Classical music and atheists: Art and context

It’s the holiday season again. And concert halls are bursting with various classical music concerts. Seasonal favourites include things like Händel’s Messiah and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. But have you ever stopped to consider how these pieces might sound to non-Christian listeners? If you haven’t, here’s a little tongue-in-cheek demonstration.

Of course, there is a lot of classical music with themes that are not religious. So the claim about “most classical” here might be a slight exaggeration. And then there are pieces that are so beautiful that one is just swept away by the music no matter what the lyrics are. But there are lot of average pieces that are not so lucky.

Usually for me it is important to understand the context of an art piece in order to really enjoy it. And if the context happens to be something completely nonsensical like “our beard-dude is great, all praise him” which is then repeated for the next 60 minutes, it can get quite boring, or ridiculous, and usually both. And it’s not that I would not understand it. I was brought up in the Christian religion and culture. I just let go of the religion when as I was old enough to make my own decisions.

Of course, there is lot of other culture too which is silly or does not make much sense. But I think the effect is worse in Western classical music as it is often taken so very seriously. The whole dressing up and being all pompous combined with the nonsensical content reaches a completely new level of ridiculousness.

It is sad to think how much energy, effort, and talent has been spent on this inane stuff in the last 500 years. Hopefully our culture is finally moving on from that. Perhaps we can now spend the next half a millennium writing really beautiful pieces about the Easter Bunny.

Happy midwinter everyone! Our journey towards light has begun again.

Trending catastrophe music

Are certain songs trending because people connect them mentally to recent news? If we look at the music statistics can we find a kind of soundtrack to the current world events?

Please note, this post was designed to be enjoyed with a soundtrack. So before reading further, I suggest pressing play on the video below. There’s nothing to watch, just leave it playing in the background. (All the links on this page should automatically open to new windows without interrupting the song. Edit: Now the video finally works, sorry for the confusion.)

My personal soundtrack for this week has included a lot of Kraftwerk and especially their classic song Radioaktivität (in the clip above). At some point I realised that it was nicely thematically tied to the ongoing Fukushima incident. I wondered if other people had made the same connection. So I went on to Last.fm to see how much it had been played recently.

And yes, I was right. The news do seem to affect people’s listening behaviour. As you can see from the graph below, the song has clearly been played more after the Fukushima incident begun. I guess it’s suitably bleak and melancholic. Also the later version of the song is openly critical about nuclear power, listing infamous radiation incidents and saying “stop radioactivity”.

The graph displays how many times the song has been played by last.fm users.

This made me wonder if people had been inspired to play other songs dealing with radioactivity and nuclear power. I made a couple of searches on Last.fm.

Kate Bush’s Breathing is about nuclear war. Some interpret it to be about a baby still in the womb when the bombs go off. Or it could be about the fact that you can’t stop breathing the air which carries radiation. It might also have something to do with bombs sucking all the oxygen from the air. In any case, one has to love lines such as “After the blast / Chips of Plutonium / Are twinkling in every lung”. As we can see from the small spike in the plays, the song has been fairly more popular with the gloomy news.

Are you a fan of the game Fallout? Then you’ll love The Radiation Song by The Aquabats. A fairly recent song and not that well known. There’s a small spike but if you look at the history it’s really not significant.

Uranium Rock by Warren Smith. A more classic rock song. Thematically it’s connected to mining uranium. It’s more of an upbeat worker song and not really about radioactivity. Perhaps this and its optimism make it unsuitable for catastrophes as its popularity seems to have declined after the tsunami.

Radioactive by Gene Simmons doesn’t really have anything do to with nuclear radiation. Similarly to Uranium Rock, its popularity seems to to have suffered from the Fukushima. Might people feel that now is not the time to tie radioactivity to coarse hard rock innuendos?

It would be interesting to build a website or a software which would track the latest news and then find semantically connected songs from services like Last.fm. It could find out automatically which songs are trending because of the current news. This would give us a kind of shared soundtrack to the news.

PS. If you got exited about songs related to radiation, nuclear war etc. (who wouldn’t!?), there’s plenty of them out there. Especially from the 1980s. Depending on your tastes you could try these examples:

  • Bruce Springsteen: Roulette
    – Thematically closest to Fukushima as it’s about the Three Mile Island accident.
  • Nena: 99 Luftballons
    – Balloons trigger nuclear war by accident.
  • Data: Fallout and Armageddon
    – Especially the first one is a catchy tune to remember when “it’s a fallout / better run for shelter / put yourself in a fallout suit”.
  • Duran Duran: Playing With Uranium
    – Sounds like a love song, but apparently it’s about David Hahn’s homemade nuclear reactor.
  • Tears For Fears: Famous Last Words
    – A love song for when you’re cuddling together in the ruins, puking your intestines dying from radiation poisoning. (A bit weird combination of emotions even for me.)
  • Love Like Blood: Lethal Radiation
    – Critical song about nuclear power, “we still got no solutions / while the nuclear waste still grows”.
  • Ozzy Osbourne: Thank God for the Bomb and Killer of Giants
    – Ozzy is critically grateful to the bomb as it just might keep people from starting a world war. And Killer of Giants is about the madness of the whole device.
  • Megadeth: Rust in Peace… Polaris
    – On nuclear war using ballistic Polaris missiles, “Bomb shelters filled to the brim / Survival such a silly whim”.

 

Lévi-Straussian sleeplessness

It’s 3 am and I can’t sleep. I’ve had a stressful week and now I’ve spent almost the whole evening preparing for tomorrow’s lecture. And now I’m having a sleepless night. My mind is buzzing with all the stuff I’ve been reading.

I’m doing a lecture series on Design / Communication theory for designers. The course is one of my favourites. It’s my own concoction combining all kinds of theories which might benefit designers in their theoretical thinking. Communication theory, semiotics, media culture, memetics, etc. I run it once a year, and every time I try to improve it. So while I already have good slides and materials, I’m always rewriting the course and adding content etc. I know, being a perfectionist sucks.

This time I’m including more details from structuralist theories, for example from Claude Lévi-Strauss. I might not personally agree with his theories, but he is such an influential name in culture studies & semiotics that a course like this cannot ignore him. And while I might find his stuff somewhat outdated, it might be just the thing for some student. And structuralism is one of those things that design students should know about, even if they cannot really use the theories anymore. At least they won’t be surprised if someone conjures up these famous names at a cocktail party or elsewhere.

I’ve been thinking all evening how ridiculous Lévi-Strauss’ idea is about how everything could be divided into binary opposition. Apparently, he based the idea on research of the brain’s neural functions of his time. I feel that one of his biggest mistakes was not to check on how the later findings completely changed the way we see the brain. Unlike he thought, the brain is not a computer. It does not operate in binary opposition.

Even if you just think about it with common sense, it feels very very unlikely that your thinking and culture would be always constrained into binary pairs. Yes, our world is often divided into binary oppositions: us/them, good/bad. But it doesn’t take a genius to realise how much more there is to our culture. And the concept of “anomalous” categories is not enough to explain it. Quite the opposite. There are so many occasions where one wonders how easy it is for us humans to see, feel and adjust to gradual shifts. It feels impossible to fit our culture into black-and-white settings where all the gray areas would be “anomalous”, taboo or special in some other way.

Anyway, I wasn’t planning on ranting about his theories right now. I intended to do that only later. But what I’ve been chuckling about now for the last hour is that in this sleepless state Lévi-Strauss’ binary opposition makes quite a lot of sense.

So according to the theory the world can be divided into a binary pair of sleep / being awake. And what makes sleeplessness so troublesome is not that you feel miserable, both physically and mentally. And not that realise how tired you will be tomorrow, which makes you even more stressed. And not that you can already see how this one bad night will ruin several days of your week when you try to recover from it. But the real cause is that you are now being in the “anomalous” category. Somewhere in-between. 😀

So how do you solve the situation? You need a ritual to cross the boundary between the binary pairs. Some well known rituals are marriage, graduations etc. My ritual right now is listening to soft relaxing music. Here’s my playlist called “binary sleeplessness”:

  • Is That What Everybody Wants, Cliff Martinez, Solaris
  • First Sleep, Cliff Martinez, Solaris
  • Can I Sit Next to You, Cliff Martinez, Solaris
  • Will She Come Back, Cliff Martinez, Solaris
  • Death Shall Have No Dominion, Cliff Martinez, Solaris
  • Maybe You’re My Puppet, Cliff Martinez, Solaris
  • Don’t Blow It, Cliff Martinez, Solaris
  • Wear Your Seat Belt, Cliff Martinez, Solaris
  • We Don’t Have to Think Like That Anymore, Cliff Martinez, Solaris
  • Noah Visits, James Newton Howard, The Village
  • What Are You Asking Me?, James Newton Howard, The Village
  • Will You Help Me?, James Newton Howard, The Village
  • I Cannot See His Color, James Newton Howard, The Village
  • Rituals, James Newton Howard, The Village
  • The Gravel Road, James Newton Howard, The Village
  • Race To Resting Rock, James Newton Howard, The Village
  • The Vote, James Newton Howard, The Village
  • The Coral Atoll, Hans Zimmer, The Thin Red Line
  • The Lagoon, Hans Zimmer, The Thin Red Line
  • Journey To The Line, Hans Zimmer, The Thin Red Line
  • Light, Hans Zimmer, The Thin Red Line
  • Beam, Hans Zimmer, The Thin Red Line
  • Stone In My Heart, Hans Zimmer, The Thin Red Line
  • The Village, Hans Zimmer, The Thin Red Line
  • Silence, Hans Zimmer, The Thin Red Line
  • Spiegel Im Spiegel, Arvo Pärt, Fratres – Tabula Rasa – Spiegel im Spiegel – Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten
  • Tabula Rasa: Ludus, Arvo Pärt, Fratres – Tabula Rasa – Spiegel im Spiegel – Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten
  • Tabula Rasa: Silentium, Arvo Pärt, Fratres – Tabula Rasa – Spiegel im Spiegel – Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten

And sometimes cultures create mediators to move between harsh oppositions. Such as werewolves (man – animal), vampires and ghosts (living – dead), Jesus (man – god). So I’m using red wine as a mediator to take me to the other side. 😛