On Tuesday I appeared on WNYC's beloved Soundcheck show, alongside author and radio personality William Berger, to discuss the new Pope's musical policies. Will, as it happens, knows a huge amount about music and the Vatican. He even quoted profusely from then-Cardinal Ratzinger's musical writings in his book Puccini Without Excuses, which will be out in the fall. (What the Vatican has to do with Puccini is something you'll have to read the book to find out.) In my post the other day, I offered a paraphrase of the Pope's chapter on music in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy. Will has found the full text, and it's fascinating stuff. I was joking when I said the Pope sounded like Adorno, but the use of phrases like "century of self-emancipating subjectivity" suggest that he may well have Minima Moralia and a few other titles on his shelves. Here's the money graph, if one may speak of the Pope's writings that way:
There are two developments in music itself that have their origins primarily in the West but that for a long time have affected the whole of mankind in the world culture that is being formed. Modern so-called "classical" music has maneuvered itself, with some exceptions, into an elitist ghetto, which only specialists may enter -- and even they do so with what may sometimes be mixed feelings. The music of the masses has broken loose from this and treads a very different path. On the one hand, there is pop music, which is certainly no longer supported by the people in the ancient sense (populus). It is aimed at the phenomenon of the masses, is industrially produced, and ultimately has to be described as a cult of the banal. "Rock," on the other hand, is the expression of elemental passions, and at rock festivals it assumes a cultic character, a form of worship, in fact, in opposition to Christian worship. People are, so to speak, released from themselves by the emotional shock of rhythm, noise, and special lighting effects. However, in the ecstasy of having all their defenses torn down, the participants sink, as it were, beneath the elemental force of the universe. The music of the Holy Spirit's sober inebriation seems to have little chance when self has become a prison, the mind is a shackle, and breaking out from both appears as a true promise of redemption that can be tasted at least for a few moments. What is to be done?
What is to be done, indeed? The Pope has one strong point. He's saying that modern music is unnaturally divided between extremes of obscurantist complexity and extremes of mass-marketed simplicity, and he wants to see a healthy middle restored. He's actually in a position to do something, by commissioning and cultivating works of sacred music that restore the old unity of "popular" and "classical" elements. But the discussion is framed by a drastic judgment on pop music, indeed on the "dictatorship of relativism" in modern society, and that itch to judge will make it harder for him to achieve anything positive. An irony attends on those who complain about rampant relativism, whether in music or anything else. They say that all values are being leveled. But by dividing music into "serious" and "commercial" realms, or any other simplistic binary scheme, they are leveling everything within those genres, limiting the expressive potential of each. They are relativizing like crazy, and suppressing the individual voice.