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The Quietus Essay

We Are All Religious Now: Holy Music In A Secular World
Rev Rachel Mann , April 15th, 2014 06:16

Ahead of the Quietus writers' list of favourite religious and spiritual records, published later this week, Rev. Rachel Mann explores the many roles that holy music continues to play in an increasingly secular society, and explains why it remains an important and affecting force

If there's one aspect of life vicars know a lot about, it's death. While many people dread death, funerals and the posthumous wishes of the recently deceased, vicars often find fulfillment in their ministry amongst the grieving and the dead. In an age when the professionally religious seem to be neither use nor ornament, vicars find a place where we can still richly serve people.

With The Quietus this week publishing a list of its writers' favourite religious and spiritual records, funeral talk may strike the casual reader as a curious way in. But I reckon the changing nature of funerals and death rites is one of the key guides to the shifting relationships between music, religion and faith. Indeed, despite many claiming that we live in the most secular age in history, never has the relationship between taste, the religious and music been more deliciously poised. While plenty of unthinking young clever-clogs try to 'out-secular' each other and act as handmaids for the New Lord Dawkins, music has never been more significant as a location for those practices we classically label 'religious'.

This is where funerals come in. Funeral music choices matter because, in short, our rites and practices around death have become focal points for the newly dead's ultimate personal jukebox. As funerals become more personal, individualistic and celebratory - marks of post-modern consumerism perhaps - what gets played during a service becomes just as, if not more, important than the readings (Biblical or otherwise). The music that's chosen, which is not usually religious in a traditional sense, takes on a religious hue: in this context the music is not, for example, about entertainment, but an attempt to sum up a person's life and give the living something to ponder. It aims to invite a congregation to consider life, death and all that jazz. People often want music that goes beyond just what the deceased 'liked', into the realm of capturing their significance for the world.

Here secular meets sacred, and what might be seen as 'the profane' or 'the worldly' – a rock or pop song – is recast by the context of death into a vehicle for attempts to capture the value of a life. Ok, many might sneer at the banality and obviousness of many funeral music choices, but only a git would doubt their sincerity. Queen's 'You're My Best Friend' might be sentimental balls, but in a world where many people just don't know quite what they believe about death, life and the beyond, I can understand why someone might try to deploy it in a quasi-religious way. So often these choices resolves themselves into a vision of Hell, where a desiccated, repeatedly resurrected Frank Sinatra is forced forever to croon 'My Way'. However, sometimes the bringing together of religious language ("You are dust and to dust you shall return"), sublime church music and rock & roll produces moments that can touch the most cynical souls. I've been reduced to a blubbering wreck in funerals by the careful juxtaposition of Biblical poetry, the 'Adagio' from Schubert's Quintet In C and lo-fi Americana.

My point is this: we live in an age which is understandably troubled by the notion of 'the religious' – the very term is a cypher for small-minded, socially regressive and culturally limited – yet music remains a fundamental means of shaking us apart in fear and trembling and wonder. I may be religious in the traditional sense, but my own conception of religious music includes Sunn O))), Ulver, Julianna Barwick and Slayer as much as Pergolesi or Bach. The most bracing and terrifying secular music knows the functions of the religious – to create wonder, awe and worship – as much as the overtly holy. Back in the 19th century Matthew Arnold famously suggested that poetry would take over the functions of religion; one suspects he was wrong, but perhaps music has.

The 'religious music' choices of The Quietus' writers are no mere 'Ooh, that would be kind of suitable for when I'm dead' tunes. Yet one of the threads which unites sex, religion and music in their most primal forms is the desire for nihilation of the self. Music, sex and religion sublimate death in a controlled way, and can thereby be deeply erotic and ecstatic. The power of sex is its capacity, in ecstasy, to wash away our sense of self. Religion – especially in its ecstatic forms, but more broadly as it connects with spirituality – has equally sought the loss of self in union with God. And music? Music has always been closely tied to religion, sex and death. Because we are bodies we know the power of rhythm, melody and harmony – especially in the company of others – to achieve ecstatic, communal states. To give a very simple example, when James Brown – that most sexually louche artist – launches into 'The Old Landmark', we are invited into a truly absurd, transgressive, but ecstatic version of the song. It takes the physical power at the heart of ecstatic religious music and plays its out for all it is worth. It is the analogue of the hope at the heart of ecstatic ancient rites like those dedicated to Dionysus: an integration of music, wine and ritual aimed at liberation from the confines of the self.

If traditions like Christianity have often deployed music to more contemplative ends – consider the sheer aching beauty of Allegri's 'Miserere' – there is still no end of passion in the purest sense. For this is 'passion' in the sense of 'being handed over' – into the hands of a beloved, or a persecutor, or God. Religious music in this sense makes the listener aware of the gap between the individual and her community and the eternal, loss-less God. Yet it is also music of invitation. It beckons to the listener. It invites her to long for that completeness that is only found in transcendence – the completeness that comes through losing oneself in the embrace of the 'loss-less' one. In the likes of modern minimalist and classical writers like Arvo Pärt or Steve Reich, I hear that longing.

Almost no one in the post-modern cultures of Europe and North America, even among the obviously religious, believes in Heaven or Hell anymore. Those concepts have become icons or markers of the Liminal, of the edges of dreams and fears. Perhaps the very notion of 'the religious' can be treated in the same way: as a means for signalling dimensions in music which push us beyond the kind of emotional and intellectual responses typically legitimated by neoliberal, consumerist culture. The 'religious' in music gestures towards the sublime, the transcendent and the terrific or terrifying. The religious is not about feeling nice or good or pleasant. It is not about having a good time or having a soundtrack for the best days of our lives. It is not nostalgia. It is about the extraordinary and the simple and the Other.

Perhaps another way of looking at the 'religious' in music is in terms of suffering. Nietzsche suggests that one way of reading religion is as a response to suffering. For example, the Greek Pantheon of Gods was a way of accounting for the sheer damn shittiness and capriciousness of the world. Religion, in this model, is an attempt to account for suffering and make sense of it. One of the transformative and genius strategies of Christianity - even if you hate Christianity - is to insert God himself into the world as a means of redeeming suffering. God becomes the powerless one, the slave, who redeems suffering by bringing suffering into the very nature of God.

This may not be to modern tastes, but it is not cheap and, as Nietzsche himself acknowledged, has the power to generate the most sublime and most terrifying art. It redeems suffering in the midst of an unjust world. And there are at least two strands to this – the 'high' art of a Bach and the liberative power of the 'roots' music on which much modern rock & roll is based. Part of the abiding power of a Bessie Jones is her capacity to inscribe loss and pain in a song, and re-present it in a way which speaks into other people's stories. Part of the appeal of roots reggae, at its religious best, is how it speaks out about injustice and suffering, and longs for justice within a new and better day.

Certainly the music which comes out of the western classical tradition, like that of Arvo Pärt, can feel less immediate and more cerebral. Yet, if it is in some senses a mediated tradition, it is one that, at its best and most striking, is grounded in the human longing for beauty, justice and the transcendent. In the same way that one doesn't need to be a Christian in order to be moved or shocked or inspired by the story of Jesus as the innocent victim of human power, religious music retains an undiminished capacity to expose us to the puzzling nature of human beings and the universe. Equally, in a world of rampant individualism, the 'ecstatic' power of religious music embodies our deepest longing for connection and the loss of the self.

The French feminist theorist Helène Cixous once said “I am spacious singing flesh: onto which is grafted no one knows which I - which masculine or feminine, more or less human but above all living, because changing I.” I am not always a terribly conventional Christian or religious person. I don't think anyone needs to be in order to be shattered by 'religious' music. All one needs to be is what we all are at our best: 'spacious singing flesh'. This is flesh that is born, lives and is destined to return to dust, yet in the midst of ever evolving identities, 'sings' the desire for ecstasy, transcendence and justice. I hope we can all say 'Amen' to that.

The Quietus staff and writers' list of favourite religious and spiritual records will be published on the site later this week