Some Occasional Thoughts on the Holy Minimalists and the Light of Tabor

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Icon of the Transfiguration, by the hand of the great 15th century iconographer of Moscow, Theophanes the Greek.

Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone.

As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them,”Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

These words from St. Matthew were the Gospel reading at Mass last night. Yesterday was the second weekend of Lent, and the Church directs our eyes, alongside those of the holy apostles, to the face of Our Lord in His Transfiguration. And in the Eastern Churches, today is St. Gregory Palamas Sunday. Palamas is most famous for his articulation of the Essence-Energies distinction as part of a broader polemic against the Byzantine Scholastic attacks on Hesychasm carried out by Barlaam of Seminara. One of Palamas’ key Scriptural examples of God’s energies is the “uncreated light” of Christ’s glory in the Transfiguration. St. Gregory is celebrated to this day by the Eastern Orthodox and by Eastern Catholics on their Lenten calendars; yet in the post-Scholastic West, he still holds no place on the calendar. I must wonder whether or not the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent were chosen at the revision of the Lectionary in part as an ecumenical gesture to the Orthodox, though my knowledge of 20th century liturgical innovations is shallow at best. Regardless, those who, to adapt a phrase of Pope St. John Paul II, “breathe with both lungs” of the Church can recognize the Providential coincidence of these two celebrations.

The Light of Tabor is, in a Palamite reading, the eternal Glory of God made manifest in, with, and through Christ’s created humanity. The Transfiguration is therefore an archetypal moment for every mysticnot just the Hesychasts whom St. Gregory was defending. In view of all this, while I listened to the priest reading the Gospel this evening, a song came to mind: “My Heart’s in the Highlands,” by Arvo Pärt. The lyrics are taken from a poem by Robert Burns. Here’s the chorus:

My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart’s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.

A few weeks ago, when I first listened to the song, it immediately struck me as a potent metaphor for the contemplative life. Is not the contemplative’s heart set in the “high lands” of the spirit, like St. John of the Cross’s Mount Carmel? And has the Divine not been associated with wild deer throughout history, from the panting hart of Psalm 42 to the vision of St. Hubert to the White Stag of Narnia? The Apostles, like the mystics, like the chanting voice in Pärt’s song, are “led…up a high mountain by themselves.” There, they find Christ’s true glory, the energy of His divinity totally interpenetrating all they can perceive of him. The created rises into the divine, and the uncreated bends towards the creaturely; the two meet in the transfigured Christ. The dual presence of the heavenly Elijah and the Sheol-bound Moses demonstrates the moment of radiant communion between God and His creation, manifested perfectly in Christ, the Word made flesh.

Pärt’s song describes the experience of the mystic, not because Burns’ words actually refer to contemplation, but because of the way he takes up the verse and stretches it against an agonizingly poignant organ composition. He sets secular words to sacred music. Thus he accomplishes in miniature the assumption of the creaturely by the divine that comes before our vision in the Transfiguration. Art at its finest is called to participate in this lesser Transfiguration, and Pärt is a consummate master of what Tolkien might call “sub-creation.”

But Pärt is not alone in this; one of his colleagues, John Tavener, arguably a finer and more mystically-oriented composer, also transfigured profane writings into sacred pieces of music. I can think of no better example of this than his brief and delightful motet, “The Lamb.” Tavener took the lyrics from William Blake’s poem of the same name. In full, it reads:

Little lamb, who made thee
 Dost thou know who made thee,
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
 Little lamb, who made thee?
 Dost thou know who made thee?

 Little lamb, I’ll tell thee;
 Little lamb, I’ll tell thee:
He is callèd by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild,
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb,
We are callèd by His name.
 Little lamb, God bless thee!
 Little lamb, God bless thee!

Here too, we might glimpse the transfigured Lamb of God between the lines of Blake’s verse. The lamb’s “clothing of delight/Softest clothing, woolly, bright” seems to echo the robe rendered “white as light” on Mt. Tabor. Blake speaks of “the vales” when Scripture instead would bring us up to the peaks. And the question that ends the first verse is fundamentally the same as that which must have run through the minds of the bewildered apostles; who is this man? The answer, of course, comes from the voice in the cloud: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” And Tavener’s eerily beautiful choral setting imbues the lyrics with a dimension hitherto unimagined. Many of his works remind one of candlelight on ritual gold, or the smell of incense flying forth with the rhythm of thurible bells, or the echo that thins out asymptotically under the glittering mosaic of a high dome. “The Lamb” is all of this, presented compactly. It stands as one of his finest works, and one of his most spiritually rich.

I recently wrote about the Holy Minimalists in a piece on the music of The Young Pope. They’ve been on my mind. But I didn’t connect their artistic project to the Transfiguration until tonight. We Christians are to become “little Christs,” imitating Jesus in all things by adoption and deification. Sometimes, that takes the form of contemplation. The apostles model that path for us in their behavior on Mt. Tabor. But at other times, and in other ways, we are called to live the life of Christ more directly. The Transfiguration provides a mystical glimpse of what happensand indeed, what will happenwhen the uncreated Light of God assumes, permeates, and glorifies the creation. Of course, the energies of God are not found in the artifices of men; but artists can practice their own, creaturely form of transfiguration. The pieces of music I have discussed are shot through with an awareness of the divine presence, and the words that began as profane poetry become something altogether different, something sacred, something nearly liturgical.

At the beginning of Lent, T.S. Eliot tells us to “Redeem/The time.” On this, the Second Sunday of the penitential season, Christ reveals in Himself how we might do soa transfiguration that Arvo Pärt and John Tavener have achieved, in some small way, through their own creative work.

 

Notes on the Music of “The Young Pope”

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The Prime Minister of Greenland gives the Pope a record of Nada’s “Senza un Perche.” And then dances to it. Alone. While the credits role.

In a previous post, I discussed the visual aesthetic of Paolo Sorrentino’s new drama, The Young Pope. Today, I’d like to examine another facet of the show’s artistry: the soundtrack. The Young Pope‘s music has occasioned a few admiring or even acerbic comments, but little serious inquiry.

Although I am by no means an expert in musical theory, I know enough to realize that few shows have ever had quite the musical mix that The Young Pope has. And since I have a Spotify account, I have the luxury of perusing the entire official Young Pope playlist. A few types of music emerge. I would like to examine these in turn.

The Original Score

Is relatively unremarkable. Ramin Djawadi has given us better music in HBO’s other great recent dramas, Game of Thrones and Westworld. But Lele Marchitelli’s “Cardinals” has a delightful airiness, the sense of a certain holy whimsy about it. It’s happy music.

Techno

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“Levo,” by Recondite

The show is very European, and incorporates a great degree of the continent’s signal, stereotypical genre.

Michael Baumann over at The Ringer offers a great analysis of one of the songs, “Levo,” by Recondite, a techno artist from Germany. Baumann notes that Sorrentino “folds ‘Levo’ into Lenny Belardo’s character the way Prokofiev folded the French horn into the Wolf’s.” The song is deployed at moments that reveal critical new plot developments that are really the Pope at his purest.

Sorrentino also deploys Techno at moments that seem particularly surreal; the twitching scratch of a beat in Labradford’s “By Chris Johnston, Craig Markva, Jamie Evans” opens the series with Lenny’s nightmare Urbi et Orbi. The piece lends the slow-mo cinematography and almost sculptural quality of the characters the air of a dance. It balances the stillness and motion of the moment, in keeping with Sorrentino’s neomodernist aesthetic.

And yes, I know it’s technically post-rock. But it sounds close enough to Techno to work in this category.

Pop Singles

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This song will get stuck in your head.

Lenny Belardo is an American, and the show is set in the near future. It only makes sense that Sorrentino adds pop to the aural texture of several of his key moments.

A few songs come to mind: Nada’s “Senza un Perché,” Lotte Kerstner’s cover of “Halo,” by Beyoncé, LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It,” Flume’s “Never Be Like You,” and that cover of “All Along the Watchtower” that marks the opening sequence. Of these, two are particularly worth closer analysis: the covers of “Halo” and “All Along the Watchtower.”

By choosing Kerstner’s slow, soulful cover over Beyoncé‘s original version, Sorrentino draws our attention to the singularly religious inflection of the lyrics:

Everywhere I’m looking now
I’m surrounded by your embrace
Baby, I can see your halo
You know you’re my saving grace
You’re everything I need and more
It’s written all over your face
Baby, I can feel your halo
Pray it won’t fade away

The song frames love as a religious experience, an encounter with a divine other. We can read here the central (albeit de-eroticized) element of Lenny’s spiritual vision; the way he ties together the love of his parents and his belief in God. And the luminescent lyrics work perfectly for the glowing landscape and figures that we see in Africa and Colorado. The lyrics perfectly match the Pope’s solitary walk through the sleeping journalists on the plane:

Hit me like a ray of sun
Burning through my darkest night
You’re the only one that I want
Think I’m addicted to your light
I swore I’d never fall again
But this don’t even feel like falling
Gravity can’t forget
To pull me back to the ground again
Feels like I’ve been awakened
Every rule I had you break it
The risk that I’m taking
I’m never gonna shut you out

The language here practically describes the scene. We are on the plane at night, and Lenny, the only one whom the journalists want to see, has arrived to watch them sleep. Their flight is quite literally defying gravity. As the Pope breaks his rule about meeting journalists, he finds one awake. It’s a risk, but it rewards him with a moment of admiring affirmation.

And we don’t need to consciously apprehend the meaning of the words as we watch the scene to feel their impact. Aesthetically, the song’s dreamy tremor fits well with the soft-focus visuals that Sorrentino uses in that scene and throughout the series.

Secondly, Sorrentino opens most of the episodes with a sequence of the Pope passing nine paintings and a sculpture of Pope St. John Paul II. An instrumental cover of “All Along the Watchtower” plays in most iterations of the sequence. The song’s connotations of cultural revolution represent Lenny’s monumental program of change and remind us of his parents’ own ideological leanings. The irony of the song pairs well with the irony of the visuals, as Lenny’s shooting star disrupts the order of the paintings.

Holy Minimalism

For me, the most striking addition to the repertoire is the heavy use of the Holy Minimalists. Arvo Pärt, Henryk Górecki, and John Tavener, some of the most respected members of the movement, all appear in the playlist.

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The Holy Minimalists: (l-r) Arvo Part, John Tavener, Henryck Gorecki

The Holy Minimalists were a group of composers active from the 1970’s whose work sought to reinvigorate more traditional sacred forms. Often by working in conversation with Eastern Christian formsPärt, like the late Tavener, is a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, while Górecki was a Polish Catholicthe Holy Minimalists sought to capture a sense of the eternal in their inventive and dissonant work. Listening to their music, one has the sense of peering through the cracks of our broken human existence to glimpse yawning chasms of infinite glory.

No fewer than 12 works by the Holy Minimalists are featured in the show’s official playlist. I’d like to focus on two pieces, deployed in juxtaposition at one of the most climactic moments in the entire series.

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“Knock, knock.”

As Pius XIII enters the Sistine Chapel to address his assembled cardinals, he is borne aloft by attendants on a Sedia Gestatoria. John Tavener’s haunting dirge for Princess Diana, “Song for Athene,” seems to float in along with him. But just as the climax is about to resolve into a peaceful, triumphant harmony (the part of the song that evokes the Resurrection and the Life eternal), Lenny opens his eyesand the music stops instantly. It’s a chilling moment. In that second, before he even starts to speak, we understand the gist of what is about to follow.

The music only begins again with a single, unnerving note on the piano, when the Pope directs their attention to a mysterious door that has appeared at the other end of the chapel. He continues his dark (and, if we’re being honest, rather magnificent) speech for nearly another eight minutes. The lone note is joined by others, and becomes Arvo Pärt‘s “Lamentabile – ” before concluding with the humiliation of Cardinal Voiello.

I think Sorrentino relies so heavily on the Holy Minimalists in his aural aesthetic to suggest another element of Lenny’s spiritual vision. Throughout the series, Lenny is able to deliver profound wisdom through quiet, concise statements. Simplicity is the garment of his unique insights. And the Holy Minimalists sought to re-present the sacred tradition of Christian music for modernity; their project is consonant with Lenny’s.

It’s also worth pointing out that, in addition to the Holy Minimalists, Sorrentino deploys a few works by regular, ordinary, profane minimalist John Adams (those of you who played Civ IV growing up will recognize his “Shaker Loops: III. Loops and Verses“).

In Sum

I know I’m missing a few things, since the playlist is long, and I’m not a musicologist. But that very fact points to the multiple layers of meaning that Paolo Sorrentino has inscribed in his rich soundtrack. I encourage everyone to give the playlist a serious and attentive listen-through, possibly several. There are gems in there. And if you can go through it (or the show) without getting “Senza un Perché” stuck in your head, you’re doing it wrong.