Friday, June 20, 2008

Music and Morals, Part 4

I just got back from a mini-road trip to another city where my husband had a job interview. On the way back, the muffler fell off our car -- luckily, near an exit on the interstate -- and we found a muffler shop where the kind young auto-body fellow fixed it free of charge. My son and I waited in the front of the shop, where the radio, predictably, was tuned to a classic rock station. The Who's 1975 song "Squeeze Box," which I hadn't heard in years, came on, and I found myself listening carefully and liking it in spite of myself. It's a well-crafted and well-played song, with some nice touches, like the entrance of the banjo in the third chorus, and Roger Daltrey's funny and skillful imitation of a woman's voice in a verse repetition, while all but the rhythm instruments drop out. I almost sang along, and then I felt abashed, because I really shouldn't like this song; it is, after all, completely and pointlessly obscene.

This got me thinking about rock music in general. It's not exactly news that both the music and the lyrics of a great deal of rock exploit human longing, especially sexual longing. Does this mean that someone who is trying to carry out the injunction to chastity according to one's state in life is bound to abjure rock? Does rock provide an open door to sexual temptation? This raises further questions: does rock lend itself particularly well to other kinds of exploitation, for instance, the manipulation of human loneliness and vulnerability by the advertising industry to sell products? Is there a rock-industrial complex?

One of my favorite albums of all time is Liz Phair's 1993 debut, Exile in Guyville, which Phair claimed was a song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones's Exile on Main Street. The album is raw and brilliant, and I don't think anything she's done since comes close to it in quality. But I gave my copy away, along with a lot of other things, when I got married; I don't think I would listen to it now.

I remember having a discussion once with my late friend and mentor John Allitt about the Beatles. I was chagrined to hear him place much of the responsibility for the disintegration of British society in the 1960s at their feet. John had seen many of his students at the Central College of Art in London go over the edge on drugs, and he believed that the Beatles's music and espoused philosophies had spurred these students onward to destruction. Could he really mean it? The Beatles, arguably as important to Western music as Brahms, and as well-loved by me? Could he possibly be right? Then again, how is a Beatles-loving Christian supposed to take John Lennon's utopian, anti-Christian sentiments in "Imagine"? If you love this music, are you supposed to view it through a lens of ironic distance or cultural superiority?

St. Augustine of Hippo, who had loved music prior to his conversion, struggled mightily afterward with what might constitute a Christian response to the sensual pleasre that music evokes. He went so far as to describe in his Confessions his urge to have "the whole melody of sweet music which is used to David’s Psalter, banished from my ears, and the Church’s too." He was able to quell his conscience on this matter by focusing on the texts rather than the melodies.

Fellow interpreters on the blogosphere (to use Kyle Cupp's felicitous phrase), what do you think?


Kyle R. Cupp said...

Art is seldom inconsequential and devoid of influence. Not only ideas, but melodies, tones, beats, rhythms, shapes and colors all have consequences. So I think what music we listen to matters. The same goes for books, paintings, movies and so forth. That said, the influence music has depends on and varies from person to person. If John Lennon’s utopian dreams are the primary source of one’s social philosophy, well, that’s a problem. But if one is well versed in the history of human vice and failure, well, one might then sympathize with and appreciate Lennon’s longing for peace but know he’s looking in the wrong places, i.e., human beings. One might also take his imaginings as a challenge. Even if we know Lennon is mistaken, we may still learn from him.

Art, music, philosophy—they are all dangerous. There is always the risk, for anything may be an occasion for sin. We should always be aware of the danger, to others and to ourselves, and act appropriately, but again, what’s an appropriate response for one may be unnecessary for another. Hate to sound like a relativist, but, there it is.

An aside: Your thoughtful post reminded me of John Cusack’s opening words in the film High Fidelity: “What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”

Maclin Horton said...

This is a subject I've thought about a great deal. I more or less agree with Mr. Cupp. I more or less made my peace with this some years ago, because there are so many works of pop music in which I see no harm and a great deal of value. Joe Henry pops into my mind, for instance. There's no one-size-fits-all definition of or approach to pop music that can do justice to both Joe Henry and, say, Motley Crue. There are specific works of pop music that I won't listen to, or might listen to a few times in order to learn something about what's going on in our culture (e.g. death metal). But it's a case-by-case decision.

If I may...I wrote a somewhat lengthy essay about this some years ago which is on my web site. It was written for an audience of cultural conservatives, mostly but not necessarily Christian, and makes its argument in mostly secular terms.

Pentimento said...

Thanks for your comments, Kyle and Mac. I was having a conversation with my husband today about the art collections of the Vatican, how much of their contents included works that were proscribed for the general public (to say nothing of the Index of forbidden books). Perhaps certain art can only be processed without harm by those who have been formed in morality. But who has that formation nowadays, at a time when we are assaulted at every turn by art that threatens ous sensibilities, if not our morals?

Thanks for that quote from "High Fidelity," Kyle - it's funny and true. I saw that film a few years ago, and remember it containing one of the few references in the filmography to a character's abortion (Cusack's girlfriend - his character was responsible for the situation).

And Mac, thanks for the link to your essay, which I found quite interesting. I'm not too familiar with the musical-critical opinions of cultural conservatives, as most musicians I've known throughout my life have ben liberal, and I was somewhat surprised by your statement that conservatives hold jazz in high regard, since, in my opinion, jazz is some of the most transgressive music ever produced. Do conservatives like bebop, hard bop, free jazz, Monk, Max Roach, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra? What about Coltrane's "A Love Supreme," one of my most beloved albums of all time? What about the blackness of jazz, and its unfortunate but inextricable associations with heroin abuse and the history of Jim Crow? Do conservatives only like swing? I'm thinking right now about Charles Mingus's brilliant memoir Beneath the Underdog, which I blogged about at, and which would curl the hair of most conservatives (and liberals too, for that matter). Since most conservatives I know make no bones about valuing European cultural artifacts over African-American ones, I am curious to know how they square their vehement Europeanism with their love (?) of jazz, which is, of course, black American classical music.

I came across this poem on yesterday:


I heard the
locomotion behind
the album by Monk my father
was playing.
The finely tuned
machine humming like
a top, purring like a kitten.

The first time I
saw the Santa Fe "Super Chief"
at Union Station in Chicago,
gleaming as a silver bullet
carrying the blue uniformed
conductor who gave a low whistle
and "All Aboard" for places as far away as Kansas,
Laredo, Tucson, Las Vegas, Palm Springs.

At that point
I knew it all had
something to do with jazz music.
The slow hiss of
the engine, the steam
let out by the jowls of the locomotive,
and the massive, muscular wheels turning
slowly counterclockwise to the engine's beat

Come on Baby Do the Locomotion
Come on Baby Do the Locomotion With Me

heading out onto the open tracks,
that smoke-blown phrase repeated
over and over in my head through the years,
as miles of the real American landscape
began, slowly, to unfold.

("Locomotion" by Philip Bryant, from Sermon On A Perfect Spring Day. © New Rivers Press, 1998.)

I thought it was really interesting because I love trains as well as jazz, but also because it linked jazz, railroad travel, and the American landscape. The quote from the song "The Locomotion" - written by Carole King for a young black singer, Little Eva - also gives hints at race and sex.

I was also intrigued by your citation of Chilton Williamson's recommendation of Wagner. I'm working on a chapter in my dissertation now that is partly concerned with the perception of Wagner in nineteenth-century Britain. He was espoused not only by socialists like Shaw, but also by dandies (read: "homosexuals") like Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. His music was a sort of template for radical social movements of all kinds in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Wagner was a great composer and innovator, but, as a professed Brahmsian, I am no fan of his music. Not only is it decadent; it can be downright icky, to use the musicological term. So, once again, I'm baffled by a professed conservative's championing of it. I want to know more . . .

Maclin Horton said...

I'll get back to you in the next day or two--I've pretty much run out of weekend here. In the meantime, I had a post or maybe more than one on my blog about Wagner that you might find interesting, and I think the comments had some really good stuff. Google my blog for Wagner (you know, follow the search term with "site:www.whatever...") and it should turn up. Later...

Very short Wagner comment: I'm definitely on the Brahms side in that division, although I've recently developed more appreciation for Wagner than I used to have (which was nearly none).

Maclin said...

I wouldn't go so far as to say that "conservatives hold jazz in high regard." Since that was written ca. 1985, even the young people it refers to are now in their mid-40s. I was 35-ish at the time and was mainly thinking of people older than I. More like my father's generation, the Buckley generation. They were old enough that jazz was the pop music of their youth, and conservative enough to have been horrified by rock in the '60s.

I sort of doubt that the piece has much application to many contemporary conservatives under 40 or 45.

Even at the time, though I wouldn't have asserted that conservatives in general liked jazz, only that some of them found it much less objectionable than rock. Possibly they were still a minority among conservatives. As I think I mentioned in the piece, National Review's music column featured jazz regularly. I think a rock column would have been all but inconceivable. Anyway, I didn't intend to be presenting a full picture of conservative musical tastes, but rather challenging the notion apparently held by at least some that there was some consistent principle that would admit jazz but not rock.

And yes, I suppose, but don't know, that those who liked it mostly liked pre-bop. That was a pretty common preference in people of that age. I doubt if you'd find many conservatives of any age who like much post-1960 jazz--there aren't that many people of any political stripe who do. (I myself love a lot of it, btw. Here is what I said about Coltrane's Meditations a while back.)

Regarding Chilton Williamson's comment, I'm sorry, I don't recall anything whatever about where I got it or what else he said, and I don't know anything about him. Haven't seen his name around for a long time.

Here is the most extensive of the Wagner posts I was talking about.

Pentimento said...

Perhaps then the adherence to jazz among the conservatives of the Buckley generation was a simple resistance to what was new (and also, much of the time, troubling) in the case of rock, and not a real love or even affection for jazz, which I think can rightly be called anti-conservative -- at least its avant-garde genres. I wonder if the Buckley-era conservatives preferred more "preservationist," straight-ahead players like George Shearing and Dave Brubeck.

And yes, Wagner's music is creepy, decadent, sensualist, but great too in its way. It's not hard to see why the various radical "isms" of the late nineteenth century attached themelve to it.

Maclin Horton said...

It's been a long time, but I'm fairly sure that Ralph de Toledano, the name I remember as having written about jazz for NR in the '70s and maybe into the '80s, genuinely loved jazz, although he may well have stopped at bop or just before. As I'm sure you know, it wasn't at all unusual for intellectuals of the '50s and '60s to treat jazz seriously as an art form (sometimes too seriously), and I expect that was true of conservative intellectuals as well as liberal ones. I'm sure you're right that few of them would have embraced Ornette and all that followed, not to mention all the heavily politicized avant-garde stuff. Conservatives tend to be classicists where the arts are concerned, not surprisingly. I doubt that the percentage of conservatives who reject what's new just because it's new is any higher than the percentage of liberals who embrace it for the same reason. I'm talking about conservatives who take a serious interest in these things, of course, not just any old suburban Republican.

I enjoyed impressing a young jazz musician of my acquaintance recently when it became apparent that I recognized the person on his Sun Ra t-shirt.

Pentimento said...

It's an odd trajectory that jazz has had, beginning as popular dance music and evolving into high art-music understood and appreciated by only a few. Charlie Parker's discovery that he could play any note in whatever chord the piece passed through, bar by bar, and still resolve in the home-key, and his practice of doubling the harmonic rhythm of a piece - making it go twice as fast - certainly contributed to this. But we've been discussing this on your blog. I'm just trying to figure out here whether it's true that the devil has all the best tunes.

Kyle R. Cupp said...

"I'm just trying to figure out here whether it's true that the devil has all the best tunes."

Not true. The extent to which they are tunes of beauty are an extent to which they participate in the source of beauty.

Or maybe I’m just making an excuse for my listening to Rufus Wainwright.

Pentimento said...

Kyle, Maclin has a post up about "gulity non-pleasures" which has garnered a lot of commentary. One of his guilty non-pleasures is the music of Wagner. It's really got me thinking about how far the composers of some of the music I love participated, as you put it, in the source of beauty. Christ said in Matthew 7:16, "By their fruits will ye know them"; but, in addition to his amazing music (though I am not a Wagnerian, it must be acknowledged), Wagner also produced sickeningly virulent anti-Semitic tracts; Puccini was a profligate womanizer who was responsible for the suicide of one of his mistresses; and Beethoven was not exactly a nice guy. So I wonder what are these fruits that provide the proof; in fact I wonder about this in general, regarding personages much less unique than Beethoven et al. I suppose we have to acknowledge that these greatly flawed people still participated in the source of beauty to the extent that their crippled souls were able to, which was, after all, a pretty great extent.

Brahms wrote a setting of a short poem by Goethe which notes that, while the Muses cannot heal the wounds that love inflicts, they are the only source of consolation in our existential suffering (what Goethe is not saying, of course, is that only God can provide that healing, and perhaps not even in our days on earth). For love, you can substitute "the world" or "the pain of our existential predicament," or what have you. Perhaps beauty is not the only consolation, but it is one that humans are desperately hungry for. I am struggling in my own life with the question of how to do my music in a way that might provide that consolation.

Maclin said...

Actually that was somebody else who named Wagner as a guilty non-pleasure. I'm pretty ambivalent about him. I do like his music, although not for the most part with huge enthusiasm. That may change with further acquaintance. But even if I didn't like him I'm not sure I'd consider it my fault. I mean, I don't like Shelley, but I don't feel bad about it, I really think he's not that good.

By the way, I definitely don't think the devil has all the good tunes: Bach. Of course that's kind of a flippant answer. It is true that for a couple of centuries now most of the great art has been non- if not anti-Christian. That's a complex matter (obviously!).

You're certainly right about people being hungry for beauty. You could hardly have a nobler goal for your art.

Pentimento said...

Sorry, Mac, to misattribute the non-love of Wagner to you. I am by no means a fan of his music, but it's still great music. True about Bach - I love Messiaen too . . .

Fallen Sparrow said...

This is all fascinating to read and I'm sorry to arrive late on the scene. I must disagree that the devil has the best tunes: the "flippant" but very correct observation about Bach has already been made, but in addition, I am compelled to mention the great polyphonists of the Renaissance, particularly Josquin, Gombert, and Victoria (whom I rank as perhaps my three favorites to sing).

When I look back and do a survey of my musical tastes over the years, through drinking, bottoming out on alcohol, and coming into recovery, I see that it was mostly jazz, blues, and country during the drinking years, classical (particularly Bach, Haydn's Masses, Mozart, Schubert's lieder) while I bottomed out, and early music as I have gotten sober.

It has only been recently that I have been able to revisit the jazz, blues, and country without experiencing the immediacy of the alcoholic despair I experienced before.

I distinctly recall the morning, in the year before getting sober, when I stood on the subway platform and was prepared to jump in front of the train; I thought of a jazz singer I knew and enjoyed seeing and hearing, and I also thought to myself, "I will never hear Mozart again," and I stepped back from the edge.

Pentimento said...

Thank you for your illuminating and personal comment, Fallen Sparrow. I'm very glad that Mozart pulled you back from the edge that day. That is grace. I suppose that, to paraphrase Flaubert, we really are only beating out flawed tunes, when we wish to create musi to melt the stars, but grace comes through the flawed vessels that we are (and that Mozart, and Haydn, and Beethoven were, as Catholic Freemasons, among other things).

It is interesting that you turned to early music in your sobriety. The dissertation chapter I'm writing now is about a late-Victorian novel, Evelyn Innes, by the Irish writer George Moore (a proud apostate from Catholicism, incidentally), which in its plot posits early music as "chaste" and modern music (i.e. Wagner) as decadent, though Moore was himself a prominent Wagnerite.

Maureen said...

Early music always seems wild and unpredictable to me. There's certainly nothing chaste about troubadour songs, for example....

Pentimento said...

I should have clarified about that Victorian novel - it posits Renaissance liturgical music as chaste. You're right about those troubador and trouvere songs - they are pretty wild, aren't they!

Fallen Sparrow said...

Early music always seems wild and unpredictable to me. There's certainly nothing chaste about troubadour songs, for example....

Part of the thrill of early music is its blend of sacred and profane: the beautiful Requiem setting by Richafort incorporates a line ("c'est doleur non pareille") throughout, both melody and text, from a chanson by Josquin about a man who finds he is unable to pay a prostitute. In the context of the Requiem, however, the line is perfect.

Pentimento said...

That's fascinating, Fallen Sparrow! I know there was a tradition of using secular tunes in sacred music (the ""L'homme arme'" Mass is the Music 101 example). But I didn't know about the Richafort requieum. It seems like a pretty extreme example of Christ "baptizing" profane music.

Fallen Sparrow said...

It was Richafort's way lamenting the death of Josquin. It parallels, in a way, how Josquin wrote his Nymphes des bois (La Deploration) for Ockeghem.

The most drastic instance of Christ "baptizing" secular music that I can think of from that period is a Missa "Petite camusette" which is based on a chanson about a certain feature of a woman's anatomy. It's as if the Holy Spirit so pervaded the conscious lives of our mediaeval forebears that no crack was too small for it to get through.

Pentimento said...

Pun intended, no doubt. I first became aware of that attitude in the wonderful book The Waning of the Middle Ages by J. Huizinga. Medieval culture is something I'd really like to know more about.