Saturday, November 22, 2008

An obscure internet radio station led me to American symphonic composer Gloria Coates, creator of some of the most relentlessly bleak music I've ever experienced. On the page for one of her symphonies I saw a "listmania" item on the left side of the page. This is a user-produced feature of Amazon, sort of "If you like this, you're gonna love the items on my list!" It was the title of the list that got the hook in me and kept gnawing away at me for the next several months.


This glib and self-consciously ironic collection of words seemed to carry the freight of more meaning than their creator could have ever intended. Nietzsche claimed that we need chaos in our soul to give birth to a dancing star. I believe we need bleakness in our soul to give birth to a dancing god. Most people don't need the experience of bleakness; most people couldn't stand the raw, uncut experience of bleakness, and do everything they can to keep it at bay -- through booze and drugs, through frenetic social activity, and of course through that most popular defense mechanism, regular visits to their local houses of worship.

I recently listened to Ingram Marshall's "Three Penitential Visions," as bleak in its way as anything Coates ever composed. But after playing Marshall's piece through a couple of times, I realized something: Coates' bleak vision only got it half right. She captures the bleakness like no one else can, but she never understands that there's something beyond the bleakness. She stopped at the half way point; she turned coward at the critical moment. Ingram takes his bleak vision and turns it right on its head, transforming it into a joyous "Yes-saying" in the epilogue, Hidden Voice. This epilogue, the last three minutes of which can almost make me believe in god or gods, rises triumphantly as both the confirmation and refutation of the empty bleakness.

There are very few things more bleak than the unplugged acoustic torch songs of Tracey Thorne; her despair and yearning and hopeless need give us a vision so bleak that we are only left with one genuinely philosophical question: slice lengthwise, or across the wrist? But then her husband, Ben Watt, had one brilliant, unforgettable idea: take her hurt, bleeding songs and lay a demanding techno dance beat on top of it. Her songs of doomed love and tainted hurting became something that got into your head and your body, and told you that sure, the world and life and love and just being human was unimaginably bleak, but the backbeat wove it into something that not only told you what was on the other side of bleakness, it also told you what the cure was.

Which brings me to my point, finally. We find uplift and something resembling meaning not in despair, but on the other side of despair. I believe it's no coincidence that this important philosophical issue keeps finding its way back to music, because I believe we humans have some important unfinished business with music. Because, you see, we've forgotten what music is for. Music is what we get instead of God. Maybe it's our "consolation prize," in every sense of both those words.

On the other side of despair, beyond the bleak times and the bleak places inside us, waits a god who dances. A god promised by Nietzsche and so many others, and some may call him Dionysus and others may know him as Dancing Shiva and to some he is Pan and in the big continental sprawl of America he goes by the name of Kokopelli, but they are all the same and they all continue to hand down just one simple commandment:

Shut up and dance.

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