Sometime in the second century after Christ, the Greek author Longinus left behind for us a cryptic philosophical work. Its title is commonly translated into English as On the Sublime – and if you’re unfamiliar with the concept, we can think of the “Sublime” as “that which is excellent beyond customary description”. Simply put, it’s a circumstance where some item, thing, idea, joke, insight, color, shape, form, void, essence has obvious greatness, even perfection, but understanding why its perfection works defies our ability to use words to tell ourselves how it does so. No wonder that Longinus continues to confuse and frustrates students of Greek (by the way, the Greek title for On the Sublime is περι ‘υψος, pronounced “Peri – Hoop – Sauce”, which will be the name of my basketball blog should I ever create one), or even the souls that approach his work in English – it attempts to describe that which, by definition, cannot be easily described.
|Up here! The Sublime's up here, assholes! Why isn't anyone paying attention?|
Suits me for not assigning a final in Sublime class.
Which is what we’re doing today, through the medium of modern music. Specifically, tunes from about 1977-
85, in the context of recent deaths.
First, an aside about the sublime, through the medium of humor, which traffics in the sublime by nature. Confusion of meaning, genre, definition, referent, all these stand among the building blocks of humor. Considering the puzzling nature of the sublime, a familiar instance might be useful. As an example of a sublime joke, an example from the Dave Chappelle Show, in the skit of the “Player Haters Ball”: the situation is that the “Haters” are presented with pictures of celebrities, whom they then “roast”. All is well until they react to an image of Rosie O’Donnell:
“She wears underwear with dick holes in ‘em” is an amazing joke, and apparently unscripted (you can see the other comedians cracking up immediately before the cut). But if you think about the logic behind the joke, it makes no coherent sense. Obviously the celebrity’s sexuality (homosexual) is in play. But what has caused the hole? Is the joke insinuating that O’Donnell possesses a penis, and that it has worn through her underpants (which penises do not do)? That she has cut holes in her underpants to which to pass a penis, real or fake? Or has the penis bored through from the outside in some fashion? Probably best to not fixate on the permutations, because they are not the point. The holes form a sort of fractal, a logic problem, that is best experienced as an impression from a greater whole, and the shock of the initial impression matters more than the precise travel from A to B. Yes, we have no problem labeling this joke “sublime”, although perhaps we are no closer to answers.
Now one key to approaching the sublime is recognizing that the Sublime does not encapsulate the “excellent”, or the “well-crafted”; it is commonplace for objects of intense craftsmanship, expertise, and devotion to not fit the parameters of the Sublime, though they may deserve acclaim and general approval. Longinus and others from the ancient world who percolated on this topic (and perhaps later ones, as my knowledge of intellectual history ends with the Goths: Visi-, not Anglo) admitted that even works considered “failures” could still be sublime – one need only think of a work of media one loves despite its obvious flaws. And we all could.
In line with our context, let me present an item from category one (brilliant but not sublime): Metallica’s “Creeping Death” from Ride the Lightning.
A hyper-competent song, with memorable music, a suitable yet creative metal theme, in this case the biblical plagues, and fine musicianship. But if you look closely, the seams of its construction show and can be broken down and nitpicked. The lyrical structure is nothing special; the bridge perhaps slows down excessively and becomes repetitive, as do the component words. That said, none would question its basic excellence as a representative member of its genre. A classic, but not sublime.
From category two (flawed and yet with a hint of the sublime), Black Sabbath’s “Never Say Die”, off the album of the same name.
In this case, the production comes through as a mess. The main riff is suspiciously off time, Ozzy’s vocals slightly off key, and the instrumentation much more mundane than our above specimen. Yet the overall package transcends its broken parts in a musical Gestalt. The weak yet professional inter-weaving of the vocals and the music, and the undoubtedly faked energy behind it all, create a whole greater than the sum, and one of my favorite songs from the band’s later years. It helps to comprehend the similarly fragmented nature of the group at the time as mirrored in the track; the band split soon afterwards.
Capturing the sublime involves surrender to the law of diminishing returns: the larger the framework you draw, the harder the sublime becomes to capture. No wonder that the instant of the Chappelle joke succeeds where songs tend to fail. Often the sublime pertains to a single element of a larger whole. On one slightly hazy evening on a colleague’s balcony, an inebriated enemy of mine, in an unpredicted moment of appreciation, affirmed that the color of my shirt was sublime. I could not help but agree: an off-blue, neither deep, sky, nor powder.
|This is the first Google Images search result for "transcendent blue".|
An odd moment. But it remained one element of an otherwise nondescript formal shirt, whose sleeves, cut, and buttons escaped no constraints of the shirt genre. So with that aspect of the sublime forward in our minds, to the music of the dead.
David Bowie’s music certainly has many spots which a more ambitious reviewer could catalogue as sublime, but let us focus on one moment. 1977. Burned out at the start of the Berlin Trilogy, experimenting with electronic music in the company of Brian Eno,
begins his album Low with roughly
four minutes of instrumental music, starting with a song called "Speed of Life", and capped off by the opening guitar line of
the second track, “Breaking Glass”:
The same riff repeats three times with minor variations, and the opening warble resonates with a soulful air, a quality that resounds at several other times in the space of its relatively few notes. Obviously the produced result comes from the vibration of several bent strings, but it carries with it an implied emotion, something that reaches down into the individual and vibrates inside them as well. At this point the audience has yet to hear a spoken or sung word, and this repeated line creates the bridge between them. From this sublime moment we move on to the lyrics, fine in and of themselves, including the profundity of “You’re such a wonderful person/ but you got problems/…I never touch you”. I’m not the first person to read this as a wry encapsulation of modern love, something Mr. Bowie had multitudinous words about.
Onward to a different type of the sublime in the work of the recently deceased Prince. On his greatest achievement, Purple Rain, perhaps his best song is “When Doves Cry” (although I have and will be a partisan for “Let’s Go Crazy” and the title track). Good luck finding an online version of it, however, as the estate of Mr. Nelson famously and zealously guarded his music copyright even before his passing. Enjoy this for the week it'll be up on Youtube:
“When Doves Cry” remains an odd song in form and timbre; the bass never kicks in throughout even after the listener expects it, and the second half devolves into a perfectly fine if not exceptional dance instrumental. You could argue that the entire track fits our definition of “sublime”, and you are free to in your own forum. But I would argue that in the depths of this unusual song, its oddest moment is indeed its most sublime. Think of it as the musical equivalent to the Rosie O’Donnell joke. Here we are mid-verse, the second verse of the song (starting at :50):
Dream if you can a courtyard
An ocean of violets in bloom
Animals strike curious poses
They feel the heat, the heat between me and you
Transition to chorus
Let’s pay attention to the third line. This song, unlike many others, clearly aims to be heard and understood by the audience: its vocal performance verges on simple speech. Via the expectations of us, the listener, think about the vocal deixis (what the poetry directs us to envision and focus upon). We see the courtyard, the flowers, fairly logically connected to one another, and typical romantic imagery. Then we include animals, apropos of vary little and with little introduction, and immediately learn that they “strike curious poses” – once again, the issue of interpretation lingers: are the poses themselves curious, or do they indicate the animals’ curiosity? Only in the following line do we receive the explanation for their behavior; without it, the third presents a puzzle without obvious solution, and a disorientation, via the decomposition of meaning, which verges on the sublime.
Consider also, if you have the track available, the manner in which Prince sings the line. He pronounces “Animals” with a strange emphasis on the final syllable, nearly eliding the "L"; the rest of the line continues with an elongation of most syllables, including the final one of "poses". Once the line is over, the diction snaps back to normal. We’re led into a moment of curiosity as to what precisely is occurring, signaled by wording and “animals”; in that moment we find the workings of the sublime. This is even without mentioning the puzzle of why animals should react in this fashion to human behavior, and why the artist decided to craft this detail into the song itself.
Finally, an example from American punk, specifically the band “X” and their song “
Los Angeles” from the
album of the same name. To my knowledge, no members of the band are deceased,
but if rock is dead (a fair hypothesis), certainly punk is the deadest, having
lapsed into self-parody for most of the last 20 years. Anyway, the sublime to
be found in this excellent track (finding out this track was on the soundtrack
to GTA V certainly made my morning) comes in the manner of subverted
expectation, near the track’s very start:
We know that the track is called “
Los Angeles”, and so we anticipate the title,
the name of the city, to be mentioned, a sense only heightened when John Doe sings
“She/ had to leave…”. What will follow should most likely be “ Los
Angeles”, and as a rock song, the delivery of the words “ Los Angeles” should
follow the bounce of the rhythm. However, nothing of the sort happens.
Instead, we have a sequence of eight “chugs” – well, not actually. We have seven, and the eighth hit removes a drum and has instead a more muted tone. When we return to vocal, our delivery defies expectation: the singer changes to Exene, so far unheard on the track, and instead of following the beat, she wails the city’s name off-beat, in a different register, slightly after it logically should occur. The sublime lies in the moment of waiting, of uncertainty, as we stop to ascertain whether or not “
will occur, and in what way.
Perhaps I have not explained well the sublime. Perhaps the instances of the sublime in such pieces of music cannot be really recognized as such by others than myself – certainly critical taste diverges between people, even among widely accepted masterpieces. And, perhaps most critically, perhaps the effort to explain the sublime fails to capture what specifically the sublime is, and its key components. Would then that “quine” (a term I learned from Gödel, Escher, Bach to refer to statements that describe themselves), and make our analysis, itself, sublime?
No, I think not.