Counterpoint goes electric
One composer who I hope will be a focal point of this blog during 2011 is the eternally youthful Steve Reich, who celebrates his 75th birthday this year. Over the last couple of days I’ve been revisiting some of his music, not least in search of a counterweight to the Eastern European focus of much of my blogging over the last few months. Not that I apologize for the latter; I rather regard Steve Reich (and what is sometimes referred to as the ‘New Jewish Music’ in general, of which Osvaldo Golijov, Aaron Kernis and David Lang are notable examples) as complementary to figures such as Pärt or Gorecki when discussing contemporary music with a spiritual focus.
One piece that particularly intrigues me is Reich’s Electric Counterpoint (1987) for guitar and tape, not merely for its intrinsic artistic merit (in its characteristic combination of pulsating energy and subtle harmonic shifts it echoes Tehillim and The Desert Music, albeit on a more modest scale), but also on account of Reich’s collaboration with Electric Counterpoint‘s first performer and a long-time hero of mine, guitarist Pat Metheny.
I can recall discovering Reich’s and Metheny’s music at around the same time as a teenager in the mid-1980s. I immediately recognized that something linked the two musicians when I heard Reich’s seminal Music for Eighteen Musicians and the Pat Metheny Group release Offramp, including a track entitled ‘Eighteen’ which I always interpreted as being a respectful nod in Reich’s direction. Perhaps the correlation ought not to be surprising, given that Reich was himself a jazz drummer and counted musicians such as John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy among his formative influences. In any case, twenty-five years later, Metheny again openly referenced Reich ‘with very special thanks’ in the notes to one of his most ambitious extended compositions, the hugely impressive album-length The Way Up (2005).
Despite the undeniable musical relationship between Reich and Metheny, it is not habitual to discuss the latter’s work within the framework of ‘classical’ contemporary music. Listening to pieces such as The Way Up or As Falls Wichita, so falls Wichita Falls, I not often find myself wondering whether the conceptual separation of ‘classical’ from ‘jazz’ is not all a huge mistake. Having followed a little of the current discussion over at the NPR blog involving David Lang and others on the subject of ‘How Do We Fix Classical Music’ , I guess I’m not the only one to be asking this question. Going along with it is the issue of how our view of contemporary classical music might be altered by taking account of musicians such as Metheny. Over the last few decades so much European contemporary music seems to have made it a point of honour to underline what is no longer possible (in terms of melodic construction, harmonic structure, large-scale form and the like). It comes as a shock to to hear a composer-improviser who is able to blend traditional formal articulation and rich tonal-modal harmony with sonic experimentation and a melodic idiom which is at times every bit as adventurous and sophisticated as that of, say, a Berio Sequenza. According to the prevailing canons of modernist theory you’re not supposed to be able to do this, yet if you listen to the first recordings of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays you will hear that theory exposed as ideology by twenty-somethings from the American Midwest who clearly haven’t read the same rulebooks as the professors.
In a similar way the textbook history of electro-acoustic music begins to look very different once you allow ‘popular’ use of electronics to enter the discussion. Academic textbook accounts may focus on sinewave manipulation at the Westdeutscher Rundfunk in Cologne or investigations at IRCAM in Paris, but in reality the truly significant sonic legacy of electronic music is far more likely to lie in Jimi Hendrix’s feedback improvisation on The Star-Spangled Banner or the extraordinary central ‘underwater’ section of Pink Floyd’s Echoes than in the output of European research programmes. Here I reminded of a scene in the epic serialized film Heimat: The Second Generation by German director Edgar Reitz, when the (for the most unbelievably self-obsessed) hero Hermann Simon, a precocious 1960s avant-garde composer on the threshold of national recognition, admits in a moment of lucidity that the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are light years ahead of the supposed Young Turks of ‘highbrow’ electronic music.
For a composer working in the Western ‘classical’ tradition there is something deeply unsettling about these reflections. Could it be that the supposed difficulty of finding a coherent musical language is an illusory one caused by the straightjacket of a certain way of looking at music history, rather than a crisis genuinely related to the musical material itself? What are we to make of musicians such as Metheny who, unburdened by theories of the Death of Art, blithely make work which is so obviously far more vibrant and substantial than many of the generic modernist commissions still showcased as cutting-edge praxis by the contemporary music establishment?
Given their musical commonality, it would seem tempting to try to explore the idea of an overtly spiritual connection between Metheny and Reich; indeed, a glance at a few of the guitarist’s titles would at first sight indicative of a spiritual dimension to his output. First Circle (1984) featured a track entitled Praise, while Metheny provided a choral setting of Psalm 121 for the soundtrack to The Falcon and the Snowman; more recently instances include Inori – Prayer on Tokyo Day Trip (2008) as well as Spiritual with Charlie Haden (2006) and his accompaniment of vocalist Anna Maria Jopek singing traditional Polish prayer (Upojenie, 2002). One release where a certain neo-religious coloration is unmistakable is Metheny and Mays’ legendary duo album As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls (1980), not least because of the evocative ‘ambient’ use of church organ-like sounds in the twenty-minute title track. A fascinating podcast with the two musicians at www.patmetheny.com for example finds Mays discussing the piece September 15th (a moving homage to Bill Evans) as reaching ‘almost a spiritual place’, while Metheny relates how his solo on It’s for you (the nearest approximation to angelic flight in music as I for one can imagine) was subsequently set to words by a Gospel group. As Falls Wichita, so falls Wichita Falls (1980) concludes with the selection Estupenda Graça (‘Amazing Grace’ in Portuguese), a quasi-improvised postlude featuring the inimitable vocals of Nana Vasconcelos that intriguingly somehow came to resemble the hymn of the same name in an unplanned manner.
It is certainly true that Metheny is given to speaking about music in terms which are highly spiritually suggestive:
“Music reminds us of where we were before and where we are going after. It is a mysterious vapor that somehow slips in the cracks between this plane of existence and some other one. The people who are good musicians have the ability to conjure up more of that vapor than others. Everyone recognizes it when it’s there. It’s something universal that goes beyond language and beyond race, country, or nationality. It is unmistakable when that vapor is there, we recognize it as something we all have in common. More and more, I see that it is the same thing you find wherever there is love, intensity, energy or human potential. All those good things include this same mysterious vapor that is the fabric of music.”
“I have often thought of music as a kind of vapor that occupies that same frequency of human response as those other unquantifiables that we all seem to need—love and faith.”
This description of a ‘mysterious vapor’ ought to resonate with any musical performer who has engaged in anything more than surface reflection on the phenomenon of musical experience, but I would contend that it is particularly strongly connected to the art of improvisation. The question of why and from where certain ideas rather than others well up during the course of improvised music-making (especially when the music is moving too fast to be produced on the basis of rational calculation) naturally leads us into consideration of the mystery of the human person, the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious mind and the whole nature of what might be termed ‘inspiration’.
When it comes to organized religion, however, something rather unexpected and indeed troubling emerges from Metheny’s statements, especially when you consider that he has in some circles even been considered alongside Duke Ellington, Wynton Marsalis or Dave Brubeck as a composer of ‘religious jazz’. Turn to his website and you will discover that he appears to have thrown his lot in with the New Atheism, enthusiastically advocating books such as John Allen Paulos’s Irreligion: a Mathematician explains why the arguments for God don’t add up, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith or Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion as ‘must read’ material.
It occurs to me that this is a striking example of the way in which current embodiments of Western Christianity have unfortunately succeeded in alienating an artistic community which ought logically to be open to seeing a connection between artistic experience and authentic spirituality, whether Abrahamic or Oriental. To find Metheny turning instead to the hard-boiled materialism of Richard Dawkins is unfortunate, to say the least. I may be mistaken, but my intuition is that he and many others are reacting (quite justifiably) not against genuine faith and a belief in the transcendent, but against rigidly intolerant, dogmatic belief systems that have done religion a great disservice. Whereas the Church ought by all rights to have been able to establish a constructive dialogue with contemporary artists through the seeking of common elements of spiritual vision, the opposite seems to have happened. Metheny might be said to typify an all-too-frequently held position that is not so much ‘spiritual but not religious’ as ‘spiritual, therefore anti-religious’. This is a stance that should give those of us who claim to be people of faith much food for thought as to the equation in many quarters of religion with intolerance and an obsession with the private salvation of individuals belonging to a specific religious ‘tribe’. For Metheny as for many others, this tribalism rings false because of the lived experience of the universality – by implication transcendent – of music:
‘I don’t have specific spiritual beliefs other than that I know I believe in music itself and, to me, within that world alone is an infinite world of itself and that’s the world that I, kind of, choose to live in. You know, music is a constant source of fascination and mystery for mean its something that I always approach with a lot of respect and humility because I see belief in music as something that comes from a place outside of our regular consciousness. You know, when I read about religion and these people that are very religious, it seems in a lot of ways, more about ego to me. More about, like, people trying to make sure they get into Heaven, or something or that they’re cool when they die. There’s a lot of, like, well, we know this, but, you don’t know that, kind of thing. The thing about music that I like is that it is very inviting to everybody and it sort of, it really functions as a mirror for people and I think that religion as its best can do that, too. So, I think they’re very similar.’ 
Creative engagement with the New Atheism
Happily there are however signs in various sectors of the Church of a timely acknowledgement of the need for creative re-engagement with modern art (examples being Archbishop Rowan Williams’ thoughtful Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love, Benedict XVI’s meeting with contemporary artistic practitioners in 2009 or the Vatican decision to establish a pavillion at this year’s Venice Biennale). In the area of jazz, an innovative venture has been in progress in Berlin’s Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche, where saxophonist and composer Uwe Steinmetz has been drawing substantial audiences by bringing secular jazz musicians into dialogue with Christian reflection in the late-night concert series In Spirit (with guest performers including one of Metheny’s collaborators, the legendary bassist Steve Swallow).
I would like to think that this type of event can provide a forum for re-connecting with the Pat Methenys of this world whom encounters with judgmental, pathological forms of religion have driven into the hands of its cultured despisers. I nearly said ‘fashionable enemies’, to use words from the title of David Bentley Hart’s typically virtuosic, erudite and entertaining riposte to the New Atheism entitled Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009). But what if the scientific New Atheists are not seen as authentic Christianity’s enemies, but rather its unwitting friends? That is the provocative recent claim of UCC Minister Michael Dowd, host of a remarkable recent teleseries on the current state of dialogue between faith and science entitled The Advent of Evolutionary Christianity (interviewees including the likes of John Polkinghorne, Brian McLaren, Richard Rohr and Joan Chittister, whose National Catholic Reporter review you can find here). Dowd has even gone as far as to call writers such as Dawkins and Harris ‘God’s Prophets’ on the grounds that what they are doing is exposing pathological forms of ‘otherworldly religiosity’ that have nothing to do with real faith, and thereby unknowingly help to save religion from itself.
One of course may or may not agree with Dowd’s position, which has predictably attracted not only enthusiastic support – including the recommendations of six Nobel Laureates – but also trenchant criticism. Putting on my theologian’s hat for a moment (and here I am speaking purely for myself rather than on behalf of anyone else), I find it unnecessarily bashful towards personal language for God and overly Bultmannian in its severance of the existential aspect of faith from Divine action in history. This is not the place for me to argue the merits of any specific theological perspective, but my personal vote goes to those Christian and Jewish writers who have the nerve to affirm the over-arching Biblical narrative while being ruthlessly critical of the static metaphysics to which theology has so long been wedded and which can hardly stand in the face of modern science. Figures who come to mind here would be Jürgen Moltmann (and by extension Abraham Heschel’s notion of the ‘pathos of God’ on which he draws), Wolfhart Pannenberg, Archbishop Jozef Zycinski and John Haught, who is interviewed on The Advent of Evolutionary Christianity. But I am prepared to concede that Michael Dowd is on to something in his general approach towards dialogue, which is what interests me in the present context. While I am perhaps less inclined than he is to show intellectual hospitality to the New Atheism, I would nonetheless contend that Dowd, at least as a facilitator of thought-provoking discussion, is doing us all a service by advancing the debate in an interesting way that goes past conventional polemics between ‘believers’ and ‘unbelievers’ (Dowd’s wife and teaching partner, the science writer Connie Barlow, has described herself as an atheist). With events such as his teleseries we are returning to genuine conversation, within which there is room for respectful disagreement, rather than being locked in a slanging-match. This in itself is something to be welcomed, whatever one may think of Dowd’s own opinions.
The essence of Dowd’s thesis is one with which many of us would surely agree, regardless of where we may stand on the theological spectrum. For all their strident rhetoric, Dawkins and his fellow travellers are correct in assessing that religion at its worst has been a hugely damaging force; this however has little or nothing to do with religion at its best. It is the former which has driven away artists such as Pat Metheny, perhaps because we have missed the opportunity to offer them the latter. Which is not necessarily their problem.
 Interview with Lloyd Peterson in Music And The Creative Spirit (Scarecrow Press, 2006), reprinted in All About Jazz (November 2008). The first quote is taken from a 1997 guitar magazine interview which is frequently cited online but which I have not so far been able to trace to any specific publication.
 Interview for All About Jazz (June 2000), available at http://www.allaboutjazz.com/iviews/pmetheny.htm