Saturday, December 23, 2006


Pure Sound

"Query: How does the never to be differ from what never was?" -Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Last night I pushed open the thick oak door of St. Thomas Church on the corner of 53rd Street and 5th Avenue against the babble of Christmas revelers. As the black parts of my eyes adjusted to the flickering decentered dimness of the cavernous sanctuary, a solid slowly-moving wave of unwavering sound struck me and the hundreds of spell-bound mutes lining the pews. At once delicate and declarative, self-conscious in its desire, John Scott was intoning Messiaen’s Nativite du Seigneur for a hushed audience of, from my wooden seat against a pillar, 31 candles. When I halfway closed my eyes – the back of my head pressed into stone, those lights became 5-sided pinpricks, pulsating stars of light and sound. When I looked at the massive arches framing windows of heavy lead glass stained in shades of incandescent light 100 feet above me I felt taken back to a place where the baroque was what was; or another way, a place incomprehensible to darkness.

To the incredulity of some, namely Harlan, I have fallen into the embrace of the Baroque sensibility – or what I want it to be: an intense longing for words, for sounds, which are Life, a romance much more real than the dramatics of the Romantic. Beginning with Monteverdi’s madrigal Lamento Della Ninfa and Scarlatti’s cantatas to the pipe organ I heard last night the Baroque (or things that sound like it) is an insanity of want: hands clawing at the sky, grasping at the ephemeral essence of Life. As it turns out the baroque was the first "classic" music I knew: Handel’s Messiah was a Christmas staple. This was followed by plenty of Bach and Vivaldi – all of which I sang or played on the guitar now stuffed behind my couch. Perhaps this is why I prejudiced it so quickly as ubiquitous pop as ostentatious fluttering around an empty center: like Rococo decorative arts, all elaborately adorned nymphs and ‘demon-possessed’ babies. Or rich people paying possibly-brilliant impoverished musicians to produce fancy theatre. And this often is the way the baroque sensibility is expressed: as an ornamental fashion exhibition (notice my breath control!), sans soul, which is precisely what it demands.

When I listened to John Scott in that voluminous space last night, I was taken to variations of Philip Glass, to Medieval chants, to Haitian hymn singing, to the lyrics of Italo Calvino’s Baron in the Trees, to the most sacred of music. According to Rousset: ‘to the intuition of an unstable and moving world, of a multiple and inconstant life, hesitating between being and seeming, fond of disguise and of theatrical representation, there correspond, on the expressive and structural level a rhetoric of metaphor and trompe l'oeil, a poetics of surprise and variousness, and a style of metamorphosis,’ of dynamic spread and dispersion in unity, an action constantly beginning over and never completed, a perpetual transmutation which is central to the work: the baroque. The music I describe is the sound twisting through time and space of humans speaking to God: a trace of Truth. Close your eyes like I did last night and see sounds leap in a variegated stream of convoluting arcs always upward, renewing again, stretching, sucking the breath out of your chest: reaching for you soul.

Hear a short version of Monteverdi’s Lamento Della Ninfa here


Anonymous Anonymous said...

My thoughts exactly. (the last sentence in the middle paragraph)

2:22 PM  

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