A ‘new spiritual music’?

Today I was forwarded a link to an article by Ivan Hewett which has just appeared in the British Daily Telegraph previewing this weekend’s BBC Symphony Orchestra ‘Total Immersion’ event celebrating the prolific output of Jonathan Harvey, held up by Hewett (quite rightly) as one of the most substantial composers of recent decades writing music with overtly spiritual themes, drawn both from Abrahamic and Eastern religious traditions.

Hewett for example writes of the way that Harvey’s Towards a Pure Land managed to dissolve his own ‘atheist’s scepticism’ by means of his ‘brilliant way of symbolising an existence beyond this one’, evoking the way that, even after the end of Harvey’s score, a ‘constant, mysterious chord’ seems somehow to linger which suggests ‘the “harmonious silence of heaven” (here Hewett is quoting Messiaen, one of Harvey’s main influences). He finds himself equally captivated by Harvey’s Tranquil Abiding – for which I fully share the article’s enthusiasm -, in which ‘we hear a colossal yet gentle back-and-forth movement between two radiantly consonant chords, which picture a universe breathing in a way analogous to ourselves’.

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So far so good. Jonathan Harvey is indeed a supremely imaginative and wide-ranging composer of the first order whose work compels admiration for its immense technical accomplishment, stylistic variety and conceptual scope (one recent piece which I very much intend to acquaint myself being his large-scale Weltethos to texts of the Swiss Catholic theologian and ethicist Hans Küng, whom I encountered in 2009 at the Global Humanitarian Forum in Geneva, behind which Prof. Küng is a driving force).

However, the article also seems to have provoked something of a storm on Facebook among several of my compositional friends and colleagues from the US to Estonia (who are demonstrating a laudable sense of collegiality in their reactions), as it begins with a forthright and unmitigated attack on what Hewett perceives as the ‘noxious blend of nostalgia and narcosis’ that passes for contemporary ‘spirituality’ in music:

‘What does “spiritual” music sound like? Walk into any big record store, or turn on Classic FM, and you’ll find a fascinating variety of answers. It can sound like the surging, soaring choral harmonies of Eric Whitacre, the American composer who is literally the pin-up boy for new spiritual music (he used to be a male model). It can hail from the native English choral tradition, in such older figures as John Rutter or younger ones such as Gabriel Jackson. It can sound like those innumerable “Music for Healing” CDs (which you can buy in a job lot with some nice pyramidal “healing crystals”), or the atavistic drones and chants of John Tavener.

Much of this music makes my heart sink. For one thing, it tries to raise us up by looking back. In its desperate efforts to be timeless, it simply sounds old-fashioned.’

Hewett does make a valid point in asserting that all good music (whether Cole Porter, Tallis or Haydn) is in a sense ‘spiritual’ in that it defies the mechanical ticking of the clock, aligns our being with its dancing motion, and gives us a delicious sense of being freed from tedious rationality.’ His intuition is that it is the inherent characteristics of music as a sounding phenomenon, rather than the presence of an overtly sacred text, which is the primary source of its spirituality – an approach with which I can certainly sympathize and which is not incompatible with much of what I have been suggesting on this blog in recent months. What is highly problematic, however, is the article’s caricatural and hugely generalized notion of a supposed ‘new spiritual music’, a category to which Eric Whitacre, John Rutter(?!), Gabriel Jackson and John Tavener all purportedly belong despite the enormous stylistic differences between them.

There are perhaps two grains of truth here – i) the epithet ‘new spiritual music’ may be an artificial construct, but the phenomenon it is attempting to describe is real. There is definitely a growing constituency of listeners who are reacting against much of late Western modernity’s attempt to belittle, if not simply eradicate, all notions of a spiritual dimension to human beings (especially in an increasingly technological society) and ii) this audience has inevitably been targeted (and arguably manipulated) over the last 20 years or so by marketing strategists intending to cash in on the success of works such as Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Where the article’s diatribe is misplaced and grossly unfair, however, is in laying the blame for ‘nostalgia and narcosis’ with the composers of this music rather than certain distribution channels primarily interested in an enticing commercial opportunity and prepared to smooth out many of the most interesting features of the works of figures such as Górecki for the sake of supposed palatability with a mass Western audience in mind.

For example, it should be patently obvious to anyone familiar with the trajectory of his career that John Tavener’s work cannot be reduced to simple nostalgia, an invocation of Byzantium in a ‘desperate effort to be timeless’. To call such music ‘old-fashioned’ is to fail completely to understand its creative retrieval of the ancient as a post-modern critique of certain pathologies of Western modernity. This retrieval is at the heart of what Eastern Orthodox theology calls the ‘neo-patristic synthesis’ of ‘going forward with the Fathers’ (to quote George Florovsky, the most eminent contemporary exponent of this line of thought being John Zizioulas) or what is called ressourcement in Catholicism. To conceive of music iconically is not merely a question of what Hewett refers to as ‘atavistic drones and chants’ but to re-conceptualize basic ideas about musical aesthetics by embracing a contemplative, receptive mode of engaging with music which has profound spiritual implications.

As for Gabriel Jackson, his output may be somewhat conservative for some tastes, but his sensitive and extremely well-crafted choral music has attracted considerable attention from groups such as Donald Nally’s The Crossing who are equally comfortable with pieces such as James Dillon’s Nine Rivers and can hardly be accused either of nostalgic sentimentality or a dependency on musical opiates. To say that bracketing it with John Rutter is tendentious is to put it mildly.

To assess the output of such composers according to the same criteria as one might apply to Harvey or Messiaen is surely a mistake, in that it fails to recognize that the compositional means employed are so different as to make comparison well-nigh impossible. It has always seemed to me to be a far sounder strategy for music critics to evaluate works according to their degree of success in meeting their own objectives, which of course requires that those objectives first be understood before judgement is passed. Yes, there is and will always be superficial, badly-constructed and frankly opportunistic music around, and new sacred composition is no exception. And yes, there is something particularly distasteful about the instrumentalization of ‘spirituality’ in order to shift product. But the ‘new spiritual music’ as portrayed in the article is definitely a straw man.

Above all, the approach of attempting to play off Jonathan Harvey against the ‘noxious’ spiritual smorgasbord which the article’s author deplores strikes me as ill-advised. This is not a zero-sum game. It is perfectly possible to appreciate a wide variety of forms of musical evocations of the sacred, to be a fan of Messiaen’s Messe de la Pentecôte and a Silvestrov Litany, Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge and Eriks Esenvalds’ A drop in the ocean, Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron and John Tavener’s The Tyger. So let us by all means celebrate the remarkable achievement of Jonathan Harvey, but without thinking that his reputation is served by negative references to others who may be striving to express the same sense of transcendence by other means. Can we not, to quote Olivier Messiaen, see them as parts of ‘the same reality, seen from different angles’?

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