Rite - III

The core challenge to "music as rite" has been expressed as the creation or definition of a single shared act. That this act must be distributed in some way, whether in space or time or both, is accepted as a necessity of the modern world. Indeed, it is both a necessity and a new possibility. An increased ability to communicate over distance has institutionalized distance; because distance seems less, relative to a single instance, it becomes more common overall. There must be a way to bridge this distance. Religion once created common symbolism, and a symbolic act which united believers, but religion is losing its relevance today, or rather is being replaced by other forms which eschew communion. Remaining rites are not shared broadly; they can be almost as divisive as they are uniting. Indeed, the idea that any rite can promote sharing alone may be hopelessly outmoded & naïve, as the very fact of a communal act implies a boundary and a body of people not included. This was once a matter of simple geography, and so the people excluded were not confronted with that exclusion. We can try, however, to distinguish lack of inclusion from exclusion, just as medieval people may have participated in catholic rites on behalf of those who were absent. We will call for no excommunication.

Can such a unified act exist without hostility? With some care, or creativity, perhaps so. More to the point, can music exist without hostility? Music seems much more politically charged these days. The medieval era had no shortage of political songs, but it also had no shortage of works into which we would be hard-pressed to read political motives. The most common exceptions evidently arose from simple competition: "My town is better than yours," expressed not in self-conscious stylistic divergence, but in greater technical skill & sweetness of expression. While the most mainstream, commercial popular music is often similarly disinclined to political statement today, beyond these most "vanilla" artists, the popular music landscape is increasingly fractured along political lines. Various "alternative" styles are about making particular statements, and in sum, this is what most people seek to hear. Classical music has virtually become a political statement, simply as an act of preference. "Preference" is almost a dirty word, if not accompanied by a political cause. At this point, any sort of pure expression, or creative forgetting, will either be seen as hopelessly naïve, or put to the political purposes of others, or both. Make no mistake, the competitive nature of royal courts, and consequent competitiveness for musical talent, involved a political component in the medieval era. However, it was a component which did not reflect back upon musical expression itself, as that expression — that adornment — was assessed via other means.

We have lost the ability to make such unencumbered assessments, or rather charged aesthetic criteria themselves with political meaning. Loud out-of-tune banging on instruments demands attention, receives attention, based upon what it represents. This change is due partly to the world stage, and the different musical criteria which have existed in other cultures — not that any traditional culture has valued lack of technical ability the way that we do today, but because we have been at a loss to understand their values. That leads back to ideas on relevance, on the function of music, and I am proposing ritual as a function of music. Indeed, historically, music usually had a specific function. Religious music was divided into very detailed functions, and those divisions served to frame the ritual. The "function" of most music today seems to be as an undifferentiated (and constant) background to social activity. The most clearly functional music we have now is commercial jingles & television theme songs. In some ways, this is our musical ritual, as these items have little to do with artistic quality or even political statements (beyond the grand sweep of consumerism). They are specific, functional pieces intended to identify particular products — in fact, intended to resonate in the mind. Adding movie scores to the mix, we can easily observe the formulaic quality: They give us formulas for feeling, the very trappings and constraint of ritual! This is a disturbing observation for one simple reason: We want to feel that our ritual music could be — for want of a better word — good. Let us linger here for a moment... it is not only musicians... few people take much of a liking to commercial jingles & television theme songs.

If these "ritualistic" items leave us unsatisfied, it is largely because they are so very clearly only what they are. They point to nothing outside themselves, other than their explicit reference. Yet, ironically, they support recognition, even crave it. They are the trappings of postmodern consumerism, and the seemingly apolitical "pop" songs discussed earlier are their direct extensions. Here, though, we don't want that kind of ritual. That is the real issue, not that it isn't present, but that it isn't satisfying. It is more than unsatisfying, however, it is powerfully self-perpetuating & an instrument of control. It controls first of all by mental saturation, and lack of silence. Unlike visual images, from which one can simply look away, sounds are far more difficult to escape. Music is very powerful in this way, and for this purpose; the sirens' song is all around us. I do not want this vacuous, overbearing ritual. In fact, I do not want any sort of aesthetic sameness, even if we could have some sort of classical mainstream again, but rather a charged richness of closely intermingling expression.

To charge it, though, it cannot be constant, and constancy remains the biggest barrier to transcendence. This demand immediately introduces a boundary, and it needs to be a rigid boundary to support resonance. If we consider the isolation of individual "compartments" and their respective boundaries, we can conceive of a sort of over-arching kaleidoscope with brightly colored segments flashing on & off. If this whole "idea" (and I cannot even call it an idea) is carried off with some sense of symmetry, it could begin to form a single overarching act. The idea that such a "thing" could yield so much more than itself is easily motivated by scientific explorations of resonance & energized states. Music seems amenable to such a scenario, if not in the creation of it, in the description of it. We already have such terms as "the music of the spheres." In fact, this whole "idea" might be transpiring anyway, with this secondary image of description as mere misdirection. There may be a ritual behind the ritual of commercialism, needing our active involvement in order to become invested in its rite. We may even broach the idea of rite as paradigm. Might not the others be subsumed in it? Being entertained is a kind of ritual; making money, evolving, creating, etc. are likewise.

Such a thought leaves musical composition as an act of ritual involvement, rather than an act of creation.

Administrivia: Next column in three weeks.

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Todd M. McComb