Tuesday, 24 April 2012

A grumpy old critic speaks

When I'm not listening to Bikini Kill and Graham Coxon demo tapes (he starts off with high-fi, the Royal Philarmonic string section and a full choir, then mixes it until he gets the desired lo-fi effect), I'm listening to a lot of choral music. Quite a bit of it is religious music, which is of course massively hypocritical of me given that I'm an atheist. I should also ask for my enthusiasm for ecclesiastical architecture to be taken into account.

In my defence, most of this religious music is in Latin. If I tried really hard, I could understand it, but I choose not to, so it's effectively a lovely meaningless sound drifting through my head. But it does bother me that I'm consuming music which is inspired by, and attempts to communicate, religious feeling and belief.

Oh well, I'm not going to avoid it in future. I just bought a CD of Wolfgang Rihm's choral music, and the excellent liner notes quote from Theodor Adorno, who has a similar problem with the genre:
choral sound, if it is not thoroughly worked out with full compositional force, already carries within it something illusory; that it produces the fatal semblance of a supposedly intact, secure world inside another which is completely different. This tendency originates in the very material of the choir, which all too easily allows the individual to believe he is subsumed in a mutual understanding and harmony between human beings of a kind that do not exist in the structure of present-day society; the conviviality of the chore engenders an artificial warmth. 
It's a very tempting argument, and one with which I have some sympathy. He's saying, essentially, that the loveliness of choral music allows the singer or listener to indulge in a fantasy of a perfect, harmonious world (that we've appropriated the term from music is significant). It's true: I listen to Tallis, Lauridsen and others when I want to wallow in a warm bath of sheer beauty. Adorno's right, too, in suspecting that this is evasive and lazy: modernist music that hurts your ears is music's way of representing the horrors of the twentieth century: Freud, WW1, the Holocaust, nuclear war. At the same time, we should also remember that this was true of Tallis and others in their own times: life was indeed nasty, brutish and short, even for composers (hence Tallis's very adroit turn from Catholic Latin music to English when Henry VIII started sharpening his axe). All the churches and monarchs for whom these composers wrote were committing genocide, torturing opponents and crushing their oppositions. It wasn't a secret - far from it.

I think we need to be a little more forgiving than Adorno. I don't think there's much wrong with occasionally turning away from the horrors and seeking a little peace. I am suspicious of modern composers who promote unrippled harmony, however. To know of the things we've done to each other and the planet and still churn out untroubled beauty is simply cowardice and dishonesty. Luckily, there are plenty of honest, unpretty composers out there. I'd like to post Rihm's Astralis, a work full of doubt but can't find it online. Here's one of his motets. And some prettier work.

Tallis's Spem in Alium. Perfect for lying on the sofa in the dark. And for recharging your religious batteries if you're that way inclined. Probably.

Finally, an extract of Garbarek's Officium. I don't like the saxophone. I don't like jazz. But Garbarek improvising round the monastic sung offices with a saxophone somehow works.

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