Bleak Times Call for Bleak Measures

(10 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Crossposted at http://StephenJGallagher.blogs…

An obscure internet radio station  led me to American symphonic composer Gloria Coates, creator of some of the  most relentlessly bleak music I’ve ever experienced.  On the page for one of her symphonies I saw a “listmania” item on the left side of the page. This is a user-produced  feature of  Amazon, sort of “If you like this, you’re gonna love the items on my list!” It was the title of  the list that got the hook in me and kept gnawing away at me for  the next several months.


This glib and self-consciously ironic collection of words seemed to carry the freight of more meaning than their creator could have ever intended. Nietzsche claimed  that we need chaos in  our soul to give birth to a dancing star. I believe we need bleakness in our soul to give birth to a dancing god.  Most people don’t need the experience of bleakness;  most people couldn’t stand the raw, uncut experience  of bleakness, and do everything they can to keep it at bay — through booze and drugs,  through frenetic social activity, and of course through that most popular defense mechanism, regular visits to  their local houses of worship.

I recently listened to Ingram Marshall’s “Three Penitential Visions,”  as bleak in its way as anything Coates ever composed. But after playing Marshall’s piece through a couple of times, I realized  something: Coates’ bleak vision only got it half right. She captures the bleakness like no one else can, but she never understands that there’s something beyond the bleakness. She stopped at the half way point; she turned  coward at the critical moment. Ingram takes his bleak vision and turns it right on  its head, transforming it into a joyous “Yes-saying” in the epilogue,  Hidden Voice. This epilogue, the last three  minutes  of which can almost make me believe in god or gods, rises triumphantly as both the  confirmation  and refutation of the empty bleakness.

There are very few things more bleak than the unplugged acoustic torch songs of Tracey Thorne; her despair and yearning and hopeless need give us a vision so bleak that we are only left with one genuinely philosophical question: slice lengthwise, or across the wrist? But then  her husband, Ben Watt, had one  brilliant,  unforgettable idea: take her hurt, bleeding songs and lay a demanding techno dance beat on top  of it. Her songs of doomed love and tainted hurting became something that got into your head and your body, and told  you that sure, the world and life and love and just being  human was unimaginably bleak, but the backbeat wove it into something that not only told you what was on the other side of bleakness, it also told you what the cure was.

Which brings me to my point, finally. We find uplift and something  resembling meaning not in despair, but on the other side of despair. I believe it’s  no coincidence that this important philosophical issue  keeps finding its way back to music, because I believe we humans have some important unfinished business  with music. Because, you see, we’ve forgotten what music is for. Music is what we get instead of God. Maybe it’s  our “consolation prize,” in every sense of both those words.

On the other side of despair, beyond the bleak times and the bleak places inside us, waits a god  who dances. A god promised by Nietzsche and so many others, and some may call him Dionysus and others may know him as Dancing Shiva and to some  he is Pan and in the big continental sprawl of America he goes by the name of Kokopelli, but they are all the same and they all continue to hand down just one simple commandment:

   Shut up and dance.


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    • Edger on November 22, 2008 at 3:37 pm

  1. …though there is an apollonian path through, as well…there’s a short story by John Gardner — “John Napper Sailing Through The Universe” — which I thought was a damn near perfect invocation of that idea.  Sometimes one can pass through despair into the dance, and sometimes…one puts bloody hands in the thing and pulls, hard, until one is out in the air again.  For me, anyway.

    • kj on November 23, 2008 at 4:25 am
    • kj on November 23, 2008 at 4:35 am

    this particularly bleak winter, nothing was beautiful, not even coldly stark and sharp, all just “ugh” and ugly and mud gray wire sloping potholed interrupted vistas; sapping, negative energy sinks.  everywhere, heavy.

    and i’m Pict/Irish, i have the gene to find beauty in sadness.  there wasn’t any.

    that’s the year i started practicing the Navajo “Beauty Way” in earnest, and that indeed carried its own god that not only showed me where to dance, but how to dance and in reality was the dance.

    simply lovely essay, Crusty.  more please.   πŸ™‚

    • kj on November 23, 2008 at 4:58 am

    was one of the bleakest stories ever told, and yet, there was dancing.  πŸ˜‰

  2. How about novels by Roberto Arlt, one of the pantheon of Argentinian lit? Mad Toy or especially Seven Madmen. Or The Obscene Bird of Night by Jose Donoso. You want bleak, these are bleak.

  3. it’s the universe coming through, loud and clear. I’m a painter and sometimes I am jealous of my husband who is a songwriter/musician. Of all human art forms music seems the most direct and pure connection to ?. Quasars, says Shayhar is what it’s made of. Beats and measure coming through the channel of a human souls emotions it plays us. Dance is when your body responds and is my favorite human athletic activity.

    As a kid it woke my soul up, the Church deadened and brought despair instead of light it was so tied up to the concept of sin and punishment, such a carnal male God. The Dervish’s dance seems closer to worship then the Mass. Even my cat’s like music, Fats Domino, being a big fav. The God inside everything dances. ‘Send more Chuck Berry’…. Carl Sagan knew what all beings need….


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