catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 7 :: 2009.03.27 — 2009.04.10


Love, love, love…doo doo doo-doo-doo!

I have this musical in mind.

At the moment it’s mostly philosophical or, I hope, theopoetical. 

The curtains draw back to reveal a girl playing the melody of a 1960s pop song on the aulos at a party in ancient Greece.  No one at the table knows the lyrics. “This magic moment, so different and so new was like any other…,” she plays without words.

It’s a scene from Plato’s Symposium: an appropriate beginning for the dramatic tension between music and speech.  Eryximachus sends the flute-girl away to play for herself so that the men can exchange rational words about love.  All of them agree on this, especially Socrates and Plato. 

During the entire conversation, a thick and heavy tragic chord rises to a feverish pitch.  When Alcibiades, the sexually frustrated lover of Socrates, enters the room the music begins to swing unevenly between keys.  Alcibiades blames Socrates for being like a musician who arouses the passions with song.  “If I were to describe for you what an extraordinary effect his words have always had on me (I can feel it this moment even as I’m speaking), you might actually suspect that I’m drunk!  Still, I swear to you, the moment he starts to speak, I am beside myself: my heart starts leaping in my chest, the tears come streaming down my face….”  At this point, the music drowns out Alcibiades and the lights go down on the party scene.

The lights go up on Socrates, Plato and-a  newcomer-St. Augustine.  The trio sings a Gregorian chant together.  The three voices blend so perfectly you can hardly tell one from the other.  This monody allows the song’s message to ascend straight to the rational soul without the confusion of polyphonic harmonies that would undercut the unity of the singers and distract the listener.  In other words, the three sing a plain song where the melody is controlled by the natural patterns of speech. 

When the three bring their sublimely moderate song to an end, they are met by Martin Luther, John Calvin and Ulrych Zwingli who enter stage right carrying one tall beer stein each.  Luther starts riffing on the words of the trio with a new melody, swinging his beer mightily.  Calvin sips his beverage with a straw while keeping one bespectacled eye on the Bible, as if to keep Luther in check.  Cautiously Calvin eventually joins in, along with a select few backing instruments. Zwingli stands firm, refusing to participate.

Just when it seems the music has reached a zenith of praise to God, an all-star praise-and-worship band swarms the stage with their hands thrust upward to receive glorious emanations from heaven.  They form a circle around the old men and start to sing a new song, a song that sounds vaguely familiar, like something from High School Musical III or the Jonas Brothers.  Their eyes are tightly shut and they are belting out an earnest love song to the little baby Jesus while money pours down on them from the rafters.  Even though this is only Act I, in the glow of the stage lights it appears the musical is reaching a climactic conclusion already.

With the end of the musical seeming to draw nigh, you would think a resounding chorus of hallelujahs would be appropriate.  But no.  Against the din of elevated praise can be heard a dark tribal (one might say devilish) beat that sounds like an atom bomb.  Out comes Iggy Pop.  The all-star band of believers flees the stage as Mr. Pop gyrates like a madman, his hand hovering dangerously close to the zipper of his pants.  Iggy throws peanut butter at the audience and mumbles something about someone making him wear a shirt.  But here comes the surprising part!  Stuffing the mic stand firmly between his legs, the rock star launches into a gospel song:

Holy Saints, get your asses saved-Praise the Lord!
It’s not too late to let your body raise-Praise to the Lord!
Give thanks to Him if you’ve got arms and legs-Praise the Lord!
If you don’t, you can moan or go home or shake your ass!

Wow, how unlikely would that be!?  It would be magic!

I pause here a moment to point out that though this all seems rather strange and lacking in plot, I can think of no greater way to express what I’m trying to say without actually producing the musical so you can experience it in the flesh.  And, as you will see, I have good reason not to do so.  It’s important to remember that this is merely the musical I have in my mind, not the musical itself.  You must appreciate the difficulty of convincing someone of the greatness and splendor of a musical with such limited descriptors.  Being aware of my limitations, then, I can only ask you to admit at least the possibility that there could actually be music of the sort to justify my description of it. 

Maybe my point would be better made if I took an example from the real world.  Let’s take Leonard Cohen, for instance.  Leonard Cohen writes songs about love.  He sings spiritual songs about physical things, which is to say he sings about spiritual things.  In 1966, before his music career began, Cohen tried to communicate the desire of an unnamed narrator in his gorgeously coarse novel Beautiful Losers.  The opening lines of the book express his longing quite well:  “I fell in love with a religious picture of you.  You were standing among birch trees.  God knows how far up your moccasins were laced.”  He’s talking about the Blessed Catherine Tekakwitha, a Native American Christian who took a vow of chastity at the age of 23 only to die one year later.  Her last words were, “Jesus, I love you!” 

Leonard Cohen’s narrator in the novel is a historical researcher whose study of the “Lily of the Mohawks” cannot be separated from his erotic desire for her.  The narrator bemoans the limitations of his life of historical research.  He likes to think of history as a kind of music.  For the narrator, history is a dance involving a large host of partners both living and dead, from the past and in the future.  Beautiful Losers is full of the tension between science and music, the written word and wordlessness, reverence for reverence and reverential erotic irreverence.

But even here I fail miserably in my description.  How I long for you to have read it!  Then I would not have to use up so many words on something you could easily experience with me.         

Well, back to the musical then.  We have clearly reached a climactic moment now in this music in my mind that, sadly as I put into words, seems to be losing its magic.  It is precisely at this moment that the curtain comes crashing down.  A small group of people from the audience who had jumped onto the stage during the Iggy Pop performance is now left standing outside the curtain.  The closing of the curtain has transformed everything back to mere ordinariness.  The music has stopped. 

The people left on stage seem curious and scratch at the curtain.  Not being able to find a way in, many of them press their ears to the fabric but, hearing nothing, become frustrated.  The small group confers together in that way characters do in movies when they’re concocting a plan but talk very quietly so that the viewer will be surprised by what happens next. 

Tragically, however, my imaginary viewers will not gain the satisfaction of a proper ending.  With the curtain down, this one-act musical in my mind stops abruptly with no cues for applause, just an indefinite period of silence and whispers followed by a feeling of deep dissatisfaction, even uneasiness.  The music has come to a conclusion without conclusiveness.  It’s as if someone were reading the book of Revelation and when they get to the part where Babylon, the Kingdom of 666, falls and all music is silenced, just shuts the book without reading to the end.  The Kingdom of completeness, the Kingdom of 777, still without reach.  An overly dramatic analogy?  Perhaps.  But this is a musical, after all.        

Since you probably will never see or hear this musical in my mind, though, I would not be ruining the ending if I told you what the group on the outside of the curtain were actually conferring about: With the barrier firmly fixed between them and the other side, they became increasingly anxious that they were missing something glorious.  They were straining to hear what could possibly be the most beautiful and exquisite music, but no one could hear a thing.  And since none of them could hear anything, they were debating whether or not to pry the curtain open.  That is how intensely their love burned. 

Some of them decided there was nothing of any importance going on behind the curtain.  Others were eager to tear open the curtain but were restrained by the ones who wanted to maintain the ambiguity of the moment.  In order to preserve for music a sense of holiness, all agreed not to enter but to wait reverently.  It’s at this point that I believe my audience will lose patience and head for the exits.  But behind that curtain, in the innermost sanctum, there still remains the possibility that a great eternal music exists.  And it is so glorious that people refrain from actually entering for fear there will be nothing at all.  Of course it is possible that they would not be able to get through the curtain even if they tried.  Or, if they did get through the curtain and found what they most desired, that they would die of boredom or despair.

And so, to conclude, I apologize that you can’t hear what I’m talking about.  Maybe you’re better off, or maybe you’re missing something truly mind-altering.  Of course we will never know.  This is only a written description of something that, happily, continues to evade the grasp of language.  Maybe we can think of my failure, then, as yet another testament to the greatness of music.  And so, to not conclude, we must admit that this desire to put music into words, to say what music makes us feel, will continue as long as love lives. 

Now, close your eyes and imagine the most satisfying chord, one that serves as resolution for all the dissonance heretofore described.  Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about. 

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