Blasphemous Rumours

September 8, 2007

Recently at the I Hate Music forum there have been various discussions around the question of whether it matters or not to fully understand a musician/composer’s inspiration and intention for a piece of music to be able to enjoy it. Well after a short to and fro the obvious conclusion was reached by most parties that whilst it is far from necessary, further understanding could possibly add a new dimension to some people’s listening. In the debate I made a post that stated that although I could see it possible that extra information about a piece of music could enhance my listening experience, I couldn’t think of anything right then that could potentially detract from my personal response to the music. If I liked something I liked it, how could anything I could read about music change such an opinion?

Well I think I might have found something that comes pretty close. My utter contempt for organised religon is no big secret. I’ve hinted at it here before, but because its possibly the only subject in the world that makes me truly angry I don’t often go into detail. Famously a couple of years ago at a friend’s wedding, when asked by a particularly earnest and equally irritating vicar what I thought about the recent redecoration of a room attached to the church I replied “nothing that a spot of arson couldn’t fix” I think I’ve been doomed for a future in the pits of hell ever since, so I’m not going to lose much by making this post.

As I’ve begun to delve into the bottomless pit of classical music’s history for my listening pleasure I’ve come across a dilemma I’ve not really had to worry about before. There’s a lot of music out there in this genre that has religon at its heart. I don’t doubt I own many CDs that may well have religious thought inspiring them somewhere, but none that are abundantly obvious enough to disturb me. Recently though I’ve had music recommended to me that clearly has the lunacy of organised religon as its main motivation for existing. In the summer I was told about a late Mozart mass I really should hear, yet I refused to seek it out, just unable to bring myself to do it. I have similar thoughts on other pieces I might otherwise have heard, a lot of Bach’s music springs immediately to mind.

Well a week or two back a friend whose opinion on music I hold very highly indeed recommended me an album by the Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina entitled Seven Words. A piece for cello and bayan, a kind of Russian accordion. As the release is on Naxos it was both easy to find and very cheap, and for just £5 I picked up a copy amongst other items without paying much attention to it. It was only just after I’d put it in the CD player for the first time that I noticed the painting of the crucifiction (no typo there) on the front cover, and reading through the notes the very strong Christian influence to the music.

So what do you do in this kind of situation? My opinion of the music had become immediately discoloured. I found myself wanting to dislike the work as it began to play. I think it was George Michael that released an album titled Listen without prejudice, but I think I stood about as much chance of being able to do that with this Gubaidulina album as I would have with a disc of his crap. I did listen though, complete with prejudice. I have played the album twice now. Do I like it? Well yes, I do from an entirely musical perspective, although the bayan does tend to annoy me quite a lot throughout, making a sound that grates with me for some reason, something most accordion music tends to do. (The piece was originally scored for cello and organ, an arrangement I think I would much prefer) The intensity of the composition, and the obviously deeply felt and somewhat sorrowful emotions going into its realisation really come through in the music.

Yes I guess I do like this piece then, although it leaves me wondering why it takes this most common manifestation of human insecurity to inspire someone to make music of such power. Watching the Simon Rattle DVD set I mentioned in a post earlier today I think I have similar feelings towards Messiaen, a composer whose use of synaesthesia and recreated natural sounds interests me a lot, although the purpose he puts these methods to I find pretty revolting. I have long been annoyed that certain creative methodolgy is tied so closely to religious tradition. I wrote earlier this year about Klaus Lang’s beautiful work Missa beati pauperes spiritu that takes the mass form and allows it to exist merely as beautiful music, separated from its religious history. I wish this kind of thing happened more often. I have attended many concerts in beautiful churches that were built years ago with the fear of religion driving their construction. Reclaiming a few more of these fantastic acoustic spaces for music and other arts would be nice.

I guess this question of testing my own personal morals will appear many times as I dig further into orchestral music. I imagine my response will evolve to being close to my interest in Michaelangelo. An unbelievable craftsman creating beautiful work with depressing subject matter. At least you all know what I don’t want played at my funeral now anyway. 😉

Comments (9)

  • Brian Olewnick

    September 8, 2007 at 5:33 pm

    Though I bow to no one in my degree of anti-religiosity, for myself it involves drawing lines of reasonableness at certain periods of time. Since visual art was my original field of study, I was obviously awash in religious imagery from the get go. Not looking at Renaissance painting because one finds Christianity a load of malarkey doesn’t seem to me to make much sense.

    The reasonableness I mentioned has to do with how far along the road away from religious feeling one can expect a given artist to travel at a point in time. A central part of the beauty of the European Renaissance was an emerging humanism from underneath oppressive religiosity. That the artists involved didn’t absolutely fling of the yokes of Catholicism might be unfortunate but really, could you expect them to have done so?

    Things proceed incrementally (though there were accusations of heresy leveled–probably with some justification–against Leonardo and others). It’s like complaining that the early US founders were slave owners. Well, of course they were; so was everybody. Very easy now to look back and say they were wrong, much more difficult to do so in the mi 18th century. Similarly, it strikes me as unreasonable to expect that artists in early 16th century Italy (for example) should’ve been advanced enough to presage Nietzsche.

    So I look for work that embodies the sort of humanism that happily became more widespread later on. That’s why I might find a Velázquez crucifixion absolutely beautiful while one by Grunewald, though technically as great, rubs me quite the wrong way, its religiosity remaining front and center.

    However–I get less and less accommodating as the years march on. At some point/cultural nexus it becomes, in my mind, inexcusable to still believe in fairy tales and I’ll at the very least have an extremely sour taste in my mouth when experiencing something with an explicitly religious nature. As in most things aesthetic, it’s not so cut and dried and the exceptions can be fascinating–I’ve always thought Serrano’s “Piss Christ” was a very beautiful, seriously religious work, for example (not necessarily a widely held opinion).

    I imagine the Gubaidaluna wouldn’t make my cut. That tinge has kept me at a distance from the whole East European mystical crew.

    As an aside, since I was raised in a Judeo-Christian culture, those aspects tend to aggravate the most. By the same token, I entirely admit to being able to wallow joyfully in Indian, African, Southeast Asian, Korean, etc. music that’s of a decidedly religious nature. But since I have no real clue what’s going on, I’m able to remain blissfully ignorant of the subject matter and just enjoy the music. Double standard? Yeah, I guess so but, tough. Maybe if they develop a neural plug-in that allows me to temporarily lose my understanding of English, I’ll be able to enjoy a modern religious work–or piece of pop music.

    Apologies for the length….

  • Richard Pinnell

    September 9, 2007 at 2:50 am

    “Apologies for the length….”

    Said the bishop to the choir boy…..;)

    No, thanks for the reply Brian. Our thoughts here are (as often seems to be the way) very much in tune. The premise of my post though was more to try and understand my own personal response to this music, should I personally be getting anything from it? As I said, I found great passion and power in the Gubaidulina, and its a question of whether I can enjoy the music purely on those terms or not. I think I can, but its a bit like eating a sandwich that you just dropped on the kitchen floor… it looks OK, and it kind of tastes alraight, but you know where its been, and any moment that bit of grit could get stuck between your teeth, spoling the whole thing.

    I love the work of Michaelangelo, (I am in fact right now working on a drawing that reworks a piece of his for a possible future Cathnor sleeve) but again here the question is not whether he should have been painting religious imagery (he’d probably have been killed if he’d refused) but whether I can deal with my response to his work, understanding his genius without getting too angry at the sentiments driving it.

    I was brought up in a Church of England Primary School with a vicar as the headmaster, and until the age of eleven had an hour of prayer and fairy tale telling every morning, so I can understand why you respond greater to certain religions. Pure language barriers actually help. A mass sung in latin is probably far less a bitter pill, just as I quite enjoy Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s music despite its occasional religios bent, simply because I haven’t a clue what he’s singing about.

  • Dominic Lash

    September 10, 2007 at 6:11 am

    Interesting post and discussion, Richard but maybe if you’re going to post such virulent and sweeping statements you need to tell us a bit more where you’re coming from. Not that I’m religious myself, just so we’re clear – I was brought up a Catholic but happily describe myself as an atheist now – but if it bothers you that a very significant percentage of the world’s music, and art generally (now and historically) has some connection to something you only have ‘utter contempt’ for maybe we need to know a bit more about why, aside from your memories of boring school assemblies? Then again we’re not going to solve the world’s theological issues in the comments section of you blog so feel free to ignore this!

  • Richard Pinnell

    September 10, 2007 at 6:45 am

    Hmm, OK Dom, I have no worries about explaining why I have such contempt, though I’m not certain why my reasons should really affect the conversation begun in my post, which was more about trying to cope with enjoying music that was inspired by something you are completely repulsed by, simply as music. The reasons for the repulsion could be anything really, not just religion. I was more interested in understanding how one deal swith music in this way, rather than as you say opening a long and old theological discussion.

    However as you asked, I have big issues with organisations (and most faiths have organisations controlling them) preying on the basic insecurity of the human race and demanding that they believe certain things, act in certain ways or they otherwise become less of a person. Virtually every religion uses social guilt as a tool to encourage individuals in how they should think and act and I find that deplorable.

    Beyond this, I am continually frustrated and exasperated that organised religion has such unbelievable power and stature that it can cause intelligent, otherwise level headed people to believe the most extraordinary of fairy tales. These beliefs are enforced merely by weight of numbers down the years rather than any tiny resemblance of truth and quite frankly I just get so upset that such widespread deception is allowed to continue, often with state sanction.
    My experiences as a child are obviously important to me in all of this. At a very young age I was taught that if I didn’t do as I was told in school, complete my homework, say my prayers before eating, that I was in some way letting God down. That level of blackmail and scaremongering taught me very early to make my own mind up on things.

    I should make it really clear that I have no problem whatsoever with faith as a concept, and if someone wishes to believe in a creator then that is fine and I totally respect their opinion. I get annoyed however when they do not truly form their own opinion, but take a ready made answer to the big question that worries the human race so much and just accept it as the easy, comfortable answer.

    Now, I’d rather this didn’t turn into some great theological debate, as the post was about responding to music, but there you are.

  • Dominic Lash

    September 10, 2007 at 4:16 pm

    Thanks for the reply, Richard. A cogent argument and nothing I would disagree with where those features (preying on insecurity, demanding belief in fairytales) do crop up. I would, however, dispute that such a description applies to all forms of so-called organized religion. I don’t know of any society that doesn’t make use of social guilt to a greater or lesser extent. I deplore it just as much as you but this and other evils are not exclusive to religion; the same traits seem pretty good descriptions of many forms of capitalism (particularly of the Milton Friedman variety). I guess all I was querying was whether your post was quite so neutral on the issue as you claim. The question of how we respond to music the creators of which we fundamentally disagree with is a fascinating one, but does the fact one thinks organized faith is repugnant mean jokes about clerical child abuse are OK? Is it really all one and the same thing? I don’t really expect an answer to those questions, by the way – as you say, music was the point of the post; I hope you don’t mind me raising a slight question mark though.

  • Richard Pinnell

    September 10, 2007 at 4:49 pm

    Well I personally have yet to find a religion that did not provide a set of answers to some if not all of the usual questions that as a follower you undertake to believe in to some degree. I hate getting into dictionary definitions, but religion is described as “the belief in and worship of, a superhuman controlling power” which, when prescribed by an organised religion strikes me personally as demanding belief in fairy tales. I’m sure some religions are far more sinister in their undertaking of this than others, but to me they all require this basic thing.

    Also, i didn’t actually say that the use of social guilt was in any way exclusive to organised religion, merely that it is one tool used by said institutions. I agree that this is prevalent throughout modern society and is a product of capitalism (though it would probably exist within communism also) but that doesn’t mean that its OK then for religions to use it further.

    I’m not entirely sure about what the question mark is you are raising to be honest, sorry. No its not really “OK” to make a joke about clerical child abuse, but its not really OK to ever make jokes about any form of human suffering really, and if I did here I would hope people would realise it s a joke. It was a response to something Brian said and an offhand remark thats all, I’m far from perfect.

    I’m not sure where you think I was claiming to be “neutral on the issue” though? Not sure what you meant there, sorry. I made it clear I have an intense dislike for organised religion (and I only went into some of the reasons why that is…) and therefore I carry a prejudice against music that clearly holds religion up as a source of inspiration. I am not neutral towards religious music, thats my point. So the question I was trying to work through, was how do I deal with music that I like despite that prejudice? Thats all.

    Anyway this is precisely the conversation I didn’t want to be having here.

  • Dominic Lash

    September 11, 2007 at 1:48 am

    Points taken, Richard. A lot I could say in reply, but I’m sorry for dragging your blog into areas you didn’t mean it to go. The question mark I was raising was one about conflation – i.e. should we not be surprised about clerical child abuse because it’s part of the same tendency to deception and manipulation in religion in general, or are there separate issues at work? We can have this discussion in person sometime – or maybe best not!
    All I meant by ‘neutral’ (not very well expressed) was that you seemed to want to be able to have a pop at religion but then get out of discussing why because the post was meant to be about music ‘simply as music’. But you have discussed why in some detail so that criticism doesn’t really stand up now!
    On to other subjects . . .

  • Richard Pinnell

    September 11, 2007 at 3:10 am

    Ah OK Dom, thanks I understand what you meant now. We can talk it through over a pint sometime soon then! :)

    I genuinely would prefer to keep this blog to matters regarding music, and whilst I agree my comments on religion can often be somewhat blunt and irrational I can promise that if I was trying to change the subject, it was merely to keep things musical, and probably to keep me from flying off the handle!

  • Matt M

    September 12, 2007 at 4:25 am

    A note on Sofia Gubaidulina: there’s a CD on Black Box of her works for solo accordion. Well worth a listen. Everything else I’ve heard by her (to be fair, not that much, and not the music under discussion here) I thought was a little cheesy.

    Lots of music I like has religion as inspiration. (Though actually I think even saying that is contentious, as IMO all music is made for music’s sake, whatever its creators think). Bluesy gospel. Bluegrass. Qawwali. A lot of West African music. JS Bach. Messiaen. Al Green.

    Almost all of its riven with tension. In the case of gospel, a lot of the religious content is simultaneously a defiant and resilient civil rights metaphor, some of the most powerful music that’s ever been.
    There’s a mawkishness to the religious sentiment in a lot of vintage bluegrass that spoils it for me. But equally there’s also an appealing morbidity to the religious sentiment in a lot of other vintage bluegrass that’s poetic in a kind of stentorian King James Bible gothic way – just read some of those Carter Family song titles.
    Bach I don’t hear any religion, I hear maths.
    With Qawwali, Gnawa and other religious-based musics I enjoy same way I enjoy other trance-based, groove-y music. It doesn’t bother me that it’s in the name of some mythical patriarch – the evidence of the music is of people getting high off music, just like Noise musicians or Acid Housers.

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