that people my age are beginning to unironically use biblical sources without the intent to offend or provoke. In a more general sense, it speaks to a greater honesty about using one set of sources to create another: it’s like knowing where all your food comes from.
I think that it’s a pretty brave move to use unmanipulated references either from literature or the Bible; it speaks to a growing awareness of the power of orthodoxy and a greater facility to pay attention both in creators and audiences. The fact that an album such as At War With Walls and Mazes can exist is, to me, representative of our movement away from the ironies of indie emotions and the emotionally blasted landscapes of, for instance, Marilyn Manson. There is something satisfyingly one-to-one about this album in its simple and uncomplicated references and cycles.