The Bishop Gets Down

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The
New York Times arts section seems to have a house policy:
a respectable story on some encouraging trend in art, music, or
architecture, must be balanced by a story on an equally despicable
trend, one that lifts the hearts of NYT editors but inspires
disgust in average readers.

This
particular day (May 4, 2000) the revolting story is on the Midwest
death-metal rock group "Slipknot,"
which features guys in "grotesque masks and prison-style jump
suits" doing "scream-singing." "Two teenagers
had already been treated for injuries before Slipknot had even finished
thrashing, banging and raging through its first song about exploding
angst."

Ah,
what joy. The story reluctantly admitted that Slipknot doesn't represent
a real social trend (unlike swing music, the preferred genre of
the high-brow college set), much less signal a return to alternative
rock (which "began fading in 1994 with the suicide of Kurt
Cobain"). But the survival of rock's remnants does give some
hope to those who delight in exploiting the idiocies of youth to
gain recruits for an adult population of moral nihilists, perpetual
adolescents, and bad taste in general. As the leader of the band
says, "Slipknot is not just an average band. It's not just
music. It's a way of life and it's the real way of life."

With
any luck, Slipknot will go the way of Cobain.

Now
to the good news. Sir
John Tavener
(the Times
misspells his name), an Englishmen and the world's leading
liturgical composer, is making his American debut. The name is close
to that of John Taverner (with an "r"), the English composer
from the 16th century, and his music bears some resemblance
as well: they both write complicated and difficult polyphony designed
for liturgy and spiritual reflection, and they both set the standard
for sacred music in their own time.

Tavener
graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in London, and set out
on a conventional conducting career which included a Verdi's "Trovetore"
at Covent Garden. But a change of heart – a conversion of heart
– led him entirely away from the secular toward the sacred.
As he eloquently puts it, he went from trying to express his own
musical voice to attempting to reveal the transcendent voice through
the medium of music. Today, Tavener works from the premise that
Western music has been heading in the wrong direction since the
end of the Catholic Counter-Reformation.

It
is not such an unusual path. The history of music includes thousands
of Masses, motets, Vespers services, Marian hymns, and cantatas
that great composers wrote with an eye toward touching the transcendent.
As one church musician told me, composing sacred music for
liturgy is a means by which an artist can seek to expiate sins and
have some hope of gaining a measure of immortality for his art.

Sadly,
the incidents of such attempts are fewer in our times than any previous
century. The Catholic Church scrapped its Latin liturgy of ancient
origin to be replaced by a vernacular service whose text has changed
every few years since the close of the Vatican council. The Catholic
liturgy is no longer a stable outlet for composition, and hasn't
been since 1969 (the text of Tavener’s 1969 Celtic Requiem is in
the dustbin of history). In the same way, the Protestant church
has turned toward egalitarian "Praise Songs" in which
the congregation and the choir sing the same dull popular choruses,
over and over and over again.

It
is no surprise, then, that Tavener, along with many other serious
sacred composers of our time, have turned toward Eastern rite liturgies,
which have experienced far less reform since the dreadful liturgical
revolution of the 1960s and 70s. In any case, it is the texts of
those churches which now hold out the prospect of immortality in
art. Hence, John Tavener himself converted to Russian Orthodoxy
in1977. In the midst of a massacre of talent unlike anything seen
in the history of Christendom, the West lost him to the East.

How
can such a person, such a voice, gain headlines in the New York
Times? Tavener is hugely popular by the standards of the classical
music industry, benefitting from an amazing upsurge in public interest
in sacred texts and transcendent sounds. Well, says the Times,
"his study of ancient, durable musical forms led him to develop
a style that, it turned out, was perfectly suited to a part of the
new-music world that was taking shape in the mid-1980's. Like the
music of Arvo Pärt, Giya Kancheli and others of the Eastern
European mystical school, his works tend to be slow-moving and intense,
and in an eclectic, accessible language."

Had
the Catholic Church protected her liturgy from corruption, and held
out its own rites as the alternative to the secular world 1960-2000,
it would be well positioned to have gained from this remarkable
resurgence in sacred music. Alas, this music is distributed by secular
companies via secular institutions, even as the religious recording
houses are hawking "Christian contemporary" music (which
be even more grating than Slipknot). For the Vatican's part, its
recent forays into music distribution include the Pope's New Age
CD (sorry, about ten years too late on that trend), and a rock concert
at the Vatican featuring Lou Reed, Alanis Morissette, and the Eurythmics.

It
was one thing to give an Papal audience to Bon Jovi, but even the
Pope had to avert his eyes when Noa, an Israeli singer, crooned
in front of him in a low-cut top with a bare midriff. Does an event
like this make the Vatican want to rethink it forays into pop-rock,
which create scenes worthy of a disrespectful Saturday Night Live
skit? On the contrary: "Rock music, when it is performed by
great artists, is stupendous," Bishop Fernando Charrier told
the press.

And
what is a bad artist?  Not Bon Jovi, Lou Reed, or Noa. A bad
artist would be someone who, said the Bishop, "might try to
exploit the media attention, brandishing crucifixes, or something."
So there you have it, at last a coherent explanation for why Tavener,
who brandishes crucifixes, plays for socialites in New York while
Lou Reed plays the Vatican.

May
6, 2000

Jeffrey
Tucker

lives in Auburn, Alabama.

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