Friday, May 6, 2016
Musical Explanation 5/5: Sacred Harp Singing
Every culture, every era, perhaps every community, every family, every person, is either a dancing culture or a singing culture.
The difference between dancing and singing is the difference between outwardness and inwardness, the difference between materialism and idealism (in the old sense), between sense and sensibility, between the phenomenal world and the noumenal world, perhaps even the difference between polytheistic worship and monotheistic worship. It is the difference between what our bodies are, and what our bodies can do.
Dance is the ultimate physical manifestation, it is real. It is the creation of order out of the chaos of movement, or perhaps even the evocation of chaos as a rebellion against a world that demands order. It utilizes those extremities of our bodies most distant from our inner selves, and while the lungs and heart and brain create our movement, it uses our internal organs to create an external expression. It expends energy, and is irrevocably linked with the erotic, the ultimate energy-expending force in our lives. I would venture a guess that most countries closer to their expiration date than their conception are dancing cultures.
In a scientific sense, song (and music) is very much a physical manifestation. But it is not of a physical manifestation that we can understand without severe intellectual abstraction. Short of sex itself, music is the ultimate mystery in our lives. Out of the chaos of the universe comes a series of vibrations so ordered that existence itself finally makes sense. It is a series of vibrations that comes from the very inner core of our bodies, and while the posture of our extremities can assist, they must be at rest. After a few hours of singing, most people are not exhausted, but feel filled with renewed energy. Singing has been ultimate proof and expression that we are more than a collection of dirty neuro-physiological wires.
As dance has long been associated with the erotic and sexual, song has long been associated with the spiritual and ascetic. In a polytheistic worship, full of Gods with limitations who must compete with each other to appeal to us, it makes a certain degree of sense to exult them by worship through the physical senses. In polytheistic worship, one can take certain amount of sensual pleasure as one's due - as any particular God will manifest his or her favor upon you by granting you that sensual pleasure when another God would not.
But in a monotheistic world controlled by an infinite power, such a God does not owe you anything. You owe Him, and all which you do is a manifestation of Him, and therefore, all which we do is a reflection upon Him, for good or ill. As we are creatures of God, created in his image, it is a bad reflection upon God to allow ourselves to surrender to the dirty chaos of nature - with its lethal dangers and devilish urges. We may be made in God's image, but surely if God is virtuous, he would not possess our infernal lusts and wraths, and would not leave us to the mercy of our nasty, brutish, short existence without a greater reward - so we must prove ourselves worthy of this great reward, through order existence's chaos, which provides security and distance from these unknowable forces which well up from the depths of the sky and land and sea and the depths of our own souls. And perhaps the ultimate manifestation of this order is music - the invisible yet harmonious force that shows that the very air vibrates in celestial harmony.
It's glorious to hear Gregorian Chant, the unchanging and spooky monophonic worship music of the Middle Ages. It's yet another glory to hear the ostentatious, ornamentally louche Catholic worship music of the Renaissance and Baroque eras - with its roots in Greco-Roman paganism, which speaks of a God who manifests Himself as much through His material glory. It's perhaps still more glorious to hear the metaphysically charged music, a bit more distant from God, during the eras of the great monarchies of the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras, so ostentatious because the Monarchical State itself which sponsored such music was the greatest manifestation of the Divine.
But there is no spiritual charge quite like the simple, unadorned, un-ornamented, but ever-sturdy music of simple Protestantism, music just complicated enough that it can stand forever as a plain edifice to the humble but proud people who sang it at the top of their lungs and vibrated with their whole beings to the frequency of their divine luminosity.
To hear, and still better to participate, in Shape-Note, or Sacred Harp, singing, is to evoke the very early days of this country, with its Protestant roots which themselves can take us back to the very earliest days of Lutheranism. It demonstrates a faith so plain, so ascetic, so confident, so serious, that it alone could have created the energy by which the American ethos conquered the world. It is (finally) an American music without frivolity, speaking directly to the existential dreads and metaphysical quandries of our lives. It is a singing beyond singing, not so much a song as a harmonious shout of affirmation. It is a regimented singing, without ornamentation or vibrato, utterly without nuance or subtlety. It simply demands your submission to the great harmony. The manner with which it is sung is so simple that, for the rarest of rare gifts in choruses, it is very rare to encounter intonation issues.
It is music that reminds us that often, there can be times when greater freedom is gained by the submission to authority. Perhaps such freedom is an illusion. But in questions of morale, there are times when the illusion of freedom and the actuality of freedom are one and the same. At certain points by surrendering small amounts of our freedom, we gain greater freedom later.
This week marked the return of Andrew Sullivan to writing. His subject was the subject which so many Americans are currently dreading - is America on the precipice of tyranny? And if we are, how did we get there? Sullivan's answer was Plato's, that we arrived here because democracy in America had become so fecund that paralysis was inevitable, and could only result in a tyrant rising above the chaotic din.
All things are attracted to their opposites, scientifically it's an idea from James Clerk Maxwell, but it was already shot through philosophy: from Plato and Empedocles to Kant and Hegel, and later Heidegger. Whether the unconscious is individual or collective, it seems to cry out at times for all it does not have as a means of attaining balance. At a time when the Protestants who founded this country lived lives of awesome regimentation, they formed the first lasting, overwhelmingly stable, Republic in millennia. At a time when the individual is so paramount, a gathering force has begun to show itself, an American iron curtain, which perhaps threatens by the very force of American democracy to put this country, finally on the precipice of achieving equal rights for all, back under Authoritarian rule. Equality for all under submission.
In our quest for greater freedom, we have abdicated the civic responsibilities that are the bedrock by which a Republic can grow into a Democracy. As always, the arts can show us the way. In this age when conservatives and liberals alike are obsessed with the rights of the bedroom, with the frivolous ostentation of modern life, there are remnants in America of an earlier faith; both more disciplined, and more ecstatic. It calls to us with its simplicity, reminding us that there are more fundamental concerns than anything of this small world, and perhaps by submitting to forces like it, we can enable the continuing spread of freedom for longer. Long after our epoch resolves itself, this early Protestant music will continue - a sturdy house built to last eternally.