on not liking schlock

In blogalectic with Jenna and Masha

Happy New Year, good readers. This year begins with something different. Jenna has graciously injected a line of fervour into the discussion, taking on the large and sticky question of church music, specifically “the failure of many Christian recording artists to realize that music itself actually means something, not just the lyrics.” Consequently, she says, ‘our hymnals contain some of the worst schlock I’ve ever caught posing as music’, with ‘lyrics that would make a cheap Hallmark card blush’.

Masha concurs with Jenna’s sentiments, blaming much of it on the current culture of advertising, and offers a possible explanation: ‘We stop trying to pursue beauty, to form ourselves in imitation of beauty, and follow the easy path that leads to badness and banality.’

Personally, I don’t have a dog in this fight. It’s a fight I’ve been around several times, and if those of you reading this blog would like it discussed here in more details, I can certainly secure some competent guest bloggers. What intrigues me though, is the broader subject of beauty, and the lack thereof.

I believe, simply, that there is something properly basic about the human need for beauty. We are humans; therefore we will search for beauty and surround ourselves with beautiful things. This is of course true whether you’re Christian or Muslim or Pagan or whatever; this is simply, humanly true. The world is not beautiful—it is wild and tragic and heartbreaking—but Beauty is in it. And people look for Beauty.

We see this at a straightforward level if we watch a child watching a Disney film. Not even Disney enthusiasts care to argue that the opening credits of Winnie-the-Pooh is art on the level of, say, Citizen Kane. And yet the colours and sound and the invitation into “the enchanted neighbourhood | Where Christopher Robin plays” is mesmeric, enthralling, transcendent to a very young child. Beauty beckons to us, and draws us into itself.

The difficulty is following Beauty where it leads us. To recklessly paraphrase C. S. Lewis, one should never lose delight in the opening credits of Winnie-the-Pooh, and yet one should eventually try to comprehend Throne of Blood. One story, encountered earlier, gives us the straightforward consolations of childhood. The other undermines our confidence in human nature, or anything else. It is the harder lesson, and necessary, and beautiful. But looking at the reds and yellows of Pooh, we do not at first expect that is where beauty will lead.

These examples, of course, depart from Jenna’s in an important particular: there is actually artistic merit in Winnie-the-Pooh. The examples she and Masha give have none. This leads to a difficulty—one might say, perversity—which is also prevalent outside Church music. And it’s just as human as the need for beauty: the urge for ease.

We do not have to think about these songs. Emotion comes pre-packaged, and we can pick our favourite style and have a grand old weepy time. You can see this on X-Factor: beautiful contestants sing familiar tunes in the usual way, and the crowd on the screen reacts appropriately, the judges tell us what to think, etc. Music, and the art of the musician, and the reality that music arises from the art of the musician regardless of style or degree of ability, never seriously enters the frame. We are allowed to relax.

Beauty never lets us relax. Beauty bring us instead into rest, “costing not less than everything.” Beauty does not offer us anything or make demands of us; it simply is, and it points to itself. when we see Beauty, in its manifestations, we cannot but respond and follow. Even if Beauty does not wear its familiar aspect, we can still come to recognise it, though the process may be painful.

There seems to me to be a too frequent dearth of beauty, caused in part by the reality that Beauty is not static, nor does it simply exist to be observed. Beauty changes us. It knocks away the lines and boxes, and knocks away the idea of boxes, and shows us the absolute stillness of rest and hope and despair and tears and laughter that lies within and behind it, regions ‘where all that is not music is silence’.

Our own fear would side with the jailors, and keep us in the realm of the comfortable, the comfortably challenging, faux-development and self-important seriousness. But Beauty shows us levity in the face of tragedy, hope as the companion of despair. Beauty teaches us how to wonder; beauty teaches us how to laugh.

vitality, beauty, coffee

or, Mostly the Latter. In blogalectic with Jenna and Masha, sort of.

“I didn’t expect to find a salesman drinking coffee this late in the morning,” I said. “How long you been here, Joe?”

“Oh, I dunno, I guess thirty—” He glanced at the clock above the bar. “Forty-five minutes, maybe. Why d’ya ask?”

“You must be making a lot of sales. Piling up a good income.”

“Oh, ah I’m doing all right, I could do better,but—” He crashed down his coffee abruptly. “Paul—someone’s listening.”

“There’s no one here but—”

He waved me quiet, stared furtively down at his coffee with the suspicion of man who expects his coffee to suddenly erupt to geysers of shaving cream. “I’ll tell you what it is, Paul,” he said quietly. “We’re in a story.”

“It looks like a diner to me.”

“Oh, that! That’s just the setting. This’ll be a short story, see—a  bit of flash fiction where the author needs to make this point, so he thinks, let’s find two guys talking in a bar. Only,” he glared at his coffee again, “for me it’s always coffee.”

I tried again. “You must be making a lot of sales.”

He scowled. “Think they tell me that? They can sell the stories where they like and I never see a dime. Who do they think they are, rushing into my life and using my conversations to prove whatever they want to prove? I tell you something, Paul.” He leaned onto the bar, waggled his finger. “They misquote me.”

“They what?”

“I says one thing,” he said, “they write another. They put their words in my mouth. They don’t care about me, see, about us. They just have this thing they’re writing, and need to blokes chatting over coffee to write it. You watch, Paul. This’ll be a short story somewhere, about—about—about—what’s that old time-is-money kick you’re always on , Paul?”

“Oh—ah, you mean, ah, time management? I’m not back on it, Joe. I’m—”

“Well, it doesn’t matter, see. Because you’d say, time is money, but they’d say you said everybody dies frustrated and sad—and that’s beautiful!

“That’s beautiful?”

“That’s what they say you say. It’s the sort of thing,” he said darkly, “they make people say. It’s like…”

“Joe,” I said, “don’t let’s start—”

“Start? It’s over, boss. It’s flash fiction. Soon as you start talking, it’s over. And you never even know about it” He gulped a mouthful of coffee and glared at me. “It’s like being a snowball in hell.”


Impressions, series 5

The lovely French word “technique,” drawn into the English language by Mr Coleridge, inspires both thoughtfulness from Jenna and ambivalence from Masha, leaving me find a third way.

Technique seems to be that subtle mastery of the technical aspects of craft which distinguishes one artist from another. This is, I suspect, a nonsensical statement and perhaps tautological. What I really mean is I’ve connected the word with an absurd image of Rubens holding a brush and another of a young Leonardo looking simply morose. But really when I think about technique I think about playing the piano.

There is, of course, the fascinating study of Glenn Gould’s two interpretations of Bach’s Goldberg Variations—about which some of my readers know a great deal more than I do, and may chime in with enlightenment if they wish (you know who you are, Eric).

But of course there’s a wonderful conflation of all kinds of technique—pacing and performance and musical interpretation and writing—in what follows. What you will see is the strength and beauty of the art that can be achieved when a consummate master of technique—in fact,
a genius—uses his ability for good.

After that, I’m not sure what more could be said.

[UPDATE: Well, the Victor Borge video I posted turns out to be illegal, and the YouTube account that was hosting it has been shut down because of copyright infringement. Despite its drawing the sting of this post, I have to say I approve. To make up for it, here’s a different video that’s quite legal. And it’s about…something.]


In blogalectic with Jenna St. Hilaire and Masha

Impressions, series 3

“Hey hey ladies and gentlemen and boys and girls, all right now—are you ready to be impressed, are you ready to be bezazzled, are you ready to see marvels of magic and feats of phantasmagoria never before seen, I said are you ready? Ladies and gentlemen it’s my pleasure to introduce to you now the only, the indomitable, the incomparable, the Great Northover!”

He sweeps the curtain aside, swirls into the shimmer of the floodlights. He is straight as a soldier, elegant as an earl, the red lining of his cloak blinding in its brightness. He stares into blank, flat emptiness of the lights, and grins.

“There he is ladies and gentlemen, ladies hold onto your seats and gents hold on to your ladies, here’s the greatest conjuror the world has ever seen, watch and be amazed folks, you’ve never seen a sight like this…”

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Impressions, part 1

A blogalectic with Jenna St. Hilaire and Masha

If you’ve not read the links above, please do. I did, and spent the week wondering what to write. We’re discussing impressions now—not, what do we think about such and so, but what does such and so make us think? This week it’s beauty. What impression does that word have on us, on me?

What impression does it have on you?

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