Benedictus and Baudelaire Come Together for an “Examination of Conscience at Midnight” in Jean-François Charles’s Music

Written in 2011 and recorded this year by Ligament—Anika Kildegaard (voice) and Will Yager (bass)—University of Iowa Assistant Professor Jean-François Charles’s Benedictus is a fitting song to listen to at a time when we are nearing the midnight of the year, to say nothing of midnight on the Doomsday Clock, which has been on the verge of twelve o’clock for so long that crisis seems to be a permanent state of affairs. Perpetual night seems like day, the forever war is the closest thing we have to peace, and constant gaslighting supplants truth. A fitting song, and a welcome song at a time when so much is coming into 20/20 focus that obliges us as individuals and as communities to examine our conscience.

I have certain thing for dark nights of the soul, and of the mind. I have been reviving evening viewings of Twin Peaks with my beautiful wife and discussing how it is a dark soap opera, a sort of cinematic mashup of film noir and soap opera. Charles’s song is similarly a mashup, and it is similarly almost cinematic in its cutting between a setting of text from the Roman Sanctus and a spliced-together setting of Charles Baudelaire’s “L’examen de minuit” from Les fleurs du mal—or, as rendered in William Aggeler’s translation, “Examination of Conscience at Midnight” from Flowers of Evil.

Benedictus begins with a single-second sample of a clock, which is referenced in the first line of the poem—an allusion perhaps to Pink Floyd’s “Time” (1973), which begins with a quiet ticking sound, and which is wrapped up in another sort of dark cinematic mashup (i.e., The Dark Side of Oz, about which I have written). Charles’s song further proceeds with a Pink-Floyd-like block of space music to clear the air and set the dark tone. The space is colored with an electric string bass, electroacoustic instruments being Charles’s specialty. The bass sounds intermittently through the song, as a kind of Greek chorus taking in the ironic display (irony is referenced in the second line of the poem). I will say a word about both display and irony.

Both songs (“Benedictus” and “Time”) put wasted, defiled time on display in a way that can shock the listener awake (the ticking in “Time” is followed by an alarm clock going off). The same, incidentally, is true of Swoope’s “Schizo / Hollow Dreams Interlude,” from the album Wake Up (2012). For exposure, hopefully, is what can overcome vice, within and without. As the poet acknowledges at the end of Baudelaire’s poem, in the voice of a conspirator, “Quickly let us snuff out the lamp, / So we may hide in the darkness!” (Vite soufflons la lampe, afin / De nous cacher dans les ténèbres).

The irony consists in the juxtapositions of the mashup in Charles’s song. The text from the Sanctus is a blessing of he who comes in the name of the Lord (benedictus qui venit in nomine domini)—i.e., Jesus, as the second stanza of Baudelaire’s poem explains. The first sounding of the benedictus music concludes not with the expected note but with a note just adjacent, which segues into Baudelaire’s poet’s confession of sins—sins that prevent as it were a complete sounding of the benedictus music with a clear conscience.

There is more to confession than just words, though, for even the demons name the “Son of the Most High God.” Confession is repentance, turning toward compunction instead of cynicism. Appropriately, then, the poem is set schizophrenically with two voices, so to speak, the one harsh and the other mournful, even wailing. And confession is recurrent, because there is always another layer to expose in the soul. Appropriately, then, the two voices alternate. And it is the mournful, repentant voice that is able, as it were, to lead back to the benedictus music, through the word “light” (lumière). These two voices together with that of the benedictus music may be likened to the proverbial devil and angel on our shoulders as we pray to God in our heads in between, or they may be likened to the foolish thief and the wise thief, who give contrasting responses to Jesus crucified between them.

Through their juxtaposition, these two voices draw sharp almost visual lines between the bright light of repentance and the “wan light of putrefaction” (de la putrefaction… la blafarde lumière). The latter phrase is reminiscent of Emanuel Swedenborg’s discussion of people who think they are wise and good from themselves, rather than the opposite, being themselves from wisdom and goodness. He describes this mistake as that the people “close the higher regions of their mind…. Since the higher regions of their mind are closed, where the true light of life makes its home, a lower region of their mind opens up that is attuned only to the glimmer of the world. That glimmer, devoid of light from the higher regions, is faint and deceptive.” This attunement focuses purely on, as the poem says, “stupid and unfeeling Matter” (la stupide Matière).

The song brings out this material focus especially through its highlighting of two words: “baisé” and “l’ivresse.” “Baisé,” delicately translated by Aggeler as “kissed,” reveals its double entendre through its harsh, mechanistic repetition. “L’ivresse” (drunkenness) receives a similar treatment. The bass joins this mechanistic groove, now much more agitated, and this groove is then mashed up with the opening space music, leaving its meaning open.

Every listener will take something different from the song, depending as they may identify in different ways at different moments with the three voices or the bass. It is a remarkable statement, and I look forward to hearing more songs from Charles.

AMS Midwest, Fall Meeting Highlights

The Fall meeting of the Midwest Chapter of the American Musicological Society took place virtually during the last weekend of September. Meeting over Zoom came with some benefits, including a significantly larger number of attendees. Planning, managing, and hosting the conference brought together colleagues from across many Midwest institutions.

Undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty from Iowa attended and contributed in various roles. Anabel Maler served on the program committee. Cody Norling shared a research presentation titled “Creating a ‘Haven for Culture’: Fortnightly Clubwomen and Advocacy for Opera in Interwar Chicago.” As chapter president, Nathan Platte helped emcee the conference and joined the keynote panel, “Musicology and Antiracism,” where he shared reflections alongside Naomi André (University of Michigan), Johann Buis (Wheaton College), and Maya Gibson (University of Missouri). The panelists’ remarks were recorded and may be viewed here.

The AMS Midwest chapter will gather again in spring 2021 in a first-ever joint meeting with MIDSEM, the Midwestern chapter of the Society for Ethnomusicology. That meeting, also held virtually, will be hosted by the University of Iowa.

Interning at Hancher Auditorium…from home

Cody (upper left) in a planning session with Chuy Renteria (Hancher public engagement coordinator) and fellow intern Emily Wieder

During the summer of 2020, Cody Norling served as an intern with Hancher Auditorium. The partnership was supported through the Humanities for the Public Good program hosted by the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies. Cody shared reflections on the collaboration at last week’s Obermann showcase. Here are some highlights from his remarks:

Over the course of the summer, I applied both my research skills and broad humanities training to the public-engagement efforts of Hancher Auditorium. My primary duties included locating possible university and community partners for scheduled events, researching best practices for operating during an extended COVID-19 era, recording and editing a weekly podcast, and creating a series a connected program essays for the coming season’s scheduled dance acts.

The internship experience added to my academic training a greater sense of working flexibility and an emphasis on continued group efforts. Whereas the routine expectations of a doctoral program (and professional career) necessitate an emphasis on individual contributions to the field in the form of single-author publications, my work with Hancher was built on teamwork toward shared goals. This was achieved through weekly meetings and the divvying of key tasks among the entire public-engagement team. In general, I have been most impressed by my ability to apply musicological practices to public-facing work within a group-work setting while also maintaining a careful balance between work time and personal time.

Conversing with Dr. Anabel Maler

This past spring, Ph.D. student Alexis Tuttle sat down with Dr. Anabel Maler to learn more about her and her work as a music theorist. After the spring term became significantly more complicated (COVID), we decided to save releasing their discussion until now: an introductory encounter as we all begin a new academic year. Here are Lexy’s highlights from that conversation.

Dr. Anabel Maler

Dr. Maler grew up in a small, rural community in Ontario; Ottawa was the closest large city. Her father was a professor of neuroscience and loved jazz. In addition to hearing her father’s jazz collection at home, she played the flute in school. In 10th grade, Dr. Maler was accepted to an arts high school in Ottawa, which she described as very immersive. There she continued to take flute lessons in addition to honing skills in piano and music theory. She began studying at McGill University at age 16, where her enthusiasm for performance was tempered from being doubted because of her young age. As her education continued, she fell in love with academia. For Dr. Maler, learning Renaissance counterpoint delivered a satisfaction similar to solving a puzzle. As she pursued more advanced music theory classes and techniques, her fascination continued to grow. After McGill University, Dr. Maler went on to study at the University of Chicago, which she described as her dream school. She was particularly fond of the architecture and the beautiful walks through campus.

I wanted to know more about her work with deaf culture and musical interpretation. She told me that she had a lifelong fascination with languages. She learned ASL during her Master’s degree, and watching YouTube videos of music being interpreted into ASL fueled her curiosity. Working with Nicole Biamonte, a professor of music theory at McGill (and former faculty member at UI), the project of translating rock and pop music into ASL led to a “lightbulb” moment: that gestures themselves can be musical. As her academic work continued, she continued to learn more about deaf culture and disability studies. It was a hugely understudied area, and she feels it is an important task to bring the deaf cultural perspective into more wide-reaching academic study. A new project of hers that’s currently in the works involves Dip-Hop (signed rap music), the rhythmic techniques used by deaf rappers, and the relationships between signs, English, and background music. Not knowing ASL myself, I found that this opened my eyes to an entirely different world of music from what I’ve encountered before. She is also working on a book project that explores deaf and signing voices, asking, “what does it mean to sing in ASL?” The goal of this project is to create a framework for the signing voice. Dr. Maler sees her work as an important step toward epistemic inclusion and fighting injustice where deaf people have been too often excluded in the production of musical knowledge. Dr. Maler is also the chair of the Society of Music Theory Accessibility Committee.

Before moving on to more personal topics, I asked about her preferred teaching topics. Dr. Maler told me that her favorite topic was disability in music. She found it to be extremely rewarding because she can see students’ perspectives change over the course of the class as they confront questions and issues they had perhaps not encountered before. She also enjoys teaching twentieth-century music theory classes, where she can see her students make sense of the music as the material becomes more accessible.

In her free time, Dr. Maler enjoys taking care of her many plants and her two cats. She also likes to make things: knitting, crocheting, and baking, in particular. She told me about her “side gig” during her PhD program making custom cakes—she even made her own wedding cake. Her husband, Dr. Robert Komaniecki, is also a music theorist and just joined the UI theory faculty as a visiting assistant professor. Dr. Komaniecki is a collaborator on the in-progress Dip-Hop project. In addition, they are both vegetarians who enjoy trying out new dishes and restaurants. Dr. Maler recommended the Havelli Indian restaurant here in Iowa City as well as Trumpet Blossom Café. She also likes to visit the frozen yogurt shop in the pedestrian mall and walk through the parks in Iowa City when the weather is nice.

I had a wonderful experience learning more about Dr. Maler, and I hope you all will join me in welcoming her to the University of Iowa.

Hurrah, Arthur Scoleri!

Earlier this season, Arthur Scoleri successfully defended their musicology master’s thesis, “‘Thus He is Mine’: Reconciling Queerness and English Musical Tradition in Britten’s Canticle I.” Through close readings of the canticle and Britten’s realization of Purcell’s “Lord, What is Man,” Arthur showed how “the contemplation inspired by Britten’s text (and text-painting) does not merely ‘out’ the composer, but instead poses moral questions to the listener.” By integrating Britten scholarship within reparative methods advocated by scholars like Eve Sedgwick and Will Cheng, Arthur deploys musical analysis to reflect on Britten’s queerness “without overshadowing the other, often more pressing, complexities there.”

Benjamin Britten roses in Arthur’s garden

In working on the thesis, Arthur visited the Britten-Pears Library at Aldeburgh and shared early research at the North American British Music Studies Association in 2018. In addition, Arthur (a committed gardener) cultivated the Benjamin Britten rose alongside a pear tree. Kudos, Arthur!

UI presentations at the Society for American Music’s First Virtual Conference

Looking for some fresh musicology to energize your week? Stop by the annual conference for the Society for American Music, which will be held online, July 16-18. This year’s conference program is made possible in part through the heroic efforts of program chair Dr. Wilson Kimber, who helped arranged two programs: one for the regularly scheduled March meeting (canceled) and a second iteration for SAM’s first-ever virtual conference.

Friday morning features presentations from Iowa graduate students and faculty. At 10:00 a.m. (CDT) you can take in Ph.D. candidate Megan Small’s talk on “Minnesota Mermaids: Exoticism in the Aquatennial’s Aqua Follies Water Ballet.” At 10:30, toggle over to “Rhythmic Techniques in Signed Rap” from Drs. Anabel Maler and Robert Komaniecki.

More information about these presentations, the conference schedule, and registration may be found here.

Wall Street Journal notice and summer reading with Nathan Platte

Dr. Platte’s most recent book, Making Music in Selznick’s Hollywood, is featured in the Wall Street Journal‘s “Five Best” column, where biographer Steven Smith (Music by Max Steiner) shares his favorite books on film music. Platte’s book shares the shelf with The Music of James Bond, by Variety journalist Jon Burlingame, and the memoirs of composer Henry Mancini, fittingly titled Did They Mention the Music?

A Damsel in Distress (1937) – George Gershwin, Fred Astaire and ...
Fred Astaire, Gracie Allen and George Burns in Damsel in Distress (1937)

Platte also has two chapters in recent publications. In The Cambridge Companion to Gershwin (ed. Anna Celenza), his chapter shows how different directors visualized Gershwin’s contributions in the films Shall We Dance? and Damsel in Distress. In Voicing the Cinema (eds. James Buhler and Hannah Lewis), Platte combs through production memos, scripts, and scores from the Four Daughters films. There he finds an onscreen/offscreen drama in which shared musical composition is positively envisioned by screenwriter Lenore Coffee but threatened by colleagues more hungry for credit than collaboration.

And what’s Platte reading these days? Smith’s Music by Max Steiner, Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, and Jill Lepore’s These Truths. Happy reading, everyone.

Dr. Wilson Kimber’s video project on American women composers receives SAM subvention

The Society for American Music recently announced that Dr. Wilson Kimber was the recipient of its 2020 Sight and Sound Subvention! You can read more about the 2020 SAM award winners here, and Dr. Wilson Kimber’s video project is described below. Congratulations, Marian!

Marian Wilson Kimber Hyphen (@MWilsonKimber) | Twitter

“In a Woman’s Voice: Musical Readings by American Women Composers” will be a video recording of musical readings for spoken word and piano by women composers, performed by  Marian Wilson Kimber, reciter, and Natalie Landowski, piano. The project is based on the work in Wilson Kimber’s book, The Elocutionists: Women, Music, and the Spoken Word  (University of Illinois Press, 2017). The influx of female performers into elocution during the Progressive era resulted in women’s dominance of spoken-word compositions, which were frequently performed for audiences in women’s clubs from the 1890s to the 1940s. The texts treat stereotypically feminine topics—fashion, courtship, or domestic life—often in satirical tones, supported by musical commentary in the piano. Composers such as Phyllis Fergus and Frieda Peycke created works that specifically appealed to women while subtly resisting existing gender norms. Wilson Kimber and Landowski have been performing these works for several years to warm response in academic settings and for the music’s original audience, women’s groups; this recording will help further the rediscovery of this practice.

Congratulations to Dr. McGinnis!

This spring Kelsey McGinnis successfully defended her dissertation and received her Ph.D. in Musicology. Titled “A Captive Enemy Audience: Music and the Reeducation of German POWs in the United States,” Dr. McGinnis’s dissertation draws on research conducted at the U.S. National Archives and the Iowan Camp Algona POW Archive to consider how musical activities in the camps were experienced and valued differently. Kelsey considers the perspective of government officials who hoped music might help sway German prisoners to embrace democracy. Dr. McGinnis’s work also reflects on the prisoners, whose varied musical activities provided a means for reckoning with internment.

Some of Kelsey’s new research is already set for publication in the forthcoming Music and World War II (Indiana University Press). Kudos, Dr. McGinnis!

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Two new articles from Marian Wilson Kimber

cover of volume of pleyel's six sonatas with nameplate Miss Austen

Just in time for summer reading, Prof. Marian Wilson Kimber has published two articles.

“Miss Austen Plays Pleyel: An Additional Source for the Jane Austen Family Music Collection?” explores the provenance of a volume of accompanied sonatas by Ignaz Pleyel held in the Arthur and Miriam Cantor Rare Book Room of Iowa’s Rita Benton Music Library. The six sonatas, which sport a red label with the words “Miss Austen” on the cover, date from around 1800 and may have belonged to a member of the famous author’s extended family. Wilson Kimber described how her discovery of the volume resulted from two courses she has taught at Iowa in Jane Austen in the Age of Digital Discovery.”

Wilson Kimber’s second article, “Reciting Parsifal: Opera as Spoken Word Performance in America,” uncovers an unusual performance practice that took place in turn-of-the-century America: the adaptation of operas for spoken word recitals with music. Often performed by female elocutionists, the works most commonly heard in this manner were those by Richard Wagner and Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Partly a literary, less theatrical substitution for staged opera, while at the same time an educational tool that allowed audiences to come to terms with foreign language performances, spoken word recitals made opera more intimate so that it might be absorbed into women’s salon culture.

Both articles are currently freely available on Project Muse:

“Miss Austen Plays Pleyel: An Additional Source for the Jane Austen Family Music Collection?”Fontes Artis Musicae 67, no. 1 (January-March 2020): 1–17.

 “Reciting Parsifal: Opera as Spoken Word Performance in America,” American Music 38, no. 1 (Spring 2020): 4-28.