Tag Archives: Music

With Music — we are never quite sure

In a recent comment by Gerald Ens, I was asked what role music has in the formation of character. This is a question that has a long history. This isn’t the place to do a thorough genealogy of the question. However, to make a broad generalization, I would say that opinions about character and music have not changed so much throughout history.

Certain genres of music are still associated with certain groups of people and time periods. It seems that when people partake in a certain genre of music, they immediately take on the cultural connotations of a that genre and a character attribute is thrown onto the subject: one cannot like rock and roll without having some inclination towards being a rock god, a groupie, sex, drugs, etc. One cannot like classical music unless they have a pretentious side of them.

Furthermore, one can be accused for not actually liking the music at all; they like the culture that goes with it. For example, if I am a rich aristocrat in the middle of the 19th century, I go to concerts whether I like the music or not because that is where politics happen, that is where I retain my status in society. To take a more recent example, if I am an avant garde type, a hipster maybe, I like strange and atonal music, or even terrible bands because if I say that I like something on the fringes, I gain the respect of those who are also on the fringes. Those who enjoy more mainstream music cannot accept how someone can actually “enjoy” listening to music so strange. To both types of people, the accusation can be leveled: you don’t like the music, you’re doing it for social reasons.

The obverse of this argument is equally absurd: how can one be attracted to music with no cultural associations? Can one be attracted to the rap music or the protest songs of the 1960s without the “Fuck the system”? Probably. But perhaps they are attracted to other aspects of the music, e.g., be care free, be yourself, love everyone. The various elements of music that compete for our attention are far ranging. Usually this is named by answering the question “Why do you like this music?” Even music that you have never heard before becomes quickly associated with meaning from your experience. In order to be meaningful it must have meaning and meaning.

Another argument that had great success throughout a good deal of music history goes something like this: when we listen to holy music, we become holy whether we like it or not. This took the form of an argument that goes (very brutally) like this: The universe has been ordered according to divine proportions, unity being the purest; it is the most like God. Those intervals that are most unified are those intervals that resonate with the most divine presence. For example, the unison, the simplest of intervals, is the most like God since there is only one God and one universe and one Truth. The octave, the next closest interval to the unison exemplifies a similar relation, though not quite as pure. In the Baroque, exemplified by the music of Bach, the unison represented God, the octave the Holy Spirit, the fifth Jesus, and the third, man. The third also plays a special role because one has to flatten the third in order to achieve a tuning system that enables one to play in more than a few keys. This also serves to symbolize that man has fallen.

This tradition enjoyed its heyday during the renaissance. The people didn’t have to understand what was going on, nor did they have to like it – it was good for them because the music was in itself good and the soul would recognize it as such.

During the Baroque, the Lutherans developed this idea into saying that music moved a person’s disposition to be in a place where they could be better able to receive the words that were said in the music, e.g., the gospel. The composer had at their disposal a set of compositional devices that could be used in such a way that one could easily predict the audience’s reaction to the music. Compose the music in a minor key with a slow tempo and the audience becomes melancholic.

Closely connected to this use of rhetorical devices in music, we have composers who write for film. Tense scenes are often accentuated with deep bass and slow high notes, always in the minor. Joyous, triumphant scenes are in a major key with full orchestra with an easily identifiable theme. Basically, and it is obvious, the music accentuates the mood of each scene.

There is another theme by Zizek that should mentioned. He writes in various places that Beethoven’s Ode to joy has been played by many dictators with opposing politics. For some reason, there seems to be a unifying, sublime element in Beethoven’s ninth that many people seem to easily grasp. This, he claims, is often claimed to be the redemption of music: the same music that served evil can now serve good; it is an empty signifier. And he claims, in a Perverts Guide to Ideology, that this situation should be read in a much more ambiguous way that “with music, we are never quite sure.” Zizek also claims that this sublime element is nothing other than a void: it is too ambiguous to make sense of; it serves too many purposes; it is merely a deep feeling of connectivity to whatever one is already connected with.

Now, after these long winded remarks, what do I think? Well, in my platonic days I fancied the idea that when you listened to the music of Arvo Pärt your soul and character were slowly worked upon in a good and ordered way because the profound simplicity that his music exemplifies can do nothing but correct those straying from the straight and narrow.

I don’t hold to this view so stringently any longer. I do tend towards the idea that music speaks culture and that music is always drenched with connotations that are difficult to divorce. I tend toward the idea that certain cultures of music produce a certain character attribute and vice versa. Perhaps Gregorian chant is attractive for those who yearn for a simple life of divine mystery. If I only want to sing Italian opera, if I want to be on stage, if I want to be adored for my voice of gold that soars above the orchestra, I might have a deep need to be publicly adored, to be noticed, to be admired.

Still, I am hesitant to think in these terms because it tends to pigeon-hole people into categories based on their musical choices. And yet, this is often what we do: “You listen to Bob Dylan? Okay, now you are legit.” “Oh, you listen to Radiohead? Okay, now my respect for you has grown immensely.” In most of these cases, we are congratulating people on being attracted to bodies of work that have historically (or culturally) been respected that we also align ourselves with. While I do tend towards a view of art that holds a certain kind of complexity as criteria for long lasting meaningful interaction, I do not want to say that it is universally true that complex music is always better than simpler music. This argument is also used in the defence of most kinds of art: Doestovesky writes polyphonic novels; therefore, the complexity of the characters continually draws readers into the bountiful resources of the text. But I do believe that well-constructed complexity lends itself to continual interpretations which the West tends to find historically meaningful (maybe it’s just a white dude thing?).

I would like to conclude these remarks by addressing the most difficult to address: Zizek’s claim. How should it be read that the same music can be used for both good and evil? In truth, I can’t say much. His claim is basically that music is tool that can be used by a person of any persuasion. And in this sense, the only thing that I can say is that music is a language. As a language that speaks a certain vocabulary, it doesn’t possess inherent meaning independent of culture. It can be used for good or evil and though certain genres of language are cultivated in certain spheres of our human world, the genre itself is almost always easily adaptable to be used for other purposes and political views.

And that, my dear readers, is what makes it so difficult to say whether some forms of music are better than others. Music doesn’t seem to be a tool like any other that has potential consequences like, say, the internet does (it influences the way you read, interact, etc.). The cultivation of certain styles do tend to lend themselves towards certain kinds of practices and techniques, but the musical technique in itself does not make a person more holy. Music is an ambiguous tool that seems to be able to serve basically any political movement. And this, my friends, is difficult to accept.

The World Beyond The Barrier

“At the close of the nineteenth century, Nietzsche expressed his scorn for his contemporaries’ stupid insistence on trying to “see through everything” (263). He protested the lack of reverence and discretion which fueled their tactless attempt to “touch, lick, and finger everything” (213). The phenomenon Nietzsche decried is the frenzied desire we still see all around us, the desire to cast aside every veil, penetrate every surface, transgress every barrier in order to get our hands on the real thing lying behind it. We seem to have installed in the modern world a new “beyondness,” a new untouchable, or a new secularized sacred, one that inspires a new desire for transgression. This secularized sacred originates not in a belief in the existence of another world, but from the belief that what we want in this world always lies behind a barrier which prevents our access to it.” 175

This is taken from Joan Copjec’s The Object-Gaze: Shame, Hejab, Cinema. I found this last sentence to be just as profound as it is provocative. But is it true?

There is a similar belief that says: anything worth doing requires hard work.

There is a great satisfaction that one gets from learning something new or completing a project, especially when they are difficult. We all know this kind of satisfaction. But I’d like to examine it in more detail. So for me, this often means learning a difficult piece of music.

In order to let the music speak, I must be sensitive to every detail and challenge that it presents to me and let the details of the music unfold according to their role within the piece. This kind of engagement takes time. The more advanced the piece is, the more time I must spend with it. When one spends time with something, a relationship is formed. In this case, it is a demanding relationship with very specific expectations. I expect to make the music my own. I expect that my previous work has enabled me to meet every challenge and that I will grow because of it.

Difficult challenges install in me frustration, anxiety, fear of failure, and even despair. So I must take each challenge in manageable portions, lest I become discouraged and quit. When they are conquered, I have confirmation that my previous work is valid, enriched, and I am given confidence and excitement to keep going. Equally as important: it gives me reprieve from anxiety, frustration, fear of failure, and despair. I know that these small success are important without having to think about it because they are signs that the work is nearing completion. In isolation, the importance of each of these scattered challenges and the success that might await me are thrown into question. Only within the context of the complete work do they gain their unified importance.

The importance of the entire work is deemed as such if it is consistent with a more general, believed idea. An idea, or a truth, that orients one’s life. For instance, anything worth doing requires hard work.

This relationship between the work and the idea that propels it is fundamental to our experience of the world. The completed work means nothing without the idea and vice versa. The point is not to complete your work, but to continue to complete challenging work consistent with the idea. This also means that one should not attempt to derive ultimate satisfaction from the finishing of the work.  Rather, the completing of the work ensures that the believed idea continues to function. Without the work and the idea contributing to each other, both will die. Feed the idea with your work. Feed the work with your idea.

Let’s turn back to the original quote. Is it true that what I want always lies behind a barrier? I think that, on the contrary, the joyful experience that I have of overcoming barriers and obstacles is so powerful that it extends to so many spheres of my life — So far, in fact, that obstacles come to be looked at as life giving opportunities.

Sometimes it’s great to be a musician

Being a musician is a lot of work. It’s not just the hours of practicing that are difficult. It’s that when we practice, we are working towards something. The performance, which lasts just a few minutes, looms over every hour of practice. And one gets more and more anxious as the performance date approaches. I believe this to be good work. For many reasons. There is a joy in practicing for a performance and a joy in just practicing, for the fun of it. Most of this work, for me at least, is done in solitude. I like solitude. But most music is not possible without other musicians.

Tonight I was privileged enough to perform one of the most beautifully mournful pieces ever written: Klaglied, by Buxtehude. And it could not have been possible without three other VERY fine musicians. I have never heard them play, and sing, so beautifully. The piece was written after his father passed away and it’s prolonged, rolling, dissonances make it a piece that truly can transform the performance hall. To me, it seemed like the walls and the portraits felt heavier and were filled with sorrow, remembering the past suffering that they have bore witness too. And yet the music seems to lift these burdens as it calls them forth. And so, when I hear that there were tears in a few people’s eyes, it makes all these hours of rehearsals and practicing worth it.

Here is the translation of the first and last verses:

Must death then also break those chains

No earthly circumstance can unfetter?

Must it also wrest from me

The one who cleaves unto my heart?

Alas! a father’s mournful passing

Brings too bitter sorrow with it,

When from the breast the heart is torn

The pain exceeds the throes of death.

Sleep in peace, beloved one,

Live in peace, O blessed soul;

I, your son, now deep in grief,

Inscribe upon your hollow grave:

‘Here lies one whose gifts of music

Once gave joy to God Himself;

Now his spirit, full of gladness

Has joined the heavenly choir above’.

Three Improvised Meditations for the Baptism of our Lord

Here is another live recording from my Adam’s Fall concert.

Meditation one: Christ our Lord Came to the River Jordan

Mediation two: The River Jordan

Meditation three: The Voice of the Lord, Psalm 19
The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD,
over mighty waters.
The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.

Casavant Organ at All Saints Church, Winnipeg. Recording from the concert, Adam’s Fall which featured the Canadian premiere of Huw Morgan’s piece for organ and electronics called “Adam’s Fall”

Organ — Casavant, Opus 2508, 1959

Adam’s Fall — Live recording

Recently I put together an event that centered around Huw Morgan’s work for organ and electronics called “Adam’s Fall.” Here is my performance of the work on August 26, 2014 in Winnipeg Manitoba.

“Huw Morgan’s Adam’s Fall, meanwhile, was originally commissioned by Michael Bonaventure and was first performed at the Kunst-Station Sankt Peter in Köln in 2010. Morgan has described the piece as “a fixed electronics track comprising of five repetitions of a set of six chords (taken from the closing cadence of Bach’s harmonization of the chorale Durch Adam’s Fall) [which] is played while the organist improvises from a pitch-set derived from those chords. Each recorded statement is fractionally flattened and sharpened in alternation in a converging pattern, creating a dialogue between the absolute pitch of the organ and the variable pitch of the electronics.”


Put simply, the fixed electronics track is never in tune with the organ. It always misses its mark and often does so significantly. In this way, Adam’s Fall becomes an analogy for humanity, which continually seems to bend out of tune. And yet, the continuing attempts to repair this brokenness allows the light of redemption to break through the cracks.” – Joel Peters

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uHRZOV8-9tY (Canadian Premiere)