11 September 2006

Earworm: O Rubor Sanguinis/Koyaanisqatsi

Since I'm writing up a couple of experiments right now, and I've found music with lyrics (in languages I can keep up with auditorily) interfere with writing, I'm mostly listening to a tremendous playlist of music with no lyrics, or lyrics in languages I can't understand as auditory input, right now; it's all kinds: jazz, classical, medieval antiphonal chants, neo-classical instrumental pieces (no Schoenberg, he's distracting period) and Mogwai/Explosions in the Sky/Kinski-type prog-rock instrumental stuff. I'm enjoying how the very old (Anonymous4 singing Hildegard von Bingen's Chants for the Feast of St Ursula) and the really quite new (Phillip Glass's earth-shaking Koyaanisqatsi piece from the movie of the same name) do when side-by-side.

These two, selected by Winamp randomized, make a nice counterpoint; it's easy to hear that they both have quite different sensibilities from most pop music (even defining pop music as broadly as possible).

O Rubor Sanguinis is a solemn but glad chant, which would've been considered appropriate for its subject of divine redeeming blood. Hildegard was a remarkable polymath of the twelfth century, but because she was a woman her education was considerably different from that of her contemporaries; when contemporary music was primarily concerned with regularly scanning, rhyming verse, Hildegard's lyrics are unpredictable, and similarly her melodies make unexpected leaps, and considerable use of modal irregularities.

Koyaanisqatsi is an equally remarkable piece, composed for Geoffrey Reggio's Qatsi film series. It's just a bass chorus, repeating one word in Hopi that means "life out of balance," backed most of the time by a fairly simple chord progression on an organ. Subtle dynamic changes and an organ solo give the repetition some shape, but mostly the piece turns on its repetition. The severity of the gravid and almost sluggish melodic line (if it can even be called that) is as inescapable as the grandeur of the chorus, and it's the tension between these two elements that gives the piece its power.

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