Monday, October 29, 2012

Bastardizing Expressions of the Sacred

Should there be some kind of censure or penalty for someone who massacres art?  Am I the only one who considers such an act sacrilegious?

When an artist puts heart and soul into creating a meaningful work of beauty, is that not a sacred act?

If someone went into a museum and painted mustaches over all of Vermeer's faces, Dégas' ballerinas, Rosa Bonheur's horses, what do you think would happen?  If someone tagged the Pietà, what do you think would happen?  

I ask because I have just witnessed this being done with some of what I consider to be our most beautiful Pagan songs.  The music director (using the term loosely) over-produced and “popified” these songs, altering the phrasing, and even presuming to change the melody in places, all done with off-key and weak solos, an out-of-sync chorus, and appalling synthetic keyboard masking as a piano.  To me, these changes were done in service of ego, not to enhance the listener’s experience.

Does this not disrespect the efforts of the artist?  Does it not disrespect the creative inspiration from the muses?  Does this serve to honor the memory of our ancestors and beloved dead?  Is such “reworking” worthy of our gods? 

I think not.  What say you?


Jason Pitzl-Waters said...

Actually - someone recently vandalized a Rothko at the Tate Modern in Britain. It will take thousands of dollars to restore that painting.

Earlier this year, someone vandalized a Picasso at Houston museum. Again, this will take weeks of restoration, and a lot of money.

In both cases there was the very real danger these pieces could have been destroyed forever.

So there is a HUGE difference between vandalizing a physical work of art and someone doing a rendition of a song in a manner you didn't care for. The original song is still there, other people can still perform it in the original way. The only real "damage" was your discomfort.

If Pagan song is so fragile that it can't survive a bad cover, then maybe it wasn't that great in the first place.

Jason Pitzl-Waters said...

I would also be interested to know if you think the troubling abundance of Pagan filk, which often uses Christian songs as raw material, is disrespectful of the artists who wrote the original. Are such reworkings worthy of us? Or should we encourage the end of Pagan filk?

Unknown said...

I would say that while the song you love in it's original may be the perfect expression for you, some folks may find a different version more appealing. Jason's comment hits on the head for me. It's not so much like defacing La Pieta, but more of a case of (for example), me trying to recreate La Pieta while having no artistic talent.

What song are you talking about by the way?

Broomstick Chronicles said...

Thanks for your comments, Jason and Bellatrix.

Jason, you make a valid comment about tangible works of art as distinct from ephemeral ones like music.

To me, and to plenty of others, it felt like more than just the "damage of discomfort." For one thing, this has been building for several years, getting worse each year. In fact, it has come to the point that at least one Pagan songwriter has withdrawn permission to use his music because of the way the songs are changed.

Further, there are local singers and musicians who decline to join in what they'd otherwise really enjoy as a Pagan musical collaboration, their discomfort with the director's MO is so strong.

I am not troubled by Pagan filk in general, especially if it's humorous. I'm less wild about more serious mainstream songs, and especially Xtian hymns, being rewritten to reflect a Pagan sensibility, or to mock the original.

In the case of the latter, I'd prefer to see composers and songwriters create their, and ultimately our, own songs. I'd like to encourage our own creativity. I know there are many talented Pagan artists and composers in our communities.

There's something to be said for creating one's own alternative music, and art, that meets one's own religious needs and reflects one's own spiritual perspective as opposed to taking a standard and mocking it.

So, no, I would not encourage the end of Pagan filk. Rather, I would encourage approaching filk as a fun thing to do, but not a substitute for producing new music.

What song am I talking about? Many: "Spirits" (not quite so bad), "This Ae Nighte," "Set Sail," "Through All the World Below," and "Demeter's Song." These are five of my most favorite Pagan songs. I find them exquisite. And the last two I frequently use in the context of interfaith celebrations, "Demeter's Song" for an interfaith Thanksgiving/harvest service put on by the local street ministry for the homeless, and "Through All the World Below" for interfaith Earth Day celebrations.

I'm not a professional musician. I can carry a tune, though, and have sung in choirs since my childhood in the Methodist church. I'm not skilled enough to mess with these songs even if I were inclined to do so, but I can interpret them with melody and someone singing harmony with me and do them justice. I feel good about sharing them with my colleagues of other religions.

Pitch313 said...

I think that it's difficult to alter the approach and style of somebody else's musical performances. Critics with enough clout and/or fans in their abundance or dearth may do this. As may withdrawal of funding.

Did the musical director use auto-tune? (Popification technology.)

But music that somebody doesn't care for is not yet more than a dispute of taste or critical acumen.

As for Jason's question about Christian filk, I hold a minority opinion that using Christian tunes or scores as a foundation for Pagan songs and chants inevitably carries Christian meanings into Pagan liturgy and celebration. But I suspect that it's more challenging to create music from scratch than put filkish lyrics to an existing tune.doubloaLhowtali

Unknown said...

It reminds me of how I cringed at the Mr. Muscle oven cleaner commercial, set to the tune of the Hallelujah Chorus.

And actually, the Pieta was attacked with a hammer back in 1972, breaking several chunks out of the statue, including Mary's nose. It was later restored.

Even so, I agree that most of the time the changes made during a cover are about ego, believing the new artist can improve on someone else's work, or make it their own. It's an entirely different type of creativity, and it's pretty unpleasant when it doesn't turn out well.

Ehsha said...

I've nominated you for a blog award.

JuniperJeni said...

Proof that even some Pagans would enact anti-blasphemy laws if they could? Troubling.

Daniel C said...

You said "To me, these changes were done in service of ego, not to enhance the listener’s experience." I think that's the crucial point.

Reworking is fine if it is in the service of the song. You )and I) may not like the reworking, but it may communicate to others, freshen up the experience, and the like.

Not knowing the specifics, I can't comment further, but I have certainly heard new versions of old songs that work well.

nwlorax said...

Australian aborigines re-paint their ancient rock art if it seems to be faded or losing integrity. When asked about this, they insist they are NOT the artist-they are simply permitting the original meaning to shine forth.

"Forgotten Cave of Dreams" by Herzog has the exact quote, which I am sure is richer than the version I remember.

My point is that in many cultures, expressions of the sacred are jointly held properties, not copyrighted works.

In the instances you are discussing, did these performers pay royalties to the original author, or were they engaging in legally protected satire?

I fully support the rights of an artist or group of artists to be compensated for their performances and creative works.

Satire surely has a place in a viable spirituality, even if some ancient Pagan cultures like the Greeks put satirists to death from time to time.

IMHO there are some movies and radio plays that misuse modern NeoPagan symbols and chants, but I have never heard of any protest organized against those movie or radio script authors.

Should there be a difference between the way that one reacts to an artist outside of the loosely defined NeoPagan community and one inside of it?

Chas Clifton said...

Why do I keep thinking of the way that certain singers feel that they must "interpret" the national anthem at baseball games, etc.?

Selene Kumin Vega, Ph.D. said...

"Through all the world below" was a Christian hymn before we changed the "he" to "she," so you are talking about a fairly recent tradition that is changing. Lyke Wake Dirge has a long history, and I remember our Ben Lomond Spiral Dance back 1986 used new words to the same tune, which I rather liked more than the original. I still have those (I save everything, still have original scripts and notes from 1979 and 1985 Spiral Dances).

There is the folk process that over time changes so many songs. The question is whether the changes stick, whether they get picked up by others and used again and again, replacing the traditions we have strong memories and attachment to. If the new version sticks, well, maybe we just have to surrender to the idea that "change is." Hard to let go, I know.

Helen/Hawk said...

Talking about folk process....I'm wondering if the songs of which you speak are written down in original form? Are there recordings of the original?

Meaning are they available in that form for people to hear: what the original artists/authors had in mind?

If so, it becomes a matter of different intrepreations/covers as has been pointed out. If not....then that's a different problem/process.

Sympathize w/ the experience of expecting to hear a favorite piece of music....and hearing it changed. Can feel so Wrong.

Mercury Redbone said...

A song that is not actively changed is not alive. What troubles me is selling expressions of the sacred--nothing sacred can be sold.

From a distance, it's hard to tell where the most ego is--Ego is in control and in the belief that one's own aesthetic judgments are better.