This is a new version of this post, revised to improve (I hope) the wording of one of my points, and to include more thoughts about Kate Bush. Uploaded on September 20.
A contrast between the meaning of some classical pieces — as suggested by a group performing them — and what pop songs can mean. Here’s the classical statement:
We offer our performances of quartets by Mendelssohn, Prokofiev, Golijov and Janáček as a message of hope because they illuminate the human potential to create beauty, even in the darkest of circumstances.
This is from the Calidore String Quartet, commenting on their upcoming album, Resilience (to be released October 12).
And from the pop universe…
…thoughts about Kate Bush songs (excerpted from “‘She makes children of us all’: Guardian writers pick their favourite Kate Bush lyrics” (published in the Guardian on September 12; the names of the writers are in parentheses after each excerpted comment):
“You’re the One” (from The Red Shoes):
I’ve got everything I need
I’ve got petrol in the car
I’ve got some money with me
There’s just one problem
You’re the only one I want
Her own long-term relationship with bassist Del Palmer had come to an end before the album was recorded, while her mother and guitarist Alan Murphy also died in the lead up to the album’s release. That loss is sprinkled all over the song but these lyrics, in an instant, capture how putting a brave face on things can’t outrun the pain of grief. (Lanre Bakare)
“Cloudbusting” (from Hounds of Love):
But every time it rains
You’re here in my head
Like the sun coming out
I first heard this during the lowest point of my life.…My mother had just died and I lived alone in our childhood semi-detached council house on a diet of KitKats and baked beans. “Cloudbusting” is actually about the relationship between psychologist/philosopher Wilhelm Reich and his son, Peter, and in particular their time spent together making a rain-making machine…but these lines spoke to me and offered a bright light at the end of a very dark tunnel. (Dave Simpson)
“Moments of Pleasure” (from The Red Shoes):
This sense of humour of mine
It isn’t funny at all
Oh, but we sit up all night
Talking about it
I’d hate to say these lines stand out for me as someone who absolutely copes with the darkest of events using awkward jokes and black humour, much explored by frustrated therapists and partners, but, well…that is why. (Hannah Jane Parkinson)
“This Woman’s Work” (from The Sensual World):
[A man’s wife or partner is giving birth.] The act of watching biology whirl around you while you can do nothing but “pray God you can cope” and try not to let your tears show is something many men will have felt. I doubt any will ever express it as eloquently as Bush, though.
“The Man With the Child in His Eyes” (from The Kick Inside):
Piano, cello and voice, barely three minutes long, with whispered lines that seem to come from a half-remembered dream, it’s so simple and direct it felt like something I’d always known. (Imogen Tilden)
“Leave It Open” (from The Dreaming):
“We let the weirdness in”
There’s something really moving about the way the lyrics make the listener complicit, drawing you in to her increasingly weird world: it’s not confrontational but trusting, it ends with a repeated invocation not of “I”, but “we let the weirdness in”. The pronoun seems important, as if she knows that anyone left after this is in it with her for the long haul. (Alexis Petridis)
Thoughts on all of this
The classical statement is large and noble. We hear things like this about classical music a lot. Many will find it inspiring.
And yet — and I don’t mean this as a criticism of the quartet because so many of us in classical music talk this way — isn’t this very general? The Kate Bush comments are far more specific and more personal, and they go to many more areas of life. I find them more interesting. They pique my curiosity. I want to hear the songs. Wouldn’t many people want to find thoughts like these in the music they hear every day? I would.
And doesn’t one of the comments take a Kate Bush song deeper than the classical comment goes? The quartet talks about “The human potential to create beauty, even in the darkest of circumstances.” And of course that’s noble. But don’t we then need Kate Bush to remind us that “putting a brave face on things can’t outrun the pain of grief”? That can help us get through difficult days, when we find — as we always will — that we slip from the heights of nobility.
In any search for meaning, I know Kate Bush songs start with an advantage…
…because they have words, and the words can bring us to deep and subtle places.
But still classical music — if it wants to compete — also has to go to places like that. And I’m not saying it can’t. I’d love to see the quartet share their moment by moment thoughts, as they make their way through the deep and subtle flow of each piece on their album. We don’t see this much in classical music, but I’m sure they (and others) could do it.
If anyone wants to try, with any classical piece you play (or love as a listener), send me what you come up with. Maybe I’ll post it here in my blog. Give it a try!
And by the way — since I’ve been down this road before — I know some people will say that the Kate Bush lyrics may go to deep places, but her music couldn’t compare to anything classical.
I wouldn’t agree. But again from experience, I can imagine someone from deep in the classical world hearing the songs — finding them on YouTube, maybe (the best place to search for them, if you don’t have a streaming service) — and telling me they really don’t shape up.
Beware, I’d say in reply, of too quickly judging music in a style you don’t know. I had trouble with Kate Bush myself.
But then, listening repeatedly, I had a breakthrough. Which with one of these songs — “You’re the One” — came first when I learned to hear how at every moment, everything in the music (how vulnerable Bush’s voice is; the yielding sound of the instruments) evokes what she’s singing about.
And then I loved the song even more when I realized that the musical repetition in it underlined its main idea, that Bush can’t get rid of her love. Especially, for me (and here I’m talking to other classical musicians), when the harmony keeps going to the subdominant, and Bush’s voice keeps landing on the second degree of its scale. When, if the song were in C major, she keeps singing G against an F chord.
A musical image, if you like, of an eager and tender obsession. The out of place note becomes, if you like, a musical image of her tender wound, and how it gets her stuck.
Added for the revision:
For a taste of Bush as an artist, try her “Cloudbusting” video, a heart-tugging look at a preoccupied Wilhelm Reich and his eager young son, touchingly played by Bush herself. Who as a songwriter, singer, actress, dancer, and filmmaker is an amazement.
Wilhelm Reich, by the way, may never have created rain with his rainmaking machine, as imagined in the video. And he may turned into a crackpot, in some ways, though his reputation as a psychologist has been rehabilitated.
But as the video depicts (with some dramatic license), he certainly was persecuted by the US government Which — in a shocking episode surely unique in US history — destroyed his laboratory and burned six tons of his journals and published books. (See also here.)
On their album, the Calidore String Quartet plays these pieces:
Sergei Prokofiev, String Quartet No.2 in F major, Op.92 “Kabardinian”
Osvaldo Golijov, Tenebrae
Leoš Janáček, String Quartet No.1 “Kreutzer Sonata”
Felix Mendelssohn, String Quartet No 6 in F minor, Op.80