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Humans Are Great 6: Stopping Time with Anton Bruckner and Knut Hamsun

“One of the things you’ll never know without God is what it feels like to be completely outside of time, submerged in something both boundlessly immense and profoundly personal.”

It’s one of those things you hear at the end of a long, circular night – all of the standard arguments and counterarguments have been batted about the table, all the requisite statistics recapitulated, and, bleary-eyed and hoarse, the real issues that separate believers from non-believers start making their quiet voices at long last heard.  And what those issues often amount to is a personal unwillingness, on both sides, to renounce a whole category of human experience as merely the phantoms of neural fancy.

For the religious, that depth of feeling that they get when they feel Jesus over their shoulder must be real, and they cannot comprehend how we stumble through our day without its eternally fortifying presence.  For us, that wild rush of pure intellectual freedom that stands before the towering maw of entropy and says Go Ahead, Bring It, and which we can’t imagine another thinking creature mangling in the name of comfort.  These are experiences that each side thinks as unknowable to the other, experiences that keep them reconciled to the rest of the intellectual contract they’ve signed.

The experience of altered time is one I hear rather a lot, and have always felt as something well within the confines of secular culture to accomplish.  Some of my favorite bits of artistic production revolve around just this ability to take our experience of time and twist it, alternately suspending us in pure timelessness or otherwise diverting our sense of its pressing linearity.  For the former, you can hardly do better than the symphonies of Anton Bruckner.  There is a great deal of wonderful classical music out there, but no composer has his ability to craft a tonal landscape that simply arrests time in its tracks.  You stop noticing the things that Desperately Need Doing, stop even really analyzing the music as music, and instead just let it grow over you, an insulating layer of lush moss that keeps space and time at bay for an hour.

You can really pick any symphony to feel this (though 4, 6, 7, 8, and 9 are perhaps slightly more effective than 1, 2, 3, and 5), but for me it doesn’t come any better than the third movement of the 8th symphony (and if you’re of an impatient sort, but want to hear an absolutely perfect musical moment, fast forward to 1:58):

I would pit that against the most intense moment of prayer any day and never feel myself the loser.  But it’s perhaps easy to hypnotize with music, to do so with words on a page is a whole different level of artistic sorcery.  And precisely that is what Norwegian author Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) achieved on a regular basis throughout his long career.  From the scratching, morphing staccato of Hunger to the sense of cyclical death and regrowth in The Growth of the Soil to the drifting euphoria of Wayfarers, Hamsun is the guy to go to when you want mere sentences and paragraphs to change the very beat of your heart, the way you walk through time after having put the book down.  And not a word of it relies on the neurological cocktail that religion leans on to pull off its hallucinogenic spurts.

 

 

We are, persistently and mostly fortuitously, creatures of linearity.  We armor ourselves in the past to deflect and absorb the shocks of an unknown future we cannot reach fast enough.  But, from time to time, it doesn’t hurt to place ourselves in the experienced hands of one of our great creative minds to know time’s flow in a way that defies the strictures of pragmatic necessity.  Religion can do that, but never forgets to charge heftily for the pleasure.  Bruckner, Hamsun, and the dozens of others who found in them models for a new temporal sense in art, give us variations upon lived time of exquisite refinement, and the only criteria for admission is Being Human.

Culture Music Science and Math

Humans are Great 5: Mathematicians and their Music

I was chatting with a Ukrainian friend the other day when she asked me, “Do you play any musical instruments?”  I admitted that I could, by certain not terribly high standards, be called a piano player.  “A-ha!  I knew it.  Math people are always music people,” she responded triumphantly, and started to list off all the people she knew who had a combined love of math and classical music.

Of course, we in the United States are bound to take all utterances from Ukrainians on the subjects of music, math, and ballet as unquestionably true.  But there’s a lot of supplementary evidence as well, from great mathematicians and physicists who either played an instrument or had a deep and profound love of music, to the necessary connections between what is great about math and what is great about music that attract one and the same mind.

 

 

It’s the structural similarities that get me.  Mathematics is the art of saying a universe while bound by formalist fetters of the toughest stuff.  Every word, every turn, has to bear the scrutiny of an epoch of rigor.  When you find something new to say within those confines, you’ve pulled off an unparalleled act of creation.  A stunning proof can get me positively teary-eyed, and it’s that exact same structure of finding creativity in the face of impossible restriction that touches me in classical music.

I’m going to take an extreme example because, hey, it’s the Holidays.  Consider the last movement of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata.  It is from his stormy middle period and is often used in film when they need a piece of piano literature for an unhinged virtuosic criminal mastermind to thrash out in the solitude of his mountain fortress.  Or maybe I just feel like it should be.  In any case, the restrictions are profound.  Leave out a note, and you’ve ruined it.  Ignore a dynamic marking, and you will be dropped from all men’s esteem.  Considering the freedom that you have as a pop star when covering a song to do pretty much whatever you damn well please as long as something like the melody of the chorus creeps through, it seems like there would be nothing left to individual human creativity when playing this piece of music.  We should have a hundred recordings, each a metronomical copy of the other, the only difference being the quality of the sound equipment employed.

And we do have a hundred recordings, but the amount of variation that the performers have squeezed out over the years within the constraints set by Beethoven is astounding.  Here is Wilhelm Kempff, one of the greats, performing it with his immaculate attention to the possibility for dynamic change within each measure (fast forward to 15:43 to get the third movement):

 

Now, compare that to Sviatoslav Richter’s performance, which basically conceives of the movement as an exercise in titanic thrash metal.  He is about speed and ferocity.  All the notes are the same, but the philosophical center of the piece is wildly different.

 

 

As I said, these are two extremes of an already extreme piece of music.  Part of the endless joy of classical music for my math-snuggling mind is sniffing out moments where performers do something unspeakably subtle that is entirely within the rules but that changes utterly the flavor of a piece, savoring that human ability to express individuality in the most seemingly unpromising situations.  Those moments have all the thrill of finding buried treasure, precisely because they are so hard to accomplish.  Further, once that new variation is discovered, it is added to our total experience of the piece, always there in the background, defining what comes after, so that each new performance is really a communication with all those that have come before.  Just as a mathematical proof is a conversation with Euler and Lagrange and Hilbert, so is each new Appassionata recording a piece of art that bears with it the decisions made by Kempff and Richter and thousands of others, and the more records you listen to, the better and richer each new record becomes.

So, get listening!

Culture Language Music

Humans are Great 3: Falco’s Music Videos

There comes a moment for us all, our work being done, our chores accomplished and living nook tidied, when we have no choice but to pull up a chair opposite cold, dour Reality and evaluate the content of our lives.  It is the easiest thing in the world, in that moment, to either lock one’s self into an iron stoicism or simply despair at the futility of it all.  My respect has always gone, however, to those who see a third way out of the grim facts of existence, who fully recognize the insistent press of entropy and yet manage, through a pure genius for goofiness, to make life a little more radiant for the rest of us.  When I think about my favorite bits of humanity, unabashed goofs spring to mind far more often than po-faced anguish-mongers.  And the crown prince of the ridiculous is, without a doubt, 80s German pop music sensation, Falco.

If that name rings a bell at all, it is because you are over 30 and remember this, the video to Rock Me Amadeus, which features Falco in an elegant tuxedo rapping in German about Mozart while walking through a crowd of punk aristocrats and motorcycle gangs.   It connects, through two centuries of European history, the madcap genius of Mozart with the living silliness of the 1980s in a way that you can’t help but be enchanted by if you have an enchantable bone in your body (the video proper begins at 0:27):

Wonderful.  Really, though, the wackiness here is understated in the general canon of Falco videos.  Take my personal favorite, Wiener Blut, which features Falco, dressed alternately as Napoleon Bonaparte and a fish-tie wearing corrupt politician, mixing in with an incongruous selection of overweight German tourists, mafiosos, Flashdancing female police officers, and I’m not quite sure what all else:

Or The Sound of Musik, Falco’s ode to the development of music itself, which begins with Falco as Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria rising up from a silk-strewn floor and then explodes into a just joyful celebration of our love for sound.  Every moment of it is absolutely ridiculous and absolutely beautiful.  You can’t watch it and not think, “You know, humanity’s all right.”

Falco is entirely aware of our capacity for darkness, and some of the more over-done aspects of even his most effervescent videos key into those dark zones.  Lest we forget, his second big hit, Jeanny, is a song explicitly about child kidnapping, and the video is about as dark as you can get:

But it’s the existence of videos like that which makes Amadeus and Wiener Blut so much more delightful.  They sizzle with an awareness of our great capacity for self-harm and the determination to overcome all of that in a great orgiastic celebration of our common bond.  Be you a grotesque tourist, a biker, or a man with a gauge for a head, there is a place for you at Falco’s table of humanity.  If, as humanists, we could tap into this vein a bit more and into our valuable but rather mopey instincts for phrase parsing a bit less, it might do us, and those people proximal to us, a decided good.

Culture Language Music

Humans Are Great 1: The Violet

One of the things we in the atheist/humanist community catch a fair amount of perhaps deserved ribbing for is the fact that our frustration is so constant a presence in our lives that it prevents us from stopping and enjoying the beauty of the humanity we abstractly champion.  We are in such a hurry to be devastatingly clever that we don’t let ourselves be struck dumb on occasion by the beauty of humanity’s fancy.  To remedy that, right here, every Monday, I’ll offer up a little bit of something lovely to ponder and enjoy before you head into the grotesque realities of the work week.  It’s Humans are Great, and today we start with what happens when one of the greatest poets of all time meets two of our greatest composers:

 

“Faust? Yeah, I wrote that.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was a creature from a different world, descended upon Germany with the goal of remaking its literature, breathing light and excitement and verse into a dreary, religion-obsessed landscape.  After the scourges of Reformation and Counter-Reformation had done their best to render Central Europe a neurotic husk of a region, morbidly given to tallying and re-tallying its sins, a shift of focus to the lyric beauty of the smallest things was in order.  Goethe provided this in so many ways, but one of his most beloved works tells the simple story of a violet standing in a field, hoping to be plucked by a passing maiden, but finding itself trodden by the same (as always, I ask your indulgence with my entirely arrhythmic translation):

 

Das Veilchen (1774)

Ein Veilchen auf der Wiese stand,                                                   A violet stood in a meadow,
gebückt in sich und unbekannt;                                                       Slightly stooped and unseen;
es war ein herzigs Veilchen.                                                               It was a sweet violet.
Da kam ein’ junge Schäferin                                                              Then came a young shepherdess
mit leichtem Schritt und munterm Sinn                                         With light steps and a lively spirit
daher, daher,                                                                                         thence, thence,
die Wiese her und sang.                                                                      To the meadow, while singing.

Ach! denkt das Veilchen, wär’ ich nur                                            Ah! Thought the violet, if only I were
die schönste Blume der Natur,                                                        The most lovely flower in creation,
ach, nur ein kleines Weilchen,                                                         Ah, if only for a short while,
bis mich das Liebchen abgepflückt                                                 Until that maiden picked me
und an dem Busen matt gedrückt,                                          And fastened me loosely to her breast,
ach, nur, ach nur                                                                                 Ah, if only, if only
ein Viertelstündchen lang!                                                               A few moments long.

Ach, aber ach! Das Mädchen kam                                                   And yet!  The maiden came
und nicht in acht das Veilchen nahm,                                            And didn’t notice the small violet,
ertrat das arme Veilchen.                                                                  And trod upon the poor violet.
Es sank und starb, und freut’ sich noch:                                        He sank and died, and rejoiced:
und sterb’ ich denn, so sterb’ ich doch                                            And so I die, and so I die,
durch sie, durch sie,                                                                           through her, through her,
zu ihren Füßen doch!                                                                         Beneath her very feet!

There’s a Pixar short in there somewhere, but the point is that, after two and a half centuries of drab theological pondering, the Germans were waking to simple beauty and fragility again.  And so they began setting the poem to song.

 

One of the great pleasures in life is listening to the same poem treated by different musical geniuses, and Das Veilchen gives us plenty to choose from.  I’m going to pick two for your Monday morning, the first is Mozart’s setting of 1776, which includes the beautiful idea of recapitulating the line “Das arme Veilchen.  Es war ein herziges Veilchen.” – a summary of everything that poor little flower was and hoped to be, swallowed up in an unmarked moment of shimmering impermanence:

 

 

 

And the second is by Clara Schumann (1819-1896), one of the greatest pianists of her time, and a thumping good composer as well.  Her songs are something everybody ought to treat themselves to, particularly as there are so few of them (she refused to write any more after her husband, the great Robert Schumann, died in 1856) , and all are quite heart-rending.  This is one of her later ones, hailing from 1854.  The repetitions she uses are tellingly different, and don’t include the added final line:

 

 

 

And there you have it.  Two bits of beauty about a poor little flower that got stepped on round about three centuries ago.  I love little things like that – they are like big comfy blankets that keep us all warm under our shared human tradition.  And I look forward to sharing more with you in the weeks and months and years to come.

 

Recommended Recordings:

 

Kathleen Battle’s recording of the Mozart (on Kathleen Battle in Concert with James Levine at the piano) is entirely wonderful.  For Schumann, a copy of Dorothea Craxton’s rendition of the complete Schumann songs came into my hands just last week, and I’m going to guardedly say, fully recognizing that in the first flush of newness I tend to exaggerate, that it’s my favorite recording of them yet.

Culture Music

Did Classical Music Die When God Did?

Among the various and manifold jackasseries nailed to the page by James R. Gaines in his Bach biography Evening in the Palace of Reason is the supremely unfair but wildly popular statement that, once God left classical music, so did its ability to say anything sublime or meaningful.  To be fair, he said it while comparing the deeply religious music of Johann Sebastian Bach to the elegant and fluffily appealing court music of Johann Joachim Quantz, but that hasn’t stopped the thought from being applied to the classical music of our own times.

The music written by modern, atheist composers, the argument runs, has an emotional spectrum running from “anxious” to “very anxious,” and that’s about it.  Love, passion, and above all, sublimity, are entirely beyond these composers’ capacity to portray with their shriveled, sarcastic hearts guiding merciless, ironic pens.

There are, let’s be clear, composers for whom this is manifestly true.  I mean, I love Iannis Xenakis, but I’m not going to say for a moment that I’ve ever felt an emotion beyond a sort of Vulcan creepy-cool mathematical appreciation when listening to his music.  There are, however, atheist composers who have delivered unto us music of breathtaking scope and depth, and it’s time to recognize that fact, starting with the big three: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), Béla Bartók (1881-1945), and Leoš Janáček (1854-1928).

“Holy shit, Rimsky-Korsakov was an atheist?!”

That was my reaction too when a copy of his memoirs first found its way onto my bookshelves bearing the categorical statement, “I took rather readily to the view that ‘there is no God and it’s all just invention.’  However, this thought troubled me little… my piety, weak even before then, had completely evaporated, and I felt no spiritual hunger.”  And yet, religious music and the expression of religious sentiment is everywhere in Rimsky-Korsakov’s music.  How did he find it in him to write this music, and write it so very well?

A clue comes in his discussion of the opera The Snow Maiden (Snegurochka).  “The melodies of ancient orthodox canticles, are they not of ancient pagan origin?  Are not many rites and dogmas of like origin?  The holidays of Easter, Trinity Sunday, etc., are not they adaptations of Christianity from the pagan sun cult?”  Rimsky-Korsakov could continue to write music on Christian themes precisely because he took a larger view of what that religion was – a variation on ancient practices that were rooted in prehistoric people’s awe of the world around them.  By returning to that source, he could capture the naturalistic essence of religious wonder without groveling before the trappings of Christian specificity.  It was religious writing more authentic than any particular religion could encompass, because at its center was not god, but humanity’s perception of continuity and change.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s love of fantasy and magic, of peasant melodies and pagan fairy tales, his intoxication with the sound of foreign lands and instruments, all combine in his operas and orchestral works to produce moments of ageless melancholy (take a listen to the death scene in The Snow Maiden or Lyubasha’s aria in act I of The Tsar’s Bride), sumptuous eroticism (take in that violin figure in Scheherezade and just try to not think about humping, I dare you), and, yes, old-fashioned haunting sublimity (his cantata Song of Oleg the Wise is crazy-good but largely unknown.)

 

Death Scene from The Snow Maiden

 

So, fine, Rimsky-Korsakov got away with some degree of multi-dimensionality because he was a primarily 19th century composer of particularly broad interests.  But Béla Bartók?  The man who wrote such aggressively uncuddly music as the fourth string quartet and the student-twisting Mikrokosmos?  It seems unlikely – the man had an awful life, full of disappointment and dislocation.  Unable to believe in a higher power, to find success in his home nation, or to resist the allure of women waaaaaay younger than him, he coasted dissatisfied through decades of illness-bestrewn life before emigrating to an indifferent America one step ahead of the Nazis.  It would have been the most forgivable thing ever if he just ground out Difficult compositions, one after the other, with a sort of “Screw all y’all” bitterness.  But he didn’t.  The amazing thing about Bartók is that, even in the depths of isolation and misery, he was able to produce music of all hues, and indeed his most varied music comes from the low ebb of his fortunes, the years 1937-1945.

Starting at the end, his third piano concerto was the last piece of music he completed before passing away in a New York City hospital bed.  The second movement of this piece is labelled Adagio Religioso, a reference to the musical idiom in which it was written, and is heart-rending throughout in a way that defies all popular conceptions about the rigorous inflexibility of Bartók’s music.  What I love most about it is the middle section, which is given over to Bartók’s representation of the songs of various birds he heard while travelling through North Carolina.  It’s an amazing moment- one of the most challenging composers of the Twentieth Century, lying on his death bed, putting this beautiful music to paper and interspersing throughout it some bits of bird song that caught his ear in days past.  That sense of vulnerable whimsy is so potent that my eyes welled up in tears the first time I heard it, and it impacts me forcefully still.

 

Piano Concerto No. 3, Movement 2

 

I sense you’re still cynical.  We’ve all watched Amadeus, we know that Writing Beautiful Things is just what composers do on their death beds.  It’s in the contract.  So, let’s go back a ways and see if we can catch Bartók being brazenly emotional any time other than when staring down the grim specter of death itself.  It turns out that, when you start seeking out examples, they pop up all over the place.  There is the madcap, almost drunken, abandon he allowed himself in the Finale of the Concerto for Orchestra, which is itself a spillover from the absurd fun he had in the third movement of his Divertimento.

Now there’s a work for you, one which starts off at a mad tear and ends in a totally soused pizzicato dance punctuated by bleary hiccups.  What makes both of these pieces of unchecked revelry all the more remarkable is that they were written in 1940 and 1939, respectively, during the first years of Bartók’s exile from his homeland.  A religious composer in those circumstances would easily have turned the Spiritual Escapism up to Eleven and offered the world yet another cantata on the subject of Jesus or Oedipus or some such thing.  Bartók chose to laugh, to have himself a lark and take us along for the ride.

Going back to before his departure to America, we have waiting for us his 6th String Quartet, the last piece he wrote in Europe.  You can choose pretty much any movement and be treated to a profound emotional experience, but the last movement is pure lyric tragedy, written just after the death of his mother, we hear in it Bartók pouring out every last ounce of his sadness and loss, and all the Ave Marias in the world can’t match the power of its raw, wounded agony.

 

String Quartet 6, Movement 4

 

If Bartók is the closely guarded theorist who only lets the full color of his fancy out to play on special occasions, Leoš Janáček is the perpetually angst-ridden teenager whose passions are his curse and our blessing (if you’ll pardon the use of the term).  Many consider him the greatest operatic composer of the Twentieth Century, and it’s hard not to at least put him in the top three.  He was a man intoxicated by love and sound.  Wherever he went, he would jot down the musicality of the everyday speech around him, its rhythm and flow, its characteristic pitches and melodic turns, compiling for himself a stockpile of thousands of utterances of everyday opera which then formed the basis for his tonal worlds, lending them a grounding in human expressivity rarely surpassed.

That alone was enough to make for some great music, but it might not have come to much had it not been for the fact that Janáček was a horn dog of the first order.  One of the great guilty pleasure reads you can avail yourself of are the letters he wrote during the last decades of his life to Kamila Stosslova, a married woman whose increasingly alarming rotundity only stoked the fires of Janáček’s passion further.  What is both wonderful and terrible about these letters is how achingly reminiscent of high school they are – the words of a smart man who wants a girl not really that into him but who thinks that by displays of Importance and Learning he’ll somehow impress her into loving him.

Or maybe that’s just what high school was like for me….

In any case, what becomes abundantly clear is how, in his late sixties, the fire of passionate love was still burning him from the inside out, pushing him to write masterpiece after masterpiece as a substitutive act for the great love he couldn’t have.  Some of his most magnificent works are stoked on the fires of this passion, representing its different shades and flavors as the relationship waxed and waned.  Katya Kabanovna is a more or less direct representation of his relations with Kamila, with Katya as the married woman seeking a passionate love to settle the deep longing she feels and which her business-traveling husband, Tichon (a substitute for her real husband, David, a generally decent bloke)  is unable to provide.

 

Excerpts from Katya Kabanovna

 

It’s Janáček’s most intimate fantasy given sonic flesh.  The exchanges between the character standing in for him (Boris) and Katya are filled with all of the unrealized desire of a man in the full grips of romantic delusion.  At the conclusion of acts II and III, Janáček lets loose the reins of his fancy as Katya and Boris fall inevitably towards each other, igniting a love so intense it can only end in tragedy.

One would think that enough of a tribute to an infatuation, but Janáček kept drawing on different aspects of Kamila’s characters for his other towering works of late life.  He grasped her playfulness and sense of ease in The Cunning Little Vixen and her capacity for cold indifference in Vec Makropulos, the story of a three hundred year old woman who has fallen into complete apathy as regards love and life.  There’s hardly a nook of the emotional spectrum that he wasn’t spurred to capture in sound by his overpowering love of the vaguely spherical Stosslova.

 

Is there modern music that rigidly denies itself any flavor of sentiment beyond anxiety-inducing orchestral noodling?  Of course there is, and there are things to be said for it (some of the best of which were laid out by Milton Babbitt in his now-notorious 1958 article Who Cares If You Listen? and which are really worth a visit), however to lay all of that emotive monodimensionality at the foot of the rise of godlessness in music is a bit much.  They don’t come much more godless than the three gentlemen we’ve just spent some time with, and all three of them felt equally comfortable in portraying intensely personal moments of loss as towering themes of human transcendence.  You don’t lose your capacity for awe and sublimity just because you don’t believe in superpowerful rules brokers.  It is a case of there being more in our philosophy than is contained in our notions of Heaven and Earth, if only we are willing to look, and listen.

Culture Music

Sing Me the Earth’s End: Two Secular Songwriters Redefine What Music Can Do

The wisdom of the crowd has it that there are some subjects utterly inconceivable as the stuff of musical treatment.  And that judgment is completely correct until the day some musical genius wakes up with a scrap of a notion that turns into a bit of a melody that vaults into a juggernaut of a song which populates our sonic landscape with new and suddenly integral ideas.  Of all the concepts that seem ill-suited for popular song treatment, none seems quite so obviously unthinkable as The End of Human Civilization.  And yet, both Shelley Segal and Tombstone da Deadman, within the space of this last slim year, have managed it, and beautifully.

Segal’s An Atheist Album (March 2013) is a seven-track marvel that hits some notes familiar in the pop landscape (the awful position of women in world religion, the grotesque effrontery of Salvation) but more often sets off all on its own into the depths of the thematic jungle.  I’m going to stick to my particular favorite song, an ode to the end of existence that makes you feel warm all over, “Apocalyptic Love Song.”    Over a simple and frail strummed guitar Segal’s voice ponders the following by way of opening:

 

One day the sun is going to die.

For us that means no more sunsets.

For the universe, just one less star in the sky.

 

I admit getting goosebumply when those lines first hit me – I paused it before letting the song move on to try and figure out what exactly this new thing was.  I’m still wondering, but I think a large part of it is this – Segal is giving us a vision of inevitability and nothingness that is tinged by a fragile human sweetness, a Muss es sein? resignation that still keeps with it a snatch of something lovely and worth the while, if only for the while.

One could write an extinction song with the aim of paralyzing the listener with awe and dread, and in some settings, like a Mahler symphony, that works beautifully.  But something different is required for our times, and Segal found it – extinction as a creature of final whimsy, deserving of a sort of half-smile when we look up from our loves of the moment:

 

And yes I understand that my whole life is just a blink of an eye
in the history of the earth, as with each moment that goes by
but this moment that I’m with you
It feels like time has stood still
It feels somehow like it matters
And that it always will.

 

Is that not one of the most beautiful thoughts set to song?  Not time has stood still, not that our time together does have eternal significance that the heavens above take note of, but that it all FEELS like it does, and that there is something somehow more precious about knowing that it’s just a feeling standing against a mammoth reality, and letting yourself be warmed by it for a bit anyway.

It’s Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” taken to the next level.  I won’t follow you into the dark, but while it’s light, I’ll be with you and you’ll be with me, and there is something to the positive nothingness of that which we must smile about and love.

Living in quite a different tonal world is the new album, Entropic Man, by Tombstone da Deadman (October 2013), the follow-up to his much-beloved Rise of the Infidel (2012).  It features two tracks that take as their subject not only the end of human existence, but the end of existence generally under the cool and indifferent watch of thermodynamics.  In the concluding tracks, “All Things Must Pass” and “Death Speaks”, Tombstone assumes the guise of Entropy and Death themselves, surveying from those perspectives the progress of the universe and man’s small lot among it all.

As entropy, he introduces himself with a power and force that suggests John Milton crossed with Carl Sagan:

 

I’ve seen the laws of physics sort out themselves
I’ve seen stars and planets form from out of gravity wells

even galaxies colliding with others in cataclysmic wonder
I caused destruction on levels too high to have a number

part of reality’s fabric, attached to it like a magnet
I’m not a villain there’s no reason to panic

but see I’m not a hero either, I’m both but still neither
transcending all your names Anubis to the grim reaper.

 

And it’s perfect – that realization that we want to personify every immaterial thing with spirit and purpose, when in fact there are just events guided by laws quite outside of heroism and moral remark.  And, like with Segal, the sheer massiveness of the universe’s indifference is the very thing that frees us as humans to enjoy life as humans do and must:

 

so when the day comes that I put an end to it
reflect upon your life in the last minutes that you spend with it

just think about the people that you have touch and ones that you loved so much
accomplishments and failures fun times and all the such

or not….cause you can choose to go into the darkness screaming
disturbing all your people but to me it has no meaning.

 

All Things Must Pass, the chorus intones, and in those moments that the song in all of its imagination-defying scope drifts past you, that fact seems genuinely okay.  From Entropy, then, we pass to Death, which begins rather chummily with, “Hello Humanity, it’s your boy Death… I think it’s time that we had a little heart to heart.”  And then it’s down the rabbit hole as Death lays the simple and unadorned facts of existence before us and wonders about how we’ve taken those basic facts and twisted them into the various ecstatic death cults that have spotted, and continue to drench, our civilization:

 

Why romanticize stories of species-wide genocide,

Why not just celebrate the limited time that you are alive?

See, I’ve been watching you monkeys for many years

Your history is full of deceptive thoughts and red tears,

I’ve reaped the benefits of your murderous ways,

And laughed and even enjoyed the lies about the soul

You think you have.

 

The whole song crackles with the exasperated laughter born of frustration that comes with perspective.  And it’s terribly sad too – it is painful to ponder how much of our time as a species we have spent denying our basic worth and denigrating the time given us in the name of What Is To Come, wasting away while anticipating a next world or an Armageddon when there are problems to be solved, people to be fed and the occasional kitten chin to be scratched.

Atheist music is a tough thing to pull off, as is any music driven by ideas possessing a certain degree of intricacy.  Like songs of social justice, there is a tremendous capacity for it all to go horribly wrong, with an end product sounding more snide and superior than earnest and heart-felt.  But we have the immense good fortune of having not one, but two (and more every day) songwriters of superb instinct showing us the way, not just to what atheist songs can do, but what depths of insight songwriting in general can achieve.