A Performance of Berg's Violin Concerto

by Matthew Raley Kyle Wiley Pickett, music director of the North State Symphony (NSS), has built large audiences while programming new music. The NSS has played pieces by regional composers such as CSU Chico's Russell Burnham and Simpson University’s Dan Pinkston, as well as Lowell Lieberman, who is nationally known. On November 10-11, the symphony performed Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto (1935), a classic twelve-tone work, with NSS concertmaster Terrie Baune.

As a member of the first violin section, I was eager to experience the piece from the inside. I was also interested to gauge audience responses, and to consider what kind of spirituality Berg’s work expresses.

In February, 1935, the American violinist Louis Krasner appealed to Berg to produce a work that would show the beauty of twelve-tone music using a concerto form that audiences would readily appreciate.[1] Berg took the commission two months later after the death of 18-year-old Manon Gropius, the daughter of architect Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler, widow of the famous composer. Berg adored the girl, and composed the Concerto in less than four months around the theme of death and loss, inscribing the score, “To the Memory of an Angel.”

The piece rises to Krasner’s challenge in several ways.

It makes dramatic quotations of two tonal melodies, a Carinthian folk song and a chorale by Johann Sebastian Bach. The quotations give reference points for the listener to understand, and to some extent organize, the music he or she hears. They also have strong symbolism, the Carinthian tune conjuring the image of Manon dancing, and the chorale (“It is Enough” from Cantata No. 60) expressing the desire to leave this painful life for the bliss of the next.

The melodies, however, are not mere bones thrown to the audience. Berg assimilates their tonal harmonizations with his twelve-tone row, so that they emerge from his atonal world in a manner that is both musically organic and emotionally devastating. Bach’s tune in particular, with its unusual opening of three whole tones, is an ingenious development of the last pitch classes of Berg’s row.

In this way, Berg brings an audience into his concerto with feats of structural integrity, and his success was affirmed by the warm responses of audiences in Chico and Redding. Terrie earned the ovations not just with technical agility, but with the romantic sensibility she brought to the work. Her sure and beautiful sound production and her astounding intonation gave the performances a confidence that was essential to winning the audiences. She deployed her skills in advocacy of this piece when she might have played a more beloved concerto and garnered even louder applause. Terrie and Kyle are showing our region what it means to have high artistic skill and character.

A serial work has to win over orchestra players before it can reach listeners. Berg’s orchestration is important in this regard.

Even in great tonal works, players often struggle against a composer’s assignment of parts and dynamics, laboring to overcome thick textures or compete with stronger sections of the orchestra. So when a composer orchestrates fluently, the musicians’ work is rewarded. Players simply have to place their notes accurately to realize the composer’s design. They can then spend their time polishing instead of struggling.

Berg is one of these fluent orchestrators, especially considering the technical challenges of twelve-tone music. A basic problem is the equality of each pitch class. Lacking the tonal center of the diatonic scale, which orders seven pitch classes into a strong hierarchy, the row does not allow the listener a sonic home. A serial work’s organization is not even open to players without careful analysis. The main and secondary ideas are actually marked in the scores of serial pieces, so that players will have some understanding of their parts.

From the first bars, Berg’s elegant orchestration clarifies the Concerto’s motifs, structure, and harmony for players and listeners alike. He aligns timbres and overtones in a quintessentially Viennese manner, and also contrasts sections of the orchestra dramatically without drowning the weaker instruments.

This concerto should be recognized as an artistically important marker for modernist spirituality.

Behind the memorial to Manon Gropius lie Berg’s more complicated personal stories. He was a believer in numerology, avidly following the schemes astrological determinism that fascinated many Viennese artists, and encoding secret messages into his compositions.[2] The 10-bar phrase structure of the opening, for example, symbolizes Berg’s mistress Hannah Fuchs. In the concerto’s passages expressing death throes, the violin cries out Berg’s initials along with Hannah’s, filling the Bach chorale that follows with longing for eternal union, not with Christ, but with a lover. The Carinthian song has a double-meaning, recalling a daughter Berg fathered by a family servant as a young man but never knew. Berg lost two young girls.

Berg’s concerto is a mature work of post-Christian culture, a work already nearly 80 years old. In this modernism, the artifacts of Christian hope become malleable symbols, as all cultural artifacts must, expressing the most subjective longings, and consecrating erotic experience as holy ground. Part of what makes this work a classic is its perfect capture of modernist spirituality: the sexual self under the stars.

[1]Kyle Pickett, “Evening at Egan Talk” (unpublished, n.d.).

[2] Douglas Jarman, “Alban Berg, Wilhelm Fliess and the Secret Programme of the Violin Concerto,” The Musical Times 124, no. 1682 (April 1, 1983): 218–223.

Vertigo: Herrmann's Use of Forms

by Matthew Raley One of the visual abstractions we noticed in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo was his evocation of famous paintings. We saw that his shot of Madeleine floating in the Bay alludes to the painting of Ophelia by Millais, and that references like this give an unconscious emotional atmosphere to the film.

Bernard Herrmann uses a similar abstraction in Vertigo's score. He refers to musical forms in a way that intensifies the cultural and psychological atmosphere. Two such references are important to the score's role as co-narrator with the camera.

First, Herrmann employs a habanera rhythm in relation to Carlotta. The habanera was a Cuban dance that made its way to Spain in the 19th century, and thence to Europe, becoming famous through Georges Bizet’s Carmen. As a cultural artifact, the dance is associated not just with Hispanic atmosphere but also with seduction.


Second, Herrmann uses ecclesiastical forms in his cues at Mission Dolores. He draws the church modes into his harmonies, employing sighing motifs, and using a pipe organ.

Both references, which David Cooper calls “extraopus intertextuality,”[1] remain at some distance from their antecedents. They are not literal. No one dances a real habanera during a café floor show. Scottie doesn’t pass an organist on his way to the graveyard. By remaining abstract, these references allow one’s imagination to play at a less conscious level, and with profoundly ironic implications.

Yet another aspect of Vertigo's intricacy.

[1] David Cooper, Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo: A Film Score Handbook, Film Score Guides (Westport  CT: Greenwood Press, 2001), 65.

Vertigo: Herrmann's Abstract Score

by Matthew Raley I've given several examples of Alfred Hitchcock's abstract visuals in Vertigo (here and here). But Hitchcock also created a sound-world to match, and he found a collaborator in Bernard Herrmann. Together, they raised the score to the level of co-narrator with the camera.

The term “Wagnerian” is often used to characterize Herrmann’s score for Vertigo, and for good reason. But the variety of composers who influenced Herrmann hints at a more complex musical imagination.

He was famous for loving English composers such as Edward Elgar[1] and Ralph Vaughan Williams.[2] Vertigo’s frequent similarity to music by Claude Debussy is mentioned by critics.[3] Less well-known is Herrmann’s study as a thirteen-year-old of Hector Berlioz’s Treatise on Orchestration. The influence this Romantic maverick had on Herrmann was life-long.[4] Nor was Berlioz the only musical outsider with whom Herrmann identified. Though Herrmann spent his student years in New York close to such American icons as Aaron Copland and George Gershwin, Herrmann also developed relationships with young radical composers in a group modeled on Les Six.

Most significantly, Steven Smith documents Herrmann’s long association with Charles Ives, the ultimate outsider, noting Herrmann’s early study of Ives’s 114 Songs and his habitual visits with Ives until Ives died in 1954.[5]

With such a background, there should be no surprise that Herrmann’s score is one of the more abstract elements of Vertigo.

It is not explicitly tonal—that is, the harmonies are not organized around a triad that specifies a key, but around the pitch-class structures and intervallic relationships that occur in the first bars of the prelude. Such harmonies, while not expressionistic, are at the outer reaches of the common practice era.

Herrmann, further, employs a modular phrase structure that permits the extension of a line, but is not intrinsically melodic, alluding to but not identical with the traditional eight- or sixteen-bar phrase.

Moreover, Herrmann blurs the classic distinction between diegetic and nondiegetic music at various points in the score. Diegetic music comes from a source within the film, like the record-player in Midge's apartment that annoys Scottie. Nondiegetic music comes from outside the story's action: the audience hears it, but the characters don't.

As we will explore over the next posts, the abstraction of Vertigo’s music allows it to operate with subtlety, concision, and force. The score is a large part of the greatness of this film.

 [1]Bernard Herrmann, “Elgar: A Constant Source of Joy,” in Edward Johnson, Bernard Herrmann: Hollywood’s Music-Dramatist, Bibliographical Series 6 (Rickmansworth: Triad Press, 1977), 29–31.

 [2]Bernard Herrmann, “Vaughan Williams’s London Symphony,” The Musical Times 100, no. 1391 (1959): 24.

 [3]William H. Rosar, “Bernard Herrmann: The Beethoven of Film Music?,” The Journal of Film Music 1, no. 2 (2003): 137; Royal S. Brown, “Herrmann, Hitchcock, and the Music of the Irrational,” Cinema Journal 21, no. 2 (April 1, 1982): 20.

 [4]Steven C. Smith, A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 14–15.

 [5]Ibid., 21–23, 38–39.

Vertigo: More of Hitchcock's Abstractions

by Matthew Raley Abstraction in art is any step away from a thing-in-itself. Artists use abstraction to open emotional and reflective space in their work -- space that isn't there at the literal level. As I wrote in my last post, there is a range of abstraction levels in every work of art, and Hitchcock's Vertigo is especially full of examples.

I've shown several examples of how Hitchcock took steps away from concrete referents like characters inside the film and even artworks outside of it. Here are some instances of higher visual abstraction, in which the referents are less concrete.

A quite high level of abstraction is the reference of the film back upon itself. This is not merely the foreshadowing of an event early and the event’s later completion, but the recurrence of entire sequences of action, like the pursuits that end with Scottie witnessing a fatal plunge. Deborah Linderman, for example, acknowledging her dependence on Raymond Bellour, reads Vertigo as “a series of self-reflecting mirrors,” describing a displacement of stasis that recurs all the way to the final shot.[1] Peter Wollen uses similar terms to describe the plot.[2]

This self-referential abstraction creates the unsettling sense, which pervades the entire film, that "I've seen this before, yet I haven't seen this before."
Perhaps the highest abstraction in the film is at the level of design.

The motif of red and green that permeates the film does not represent a literal thing in the story; the colors influence the emotional atmosphere while maintaining visual coherence. The drab greens and reds in the hallway leading to Judy’s hotel room can be seedy, while the red and green theme at Ernie’s can communicate opulence. The artificially limited palette retains a broad range of impacts.

Another example of this level of abstraction would be the famous spiral motif in the opening titles. Spiral references occur in Scottie’s nightmare, in the mission tower staircase, and even in Madeleine’s hair. While the spiral does represent the physical condition of vertigo, in a sense, there is no suggestion that the condition actually looks like a spiral, either to the onlooker or to the sufferer. On the contrary, the literal imitation of vertigo is Hitchcock’s famous point-of-view shot in which the camera zooms in and tracks back at the same time.

Again, each level of reference raises the significance of the story’s literal elements, enabling us to reflect on the story, explore the internal structure, and discover larger meanings. The film is not just about a dizzy cop. The spiral helps us connect vertigo with erotic obsession. The mise-en-scène prompts us to question the characters’ relationships and motives more deeply. A simple filter can lift an image out of the prosaic and invite a second look, a thinking look.

[1]Deborah Linderman, “The Mise-en-Abîme in Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’,” Cinema Journal 30, no. 4 (July 1, 1991): 52.

[2]Peter Wollen, “Compulsion - Does Vertigo, Hitchcock’s Most Personal and Perverse Thriller, Show Him as a Surrealist?,” Sight and Sound. 7, no. 4 (1997): 14.

Vertigo: Hitchcock's Abstractions

by Matthew Raley To start exploring why Vertigo has been called one of the greatest films of all time, let's look at Alfred Hitchcock's use of abstraction. The word abstract is used freely to describe artworks, but the meaning of the word can be difficult to specify.

Abstraction in art is usually contrasted with representation, the use of forms rather than the use of imitation, as if these were absolute categories. This antithesis is easy enough to maintain if the artworks are Piet Mondrian’s Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow (1930) and John Constable’s Wivenhoe Park (1816). But I wonder whether antithesis is the best way to analyze abstraction in a work. Is there no abstraction in a painting if it contains recognizable eyes, ears, or fingers?

Clearly not. Artworks have many levels of abstraction in them, from low to high.

I define abstraction as any step away from a referent, from things-in-themselves to representations, imitations, or evocations of those things. An artist may intend such a reference to be close or distant, obvious or subtle, and the artist uses this range of interaction with things to control a work’s atmosphere, meaning, and relationship to its audience.

Hitchcock is a master at employing many levels of visual abstraction, and Vertigo is filled with examples.

Take two low levels of abstraction. The first, so low as to be routine, would be the camera’s literal capture of James Stewart and Kim Novak not representing themselves but Scottie and Madeleine. A slightly higher level would be the representation of Stewart and Novak in the Redwoods using a filter, which lends a dream-like quality that is less representational of the literal scene.

Hitchcock’s layered mise-en-scène throughout Vertigo would be a higher level of abstraction yet, informing plot development and characterization through placement within the frame. The point of view shot in which Scottie sees Midge’s parody of the Carlotta portrait next to Midge herself in the same pose is only one instance, a double juxtaposition of the fantastic with the normal.

Mise-en-scène, in a still higher level of abstraction, can refer to iconic images from other art sources. One critic, for example, argues that Hitchcock’s portrayal of Madeleine in the bay refers to the Pre-Raphaelite Ophelia (1852) by John Everett Millais.[1]

So a reason for Vertigo's greatness is the richness of Hitchcock's visual language. He crafts frames with varying degrees of abstraction, creating an emotional resonance with the viewer.

We'll see more examples of this next week.

[1]James M. Vest, “Reflections of Ophelia (And of ‘Hamlet’) in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’,” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 22, no. 1 (April 1, 1989): 1-9.

Vertigo: The Ink-Blot Problem

by Matthew Raley Interpreting art has always been a problem. Can a painting have a theme? When does a novelist cross the line between portraying wrong actions and endorsing them? Can you be morally or spiritually corrupted by listening to a song?

These questions are more emotional when they involve cinema, partly because of its sheer popularity over the last 80 years, partly because of the visceral power of the medium itself. Christians want to engage films spiritually, but they get tripped up by the moral quandaries they find.

These are important issues, but they make a poor starting-point for a spiritual discussion of film -- or of any art. Before we dive into Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, I want to explain why I will address the moral and spiritual issues last.

It is a rare work that has both greatness and a "message." Great artworks focus questions pointedly and show experiences palpably. They do not provide many answers. By contrast, works that convey a message are not usually art, but propaganda. Before we can approach the issues raised by films, then, we have to think in a more filmic way.

In evangelical entertainment today, sadly, there is almost no art. The expectation of both producers and consumers is that "Christian" books, music, and films will have a "good message," and the message itself removes the works from consideration as serious art. Evangelicals rush to give answers almost as a matter of principle. If they thought more carefully about art, they might see the value of provoking the right questions.

There is a more specific problem for Christians who want to engage "secular" films.

For pastors, using a film as a sermon illustration has become a popular way to make a point, with certain films like The Matrix (1999) or The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003) attracting almost permanent enthusiasm. The retelling of films as spirituality tales is a branding device for some authors.[1] Medieval allegorizing is even recommended by some academics as a hermeneutic for engaging film spiritually.[2]

Such uses of film seem less like dialogue than monologue. Not every self-sacrificing character is a Jesus figure.

Vertigo has incited a great deal of moral discussion, but has been especially open to agenda-driven interpretation.

One of the most influential concepts of feminist film theory, Laura Mulvey’s idea of the “male gaze,” was formulated using Vertigo as an illustration.[3] Mulvey famously psychoanalyzed the film in terms of Freudian scopophilia. It has also been read as an allegory of existential psychology,[4] and an opportunity for theological study of human motivations.[5] More whimsically, critics have used it as a point of comparison with Shakespearean characters,[6] and even as a metaphor for Kim Novak’s entire film career.[7]

Vertigo starts to look like an inkblot test.

There are ways to address the spiritual issues raised by this film that go beyond the brain candy of allegorizing, or reading the film in terms of a favorite construct. We can embrace the complexity of what Hitchcock created, and we can let the rich layers of meaning guide us to the issues.

But we have to do good work first.

[1]John Eldredge, Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005).

[2]Robert K. Johnston, “Transformative Viewing: Penetrating the Story’s Surface,” in Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline, ed. Robert K. Johnston (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 304-321.

[3]Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3 (1975): 6-18.

[4]Kirk Schneider, “Hitchcock’s Vertigo: An Existential View of Spirituality,” Journal of Humanistic Psychology 33, no. 2 (1993): 91-100.

[5]Neil P. Hurley, “Mutability of Motivation: Hitchcock’s Films,” Theology Today 35, no. 3 (O 1978): 326-328.

[6]Wendy Lesser, “Hitchcock and Shakespeare,” The Threepenny Review, no. 11 (October 1, 1982): 17-19.

[7]Vincent L. Barnett, “Dualling for Judy: The Concept of the Double in the Films of Kim Novak,” Film History 19, no. 1 (January 1, 2007): 86-101.

New Series: Hitchcock's and Herrmann's Vertigo

by Matthew Raley This month, the British Film Institute's journal Sight and Sound announced the results of its poll of film critics, distributors, and academics asking, "What is the greatest film of all time?" For the last 50 years, the answer has been Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941). But this year, the 846 panel members chose Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958).

This is one more in a series of critical reevaluations over the last couple of decades that has saved Vertigo from the cool response to its release, from relative obscurity, and even from the ravages of physical decay in Paramount's vaults.

But there is something these two films have in common, which makes this poll a vindication for one artist in particular. The scores for both of the top films were composed by Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975), the brilliant and belligerent composer who worked with almost all the major directors of his time.

Why did Vertigo have trouble gaining critical and popular acceptance?

One reason may be that its plot turns on a coincidence. Scottie Ferguson fails to save Madeleine Elster from suicidal obsession. After Madeleine falls to her death, the lovesick Scottie stumbles on another woman, Judy Barton, who reminds him of Madeleine. He makes Judy over to look like her, only to discover that, in fact, she is Madeleine—the fraudulent Madeleine he loved. The happenstance of seeing Judy enables him to solve the murder of the real Mrs. Elster.

In outline the scenario seems, to say the least, contrived.

In a series of posts, I will argue that Vertigo's plot is not as contrived as it may appear, and that the plot's success is due in large measure to Herrmann's status as co-narrator with the camera. Hitchcock and Herrmann, for both of whom this film was personally important, deserve the praise they are now receiving.

In the process of analyzing Vertigo, I will also be reflecting on matters of importance to Christians. Are films important spiritually, or are they just entertainment? How should a Christian interact with a film that conflicts with the biblical worldview -- as almost all films do? Should films provide us only with examples of people who "do the right thing?"

I hope this series will not only influence the way you look at films, but also the way you listen to them.

Boredom, Lady Gaga, and My New Friend Olivia

by Matthew Raley When I saw that Lady Gaga wore a dress made of meat, I considered rejecting the Internet again.

Early in my summer sabbatical, I found that I couldn't abide the Internet anymore, that I loathed it both for being frantic to get my attention and for being a colossal bore.

Twitter, for me, has turned into the annoying person who won't stop recommending stuff to read. The actual information on it is paltry. I watched the #sanbruno feed last weekend roar to life like the flames from PG&E's old gas line, but quickly abandoned it. How many RTs of "1 person confirmed dead" do we need? It was like reading a cable news crawl.

I find that most news websites are stridently partisan, offering little of what the ancients used to call reporting. The vast majority of blogs are unreadable, thuggish, self-absorbed, and profane -- irritatingly profane, as though profanity still had shock value. To spend any length of time on Facebook, it seems that my appetite for kidding around has to be gluttonous.

We say that we use the web to "connect." We rejoice over "connecting" with old friends, people with similar interests, and fellow professionals, as if a connection of 140 characters is significant, as if hitting "tweet" compulsively while your eyes dry out and your face goes slack from hours in front of a screen is personal engagement.

Bottom line: I got sick of trying to convince myself that social media are as great as they claim. I decided that crowdsourcing web content was less a brilliant insight than a desperate ploy to keep boredom at bay. So I paid rude, token snatches of attention to the Internet once a day, and then ignored it.

I resumed normal life this month, with its unavoidable web-staring and "connecting," just in time to see Lady Gaga and her meat.

Gaga is Our Lady of the Internet, a saint of cyberlife who personifies the web ethic of giving and receiving: I'll do a little stunt for you if you'll do one for me. Every day, she feeds the web with a new dress or hat, a new exposure of her skin, or some new pose of her glazed face. And last week, apparently running out of ideas for another stunt, she wore meat.

It happened that I went to speak at a small church in Cottonwood last Saturday. A woman entered just after I began to teach with a person the size of a seven-year-old draped over her shoulder, and at a distance I took the person for a girl. It was clear that she was severely limited: unable to move, hold herself up, or speak. She would moan, and the woman would shift her to the other shoulder for a change of position.

At the first break, I went over to meet the pair. The caregiver introduced me to Olivia, not a girl but a thirty-year-old woman, and she held her up to look at me. As I locked eyes with Olivia, the caregiver said that Olivia had just been released from the hospital. I said to those silent eyes, "I'm so glad you're here today!" Suddenly the face that had seemed inert moved, a slight but definite pull at the side of Olivia's mouth. I got a smile. I got another one later as we said goodbye.

A connection.

So there is a woman on the Internet who flies around the globe trying to keep everyone from getting bored with her. There is another woman in Cottonwood who is shifted from one of her caregiver's shoulders to the other, and who smiles when she meets new friends. Ultimately, I do wonder whose life is richer.

I suppose I won't reject the Internet. But I will be rude to it, with all its pretense of liveliness. I prefer smiles.

Christopher Raley's New Blog

by Matthew Raley My brother Chris has just launched his own poetry blog called Tapping the Wall. He's got two new poems up, and I hope you'll check them out. I've also added his site to my blogroll.

Chris is not a "Christian poet" in the sense that he rewrites 'Tis So Sweet To Trust In Jesus over and over, or spins allegories about the cross. He is a Christian who is a poet -- that is, who has taken up the calling to render all sorts of experience in rhythmic and sensual language. Far better.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit

by Matthew Raley "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit," by John Singer Sargent, 1882, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

I was looking at a survey of John Singer Sargent's work last night and was reminded of how compelling this painting is. This piece has it all: atmosphere, fascinating color, light effects, compositional interest, and psychological tension. I particularly love the informal placement of the girls, as if we've blundered into some game they were playing.

The Folk Singing Dynamic

by Matthew Raley "Seated Old Man Facing Right, Singing and Holding Music," by Anton Crussens, mid-17th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The public worship described in Ephesians 5.18-21 is not pop music -- music designed first and foremost to sell. The writing of Ephesians predates mass popular culture by almost two millennia. Furthermore, the letter does not describe what I call "art music" -- an admittedly trouble-filled term that I use for music written in and for the development of the Western tradition. Music in this tradition starts roughly with Léonin and Pérotin in the high middle ages, more than a thousand years after Paul.

(Complications regarding the interactions between pop and art music I defer, but do not deny.)

What Ephesians describes is folk singing: a group of people making a corporate sound that develops from who they are and how they live. In suburban, white America -- as opposed to ethnic enclaves -- folk singing is all but dead. We're way too cool.

I am sensitive to a danger in this line of thought about worship. Practices from the past won't restore authenticity to a church just because they are old. A church is not a museum. Public worship needs to be alive -- that is, needs to express what Christianity is now. I am not warming up to argue that we should recover the past, as if it were possible.

But I am saying that we should know what the past was, and know that it is not interchangeable with today's default musical practices. In human history, the practice of buying music instead of making it is such a recent development that it might as well have happened yesterday. People who have no sense of the past -- I'll put this very diplomatically -- have been setting evangelical standards for public worship, and as a result they tend to assume that Martin Luther thought the same way about music that they do.

He didn't.

So, what precisely do we need to recover from Ephesians 5? Do we need sheet music for the psalm chants used by 1st century Jews? (It doesn't exist. And if it did, we wouldn't be able to read it.) Do we need to ditch diatonic harmony and teach congregations to sing in the quarter-tones ancient cultures used then and still use today? (Americans-by-birth don't even hear quarter-tones. My violin professor went on a tour of the middle east in 1990. Trying to play quarter-tones with an Arab violinist, he asked whether he was playing in tune. The Arab pulled a face and said, "Close." Which is to say, no.)

I think what we need to recover is the dynamic of people making music together. Stated differently, we need to rebuild the fundamentals of singing in groups, not as performance, nor as entertainment, but as participation in a way of life. I believe those fundamentals are: a resonant physical space, a shared memory of songs, a stripped-down melodic style, and a belief system that is prejudicial.

So, pretty much all of this will be controversial.

Consider the impact of physical space on singing.

The vast majority of churches built today are designed for visual appeal and technological flexibility. They are designed for sound only as an after-thought -- and a quite expensive one. Not far from here is a church my family has long referred to as the golden golf ball. It looks like it fell from a stratospheric height and created an immense divot.

The builders assumed that the sound inside the dome would be wonderful, but for various technical reasons the sound was appalling. In order to control wave-reflection, the interior had to be piled and sprayed with every imaginable kind of sound-absorbing material. The result? You can fill the golden golf ball with thousands of people, and they can all belt out songs at the top of their voices, but the only person you'll actually hear singing is . . . you.

Farmers built barns that were more suitable for singing than most contemporary churches. Partly, the suitability was a matter of materials. Our forefathers built with wood. The churches they raised were finished inside with plaster. When the people started to sing, you felt it.

(One evening I asked Kyle Wiley Pickett, conductor of the North State Symphony, why orchestra members loved  playing in old vaudeville halls, whether the beautifully renovated Cascade Theater in Redding, or the less well-appointed halls in Oroville and Red Bluff. He felt sure it was the plaster.)

Now, the old spaces are too hardened for much electronic amplification, and the pre-microphone past is not one we want to recover. Even so, churches don't have to keep building dead sound spaces. They could design their worship settings to enliven the singing of the people.

More on the fundamentals of the folk dynamic next week.

Major Artist Now Neglected

by Matthew Raley "Meditation," Adolphe-William Bouguereau, 1885, Joslyn Art Museum

Before dinner last evening, my friend Dr. Tim Heinze and I were discussing Adolphe-William Bouguereau (1825-1905), who rose to prominence in the French painting establishment at precisely the moment the impressionist movement was building up a head of steam.

The impressionists went from holding rogue exhibitions during the Paris Salon to conquering the art world, while the refined traditions of the establishment lost their dominance. In other words, the spotlights of contemporary prominence lit Bouguereau's way into historical obscurity.

The overthrow of refinement in favor of passion had many more casualties in the arts, and we see even the concept of beauty regarded with odium today. The art world refreshes itself in these convulsions, I suppose, but the ideological derision often thrown at talented people who don't repeat the party line is ugly, whether the derision comes from the establishment or the rogues.

At least the art itself lives on for our enjoyment.

"Graziella" by Lefebvre

by Matthew Raley "Graziella," Jules-Joseph Lefebvre, 1878, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Here is something thoroughly beautiful to start the week. I know nothing of the heroine depicted in the painting, other than that she was the subject of an obscure 19th century novel by French statesman Alphonse de Lamartine.

But the painting speaks for itself. The brooding atmosphere is set by Mt. Vesuvius smoldering in the background. One wonders what the girl is meditating upon -- not her fishing net, clearly. The whole composition is elegant and finished, right down the detail of the red petals under the girl's toes answering the petals in her hair.

Hegel, Adorno, and the Modern Composer

by Matthew Raley Can evangelicals be united by a common music today? Can sacred music edify, or must we wander in a consumeristic wasteland of narcissism? These are the questions I am considering here, here, and here.

One of the reasons corporate worship has decayed is that Western culture, as I sketched last week, has a troubled view of individuality and community. Modernism abstracted community into a collective consciousness -- to some thinkers a mystical, universal mind, to others the industrialized economy, to others a fascist state -- into which individuals were absorbed.

Individuals, in reaction, sought to recover freedom, rebelling against collective demands. Arguably, today's postmodern self-adoration is one result.

Let's go a step further into these themes. I believe there is a clear reason why Western culture has degenerated into alienation. The wrong god has been reigning, to the destruction of those who serve that god.

Georg W. F. Hegel (1770-1831), many argue, set the idol on its pedestal -- if unintentionally. Hegel developed a view of history that influenced thinkers as divergent as Fichte and Marx.

History is sovereign over human events, working to realize its will through a dialectical process of synthesizing contradictions. What history does cannot be undone, ignored, or defied. History must be served.

In particular, history must be served by the artist, of whom Hegel required (in his Philosophy of Fine Art) “a liberal education . . . in which every kind of superstition and belief which remains restricted to certain forms of observation and presentation should receive their proper subordination as merely aspects or phasal moments of a larger process; aspects which the free human spirit has already mastered when it once and for all sees that they can furnish it with no conditions of exposition and creative effort which are, independently for their own sake, sacrosanct.”

Unpack that rationalist sentence.

The artist uses reason to master his culture. He stands back from cultural forms, seeing them merely as history's tools, not as truths in their own right. Thus the artist is culturally free. But he must use his freedom to express history's truth, subordinating forms to their role as "moments of a larger process."

Hegel himself did not intend history to become the god that, for instance, dialectical materialism made of it. But a god it became.

The Marxist philosopher Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) applied Hegel's view of the arts to music. Adorno opened his Philosophy of Modern Music (Trans. by Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster [New York: Continuum, 2003], p 3) with a quote from Hegel’s Philosophy of Fine Art: “For in human Art we are not merely dealing with playthings, however pleasant or useful they may be, but . . . with a revelation of truth.”

Adorno also quoted the Hegel passage cited above (p 13), and responded to it. History, he argued, had swept away the freedom Hegel envisioned, moving through the force of collectivism (p 17). “At the present level of development the artist is incomparably much less free than Hegel could ever have believed at the beginning of the liberal era.”

Adorno saw the old world of art forms held in common by all as bankrupt. The domineering force of commercialism was suffocating individual expression, relying on old artistic forms and techniques (dance, tonality, polyphony) to lull the masses with empty certitudes. For music to say something historically true, it had to undermine the familiar with maximum individual expression.

Individual compositions, he said, became laws unto themselves, self-contained and self-defined structures that made no attempt to connect with an audience, instead ignoring the audience and rejecting its claims. Adorno analyzed the music of Arnold Schoenberg and Adorno's own teacher Alban Berg, showing how the atonal twelve-tone system of composition served history and rose to the level of truth by enabling a composition to obey its own laws. An example (Schoenberg's Suite for Piano, Op. 25):


But, Adorno said, this maximized individuality still didn't give the artist freedom (pp 17-18):

[T]he artist has become the mere executor of his own intentions, which appear before him as strangers – inexorable demands of the compositions upon which he is working. That type of freedom which Hegel ascribes to the composer . . . is, as always, necessarily related to the traditionally pre-established, within which framework there are manifold possibilities. On the other hand, what is simply of itself and for itself cannot be other than it is and excludes the conciliatory acts by which Hegel promised himself the salvation of instrumental music. The elimination of everything traditionally pre-established – the corresponding reduction of music to the absolute monad – causes it to ossify and affects its innermost content.

So Adorno further shows that, in twelve-tone music, the only option for the composer to express himself is to rebel against the internal laws of his compositions -- in other words, to go insane. As an example of this rebellion, he cites the heroine of Schoenberg's Erwartung, who finds her lover murdered (p 42): "Musical language is polarized according to its extremes: towards gestures of shock resembling bodily convulsions on the one hand, and on the other towards a crystalline standstill of a human being whom anxiety causes to freeze in her tracks."

Can music console? Adorno said no. There is no true consolation for modern individuals, only the expression of fragmentation and anxiety. Can music edify? Again, no. Adorno argued that music must not connect people. There is no we anymore.

The agony of this story is that Adorno's reasoning follows relentlessly from Hegel's premise. If history is sovereign, then individuals will serve it, artists included. The cultural bankruptcy Adorno saw was real, and the empty boasts of modernism have spawned the various strains of postmodernism.

For evangelicals to worship together in any other mode than demographic conformity, we will have to rebuild a concept of how individuals live in community.

As I'll sketch next week, that involves dethroning history and bowing to the God who is truly sovereign.