Read: Five New Recordings of Baha'i Music


Contents:

    Songs of the Ancient Beauty,
    Lift up Your Hearts and Sing (Volume 2),
    The Keltz - The Prince of Peace,
    Here at Black Mesa, Arizona,
    From the Sweet-Scented Streams of Eternity

Reviews by Simon Mawhinney

This article attempts to review some recent music produced by Bahá'ís. Such a task has its difficulties, particularly for a critic inspired by Bahá'í ethics. Music criticism should look beyond the rather prosaic approach of denigrating what one hates and praising (to the limits of irony) what one enjoys. For interested readers, I discuss these issues related to a Bahá'í approach to critical theory in a long footnote.(1)



Songs of the Ancient Beauty
Artist: The Bahá'í Chorale
Publisher: International Bahá'í Audio-Visual Centre, 1992, WMC001

For Bahá'ís, at least in English speaking parts of the world, Songs of the Ancient Beauty needs little introduction. What community has not played tracks from this album at some event? For those who are as yet unfamiliar with this recording, it can be defined as a collection of 18 short pieces for unaccompanied (a cappella) choir. The style is very much in the traditional tonal style of much Christian music - such that we hear a very slow version of Mozart's Ave Verum with a Bahá'í text troped to it. Some tracks, such as Whither Can a Lover Go?, have a harmonic style which is reminiscent of choral music in the Salvation Army, while others seem to cast allusion to evangelical music.

In some ways the album has become the musical spine of a large portion of the Bahá'í world. The reasons for this are obvious. The music is exclusively for a cappella choir and is thus designed for performance in Bahá'í houses of worship. This lends the music a unique station and a distinction of function. Music with such an important and holy role is, of course, going to be cherished. For many people, the album is their first contact with music of an explicitly sacred function. There are, however, several reasons why it might be prudent to consider this album as a step towards something wonderful, rather than being wonderful in itself.

For a start the quality of the voices leaves a lot to be desired, particularly in some of the solos. With a chamber choir, greater attention should be paid to the timbre. The opening track, God Sufficeth, suffers from timbral blandness, as if the singers were bored by the music. This would be unsurprising. There is no bite. The same lack of dynamism is to be found in The Lord's Prayer - where the vocal style of the soloist just does not seem to fit the style of the music - and in Remover of Difficulties, where a lack of rhythmic energy gives the feeling that the choir is in danger of falling asleep. A great deal of the music seems to be performed a little slowly, for example, Allahumma.

The music itself is uninspired. The melodic lines, particularly in tracks such as God Sufficeth, are rather naive, and the same can be said of the harmonic language of the entire album. The overt Enlightenment-period tonality seems a very backwards step indeed. Why signify a period and value system which was as corrupt and morally decayed as we postmoderns imagine it to have been graceful? The most beautiful melodic construction in the album is the chant to the words Ya-Bahá'u'l-Abhá in a track which is lessened somewhat by the Bach-style harmony.

Although I find myself unmoved by most melodies from this album, the melodic lines in the songs Dastam Bagir 'Abdu'l-Bahá, and Allahumma are more attractive. This perhaps strengthens the conviction that English is a particularly unpleasant language for singing. Further, the modal-inflected, rather more ornate melodies of these tracks easily assert their superiority over the lame ducks which most of the songs plainly are. However, the choral accompaniment of these numbers goes a long way towards ruining them; for example, the wordless tum-tee-tee waltz accompaniment in Dastam Bagir. (Perhaps not as cheesy as the zum zum zum zum in O My Servant!) Because of the modality of the lines, the piece has the effect of minor tonality. However, the track ends with a tierce de picardie, the effect of which is to produce a sudden major chord at the final cadence. There is really no need for such a device at all. Songs of the Ancient Beauty is clearly a small (if major) step that we need to build upon.*(2)




Lift up Your Hearts and Sing: Favourite Songs of Bahá'ís Around the World, Volume 2
Various Artists
Publisher: Global Music Inc., 1997, GM2022

To an extent, this collection is a companion to the earlier Songs of the Ancient Beauty, and provides insight into the aesthetic intentions of that album. Furthermore, a number of the same people were involved in both projects. The harmonic and melodic simplicity which I found limiting in the former album is here in abundance, but in this instance it is entirely appropriate to the style and intent of the music. This is not to say that I like it; the first track, for example, draws on the syntax of country/ western/gospel, and the lyrics are as follows:

Bahá'u'lláh's getting us ready for that great day
Bahá'u'lláh's getting us ready for that great day
Bahá'u'lláh's getting us ready for that great day
Soon as all the nations get together
We're gonna have a good time
For Bahá'u'lláh, the Glory of God.

Both the lyrics and the music will either give pleasure or pain. However, a few tracks deserve special mention. Would You Give Your Life to Bahá'u'lláh sounded rather like it was written by Mark Knopfler and is sung by a singer called Ává, from whom I would like to hear more. (Pity about the "dramatic" key change, though.)

There is a Hindi version of O My Servant called O Agyani. The vocal parts sound a great deal better when they are not sung in English, although the track is ruined by laughable instrumentals which perhaps prove why we are not allowed to play instruments in houses of worship. *




The Keltz -The Prince of Peace
Artist: The Keltz
Publisher: Iona Records, 1993, IRCD 024

The Prince of Peace is fundamentally a work of fusion, blending elements of traditional Irish music with jazz and world music. The music is dedicated to Bahá'u'lláh, and the track-titles suggest aspects of His life, such as The Siyah-Chal, The Mountains of Sulaymaniyyih, and The Exile. The music seeks to communicate the emotional impact of the titles with suitably emotional atmospheres. This attempt is not entirely successful. The joy of a track such as The Gate is certainly effective, but others are less convincing. The Mountains of Sulaymaniyyih, for example, consists of a long jazz-inflected flute solo accompanied by a hazy jazz-guitar. While the long flute lines do suggest timelessness, perhaps to the extent of conveying states of spiritual ecstasy Bahá'u'lláh experienced as He prayed in the cave of Sar-Galu, the emotional language is very relaxed, even laid-back. It sounds like it belongs on a Van Morisson song as he rants and raves about the harbour of Ardglass. The fourth track of the album, The Exile, suggests less the pain of marching through Thrace in December snow,(3) than a gentle caress of sound which perfectly complements kisses and homesickness. The music resembles some of the work by the Irish group Clannad; comparisons might be drawn between the flute solos on their track Nil sin La and The Exile. An important difference, however, is that The Keltz's track portrays the suffering of what Bahá'ís believe to be the universal Manifestation of God for this age and the other is an Irish drinking song.

Another track is called The Garden of Ridvan. Here the conglomeration of styles sets me thinking. Is fusion a true manifestation of unity in diversity? Does the structural basis of the jazz session, with its focus on individualistic solos, really convey why the Garden of Riván is famous?

The liner notes state that Bahá'u'lláh was released from imprisonment at the end of His life, and The Keltz dedicate a track to this release. This is an unfortunate error - Bahá'u'lláh was officially a prisoner (under house arrest) until the end of His life. At any rate, this music, while not really fitting the gravity of its titles, is enjoyable and fun to listen to. It offers a potential route for the expansion of the language of Irish music, that is, by developing new ideas within the actual melodic lines (i.e. from jazz and world music) rather than by incorporating simplistic and inappropriate tonal structures - as is so often the case. ***




Here at Black Mesa, Arizona
Artist: Lunar Drive
Publisher: Nation Records, 1996, NR 1076CD

Of the music reviewed here, Here at Black Mesa, Arizona is arguably the most promising album (as a unified cultural object). In terms of style or genre it belongs among dance, jungle, and the like. While some music in this vein is notable for its potent eroticism of syntax - consider a disk such as Balance of the Force by Boymerang (particularly the track The River) - Lunar Drive has cultivated a musical language which is notably chaste and peaceful. Rather than histrionic female vocals which have stirring lyrics and sensuous delivery of lines, the singing here is confined mostly to Sandy Hoover's low-key delivery and Kevin Locke's Native American style. There are, of course, nine tracks on this album and I am inclined to feel that the strongest numbers appear in the first half, with tracks becoming less and less memorable. The final piece, When Life Was Really Good, is certainly unsatisfying as a climax. But the first four tracks follow each other with great direction. They balance and complement each other.

Much use is made of Kevin Locke, both as singer and flautist. While doubt may be expressed about the fusion of styles with regard to The Keltz, the problem does not seem to arise here. Somehow, Locke's sound is integral to the unity of the album. This is owing to the fact that his music is used with sensitivity. It appears at the right moment and never assumes too important a function. The timing and placing of musical elements throughout the album is one of Lunar Drive's strengths. The use of a synthesised-piano melodic fragment in Wupatki Crater is a particularly memorable moment.

This is a good album, but to become great it would have to be a little more ambitious, more cutting edge. Lunar Drive could consider experimenting with larger forms, and search further for new colours and harmonic ideas. ***

From the Sweet-Scented Streams of Eternity
Artist: Lasse Thoresen
Publisher: Simax Classics, 1998, PSC 1130

On the strength of this album, Lasse Thoresen is one of the most important Bahá'í composers/musicians alive. His music is best described in terms of the postmodern phenomenon of "spiritual" composition, which has been somewhat condescendingly described as "holy minimalism," despite the fact that there is very little minimalism in its most famous progenitors: Gorecki, Pärt, and John Tavener. This religious style is characterised by its effort to create a contemplative atmosphere by means of a modal harmonic/melodic syntax, and through the use of very slow speeds. This music has achieved a great deal of popular acclaim, such that a work by Tavener was performed at the funeral of Princess Diana. This music has become a common language, a signifier of prayer in spiritually vacuous times.

There are five works here, all of which are for unaccompanied choir. The pieces are thus worth listening to if one is familiar with Songs of the Ancient Beauty and would like to hear some more music which is suitable for performance in a house of worship. On every musical level, the music here is ambitious where the former album was simplistic.

The most successful is From the Sweet-scented Streams of Eternity, which uses four choirs positioned around the audience. Thoresen's liner notes indicate the influence of medieval music and, although the influence of Aquitanian organum is clearly to be heard, the piece also suggests the placid beauty of a work such as Lux Aeterna by Ligeti. It is a good idea to listen to this piece with the text in front of you. The text-setting is generally very sensitive, although it can become lost in the layers of voices. Given the richness of text, the music is suitably opulent, and the insistent supplications along with the modal harmony make this a very moving piece.

Thoresen has made an effort to address the question of how far a composer should go to adapt his or her style to the musical capacity of the audience. Clearly it is ignorance of musical history which would lead a composer to imitate the language of the past (just as we do not ask our poets to write in eighteenth century grammar). Thoresen therefore employs modes (as opposed to major/minor) scales, which allows him to create a non-triadic harmony which still sounds consonant to the ear. Although some of the music may challenge the average listener, it will not alienate them in the manner it would if Thoresen was inspired mainly by Brian Ferneyhough. The CD does become a little tiring, although this is probably because the works were not intended to be listened to as a unified cycle. Look out for the (slightly histrionic) setting of the long healing prayer, most of which is set in Arabic. ****

End Notes

  1. Bahá'í scripture states that music is holy, "a ladder for souls, a means whereby they may be lifted up unto the realm on high," a means by which people can attain measureless spiritual sovereignty; "They who recite the verses of the All-Merciful in the most melodious of tones will perceive in them that with which the sovereignty of earth and heaven can never be compared." It is a vehicle for spiritual edification, for education, for proclamation. "Whoever hath been transported by the rapture born of adoration for My Name, the Most Compassionate, will recite the verses of God in such wise as to captivate the hearts of those yet wrapped in slumber" (Bahá'u'lláh, The Kitáb-i-Aqdas [Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1992] 38, 61, 74). In addition to the emotional sway of music, it is a force with great moral and affective power (Aqdas 74, 75). The notion that music is endowed with moral power precedes the Bahá'í Faith: it is found in Plato and Boethius, in medieval music theory (see Oliver Strunk, Source Readings in Music History [New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1998] 9-149), and in Islam (The Islamic theologian al-Ghazzali, in his Ihya 'ulum al-din provides a selection of uses for music, some of which are permitted while others are forbidden. For example, music is forbidden when the "song's contents are not compatible with religion" and "[i]f one listens to music for its own sake." See A. Shiloah, Music in the World of Islam [Aldershot: Scholar Press, 1995] 44). However, it is a teaching that has been largely forgotten. The belief that music does indeed influence our spiritual and moral condition will no doubt have great influence on the music produced by Bahá'ís in the centuries to come. Hence, the music journalism presented in this review is influenced by the Bahá'í concept of music, as well as some recent musicological ideas. I have accepted the notion that music can signify beyond itself, that it can be deconstructed in a multitude of ways, read as a social (rather than autonomous) text, and exist as a discourse of signs. Because criticism is read as a form of subjective journalism, I have made little effort to hide personal and ego-derived responses. It seems more honest. Criticism is like the polar opposite of theory. It is an art form in itself which is simultaneously distant from theory, while deriving much of its technique from it. My premise is that criticism gains strength from its journalistic ephemerality. In such a discourse mistakes are bound to occur. The critic is writing to a deadline, skimming through a few sources as a substitute for painstaking academic research. Criticism welcomes refutation and for this reason it must be vigorous. It must draw attention to itself and demands that the issues it raises be considered. Criticism is vital to the health and development of an art. As the Bahá'í Faith grows, more and more fields of human endeavour will be subject to re-definition in terms of their relationship to the Faith. The issue is of utmost importance to Bahá'ís who wish to practise criticism. As questioned above, is the function of criticism merely to denigrate what is considered rubbish, and to praise only the rare examples of mastery? Or is criticism to assume a didactic function, a means of edifying those who consume cultural objects as well as those who produce them? It is possible, and perhaps vital, to view criticism as an integral part of music (or any art form), which means that criticism itself should be a "ladder for the soul." If this is to be the case, care and respect are needed. It seems difficult to justify full-scale diatribes against works which irritate, but at the same time critics must be fearless in demonstrating the flaws which hinder most of the work that artists produce. They must become teachers, and through criticism, advance civilisation. As 'Abdu'l-Bahá explains, " it is necessary that the schools teach it [the art of music] in order that the souls and the hearts of the pupils may become vivified and exhilarated and their lives brightened with enjoyment" ('Abdu'l-Bahá, quoted in The Compilation of Complilations 76). It is an issue that Bahá'ís are only beginning to explore.
  2. In true review style, I have given each album a star rating ranging from ***** (masterpiece) to * (poor).
  3. Thrace is the region that includes Edirne.

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