Saturday, 9 May 2015

Song of Songs

Whilst it is still available, I recommend that you listen to John Berger talking about "song" on Radio 3. The programme has been just about the best thing I've heard in years and the relevant bit that I want to write about starts 6 minutes in and lasts for about 24 minutes.

It should be available on the following link for another week or so:

The piece is about how song is experienced; its timelessness, the way it takes over the body, the way songs "lean forward" into the future in a way that poetry, prose and painting cannot.  As I was driving home listening to this and utterly mesmerised by Berger's beautiful prose, I couldn't help thinking that what he could have been describing was the Mass.  Now Berger is a Marxist Humanist and was certainly not describing the Mass, but to write so beautifully about "common" song, so much so that he could have been describing the Mass has inspired in me a week of idle thoughts and deeper meditations, which due to tiredness on my part are only half formed.

Is not the Mass our ultimate "Song of Songs"?  Is not the essence of Mass a timeless love song between the Lover and the beloved?  It is not a narrative.  It is not a piece of prose.  It is certainly more than poetry. Let me present to you a few of the ideas in John Berger's piece [with my thoughts in square brackets] and I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions....

  • To be successful, prose requires a shared language.  Sadly, too often this is something  that we no longer have, it is almost the defining element of our age that we cannot communicate with each other in prose because at a deep level because we've lost a common heritage.  Song transcends this.  We can be in communion with each other whilst experiencing the same song even if we do not understand the language of the song or its context.
  • A very memorable quote from the programme: 'The rich listen to song, the poor cling to it and make it their own.'  [Blessed be the poor in spirit... we have to get away from the "rich" experience of the Mass which is little more than listening "and cling to" the Mass "and make it our own".... surely this is genuine "active participation"?]
  • Pictures contain a presence.  Songs contain an absence, a separation, and as we listen we experience a shared absence.  Yet this absence becomes a triumph, usually mild, usually covert... the song takes us over and "encloses" us. [Isn't this the essence of our Judaic heritage?]
  • Song is not primarily intellectual or emotive but organic.  We find ourselves inside the message of the song, the song wraps its arms around us.  We become self-contained. Songs are about "being and becoming", they are part of the body.
  • Each song is like a river and all rivers flow into the sea; the "immense elsewhere" as Berger calls it.  Where the river meets the sea is called the mouth of the river. Berger makes the comparison to the importance of the mouth in a song. [And I can't help thinking of the importance of the mouth in Communion]

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