September 21st 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Federal Government should abolish Renewable Energy Certificates

ENERGY BP annual Review shows consumption, production up

CANBERRA OBSERVED NSW Labor caught in Panda's paws doing 'whatever it takes'

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM Religious discrimination bill: A litany of questions

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Boris' brinkmanship shakes up Britain, EU

WATER POLICY Angry farmers protest over Murray-Darling Basin Plan ... again

TECHNOLOGY Are we the dumbest devices in the room?

HISTORY AND POLITICS Lord Acton, nationalism and multiculturalism, Part 2

LITERATURE D.H. Lawrence: The Modernist in exile

MUSIC Dialectical transcendence

CINEMA The Farewell: Elegant and bittersweet

BOOK REVIEW Owning up to market imperfections

BOOK REVIEW Heroism and faith under tyranny

BOOK REVIEW The love that comes after love is gone


EDITORIAL Gladys Liu controversy ignores reality of China's interference

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Dialectical transcendence

by David James

News Weekly, September 21, 2019

When it comes to identifying what makes for great music, there are two features that are most prominent. One is refinement: having an unusually fine-grained understanding of the subtleties of melody, or rhythm. The other is reach: having the ability to go places that have not been explored before.

John Coltrane

Refinement tends to be the less obvious quality, to have a more unconscious effect. Reach is more evident, and is often what musicians strive for most. Few achieve it convincingly, however, because, as it is inclined to extremes, there needs to be a balancing force if it is not to degenerate into ugliness.

The best example of reach in jazz is the work of tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. From his album A Love Supreme onwards he developed what he described as his “sheets of sound”: blistering sequences of arpeggios and poly-modal scales that are about as far from simple melody as it is possible to get.

There was a balancing force, however. For one thing, the swing and rhythmic force of his playing was hypnotic, and in some respects evolved quite slowly – the underlying tempo is not quick. And he also played some passages, or pieces, that were simply melodic and featured long notes, exhibiting the plaintiveness of his sound.

The melodies of After the Rain and Naima, for example, are based on long notes that are in tension with delicious moving harmonies underneath. They exhibit a dialectic that tends to apply with reach: in order to go to places not yet explored, it is usually necessary to have some of the music in places that are entirely familiar, not just to create a contrast, but to achieve an aesthetic balance. If you are to have some of the excesses of Dionysus, you must also have some of the balance of Apollo.

Reach is a quality that singers from the jazz and popular traditions aspire to have, although they rarely convince for long. An exception was Aretha Franklin, who was able at times to explore a semi-religious reach on the edges of what is vocally possible. But again there was a counterbalancing force: her unusually sparse phrasing.

Many of the 19th-century Romantic classical composers aspired to achieve reach, often explicitly associating it with ideas of “transcendence”: a part theological, part philosophical (from Kant) and part aesthetic idea that great music lies beyond words and thoughts.

That was surely what Wagner was trying to do with his operas – to have Tristan and Isolde’s love transcend mere earthly passion yet demonstrate it in a pure, musical form. Too often, though, it became mere excess, expressions of emotion that were mere acting rather than true feeling.

Which leads us to the composer whose reach was the greatest, and yet was in some ways the least likely to possess such a quality: J.S. Bach. At first glance, he stayed within conventions, not breaking them. His music was based on Baroque rules of counterpoint and harmony, and sometimes resembles a mathematical extension of such rules.

Yet no musician has ever had such reach. He took harmonic development to places that no one has bettered, even though the well-tempered tuning that made such explorations possible had only been invented in his lifetime.

Bach’s counterpoint, especially in the massive textures of the masterpieces, Mass in B Minor and St Matthew Passion, was denser, and created vaster sonic textures, than anything since.

Mozart’s counterpoint was elegant and often sublime; Beethoven’s was the vehicle for his powerful rhythms and great melodies. But they never reached the places that Bach took it.

Later, the Romantics largely abandoned counterpoint, preferring instead tonally ambiguous harmonies held together by skilful voice movement. Had they stayed with the technique, they might have got closer to the transcendence to which they aspired.

Then there is the sacral element in Bach, reaching into the manner in which God lies beyond His own creation. It was, again, based on a dialectic. Because he had an almost god-like ability to take music wherever he wanted it to go, Bach was able to hint, through his own musical facsimiles of creation, at what is beyond the created. It was only a facsimile – all art necessarily is – but it remains the most divinely inspired music to which Western civilisation has given birth.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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