Sunday, January 23, 2011

Hymnody and the media tetrad

Everything old eventually becomes new again. Marshall McLuhan, who argued that any new medium retrieves features of the distant past, would undoubtedly be pleased by the following video:

This video has been circulating among organists, where it has been the cause of considerable consternation. One would think, after enduring decades of mass-produced church music of abysmal quality, that organists would by now be desensitized to this sort of thing; is this composition really that much worse than such established favourites as "Alleluia Ch-Ch"? Think about this for a while, though, and the secret horror of the organist's life will become apparent: forced by our profession to listen to such music regularly, but prevented by our musical training from ever learning to tolerate it.

I'm not particularly interested in this song as an occasion for maudlin self-pity or polemics on the state of contemporary church music, however. Most reasonable people will grant that "I Think I'm Gonna Throw Up" is unsuitable for any liturgical service; it's essentially a novelty song, one which will make an occasional appearance at summer camps until the camp counsellors discover that having children run around pretending to throw up creates too many discipline problems. No, I'm more interested in this song's unexpected recreation of an earlier Victorian genre of hymnody, of which there are two famous examples:

"Stir up this stew,
Stir up this stew,
Stir up this stupid heart of mine."

and this, known as "the spinster's hymn":

"O for a man,
O for a man,
O for a mansion in the sky!"

The difference, of course, is that "I Think I'm Gonna Throw Up" has no other purpose than to produce this double entendre, while the humorous effect of the Victorian hymns was presumably unintentional, at least to begin with. Still, it is a delight to see history repeating itself in such a charming manner; perhaps the next hot seller in contemporary Christian music will be Hymns Ancient and Modern.

A hymn with even more fascinating sociological implications is this one:

This is truly fascinating; a collection of quotations from a motley crew of stage magicians, philosophers, research scientists and professional skeptics have been autotuned into a song expressing an uplifting scientific/empiricist viewpoint. Just as Theosophists, Unitarians and Spiritualists created their own repertoire of songs by emulating the hymnody of nineteenth-century mainline Protestantism, advocates of today's scientistic rationalism have created their own repertoire which is altogether indistinguishable from praise-and-worship music. This song is, to all intents and purposes, a hymn; it cannot be understood as part of any other genre.

Now, I think this is incredibly clever and catchy, easily the best video in this "Symphony of Science" series (there are several others, should you have the time and inclination). But the message of the series deserves closer examination. The triumphalist tone is obvious enough ("A new wave of reason has arrived; let us march boldly into the brave new 1950s!"), but there are other interesting things at work here as well. Consider the following three propositions:

1) "Science is more than a body of knowledge. It's a way of thinking; a way of sceptically interrogating the universe." (Carl Sagan)
2) "The same spiritual fulfillment that people find in religion can be found in science - by coming to know, if you will, the mind of God." (Carolyn Porco)
3) "There's real poetry in the real world. Science is the poetry of reality." (Richard Dawkins, from another episode in the series)

This is clearly self-contradictory and incoherent. "Sceptically interrogating the universe" is as good a definition as any for what scientists do; the natural world has been sworn to tell the truth and is waiting in the witness stand, and the scientist's task is to frame a suitable question (i.e., the experiment) that will get as much information out of the witness as possible. The problem, though, is how this process of interrogation transforms itself into "poetry" or a means of "spiritual fulfillment". Sociologists sceptically interrogate the structures of human communities, but you will look in vain for a sociologist who claims that "the same spiritual fulfillment that people find in religion can be found in sociology." Journalists are supposed to sceptically interrogate political leaders to uncover the truth about important policy decisions, but no-one claims that "journalism is the poetry of reality."

These examples are purposely ridiculous. Or are they? Sociology, after all, claims to apply scientific methodology to the study of humans, and modern journalism follows an essentially modern, scientific ethos in its attempt to penetrate to the "real story" beyond the surface appearance and spin. Indeed, almost any discipline now reflects the Baconian scientific method described by Sagan; to take an example close to home, scientific methodology has given us a far better understanding of historic organs and the technique required to properly play them. To paraphrase Milton Friedman, we are all Baconians now; everyone grants the usefulness of scientific empiricism in solving a wide array of technical problems, and we all default to this methodology when faced with new and interesting challenges. But why does scientific methodology become something "poetic" and "spiritual" when applied to things like astrophysics and cellular biology, and not when applied to things like sewage treatment, building codes, and census-taking?

The answer seems to be that the poetry and spiritual significance of scientific enquiry comes not from the methodology of science itself, but from the content of the thing studied; in exploring other planets or discovering more about the interior of the cell, we learn more about the essential building-blocks of existence and approach nearer to the heart of existence. Yet this sense of poetic and spiritual significance is grounded in the subjective experience of wonder and awe - precisely the sort of qualitative reality about which science has nothing to say. And so the incoherence of the hymn in the above video reflects the incompleteness of science itself: the content that gives meaning to scientific inquiry lies outside of science, and the impulse that drives humans to become scientists is itself incomprehensible to science. To put this another way: the people in the video claim, for the most part, to be hard-nosed skeptics and atheists, but the ideology that motivates their activities is really a form of deism or pantheism, viewing science as a pathway to the Absolute. It is high time they had hymns of their own to sing, and now they do.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Mr Magundi on atonal music

A friend pointed me to the new blog Mr Magundi Speaks His Mind, another part of the growing publishing empire of H. Albertus Boli. Dr Boli's Celebrated Magazine has long been one of my favourite things on the Internet, and the new blog is worth a visit. The setup is simple: the eponymous Mr Magundi is an opinionated, somewhat eccentric man who holds forth on a variety of subjects to those around him while waiting for the streetcar. Each entry, then, provides a thought-provoking and frequently witty angle on some unexpected subject, usually set off by a chance remark made by someone else at the streetcar stop. It reads like a cross between The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks and a book by G. K. Chesterton; if you like both of those things, you know where to go.

Predictably, however, I couldn't let Magundi's take on atonal music go by without comment - it is so brief and tightly packed that I can only quote it in its entirety:
“They always stick in one of those atonal things before the Beethoven,” said Mrs. Bowman, who had just been to a symphony concert. “I never did like that sort of thing, but I guess I’m just not very musical.”

“No one who loves music really loves twelve-tone music,” Mr. Magundi said. “There may be certain compositions that strike you as clever, and you may enjoy some of the interesting sounds emanating from the different sections of the orchestra; but you will never love it. This is not a defect of your musical education, but a compliment to your ear: it simply shows that you have the ability to distinguish what is music from what is not. The modern twelve-tone system is designed expressly to prevent music from happening—that is, what any sane listener would define as music. Nor will I listen to that hoary and false assertion that the great composers of the past were similarly derided in their time. They were not. Beethoven’s seventh symphony, at its first concert, could not be continued until the audience had forced the orchestra to repeat the second movement. Wagner was the center of an almost religious cult. Ravel saw popular dance bands playing his “Bolero” when the ink was hardly dry on the score. These were composers who appalled the conventional critics with their innovations; but their innovations were music, and ordinary people heard it and loved it, and loved it while it was still fresh. We have had a century to get used to atonal music, and all the great orchestras have been force-feeding it to us as the price we have to pay to hear Mozart or Mahler. Yet, during that long period, and with such a relentless campaign, not one composition in that style has made the slightest impression on the public at large. We must confess, therefore, that something more than fashion is at work here; and we may boldly state it as a law of nature that no sane and healthy person will ever really love atonal music.”
(Click here to view the post in its original format, with the comment thread.)

Magundi is, of course, completely right, but also completely wrong.

It can hardly be denied that twelve-tone music has made next to no impact on the general public; and while we can make any number of excuses for this (bad programming, poor performances, preconceived opinions on the part of audience members) it seems unlikely that works by Webern, Stockhausen, or Boulez will ever have mainstream appeal. And no-one is gladder than I to see the old Whig version of music history demolished: the narrative of music history is not an upward trajectory of stylistic progress, and especially not if by "progress" we mean an ever-increasing level of chromaticism and motivic saturation. The development of musical style has to be understood as a more complex process, responsive to a variety of social and political factors including the general intellectual climate of a particular time period. To say that "Beethoven was rejected in his day, just like Stockhausen" is worse than nonsense, because the difference between a composer's relationship to his audience in 1800s Vienna and 1960s Darmstadt is so enormous as to make such a comparison invidious.

I think our author is absolutely correct, too, in pointing out the absurdity of thoughtlessly sticking a newly commissioned piece on a program with Mozart or Mahler. I was immediately reminded of this concert, where the premiere of Xenakis's Keqrops shared space with Schubert's Rosamunde music. It's probably safe to say that these two works have nothing to say to each other; the sort of person who comes to an orchestral concert because they're playing Schubert would be unlikely to enjoy the Xenakis, and the sort of person who traverses the continent to hear Xenakis premieres (they do exist!) is probably not going to want to hear the Rosamunde pieces afterwards. A piece like Keqrops - intensely dramatic, violent and slighly traumatizing - should almost certainly end any program on which it appears, and should be preceded by works that provide a chance to prepare yourself for what is to come. Sandwiching a Xenakis piece in a protective cushion of standard-repertoire pieces is dishonest, bait-and-switch programming - it practically guarantees that not a single person in the audience (or, for that matter, onstage) will be happy with the musical result.

There are certain things here which suggest that Magundi has not been keeping up on recent musical developments. Twelve-tone music (not the same as atonal music, by the way) is now a style of the past; only a relatively few aging professors use the system at all, and none that I am aware of use it in the rigidly systematic way that we associate with the early works of Boulez. To talk about "the modern twelve-tone style" as though serialism were the dominant style of composition rather than a largely abandoned one, suggests a certain disconnect with the trends in contemporary composition. For similar reasons, I find the setup of the article implausible in the extreme; if serial works are rarely composed these days, they are even more rarely performed except for specialist groups in large cities and universities. That any orchestra in 2011 would put a midcentury avant-garde or serial work on a regular season program strains credulity. In my experience, when you question the Mrs Bowmans of this world, it usually turns out that the work she so objects to is something thoroughly innocuous, like Britten's Sea Interludes or a Bartok piano concerto - a work, in other words, that she might well be expected to enjoy given a chance to get used to the style.

The conclusion of Magundi's article, of course, is the most controversial. Will the average person ever genuinely enjoy twentieth-century modernism? Probably not. (This applies as much to Finnegans Wake as Keqrops). Will a "sane and healthy person" ever genuinely enjoy this repertoire? That's a different question entirely. If this were an academic conference, Magundi would be asked to define his terms, but asking a question like that about a 300-word blog post is missing the point. (Indeed, you could argue that by writing as much as I already have about it, I have clearly missed the point as well.) I'll try to answer the question elliptically, though: would a "sane and healthy" person judge a piece of music according to his impression of it, or according to arbitrary a priori categories? Your answer to this question will determine whether or not you agree with Mr Magundi.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Fourteen months later

The release of the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus has stirred up enormous controversy, allowing for the reception of Anglicans into the Roman Catholic Church through a newly-formed ecclesiastical structure (the "Personal Ordinariate"). The Ordinariate is currently in the process of formation in Britain, with a major landmark being today's ordination to the priesthood of three former Church of England bishops.

The media, as one might expect, have been all over this story: the ongoing bitter theological disputes, Byzantine power struggles and financial woes of the worldwide Anglican Church have been an entertaining sideshow in the news for years. It's always interesting to guess at the reasons why the general public might find these stories worth following. Perhaps the public takes a certain half-spiteful, voyeuristic interest in the proceedings, the sort of interest one might have in a messy celebrity divorce; perhaps with the popularity of such ecclesiastically-themed like Dan Brown's ridiculous The Da Vinci Code, any Church matter now has an air of exotic mystery; or perhaps the public intuitively understands that the fate of Britain's state church and its worldwide offshoots will go some way towards determining the political future of the English-speaking world.

Whatever the reason for this sudden interest in Anglican affairs, coverage of the Apostolic Constitution in the traditional media and in the blogosphere has been extensive and fascinating. Figures in both the Anglican and Catholic communities have weighed in on the subject, representing church jurisdictions that I never knew existed and an extraordinarily wide range of theological opinion. If anyone believes that either the Anglican or Catholic Church is a monolithic bloc with no room for individual opinion, they need look no further than the blog debates about the Ordinariate, if they dare.

The perspective that has been least represented in this discussion, however, is also probably the most important. What do you do if you're an Anglican layman with limited theological knowledge and erudition, one who is concerned about the future of the Anglican church but not currently prepared to accept the entirety of Roman Catholic doctrine? Doesn't it imply a lack of moral seriousness to jump from one church tradition to another simply because the process of doing so is now slightly easier?

This is, of course, exactly my own position, and I would be surprised if many others aren't in the same situation. The nineteenth-century Oxford Movement, which instigated a resurgence of catholic tradition within the Anglican Church, nevertheless maintained a certain distance from the Church of Rome; the great Anglo-Catholic theologians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century differed on many points from the teaching of the Roman Magisterium. Thus, anyone who moves from the Anglican Church to the Roman Catholic Church is entering an ecclesial body with a substantially different body of teaching. Indeed, if any Anglican genuinely accepted every statement in the Catholic Catechism they would have no choice but to convert to Catholicism immediately. It is hard to imagine why any person who truly believed that the apostolic Church founded by Christ subsists solely in the Church of Rome (CCC 816) would refuse to submit to the authority of that Church; inconsistency is by no means the worst thing that can be said for such an position.

Joining the Roman Catholic Church thus represents much more than a change of leadership; it represents an assent to a clearly defined body of dogma, maintained and updated by a teaching authority that identifies itself as infallible. To point this out is not necessarily to deprecate the Church, as a certain modern sensibility might suggest; it is clearly better than to have well-defined principles than to allow whim and fashion to determine doctrine. It does mean, however, that the content of Catholic dogma should receive the closest possible scrutiny. It makes not a whit of difference to the Methodist churches if John Wesley turns out to have been wrong about some detail of doctrine; it makes a great deal of difference if the Roman Catholic Church has taught error on any doctrinal point, since this would undermine the Church's entire self-understanding. A prospective convert to Catholicism should thus be persuaded not only that the Roman Church is wholly correct on every doctrinal matter on which it has officially spoken, but also that the official organs of that Church will continue to speak with infallibility on all matters of faith and morals in the future. The stakes are enormously high. If Rome is correct in its claims, then accepting the authority of the Pope is the best decision one could ever make, and indeed the duty of every Christian. If Rome is incorrect in its claims, then the authority of the Pope is illegitimate, and to join his Church would be to embrace error.

This may seem melodramatic, but I have done no more than to point out that Roman Catholic dogma must be either true or false, and that the truth or falsity of our beliefs has important consequences. Unfortunately, it is precisely this aspect that seems to have been least stressed in the discussions of the forthcoming Ordinariate; advocates of the Ordinariate have tried to demonstrate that the situation in the Anglican Communion has become untenable, and that the best aspects of Anglicanism will be preserved under the new power structure. All of this is wholly irrelevant. The only reason to accept Catholicism would be that it is true; the rest is only logistics.

So is Catholic doctrine true or false? The short answer is that I don't know. I have never been convinced by arguments that Catholicism is evil, anti-Scriptural or whatever, but neither have I been fully persuaded by the standard apologetics for Catholic doctrine. My reading on the subject has taught me a lot of facts about comparative theology, but hasn't really clarified matters. It seems obvious that the Catholic understanding of the Christian faith is in many ways compatible with my Anglican understanding, but it is less clear how to judge between us in the cases where we differ. And so I withhold judgment. In the absence of some clear sign one way or the other, it seems wisest to serve God by remaining where he has placed me.

It is, then, with mixed feelings that I observe the formation of the Ordinariate. I am pleased, of course, that some part of the liturgical and pastoral heritage of Anglicanism will now be accessible to the wider Church, and hopeful that this will represent an opportunity for richer ecumenical dialogue. And I can only be pleased for those Anglo-Catholics for whom the Apostolic Constitution is an answer to decades of prayer. Yet I am concerned that many will join the Ordinariate without fully considering the implications of their decision, pushed along by stronger-willed members of their parish, weakening an already fragile Anglo-Catholic community without fully commiting to Roman Catholicism. Certainly in the blogosphere a certain amount of bullying has taken place, with advocates of the Ordinariate painting the bleakest possible future for any Anglicans who choose to stay put. On a more wistful note: many Anglo-Catholics had hoped that the process of theological dialogue would one day make possible a scheme of intercommunion with Roman Catholicism; for a variety of reasons, this is now increasingly unlikely ever to come to pass, but the existence of the Ordinariate likely represents the final nail in the coffin for that dream.

This post was over a year in the making; I have avoided commenting on the Ordinariate up until now because the issues involved are so complicated and controversial. Yet, for all that, what I've written above still seems fragmentary and inadequate. It's painfully obvious that I don't have the answers, and that what we need now more than anything else is careful study and prayer.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Greatest ever

My interest in blogging has been at a low ebb in recent months, but I couldn't help but be intrigued to read in various quarters about Anthony Tommasini's project to create a New York Times top ten list of the greatest composers in history. Whose idea was this? And - more crucially - what does "greatest" really mean in this context? Tommasini's project is still incomplete, but an alternative top ten list by A. C. Douglas, reads as follows:
1: Bach
2: Mozart
3: Beethoven
4: Wagner
5: Haydn
6: Stravinsky
7: Palestrina
8: Bartók
9: Schubert
10: Schoenberg
The juxtapositions on this list are striking: Palestrina greater than Bartók, but not quite as great as Stravinsky? It's hard to know what musical criteria could possibly be used to compare Palestrina's mellifluous, unperturbable polyphony with the lithe, sharp-edged modernism of Stravinsky.

Nevertheless, here are my picks for the Top Ten Greatest Composers of All Time:

1: Johann Georg Albrechtsberger
2: Herman Berlinski
3: Jacob Clemens non Papa
4: Rolv Yttrehus
5: Adolphe Charles Adam
6: Friedrich von Flotow
7: Osbert Parsley
8: Rigaut de Berbezilh
9: Christian Petzold
10: Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco