This is about pop music, not scripture! Here is another in a series of occasional articles that discuss music that has move me greatly by its beauty. This one is a little more risky than the others. I'm going to talk about the rock band Genesis in their early manifestation (when Peter Gabriel was their lead singer and Phil Collins played drums and nothing else). There's nothing worse that an old codger trying to convince you that the pop music he liked in his day was genuinely good music. When I was young I used to yawn when the generation above me used to complain about my music and then tell me how great the Sixties was.....This is almost going to be one of those articles, but bear with me, I do have a reasonable point to make. So even you don't have a clue who I'm talking about, there might be something in it for you by the end!When I was sixteen, I had no interest in music and if you'd asked me I would have said that I just wasn't musical. Then I heard the album (do we still use that word nowadays?) by Genesis called Selling England by the Pound. This was my first experience of hearing a piece of music that just transported me through its beauty (the instrumental section in the last half of the track called Cinema Show and then instrumental sections, again, on the track, the Firth of Fifth ). What would happen later with Schubert, Brahms, Mozart and Palestrina happened first with Genesis.
It was purely the music. I didn't really understand the lyrics and didn't really care. The words sounded intellectual - the references were both obscure and eclectic enough to convince me that there was something clever going on and this satisfied my teenage pride. What I did pick up created a fantasy world that was evocative of rural idylls and classical mythology and this did seem to suit the music. For example there were references to classical literature and Dante with figures such as 'old father Tiresius' although I don't know why, and fantastic stories about Victorian explorers bringing the man-eating giant hogweed to Britain from Russia. Later, I heard the keyboardist Tony Banks explain that the reason they went in for this sort of thing was that they had all met at an English all-boys public school, Charterhouse, and they were still so young that none of them had really had many girlfriends. Because of this they didn't feel confident writing about girls in their songs like all the other pop stars did. Reinforcing this were the photographs I saw of them on stage. Lots of smoke, costumes and bright lights. Peter Gabriel in particular looked slightly wierd, but I liked that.
As a result of my experience in listening to this album, I became very interested in music and energetically started to collect all of their music and search for other groups that seemed to be similar. I listened to groups Yes, King Crimson, Emerson Lake and Palmer, if these mean anything to anyone any more.? Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin were there too, and I know that these names are still around today. All seemed good and I bought the albums, listened to the music and talked seriously about the personnel changes in the bands with my friends; but none seemed to have the quality of this early Genesis music which had connected with me so strongly. I didn't experience such a strong reaction to a piece of music again until I heard Schubert's Impromptus five years later that I had a similar reaction. (You can read about that occasion in an earlier article Schubert Soothes Savage Beasts and Placates Food Throwing Students.)
So why am I writing about this? Many years later I heard an interview with members of the band and they talked about how they composed the music. Unlike every rock band they knew about, they refused to use the blues scale and used conventional classical scales and musical forms in what they did. They used rock instruments, and had complex rhythms in it, with Phil Collins a virtuoso drummer interpreting their music. I didn't know it at the time, but this is what I was picking up in their music and responding to. This is why it sounded different.
I always think that music connects with the soul and then gives it motion. That motion can be towards something higher, or something lower. If it is sending me towards something higher, then it is stimulating in me, at some level, a desire for the ultimate beauty, God. This music connected with me as sixteen year old and created a desire for more. I don't think that classical music would have done it then. I had to listen to lots of Genesis before I was ready for that, but it sent me in the right direction. I wasn't thinking of God, but I was searching for beauty. I listed the other music names that had such an effect on me above and that final one, Palestrina, I heard in the Brompton Oratory over 10 years later during Mass. After Palestrina it seemed, the only way up was God and he was preparing me to see that. If you pushed me now I might say that Byrd's Ave Verum Corpus sits between Palestrina and God, but I don't want to split hairs.
What Genesis had done was create a style of popular culture that participated in the traditional forms of beauty. They were good composers and musicians but (and time may judge otherwise) probably not at the level of those other figures. They were not, to my knowledge Christian, but they were doing what Christians who wished to engage with modern culture ought to have been doing. That is, create forms that participate in the timeless values that unite all that is good, and then present in such as way that connect with the people of the day and open their hearts, subtly, to God. Popular culture changes so much and so quickly that I wouldn't expect Genesis to connect with people today in the same way. it is the exact opposite of the way that most Christians attempt to harness popular culture - they use the degraded forms of the pop culture and then add overtly Christian lyrics. The result, Christian rock, is just a bad advert for the Faith.
We need more composers who can do the same thing today - create a Christian popular culture that hooks people subtly through form. It would not sound like Genesis now I don't think. It almost certainly just sounds dated to most people who listen to today's pop music, but the same principle could apply if someone knew how to do it.
The other point is that Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins were a success in their field by any measure. I would maintain that harnessing beauty in the arts offers those artists who do it well a greater chance of popular success than if they just go along with the herd.
Anyway, so back to being a grumpy old man...here's real music not like the stuff that the youth of today listen to....
The Firth of Fifth http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SD5engyVXe0
Cinema Show: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G501Ii0X0NE
Below Genesis circa 1972.....