God Only Knows
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.
May 2nd, 2008 at 5:34 pm
Hm. Looks like emusic carries that album in mp3 form. I’ll check it out :]
May 2nd, 2008 at 6:58 pm
I read The Guardian every day online, but I click on “classical” and so I missed this today. A beautiful and challenging piece; did you mean “profane and secular?”
I hope you will continue writing pieces like this, and thanks for publishing it here. But I beg you to rethink the generational motif that appears often (too often) in your posts. We elderly white people are also capable of connecting the prose and the passion that both might be exalted.
May 3rd, 2008 at 7:02 am
Hear, hear for elderly white people, espECially those who DO NOT COUGH during fabulous musical performances!!!!
May 5th, 2008 at 7:31 am
I have been puzzled by — and haunted by — Nico’s essay for several days now, so I finally listened to the album At War with Walls and Mazes and I get a glimmer of what he may be saying with the generational references to which I took mild exception above. A prior generation referenced the bible or other religious texts with things like “Jesus Christ Superstar” which doesn’t strike me as particularly brave, or Christian rock which is sometimes beautiful but not challenging or mysterious.
Perhaps what Nico is suggesting is that his generation is vexed and stirred by a different, more complicated religious impulse that uses texts — or at least words — to hide and reveal meaning simultaneously. And since this seems to be what Nico does in some of his most moving compositions, I begin to sense what he may find brave in the work of his contemporaries in the rock genre.
May 5th, 2008 at 8:04 am
Michael wrote about using texts “to hide and reveal meaning simultaneously.” Well said! And of course, that was also a favorite ploy of One whose utterances tended toward the parabolic.
May 5th, 2008 at 8:53 pm
i love son lux. and i didn’t know anyone else did.
May 8th, 2008 at 12:15 pm
Sure, the power of orthodoxy in this case. But also, the nuanced and unpronounced ways in which hegemonic and cultural domination can trickle into our subconscious. Are all of our thoughts stemming from the Bible or, are we tracing forwards and pre-determining future thoughts? (Sorry to get all Deleuze on your ass… just something to think about).
May 11th, 2008 at 5:16 pm
Remember when Graydon Carter of Vanity Fair declared after 9/11 that irony was dead? Like Mark Twain, perhaps the obituary was a bit ahead of the reality. Perhaps this might be another interpretation of what Maestro Muhly is dancing around with his “generational” comments. I don’t know if he is right -yet – but I applaud his sentiments. Irony was lots of fun back in the 70’s and 80’s when there were so many self-important, self-aggrandizing people to tweak. Now irony is the norm, which is out of balance. Irony should be the voice of the outsider; it is the Shakespearian fool poking fun at the king. That, for me, is the problem with much of the so-called alternative music. While the music itself comes across as genuine and heartfelt, too many of the lyrics settle for glib and sarcastic (with a healthy spicing of incomprehensible masquerading as poetic) – a complete mismatch with the true emotions of the underlying music. If this really is a generational trend, I’m suddenly a lot more optimistic about the future than I was. (and, btw, genuine does not necessitate Judeo-Christian subtext, although it’s nice when someone other than the “religious right” bigots quote from the bible).
Thank you, Nico, for a thoughtful essay.
May 13th, 2008 at 12:14 am
I too have the sense that something more is going on with Nico’s generational comments than just an impatience with old folks who cough at concerts.
There is a certain dogmatism, which has greatly diminished human life for some time, that notably expresses itself in the form of fixed oppositions, such as the ones that are seen as existing between profane and sacred, human and divine, and popular culture and high art. Generally speaking these oppositions have been–for those born after 1980 or so–now largely dissolved, whereas many older people, especially those born in, say, the 30s or 40s, still have a view of reality to which precisely these oppositions are indispensable. This does create a generational divide, but strictly speaking it has to do primarily with outlook rather than age (there are plenty of people on both sides of it in chronological terms who look at things in the way I’d associate with the other side).
Let me share a story. In 1978 Herbert Howells was still writing music (and in fact he wrote some of his best works in that year). I remember playing the Willcocks/King’s College recording of Howells’ ravishingly beautiful Prudentius setting “Take Him Earth, for Cherishing” to a young student of composition. He just couldn’t “get” the piece at all. One might have thought that its rather angular idom (and at that time fairly recent date–it was written in 1964) might have made it seem acceptably contemporary to my friend, but no. He just could not get his mind around the idea that a piece of church music might have anything to say to or teach him. The parameters of his musical universe were fixed and VERY narrow. Ever since I’ve regarded this as among the most striking instances of mindlessness I’ve ever encountered. But attitudes of this sort were in the ascendant for decades and deviation from the established view were likely to provoke fury, scorn, and punishment.
I’m guessing that this is what Nico is looking to distance himself from. “Crossover music”, the mindless antipathy of sacred and secular, music as a kind of mathematical exercise: these things belong to the one side of the divide, and Nico (I think) wants to make it clear that that’s not the side he’s on. I’m glad it isn’t.
I have to say it feels odd to be telling the Howells story now that it’s clear that the composer I was seeking had not at that time even been born.