The Need for an Integral Approach to Music

By Vincent Clarke

What would art look like in a society that had successfully revived true Christian culture? To answer this question is, in a sense, to begin a long process of confirming the speculation. Answering this question orients us toward creating the very art that we wish to see. Music seems to be the best medium to approach. Unlike, say, painting it has become more, not less prevalent in the modern world than it had been in the past. It is at once the most instinctual and the most complex of the artforms, and for this reason it is both popular and infinitely diverse.

One key problem facing us when we ask this question is: whose music? In Christianized culture music has typically fallen into three categories: highbrow, liturgical, and popular. Often these have overlapped. J. S. Bach is both highbrow and liturgical; John Dowland is both liturgical and popular. But the distinctions are sufficient to draw something of worth out of the material. They will guide us in what follows.

Liturgy, Avant Garde, and the Merely Christian

To ask what a revival of liturgical music might look like requires little imagination because it is already taking place. In October 2016, Pope Francis sat for an Aramaic interpretation of the Our Father sung by a priest and a small girl to reflect the pain of the Syrians and the Iraqis. This was one of the most profound musical events in recent memory. The video on YouTube has over 5 million views. The Pope fell into a deep meditation. The whole event was enveloped by a sort of spirit of the ancient. This is striking to the viewer, who feels that they are being sucked back in time to a small, newly formed Christian sect in the fifth century. Yet if you listen to the singing there is something strangely modern about it. Perhaps it is the effective use of drone that makes it at once old and modern—a technique that found favor with some of the better avant garde artists in the 20th century. 

This seems the most promising path for new developments in liturgical music: to embrace forgotten musical techniques and, rather than simply aspiring to European medievalism, seeking to fuse various developments, various taproots in the Christian canon into a harmonious whole. That goes for Protestant developments too; if the Catholic Church has always been willing to take what is good in pagan culture and develop it, then the likes of Bach should not be off limits.

Likewise, Christianized highbrow music is already with us. The modernist movement in highbrow music has totally collapsed. ‘Sophisticated people,’ it would seem, could only pretend that the onanism of Schoenberg and his followers was impressive for so long. A video from a decade ago of an aged Yoko Ono screaming into a microphone in front of an audience of gullible people also has over 5 million views on YouTube. It also has 50,000 dislikes against 26,000 likes, and the comments are mostly people making fun of the video. As the baby boomers age, their cultural products rapidly become self-parodies. Their most devoted children, the under-40s who are trying to maintain their crumbling establishment, still pay lip service to this muck but when they get home from their climate summit, they typically turn on the latest hits. Or, if they have a semblance of taste, possibly some classical standards.

Unfortunate young people who study music under those that promote modernism typically turn to contorted fusionist attempts to incorporate ‘underground’ popular ‘music’ like Dubstep into the highbrow repertoire. No one pays attention, although the grants keep flowing. At best, these crossovers into subcultural garbage produce YouTube sensations. But these show up clearly the severe limits of the musical forms that we are dealing with. Consider a dubstep rendition of Beethoven’s Für Elise by the ‘artist’ Klutch. It is almost comical to listen to—although the YouTube video has attracted over 49 million people who either have fantastic senses of humor or awful musical taste. Mr. Klutch has chosen Für Elise for the simple reason that it has a catchy hook. Since dubstep is basically the repetition and modulation of an underlying hook, the crossover just about “works” in a technical sense. But the piece loses everything else that makes it interesting. It is not allowed to develop or to go anywhere. The hook is simply repeated over and over again. 

Since these crossovers are obviously unproductive a priori, and creative people have realized the dead-end of Schoenbergian modernism, true artists seem to have shunted back onto the Christian track. From the haunting hymns of Arvo Pärt to the exotic rhythms of Jordi Savall, the motifs are familiar to anyone accustomed to classical and renaissance canons. Pärt’s rendition of Salve Regina has nearly 3 million views on YouTube, although from the comments it seems that many listeners are not aware that they are listening to a prayer rather than film music. His Fratres is unspeakably brilliant and is recognizably of our time. This is not a simple throwback or a nostalgic recreation; a Renaissance-era listener would have found Fratres baffling. It’s oscillation between violent, jolting assaults of violin and ephemeral, spiritually uplifting landscapes is utterly strange and perfectly modern and suited to the modern world. If anything in highbrow music has a chance of developing, it is this.

No Masses Breed Suffering Masses

The most difficult genre to imagine in a Christianized society is undoubtedly popular music. Yet it is, in a sense, the most important. Popular music forms popular consciousness. It promotes the virtues of the population or, in sadly decadent societies like our own, the vices. Music hits the mood directly and uplifts or degrades us accordingly. 

Contemporary rap and hip-hop music, for example, are designed to degrade. Whereas earlier iterations mixed upbeat rhythms with degrading lyrical content, contemporary iterations drop the upbeat rhythms in favor of dreary and repetitive beats. One of the most popular songs in this new genre is Gucci Gang by Lil Pump (1 billion views on youtube!). The song is hilarious—a real bellyacher—and the video puts it well over the top. There is no point in highlighting here the infantile simplicity of its lyrics or its borderline self-parody of crude consumerism. What is fascinating is that it performs a sort of reductio ad absurdum on pop music itself. Pop music, of course, relies on crude hooks to catch the attention of listeners. Trap music pushes this to the next step where it inserts strange vocal utterances that sound like they are from a child’s cartoon—I would almost advise the listener to try it out for themselves, no description can capture it—and uses these as additional catches. But this ‘gagagoogoo’ is presented against a dark and bleak backdrop, where the music sounds like it is pulling the listener into a depressive spiral. This is not the melancholy of Schubert’s Der Doppelganger—and, take caution, even such Romantic excesses are (at least in the opinion of this writer) dangerous for the soul— no, this is degradation pure and simple. This is not the melancholy of the frustrated lover; this is the suicidal nihilism of the opium-eater, mixed with the morality of the mugger.

This aspect of the music is perhaps best considered with reference to one of the better—although I use the word with trepidation—iterations in this new popular music subgenres: Mask Off by Future (440 million views!). This is a piece of culture worth taking more seriously than the dross of Gucci Gang, but it is not much the better for it. Whereas Gucci Gang is almost humorous in its unselfconscious self-parody of itself, Mask Off is quite honest about what it is. Mask Off discusses a life that comprises using opiates, hitting the gym, and sleeping with women. The limited, almost hellishly repetitive lifestyle described (completely uncritically) in the song is perfectly accompanied by the musical content. The song uses a repeating flute hook to pull the listener in. But behind it is an extremely downbeat sublayer that, as with Gucci Gang, leaves the listener feeling lost and despondent—as if he or she has fallen into a blackhole. The effect is impressive. If you allow yourself, you will certainly be moved by the song. But you will not be tapped into a deeper emotional substratum. If you listen closely, you will just feel dirty and hopeless.

It is remarkable that this music is truly popular. It sounds more like a subgenre for depressed teens or avant garde oddballs rather than the ‘Top Ten’ content it apparently is. But its popularity shows the almost infinite malleability of popular consciousness; something that has become increasingly apparent with the spread of bizarre ideologies in television shows and on streaming services. People, it would seem, really will swallow anything—even if it makes them feel ill. The rampant use of disgusting pornography and the increasingly popular consumption of certain drugs that, until recently, would have been the preserve of only hardened junkies is almost certainly behind this willingness to consume poison and slop.

Pray for the Conversion From Russia

It makes sense that liturgical music is seeing a revival. True Christianity is seeing a revival, as evidenced by the very medium that I am publishing in. So, it is not hard to see why the same people revising true Christianity are also interested in liturgical revival. The revival of highbrow music is less immediately obvious. But the impulse that is giving rise to the return to true Christianity is likely driving the changes in highbrow music. The alternative is simply clapped out. No intelligent person could possibly go to Yoko Ono’s art exhibit and not feel a pang of self-doubt.

Likewise, it is obvious why popular music is not seeing a revival. Good popular music cannot thrive in a degraded culture. Highbrow and liturgical music can separate them from the cultural surroundings. In that sense, both are elite. But popular music cannot. It is an organic outgrowth, a sort of mirror, of the state of the society at any given moment in time. This means that to catch a glimpse of what a revived popular music might look like we must turn to a culture that is trying, no matter how pathetically or slowly, to revive its Christian heritage. The most obvious example in this regard is perhaps Russia, which has been seeing such a revival for at least a decade. 

It seems likely that Russia is seeing this revival before the West because, in the 20th century, they experienced the result of the liberal project in fast forward. In the West, liberal modernity hid its true intentions for the whole 20th century. It pretended that it wanted compromise with its Christian past. Now it is obvious to all but the most devout National Review reader that this is not the case. In 1917, Russia got a shot of liberal modernity straight to the heart. Catalyzed, the liberal modernist project collapsed much faster. And so, the revival inevitably began sooner. In theory, this should mean that there are some younger people who will start to recreate decent popular music.

We are seeing some rumblings. Although you must look hard. But what we can see developing in Russia may have a lot to teach us in the West. The best representative of revived popular music in Russia is the Russian pop folk group Белое Злато or White Gold. The group is composed of a rotating group of young women and appears to have been around for at least 6 years. They are distinctly a ‘girl group’ in the modern sense, and this seems thought out and coordinated. The girls are pretty, good singers and would not be out of place in a standard pop group in the West. Their image is self-consciously opposed to the sexualized image of Western pop music. Sometimes this entails dressing up in traditional Russian outfits, but most of the focus seems to be on dressing modestly and doing street performances as can be seen from their YouTube channel. They seem to be relatively popular within Russia. Their English-language channel has almost 62,000 subscribers and there is evidence of them playing concerts in Germany and France. But Russian commentators have complained about their inability to get broad exposure and the crudity of their marketing attempts. Their recorded album, released in 2019, is available on Spotify, however. It is well-varied and does not disappoint.

Their music is a sort of folk revivalism. But it has a distinctly modern flavor. It is very distinct from the hippyish attempts at folk revival we saw in the West in the 1960s and 1970s. That movement was always going to be countercultural and the use of the music was twisted from its original context; by contrast, White Gold clearly aspires to being a true pop group. 

Their music does not suffer for it. In fact, it is excellent. Some of it is comprised of upbeat Russian folk songs like Young Cossack Girl, one of their most popular songs. The version of the song on YouTube suffers from some slightly wanting production values, but it is rich and complex. The lyrical content is standard folk fare, about a young man courting a young woman. Other songs are slower and more reflective. One of their best is Beyond a Calm River. This song does have explicitly Christian content and imagery, but one gets the sense that this derives from the fact that the song is Russian, and Russia is Christian. That is, the Christianity is secondary, not primary.

This probably speaks to what popular music in a Christian society must necessarily be like. As Catholics know, culture precedes Christianity and is receptive of it. Culture is a sort of base metal or prime matter which is then formed by Christianity. While highbrow and liturgical music can be focused and Christian, it seems more likely that popular music will always be more of a baseline cultural product, generated out of the specific soil that it grew up in.

Der Musikgeist and the Beginning of History

Music speaks to the deepest recesses of our soul. No doubt. And the repulsive world we live in is creating truly repulsive music. We should not doubt the impact that the sounds and songs that people listen to have on their character. They are profound. Much more profound than painting or literature or architecture. We march to the beat of a drum, as the metaphor states, not to the wave of a brush or the placement of a brick. Music is not in truth a simple reflection of culture, but its essence. Hegel spoke of a Weltgeist and tried to glean it through newspaper clippings and Napoleonic marches. Perhaps we would be better off trying to grasp at the essence of the Musikgeist.

The question of popular music in a Christian society is then likely to be tied up with the question of the relationship between Christianity and local cultures more generally. This in turn raises questions about the relationship between an integralist political program and specific national cultures more generally. It seems likely that an integralist state will find itself at war with degenerate corporate music. Perhaps it could have accommodated the American popular music of the 1940s and the 1950s, but today’s corporate music is actively geared toward corruption and degradation, not just of the morals, but also of the mood and the senses. This will likely require some sort of national cultural revival to restore solid prime matter for Christian culture to work with. Christ may have turned filthy water into wine; in the city of man we must be more practical.