Rhythms of the Spirit?

Two weeks ago I had the great privilege of spending several days as a guest artist at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in connection with the official launch of Soli Deo Gloria‘s Psalms Project. This was a time not only of intensive music-making, about which you will hopefully be able to read more in due course on our website, but also of some wonderful public and private conversation with others who are wrestling with some of the same questions as myself concerning the rôle of the arts in today’s Church.

A central musical issue in our discussions was the question of the rhythmic dimension of music and its potential theological significance. This surfaced naturally given that I had travelled to Michigan in order to present my setting of Psalm 96 written in honour of Elsbeth Shannon and her work with the ‘African Hymnody Project’ in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. My work in writing and preparing to speak about the piece led me to reflect on the particular gift of Africa to the worship life of Global Christianity (which of course is huge, especially if one takes into account the fact that the whole explosion of drum-based popular music over the last fifty years would be more or less unimaginable in isolation from its African roots). Listening to the legendary Missa Luba created by Congolese musicians in collaboration with Belgian priest Guido Haazen in the 1950s, watching video footage sent to me by Elsbeth Shannon of worship from the town of Kananga, or hearing the African choir within my own congregation here in Paris, I was unfailingly struck by the dynamic, sensory nature of African worship in which rhythm is absolutely primordial.

Can the same be said about the Western classical tradition? Readers of these pages will already be aware that I have been arguing that contemporary sacred music is indeed extremely vibrant, and that my tastes incline towards the deep expressions of Christian spirituality emerging in the late twentieth century from Eastern Europe (Arvo Pärt, Henryk Gorecki, Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Silvestrov…). This musical ‘faith stream’ communicate a powerful sense of the transcendent that often takes the form of a rapt, ecstatic stillness. This music certainly possesses a remarkable spiritual energy.  But pulsing rhythmic life is not its primary focus. This is by no means a criticism, as it is perhaps unrealistic to expect music to be all things to all people, but I find myself racking my brains in search of modern examples from within European Christian art-music that reflect the same rhythmic vitality as I observe in the musics of many other cultures from the exuberant wedding celebrations of the North African Maghreb that I regularly observe outside the local mairie here in Paris to the virtuoso feats of Indian tabla masters or the slit-log drummers of the Pacific Cook Islands. Indeed, it seems to me that European art-music is historically and geographically exceptional in having seen emancipation from regular pulsation (one which curiously negates the glories of its own rhythmic tradition such as Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, called by Wagner the ‘Apotheosis of the Dance’) as a mark of musical progress.

It would of course be grossly inaccurate to assert that no modern Western classical composers have been interested in the possibilities latent in the energy of driving pulsation, but it is striking that in the cases of many of the most prominent exceptions, the catalyst to the re-discovery of pulse has been some kind of investigation of non-Western musical idioms. Obvious examples here are Bela Bartok’s exploration of the indigenous musical cultures of Southeastern Europe, Stravinsky’s ‘Russian’ period or the remarkable and unique personal synthesis of Hebrew, African and American elements in the music of Steve Reich. The implicit conclusion to be drawn from the felt need some of the greatest musicians of the last hundred years to find fresh stimuli for their compositional language is that they found rhythmic resources lacking in an increasingly a-corporeal Western tradition. This tendency towards disembodiment finds itself mirrored in Western classical music’s progressive obsession with musical notation as the locus of all meaning, downplaying music’s sensory impact; I can myself recall hearing the view emanating from the high priests of theory at Cambridge University that ‘the ‘real musician’ doesn’t play an instrument at all, but  just reads the score’.

The apparent comeback of fast, rhythmic composition in recent decades after a wholesale demolition of regular pulse in European modernism in the years following World War II might seem on the surface to be a reversal of this tendency, but I would argue that this is an ambiguous phenomenon which is not necessarily synonymous with a re-discovery of the physicality of rhythm. For composers such as John Adams or Louis Andriessen (both of whom I greatly admire on many counts), the primary reference for their rhythmic work no longer seems to be the human body and the natural world, but the mechanized, de-personalized environment of Western urban life which they reflect as much as critique.[1] Examples of this approach span stylistic differences – think of Harrison Birtwistle’s clocks (explored here by a fellow veteran of the Cambridge New Music scene, the redoutable Nicolas Hodges), Andriessen’s De Snelheid or John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine, whose very title arguably says as much as the score itself.

Steve Reich performing ‘Clapping Music’, 2006. Source: LPLT


One composer who displays a fascinating ambiguity towards rhythmic phenomena is Olivier Messiaen. On one level, it should be acknowledged that, by experimenting with methods of rhythmic organization from outside the post-1500 Western canon (albeit derived primarily from encyclopedias rather than first-hand experience), Messiaen produced some of the most striking innovations of the modern period, particularly in his works up until Turangalîla. There can be no contesting the physical energy of Dieu parmi nous from the organ cycle La Nativité (1936), the remarkable unison Danse de la fureur from the Quartet for the End of Time (1941) or the airborne fast passages of the Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine (1945). Yet in later years Messiaen’s concept of rhythm seems to have changed fundamentally – perhaps under pressure from the Young Turks of the European avant-garde, many of them his own pupils. Rhythmic work seems to be re-conceived principally in terms of written duration in abstraction from any felt pulsation; the clearest instance of this shift is perhaps Messiaen’s unpromisingly titled 64 Durées (’64 Durations’) from the Livre d’Orgue, a movement which systematically works through all multiples of a sixteenth-note from 1 to 64 over nine minutes or so. Although Messiaen proudly referred to the resulting theoretical construction as a ‘rhythmic victory’, the aural experience of 64 Durées is actually fundamentally a-rhythmic, in that the total absence of pulsation means that the ear has no sense of the basic unit from which the notated rhythms are generated. This is not to say the piece is devoid of beauty (Messiaen’s poetic instinct thankfully leads him to counterbalance the cerebral dimension of the music with the freedom birdsong), but it can only be considered a ‘rhythmic victory’ by radically re-defining what we mean by the term rhythm, effectively evacuating it of its perceptual reference-point.[2]

This is deeply ironic given Messiaen’s underlying ontology of music as ultimately derived from the properties of sound in the natural world, as exemplified by birdsong and the harmonic series. Why he did not extend his reflections to include an ontology of pulse (surely the corporeal and natural phenomenon par excellence) has always been a mystery to me and leaves the impression of a logical inconsistency in his otherwise extremely insightful and wide-ranging philosophy of music. I vividly remember a conversation with one of his last and most talented pupils, the composer and ethnomusicologist Jean-Louis Florentz (1947-2004), who flatly stated that in this respect his beloved maître was simply wrong.

My thesis is that the retreat of Western music from bodily rhythm is symptomatic of a more general aversion of Western intellectual culture to the body which has been spectucularly unmasked by trans-cultural encounters of all kinds, both in terms of the new dialogical possibilities created by global travel and the huge influx of people from the Global South into the cultural centres of the West. Given the extent to which Western intellectual history has been shaped by Christian theology, it is logical that this should be intimately connected with a long heritage of theological mind-body dualism which is the ultimate reason why Western liturgical music has often tended to place a ‘timeless’, ethereal or ‘interior’ spirituality in opposition to musical temporality. Do not misunderstand me here: of course the deliberate meditative slowness ‘spiritual minimalism’ of Arvo Pärt and others has a powerful rationale to the extent that it is a reaction against the empty desire for speed associated with modern de-humanizing technology (i.e. a concept of rhythm rooted in machinery or militarism of any stripe). That is not however to be confused with the dubious but widespread idea that rhythm in the positive, corporeal sense, as an integral part of the God-given properties of natural sound, has nothing in common with genuine spirituality.

St Augustine provides the paradigmatic instance of such thinking  in the Confessions (X.6.8.)

‘But what do I love when I love you ? Not the beauty of any body, or the rhythm of time in its movement ; nor the radiance of light, so dear to our eyes ; not the sweet melodies in the world of manifold sounds […] it is none of these things that I love when I love my God. And yet when I love my God I do indeed love a light and a sound and a perfume and a food and an embrace – a light and sound and perfume and food and embrace in my inward self. There my soul is flooded with a radiance which no space can contain ; there a music sounds which time never bears away.’


Bob Marley, 1980 (photo: Eddie Mallin)

In his seminal work of pneumatology entitled The Spirit of Life, which significantly concludes with a quotation from Bob Marley’s ‘One Love’, Jürgen Moltmann quotes this passage from Augustine but offers his own corrective to a spirituality focused so heavily on interiority :

‘When I love God I love the beauty of bodies, the rhythm of movements, the shining of eyes, the embraces, the feelings, the scents, the sounds of all this protean creation. When I love you, my God, I want to embrace it all, for I love you with all my senses in the creation of your love. In all the things that encounter me, you are waiting for me.’

The worship music of Christian Africa would appear to side with Moltmann in demonstrating that the separation of the spiritual and the sensory is a false dichotomy. There is surely a spiritual dimension to rhythmic vitality in music just as much as there in the liberation from the straightjacket of artificially-imposed metrical patterns that we find expressed in rhapsodic Gregorian chant, Messiaen’s birdsong transcription or the unearthly, cosmic sound of Silvestrov’s Liturgical Chants. This is surely obvious to any music-lover who has experienced the irresistible energy of black soul/gospel music from Mahalia Jackson to Donnie McClurkin and Fred Hammond, or the ecstatic praise of Steve Reich’s Tehillim. Or for that matter anyone who has taken the trouble to learn a fast organ fugue of J.S. Bach, a feat that is impossible without integrating head, heart and … all four limbs.


[1] Here it is Steve Reich who arguably displays the most penetrating and prescient appreciation of the double-edged character of technology in works such as Three Tales.

[2] For all his fighting talk of ‘rhythmic victory’, there is some tantalizing evidence in Messiaen’s own comments on the works of his most aggressively avant-garde period that he had pangs of conscience at having changed his views on rhythm. In the Traité, Messiaen calls the provocatively complex ‘irrational’ rhythmic patterns (which he in fact disliked) of the Messe de la Pentecôte a ‘sacrifice to the idols of the twentieth century’.

[2] Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life : a Universal Affirmation (Minneapolis : Fortress, 2001), 98.

This finds itself mirrored in Western classical music’s progressive obsession with musical notation as the locus of all meaning, downplaying music’s sensory impact; I can myself recall hearing the view emanating from the high priests of theory at Cambridge University that the ‘real musician’ doesn’t play an instrument at all, but  just reads the score. Curiously, although fast, rhythmic music seems on the surface to have made something of a comeback in recent decades in the works of composers such as John Adams or Louis Andriessen (both of whom I greatly admire on many counts), the primary reference for their rhythmic work no longer seems to be the human body and the natural world, but the mechanized, de-personalized environment of Western urban life. Think of Harrison Birtwistle’s clocks (explored here by a fellow veteran of the Cambridge New Music scene, the redoutable Nicolas Hodges), Andriessen’s De Snelheid or John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine, whose very title says it all…
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