The Rest Is Noise 10: Politics and Spirituality

To the South Bank for the tenth study weekend in their year-long The Rest Is Noise festival based on the fabulous book about twentieth century classical music by Alex Ross. This weekend it investigated the widespread revival of religious or ‘spiritual’ compositions by composers behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ ie in Russia and East Europe, in the 1970s and 80s.

Full disclosure

I was aware of the most famous of these composers – the Estonian Arvo Pärt, the Poles Penderecki and Gorécki – and came to learn more. But I had several reservations before I even arrived:

a) To adapt a quote – when I hear the word ‘spirituality’ I reach for my Luger. Most of the people I’ve ever heard talking about spirituality lack the moral discipline and intellectual consistency which one can at least admire in practising Christians, let alone practising Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus etc – and instead are sappy, post-religious Westerners describing their own vague feelings of uplift and wonderfulness. The phrase “I’m a very spiritual person” usually boils down to”I’m a very special person – my feelings are finer, my sensibility is nobler, my soul is superior, to the ordinary unthinking masses”. As one speaker said, this vague sense of reverence for something bigger than us, Nature, the Universe, God, whatever, was some time ago labelled New Age religion.

b) The rise of ‘spiritual’ music among Eastern composers is often described as a special and unique phenomenon which I find odd because most composers in history have been Christian and written religious music. Until the end of the 19th century this was taken for granted. But even in the twentieth century, Mahler is deeply religious, so is Schoenberg, so is Stravinsky. Even in supposedly atheist Britain, in the supposedly atheist 20th century, Vaughan Williams writes Christian-ish music, Benjamin Britten is an Anglican, John Tavener, James MacMillan, John Rutter write devout religious music. Even Stockhausen became dottily mystical in later life, Ligeti wrote his Requiem etc.

Ie classical music composers writing religious music is the norm not the exception. Therefore what makes this group stand out must be the type of religious music they create, and I think it is the return of Gorécki and Pärt in particular to very simple, repetitive, harmonic music which makes their music so very palatable and acceptable to a music-hungry, serious music audience which, for a generation, had been offered only the very challenging sounds of Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono, Berio, Ligeti, Xenakis et al and, at home, the perplexities of Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle et al.

Example: Gorécki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs

Some speakers speculated that the soulful, mournful music of Pärt and Gorécki speaks to deep longings in the human soul etc, and a great deal of speculative discourse can be and has been generated on this premise. But I believe their popularity stems from a different cause. As one speaker pointed out, Gorécki’s third symphony became a surprise bestseller in the early 1990s giving fuel to the ‘Westerners need religion’ argument – but then undermined it by explaining that the bestselling Dawn Upshaw recording (1992) had been produced and packaged by the commercially savvy Elektra-Nonesuch label and heavily promoted by the new Classic FM radio station (launched in September 1992 and looking for sounds and names to associate with its new brand).

“The recording climbed to number 6 on the mainstream UK album charts, stayed at the top of the US classical charts for 38 weeks, and in the chart as a whole for 138 weeks. The Zinman/Upshaw recording has sold over a million copies and probably counts as the best selling contemporary classical record of all time.”

When asked why it was so phenomenally popular, Gorécki speculated: “Perhaps people find something they need in this piece of music… Somehow I hit the right note, something they were missing. Something, somewhere had been lost to them. I feel that I instinctively knew what they needed.” (Wikipedia)

He, and the many, many commentators on this music, this period and these composers, like to think that what they needed was more religion in their lives, that what the people who bought the CD were missing was a bit of Polish Catholicism or – to be a bit more sympathetic – a sense of something larger than our petty worldly concerns, something transcendent, something to feed our longing for the numinous, the lasting and meaningful etc etc.

I take the jaundiced view that, if the million-plus purchasers of the Dawn Upshaw were looking for anything, it was a fashionable piece of music on the cool new CD format which could be played safely in the background of a hundred thousand dinner parties. What they were missing was not a new devotion to the Virgin Mary; they were looking for something new and fashionable which you could actually listen to with pleasure, that you could play in the car and the kitchen.

The 1990s were not an era of notable spiritual revival in Britain; they were a further step in the post-Thatcher rise of a narcissistic consumerist culture and it is no coincidence that the tremendously simplified, slow and repetitive music of Pärt, Gorécki and John Tavener could be easily packaged and sold to the Classic FM classes (cf the popularity of Tavener’s Song to Athene after it was played at the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997). My point is: the buyers and listeners aren’t hungering after religion; they are hungering after accessible music with more depth and seriousness than the pap provided by X Factor and Beyoncé.

This service is provided by the wonderful new music of Gorécki et al but to say composers writing religious music is unusual ignores the history of Western classical music; to say it is special in the Eastern bloc is to overlook the deepseated religious traditions of Poland and Russia; to say it was unusual under Communism is obviously untrue, since this whole weekend is devoted to the fact that the 70s and 80s in the communist bloc are entirely characterised by religious music – what is unusual is to find a decent atheist composer: were there any? Schnittke?

*************

As usual Saturday and Sunday were packed with lectures, workshops and film screenings on all aspects of the dominant theme, all leading up to an evening performance of key works from the topic or era. I only went to Saturday as Sunday’s events seemed to be mainly about the political background in Britain, which I lived through and don’t need reminding of.

Timetable for the Politics and Spirituality weekend

Saturday 2 November

1. Opening Lecture: Catherine Merridale

Like many if not most of the speakers at these events, Catherine, Professor of Contemporary History at University of London, author of Ivan’s War, was plugging a new book, in her case Red Fortress. She gave an elegant and insightful talk, packed with information and anecdote, and making one overriding point: The twentieth century was one of mind-boggling violence for Russia. At least 27 million Russians died in the Great Patriotic War, maybe 60 million Russians in all died in the Great War, Revolution, Civil War, various famines, Stalin’s pogroms and Terrors, then the Nazi war, then more terror until well into the 50s and the Gulags still overflowing in the 60s and 70s. Merridale’s point is that all the grief and guilt at these horrors was swept under the carpet. the populace had to smile and smile. In 1964 Brezhnev came to power determined to make Russia the most successful nation in the world, happy, smiling faces, Tchaikovsky’s ballet music on every radio. After the initial efforts to destroy it the communists came to an uneasy truce with the Orthodox church and then, later, came to be proud of its Russian-ness, and so the churches with their gold and icons and incense remained one of the few places Russians experienced a genuine, not staged, sense of community and where they could express their deep feelings of loss and tragedy. In this context, for a composer to write religious music was a daring act of rebellion against the State authorities, to risk the loss of his income and career, but at the same time an opportunity to connect with the great subterranean feelings of the people.

Only casually, at the end of the talk, did Merridale mention that the special conditions which gave rise to the dissidents and the samizdat press and the impulse to write religious music have all gone now. The USSR ceased to exist at the end of 1991. We have had 21 years of the jolly Russian Federation. Church attendance in Russia is now the lowest of any European country. 4% compared to 41% of American citizens, 15% of French citizens, 10% of UK citizens. (Source: Wikipedia). So much for the Russians having something to show the decadent west about religion and spirituality.

Merriday said now when she goes back to Moscow, the people she discussed Dostoyevsky and spirituality with as a student are now millionaire property developers or selling armoured cars to mafia bosses.

And so, talking about the special ‘spiritual’ quality, character or culture of Eastern Europe is itself a nostalgic exercise, it is already looking back at a long-vanished era. They are more atheistically materialistic than we are.

2. Gubaidulina: String Quartets 3 & 4

In the Purcell Room, Sofia Gubaidulina was presented and sat onstage to be interviewed: I didn’t pick up on the religious motivation for her work but heard her talk about specific technical problems to do with trying to create contrasting sounds – plucking versus bowing in the third quartet – and the challenge of using a pre-recorded tape of the material for the players to play against in the 4th quartet and of working with film projection which led to comparisons with Skriabin who also requested that colour projections be played at concerts as part of the work. But the programme note and the Wikipedia entry are very eloquent about her deliberate religious intentions for her music, its association with transcendence and spiritual values etc.

I didn’t have the slightest religious feeling while listening to it, I was impressed by the way she’d manage to get new sounds, new sonorities and combinations, out of a very old format. I liked.

Sofia Gubaidulina – String Quartet number 3

Sofia Gubaidulina – String Quartet number 4

3. Listen To This Professor Jonathan Cross played clips from half a dozen pieces which are featuring in this part of the festival:

  • Henri Gorécki Third Symphony: the listener relaxes in an aural bubble bath of long, slow, repeated and hushed phrases. Religious it may be intended to be – that 90% of Poland’s Jews were exterminated, that 6 million Poles died in WWII, we may learn – that the extended grief over these holocausts required deeper outlet than the communist authorities permitted in their workers’ paradise we may be told – and that this work includes the prayer of an 18 year old woman on the wall of her Gestapo prison cell we may shudder to read – but a reassuringly accessible aural comfort blanket is what this music actually provides.
  • Arvo Pärt In Memoriam Benjamin Britten from his most popular period, the 1970s the period of tintinabulation ie experiments with bells and bell-like sonorities encountered in church rituals. Professor Cross explained how three sets of strings – violas, violins, double basses – played the same descending scale of A minor but at different speeds to create the overlapping patters, recreating the overtones and partial notes of a ringing bell.
  • Shostakovitch’s Fifteenth Symphony his final symphony and a very puzzling use of motifs from other composers including Wagner and the William Tell overture. But it ends on strange syncopated fade out.
  • Galina Ustvolskaya A pupil of Shostakovitch and, I learn from Wikipedia, very close to him; he proposed marriage to her at least once, and asked her opinion of  his later scores. She developed her own unique sound characterised by percussion.
  • Cornelius Cardew was an English radical composer who rejected the entire concept of bourgeois music and composition and founded the Scratch orchestra where nobody could play particularly well and there was no hierarchy or leadership. He set the works of Confucius in an open-ended score called the Great Learning.
  • Louis Andriessen was also a political radical. His work De Staat sets words of Plato about an ideal society.
  • Stockhausen’s Tierkreis is based on the numerology of the Zodiac and can be performed by a wide variety of instrumentations. Prof Cross played a version recorded by the composer’s son, the trumpeter Marcus Stockhausen.

4. Music and Spirituality in Eastern Europe Professor Adrian Thomas gave an academic and authoritative review of mostly Polish composers. He took from Robert Scholl a grid comparing and contrasting Modernity versus The Spiritual, with modernity having attributes like rational, worldly, monetary, calculating and The Spiritual ones like supernatural, transcendent, timeless etc. But in a tough-minded way he concluded that the Spiritual doesn’t necessarily mean religious, the sacred, the holy: it can just mean NOT worldly. It is anything which escapes us from the mundane.

He pointed out the deepness of religion, of Catholicism, to the Poles and the tremendous impact the election of Pope John Paul II, the Polish Pope, in 1978. All Polish composers have written at least on religious work. Also the Poles were among the earliest of the Soviet satellites to cast off the doctrine of ‘Socialist Realism’, as early as the 1950s.

  • Lutoslawski said his cello concerto dramatises the fight of the individual (the cello) against the oppressive collective state (the orchestra); it is designed to end in an other worldly transcendence.
  • Gorécki Thomas played the early work ‘Elementi’ (1963), an abrasive early piece. On YouTube there’s a tape of Professor Thomas introducing ‘Elementi’.
  • Wojciech Kilar – I had never heard of him before.
  • Penderecki – I was interested to learn that P has been criticised for not really being spiritual, but writing about politics and remembrance. I heard the Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima back in school 30 years ago. I learned along the way that it was originally a purely experimental piece with the title 8’37” but renaming it after Hiroshima helped make it and Penderecki famous and, according to some critics, he has been living off that reputation ever since. I was lucky enough to see it earlier this year conducted by the composer and it really was one of the few genuinely hair-raisingly dramatic experiences I’ve had in the concert hall.

Prof Thomas took some time to explain the lives and aims of the two Russian women composers I’ve learned about today:

  • Galina Ustvolskaya She wrote only 20 or so pieces including four symphonies, number 4 being as short as 6 minutes.
  • Gubaidulina is Russian and unshamedly spiritual in intent: “there is no more serious purpose in writing music than the spiritual”.

Prof Thomas then mentioned two younger Polish composers of whom I have never heard and played some intriguing excerpts. Must find out more about them…

5. Alain de Botton – consumerism and spirituality

Popular philosopher of everyday life, bestselling author (see his dedicated Amazon page), radio and TV presenter, de Botton is fearsomely clever and articulate. speaks in captivating paradoxes, bristling with counter-intuitive insights. As the author of Religion for Atheists he disbelieves that this supposedly ‘spiritual’ music is playing to religious impulses in us.

De Botton started by saying our modern society is very odd in historical terms: we have narrowed the meaning of our lives down to just two concerns: Love and Work. We must succeed in both but rarely do, giving rise to permanent anxiety and envy, the invention of the Self Help culture. With the decline of religion there is no-one to turn to with our deeper concerns and worries, isolating us, destroying community, setting us against each other leading to an atomised society of alienated consumers always hoping that the next purchase will make us happy and content, failing to understand that the entire system is designed to make us feel restless and buy more books, more dvds, bigger TVs, more clothes, go on expensive holidays etc. The TV and media bombard us with ‘news’ which keeps us anxious and depressed and cynical, rendering us incapable of the kind of peaceful deep reflection into our own lives which is psychologically required and which is available in all pre-technological societies.

Therefore he sees the music we’ve been learning about and listening to as fulfilling not a religious but a deep psychological need in human nature, a need to feel something bigger than us, transcendent, enduring, lasting. This music – which at its most calm in Gorécki and Pärt is a kind of pastiche of medieval music Gregorian chant, but with modern twists and tics – provides an immediately obvious calm and clear and accepting environment in which to be more calm and contemplative.

There was then a question and answer session with the audience and, as so often, the Q&As made things simpler and clearer: AdB returned to the idea of art being therapy, art offering us the consolations previously offered by religion, artists as the new priests etc. This struck me as very old – AdB had mentioned that the notion that Culture could replace dying Christian belief was first floated by Matthew Arnold in the 1870s; the Symbolists and other fin-de-siecle movements took it for granted that art was the new religion in the 1890s; Yeats talks about it freely, all before the First World War.

But it’s just not true. Most 20th century Art hasn’t been very consoling, especially the music, but neither the visual arts or architecture. If something terrible happened to me I wouldn’t go to a Damien Hirst exhibition to help me cope. And if I needed some music it would probably be the reassuring pop and rock music of my youth to cheer me up.

A theory of reception

What the weekend lacked, for me, was a Marxist view of the way this product is produced and consumed; how it is packaged and sold, to who, and how, and why. No doubt Pärt and Gorécki and Tavener are very devout religious believers. But almost none of their fans and listeners are. We are something else and we like and listen to this music for completely non-religious reasons and simply attributing their popularity to suppressed religious feelings isn’t enough.

It is the unspiritual aspect of this spiritual music, how it has been produced, packaged and sold in the godless West, which I would have liked to see analysed and explained a bit more deeply.

Thanks to the South Bank

Still – an enormous Thank You to Jude Kelly and the many staff at the South Bank who have organised and administrated this superb year-long festival – hopefully thousands of other people have found it as stimulating and informative as I have and have come away bristling with questions and ideas and criticisms and compliments about subjects and musics and composers we didn’t even know existed beforehand.

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin (Wikimedia Commons)

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin (Wikimedia Commons)

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