“Staring at a cloud,” a New Poem by Jason Ryan Morton

My poet friend, Jason Ryan Morton, has written a new poem with the first line, “Staring at a cloud,” which I’m using as a tentative title, for practical purposes as far as distinguishing this one from my many posts on his other poems is concerned.

This one is a pleasant departure from so many of his other poems in that it is more positive and hopeful; not that there’s anything wrong with the others, of course, but I’m always in favour of variety. As usual, I’ll put his poem in italics to distinguish his writing from mine.

Staring at a cloud
I watched the sun fold
Into tiny pockets of light
Like the third eye
Of a blind man
Came the wisdom of the age
Focus on today
Relax and play
Let all the darkness slip away

Ware though my friend
Where goes the end
Peeking round the corner
Will only make you bend
But seek thyself
Find the truth
The only person who deserves your loyalty
Is you
Tis true in a way the day is born for you

Just staring at a cloud
As the sun sang a sonnet
Awaiting the moon for a kiss of purity
Today and tonight belong only to me.
The moon embraced me
Wiped the tears from my face
Tears of joy not tears of sorrow
Kissed Luna goodnight in my prayers
Awaiting another tomorrow

And now, for my analysis.

“Staring at a cloud” can be seen to represent a ruminating over past sorrows, or a grieving over trauma. Such contemplation of pain is a common theme throughout Morton’s poetry, as I’ve observed in my previous posts about it; but here, something surprising happens, and pleasantly so. He continues: “I watched the sun fold/Into tiny pockets of light.” Light has come to replace the darkness of the cloud. When grieving over trauma is completed, happiness can return.

The theme of the contrast of dark and light continues, though in a different form, when he says, “Like the third eye/Of a blind man.” The third eye, like that of Shiva, a mystical eye that gives a kind of illumination beyond that of physical sight, replaces the pitch-black, physical darkness a blind man can only see. Sometimes in our darkness and sorrow, a special kind of light and happiness arises.

The “wisdom of the age” is that of our age today, not the ages of times past; for he advises himself to “Focus on today/Relax and play”. Only in the here and now, the eternal NOW, or the Unity of Time as I described it here, can we experience true joy and happiness, then we can “Let all the darkness slip away”.

We get a few archaic expressions in the second verse, a link to the past that contrasts the first verse’s “Focus on today”. These include the use of “Ware” (an archaic form of aware), “thy,” and “Tis.” To focus on the present, one must also reconcile oneself with one’s painful past.

“Ware” makes a pun on “Where” in the following line; one is aware of what’s going on, yet unaware of such things as “the end.” There is a dialectical relationship between knowing and not knowing; to know the truth, one must accept one’s lack of knowing. Therefore, one shouldn’t go “Peeking round the corner”, which “Will only make you bend” (i.e., twist your mind and make you believe falsehoods, untruths).

Instead of trying to find knowledge from out there, one should “seek thyself” and “Find the truth”. We find the truth within, not through trying to gain the validation and approval of others. Don’t seek the light outside, which will often lead to darkness; find the light within.

The contrast of light and darkness continues with a refrain of “Just staring at a cloud/As the sun sang a sonnet,” this being my favourite line in the poem. One is reminded of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (lines 5 and 6 especially). The paradox of dark and light is given again in the switch from the sun to the moon, which he awaits “for a kiss of purity.” Again, the juxtaposition of light and dark is achieved with “Today and tonight belong only to me.”

We begin to see Morton’s leanings towards pagan mysticism and spirituality when he says, “The moon embraced me/Wiped the tears from my face.” Here, the personified moon is his goddess, even a lover, whose love causes him “Tears of joy not of sorrow,” for She has helped him heal from so much of his past pain. Therefore, in gratitude, he “Kissed Luna tonight in [his] prayers/Awaiting another tomorrow.”

I await another poem of this spiritually uplifting sort from my literary friend.

Analysis of ‘Gesang der Jünglinge’

I: Introduction

Gesang der Jünglinge (“Song of the Youths”) is a 1955-1956 electronic music piece by avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. It was realized in the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) studio in Cologne. The vocal parts were sung by then-12-year-old Josef Protschka. The piece is exactly 13 minutes, fourteen seconds long.

Ryan Simms called it “the first masterpiece of electronic music,” and Pascal Decroupet and Elena Ungeheuer called it “an opus, in the most emphatic sense of the term.” The work has influenced such musicians as the Beatles (“Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Revolution 9“; Stockhausen’s face is also seen on the Sgt. Pepper album) and Frank Zappa (check out his own electronic sound montage experimentation on We’re Only In It for the Money).

Gesang der Jünglinge is also an early example of the use of spatial effects in music; it was originally meant to be played in five-channel sound, but this was reduced to four, then mixed to mono and later to stereo for commercial recording release. Similarly, it was originally meant to have seven sections, but it was truncated to six due to time constraints.

Here is the composition (with Kontakte, from the record I bought in my late teens, introducing me to Stockhausen’s music), and here is the analysis of Gesang der Jünglinge by Samuel Andreyev, to whom I owe a huge debt for my own analysis of the work.

In 1954, Stockhausen wanted to compose a mass for electronic sounds and voices. He was hoping to have the piece played in the Cologne Cathedral, but his request for permission was refused on the grounds that having loudspeakers in a church would be inappropriate. So instead of composing the mass, Stockhausen created Gesang der Jünglinge.

II: Sound Continua and the Unity of Opposites

The three types of material used to make the electronic sounds are sine tones, impulses or “clicks” (i.e., short, staccato-like sounds), and filtered white noise. Paralleled to these electronically generated sounds are three kinds of sound made with the recorded voice of the boy soprano: vowels (corresponding with the sine tones), fricatives and sibilants (corresponding with the filtered noise), and plosives (corresponding with the impulses). Each of these goes on a continuum ranging from the purest or simplest to the most complex.

What’s particularly fascinating about Stockhausen’s meticulous manipulating of these sound continua (structured statistically) is how he managed to make seamless links between vocal and electronic sounds, as well as seamless links between, on the one hand, the electronic sounds–from sine tones to impulsions to filtered white noise–and, on the other hand, the vocal sounds–from vowels to fricatives/sibilants to plosive consonants.

Gesang der Jünglinge, therefore, demonstrates in musical form the unity between the opposing worlds of electronically generated sound and the sounds of the human voice (as recorded and manipulated in the manner of musique concrète). Added to this unity in diversity is Stockhausen’s total organization of all the other musical parameters, total serialism, which is an expansion of Arnold Schoenberg‘s twelve-tone technique (the serializing of the twelve semitones) to a formal ordering of such elements as frequencies, durations, timbres, etc. To hear such music, it might sound chaotic, but nothing could be more precisely organized; thus, through his use of total serialism, Stockhausen also achieved the paradoxical unity of “chaos” and order.

III: Catholic Mysticism

Now, a discussion of the unity of opposites as manifested in this composition can only meaningfully be approached through an acknowledging of Stockhausen’s sense of Catholic mysticism. This means addressing the text sung by young Protschka, which is derived from Song of the Three Children, verses 35-51, from the Apocrypha. In the Bible, the entire set of verses is meant to follow the Book of Daniel, chapter three, which tells the story of three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who are thrown into a fiery furnace for refusing to bow to a giant, golden idol of King Nebuchadnezzar; God saves them from the flames, so they sing praises to Him.

Original text in German: 

Preiset (Jubelt) den(m) Herrn, ihr Werke alle des Hernn—
lobt ihn und über alles erhebt ihn in Ewigkeit.

Preiset den Herrn, ihr Engel des Herrn—
preiset den Herrn, ihr Himmel droben.

Preiset den Herrn, ihr Wasser alle, die über den Himmeln sind—
preiset den Herrn, ihr Scharen alle des Herrn.

Preiset den Herrn, Sonne und Mond—
preiset den Herrn, des Himmels Sterne.

Preiset den Herrn, aller Regen und Tau—
preiset den Herrn, alle Winde.

Preiset den Herrn, Feuer und Sommersglut—
preiset den Herrn, Kälte und starrer Winter.

Preiset den Herrn, Tau und des Regens Fall—
preiset den Herrn, Eis und Frost.

Preiset den Herrn, Reif und Schnee—
preiset den Herrn, Nächte und Tage.

Preiset den Herrn, Licht und Dunkel—
preiset den Herrn, Blitze und Wolken.
Original text in English: 

O all ye works of the Lord—
praise (exalt) ye the Lord above all forever.

O ye angels of the Lord, praise ye the Lord—
O ye heavens, praise ye the Lord.

O all ye waters that are above heaven, praise ye the Lord—
O all ye hosts of the Lord, praise ye the Lord.

O ye sun and moon, praise ye the Lord—
O ye stars of heaven, praise ye the Lord.

O every shower and dew, praise ye the Lord—
O all ye winds, praise ye the Lord.

O ye fire and summer’s heat, praise ye the Lord—
O ye cold and hard winter, praise ye the Lord.

O ye dew and fall of rain, praise ye the Lord—
O ye ice and frost, praise ye the Lord.

O ye hoar frost and snow, praise ye the Lord—
O ye nights and days, praise ye the Lord.

O ye light and darkness, praise ye the Lord—
O ye lightning and clouds, praise ye the Lord.

IV: Garbled Words

Now, you wouldn’t know that this text was being sung (apart from the obvious refrain, Preiset den Herrn, or “Praise the Lord,” which is heard at least once in all six sections of the piece) to hear how it’s presented in the recording, with neither the printed text in front of you nor fluency in German. These varying levels of comprehensibility vs incomprehensibility–seven, to be exact, which range from the one extreme to the other– are due to Stockhausen’s having cut up the text into such fragments as scrambled words, scrambled syllables, and even scrambled phonemes.

His clever use of such permutations of vocal sounds was the result of his study of phonetics with Werner Meyer-Eppler at the University of Bonn. The vocal sound permutations, recall, have been placed on continua paralleling analogous electronic sounds, to get that seamless sense of transition from the former kinds of sounds to the latter, and vice versa. So in the juxtaposition of fragmented words, syllables, and phonemes with these seamless transitions between vocal and electronic sounds, we have yet another instance of the unity of opposites in Gesang der Jünglinge, here a unity of brokenness and smoothness.

V: The Unity of Opposites in the Biblical Story

To explore further this idea of the unity of opposites, let’s recall the story. The three youths have angered the king by refusing to bow before his idol, so he has them thrown into the fiery furnace to be burned alive. Their faith in God, however, saves them, and so though they’re engulfed in the flames, they are completely unscathed. They emerge praising God in the manner shown in the text above.

What’s interesting about them being thrown into a fiery furnace is how the image immediately invites comparison to being thrown into hell, into the Lake of Fire (Revelation 19:20, 20:10, 20:1415, and 21:8). Damnation by faith in God, or salvation by blaspheming, as it were, the Neo-Babylonian god-king? Deliverance from the flames while sitting among them? These paradoxes of heaven in hell, and of hell in heaven, are pregnant with meaning.

Connected with these paradoxes in the story is one manifested in the vocal harmony at one point in the first section of Gesang der Jünglinge. We hear the recordings of Protschka singing a dense chord of the word Ihn (“Him,” referring to God). This chord is sustained for a while, though some of the notes fade in and out, at the end with only two left in the interval of the tritone. Stockhausen would have known that the tritone is the diabolus in musica, the “devil in music,” and he therefore at least unconsciously had Ihn, for God, represented musically this way. Is God the Devil? I’m sure he never meant to blaspheme the object of his religious devotion, but my point is that, in this moment, Stockhausen the mystic was acknowledging, if only unconsciously, more spiritual paradoxes. Like heaven in hell, it’s more of the unity of opposites.

It shouldn’t be too shocking to speak of God having both good and evil sides. After all, Isaiah 45:7 says, “I form the light and create darkness: I make peace, and I create evil: I the LORD do all these things.” We can connect this verse with the last part of the text Stockhausen uses in Gesang der Jünglinge, which says, Preiset den Herrn, Licht und Dunkel, or “Praise the Lord, light and darkness.” In the text, the three youths sing of how everything God has created should praise Him. Such elements include the light and the dark…symbolically, good and evil.

VI: Resolving the Paradoxes

We must now try to make sense of these paradoxes, to sublate the dialectical contradictions of heaven and hell, God and Satan, salvation and damnation. To do this, we must be able to imagine the mental state of the three youths as they are being taken to the fiery furnace.

They may have righteousness and conviction of their belief in God, but none of this means that they’re going into the fiery furnace with smiles on their faces and relaxed heartbeats. We mustn’t assume they’re in a state of total blissful calm. They have faith in God…but is their faith sufficient to please Him? They have no way of being sure of this, and as Paul wrote, “he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” (Romans 14:23)

There’s always some doubt, even among the most faithful. Just as all of the sounds used in Gesang der Jünglinge are on continua, so are faith and doubt on a continuum. The three youths would have feared that any doubt in their minds, however small, might have been enough to cause God to abandon them in the flames. Contemplation of such a possibility must have been terrifying to them; such terror is part of the true test of faith.

This fear would have been their hell in the flames; and yet when they realized that God wasn’t letting the fire burn them, they’d experienced heaven in the metaphorical hell of the fiery furnace. Danna Nolan Fewell said, “we hoped for deliverance from the fire; we had not expected deliverance within the fire […] God doesn’t extinguish the fire but joins them in it.” (Danna Nolan Fewell) So in this moment, we have heaven in hell, salvation in damnation, and even God in Satan’s (metaphorical) dwelling. Recall that among the trio of singing youths is a fourth “like a son of God,” suggesting an angelic presence in that hellish dwelling.

VII: Stockhausen’s Suffering

Stockhausen was inspired by these Biblical texts because he found himself identifying with the three youths. Just as they suffered and prevailed, so had he, though of course in very different ways.

WWII under the Nazi regime was difficult for young Karlheinz in many ways. His mother, having suffered from mental health issues, was deemed a “useless eater” by the Nazis, and therefore forcibly euthanized by them through Aktion T4. Later, his father, as a soldier during the war, was killed. Perhaps most traumatic of all, as a youth during WWII young Karlheinz had to do work as a stretcher bearer in Bedburg; he found himself often in close contact with cadavers!

Apart from these trying experiences in the war, Stockhausen would later have to endure negative receptions of his experimental, and therefore challenging, music. Still, he grew from all of these difficulties and became a stronger man, in his estimation, because of them. In these ways, he could be said to have gone through his own fiery furnace, and since then his faith in God grew stronger, and he sang to God, in his own way, through not only Gesang der Jünglinge but also such other mystical musical works as his gargantuan opera cycle, Licht, of which a full performance requires no less than 29 hours.

VIII: Heaven in Hell

To get back to my point about the paradox of heaven in hell, one way we can interpret the meaning, or lack thereof, in Stockhausen’s cutting up of the text into fragments of words, syllables, and phonemes is to think of the resulting extents of incomprehensibility as showing the difficulty, or impossibility, of verbalizing a traumatic experience. As I said above, even though the three youths are physically unharmed, they are still terrified by the possibility of being so harmed.

This inability to put trauma into words is part of what Lacan was talking about in his conception of the Real. The psychology of the Real is an inexpressible experience of non-differentiation. Gesang der Jünglinge achieves, by means of those sound continua I described above, a fluid sense of unity, a sense of non-differentiation between vocal and electronic sound.

Now, as I’ve written elsewhere, the non-differentiated unity that Lacan called the Real is not necessarily all hellish and traumatic. Like Wilfred Bion‘s O, this unity can be a heavenly, blissful experience, depending on one’s attitude to it. The difference lies in whether or not one is capable of, or willing to accept, a giving up of one’s ego. The three youths, as I see it, could and would give up that attachment, and so they were saved.

Still, it was a terrifying experience for them, as Stockhausen’s experiences of WWII were for him, so even though the youths are singing God’s praises through the harmonized chorus of Protschka’s angelic, overdubbed voice, the voice of a child (recall Luke 18:17), the recent terror of the fire makes articulation of those praises next to impossible, save Preiset den Herrn.

IX: Heaven and Hell in the Music

Another way to sublate the thesis (heaven) with its negation (fiery furnace as metaphorical hell) is to consider a number of ascending and descending electronic motions in the piece, as well as combinations of such ascents and descents. Samuel Andreyev, in his analysis (link above in the introduction), mentions these at around 30:00-31:08 in his video.

These ascending/descending impulse complexes can be seen to symbolize movements up to heaven or descents to hell (literal or figurative). Section A of the piece, going from 0:00 to 1:10, begins with an ascending impulse complex, a swarm-like flurry of impulsions of varying pitches, but nonetheless moving in an upward path.

At the apex of this ascension, arriving at heaven, so to speak, we hear the angelic voice of the boy soprano singing jubelt (“exalt”), the two syllables sung in a descending perfect fourth. Immediately before this word, though, we hear two soft impulsions of an ascending tritone–again, the diabolus in musica juxtaposed with an angelic exalting of God.

Next comes a chorus of overdubs of the boy’s voice, quite unintelligible except for the word alles, and interrupted twice by electronic sounds. Then we hear jubelt Ihn (“exalt Him”), the syllables sung in an ascending minor third (or is it a microtone between that interval and a major second?) and a descending minor ninth. Section A ends with that dense chord in which the sustained Ihn is sung, as discussed above: such a complex chord with notes fading in and out, and ending with a soft fadeout of the aforementioned tritone. Ihn–God, that is–is a complex, mysterious being, requiring no less than an extremely complex mass of sound to represent Him.

Early in Section B, we clearly hear Preiset den Herrn (the singing of Herrn ending with a descending tritone…that diabolus again!). We can also make out the word Scharen (“hosts”). Preiset den Herrn is soon heard again, with the same notes as before…including that tritone, and bear in mind that obvious instances of repetition are rare in Gesang der Jünglinge.

X: Juxtaposed Opposites in the Text

Though it is uncertain if the apocryphal Biblical text, on which Stockhausen’s German translation is based, was originally composed in Hebrew or Aramaic, since what exists of it is only in Greek, Syriac, or Latin translations, it does nonetheless have the hallmarks of ancient Hebrew Biblical poetry, namely, its use of parallelism (e.g., the “praise ye the Lord” refrain; also, “sun and moon” with “stars of heaven,” “O every shower and dew” with “O all ye winds”; and parallels of opposition, such as “fire and summer’s heat” with “cold and hard winter,” “dew and fall of rain” with “ice and frost,” and “nights and days” with “light and darkness”). [See also Carmi, pages 58-59.]

These oppositions are of particular interest in how they support my interpretation of Gesang der Jünglinge as a musical, mystical unifying of opposites. Sometimes, such pairings of opposites can be deemed merisms, meant to express the idea of not only the two extremes, but also everything in between. Noteworthy Biblical examples of this are in the early chapters of Genesis (e.g., “God created the heaven and earth,” meaning He created the whole universe; or “the tree of knowledge of good and evil” meaning knowledge of everything, that is, from the best to the worst). It would thus be reasonable to assume that the text’s references to extreme winter and summer weather are merisms for all the seasons of the year, from hottest to coldest; and “light and darkness” includes all the tints and shades in between–unifying continua of opposites.

These unifying continua of opposites in the text are, of course, paralleled in those in the musical structure and in those ranging back and forth between vocal and electronic sound. For this reason, it’s logical to regard the pairs of opposites in the text as merisms.

XI: The Electronic Sounds as Fire

Now, if Protschka’s superimposed vocal recordings are meant to represent the three youths, then it’s reasonable to hear the electronic sounds as symbolic of the boys’ surroundings: remember that the four speakers playing the music surround the audience, making them feel as if they are with the three youths in the fiery furnace.

These surroundings that the electronic sounds represent include the metallic casing of the furnace (i.e., some of the electronic sounds suggest the resonant ringing of voices bouncing off the metal–see 2:28-2:32 of this recording for a brief example of what I mean). The resonance of the boys’ voices inside the furnace can also be heard through the use of reverb on Protschka’s voice from time to time. And, most importantly, the electronic sounds can represent the sound of the flames.

Now, the electronic sounds don’t generally imitate the crackling sound of fire; I’d say, instead, that they simply represent it. As for those ascending and descending impulse complexes, they do tend to have a bubbling sound, suggestive of boiling liquids, and therefore associative with scalding heat.

To bring out this association more clearly, recall how, in the middle of the piece (about 6:20-6:40 in this recording), Protschka’s voice, one voice alone, sings the disjointed syllables of Kälte und starer Winter (“cold and hard winter”), with largely no electronic accompaniment at all (especially from und onwards), suggesting the loneliness and desolation of winter. No heat.

XII: On the Unity of Opposites…Again

The opposites of Sonne und Mond (“sun and moon”) are heard clearly, as are those of aller Regen und Tau (“every shower and dew”). These are the opposite lights of nights and days (Nächte und Tage, heard later; and while the moon isn’t technically a light, back in Biblical times, it would have been regarded as a “lesser light“), and of great waters above (rain) and lesser waters below (dew).

We can also clearly hear the opposites of Feuer und Sommersglut (“fire and summer’s heat”), as against the above-mentioned Kälte und starer Winter. Tau und des Regens Fall (“dew and rainfall”), as opposing Eis und Frost (“ice and frost”), are also heard clearly; melted vs frozen water. I can make out Dunkel (“darkness”) but not Licht (“light”); still, in all of these opposites generally, we have plenty of their implied unity via juxtaposition.

Now, another point should be made about this unity of opposites, be it implied or explicit. Though Christianity is generally understood to be dualistic in nature (a more moderate dualism than that of Gnosticism or especially Manichaeism, but sufficiently so in a general sense), none of this precludes the possibility, at least, of unifying these dualities while remaining essentially Christian. Stockhausen’s Catholicism could allow this without him having to make any syncretist forays into, say, Eastern mysticism. There are the dualisms of God vs Satan, good vs evil, and the spirit vs the flesh, but as George K Haggett says in his blog post on Gesang der Jünglinge, “In Catholic theology, the soul–a person’s incorporeal essence–is not as dichotomized from the body as it might be in popular imagination.”

Recall that Christ came and died in the flesh; the more radically dualistic Gnostics and Manichaeans were the ones who could not accept His having been crucified, and so they followed an alternative tradition of someone else being substituted for Him on the Cross, a tradition that even appeared in the Koran (see also note 663 in Abdullah Yusuf Ali‘s translation). Furthermore, at Mass, one takes Communion, eating the transubstantiated body of Christ.

In the concluding paragraph of Haggett’s blog post, he says, “the body and the soul are a one-ness, the more-than-integrated sacred and profane; they are sanctified flesh and blood, both breathed into life and breathing through it.” Recall that God breathed a very physical breath into Adam, and he became a living soul. (Genesis 2:7)

XIII: Conclusion: What Can This Piece Mean for a Secular Audience?

The unity of body and soul can be extended to a unity of materialist and idealist dialectics, too. This leads our discussion in a new direction: the religious, spiritual meaning of Gesang der Jünglinge has been dealt with; but is there a way this piece of music can be relevant to a secular audience? I believe there is.

Now, before I go into my secular interpretation of the piece, it should be acknowledged that Stockhausen was essentially a liberal; he was no staunch leftist by any stretch of the imagination. His controversial remarks about 9/11 may have angered conservatives, but his quip that the attacks were “the greatest work of art that exists for the whole Cosmos” was misunderstood (as a work of art of Lucifer, he meant a great evil work of art). Still, his hostility to Nazi imperialism is enough, I think, to warrant the interpretation below; for even if he himself wasn’t an anti-imperialist in his life, this piece in itself can easily be seen as such.

If we consider Nebuchadnezzar and his idol as representative of imperialism, and the ancient Judaeans in the Babylonian captivity as being oppressed under that imperialism, then the three youths’ refusal to bow before the idol is an anti-imperialist, revolutionary act, rather like any country today that refuses to bow before US/NATO imperialism (e.g., Russia, China, Venezuela, Bolivia, etc.). Remember that the idol is golden, sixty cubits tall (Daniel 3:1); as such, it is a symbol not only of the imperialist authority of a king, but also of the wealth of the ruling class, be this class the ancient slave-masters of such civilizations as the Babylonian empire, or the subsequent feudal landlords of Europe, or the capitalist class of today.

Anyone who dares challenge the authority of imperial rule, be it past or present, will be put to the test, as the three young men are, and will suffer persecution. When they are put to this test, though, they must not lose their nerve. Though the three youths are afraid, as they’re tied up and thrown into the fiery furnace, they keep their faith in God, just as the anti-imperialist of today, regardless of his or her religious beliefs (or lack of them), must keep faith in the eventual achievement of the revolutionary cause.

Just as the religious may have doubts that God will intervene and save them, so do secular-minded revolutionaries have doubts that they’ll succeed in overthrowing the ruling class. When in doubt, they should recall Rosa Luxemburg‘s words: “Before a revolution happens, it is perceived as impossible; after it happens, it is seen as having been inevitable.”

So, just as the three youths sing their praises to God while surrounded in flames that don’t touch them, so were the Russian workers and peasants in 1917 thrilled to be rid of tsarist rule, and rid of continued involvement in WWI; so were the Cubans in 1959 rejoicing over having removed that butcher Batista from power; and so were the Vietnamese joyful over having ousted the French colonialists.

Of course, just as the rejoicing three boys continue to be surrounded in flames (and the Judaeans continue to be held in Babylonia), so did the RSFSR have to fight off the capitalist White Army during the Russian Civil War; so has Cuba had to endure the cruel US economic embargo; and so did the Vietnamese have to confront the US army. Still, all three prevailed in these struggles, and while times are particularly dark for anti-imperialism now, we can listen to Gesang der Jünglinge, and the recordings of that boy’s sweet, angelic voice, for inspiration as the flames of oppression draw closer.

Analysis of ‘Tommy’

I: Introduction

Tommy is the fourth studio album by The Who, released in 1969. Most of the songs were written by Pete Townshend, with two songs by John Entwistle (“Cousin Kevin,” and “Fiddle About”), “The Hawker” being Townshend’s adaptation of a song with lyrics by Sonny Boy Williamson II; and “Tommy’s Holiday Camp,” though credited to Keith Moon, being based on his suggestion of what kind of religious movement Tommy could lead, was actually written by Townshend, too.

Though there are some historical precedents dating from the mid- to late 1960s, Tommy is the first album to be billed as a “rock opera,” according to Scott Mervis of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Townshend himself made some musical forays beyond the simple three-minute pop song from 1966 onwards, with songs that have extended narrative elements, resulting in such suites as “A Quick One, While He’s Away” and “Rael,” the latter having melodic material in its second half that was used in “Sparks” and “Underture.”

In 1968, Townshend became influenced by the Indian spiritual mentor Meher Baba, and deaf-dumb-and-blind Tommy Walker’s connection to the world through vibrations (making him amazingly gifted at pinball, as well as a spiritual leader in his own right) came from Baba’s mysticism. Indeed, this mystical connection is the flip side to Tommy’s self-isolating trauma response to the killing he, as a sensitive child, has seen, but has been forbidden by his perpetrator parents to acknowledge having seen or heard, or to speak about. This trauma reaction, Tommy’s mental block, was also influenced by Townshend’s own experiences of childhood trauma. As of 1968, the rock opera was referred to by such tentative titles as Deaf, Dumb and Blind Boy, Amazing Journey, Journey Into Space, The Brain Opera, and Omnibus.

Tommy was acclaimed on its release by critics, who called it The Who’s breakthrough. It has been developed into other media, including the Ken Russell film of 1975 and the 1992 Broadway musical. The album has sold 20 million copies and has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Here is a link to all the lyrics of the album.

II: Traumatic Beginnings

The Overture is mostly instrumental, incorporating themes from “1921,” “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” “Go to the Mirror!”, “See Me, Feel Me,” “Pinball Wizard,” “Listening to You,” and “Sparks.” Another musical highlight is John Entwistle’s French horn. The song ends with one verse sung by Townshend, establishing that Tommy’s father, Captain Walker, is missing in action in WWI and presumed dead.

Tommy’s mother, left to raise the boy alone, takes on a lover. Though the year is 1921 in the album’s version of the story, Russell’s film changes the year to 1951; the war is thus changed to WWII, and her lover (played by Oliver Reed) has Fifties style hair. Furthermore, while on the album, Captain Walker kills his wife’s paramour, in the film, killer and killed are reversed.

Since the killing is the traumatic event that causes Tommy’s psychosomatic deafness/muteness/blindness, it’s interesting to explore the precise psychological circumstances of this trauma. We’re dealing with either the killing of Tommy’s father, implying an Oedipal wish-fulfillment (especially relevant given how the little boy’s mother is played by the oh, so hot Ann-Margret in the film), or the killing of her lover, suggesting what the boy’s daddy might do to him if he were to satisfy his Oedipal desires with her. (While Freud is generally considered passé today, recall how Townshend’s story was conceived at a time when the ideas of the founder of psychoanalysis were still in vogue, and his ideas are therefore a valid interpretation of the story’s meaning.)

Another crucial aspect of little Tommy’s traumatizing is the denying of what he’s seen and heard. The man and woman screaming at the boy, “You didn’t see it, you didn’t hear it!” happens while he says he did see and hear it, though his words are ignored. Such denial, or refusal to validate a painful experience, is the essence of gaslighting, which causes the victim to doubt his or her perception of the world–in Tommy’s extreme case, to doubt his very senses to the point where he feels forbidden even to use two of them.

The ultimate trauma, though, is in his being forbidden to talk about the painful incident. Being able to put one’s trauma into words is indispensable to healing, and his own parents, refusing to take any responsibility for what they’ve done, are denying the very thing the boy needs to do to get better. One is reminded of that old poem by Philip Larkin.

III: Lacan’s Angle

So this trauma, making Tommy psychosomatically deaf, dumb, and blind, has cut him off from society. The inability to communicate with others has isolated him from the world. Normally, a child of his age would, using Lacan‘s terminology, shift from the narcissistically Oedipal Imaginary Order to the Symbolic; that is, he would go from the dyadic mother/son relationship of self and other mirroring each other’s narcissism, to the healthy relationship of self to the many Others of society. Tommy’s move from other to Other would have been mediated by the Non! du père, the father’s prohibition of Oedipal incest with the mother, and the introduction of language, culture, law, and social customs.

Tommy, however, gets neither the Non! du père nor an introduction to language and culture. The murder of his mother’s lover (or, in the film, the killing of his father) precludes the boy’s entry into society with him seeing his father commit a crime (an antisocial act pushing Tommy in the opposite direction of society), or be killed. He cannot use language and relate to the Other of society if he’s deaf, dumb, and blind, so he cannot enter the Symbolic. Instead of le Non! du père, his is a case of les non-dupes errent: that is, not being duped by the hypocrisies of social life (because not initiated in society), Tommy errs in a non-Symbolic, solipsistic world.

If his mother is reunited with his father (or if, in the film, “Uncle Frank” [Reed] replaces his father, as Uncle Claudius replaced King Hamlet by crawling into Gertrude‘s bed), then Tommy cannot indulge in his incestuous, Oedipal desires with her, the transgressive jouissance of the Imaginary. He can be in neither the Imaginary nor the Symbolic. Therefore, Tommy is trapped in the traumatic world of the Real, a world of the undifferentiated, because of the absence of sight, sound, and speech.

IV: Heaven and Hell

Now, the undifferentiated world of the Real, or of Wilfred Bion‘s O, is not necessarily all traumatic. It’s actually on the cusp where heaven meets hell; it involves the dialectical relationship between the highest happiness and the most traumatizing pain. The only thing that marks the difference between an experience of bliss or one of horror is whether or not one is still attached to one’s ego (something formed during the mirror stage in the Imaginary).

In his essay Heaven and Hell, Aldous Huxley wrote of what he called antipodes, or extreme opposite “regions of the mind,” where one can have blissful or hellish visionary experiences, brought on by trances, meditation, self-flagellation, fasting, or the use of such drugs as LSD or mescaline, all of which in some sense biologically disable the mind–that is, turn off the senses, as Tommy has had his turned off.

Huxley wrote of how quickly one can shift from the blissful to the hellish experience: “In life, even the blissful visionary experience tends to change its sign if it persists too long. Many schizophrenics have their times of heavenly happiness; but the fact that (unlike the mescaline taker) they do not know when, if ever, they will be permitted to return to the reassuring banality of everyday experience causes even heaven to seem appalling. But for those who, for whatever reason, are appalled, heaven turns into hell, bliss into horror, the Clear Light into the hateful glare of the land of lit-upness.” (Huxley, page 90)

Now, we’ve already examined the traumatizing aspect of Tommy’s loss of connectedness with the social and sensory worlds. We must also look into the blissful, mystical aspect of his experience, something first heard in the song “Amazing Journey.” We learn that the “deaf, dumb, and blind boy [is] in a quiet vibration land.” The unifying vibrations of the Brahman-like universe are his only connection with everything around him…but they are also a powerful connection with it, because a connection not requiring the senses. Here we see the influence of Baba on Townshend.

These vibrations will be the mystical source of Tommy’s incredible talent at pinball. Since the regular, wave-like movement of these vibrations suggest a rhythm, we can see how Tommy’s interpretation of the world around him can be understood as a musical one. Such a context is what we need to hear “Sparks” in: a kind of musical dream. In this sense, “Sparks” can be interpreted to mean tiny flashes of symbolic light to guide Tommy through the darkness, and the rhythm of those vibrations is a sound he can feel rather than hear.

V: The Manic Defence

A quack/pimp known as The Hawker claims his wife, a drug addict/prostitute known as the “Acid Queen” can cure Tommy. The use of the lyrics to Sonny Boy Williamson II‘s blues song “Eyesight to the Blind,” which refer to how the beautiful prostitute’s sexy walk is so compelling that it would restore a man’s eyesight, his ability to talk and to hear, are effective in how they dovetail with my psychoanalytic interpretation of the cause of Tommy’s trauma.

The sexual allure of the Acid Queen (played by Tina Turner in the film), as well as the hedonistic escape that her drugs represent, embodies what Lacan called the objet petit a, the unattainable object-cause of desire. Since part of Tommy’s trauma is based on the violent expression of the paternal prohibition against the boy having his mother (given on the album in the form of his father killing her lover, on whom Tommy has projected his Oedipal desire; and given in the film in the form of “Uncle Frank” killing the boy’s father, usurping his position as his mother’s new lover and causing Tommy to have guilt feelings about a murder he himself has, however unconsciously, wished for…like Hamlet vis-à- vis Claudius, in Freud’s interpretation), the Acid Queen as seductress attempts to act as a replacement, a transference, for the Oedipally-desired mother, which if she succeeds, she theoretically could cure him of his mental block. Since the objet petit a never ultimately satisfies that forbidden desire, though, the Acid Queen’s attempt is doomed to fail.

Similarly, the boy may enjoy an intense LSD trip, as musically expressed in “Underture,” with musical themes similar to those of “Sparks” (implying the similarity between a drug trip and a blissful mystical experience of universal oneness, as Huxley observed), still, drugs won’t cure Tommy of his trauma any better than sex will. If anything, indulgence in these fleeting pleasures are the opposite of a cure, for they are only a manic defence against facing the pain, which is the only real cure. Hence, the Acid Queen’s drugs will fail, too.

VI: The Opium of the People

If drugs fail to help Tommy, religion, “the opium of the people,” will also fail. At “Christmas,” his parents fret about how the boy’s disconnect from the world around him means he doesn’t know about Jesus, and therefore cannot be “saved from the eternal grave.” Of course, these parents–being impenitent about a murder they’ve kept secret, a murder whose very secrecy is the cause of Tommy’s trauma–are in no position to judge whether Tommy, or anyone, for that matter, needs to be saved by Christ or not. Their main concern, in making Tommy a ‘good Christian,’ is in integrating the boy with the hypocritical bourgeois values of society.

Making Tommy know of religious custom, or the laws of morality and mores of society, is another manifestation of the Nom, or Non! du père (in this case, God the Father). But with Tommy, who won’t accept pretending he never saw or heard the killing (recall his protests of having seen and heard it in 1921), and who therefore won’t talk about it, is someone not willing to be duped by his parents’ social hypocrisies (including the phoney pretence of Christian piety). Therefore, the boy’s response to le Non! du père is les non-dupes errent: he won’t be duped into following the hypocrisies of society, so he errs in his psychosomatic disabilities.

Along with Tommy’s rejecting of hypocritical Christian piety is his flouting of other social graces. His playing of “poxy pinball,” of course, is a presaging of his uncanny skill at that game, but it’s a game played alone, without friends, and skill at pinball, like skill at billiards, is a sign of a misspent youth. Note how kids at Christmas normally are very excited, but the holiday means nothing to Tommy. He also “picks his nose,” a social horror that guarantees most people won’t like him. Still, since these dysfunctional habits are trauma responses to something his selfish parents have brought on, it is they, not he, who are to be blamed.

His parents ask, “Tommy, can you hear me?”, but if they’ve refused to hear him when he’s said he saw and heard their murder, why should he obligated to hear them? They should be more focused on removing the beams in their own eyes than on removing the mote in his eye (Matthew 7:3-5). Meanwhile, Tommy mentally pleads, “See me, feel me, touch me, heal me“: he so desperately wants to be able to connect with his parents, to be cured of his mental block.

VII: Fiddling About with Fourths

Indeed, far from making a decent attempt at curing him, his parents emotionally neglect him, something carried to the extreme that they “think it’s alright” to leave the deaf, dumb, and blind boy in the more-than-questionable care of, first, his bullying “Cousin Kevin” and his drunk, child molester Uncle Ernie, thus compounding Tommy’s childhood traumas.

A recurring musical motif in Tommy is the back-and-forth progression of suspended fourths to major chords (and variations thereof), a progression epitomized in “Pinball Wizard,” but also heard on “1921” (i.e., when we hear, “Got a feeling ’21 is gonna be a good year.”), and on such tracks as “Sparks” and “Underture” (i.e., the theme they share with that of the second half of “Rael”). In a way, it’s even heard on Townshend’s guitar part in “Cousin Kevin,” though the ‘suspended fourth’ part is actually in the context of a dominant 7th chord resolving to the tonic (i.e., the ‘fourth’ is really a minor 7th).

This back-and-forth, up-and-down movement between the suspended fourth and major third can be seen to symbolize the up-and-down, wavelike movements of the vibrations that Tommy feels are connecting him with the world. They’re the source of his mystical bliss, but paradoxically, they are also caused by his trauma. Significantly, the movement from suspended fourth to the major third chord is also a movement from musical tension to resolution (i.e., a symbolic move from pain to peacefulness). Hence, while we hear the back-and-forth of fourths and thirds in the mystical, visionary instrumentals (“Sparks” and “Underture”), as well as in “Pinball Wizard,” we also hear them in some of the trauma-oriented songs (“1921” and “Cousin Kevin”).

The trouble with childhood trauma, especially the kind that results in the “freeze” trauma response that Tommy’s deaf-dumb-and-blind mental block represents, is how quickly it attracts predatory types. Bullies like Cousin Kevin and child molesters like Uncle Ernie find people like Tommy, now a teen in the story, to be easy prey. Bullies and pedophiles are cowards who cannot take out their pain on people who fight back, so they prey on the weak, resulting in re-victimization for people like Tommy. PTSD thus grows into C-PTSD.

“Cousin Kevin” is sung by Townshend and Entwistle on the album, while in the film it’s sung by Paul Nicholas, whom we see torturing Tommy, who in turn is played by Roger Daltrey. “Fiddle About” is sung by Entwistle on the album, while in the film, the lyrics are growled by Moon, who plays Uncle Ernie. An amusing performance of this role, done during the reunited Who’s 1989 tour, was done by Phil Collins, dressed in the stereotypical pervert’s bathrobe, underwear, and with messy hair and glasses. Billy Idol did a profanity-laced performance as Cousin Kevin during that show.

“Fiddle About” switches from 4/4 to 3/4 when the song’s title is heard in the lyrics. That creepy, rocking 3/4 suggests the act of molestation, to our ears’ horror.

VIII: Heaven and Hell 2

It is fitting that “Cousin Kevin” should occur just before the Acid Queen giving Tommy his acid trip (“Underture”) in the sequence of songs on the album; then, that “Fiddle About” should appear just before “Pinball Wizard.” That is, two of the most traumatic events in his life should happen just before a great mystical or visionary moment, a move from hell to heaven. (Similarly, the traumatic “You didn’t see it!…” of “1921” immediately precedes the mystical/visionary “Amazing Journey” on the album.)

This juxtaposition of the worst with the best brings us back to what I discussed above about the traumatic and blissful aspects of Lacan’s Real Order and Bion’s ineffable O. Rudolf Otto, in his book The Idea of the Holy (1917, Das Heilige), wrote of the non-sensory numinous, the dual nature of experiencing God, which is both blissful and traumatic, mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Tommy’s traumas are so extreme that he’s come out the other end, dialectically speaking, from hell out to heaven; he’s so well connected to the world, so touched by God, so to speak, that he can excel at pinball without even seeing the ball.

As I’ve discussed in many other posts, I use the ouroboros to symbolize the dialectical relationship between opposites: the serpent’s coiled body represents a circular continuum with the biting head and bitten tail representing extreme opposites that meet, phasing into each other. All intermediary points are on the coiled body of the ouroboros, the head and tail of which can represent any pair of opposites–heaven and hell, sanity and insanity, etc.

In Tommy’s case, his mental state is right where the serpent’s head is biting its tail: the bitten tail is his trauma, and the biting head is the bliss of his mystical, visionary consciousness. So with the trauma of Uncle Ernie’s molestation of him, immediately preceding his amazing extrasensory powers as the usurper of the Pinball Wizard, we have a perfectly fitting juxtaposition.

IX: Tommy Uses the Force

How do you think he does it?” you wonder. “What makes him so good” at pinball? That Tommy has “no distractions” reminds me of that scene in Star Wars, when Luke is practicing with his lightsaber on the Millennium Falcon, and Ben has him wear a helmet with the blast shield down, making Luke unable to see the remote. Ben says, “Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them.” Then he tells sightless Luke, “Stretch out with your feelings,” and Luke can, through the “mystical energy field” surrounding him, sense when and where the remote will shoot at him, and he can deflect its shots perfectly. Similarly, Tommy is, so to speak, using the Force when playing pinball.

On the album, Daltrey sings most of “Pinball Wizard,” while Townshend, elsewhere quickly strumming those suspended fourths and major third chords on his acoustic guitar, sings some lead vocals during the bridge (quoted at the top of the previous paragraph). In the movie, Elton John plays the Pinball Wizard (in huge shoes!) and, on his piano, plays over the suspended fourth and major chord acoustic guitar strumming with fast, descending arpeggios of subdominant and tonic triads. The film version of the song is extended to include variations on the main guitar riff to “I Can’t Explain.”

X: The Mirror

A doctor is found who, his parents hope, will cure Tommy. In the film, he’s played by Jack Nicholson (“The Specialist”), who–like Oliver Reed–also sings…for good or ill. In the song on the album, we hear a refrain of Tommy’s “See me, feel me…”, a reflection of his trauma; then soon after, “Listening to you…”, a reflection of his mystical, visionary state of mind–again, a juxtaposition of his inner heaven and hell. Realizing that Tommy’s disabilities are all psychosomatic and not at all biological, the doctor et al advise that Tommy “Go to the Mirror!”

It is interesting, from a Lacanian perspective, that blind Tommy would be brought before a mirror, of all things, as an essential part of his cure. An infant establishes its ego, its unified sense of self, an ideal-I, by seeing itself in the mirror reflection for the first time, bringing it into the Imaginary Order. Apart from seeing itself in the specular image, the infant feels itself to be a fragmented body, awkward, lacking in boundaries between me and not-me, and lacking in a unitary identity.

The traumatic arrest in Tommy’s development as a child came from his having witnessed the murder and his parents gaslighting him into not seeing, not hearing, and never talking about it. Also, his having been deprived of his Oedipal desires (note that a baby seeing his mother’s loving smiles is also a metaphorical mirror that returns his infantile narcissism back to him; note also that, in the film, Tommy’s oh, so desirable mother is seen in the mirror reflection with Tommy during “Smash the Mirror”) is connected with the need to establish his ego before the mirror, something his trauma has frustrated. This connection is now key to curing him.

Having Tommy stand before a mirror and stare at himself also symbolically suggests therapy through the methods of Heinz Kohut–that is, a temporary indulging of narcissism through the mirror transference before gently weaning him of this indulgence through optimal frustration. The problem is that Tommy’s mother, chanting “Tommy, Can You Hear Me?” with the others, grows impatient and frustrated herself, and she decides to “Smash the Mirror.”

Such a smashing is far from the gentle weaning of optimal frustration. It’s much too sudden and abrupt, and the fragmenting of the mirror, its shocking suddenness, is symbolic of the threat of psychological fragmentation, a danger often averted by resorting to pathological narcissism. Sure, Tommy’s mental block is gone: he can finally see, hear, and speak, but his “Miracle Cure” is a superficial one.

XI: The Messiah

Now, the narcissism of Tommy’s fancying himself as a Messiah-figure is the one thing keeping him from falling apart and having a psychotic break with reality. What’s worse, as we see especially in the film, his family is indulging his megalomania to make a buck or two.

Tommy has already had “disciples” from the discovery of his amazing pinball skills, but now he’s become a “Sensation,” gaining many more followers, including groupie-like “Sally Simpson,” whose preacher father disapproves of her involvement in Tommy’s cult. Since he’s “free,” Tommy is trying to get as many followers as he can, people who, devoted to him, are treated as mere extensions of himself. They are the other, a mirroring back to himself of his ego, the other of the Imaginary (i.e., a form of the objet petit a, where a is French for autre, only one ‘other’), not the Other (many people) with its radical sense of alterity, the alterity of the Symbolic.

Wishing to cash in on Tommy’s new celebrity, his Uncle Ernie, his mother and Frank (in the film), set up “Tommy’s Holiday Camp.” This whole set-up would be the rock opera’s satirical take on all those who would exploit the spiritual yearnings of the masses for profit.

And at first, the masses go along with it. There’s an ironic twist in having them wear ear plugs, eye shades, and a cork in their mouths. As we know, Tommy’s psychosomatic disabilities gave him a mystical connection with the “deep and formless infinite”; but his followers, seeking to be pinball-playing imitators of Tommy as Christians would be imitators of Christ, are being wilfully deaf, dumb, and blind followers…that is, unthinking adherents of this phoney new religion that gives Tommy narcissistic supply.

When Tommy starts scolding certain of his followers for drinking, smoking pot, or being “Mr. Normal,” they grow disillusioned with him and his restrictions on their freedoms, realizing he is no different from any other religious leader who becomes too authoritarian and repressive. Thus, they all chant, “We’re Not Gonna Take it,” and reject his phoney cult.

XII: Rejection of the Messiah

Their rejection of Tommy leads to an ironic repeat of his “See me, feel me…” plaintive singing. Before, the traumatized boy had our sympathies; now that he’s not only regained his senses but also become a powerful cult leader, his pleas to be heard and healed fall on…deaf…ears.

This irony leads to yet another. The masses’ rejection of Tommy, their refusal to indulge him in his narcissism and megalomania, has made him retreat into himself again. Now, his singing of “Listening to you…,” instead of being straightforwardly visionary and mystical, has become dubious in this new, narcissistic context.

XIII: Conclusion

So, what are we to make of the ending of Tommy? Is it a happy one? To hear the driving guitar, bass, and drums of Townshend, Entwistle, and Moon, as well as the operatic grandeur of Daltrey’s vocals, harmonized by Townshend and Entwistle, one would think it’s a happy ending. The lyrics certainly seem upbeat at the end. Let’s consider, however, what has happened in light of the plot.

Tommy’s recovery from his trauma, from staring at a mirror which is then smashed by his mother, is a shaky recovery to say the least. He’s replaced his previous isolation with a narcissistic Messiah complex. In the end, his followers have rejected him, relegating him to his loneliness, and he’s withdrawn into himself. From this, can he really “see the glory,” “climb the mountain,” and “get excitement at your feet”?

I would describe these ecstatic words not as an attainment of nirvana, but rather as him deluding himself that he’s attained it, as a narcissistic defence against fragmentation. He can convince himself that he’s found the highest bliss, though he’s actually lost his mind, because as I’ve argued above, the heavenly and hellish mental states are actually opposite sides of the same coin.

Still, the very dialectical proximity of these opposing states makes the ending of Tommy ambiguous rather than pessimistic. Just as his childhood trauma also gave him his mystical connection with everything, so can his new isolation, with all the pain of the world’s rejection of him, make him once again pass the ouroboros’ bitten tail to the biting head of visionary bliss.

The “you” he’s “listening to,” “gazing at,” and “following” could thus be his rejecting herd of followers, or it could be God…or it could be both.

‘Between the Divide,’ a Poem by Jason Ryan Morton

Here’s a new poem by my Facebook friend, poet Jason Ryan Morton, whose work I’ve looked at many times before. As usual, I’ll put his writing in italics, to distinguish his words from mine. Here’s the poem:

frenzied and lost
a shadow of what i was
lost in a second
fulfilled at any cost

the parallel lines
turn to parallel lies
I keep seeking the divine
but fall between the
divide

answers hurt to
questions unasked
i bathe in the glory
of a chemical axe
waging war within

that is a sin
as it goes beneath the
skin
to drown me deep within
and without
just another day that
passes far too quick

leaving me trembling
shaky and sick
what was a vision of
mortality
is now a passage of
doubt
and i’m lost again

too many yesterdays
still portraits
crawl with the rotten
stage
falling through my anger

and i just want to turn
the page
to burn the magazine
tie up all my aspirations
and burn the stage

winter is here and it is clear
i am not wanted here
too many disharmonies
to ever sleep without
fear

i close my eyes
and say goodbye
no more goodnights
no more lullabies

only the rage
the justifications
an empty gun
and a permanent
vacation

And now, for my analysis.

Jason is speaking of the struggle to find happiness, including spiritual enlightenment. We sense his frustration with the difficulty of attaining this in the first verse.

The “parallel lines” seem to represent, on top, the spiritual path of God above, and on the bottom, Jason’s attempt to emulate that path below, on the Earth. The problem is that parallel lines never meet, so try as he might, Jason cannot reach God, no matter how hard he may try to conform to the Christian way.

He learns soon enough, though, that those parallel lines are lies, an effective pun. The lie is the failure to attain spiritual enlightenment without “Christ,” which translates actually to not attaining it without first conforming to the catechism of the Church; hence his “seeking the divine,” and falling “between the divide,” another effective pun. The “questions unasked” of the Church, that is, the taboos of questioning and doubting Church authority, lead to “answers hurt.”

Other attempts to heal pain, the alternative of the “chemical axe/waging war within,” sound like the illusory euphoria of psychiatric drugs, with their chemical compounds: this medication never cures mental illness–it only keeps it under control. It “is a sin/as it goes beneath the skin/to drown [him] deep within.” The pills are “invisible handcuffs,” as Charles “Haywire” Patoshik (played by Silas Weir Michell) calls them in season one of Prison Break.

Realizing the hard truth of these false paths to happiness leaves Jason “trembling/shaky and sick,” “a passage of doubt/and [he’s] lost again.” Then there are his painful memories: “too many yesterdays/still portraits.” He just wants “to turn/the page/to burn the magazine,” to get rid of the past, to destroy all of it.

He feels the “winter” coldness of alienation and loneliness; he is “not wanted here/too many disharmonies.” He’d go to sleep and escape the cruel realities of daily, waking life; he’d “close [his] eyes/and say goodbye/no more goodnights/no more lullabies.” He feels “only the rage”…a rage brought on by “the justifications” of the Church that once betrayed him? He has “an empty gun” from having already fired out all of that rage.

His “permanent vacation” could be anything from indefinite disability leave to the dream of an eternal state of nirvana…or maybe even enjoying listening to Aerosmith!

The Sixth Poem from ‘Diverging Paths’

Here I’ll be looking at Poem #6 from Jason Ryan Morton’s collection, Diverging Paths. Recall that I’ve looked at many of his poems in previous posts, if you’re interested in looking at some of those. As usual, I’m setting his words in italics to distinguish them from mine. Here’s the poem:

This isn’t real this is a dream, 
When I wake I swear I will 
Never sleep again, 
Every waking moment a sin, 
God knows I’ve tried, 
But I’m lost in this, 
Magick and emotion, 
Turning down the podium, 
To stare into the heresy, 
Spiral unreality, 
Shadowing in moments lost, 
A vision of Holocaust, 
Sadly no divine intervention, 
Only death, 
And God a blemish,

And now, for my analysis.

The speaker, I suspect, is someone other than the poet, since, though I know the poet to be someone going through some difficult times emotionally, I don’t think he’s experienced a psychotic break with reality, as seems to be the case with the speaker here.

The speaker seems to be rejecting both dream and reality as too painful to bear. By a rejection of all, I mean a refusal to take in and accept any forms of stimulation from the outside world, Wilfred Bion‘s beta elements. In Bion’s theory of thinking, raw sensory data from outside, initially irritating, has to be processed (through what Bion called alpha function) into detoxified material acceptable for thought (alpha elements). In layman’s terms, this means that emotional experiences have to be processed in order for the brain to cope with them. (Click here for more on Bion’s and other psychoanalytic concepts.)

If external stimuli aren’t processed and made into thoughts, one cannot sleep, dream, or even experience waking thought. Without this ability to process thought, one becomes psychotic.

Bion explained it thus: “If the patient cannot transform his emotional experience into alpha-elements, he cannot dream. Alpha-function transforms sense impressions into alpha-elements which resemble, and may in fact be identical with, the visual images with which we are familiar in dreams, namely, the elements that Freud regards as yielding their latent content when the analyst has interpreted them. Freud showed that one of the functions of a dream is to preserve sleep. Failure of alpha-function means the patient cannot dream and therefore cannot sleep. As alpha-function makes the sense impressions of the emotional experience available for conscious and dream-thought the patient who cannot dream cannot go to sleep and cannot wake up. Hence the peculiar condition seen clinically when the psychotic patient behaves as if he were in precisely this state.” (Bion, page 7)

I discussed this issue in my analysis of The Machinist, in which the main character, Trevor Reznik (played by Christian Bale), goes through a psychotic break with reality when he refuses to process his own emotional experiences, namely, his guilt over having hit and killed a child in a car accident, then driving away without taking responsibility. As a result, he doesn’t sleep for a whole year, descending into madness.

To get back to Jason’s poem, the speaker rejects what he’s experiencing, calling it a dream. He says he’ll never sleep again upon waking, since what he’s experienced is so intolerable, so impossible to process and turn into detoxified thought. Yet, “every waking moment [is] a sin,” so waking moments are as impossible to process as unconscious ones.

He’d rather be in a world respecting old ways and old gods, one represented by such archaic spellings as “magick.” Such an idealized world is one the speaker feels lost in, since it’s so much better than the painful one of today. He finds himself “turning down the podium” (i.e., not wanting to go up, be seen by an audience, and communicate with them). He’d rather “stare into the heresy” of an alternate reality not accepted by mainstream society (i.e., the Church), which is seen as “spiritual unreality,” but also the unreality of not wanting to face the painful, but real, world. “Moments lost” are shadowed-in traumas, that is, erased from memory, hidden in the darkness of the mind, repressed.

The pain of a trauma so severe that it must be rejected is seen as a “vision of Holocaust.” There’s “no divine intervention,” either of the Judeo-Christian or pagan kind, when psychosis has replaced coping with reality. So one experiences “only death,” and God seems to be only “a blemish.”

Note that “God” can represent an authority figure, like a stern father. So as a blemish, this harsh authority figure could be the root of the trauma that has caused the speaker to want to run away from painful reality, and to reject all stimuli and all thinking that makes a connection with the world possible.

That way madness lies.

The Ouroboros of Philosophy

I: Introduction

My concern here is not with presenting an encyclopedic understanding of philosophy and its history; I am in no way qualified even to attempt that. Instead, I will look at selected examples of philosophical ideas as manifestations of what I see the ouroboros as symbolizing.

As I’ve explained in a number of posts, I use the ouroboros to symbolize the dialectical relationship between opposites. The serpent, coiled in a circle and biting its tail, represents a circular continuum whose extreme opposites meet and phase into each other, the biting head being one extreme, and the bitten tail being its opposite. The coiled middle of the serpent represents all the intermediate points on the continuum, the moderate points between the extremes.

The dialectic, often being a dialogue of two disagreeing philosophers presenting their opposing opinions in a back-and-forth debate, has been the basis of so much of the history of Western philosophy that I find it illustrative to use my ouroboros symbolism to systematize the dialectic. Such a systematization is what I will attempt here.

II: Ancient Greece, and the Ancient East

Thales, interestingly, conceived of the universe as having originated in water. He believed this origin to be literally true, as Aristotle explained it in his Metaphysics:

“Most of the first philosophers thought that principles in the form of matter were the only principles of all things. For they say that the element and first principle of the things that exist is that from which they all are and from which they first come into being and into which they are finally destroyed, its substance remaining and its properties changing…There must be some nature–either one or more than one–from which the other things come into being, it being preserved. But as to the number and form of this sort of principle, they do not all agree. Thales, the founder of this kind of philosophy, says that it is water (that is why he declares that the earth rests on water). He perhaps came to acquire this belief from seeing that the nourishment of everything is moist and that heat itself comes from this and lives by this (for that from which anything comes into being is its first principle)–he came to this belief both for this reason and because the seeds of everything have a moist nature, and water is the natural principle of moist things.” (Aristotle, Metaphysics 983b6–11, 17-27…Barnes, page 63)

I, on the other hand–and as anyone who has read enough of my blog knows–interpret the water origin metaphorically, hence the name of my blog, Infinite Ocean. The rising and falling of the waves symbolize the opposing sides of the dialectic, the movements up and down each being a sublation of thesis (crest) and negation (trough).

It is from this notion of water that we move on to Heraclitus and his notion of endless movement. I discussed his ideas here. Diogenes Laërtius, in his Lives of the Philosophers, had this to say about the beliefs of Heraclitus: “All things come about through opposition, and the universe flows like a river. The universe is finite, and there is one world.” (Barnes, page 107)

To make a temporary digression from ancient Greece to ancient India, the endless, watery flow of everything in the universe has been used to describe Brahman, Atman being but a drop of this water. Furthermore, this universal Oneness, this monism that has been attributed to Thales, Heraclitus, and the Hindus is described as flowing and moving; yet this monism, pushed to its extreme, from its flowing to its extreme opposite, a Oneness of motionless stasis, is found in the philosophy of Parmenides and Zeno.

Parmenides insisted that notions of motion and plurality are illusions, the maya of the Hindus. All is one according to him; the universe has always been, is now, and always will be, an unmoving, unchangeable sphere. This Oneness is a reaction against Heraclitus (or vice versa) and against the philosophical pluralists, movements from the bitten tail of the ouroboros to its biting head, shifts from one extreme to their dialectical opposites.

In fact, Parmenides’ young pupil (and lover), Zeno, went so far as to defend his teacher’s rigid monism by devising a number of paradoxes to show the illusory nature of motion, change, and divisibility. His paradoxes, again, were a reaction, a dialectical shift from bitten tail to biting head, against the pluralists. Zeno’s point, as understood by Plato, was that if his paradoxes–for example, of infinitesimally divided walking distances precluding the possibility of getting anywhere, or Achilles never catching up to the tortoise, or a never-moving arrow in flight–are absurd, so much more absurd are the pluralists’ ideas.

As Plato expressed Zeno’s meaning: “My book attacks those who say that several things exist, aiming to show that their hypothesis, that several things exist, leads to even more ridiculous results, if you examine it properly, than the hypothesis that only one thing exists.” (Plato, Parmenides…Barnes, page 152) It isn’t about the ideas in themselves; it’s about ideas in dialectical opposition to others.

Parmenides’ and Zeno’s unchanging monism can, in a way, be compared to the eternal soul of Atman in Brahman, which in turn was reacted against in Buddhism’s adoption of the doctrines of anattā (or anātman) and impermanence. Again we see the dialectical movement of one doctrine, felt to have been pushed too far (e.g., Atman is believed to exist despite a lack of empirical evidence), over to its opposite (no soul or permanent self), a shift from the biting head to the bitten tail of the ouroboros.

The dialectical relationship between opposites, as I symbolize with the serpent’s head and tail, can also be seen in the yin/yang symbol of Taoism. The white dot in yin, and the black dot in yang, are like the teeth of the head stabbed into the tail. One opposite is experienced in the other.

III: From Doubt to Certainty

Another example of the ouroboros of philosophy can be found in the radical doubts of René Descartes. His doubting of the certainty of any kind of existence, including his own, found him passing beyond the bitten tail of extreme doubt to the biting head of cogito, ergo sum, which given more fully is dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum: “I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.”

His very doubting, brought to such an extreme of doubts of existence, becomes the very existence, his own existence since he’s the one doing the doubting, that gives him a certain foundation for knowledge on which he can at least hope to build further certainties.

IV: Hegel and Marx

A few centuries later, we come to Hegel, who systematized the dialectic as a confrontation of, and resolution of, contradictions simplified in Fichte‘s triad of “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis,” a formula Hegel neither used nor liked. For my part, I prefer the terms thesis, negation, and sublation, which instead of being in the simplified form of a triad, go round and round in a circle of endless manifestations of contradictions to be clashed together and sublated, over and over again.

A simple but convenient example of Hegel’s dialectic can be found in his Science of Logic. He opposes being and nothing, which I would represent respectively as the serpent’s biting head and bitten tail. Then, his sublation of these contradictions, becoming, I’d represent as the coiled middle of the ouroboros.

Another example of the ouroboros of philosophy, as seen in Hegelian thought, can be found in his master/slave dialectic. Two men confront each other: a struggle ensues, and one attains mastery over the other. In my ouroboros symbolism, the master is the serpent’s biting head, and the slave is its bitten tail.

Over time, the slave’s creative efforts build up his sense of worth and usefulness to his master, as well as his own recognition of self-consciousness, a moving along the coiled body of the serpent from its tail to its head, to the point where his master finds himself utterly dependent on the slave for recognition of the master’s existence, and for the products the slave makes. Now the slave reaches the serpent’s biting head, and he trades places with his master. The other way to see this trading of places is to imagine the slave going in the opposite direction: right from the bitten tail over to the biting head, an excess of servitude phasing into its dialectical opposite, mastery.

The master/slave dialectic was a great inspiration for Karl Marx, who saw the Labour Theory of Value as the mechanism whereby the proletariat would one day overthrow the bourgeoisie. The workers need to know how it’s the total amount of their socially necessary labour time, not their bosses’ management, that creates value in commodities; and armed with this knowledge, they will be inspired to get organized and bring on a proletarian revolution.

Now, another dialectical shift from the biting head to the bitten tail can be found in Marx’s materialist reaction to Hegel’s philosophical idealism. Marx’s reversal of the notion that the world of ideas, of the spirit, brings about the physical world–typical of religious thinking–and making it instead that it’s the physical (i.e., having a brain) that creates the world of ideas (thinking), was him turning Hegel upside-down, standing him “on his head.” Though as Marx would have had it, Hegel’s dialectic was already “standing on its head,” and Marx simply put the dialectic back on its feet (Marx, pages 19, 102-103).

For Marx, the dialectic presents itself in physical manifestations throughout history, going from the ancient master/slave contradiction to that of the feudal landlord vs. the poor peasant. Within feudalism, though, a growing mercantile class, the first capitalists, would eventually overthrow their feudal lords and become the next ruling class, the bourgeoisie.

The suffering and struggling of those held down by the feudal lord, those including the rising capitalists, are thus symbolized in my system as those moving from the bitten tail of the ouroboros, along its coiled body in the middle, up to its biting head, where they would replace feudalism with capitalism. Such a bourgeois revolution was vividly depicted in Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities.

The bourgeoisie, now the head biting the tail of the proletariat, are no longer revolutionary. The working class has attempted revolution in, for example, the Paris Commune, the USSR, the Eastern Bloc, and Afghanistan‘s attempts at modernization in the late 1970s, but counterrevolution ruined all their hopes. We’ll have to see if a new socialist movement will rescue us all from late stage capitalism, and will sustain itself by repelling all future attempts at counterrevolution.

V: Schopenhauer

Schopenhauer‘s pessimism was inspired by the reading of translations of ancient Buddhist and Hindu texts. Interestingly, his idea of the thing-in-itself, the essence of everything as understood without the deceiving senses, is will, the striving to be alive (“On the Antithesis of Thing in Itself and Appearance,” 1; Schopenhauer, page 55). This conception is in contrast to the Eastern idea that the Oneness of everything, Brahman, Tao, etc., is the source of peace and bliss.

Now, this contrast I speak of is a dialectical one, for Atman, the soul of the willing individual, is to be identified with Brahman, the peaceful Oneness of the universe. The world is will, but it’s also representation, maya, a deception of the senses that, in its illusory nature, causes suffering. One ends suffering by negating the will-to-life, and thus tranquilizing it. When one understands Atman to be the same as Brahman, and to see plurality as an illusion, the ego is neutralized, the selfish desires of the will are extinguished, and one attains nirvana.

So life, for Schopenhauer, is essentially not worth living; being trapped in a body, with all its aches, pains, and ageing, is like being in a penal colony (“On the Suffering of the World,” 9, Schopenhauer, page 49). The extreme sadness such a realization engenders, though–the reaching of the serpent’s bitten tail–isn’t necessarily so bleak. One can pass the tail to the biting head of bliss by, paradoxically, extending one’s suffering, by suffering not all alone, but with other sufferers. Compassion is the basis of moral edification, according to Schopenhauer, and in compassion we find liberation from suffering, since compassion will drive us to end our suffering by ending that of those others we identify with in our pity for them.

The dialectical reaction against Schopenhauer’s pessimism can be seen in Nietzsche’s affirmation of the will-to-life, and his existentialism leads us to the next topic.

VI: From Absurdity to Meaning

In existentialism, one confronts the meaninglessness of life, the bitten tail of the ouroboros, by giving life meaning, one’s own personal purpose, a shift over to the serpent’s biting head. In Kierkegaard‘s Christian existentialism, this giving of meaning to life, as an escape from meaninglessness, is in the form of a leap of faith in God, believing in Him despite a lack of proof of His existence.

With the atheistic existentialism of such writers as Nietzsche and Sartre, though, one lacks the crutch of a leap of faith in God, so one must create one’s own, personal meaning in life. This, after Kierkegaard’s counsel has failed us, means a revolution around the body of the ouroboros, from the biting head after our leap of faith from the tail, going all the way back to that tail the long way, then to go past to the biting head again.

With Camus‘s absurdism, though, even the making of one’s own meaning rests on flimsy ground, since the contradiction between unescapable meaninglessness and man’s need to find meaning is equally unescapable. Camus’s advice, therefore, is to act in defiance against meaninglessness, to strive for flashes of meaning, however evanescent such flashes may be, since one must accept meaninglessness along with our defiance of it.

Just as Sisyphus must endlessly roll that boulder up the hill, only to see it roll back down and to have to roll it up again…and again, and again, and again, so must we go in endless cycles along the coiled body of the ouroboros, shifting past the biting head to the bitten tail, and back around the body to the head again…and again, and again, and again…

Small wonder the ouroboros is a symbol of eternity, Nietzsche’s myth of the eternal recurrence.

VII: Conclusion

So this absurdist advice can be seen as a variation on much of what I reviewed before: Zeno’s paradoxes of walking and getting nowhere, of swift Achilles never catching up to the tortoise, and of a flying, yet motionless arrow. Similarly, one is only certain of one’s existence through one’s extreme doubting; the sublation of two contradictions leads only to a new thesis to be negated and sublated, again and again and again. Will a socialist revolution lead to a classless, stateless, and money-less society? I continue to hope for it, in spite of the miserable state the world is in right now.

In Schopenhauer’s pessimism, the way to blessedness is through compassion, or suffering on a larger, more magnanimous scale; this in a way is strikingly similar to Kierkegaard’s leap of faith (i.e., a faith coupled with deeds of Christian charity), which is odd given Schopenhauer’s atheism…an atheism coupled with the inspiration of Eastern religion! And finding meaning is the solution to the impossibility of ever finding meaning? Again, it sounds like the bitten tail of atheism shifting over to the biting head of theism!

Reflecting on these observations, I find that the unchanging unity of all that Parmenides and Zeno insisted on is actually the ever-changing fluidity of Heraclitus. Parmenides’ stony sphere is really Thales’ water.

Atman = Brahman = anātman

Analysis of ‘Déserts’

I: Introduction

Déserts is a 1950-1954 piece by avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse, scored for fourteen winds (brass and woodwinds), five percussion players (including tympani, xylophone, snare drum, and woodblocks), one piano, and magnetic tape. Deserts, according to Varèse, refer to “not only physical deserts of sand, sea, mountains, and snow, outer space, deserted city streets… but also distant inner space… where man is alone in a world of mystery and essential solitude.”

He elaborated by saying that what he meant by deserts are these: “All those that people traverse or may traverse: physical deserts, on the earth, in the sea, in the sky, of sand, of snow, of interstellar spaces or of great cities, but also those of the human spirit, of that distant inner space no telescope can reach, where one is alone.”

The piece was originally meant to be the soundtrack to a modernist film that was never finished, a film of images of the deserts of the Earth, the underwater sea, and outer space, but most importantly, the deserts of the human mind: his loneliness and alienation, especially after the terrors of the decade that preceded Déserts‘s composition: concentration camps, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, etc.

The piece is divided into seven sections, an alternation of four “Episodes” of music performed live by the ensemble of winds, piano, and percussion, with one of three “Interpolations” of magnetic tape recordings coming between each pair of “Episodes.” So Déserts is structured thus:

1st Episode
1st Interpolation of Organized Sound
2nd Episode
2nd Interpolation
3rd Episode
3rd Interpolation
4th Episode

Déserts is one of Varèse’s most radical pieces of music (and that says a lot, given the already experimental nature of the music he’d already composed before the 1950s). For in this piece, he introduces the use of pre-recorded sounds, a result of an anonymous gift of a tape recorder, which revived his musical inspiration, allowing him to compose music that would further advance its frontiers and experimental potential.

Until the 1950s, Varèse had been frustrated with the limitations of the technology of the time to produce the kind of new music he’d wanted to create. He was tiring of using the instruments of the orchestra, particularly the string section, which he’d used only sparingly (Amériques, Arcana, Offrandes, or the double bass in Octandre). The use of two ondes Martenots (or theremins, depending on the version) in Ecuatorial was something of an advance, but he needed more.

Hence, when Varèse should have been at the height of his creative powers, he actually composed very little, that is, in the 1940s. There was an ambitious idea, Etude pour Espace, that was never finished (<this arrangement of part of Espace was done in 2009). There was the Dance for Burgess (i.e., for Burgess Meredith), and Tuning Up (which was only sketched by Varèse, and completed by Chou Wen-chung in 1998).

But the totally new sound possibilities given to him through the tape recorder gift brought Varèse back. He regained his Muse, and created not only Déserts, but also Poème electronique in 1957-1958, for magnetic tape exclusively.

To understand Déserts, one must understand Varèse’s music in general, and for the uninitiated, such a general understanding is especially urgent, given how daunting this music will sound when heard for the first time. Frank Zappa was one of Varèse’s biggest and most famous fans, and he himself (also a composer and conductor of orchestral music) admitted that he couldn’t give “any structural insights or academic suppositions” as to how Varèse’s music works or why he liked it. As a teen, Zappa liked it simply for how ‘weird’ it sounded. Varèse’s music, Zappa says, is “completely unique.” If a fan like Zappa couldn’t explain Varèse’s music, the uninitiated will need insights far more desperately.

So I’ll try my best to give those insights myself.

II: Varèse’s Musical Language

To begin by painting with large brushstrokes, Varèse’s music is characterized by huge, dissonant sonorities and an extensive use of percussion, which isn’t generally used to punctuate rhythm, but rather to exploit and explore all the varieties of timbre it can provide. The dissonant sonorities are usually given through stentorian horns and shrill, sustained notes on woodwinds.

Varèse radically redefined music to mean “organized sound,” with a foreword-looking disregard for traditional notions of flowing, lyrical melodies, tonality, classical forms (sonata-allegro, binary, ternary, rondo, etc.), rhythm, or conventional groupings of instruments. Those huge, dissonant sonorities that I described above have come to be termed “sound masses.”

These sound masses of loud, dissonant brass and woodwinds tend to be contrasted with softer sections of individual, or small groupings of, percussion instruments (snare drum rolls, the quick tapping back and forth between differently pitched wood blocks, etc.) or solo woodwinds (flute, piccolo, or clarinet) playing long, sustained notes before the next loud, dissonant outburst. This shifting, from the softer passages of individual instruments to the large, loud groupings of horns and woodwinds, has been compared to natural processes of crystallization.

Varèse had an interest in science, and this interest naturally had an influence on how he chose to structure his compositions. So in the softer passages, the individual sounds can be likened to atoms and molecules; and the large, dissonant sound masses can be likened to the solids, the crystals formed out of those atoms and molecules. Smaller groupings of instruments can be seen to represent the middle phases of the solidifying process.

Varèse conceived of music as “sound as living matter.” So when we hear the crystallization of his sound masses, we can think of them as his intention to create living beings, so to speak. We should remember this when we look into Déserts specifically, a work about deserts of the mind, of people who are alone.

The basic parameters of Varèse’s music are duration, intensity, frequency, and timbre (sometimes space is considered, as in Espace, though the full exploitation of spatial effects in music has been the domain of such successors of Varèse as Karlheinz Stockhausen: listen to a live performance of Gruppen to get my point). For Varèse, these four parameters are all given equal importance.

Duration for Varèse isn’t subservient to traditional notions of rhythm or metre. One doesn’t usually tap one’s foot to Varèse. Instead, duration is more about holding notes at varying, sustained lengths. A note may be held, or repeated in short dots of sound, over a period of many seconds, rather than played to a beat–be this the regular beat of conventional music, or the asymmetric rhythms of, say, Stravinsky. As with the other three parameters, Varèse’s use of duration is generally divorced from conventional notions of ‘expressivity,’ which is not to say that his music lacks expressiveness, but rather that Varèse expresses himself in an entirely different way from the expression of the past.

Intensity for Varèse is his use of soft and loud dynamics. Interestingly, changes in dynamics on an instrument also result in changes in that instrument’s timbre. Don’t assume Varèse never toyed with the interrelation between intensity and timbre.

Frequency for Varèse is much more than just pitch. Sounds can be anything from the lowest to the highest frequencies, not necessarily with definite pitches. Sounds are made up of complex wave forms with multiple frequencies (i.e., the fundamental and overtone series), not just a single wave form. So in frequency, just as in intensity, we can find an overlap with timbre, something Varèse was deeply interested in exploiting to the maximum.

But frequency in terms of pitch alone in Varèse’s music leaves plenty to elaborate on. There is melody in Varèse–not nearly as much as in the music of his contemporaries, much less than that of those before him–but there is some. Varèse’s use of melody is unconventional, of course, using wide leaps and such dissonant intervals as minor 9ths, major 7ths, and minor 2nds. He also sometimes made use of the idée fixe, as in Arcana and Amériques.

Harmonically, Varèse’s music is obviously not tonal. It isn’t necessarily always atonal, either, though. There are ever-so-brief occasions when a melody or harmonic combination may seem tonic…then a cluster of dissonances will remind us we’re listening to Varèse. Consider the opening clarinet melody in Intégrales, which sounds like the 3rd, 7th, and upper tonic notes of a dominant 7th chord; then dissonances in the brass and woodwinds quickly dispel the aural illusion.

The fact is that Varèse didn’t conform to any harmonic system, traditional or non-traditional: not tonality, not Schoenberg‘s twelve-tone system, not Bartók‘s axis system, not Messiaen‘s modes of limited transposition, not the polytonality of Stravinsky or Milhaud–nothing remotely like any of these. Varèse seemed to be content to let the notes fall in any old way, because he’d always been more interested in frequency as an expression of timbre than of pitch. His use of sirens, as representations of a continuum pitch beyond twelve-tone equal temperament, should help us better to know how to think about his choices of pitch, rather than any use of scales or chords.

And finally, we come to what was perhaps Varèse’s favourite musical parameter, timbre. His fascination with timbre is why he used such an extensive number of percussion instruments in his works. Recall that one of Varèse’s most famous pieces, Ionisation, is to be played only by percussionists; these instruments are supplemented by such noisemakers as high and low sirens, two anvils, and a whip. Piano is also used, but not in its conventional, melodic way: it’s used as just another percussion instrument.

In his Densité 21,5 for solo platinum flute, again, though we hear monophonic melody throughout, the focus is on intensity and timbre. He was exploiting all the sound possibilities to be produced on the instrument, including tapping effects on the low finger keys about a third of the way into the piece.

Finally, as can be heard in Poème électronique and the three interpolations of organized sound in Déserts, Varèse uses electronically altered sound recordings on tape as an example of his love of exploiting timbre to maximum effect. Always remember that for Varèse, music is the organization of sound. Don’t listen for pretty, lyrical melodies (though that sort of thing can appear from time to time in his work–there is, after all, that one early work of his, written in a Romantic idiom, that he didn’t destroy, Un grand sommeil noir for voice and piano); listen instead for fascinating and imaginative manipulations of sound.

III: Déserts

Varèse’s discussion, in the above quotes, of deserts on the earth, in the sky, of sand, of snow, of interstellar space, etc., all seem to be metaphors for the deserts of the lonely human mind. On some level, this being alone could be manifested in the solitude of hermits and mystics; but the connotations of deserts suggest emptiness, lifelessness, purposeless stasis, and a sadness from being alone. The mystic’s solitude could be seen as an attempt to escape that sadness.

I will attempt, in my personal interpretation of Déserts, to find symbolism for this loneliness, as well as for mystical attempts to attain peace, in the musical structure of the piece. To begin with, note how there is no integration of the ensemble playing with the three interpolations of musique concrète. Such a division between these two ways of producing organized sound symbolically suggests a mutual alienation between people…and there’s nothing like alienation to provoke feelings of loneliness.

Déserts is probably Varèse’s most radical example of experimental music, of a break from almost every conceivable notion of tradition in music. Apart from the by-now-typical unorthodox instrumentation (no string section, extensive percussion as an integral part of the soundscape), as well as the introduction of tape recordings, he breaks even further with tradition here.

There is virtually no melody in this piece, except for a few ever so brief moments of rising and falling notes, including the lead-ups to those discordant fanfares, as Samuel Andreyev so aptly calls them. If melody is musical line, that is, curvy contours of notes going up and down in diatonic or chromatic steps or leaps, then the musical lines in Déserts were mostly drawn with a ruler, so to speak. We constantly get notes sustained or repeated in one pitch. Once again, his main interest is exploring timbre, durations, and intensities, not musical themes in the conventional sense.

Granted, there are a number of moments in the piece when we hear a woodwind or brass instrument play an alternation of notes a half-step from each other, going up and down several times (for example, the B-flat clarinet in bar 205). There are also two moments, in bars 45-46 and later in bars 50-58, when notes of an octatonic scale are heard in two separate transitions: first, G, B-flat, C-sharp, D, B-natural, and F; then, A-flat, G, and B-flat. But such moments as these are far more the exception than the rule in Déserts.

So, with single notes sustained or repeated on individual instruments making up most of the thematic material (except for the percussion sections and the fanfares, which will be dealt with later), we can see in each of these individual notes a symbol of aloneness.

Added to these lonely notes is a number of mirror chords, that is, chords whose notes reflect the same intervallic relationships among them. One example occurs in the first twenty bars of Déserts: in the bass clef, there is a stack of perfect fifths–D, A, and E; then, in the treble clef, there’s another stack of perfect fifths–F, C, and G. These six notes are static, unmoving during the beginning, except for the later addition of a B-flat, a B-natural, and a C-sharp. The diatonic mirror chord–opening the piece with Fs and Gs in the tubular bells (or chimes), xylophone, piano, piccolo, and B-flat clarinet, and later adding the other notes–symbolizes the lonely person looking in a mirror, seeing only himself instead of looking at others.

IV: Conscious vs Unconscious Varèse

Now, Varèse’s musical philosophy was such that one didn’t need to compose pieces with traditional notions of melody, harmony, rhythm, or conventional orchestration to move one’s listeners emotionally. Nonetheless, there’s the listener’s perspective on the matter as well as that of the composer, and the latter cannot realistically be expected to be oblivious to the attitude of the former.

Varèse may have consciously been dismissive of the idea that only conventional musical arrangements will move the listener in the desired, intended way; but there’s conscious intent and unconscious intent, too. Varèse may have been consciously unruffled by the vehemently negative reactions to his works when premiered before conservative audiences (and Déserts received one of those sadly typical responses); but this doesn’t mean he wasn’t at least unconsciously affected by that negativity.

There must have been something in his unconscious mind reacting with a ‘screw you’ attitude to the rejections he was getting from his audiences during those early performances of his work. Such mutual feelings of alienation between composer and audience, however unconscious and repressed for him, must have come out in its culmination in Déserts, through its extreme experimentation, even by Varèse’s standards, in its paucity of melody and gentle lyricism. He as an avant-gardist must have been in a mental desert of his own, which influenced how he wrote the piece.

Those sound masses of loud, dissonant fanfares are his crystallizations of “sound as living matter.” They are the children he’s sired, so to speak. They come into being between the quieter sections (for the most part), and therefore each sound mass, as a ‘living being,’ stands alone, in solitude, in a state of loneliness, surrounded by relative quiet on either side in musical time, a relative silence suggesting desolation. The fanfares are loud, dissonant sound masses because, experiencing the birth trauma of their crystallization, they’re screaming in pain. Existence is pain, as the Buddha observed.

Varèse surely didn’t consciously have this meaning for the sound masses; they’re just ‘organized sounds.’ Indeed, he once said that his music doesn’t tell any kind of story or have any kind of programmatic meaning; it’s just his music. Still, my interpretation, or something at least similar to it, surely is what the listener is imagining when hearing the sound masses in Déserts. Varèse, having grown accustomed to violent reactions against his musical experimentation, must have been sensitive to, and been anticipating, such reactions. All the same, he persisted in composing as he did, not just for the sake of experimenting, as he consciously conceived it, but as I suspect, unconsciously as an act of defiance against his conservative critics. This must, at least in part, have been what he meant when he famously said, “the present day composer refuses to die.”

V: Mystical Varèse

The quieter sections for percussion, especially those at the end of the third and fourth episodes, give a most vivid sense of loneliness and isolation, the deserts of desolation. On the other hand, there are also moments that seem to allude to a sense of mystical solitude, an urge to rise to a higher spiritual plane of existence. This surely is what the All Music Guide means when it says of Déserts, “The orchestra part expresses the gradual advance of mankind toward spiritual sunlight.” I’ve noticed several passages that suggest such an interpretation.

First, there are the opening tubular bells in F and G. They suggest church bells, ringing to summon the faithful but lonely to enter and receive edification. Then, there’s the association one can make of those horn fanfares with the arrival of the nobility. Their dissonance suggests pain, as I mentioned above, yet pain and suffering are also ennobling.

Finally, there’s the slow, gradual ascent of the following notes (mentioned in this video at about 12:05), buried in the first mirror chord mentioned above and the first two fanfares: C-sharp, D, E-flat, E-natural, F, F-sharp, and G. The burying of these rising notes symbolizes the mystery of spiritual ascent. In fact, the video linked above also mentions (at about 11:45) this chromatic rising as within the second fanfare, whose pitches are also all rising together.

Added to this idea of rising spiritually is how certain instrumentation, especially at the beginning, all play the same notes (if in different octaves), and at the same time, or at similar times. I’m thinking of the opening F and G notes in the tubular bells, xylophone, piano, B-flat clarinet and piccolo. Later, in bars 48-49 (see 15:26 of this video), we hear trombones and tympani playing major third intervals together (D-flat and F) in 5/4 time. This playing of the same notes by different instruments, when understood in relation to the notion of spiritual ascendance, can be seen to symbolize compassion and sympathy, which Schopenhauer deemed to be the basis of all morality.

VI: the Interpolations

The three musique concrète sections make use of sounds derived from factory noises and percussion instruments. The electronic alterations of these sounds seem to consist of a heavy use of reverb, echo, and distortion.

The sounds can be described, for the most part, as abrasive, percussive, and glissading. All three interpolations have at least a few manifestations of all three of these kinds of sounds, while the first has predominantly abrasive sounds, the second has more of the percussive kind than the other two sounds, and the third has more glissandi than the other two. A considerable number of abrasive sounds can be heard in all three interpolations, even if that sound isn’t always dominant.

That many of the sounds are derived from factory noises is thematically significant, given the context that Déserts is about the ‘deserts of the mind,’ a world of being alone. I mentioned alienation above, which is an especially modern problem considering the experience of workers in the world of industrial capitalism. Think of all those lonely, alienated workers in factories: hearing factory noises in Déserts is thus poignantly appropriate.

The abrasiveness of the sounds in all three interpolations, especially the first, is also significant in terms of what it can be seen to symbolize. The scratching, scraping, screeching metallic sounds evoke the harsh life of the factory worker, compounding his lonely misery. Such observations make me understand Varèse’s use of dissonance as more than just a transcending of the limitations of conventional harmony: the discords of the instrumental music shriek pain, just as these scraping sounds do in the interpolations.

The abrasive sounds are drawn out and sustained; when the instruments return in the second episode, we hear an abundance of sustained, dissonant combinations of notes played on the woodwinds and brass. So the second episode begins with a continuation of sustained, harsh sounds; this continuation of sustained harshness from the first interpolation to the second episode suggests the emotional effect of factory life on all the lonely people, whom I’ve described above as being symbolized by the crystallizations of loud, screaming fanfares of brass and woodwinds. Indeed, the loudness is sustained for quite a while in the first half of the second episode, before a substantial moment of relative quiet. That pain from factory life persists in one’s mind.

The second interpolation starts with much of the abrasive sound of the first, before the percussive sounds predominate. These sounds, presumably electronically altered xylophone and wood blocks, among other instruments, suggest again the toil of the workers hammering nails, anvils, etc. So we have a continuation of the theme of the plight of the lonely worker. These hammering sounds are carried on in the beginning of the third episode by the percussionists, with loud banging on the tympani, then later tapping on the xylophone.

The third interpolation seems, to a great extent, to be a fusion of the abrasive, percussive, and glissading sound effects, these last of the three coming more into prominence later on. The electronically altered glissandi seem like screams and wails of pain and suffering, the pain of the factory worker who is alienated from his work, from his coworkers, and from his species-essence. The very use of the then-new technology of magnetic tape, to produce harsh sound effects, is itself symbolic of how new technology can be, and often is, used to cause suffering, as in factories, with bombs, and modern surveillance.

VII: Conclusion

The fourth and final episode has a few more screams of fanfare pain in between moments of relative quiet, those quiet moments representing, as I mentioned above, isolating spaces between each crystallization of a lonely person shouting in agony. This continuation of ‘screams’ from the third interpolation and the fourth episode again suggests the emotional effect of factory life on the workers.

The piece ends with a long passage of quiet, using soft, sustained notes in the woodwinds and brass with intervals reminding us of the opening ninths and fifths in the first episode. These similarities between the beginning and ending of Déserts mean that the work has come full circle: the attempt to overcome the static, purposeless, lonely life through mysticism and religiosity seems to have failed (i.e., no chiming tubular bells are to be heard at the end–no ‘church’ to give guidance to the lonely).

This sustained softness, of relative silence, emphasizes the sense of aloneness, the empty deserts of the mind. Varèse composed Déserts not long after the devastation of WWII, so its horrors would not have been far from his thoughts. During this time, he complained about the conformist, conservative, money-oriented world he was living in.

These themes of loneliness, emptiness, and alienation make Déserts an especially relevant piece of music for our times in the 2020s, when we’re all being made to wear masks, practice social distancing, endure lockdowns, receive vaccinations that many fear haven’t been sufficiently tested, and–as many suspect–aren’t effective against new variants, and to risk losing our work and our homes. Whether one supports or is opposed to these new measures is irrelevant to my point, which is that the controversy is dividing us and alienating us from each other even more. Late stage capitalism is a desert all of its own.

May music like Déserts, Varèse’s appeal for a purer world, inspire us all to end our loneliness, and come back together as a global, human community.

A New…and Different…Poem by Jason Ryan Morton

This new poem by Jason Ryan Morton is–based on all the stuff of his that I’ve read and analyzed–quite a departure. His words are in italics to distinguish them from mine, as usual. Here’s the poem:

In the light of the moon
Pale reflections of Adoration
Enjoy the oceanic saturation
Drinking in beauty of the Goddess three
My love – my heart
The soul of me cries out to touch your lips
With a ghost of a kiss
Brushing my life within your heart
A truth of the dawn heralding a new light
I slowly blend with you into one form
Thus an eclipse is born.

And now for my analysis.

Normally, Jason’s writing is full of themes of despair and trauma, but here we see him adoring beauty and light. Instead of irreverence to religion, and denial of belief in God (a male god, mind you), we have an affirmation of the Divine Feminine, presumably in a metaphorical sense.

He’s looking up to the moonlight and admiring its beauty. The moonlight reflects his “Adoration” back to him; note the capitalizing of Adoration, suggesting that it’s his love that does the deifying. We send out love, and love gratefully comes back to us.

I really like the assonant music of this line: “Enjoy the oceanic saturation.” One feels saturated with the divine beauty surrounding us and passing within us, a connection with the oceanic universe. One is “drinking in,” internalizing the natural beauty all around, the beauty of the Triple Goddess.

He is in love with the moon goddess, wanting to kiss her glowing lips. The “ghost of a kiss” brushes his life, which is within her heart, for inside her heart is where his life and happiness lie.

“A truth of the dawn heralding a new light” seems to indicate that he has found new vitality and hope from her, a vitality and hope to replace the despair and trauma he wrote about before. He would “blend with [her] into one form,” like Atman discovering its identity with Brahman, and finding peace in moksha.

Now, “an eclipse is born” with this blending of him with her into one form. Such a blending suggests that Jason is identifying himself with the sun, since not only is there a solar eclipse, the result of the moon passing in front of the sun; but also since the moonlight is a reflection of the sunlight off of it. If he is identifying himself with the sunlight, then that sunlight can be seen to represent the fiery passions, which are calmed when absorbed by the moon, like a loving mother soothing her agitated baby.

But could the “eclipse” be a case of “love is blind”? Could the moon be driving Jason lunatic; does her mesmerizing beauty block his ability to see straight, to give and receive his solar light? Is this why “Adoration” is capitalized, the deification of his love projected onto her, rather than she herself deified? Is this the meaning of “the dawn heralding a new light,” that his new vitality and hope come not from her, but from his idealizing of her in his mind? Is his love for her real, or is it an illusion?

I’ll leave you, Dear Reader, to decide whether his love of the moon is real or delusional, whether it is good for him or not.

Analysis of ‘Quartet for the End of Time’

I: Introduction

Quatuor pour la fin du temps is a 1940-1941 piece of chamber music composed by Olivier Messiaen. It was composed for an unusual combination of instruments: piano, violin, clarinet in B-flat, and cello; because these were the instruments played by the only musicians available to perform the piece at its premiere–Messiaen, Jean le Boulaire, Henri Akoka, and Etienne Pasquier, respectively. These four musicians premiered the piece, in January 1941, as prisoners of war in Stalag VIII-A, then in Görlitz, Germany.

Messiaen was inspired by this passage in the Book of Revelation: “And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire…and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth…And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever…that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished…” (Revelation, 10:1–2, 5–7, King James Version). What particularly struck Messiaen was the notion that there would be no more time.

He claimed that he wasn’t interested in using his music as a symbolic theological comment on the Apocalypse. After all, how can one make such a comment with only instrumental music (Iain G. Matheson, at the beginning of his essay on the Quatuor, addresses this question. [Hill, pages 234-235])? Instead, Messiaen was preoccupied with the idea of freeing music from the regularity of time.

Here are some recordings of the Quatuor, one with the score, and another of a live performance.

II: The Movements

There are eight movements: they represent the seven days of Creation, then the eighth day, Christ’s Resurrection.

i) Liturgie de cristal (“Crystal Liturgy“)
ii) Vocalise, pour l’ange qui annonce la fin du temps (“Vocalise, for the Angel Who Announces the End of Time”)
iii) Abîme des oiseaux (“Abyss of Birds”)
iv) Intermède (“Interlude”)
v) Louange à l’éternité de Jésus (“Praise to the Eternity of Jesus”)
vi) Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes (“Dance of Fury, for the Seven Trumpets“)
vii) Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’ange qui annonce la fin du temps (“Tangle of Rainbows, for the Angel Who Announces the End of Time”)
viii) Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus (“Praise to the Immortality of Jesus”)

As Robert Sherlaw Johnson noted in his book, Messiaen, there are “thematic and textural relationships between the movements, which shape the work as a whole” (Johnson, page 63): ii and vii, which share certain dissonant thematic material; iii and vi, which are monophonic, lacking in chords, harmony, or counterpoint; and v and viii, which, apart from being duets for a string instrument and piano, are also rearrangements of compositions of Messiaen’s from the 1930s.

III: Liturgie de cristal

This movement opens with the clarinet playing a blackbird’s song and the violin playing that of a nightingale. Messiaen described it thus: “Between three and four in the morning, the awakening of birds: a solo blackbird or nightingale improvises, surrounded by a shimmer of sound, by a halo of trills lost very high in the trees. Transpose this onto a religious plane and you have the harmonious silence of Heaven.”

Indeed, the violin and clarinet here are playing, independently of the cello and piano, a musical trademark of Messiaen’s that he introduced for pretty much the first time in the Quatuorbirdsong.

For Messiaen, birds are symbols of divinity (he was a devout Catholic his whole life). Also, their free-form singing, blissfully unaware of the musical rules of melody, tonality, and rhythm, represent the beauty of total freedom. Thus, their calls are also free of the constraints of musical time.

As part of his wish to free music of the shackles of time, Messiaen had the piano and cello each play a differing isorhythm (the piano, playing a twenty-nine chord sequence over a rhythm of seventeen values, and the cello with a five-note melodic shape over a rhythmic ostinato of fifteen values; the cello part’s rhythm is also non-retrogradable, giving no true beginning or end to the rhythm, suggesting eternity). Also, the rhythmic ostinato in the piano part is based upon three Hindu rhythms, the talas ragavardhana, candrakala, and lakshmica.

Messiaen, as something of an orinthologist, had had a love of birdsong from his early years. He used to go out into fields with sheet music and notate the bird calls he heard. Now, he was finally using their divine music as an integral part of one of his compositions, something he’d do ever after. He loved birds’ freedom to fly anywhere in the sky. As a POW in Nazi Germany, he could only have loved such freedom.

IV: Vocalise, pour l’ange qui annonce la fin du temps

The angel’s announcing of the end of time comes with dissonant chords on the piano, a quick flurry of ascending and descending notes on the clarinet, then a sustained note and a trill on it while quick sixteenth notes are played on the violin and cello. These features are more or less heard again, then after quick ascending sixteenth notes on the violin and cello, we get trills on the violin, cello, and clarinet, and a dissonant piano ending leads to the ethereal, mystical middle section, with–as Messiaen called them–“the impalpable harmonies of heaven.” In this middle section, the violin and cello play the melody of the sixteenth notes, but slower and often in eighth notes. The A-B-A movement ends with more or less a repeat of the dissonant beginning, albeit in an inverted form.

It’s curious that Messiaen took the passage from Revelation, where the angel says, “there should be time no more.” Now, a more accurate translation would say, “there shall be no more delay,” as we get it in the New English Bible; the New Oxford Annotated Bible also uses “delay” instead of “time.” While I’m guessing that Messiaen’s old French Bible read, “Il n’y aura plus de temps,” my modern French Bible says, “Il n’y aura plus de délai [time-limit].” The original Greek used the word χρόνος (i.e., “time”), but in the context of the passage, it too meant “delay.” So, in most modern cases of translation, delay is used rather than time.

It’s interesting how people project themselves into their interpretations of things. (Anyone who has read enough of my analyses of films, etc., knows that I project my own inner preoccupations into them all the time.) Messiaen was preoccupied with freeing musical time from its traditional restraints, so when he read the Biblical passage, he took the word time literally, at face value, rather than seeing that what the angel really meant was, “We have no time left.”

No disrespect intended to Monsieur Messiaen (who happens to be one of my all-time favourite composers!), but this inaccuracy of his with regards to the background and creation of the Quatuor isn’t an isolated incidence. He claimed that the cello used for the premiere lacked a string, while Pasquier insisted it had all four strings, and his part would have been impossible to play with three. Messiaen claimed the premiere was performed before an audience of about 5,000 people, when there were really only about 400 (no more could have fit in).

Messiaen was correct to say that the piano had keys that stuck when played; but though he said of the premiere, “Never had I been listened to with so much attention and understanding,” one of the other musicians remembered the audience’s reaction differently. Given Messiaen’s idiosyncratic, modernist compositional style, the other musician said, “The audience, as far as I remember, was overwhelmed at the time. They wondered what had happened. Everyone. We too. We asked ourselves: ‘What are we doing? What are we playing?’”

Since we’ve established that some of Messiaen’s recollections of what happened at the first performance aren’t completely reliable, I believe that some of his other comments can be regarded with some suspicion, too. The Quatuor, as with his music generally, is considered apolitical; but given his predicament then and there as a POW of the Nazis, among the cruellest and most inhumane scum in history, I find it hard to imagine his suffering not influencing the conceptualizing and creation of the Quatuor.

He recalled being stripped naked, as were all the prisoners. They were cold and underfed. In fact, Messiaen developed chilblains because of the extreme cold and malnutrition. Even though, as a composer tasked with writing a piece for himself and the other three musicians to play, he was relieved of much of the worst treatment in the prison, he still suffered terribly. Given what we know about the brutality and contempt for human life that is Naziism defined, we can trust Messiaen to be accurately recalling this harsh aspect of life during his stay in Stalag VIII-A. It’s doubtless that he was traumatized.

Such trauma surely influenced the concept behind his composition. He claimed that there was little to no theological commentary in his musical presentation of the Apocalypse, but rather only a wish to liberate musical time…but why should we believe this? One of the central features of the Apocalypse is not only the glorious saving of the Christian faithful from the world of sin, but also the judgement and punishment of the wicked (e.g., the Nazis). Such an outcome would have to have been a wish-fulfillment for him.

Surely Matheson thought so in his essay: “Messiaen’s decision to use this particular text [Revelation 10: 1–2, 5–7] rather than any other may well have been prompted by the prisoner-of-war conditions in which he found himself, in which time might indeed have seemed literally endless, and the Apocalypse close at hand.” (Hill, page 235)

Related to the idea of time is temporality, which also refers to the laic, secular world. Indeed, the French word temps, like the Latin word tempus (which is used in the Vulgate Latin translation of Revelation 10:6), is cognate with temporal. So when Messiaen consciously wished for freedom from musical time’s traditionally equal measurements, he also unconsciously wished for freedom from this world, ruled by Satan (John 12:31), and in particular for liberation from Stalag VIII-A.

He didn’t overtly express any wish, in his music, to be anti-Nazi for fear of angering the SS. So when he was freed from the prison in 1941, he taught harmony in the Paris Conservatoire even while France was still occupied by Nazi Germany, free of any fear of further persecution. His reticence on political matters surely was a shrewd move to save his life; hence, the Quatuor is ostensibly only about ‘freeing musical time.’

V: Abîme des oiseaux

This movement for solo clarinet reminds me of Edgard Varèse‘s Densité 21,5 for platinum flute. It demands considerable technical ability on the part of the clarinettist. There are slow, long crescendos that require great breath control (see, for example, the 13th measure). Akoka grumbled and complained of how difficult this movement was to master, but Messiaen urged him and encouraged him to keep trying.

Of this movement, Messiaen said, “The abyss is Time with its sadness, its weariness. The birds are the opposite to Time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant songs.”

So, in time, we have sadness…for Messiaen, the sadness and weariness of having to pass the time in a Nazi prison. Since birds are the opposite of time, they represent freedom from incarceration in our temporal world. Accordingly, we hear the clarinet play birdsong. The free-form rhythm once again represents Messiaen’s wish to free musical time of traditionalistic, regular measurement.

VI: Intermède

In the centre of the Quatuor, this short, jaunty interlude in 2/4 time contains several references to thematic material heard in other movements: for example, the flurry of quick ascending and descending clarinet 32nd notes (C-sharp-D-sharp-F-sharp-G-sharp-B-natural-G-natural-C-natural-B-flat-F-natural) heard in the second movement (and the third [B-D-sharp-F-sharp-G-sharp-C-sharp-G-natural-C-natural-B-flat-F-natural, in the 20th measure]); also a softly played, but ominous anticipation of the opening theme of the sixth movement.

For the most part, though, the movement is a cheerful one, including a passage with the violin and cello trading pizzicatos and an arco melody of D-B-G-F-natural-B-natural-A-flat-C-sharp-G-natural in the cello’s high register; then, as a kind of relative subdominant to that, a melody of G-E-C-B-flat-E-flat-D-flat-F-sharp-C-natural (measures 24-31).

VII: Louange à l’éternité de Jésus

This movement, in which the cello plays a sobbing, plaintive, high-pitched melody over mostly soft piano chords, is a rearrangement of the fourth movement (titled either “L’Eau“…”Water” or “Oraison“…”Prayer”) of Fête des belles eaux (“Celebration of the Beautiful Waters”) for six ondes Martenots, from 1937. The tempo is infiniment lent, extatique (“extremely slow, ecstatic”): this extreme slowness is meant to represent a sense of endlessness, eternity.

The beginning of the cello melody seems to be in the second of Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition–namely, the octatonic scale. This movement is assuredly one of the most beautiful things he ever wrote. Though the longing felt seems unfulfillable, the harmonic resolutions ultimately satisfy that longing.

One passage that I especially like is from measures 15-17, in which the cello melody tops off the piano’s playing of (what at least sounds, to my not-so-well-trained ear, as) a D-sharp dominant seventh sharp ninth chord, an E major seventh chord, a C-sharp dominant ninth chord, a D-sharp augmented chord, and a resolution to E major. Then there’s the ending (the last three measures), with the cello playing a melody of ascending notes (E-G-natural-A-sharp-C-sharp) of the diminished seventh chord, resolving on the high octave of an E-major piano chord.

By “l’éternité de Jésus,” Messiaen means Jesus as understood as the pre-existing Word from the beginning of time. In this meditative music, we can sense Messiaen’s mysticism.

Since this music is derived from his Fêtes des belles eaux, and the original movement was alternatively titled “L’Eau” or “Oraison,” I find there to be interesting connotations, from a mystical point of view, in all of these titles: eternity of Jesus, the beautiful waters, and prayer.

In this music Messiaen would be both praising and praying to Jesus, an urgent pleading to save him from the Nazis. A mystical connection with the Divine, often achieved through prayer or meditation, has sometimes been described as oceanic; I have addressed this idea myself in music, and in the name of my blog.

And sometimes, in the lowest depths of our suffering, as Messiaen surely felt in Stalag VIII-A, we can find the extreme of hell phase into the extreme of heaven, a dialectical shift from one polar extreme to its opposite state. I’ve compared such a meeting of opposites, on a circular continuum, to the ouroboros‘ biting head and its bitten tail.

When Messiaen suffered in the prison, made music there, then was released, he experienced something comparable to Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, and so we can see in the parallel experiences a mystical union of Messiaen and Messiah, at least in a symbolic sense.

VIII: Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes

As I mentioned above, this movement parallels the third in its monophony: though all four instruments are heard, none plays harmony or counterpoint. Every single note, played collectively, is a unison or an octave.

In spite of the monophonic melody, though, Messiaen manages to infuse plenty of musical tension in his “dance of fury.” We are, after all, dealing with the Final Judgement here, the sending to hell of sinners, which contrasts dialectically with the preceding movement’s serenity. I sense his wish for his Nazi captors to receive God’s judgement.

He exploits loud and soft dynamics as well as irregular rhythms (with measures lacking time signatures), using non-retrogradable rhythms as well as augmentation, diminution, added values, and the derivation of Greek rhythm and meter. All of these techniques serve to realize his wish to free musical time of its traditionally dull regularity.

One passage (at about 28:03 in this video), expressed in cycles of five beats (i.e., eight sixteenth notes and an eighth note), we hear notes whose pitches fly in all kinds of wild directions, yet paradoxically, the last note of each of these cycles, the eighth, is always the same pitch: an F-sharp (A-flat for the clarinet in B-flat). The result is a paradoxical juxtaposition of melodic desultoriness and stasis. This mixing of the erratic and the static can be seen to represent the conflict Messiaen felt between wanting to roam freely and being incarcerated.

Elsewhere, at about 28:35 in the video, we hear the piano and clarinet play a grim, three-note ostinato: F-natural, C-sharp, and A-natural on the piano, and G-natural, E-flat, and B-natural on the clarinet, the notes of an augmented triad. This ostinato is subjected to rhythmic augmentation and diminution: first slowly–as quarter-notes, eighth-notes, then quarter-notes again; then, as half-notes, quarter-notes, then half-notes again; then quickly three times as eighth-notes, sixteenth-notes, then eighth-notes again. Again, time is permitted no predictable sense of regularity.

IX: Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’ange qui annonce la fin du temps

Recall that the Biblical verses describe the angel who announces the end of time as being “clothed with a cloud, and a rainbow was on his head,” with one foot on the land and the other on the sea. The colours of the rainbow were important to Messiaen, who had synesthesia and saw colours in his mind’s eye whenever he heard this or that musical idea. In the second movement, which parallels the seventh, he used harmonies that made him see the orange and blue of the rainbow).

A dreamy tune in 3/4 opens the movement with a sad, upper-register cello melody played over soft piano chords; this theme will alternate with developments of the dissonant opening theme of the second movement. That dreamy tune will return with the clarinet in the background playing a melody based on the ascending and descending octatonic scale, the second of Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition. Just before the end of the movement is the dreamy tune played in trills on both cello and violin, and on the clarinet, with piano arpeggios in the background.

As for the dissonant sections, I’d like to speculate on why an increasing use of dissonance was appearing around this time (i.e., the late 1930s and into the 1940s) in Messiaen’s musical career. To be sure, his music was, from the beginning, technically dissonant, through his use of modes based on equal octave divisions, since he liked the colours these unusual melodies and harmonies, derived from the modes, evoked in his imagination. Indeed, early Messiaen sounds like an exotic version of Debussy, who also sidestepped tonality without sounding harsh.

But the Messiaen of the 1920s and 1930s largely lacked the harsh dissonances we would begin to hear by the time of the Quatuor. The middle section of Les offrandes oubliées (<<<starting at 3:32 in the video), in its musical description of “the forgotten offerings” of grace and salvation, and therefore the descent into sin, is somewhat more dissonant. Chants de terre et de ciel has some dense piano chords, admittedly. But the really huge dissonant sonorities begin with pieces like Visions de l’amen, Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus, and Harawi; they grow even more extreme in pieces like the Quatre études de rythme, Cantéyodjayâ, and Chronochromie. I believe these extreme dissonances were Messiaen’s way of expressing, and of exorcising from himself, the lingering trauma he received from his experience as a prisoner in Stalag VIII-A.

Now, the quite dissonant Chants de terre et de ciel, composed in 1938 and premiered in 1939, was a celebration of the birth of his son Pascale in 1937, which would seem to contradict my speculation that his aggravated use of dissonance was the expression of trauma. But consider what was happening politically in Europe at the time. His son’s birth was a year before the Anschluss and the Munich Agreement, when the leaders of England and France were trying to appease an increasingly ambitious, imperialistic Hitler. Underneath Messiaen’s surface joy over the birth of his son must have been an unconscious anxiety over the boy’s safety.

His trauma in the Nazi prison would have increased the kind of violent feelings he felt even after his release, and the use of tone clusters and other dissonances could have been his way of venting these violent feelings, a projection of the violence he had introjected from the Nazis. These violent melodic and harmonic ideas can be heard in this seventh movement of the Quatuor, not only in the piano chords, but also in the creepy-sounding cello glissandi and col legno, and the screeching violin, cello, and clarinet sounds at the end (38:43 in the video, just before the brutal piano in the bass register), which might remind the listener of horror movie music.

Messian’s piano arrangements of birdsong, the pitches never altered to fit any scales, are particularly dissonant, as can be heard in any of his compositions since the Quatuor. Could there be a relationship between his conception of birds’ freedom and the discordant representation of their singing…an expression of pain coupled with the yearning to fly away free?

X: Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus

This final movement is a rearrangement of the second section of Messiaen’s organ piece, Diptyque (<<at about 5:12 in the video), transposed up a major third from C to E, with the violin playing the melody over piano chords largely in pairs each of thirty-second notes and double-dotted eighth notes. In 4/4, it’s played much slower (extrêmement lent et tendre, extatique, with an MM of an eighth note equalling about 36) than in the Diptyque (with an MM of 58 equalling an eighth note, très lent), the slowness again meant to represent the everlasting life of heaven, after time has ended. This movement thus parallels the fifth.

Whereas the fifth movement contemplated Jesus as the pre-existing Word from the beginning of time, now Jesus is meditated on in his resurrected spiritual body, in the Second Coming at the end of time.

The movement is scored in E-major, though the modes of limited transposition add a great deal of chromaticism to the mix. Instead of the sad, unfulfillable longing of the fifth movement, this one is full of spiritual joy, for in Christ’s immortality we have a sign of the conquering of death, something very important to Messiaen, given how close death must have felt to him as a prisoner in Stalag VIII-A. It ends with a high E on the violin and high-register E-major sixth chords on the piano.

XI: Conclusion

Though for Messiaen, the Quatuor was, as he consciously expressed it, a wish to free musical time from the traditional prison of regularity and measurability, it was also, through the symbolism of the passage in Revelation, chapter ten, an unconscious wish of his to be free of his Nazi tormentors. Anyone else who happens to be a Christian can content him- or herself with the Biblical ideas musically expressed.

But what of those of us today, who love this 20th century masterwork, and don’t share the religious faith that inspired the conceptualization behind this music? How can we derive our own meaning from the Quatuor?

I’d like to propose a secular interpretation that will be relevant for us in the 21st century, one that uses Christian symbolism to illustrate that meaning. I’ve already discussed what must have been Messiaen’s extreme aversion to all things fascist, even though he didn’t dare give it expression at the time, in front of Nazi guards. Now, the polar opposite of the far right (barring such nonsense as the horseshoe theory) is, of course, the far left.

Granted, I’m sure that Messiaen, the devout Catholic, would have been just as horrified of atheistic communism as he was of fascism. But my concern here is with his unconscious feelings, the associations that the unconscious mind makes, and the way that repressed feelings return to consciousness in unrecognizable ways. Messiaen may not have liked the socialist alternative to fascism, but he definitely wanted to go as far from Naziism as he could. Maybe he simply didn’t know what he liked in political terms, for Christian moral teachings aren’t as far removed from socialism as one might think.

Though one tends to associate Christianity, and especially the authoritarian aspects of Catholicism, with right-wing, conservative thinking, there is much in the Christian tradition that can be associated with the left. Liberation theology is only the tip of the iceberg in that respect.

Just as socialists wish to feed, clothe, and give medical aid to the poor, so did Jesus say of giving such help, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:40) On the other side of the coin, just as socialists excoriate the amassing of obscene amounts of wealth, so did Jesus say, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25) And just as socialists despise televangelists who hoard wealth tax-free, so did Christ drive the money changers out of the Temple (Matthew 21:12)

Furthermore, the Messiah was a revolutionary figure, meant to liberate the Jews from Roman imperialist oppression. Later on, the Church cunningly downplayed Jesus’ revolutionary leanings (i.e., “Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.” —John 18:36) in order to reconcile itself with the Roman authorities; but Jesus originally said, “I did not come to bring peace but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34) Similarly, as I mentioned above, Messiaen was smart enough to avoid admitting to any anti-Nazi intent in this composition.

Since imperialism has in our time reached an extreme that is threatening our world with nuclear war (How’s that for ‘the end of time’?), and fascism has in many places come back in style–a tried-and-true tactic that capitalists use to beat back political agitation from workers–we can see the Quartet for the End of Time as not only a music of consolation for our suffering today, but also as a clarion call–the seven trumpets!–for a revolutionary end to all the war, ecocide, alienation, income inequality, and immiseration of the Third World.

The end of time, for us socialists, is the end of the dialectical, historical struggle between rich and poor–first, master vs. slave, then, feudal lord vs. peasant, and finally, bourgeois vs. proletarian. Let this music inspire us all to break out of our fascist prisons, these cages of ours, and fly freely and sing with the birds.

Robert Sherlaw Johnson, Messiaen, Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1975

Peter Hill, editor, The Messiaen Companion, London, Faber and Faber, 1995

My Last Five Pop Songs

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That wonderful friend of mine, Gerda Hovius, who helped me gain access to most of my pop song recordings and classical music compositions from the Jamendo website (which won’t let me play or download them, for some reason), has pulled through for me again. She emailed me those last five songs I didn’t have as of my last post of pop songs, so now I have them all at last! Thanks again, Gerda! I owe you big time!

In fact, she sent them to me just after I’d published my blog post of most of the rest of my pop songs. I could have simply updated that post to include the five songs, but I decided to publish them separately instead, in order to stretch out and extend interest in my music a little further.

As I mentioned in my last post, four of these pop songs were originally published on my second Jamendo album, Meeting Places. These were “Meeting Place,” “Better,” “‘Til Divorce Do Us Part,” and “Lethargy.” The fifth track was originally published on my third Jamendo album, Infinite Ocean. It was “Moonlit Strolls.”

The album title, Meeting Places, was in plural because, if you were to hear all the tracks of that album in order, you’d notice common musical ideas, or ‘meeting places,’ that linked the first track to the second (an electronic synth sound), the second to the third (the gamelan-like sound I discussed in my previous song post), the third to the fourth (recorders and tuned percussion sounds), etc.

The song “Meeting Place” is in the singular because it’s about finding the one common unifying idea in the entire universe. Does such a unifying principle (Brahman, the Tao, the “Infinite Ocean“) exist, or is it just a figment of my imagination?

Musically, the song combines the electronic synth and drums dance sound of “Blow” with the gamelan imitation sound of songs like “Grateful,” “Freedom,” and “Regrets?” To expand my musical range, I added recorders and a harmonica solo at the end.

Better” has me playing ascending melodies to symbolize a striving for self-improvement. I do this tone painting in my singing and playing of the recorder. In the lyrics, I make an allusion to the Beatles song, “Getting Better.”

Throughout the recording of Meeting Places, I had difficulty keeping the recorders in tune. I’m not 100% sure about the last recorder notes I play on “Better,” so I hope, Dear Reader and Listener, you’ll forgive me if those notes sound a bit off.

‘Til Divorce Do Us Part” is a satirical song in 5/4 time about people who marry for superficial reasons (sexual attraction, money, social status), then get divorced soon after. The music was inspired by a Nonesuch recording of an African tribal wedding song, though I added the gamelan imitation sound, bongoes, a steel drum sound for a keyboard solo, recorder, and an acoustic guitar solo. The juxtaposition of lyrics about superficial, loveless modern marriages in the West, with music inspired by that of a traditional African wedding (presumably for marriages that are far more enduring) was meant to be ironic.

Lethargy,” also in 5/4 and immediately following “‘Til Divorce Do Us Part” on Meeting Places (and therefore, in sharing the same time signature, have this in common as their ‘meeting place’), is a 12-bar blues/jazz song I composed at the acoustic guitar. The song is about my constant drowsiness and lack of energy, something that’s predictably gotten worse as I’ve gotten older.

I added piano and harmonica licks at the beginning and ending of the song, as well as a jazz electric guitar solo and an electric piano solo, the former of which I’m particularly proud, even if I do say so myself.

Moonlit Strolls” is a sentimental song composed at the acoustic guitar in an old-fashioned, 1930s and 1940s jazz style, like “The Happy Song,” which it follows on Infinite Ocean. The chord progressions make extensive use of the diminished seventh chord as a passing chord.

Lyrically, the song is about walks at night that I used to take with my then-girlfriend, now my wife, about twenty years ago. I have pleasant memories of that simpler time in my life, which I tried to give a sweet kind of expression to in this song.

The one thing I don’t like about this recording is my annoying falsetto, meant to represent her voice as a stereotyped imitation of a woman talking. I hope you, Dear Reader and Listener, won’t be as irritated by it as I am.

Anyway, that’s all five of the last songs. I hope you like them and will be more forgiving of their imperfections than I am. Cheers!