In light of the passing of Angelo Badalamenti last week, I intended to write an article about Laura’s Theme from Twin Peaks and the reasons it works so well, those having to do with concepts of stasis, movement and repetition. Then, yesterday, I received the awful news that Wim Henderickx, my first composition teacher at the Conservatoire of Amsterdam, had unexpectedly passed away.

Wim was one of the most joyful characters of the composition department. When he wasn’t teaching, he was always walking around and talked to every student, whether they were his student or not. In many ways he formed the glue that held the department together. Sometimes he had an almost childlike innocence about him. He was a large figure, tall as he was, and very physical and quick in his movements. He spoke loudly, fast, and laughed a lot.

He taught me the basics of composition. To question yourself, and ask if you are happy with what you’re currently doing. And if you’re not, to do something else. He taught me to look at melodies when writing a chorale, and analyse your harmonies if you’re writing a fugue. His most used phrase was: “`What you need right now…” While he could be very critical, his general character when teaching can be summed up as encouraging. He encouraged you to work on your pieces, if they were imperfect, and keep working on them even if they were good. He himself liked to compose every day, he once told me he felt incomplete if he went a day without composing. One lesson had him playing just two chords, to show the beauty that could be found in simplicity. Those chords were:

(I later stole those).

I once went to a concert of one of his pieces. Entrance was either free or strictly reduced for his students. I saw him at the ticket office encouraging young people to tell the desk staff they were his students. Another time, while he usually visited Amsterdam for just one day a week, he stayed over in a hotel to attend a concert the next day and took the opportunity to have a beer with his students. We learned that he very much liked Tripel Karmeliet, and “as a Belgian, I know what’s good beer!”. Before I went to do my master’s in England, he told me that what I needed right now was to become good at orchestration, because that’s what they are good at, the Englishmen.

I spoke to him once more, when I was thinking to apply for a PhD at Docartes to research time in music. We talked about concepts of stasis, movement and repetition. He showed me sketches for his first symphony, “At the Edge of the World”. The fourth movement of that symphony is a perfect exploration of those concepts.

Wim will be missed. First and foremost by his family and friends of course, but also by his former students, of which I am one. His absence will leave a gaping hole in the composition departments of both conservatoires he taught at – Amsterdam and Antwerp.

Pictured: Wim on the back of the bike of Willem, his colleague in Amsterdam and also my teacher.

A Great Master? On the legacy of Beethoven

Out of the three composers most likely to appear in a random classical music magazine’s list of “greatest of all time” – Bach, Mozart and Beethoven – the latter is likely to be the most controversial. While he is constantly praised in almost all major publications as a great man, as a genius, and as an inventor who redefined classical music, there is a new generation who sees in Beethoven a symbol of all that is wrong in classical music culture: Its urge to cling to the past, to constantly worship the same historical figures – “dead white men”, as the saying goes – and in this way, perhaps unconsciously, perpetuate colonialist or sexist ideas. But how can a man both be praised as a revolutionary renewer of music and be denounced as a symbol of ageing institutions clinging to an archaic past? Where does this image come from, and who is the real Beethoven?

There are two statements often made about Beethoven that, in a way, kind of sound like the same statements said with a positive or negative tone. The first of those is that Beethoven “broke the rules”, “shattered all conventions” of classical music. The second is that his technique was just bad. In all honesty, I think both these statements are dubious at the very least. The ‘rules’ of music at any particular time have never been exactly defined. All composers at any point in history have both adhered to some conventions set by their predecessors and broken away from others. Moreover, Beethoven’s early works are actually very exemplary of the traditions of capital-c Classical harmony to the point of literally being used as examples in textbooks. Even the pieces from his ‘heroic’ period, growing larger in scale and more ambitious in their structure, still follow a typically Classical conception of form where the narrative of a movement is told by way of themes that change through a combination of harmonic and motivic development. And although he does seem to let go of these Classical models of form in his late works, he just as often falls back on even older models, such as the fugue or the theme and variations. Beethoven chose to use the rules in his own way, but to say he radically broke with convention is inadequate.

The second point, of Beethoven having bad technique, is interestingly enough not always made as a criticism of him (although it can be). Leonard Bernstein has made the same point in a video that has become somewhat famous, with the intention to praise Beethoven by saying that his greatness did not come from technical skill, but something seemingly superhuman, even divine: “It’s as if he had some private telephone wire to heaven”, Bernstein says. Beethoven, in Bernstein’s conception, seems to be so great that even having bad, or at least unremarkable technique only made him better. In a way, this reminds me of the urban legend that Einstein failed all his classes in high school. I don’t really believe Bernstein is being completely sincere, however. At one point he even blatantly lies: Discussing the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th, he says “The melodies go like this…” and then plays the accompaniment. “You see, it’s not a great melody”, he has the audacity to say, when this movement is one of Beethoven’s pieces most famous for its melody. But was Beethoven’s technique actually bad?

I will start my evaluation of Beethoven’s technique by admitting that there was one aspect of Beethoven’s music in which he was indefensibly bad, and that is his vocal writing. The reason that I can’t defend this aspect of his music is that the voice is unlike any other instrument in how it is tied to the body of a performer. Beethoven’s writing for instruments can be criticised by pointing out that many of his pieces are near impossible to play – a famous example is the Hammerklavier sonata, which was thought to be unplayable until Liszt did it. But most of his instrumental parts, rather than being literally unplayable, fall in the realm of technically doable, but exhausting and laborious for the musician. For an instrumental player, this can cause annoyance, frustration and exhaustion, but it will not hurt them. Singing however, is such a physically intensive act that a ridiculously demanding, non-idiomatic part can physically hurt a singer, causing them so much strain that it will do irreparable damage to their voice. This means that, in my opinion, a composer has an obligation to be gentle with their singers, more so than with instrumentalists, since the only thing that risks being damaged by too demanding instrumental parts is the relationship between the composer and performer. Beethoven did not do this and deserves criticism for it.

Beethoven’s instrumental writing is not so clearly bad, in my opinion. While it is true that his symphonies are often hard to balance, with very loud brass parts threatening to drown out the other voices, the simple fact is that if this is done well, the pieces often just sound very good. And while instrumentalists might be frustrated by his demanding parts, these parts have historically also greatly accelerated the development of the professional orchestra. Not to mention Beethoven’s crucial role in the emancipation of certain instruments – particularly the low strings, which in Mozart are often given little more than a standard basso continuo line, but in Beethoven frequently have the chance to shine with great melodies and recitativos, as in the seventh and ninth symphonies. And let’s not forget his iconic use of timpani in the second movement of the ninth, where instead of hammering away on the tonic and dominant, they are given the third of the chord and plenty of solo measures, and so become integral to the entire structure of the movement. This emancipation of the low instruments may also be related to Beethoven’s innovations in piano writing, being one of the first pianists to seriously train his left hand, resulting in LH-parts that go far beyond the typical repeated chords or Alberti bass of Mozart sonatas.

Another of Bernsteins criticisms is that Beethoven never wrote a great fugue. And certainly, Beethoven’s fugues are generally not as complex as Bach’s, and it can be kind of funny to see the ways in which he kind of ‘cheats’ to make things easier, either simply allowing himself to cross voices or making enormous leaps to avoid doing so, and cutting voices out at moments where writing full counterpoint would be too difficult. But Beethoven had a different conception of a fugue, and one that is not without interest, as he realised the transformative power it could have in music. See how the greatest climaxes in the fifth and ninth symphony are both prepared by a fugue. Or listen to the last movement of the 31st sonata, where it is exactly the fugue that transforms the movement, leading it into its exhilarating finale. To me, Beethoven’s use of fugues is symbolic of an enlightenment kind of ideal where the fugue represents reason which, when used to its maximum extent, can help us achieve a kind of spiritual transcendence. While Beethoven’s technique in writing fugues may have been imperfect, even mediocre, one cannot say that he did not understand the essence and potential of the fugue.

Finally, there is the complaint that Beethoven was bad at writing melodies. This is surely the weakest of the criticisms, as illustrated by the fact Bernstein had to play the accompaniment and pretend it was the melody to make this point. The fact that Beethoven did not always write great melodies can be explained by his near obsession with motivic development, which relies on constant repetition and variation of shorter fragments and so stands opposed to melody, which needs time and space to breathe. But when he wanted, he could write great melodies, which is illustrated by the fact that he did. Particular examples of Beethoven’s melodic skill are the A natural in the melody of the second movement of the Pathetique – a lesser melodist would surely have written an A flat – and the energising upbeat on the return of the first motive in the melody to Ode an die Freude, which a lesser melodist would not have thought of. Many other great melodies in Beethoven’s works are: That of the second movement of the seventh symphony, which Bernstein is pretending isn’t there, the Sanctus from the Missa Solemnis, the second movement of the fifth symphony, the Cavatina in the thirteenth string quartet, and I could keep going.

These past paragraphs may have read like a long-winded defence of Beethoven. But this is not purely my intention. When Bernstein says that there was no aspect in which Beethoven was ‘great’, and that there are many things he is supposedly bad at, he uses this to mythologise Beethoven’s inspiration by link to the divine. This ends up causing a worse form of worship by implication that Beethoven had some sort of holy gift other composers didn’t have. Meanwhile, a thorough examination of Beethoven’s skills and weaknesses is surely the best way to bring him down to earth, humanise him and allow both honest criticism, but also a genuine appreciation of him.

If neither of the two statements about Beethoven are true – he didn’t shatter the conventions of music, and he didn’t have terrible technique – then where do we find the source of his divisive legacy? One explanation may be his biography, which offers plenty of opportunities for each to cherrypick some story from. Beethoven suffered horrifying abuse from his alcoholic father in his childhood, entered into adult life a wounded, socially stilted man, and even music, his refuge, was ultimately taken away from him when he lost his hearing later in his life. It is easy to craft a narrative out of this of a tragic hero, someone who had to struggle against adversity, and persisted against all odds. But, perhaps caused by his abuse but not excused by it, he was also an angry, aggressive man, prone to temper tantrums and violence, also against women. It is only fair that any worship of Beethoven as a great man (notice the phrasing of great man, not just great composer) be critically examined and the problematic aspects of his character reconsidered.

But there is another aspect of Beethoven’s legacy that is critical to the way he is viewed to day, and that is the way he was written about in the years after his death. During the Romantic era, Beethoven was revered as a saviour of music in many essays, the most notable point of these being the argument that he transported music from the realm of the ‘beautiful’ into the realm of the ‘sublime’. Far from being content with merely causing ‘pleasure’ or ‘delight’ in the listener, his music was said to invoke awe, terror, and, eventually, revelation. Below a selection of quotes from ETA Hoffman’s article Beethoven’s Instrumental Music:

[On the fifth:] “How this marvellous composition carries the hearer irresistibly […] into the spirit kingdom of the infinite!”

“Surely the heart of every sensitive listener will be moved deeply and spiritually […] yes, even in the moment after it is finished, he will not be able to detach himself from that wonderful imaginary world where he has been held captive by this tonal expression of sorrow and joy”.

“I am unable to tear myself away from the marvellous variety and interweaving figures of [Beethoven’s] trios. The pure siren voices of [his] gaily varied and beautiful themes always tempt me on further and further”.

(emphasis mine)

The aspect I want to focus on, as highlighted by the emphasis, is the involuntary nature of the experience on the listeners part; they are moved against their will by Beethoven. Think of the power dynamic between the composer and the listener this suggests, and then think of the double meaning we invoke when we call any composer a master, and now we see the root of the divisive legacy of the composer. This perceived, mythologised version of Beethoven is associated with power in every aspect: Power over the singers and instrumentalists who perform his music, forcing them to push themselves to the limits of their physical ability. Power over conventions and technique, tossing both out of the window while still somehow managing to always write the exact right notes; he is so above everything that he does not need them. Power over the listener, imposing grand, intense experiences on them against their own will. Perhaps it is attractive for many to subject themselves to this imagined giant, to make a master out of him. For many others, it will be the reason to turn away from him, wary of the very idea of the ‘master’, and perhaps justifiably so, seeing how the will to power has had terrible consequences in history – wars, slavery, and colonialist exploitation being just a few.

But is this imagined person the real Beethoven? Are there no aspects of him or his music that we might be missing here? Of course there are. Beethoven’s music, far from invoking terror and revelation, is frequently light-hearted and humorous – not in the crass, “Leck mich im Arsch” way, but with a kind of delightful absurdism. Beethoven normalised the use of the scherzo as a middle movement, preferring it above the more serious minuet, and in these movements we can find many examples of his wit: How in the second movement of 16th string quartet he suddenly repeats the same bar over 50 times, or how in the scherzo of the Hammerklavier he inserts one bar of silence in the middle of a phrase, giving it a slightly awkward feel. That same scherzo also ends with a long section consisting only of the notes B and B flat, giving it a Musica Ricercata-like vibe.

And let’s not forget Beethoven’s soft side. While he has a reputation for huge, bombastic endings, many of his pieces actually end piano or pianissimo, like a candle being blown out. But more importantly, look at the most expressive pieces he has written. Most capital-C Classical pieces, even slow movements, are still driven by a rhythmical ostinato. Even if the harmony and melody portray the epitome of sadness or grief, the rhythm always keeps going. Mozart’s Introitus (or any other funeral march) is a perfect example of this. Beethoven himself has done it too; see the evergoing dactyl-spondae pattern in the slow movement of the Seventh. To me this is representative of a certain social convention in how a person is allowed to show their emotions; You can be sad, and show other people that you are sad, but you cannot let it affect your daily goings; the march has to go on. But now listen to the third movement of the Ninth. Hear how time seems to stop, just for a moment, and we can allow ourselves to be fully consumed by emotion, without thinking of anything else. I actually think Beethoven displays a great sensitivity, even vulnerability here, showing us the most honest, exposed version of his artistic self. This symphonic Adagio would be the blueprint for similar movements by composers such as Wagner, who did it less well in the Siegfried-Idyll, and Mahler, who did it better in his fifth and ninth symphonies.

But even in the pieces where Beethoven does take the listener on awe-evoking, terrifying journeys against their own will, should we necessarily problematise this as a glorification of real-world power, with its terrible historic consequences? Or can we imagine a different dynamic between composer and listener here, perhaps even a playful one? If social mores would allow me, I would like to draw a comparison between music and the act of BDSM, although I will admit I have not personally done the latter. Obviously listening to music is not an erotic experience for the typical listener, but it doesn’t have to be, that is not the point. In BDSM, while some kind of domination and subjugation is usually performed by the participants, their relationship is completely equal in reality. Both are able to stop the act at any minute (by using their safeword), and at that moment the other is obliged to respect their wishes. Someone performing domination in this cannot be selfish – otherwise it will be bad – and instead, they are required to empathise with their sub in order to maximise the pleasure of both. Likewise, a composer who wishes to astound their audience musically needs to be able to empathise with and respect them. A composer who does not respect their audience will write selfishly and produce bad music. And let’s not forget that the audience member is the one who chooses to go to the concert or put on the cd, and always has the opportunity to walk out or pause the track.

It’s time to demystify and re-appreciate Beethoven. He had no ‘direct connection to God’ and he did not ‘shatter all conventions’. But neither was he bad at orchestration, fugue-writing or melody. He was a flawed human being with a troubled past who did his best to live his life and succeed. He was a good composer who, far from wanting to violently impose himself on the listener, frequently used humour and showed his sensitive side. Was Ludwig van Beethoven a great master? He was a master if you want him to be one to you.

Schubert is dead; Mozart is dead; Beethoven is dead.

In 1990, Ricardo Chailly and the Concertgebouw Orchestra gave the first ever full performance of Luciano Berio’s piece Rendering.

Rendering was based on a number of sketches that were left behind by Franz Schubert, originally intended to eventually become his 10th symphony. Unfortunately, Schubert had died at the mere age of 31, before he could ever finish the work. Still, the symphony was there, for the most part at least. The notes were written on two staves, like a piano reduction, and there were strange gaps in places, like Schubert had known where he eventually wanted to go in the music, but didn’t quite know how to get there yet. But, if so much of the piece was there, there was nothing to stop anyone from completing it – finishing the orchestration in a way that fit the music, and closing the gaps to make the piece whole again. It would have been exciting to hear what Schubert’s final musical ideas were, just before his death, right?

The idea of finishing a piece someone else has left behind has its most famous example in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem. According to the most common historical explanation, Mozart’s wife Costanze, needing the money, paid a number of Mozart’s students to finish the work in secret so that she could present it to its commissioner and get the promised sum. Composer Joseph von Eybler first started working on some sections of the piece before giving up and leaving the piece to be completed by Franz Xaver Süssmayr. While it is impossible to discern with precision where Mozart’s work ends and Süssmayr’s begins, it’s often said that Süssmayr orchestrated the work up to the Confutatis, wrote the Lacrimosa from bar 9, wrote the Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei, and copied Mozart’s Introitus and Kyrie to write the Communio.

Süssmayr is not the only one who has completed Mozart’s requiem. Among those who also tried their hand at it are Duncan Druce, Richard Maunder, and Robert Levin. My favourite version is currently Levin’s; in my opinion, it shows great technical skill and is the one that sounds the most “Mozartean”. But judging a completion in this way also carries with it questions of whether a completion should be like a restoration, or a creative undertaking in itself. Is it important to come as close as possible to what Mozart may possibly have written himself – a task that will require rigorous historical research, leading to a piece that is functions just as much a thesis of what defines Mozart’s late style? Or is the quality of the piece the only thing that matters, whether it follows Mozart or not, and therefore we should allow the composer pure creative freedom?

I’m not going to answer these questions; you can answer them for yourself. But one thing should be kept in mind in all cases of a completion: Someone is doing them, and it is not Mozart. When we listen to the Requiem, despite what Costanze may have wanted, we are not just listening to Mozart. We are listening to Mozart and Süssmayr, or Druce, or Maunder, or Levin, or someone else. And this other, not-Mozart person, did real work, has real knowledge of music, and real skill, that they put into the work. Whether the work is in restoration, or in creation, it requires real ideas, from the person who is doing it – who is not Mozart! So, when we listen to a work that is a completion, we should recognise the human work of whoever was the completionist, and respect their knowledge, their craftsmanship and ideas. Their contribution cannot be forgotten, should not go unnoticed, because without all of their skilled, intensive labour we would not even be able to hear the work as it is performed.

When Berio wrote Rendering, he decided to orchestrate Schubert’s material in the way he thought was accurate to Schubert’s style. To most classical music listeners – save for perhaps the real Schubert experts – it would be indistinguishable in style from any other Schubert symphonies. However, whenever there was a gap in Schubert’s sketches, he decided not to fill it with any composed transition that would sound like (an imitation of) Schubert. Instead, he chose to fill them with new, unheard of material; material that was contemporary, modern, and alien to Schubert and his contemporaries. Some people say that Berio was ‘giving back’ to Schubert, adding in something of his own style, but I prefer the interpretation that Berio essentially composed emptiness, blank space, a kind of silence beyond ordinary silence. In those moments, the music loses its direction, its propelling force, and instead gives the listener time to think, to reflect. It makes us crucially aware of the fact that Schubert is dead, he is no more, and therefore the piece cannot truly be finished as it was conceived; after all, the only one who knew what the completed version was supposed to sound like was Schubert himself.

In a sense, Berio’s way is the postmodern way, the self-aware way, to do a completion. Rendering keeps the original sketches intact, brings them out with skill, but is also critical of what it itself is doing. It’s a completion that recognises that a true completion is impossible, a completion that says this is all the Schubert we have, and all we will ever get. There will not be any new pieces by Schubert, ever. Schubert is dead, and time goes on. Not only is this a really cool idea, in my opinion, but it is the idea that, to me, pushes the piece over the edge into being a work by Berio, rather than a work by Schubert that was finished by Berio. By being self-aware, by being thoughtful, Berio has made the piece his own, and we can recognise the creative genius of not just Schubert, but just as much of Berio.

So, why write this now, when all of this happened in the 1990’s and has been written about extensively?

This year, the Beethoven Orchester of Bonn performed “Beethoven’s 10th symphony”, completed by a team of musicologists and, most importantly for the media covering the event, using Artificial Intelligence that had been fed all of Beethoven’s oeuvre. And, by reviewer consensus, it was terrible. In the words of Richard Morrison in The Times: “[It] is recognisably Beethovenian, in the sense that it sounds as if someone has sliced up his nine symphonies, sloshed them around in a mixer, and stuck together the new bits in a random new order”.
Peter van der Lint wrote in the Dutch newspaper Trouw: “The music was hanging together like loose bits of sand. The bits the computer chewed up and spit out did not go together at all. The imitation of Beethoven’s sublimely built climaxes here deflated like a balloon time after time. It was bloodless and boring, with sometimes laughably weak connections between the motives”.

Well. Instead of explaining again why the music is bad (you can listen to it for yourself) let’s look at why completing Beethoven’s 10th using AI may not have been a good idea in the first place. Firstly, there are the historical facts. As youtube music critic David Hurwitz pointed out, Beethoven had hardly even begun writing the 10th in his life; he had written down some ideas, but never even started a first draft before he died. You can’t complete what has not been started; any attempt at doing so will just be a piece by someone else made to sound Beethoven-ish. Secondly, there is the undeniable distinction between humans and machines. As Jan Swafford wrote, even in a field in which computers could outperform humans by far, it is simply way more exciting to see a human accomplish something than to see a machine do it. A machine can hit a baseball further than any human, but we still want to see a human hit the ball, not a machine. Leaving the completion of Beethoven’s work to a computer robs us of the thrill of recognising a human’s craft, skill and dedication that is, as I mentioned before, essential to the completion of a work.

Thirdly, there seems to be a misunderstanding of what music is on behalf of the team that created the AI. Some may think that since AI can outperform humans at chess, and nowadays even at Go, it will eventually outperform humans at music too. But chess has not only clear rules, but clear win states: If you play better than your opponent, you win the game, and there is little the opponent can do to argue otherwise. Music is not like that. There will always be arguments about what makes good music, there will always be differing tastes, and we will never find out the ultimate best way to make music, because there isn’t one. The fact that that is true is a gift from the gods, something that we should embrace, even celebrate, not a problem that needs solving.

The fourth and final issue I have with this project is relatively minor in comparison, but to living composers and musicians, it may be (it should be) the most offensive: It presupposes that Beethoven was so good, so untouchable, so genius, that the only way we could have something like it again is by invoking supercomputers who can do more calculations in a second than a human can do in a year. That no other human could ever be as good as Beethoven, that it would be pointless to even try. Beethoven was a great composer, but there were many things he could not do that composers after him could, and still can, do. Humans have learned from Beethoven, and many of the things many of us know about composition we know because of him. But we have also continued to innovate, to refine and sharpen compositional technique even further, and think of ideas beyond what he, great as he was, could think of. Even if we can’t complete the 10th symphony, simply because no one can (because it wasn’t started in the first place), we can make pieces that are like it, pieces that are as good, and pieces that are even better. It takes knowledge, it takes skill and hard work, but composers today are showing that they are capable of these things time and time again. And that is what we should celebrate, right here, right now.

5 tracks from video game OST’s that are actually worth listening to, in my opinion (with links!)

I will get back to Saint Francois soon, but first a short thing about video game soundtracks.

Soundtracks can be a bit of an anomaly in the music world. Unlike rock, pop, or any other major music genre there is not such a big community of ‘soundtrack-fans’. There are a couple of reasons for this: One is that pieces of music we define as ‘soundtracks’ are defined by their function, not by any particular sound. Therefore a soundtrack to a film or game can sound like a classical piece or it can be a pop song, depending on who the studio hired to create the music. Another reason is that soundtracks were not made to be listened to on their own, but instead to accompany certain moments in a film or a game, and therefore a part of a soundtrack that sounds incredibly meaningful in context may lose that meaning outside of that particular context. 

This also brings with it a certain problem when we want to talk about soundtracks. Since there is not such a big community, the work of discussing or platforming a piece of music in the ‘soundtrack’ genre is often done by the community that belongs to the genre that that particular piece sounds closest to. This means that the soundtrack to Harry Potter belongs to the ‘classical music’ community in that regard, while the soundtrack to Drive belongs to fans of ‘electropop’. As a result, when a site like ClassicFM makes a list of ‘best soundtracks of all time’, the highest-scoring soundtracks tend to be those that sound at least similar to what a classical music listener would expect, and excellent soundtracks like Drive or Paris, Texas hardly make the cut.

In short, soundtracks are often not judged on their own terms, because it’s unclear what those terms are. ‘Would it sound nice if played by a symphony orchestra in a concert hall’ is one question you could ask, but it’s not what the music was made for. There are various reasons why a soundtrack, especially one composed for a video game I should say, would not work when performed in concert, the flow of time being one major reason; video game soundtracks cannot always progress linearly but have to be flexible in order to ‘move with the player’. So, perhaps a better question to ask is: ‘How does it hearing this soundtrack while playing the game improve the experience?’ And, well, here are five tracks that I think are quite good in that regard.

Cuphead – Don’t Deal with the Devil

Written by: Kristofer Maddigan

It is clear that the Cuphead soundtrack was made with lots of love. The large big-band numbers that accompany the various boss fights not only go perfectly with their old-timey cartoon animation, but also give them a perfect slapstick-feel, which makes them fun to play even after dying to the same boss hundreds of times. But what truly stands out is this particular track, which is heard immediately after you start the game up, before you even get to the main menu. Instead of a big band, it’s an a cappella song by a barbershop quartet, which simply tells you the backstory of the game:

Well, Cuphead and his pal Mugman

They like to roll the dice

By chance they came on Devil’s lane

And gosh, they paid the price

Paid the priiiiceee…

And now they’re fighting for their lives 

On a mission fraught with dread

And if they proceed but don’t succeed…


The Devil will take their heads!

And then, it repeats – but now instrumental, with a piano and strings. The warm sound of the instruments and voices creates an incredibly cozy, relaxing feel, which stands in stark contrast to the otherwise very fast-paced and violent game. The harmony is incredibly well composed and 

reminiscent of the songs I would sing as a young boy before the feast of St. Nicholas, aka Dutch Christmas. All in all, a great way to go into a game and be calm for a minute, perhaps steadying your nerves, before starting a level and letting your heart rate soar as a bunch of cartoon villains throw hundreds of projectiles at you.

Portal – Self Esteem Fund

Written by: Kelly Bailey

Portal is an old game now. When remembering the Portal games, people often appreciate the sense of humour that was present in them – think of the saying The Cake is a Lie!, which became an internet meme back in the day – and Valve played into this in Portal 2, which is full of jokes. But we must not forget the other side of Portal, which is the way in which it plays into the inherent loneliness of single-player games. GladOS speaks to you in a robotic voice and with a tone reminiscent of the fake sincerity programmed into the AI of robotic help desk workers at large businesses. The fake ‘friendships’ you can form with NPC’s in games is openly mocked when the game gives you a ‘companion cube’ which is nothing but a standard cube with a heart painted on it. Not once in the game do you encounter a real human being. 

And this track perfectly encapsulates that loneliness. Very sparse in its synthesised sound material, it uses delay and reverb to great effect – the sound is of one voice almost crying out for help, finding no response except for its own echo. While you may be having fun solving puzzles and shooting portals at everything, this soundtrack brings you back to the reality of the situation – you are trapped in an underground bunker, with nobody around to help you, surviving only at the whims of a psychopathic AI, and that’s a terrifying thing to realise.

Celeste – Scattered and Lost

Written by: Lena Raine

One thing that I greatly appreciate about Celeste’s soundtrack is that, while it evokes the sound of old 8-bit and chip tune music at times, it’s not content with simply staying in that sound world and actually expands it with more modern synthesizers as well as acoustic samples of piano’s and drums. This track in particular has a special quality to it. It starts with just a percussion track that’s reminiscent of the earliest Super Mario games and a piano part full of arpeggio’s in different registers that seem to continuously interrupt each other – like the thoughts of someone with anxiety, perhaps? Anyway, it then transitions into a quirky little melody full of unexpected jumps and chords played percussively in a nice irregular rhythm. 

While this is just the base material of the piece and is quite alright in itself, what really sets the track apart is the way it develops. Slowly, more and more synths are introduced in the melodic parts, while the drum parts transition the other way, slowly letting themselves be taken over by an acoustic kit – it’s quite fascinating to listen how the percussive parts are constantly full of subtle changes. Similarly, the intensity of the music increases as well, with the introduction of the synths adding more layers and illustrating broader melodic lines and the drum part getting more and more dense, until it sounds more like a freely improvising jazz drummer than a programmed drum machine. And of course, this perfectly fits with the way you progress in the level of the game, starting out by just helping the insecure Mr. Oshiro clean up his hotel, but ending in an epic boss battle.

Hollow Knight – Nightmare King Grimm

Written by: Christopher Larkin

Speaking of boss battles. Nightmare King Grimm from Hollow Knight is quite obviously made with the intent to be the game’s Very Hardest Boss Battle (outside of maybe the final boss and some of the bosses in the later DLC), and this is a perfect opportunity for both the developers and the composer to go over-the-top and give the player the most epic, memorable experience possible.

Perhaps the most well-known example of this (at least among a certain group of internet nerds) is Undertale’s Megalovania. But this track, in my humble opinion, completely blows Megalovania out of the water. With the use of a (synthesized) choir, church organ, biting low strings, and again, a well-written drum part, it really is pulling out all its stops while pulling no punches. The upwards glissandi in the voices, use of double bass drums and how the song goes into half-time at its climax take it to the next level.

The entire aesthetic of Hollow Knight is built around the amusing contrast between it’s grim-dark storyline and the fact that all characters are cute cartoon bugs, and the soundtrack, in my opinion, plays with this very well, using all the sounds you would expect from a run-of-the-mill ‘epic dark (midi-)orchestral soundtrack’ you’d hear in a game like Dark Souls or Bloodborne, and at the same time not being afraid to add in just a little silliness. While this track absolutely rocks, the constant descending chromatic lines and the sound of the church organ have an almost campy, haunted house-sort of feel to them. And this perfectly fits the image of the Grimm Troupe, who are a band of travelling performers, something in between a circus and a cult. This track is the perfect background music, whether you are in the ring and putting on a spectacle for the audience, or participating in a dark ritual that is slowly sucking the life out of a doomed kingdom.

The Beginner’s Guide – Be in this Place

The Beginner’s Guide is a… weird game. It’s questionable whether it even really can be called ‘a game’, since it is essentially a collection of small, one-level games with few mechanics – they are mostly just spaces that you walk through which, through environmental storytelling, convey some abstract idea. The games are held together by a voice-over from the creator of The Beginner’s Guide, Davey Wreden, who mostly uses them as a vehicle to talk about creativity and inspiration, including the feeling of getting stuck, not knowing what to do, and becoming afraid that you will never be able to create again. Without trying to spoil too much of the game, Be in this Place is a track that plays when this aspect of the narrative is at its most intense.

The track embodies the feeling of being stuck in a quite literal way by hammering on the same chords, over and over, unable of making any progress. At some point, the harmonic implication of the chords hardly matters anymore, they are just points that the music keeps returning to because it literally can’t think of anywhere else to go. But more than that, it expresses the feeling of panic, of stress, of constant crumbling pressure to keep going, by its sound design. Samples of panicked gasps are woven through the texture, and the recordings of the guitar playing the chords are sometimes reversed: You can’t even control in which direction the time of the sample goes. It’s one of the most beautifully helpless pieces of music I’ve heard, and I love it for that. It also adds to the emotion that the game clearly wants the player to feel – it wants you to identify with this feeling of being stuck inside your own mind and not seeing any way out. It’s intense, melancholic, and kind of frightening, but at the same time, it’s simply wonderful. 

The myth of no inspiration.

Let’s talk about the idea of inspiration, and why I have decided not to believe in it.
I don’t want to argue that inspiration in its purest form – some kind of non-physical energy that flies into an artist’s head and gives them ideas – does not exist. I think that most people, including those who work in creative practice, already don’t believe that it literally exists. For those who do believe this – that there is a literal invisible energy, that sometimes gets into your head and creates ideas, and sometimes doesn’t – I regard this more as a kind of religious belief, no evidence for, no evidence against, you choose what you believe. Just as an aside, I also don’t think that having religious beliefs is inherently more irrational than not having them. Literally everyone on earth has certain principles or ideas that they believe in without evidence.

However, I don’t think it matters whether this literal variant of inspiration exists or not. What matters is the idea of inspiration and the way people talk about it. 

In his video titled “How much power does the author have?”, Dan Olson has talked about how certain writers will compare themselves to ‘gardeners’ that ‘plant’ ideas and then let them grow organically. Yet, he says, this is merely a self-imposed idea that they choose to believe because it works for their writing method. The writer is still the only one responsible for the outcome of this creative process. In my view, inspiration works in much the same way. There may not be a literal energy that gives you ideas, but the processes that take place in our brains are very complex – certainly too complex for most people to understand – and the idea of inspiration provides an easy way to sort-of understand it, that for most people maps well enough onto their experience that it tracks. 

The problem is that I don’t actually think that this idea is a good way of understanding the creative process. And the reason for that is because it removes the person from their own creative work. There are many reasons why a person will or won’t be able to produce their work easily, but those reasons all have to do with that person themselves or their situation. A person could have something going on in their lives that’s stressing them out. Maybe they aren’t feeling well, or maybe they just don’t have a lot of free time. But whatever the reason, all of these are way better explanations why someone is not being productive right now than just saying ‘I have no inspiration’. Saying that only conjures up an image of someone lazily sitting at their desk, with their feet up, doing nothing. It makes it feel as if there’s no real reason that they’re not working, but they’re just making excuses, and that is not fair to anyone.

So, what if you’re someone who does creative work, and you find yourself unable to make anything?
Well, the first step would be to look inside yourself. Have you had food, water, exercise, rest lately? How is your mental state, do you feel stimulated, do you feel motivated, is there something occupying your mind? Are you feeling depressed, or anxious? 

I want to state explicitly that I am not out to solve these kinds of problems if you have them. I am not qualified or capable to do so. All I want to do here is illustrate that there are often real reasons behind your creative hiccups that are more substantial and material than the absence of ‘inspiration’. 

And what if you feel fine mentally and physically but you just can’t get to work? In that case, the problem could be within the creative process. It could be that you don’t yet have the general idea of what you want your work to sound like, and therefore don’t know what you should work on right now. In that case, maybe you need to go away from your desk for a while. Maybe you need to look at some art, or listen to some other music to give you a better idea of what you want or don’t want. 

It could also be the case that you know what you want, but you feel overwhelmed by the amount of mental labor that it will take. In that case, you have two options. The first option is to take rest, prepare, and divide the work into small bits so you won’t be overwhelmed, the second one is to just start and try to power through it. I recommend the first one, but it’s your choice.

Now, what if you know what you want, and you want to realise it, but you find it incredibly difficult to figure out how to do that? Well, the good news is that in that case, you are not actually stuck. Even if you are not able to get anything on paper, you are in fact doing the necessary labour that will eventually get you where you want. It’s very important to remember that even though your progress isn’t directly visible, that doesn’t mean you are not making progress. All you need to do is keep going, while making sure to rest and not overwork yourself.

There are myriad of other obstacles, all with their own consequences and possible solutions. But I think the point is clear. If you are unable to produce the creative work that you want to produce, do not simply write it up to ‘no inspiration’. Instead, realise that your body and your person are directly related to your creative process and output. Then, you can look within yourself to try and figure out what is going on. This does not mean that you will be able to solve the problem – perhaps this will take a longer time than you expect. But staying close to yourself is the most helpful way of understanding your own creativity.

Just a short thought about Messiaen and Beethoven.

I was listening to the sixth movement of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jesus – the movement in question being called Par Lui tout a été fait (‘everything was made through Him’) – and I thought about how much it reminded me of the last movement of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata. Both are fugues that play very loosely with the rules and conventions that would typically define good fugue-writing; at the same time, they both display a sort of contrapuntal virtuosity by having very long, complicated subjects but still bringing them back in inversion, retrograde or both. Moreover, the virtuosity is not only compositional in nature but translates into pianistic virtuosity: There are so many layers that to play everything accurately in a way that works requires a baffling amount of skill on the part of the performer. Both pieces also have a bit in the middle where the piece seems to slow down and become calmer, before almost immediately speeding back up again and becoming even more intense, leading to a triumphant climax of one of the main themes. 

And it’s this climax that illustrates the difference between the two composers. Beethoven only really climaxes at the very end of the movement, using the main motif that starts the subject of the fugue, now played in parallel octaves and expanded upon. Messiaen however places his climax earlier and reintroduces the ‘theme de Dieu’, God’s theme, from the first movement. This theme almost conquers the movement, being the main material for its last few minutes despite being absent during the entire first half of the piece. It’s no coincidence that this theme is God. After the chaos of the creation of everything, the Lord now uses his dominating power to bring order to his kingdom, which translates in the music to a final section which is just an endless stream of straight 16th notes consisting of nothing but the chords of God’s theme, endlessly repeated in both hands, one echoing the other an octave lower and a 16th later. This section is marked ‘La creation chante le theme de Dieu’: the creation chanting God’s theme. The chaos is to be ordered and humanity (being an essential part of the creation) is to be unified from the outside, by and through God and having faith in this God. 

In contrast, in the Hammerklavier fugue the climax is delayed to the end, and it’s brought about by a single voice at first, playing the motif of descending sixteenths and one leap up that comprised much of the main subject. Other voices, hearing this call, echo it and amplify it, leading to a victorious cadence. While Beethoven’s score is not as explicit about the metaphorical aspects of the work as Messiaen’s, with a little imagination it’s not hard to see this as an image of humanity coming together and uniting, not around any force from outside but instead around their own fundamental qualities, recognising that these own essential qualities are what makes them great, and building further to strengthen and expand on it. While Messiaen’s perspective is obviously informed by Catholicism, Beethoven’s seems to be profoundly humanistic. Whichever one leads to ‘better’ music, well, that’s completely up to your taste. 

An analysis of the second act of Messiaen’s “Saint Francois d’Assise”

Alright, let’s keep writing on this mystical beast of an opera. In the previous chapter I mentioned that while the first act of Saint Francois was focused on the earthly, the human, and on suffering, this second act takes a turn toward the heavenly, the divine, and the joyful. 

However, it’s important to know that at no point does any scene actually take place in heaven. We remain human, with our feet on the ground on this earth. This is because of Messiaen taking what is, in my opinion, the only logical way to approach concepts of God: the illogical way. That may sound funny, but let me explain. Any attempt to prove the existence of God through conventional sciences and mathematics, has, for all intents and purposes, failed. Therefore, there is but one approach to take: God and Heaven both exist outside of the human sphere of language or logic. Trying to prove or disprove the existence of God using the very human elements of science is like trying to calculate infinity using regular numbers. We can talk about these concepts and describe them, but in the end, we cannot come close to forming a full image of it, since they are so separated from us. In this way, God becomes an almost Lovecraftian concept – with the important distinction that God loves and cares about humans, while Lovecraftian horrors are mostly indifferent (as an aside, this ‘cosmic horror’ side will become very apparent in the first scene of the third act, which is one of the most intense pieces of music that have ever been written). From this perspective, it makes total sense to not try to create an image of Heaven within the opera, because we cannot conceptualise Heaven, so any attempt at doing so would be inadequate at best.

Instead, the concepts used in this second act are elements that exist somewhere in between Heaven and earth – mediums that can be used to convey certain messages from Heaven to earth, given that the language is right. In my interpretation, the three scenes of this act portray three ways of communication from Heaven to earth: 

  1. angels 
  2. music, and 
  3. birds.

However, these things aren’t simply three elements of one category. Rather, they all exist and function in their own ways, and often their functions are intertwined.

The first scene of this act – the fourth scene overall – is the only scene where Francis has no sung lines. Here the angel is put in the spotlight, briefly becoming the main character if only for this one scene. He knocks on the door, and because he’s an angel, this knocking moves heaven and earth, making a tremendous noise. Brother Messeo, who is watching the convent, then teaches the angel (he doesn’t know it’s an angel) how to knock – quietly, 3 times, then wait for just enough time to say a prayer, and if nobody has come yet, you may knock again, quietly, 3 times. The angel wishes to speak to Father Francis, but does not want to disturb him and decides to speak to Brother Elias instead. He asks a question to Brother Elias, who then gets angry because he feels the angel is lecturing him (he, too, does not recognise that it’s an angel) and kicks him out of the convent. The angel then knocks on the door again, making the same tremendous noise, and Messeo answers, saying “Hello, my friend. You have not heeded my lesson,” in a bit of subtle comedy that I greatly appreciate. The angel wishes to speak to brother Bernard and asks him the same question, which Bernard answers very wisely.

At first glance, this scene might kind of seem like just an interlude, like it’s just something that happened in the life of St. Francis, so we’ll include it in the story, we’re not trying to build a whole thematically coherent narrative here. However, looking deeper into it there is a point to this scene. When the angel meets Brother Elias and Brother Bernard, he asks them both the same question:

“What do you think about predestination? Have you rejected the old man and embraced the new man, to find your true face as predicted by God, in the justice and holiness of truth?”

Elias answers: “What is this? He’s lecturing me!” and pushes the angel out of the convent. Brother Bernard, however, answers wisely: 

“I have often thought that after my death our lord Jesus Christ will look at me as he looked at money, tribute money, saying: “whose is this image and this inscription?” And if it pleases God and his grace, I would like to be able to answer: “yours, yours”. That is why I have left the world, and why I am here”.

When I first heard this, the question and answer did not make sense to me. Messiaen himself does a reasonable job at explaining the concepts in his interview with Claude Samuel, but it still required me to do some bible study of my own before it really clicked. The ‘old man’ and the ‘new man’ are concepts introduced by the apostle Paul. In essence, the ‘old man’ is from before the crucifixion, where the ‘new man’ was created by the crucifixion and the resurrection – it’s someone who is following Christ and the new way. But what is ‘the old man’? Messiaen says it’s the man ‘given over to fantasies and emotions’, while the new man ‘follows the path of grace’. In this way, the brothers can be seen to reflect these two kinds of ‘man’. Brother Elias’s angry reaction shows that he is still subject to his ‘old man’ rages and emotions. By refusing to answer the question, he has in fact unknowingly answered the question. 

Brother Bernard’s answer refers to a different event, which is told in the new testament. Simplified: when the apostles ask Jesus if they should pay tribute money to Caesar, Jesus holds up the coin and says: “whose is this image and this inscription?” The message is clear: Those who serve money, do not serve God. Since Brother Bernard wants to serve God, he hopes to be able to answer: “yours” when this question is asked about him.  Bernard hereby shows that he has indeed embraced the “new man”, and the angel is pleased.

So, who is the angel? We can interpret that he is a being that can come down from heaven to earth to relay messages from above. We can also note that he is able to disguise himself somehow, seeing as none of the three brothers Messeo, Elias and Bernard recognise him. The most interesting thing we can learn about the angel from this scene, however, is the language that he speaks. In the first act, he exclusively uses words to communicate. But why would a being from heaven, with greater knowledge than any man, have to rely on concepts like the ‘old man’ and the ‘new man’ – concepts that were brought forth by Saint Paul, who is merely human, to get his point across? The answer is that verbal language is simply insufficient to truly relay the word of God to humans. Since humans are fluent in verbal language, they have come close, but a perfect representation of heavenly concepts in human language is impossible (see what I explained above about the ‘illogical way’ to approach God). Therefore, an angel, despite his great, divine knowledge, cannot explain the concepts of heaven any better within verbal language than a human can, simply because both run into the limits of language. 

It is for this reason that the angel ends the scene saying: “I will now go and talk to Francis, in a better way than with words”. When conveying an image of ‘the invisible’, instead of describing it with verbal language he takes the route of music. This is the plot of the fifth scene, where the angel visits Francis in his grotto and plays the violin for him, giving him a vision of heaven which overwhelms him. It’s no coincidence that this moment is musically situated right in the middle of the second act, which places it approximately in the middle of the opera as well. “God”, says the angel, quoting Thomas Aquinas, “overwhelms us by an excess of truth. Music brings us closer to God by lack of truth” – see how again the angel adopts words that have been written by humans. In the context of this quote it makes sense how Messiaen, known for his complex harmonies, now writes nothing but a simple C major chord that lasts for minutes, while the three ondes-martenots represent the sound of the angel’s violin. It does sound heavenly indeed. 

Music can be understood as a language that is specifically shaped (whether it’s somehow engineered in this way or just naturally happens to be) to communicate ideas of the divine. The angel might be the messenger who comes down to earth from heaven, but he needs music in order to bring heaven down to earth with him.

The final question then is: What do the birds do? The answer to this can be very simple if seen from outside the work: Messiaen was fascinated by them his whole life, and there is written history of Francis preaching to the birds, so writing them into the opera seems like a win-win. But this is a lazy way to answer the question, as it doesn’t require one to actually examine the work we’re talking about. Instead, let’s look at what the opera actually says. In the sixth scene, Francis outright identifies three features that make birds divine. First of all, they have been granted freedom, the freedom to fly anywhere they please at any moment. Freedom is the ultimate destination of every being, and thus the birds have been gifted by God. Secondly, they are able to communicate through music in their song, which is the same way that the angel communicates when conveying ideas of the divine that are too grand for verbal language. Thirdly, birds are by their nature virtuous creatures. They don’t possess anything and therefore aren’t corrupted by greed; they live purely by the grace of God, which is something that we should all strive for. Interestingly, this mirrors what Francis talked about in the first scene (see my previous post, or alternatively just listen to the scene instead), where he listed the epitomes of power, intelligence and virtue. The birds are powerful because they can fly everywhere, they are intelligent because they can speak the language of angels, and they are virtuous for they live by the grace of God. While Francis argued that neither of these make the ‘perfect joy’, the reason he gave for that was that they come from God, not from ourselves – which only illustrates how much closer to God birds are, since they all already possess these qualities naturally. We can understand birds to be sort of the opposite to angels: While the angels are heavenly beings that descend to earth to express messages, birds are earthly beings that can fly up to heaven (metaphorically) to interpret messages. 

There is way more to be said about birds, but let’s continue with that later. I hope to write on the third act next, and hopefully bring a bunch of these ideas closer together.

An analysis of the first act of “Saint Francois d’Assise”

In the first scene of Olivier Messiaen’s opera “Saint Francois d’Assise”, father Francis and brother Leo are walking near some steps, when Brother Leo utters the line ‘j’ai peur’ –  he is afraid. It’s important to know that Brother Leo says this line in almost every scene he appears in, and therefore this line should not be seen as an event – “brother Leo gets scared, which is a thing that’s happening”, or a situation – “brother Leo is scared, which is going on right now” but instead as a defining feature of Brother Leo. Like in so many operas, characters have Leitmotifs, and Brother Leo’s is this line that he sings.

Saint Francis replies that even if one were to restore vision to the blind, or hearing to the deaf, or cure all the sick, that would still not be the perfect joy. Brother Leo repeats his line, and Saint Francois says that even if one were to know all the secrets of the universe, be able to read minds, and speak the language of angels, that still would not be the perfect joy. Brother Leo repeats his line again, and Francis says that even if we were to convert every being on the planet and be an example of virtue, that would not be the perfect joy. Brother Leo then says: “But father, this is the third time you interrupted me, telling me of all kinds of accomplishments that still don’t bring us the perfect joy. But then, where is the perfect joy?”

“Brother Leo, my little sheep, sit down and listen to what I will tell you”, Francis says, and starts a parable: When it starts to rain, and the men have to walk for hours until they arrive at their convent – soaked, hungry, cold and exhausted – but once there, the doorman doesn’t recognise them and refuses to let them in, so they are left outside with no other option than to knock on the door again, after which the same doorman starts yelling at them, calling them thieves, and still won’t let them in, so once again they have no choice but to try a third time, to which the doorman reacts by taking a big stick and beating them senseless –

If they endure all that, while thinking of the suffering of Christ on the cross, therein lies the perfect joy. The message, distilled to its fundamentals, seems to be: ‘Joy is found in suffering’.

I was never raised in a Christian way. My grandparents on both sides were Christian (Catholic on my father’s side, protestant on my mother’s) but my parents themselves weren’t. For this reason, I can’t help but see this message from an outsider’s perspective. And when seen in that way, intuitively it doesn’t seem to make much sense to me. Why is joy found in suffering? Aren’t joy and suffering antonyms of each other? Don’t we get joy from good things and suffering from bad things? 

My rationalist brain will then look desperately for ways that this seemingly contradictory statement can be understood, and it came up with 3 possible explanations.

Explanation 1: The ability to endure suffering proves that a person possesses the virtue of resilience. Since resilience is a good quality, we can feel good about ourselves for having it and for displaying it. Since suffering gives us a chance to show this resilience and feel this pride, we can find joy through suffering.

Explanation 2: If we never suffered, we would not know what it’s like to feel real joy. If we hadn’t walked in the rain for 3 hours, the hot shower we take afterwards wouldn’t have felt as gratifying. Only after having suffered, can we appreciate the good things in life. In this way, suffering can bring us joy.

Explanation 3: By enduring the suffering we have to endure on earth, we show devotion to God, and we will be rewarded for it when we die by getting into heaven. The perfect joy is in Heaven – therefore through suffering we reach the perfect joy.

All of these explanations sound as if they make some sort of sense to me. Whether or not you believe that the presented ideas of virtues and of heaven are true, you would (hopefully) agree that the logic used to connect them is sound. And since these ideas, even though they might be debatable, are things that many people believe in, you can understand that these explanations are at least grounded in something, that they’re not pulled from thin air. The problem is that from the perspective of Messiaen, and of Saint Francis as he is portrayed in this work, not only are they all wrong – they are blasphemy

Why? Well, the simple reason is that while all these explanations make sense, they are still based on the non-religious understanding of joy and suffering as being opposites. In these explanations, because we can’t imagine suffering as something that brings joy, instead we make it function as something that will bring joy later, whether it is through a sense of pride, or through enabling/enhancing the joy we find in good things later on, or through some prize God gives us. But this is not the way things work, and it’s morally wrong to think so (according to Messiaen). Because if you suffer purely for the reason that you know you’ll get something good out of it later, you are only doing it to serve yourself. Suffering does not bring us joy later, the joy lies in the suffering. They are not antonyms, but one is part of the other. 

The proper Christian explanation, as explained by Messiaen and my Catholic grandmother, who I had a talk with, is as follows. We are children of God, made so through the suffering of Jesus on the cross, but we also have a human self. When we endure suffering, we are not serving ourselves, because our individual ‘self’ doesn’t like to suffer. Therefore, when we endure suffering without the prospect of receiving some form of joy later, without expecting any reward whatsoever, we lose our self and purely exist in relation to God. The perfect joy is to let our sense of self go and be close to God. 

I don’t want to pretend that I think this is a good idea necessarily. I personally like my individuality, and though I understand that there can be something noble in devoting yourself to a greater cause, even without religion getting into it – if you’re a communist, for example, you could translate a similar sentiment into “it is glorious to die for the revolution” – I don’t think that is always the right choice. 

However, what I find most interesting about this idea is the fact that it proves that in the interpretation of a text, we cannot rely solely on our own sense of logic or rationality, no matter how objective or unbiased we perceive that to be. If you want to analyse what a text is really saying, and how to interpret that, you need to be able to empathise with another person’s way of thinking, and accept that something that does not sound logical at all to you will make complete sense to a different human being. In analysis of art, there isn’t an objective truth. There are interpretations, and the validity of an interpretation doesn’t come from whether it adheres to objective fact, but is more related to the question of whether or not we can imagine that the logic of it will make sense if you’re a certain kind of person. The Christian interpretation of Saint Francois does not make sense if you’re an atheist with no context of Christianity, but it does make sense if you are a Catholic who regularly goes to church and reads texts, like Messiaen. This does not mean that you cannot criticise the text from your own perspective or state your disagreement with it, as I did earlier. But that criticism also does not come from some objective logic, but from the logic of your person, someone who had the experiences that you had. And it will be judged not on the basis of some neutral standpoint, but on the basis of what the people who hear your criticism find agreeable and acceptable. That’s simply the reality of interpreting art.

Messiaen has admitted to not being a great writer, but here his lack of subtlety works for the opera in an interesting way. In short, this first scene has given the opera a thesis statement, which Messiaen will defend throughout. In the scene that follows, Francis tells God of the thing he hates most. It’s the sight and smell of a leper. He then prays that he might meet a leper and learn to love him. Francis knows that he will suffer from this sight, in the sense that we all suffer when we are forced to see something that we hate. But he recognises this hate as part of his self, not something from God, and he knows that by suffering (forcing himself to look at the leper), he can lose his self (the hate) and become closer to God (by learning to love – God is love, after all). 

In the third scene, not only does Francis’ wish come true, we also see things from the leper’s perspective – he starts with a solo, complaining about all his illnesses. Francis then appears, recoils twice from the stench, and eventually greets the leper before telling him to repent. The leper just laughs sarcastically: why should he repent for a God that made his life suck so much? From my rationalist atheist perspective, I can’t help but think he’s right, because his position just makes so much sense. If God gives you lepra, why should you want to confess your sins to him and ask for forgiveness? But for Francis, this works differently – by offering his wrongs, the leper can show that he too can endure the suffering without complaining, and in doing so let go of his earthly self to become closer to God. The leper isn’t convinced, but then an angel appears and says: “leper, your heart accuses you, but God is bigger than your heart”. 

I can’t pretend I know exactly what this means, but it convinces the leper who asks forgiveness for always complaining, even to people who try to help him. Francis also does penance: He regrets that he has not loved the man enough. The two men kiss, which is dangerous if one is a leper, but then a miracle happens: The leper is cured! This is one of the major moments for St. Francis. Noteworthy is the fact that Messiaen sees the transformation St. Francis makes – from hating the sight and sound of lepers, to loving the leper and only regretting that he has not loved him enough – as equally important as the transformation the leper makes. Both souls are saved in this moment. A touching part in the scene hints at this, where the leper cries: “I am not worthy of being cured” and Francis replies: “Don’t worry, my son, me neither”. 

(I might continue this analysis later and talk about the second act. While the first act of the opera is very ‘earthly’ and focused on suffering, the second act is definitely more ‘heavenly’ and focuses more on the joys of the divine).

Liefde voor Hout

Weer eens eentje in het Nederlands.

Als je mij vraagt welke film ik mee zou nemen naar een onbewoond eiland, zou ik een tijd lang moeten nadenken. Mulholland Drive zou een kandidaat zijn, net als The Seventh Seal of Spirited Away, allemaal films die van ongelooflijke kwaliteit zijn en een enorme schoonheid en menselijkheid in zich meedragen.  

Een kandidaat die echter niet zo van zichzelf spreekt is de documentaire Liefde voor Hout uit 1979. Hoewel ik het niet per se de beste film ooit vind, zou het best de film kunnen zijn die ik het meest gezien heb. Het helpt wat dat betreft wel dat hij maar 45 minuten duurt en in zijn geheel op youtube staat.  

Liefde voor Hout gaat over het leven in de Nederlandse schaakwereld van 1979. De grootste Nederlandse schakers van die tijd komen erin voor: Jan Timman, Jan Hein Donner, Hans Ree en zelfs een zeer oude Max Euwe maakt een appearance, waarin hij vertelt over het duel voor de wereldtitel in 1935 waarin hij de eerste en enige Nederlandse schaakkampioen werd.  

De film zit vol fantastische momenten en tegenstrijdigheden. Zo vertelt Jan Hein Donner dat hij thuis nooit achter een écht schaakbord zijn partijen voorbereidt, dat hij daar een klein zakapparaatje voor heeft, en dat je alleen in een écht spel een écht bord moet gebruiken. Het volgende fragment gaat over Timman, die zich, thuis, met een echt bord, aan het voorbereiden is op zijn volgende toernooi. Ook heerlijk is wat Timman te zeggen heeft over het wel of niet opschrijven van je voorbereiding: “Waarom zou ik het opschrijven als ik het niet begrijp? Dan heeft het helemaal geen zin om het op te schrijven. En als ik het begrijp, hoef ik het niet op te schrijven”.  

De manier waarop de schakers hun denkprocessen beschrijven is tegelijk heel fascinerend en heeft iets enorm navelstaarderigs. Er volgen uitgebreide beschrijvingen van hoe je op het moment dat je het stuk waarmee je wil zetten pakt, je opeens een veel dieper inzicht krijgt en veel meer ziet dan wat je eerst allemaal bedacht had. Dus als iemand een blunder maakt ziet hij dat zelf direct als hij het stuk pakt, maar dan is het al te laat, want als je het aanraakt moet je ermee zetten. Ook hebben Timman en Ree een lange discussie over de vraag of schakers ervan genieten om hun tegenstander te zien lijden, omdat ze graag macht over hun tegenstander uitoefenen. 

Mijn favoriete scene in Liefde voor Hout vindt plaats aan het eind van de film. We zien hoe Timman, op dat moment zonder twijfel de sterkste schaker van het land, een partij tegen Gert Ligterink speelt om het Nederlands kampioenschap en de partij volledig vergooit. Timman maakt nu geen enkele kans meer op het kampioenschap terwijl voor Ligterink het eigenlijk niet meer kan missen dat hij kampioen wordt. Beide schakers hebben bij het na-interview echter dezelfde reactie: complete apathie. “Och, ik heb weleens ergere dingen weggegooid”, zegt Timman. “Als ik kampioen word win ik een hoop geld, maar ja dat is ook zo weer op” aldus Ligterink. Er zit een soort zelfbewustzijn in deze citaten: schaken is waar deze mensen het grootste gedeelte van hun tijd mee bezig zijn, wat ze beter kunnen dan bijna elke andere Nederlander en zelfs wie dan ook ter wereld op slechts enkele anderen na (Timman was derde van de wereld op een gegeven moment) – en tegelijk is het ook maar een spel voor hen, wat ze kunnen winnen of verliezen en dan gaat het leven weer door.  

Bekijk de film hier in zijn geheel.

On the relationship between composition & analysis – and how to teach analysis to composers

Cage said to never compose and analyze at the same time. But how do we interpret this? Is it a simple matter of not doing stuff at exactly the same time, like trying to juggle and ride a bike at the same time? Or is it even just impossible, like trying to juggle while keeping the balls in hand at the same time? Because in that case, it would be a more or less trivial matter.

But what if we took a vaguer, more general approach and looked at the question in a very general way? What if we only looked at the exact nature of the role both creativity and analysis play in the process of the composition?

Many times I’ve been asked to write a quasi-philosophical text where I gave my opinion on some matter. The process in that case would go as follows:

1. Write whatever you believe at that moment, right there and then, write it all at once, as much as possible, without thinking about it.

2. Leave.

3. Come back to it the next day and realize that what you’ve written is completely wrong. Write down every reason why you believe it to be wrong – once again, try to pen down everything you think of. Write as comprehensively as possible.

4. Repeat step 2 & 3.

5. When the deadline is near, stop, revise and finish the text. 

What I see in this process is a kind of feedback loop between writing and analyzing. Writing uninhibitedly, waiting and then analyzing ruthlessly, then using that analysis to feed more uninhibited writing. I agree that while I’m writing, I’m not analyzing – however, if I never analyzed, I would get stuck after step 1. Therefore I believe that analysis should at some point be invoked in the composition process.

I think most people who write – words or music – understand this. It is evidenced by the fact that we write down not just finished pieces, but also drafts and sketches. Why would we write these down, if not to analyze them later so we have some fodder for more creative writing, eventually being able to finish the pieces? In fact, the practice of putting pre-written materials together – without generating new material – itself inescapably invokes analysis. How else would we ever decide which position to assign to which materials?

Once we’ve established that analysis plays some role in the composition process, we can talk about another matter. How do we teach students to analyze?

Most analysis is taught from a third-person perspective. We analyze Mozart based on the way someone who isn’t Mozart (for example, Schenker) would interpret his music. Neither do we use our own methods – most of the time, only pre-established methods of analysis are taught. Only in analysis of contemporary music, for which either there are no pre-existing methods yet or they haven’t been developed to their fullest extent, are students sometimes allowed to analyze on their own terms – a sort of second-person perspective.

But when students write their own music, they have a first-person perspective. How then can they be taught to analyze their own works by doing nothing but second- or third-person analyses of other people’s works?

Important to remember is that all 3 perspectives are important. A first- and second-person perspective will help you develop your own compositional style. Putting on a third-person perspective – to try and interpret your work through someone else’s eyes – will help you evolve your method and gain a deeper perspective. 

You can’t do a first-person analysis of someone else’s work. The definition of ‘first-person’ prohibits it. Therefore, first-person analysis must come through composition tutorials – making a student analyze their own work from their own perspective. In analysis classes, a healthy mixture of second- and third-person analysis is key, which means we should be especially careful not to sweep second-person analysis under the rug. Students must have the opportunity to develop their own method of analysis. And even in a third-person analysis, the students must have some say in which pre-established methods of analysis they find fruitful. Allowing creativity in analysis is key for ingraining analysis in the creative process.