Notes for a talk I gave during Birmingham Conservatoire’s Research Days in 2002.

Persistence of ritual elements in 20th century music. A composer’s view.

The ritual process in its various declinations, from tribal rites of passage to Greek tragedy, from religious ceremonies to the dynamics of social behaviour, is a powerful concept that can be applied to many seminal musical works of the last century. This paper aims to show briefly how the ritual dimension has been approached by composers, from Stravinsky to Berio, and how ritual elements are surprisingly attuned to many issues of today’s music.

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We can talk of ritual in relation to music and performance on two levels:
1. The ritual aspect of a performance, the rite of the concert, so to speak. It’s the frame that allows the performance to take place, and the sequence of events is very much like a ritual process. The analogy with the classical sequence of a rite of passage, as first described by Arnold Van Gennep in his seminal work Les rites de passage (Paris, 1908), is telling: there’s a separation, with a threshold to cross – the concert space – that transforms a number of individuals into an audience, then a marginal phase, the actual performance, and eventually a reintegration, when, after applause and sharing of comments, the audience is disassembled, and becomes again a sum of individuals. The origin of the word entartainment – from the old French entretenir – to keep separated, relates with this need to create a marginal, liminal space for the performance. Liminal comes from the Latin limen, meaning boundary, threshold, limit, from where preliminary, liminary ande postliminary. To mimick even better the classical similarity with an actual rite, often we also have someone waving authoritatively a baton, as a high priest in charge of the ceremony. In the words of Joseph Kerman in Concerto Conversations, “the symphony concert remains one of the few arenas left for ritual interchange and display by the wealthy and powerful, and while this elite has grown and is growing exponentially, it has yet to invent alternative means of self-celebration”.

2. The second level is when the model of a ritual process, or elements of it, are used in a composition, and translate in the musical sphere the concepts and dynamics attached to human rituals. This is the way of looking at rituals in music that interests me most, and will be dealt with at some length. My aim is to show how employing ritual elements and models in music can amplify and unmask the connection with hidden archetypes, in the Jungian sense. This has two very concrete outcomes: it allows to bring to the surface profound similarities between very different musical styles and cultures, and gives unifying power to the music outside of the specific language being used. More importantly, it allows to bypass the issue of the language almost completely, and justifies the coherence of works that show apparently a rather confused stylistic approach – at least according to traditional language-based analysis tools.

As it has been shown by Stephen Walsh in his recent books devoted to Stravinsky, especially in The Music of Stravinsky (OUP 1988), the preoccupation with ritual elements is constant with the composer, and comes back and again like a red thread across all the different creative periods of his life. What is relevant to our main argument here is how the ritual approach enabled Stravinsky to channel the latent archetypal forces of Russian folklore into Modernist musical constructions: the ritual as a way to tame the wild and chaotic energy of nature and incorporate it into defined works of art, re-enacting a function of ritual common to most tribal societies.

How do we identify the ritualised elements in Stravinsky’s music? Some of his works are evident recreations of existing rituals – like Les Noces (The Wedding), and many others deal with – for example – fertility rituals or sacrifices under many different covers: Rite of Spring, of course, then Oedipus Rex, Persephone, Orpheus, etc. In other works where the ritualised element is not explicit, it is to be found in the character of the music. Let’s see how we can define this character, and how it has been subsequently employed by other composers working in the same direction.

There are a number of characteristics that belong to the “ritual” field:

Static, frozen
Incantation – Apotheosis
Universalising, unity of action

Every one of this terms extends in very interesting directions, and could be used to write a cross-section history of music in recent years. The idea of non-expressive, for example, is about using ritualised expression, i.e. objective, against the subjectivity of Romanticism, but of course as Stravinsky himself said, not less moving because of that, on the other hand probably more moving (see the Symphonies of Wind Instruments). Stravinsky’s search for a mechanical production of sounds – especially in relation to The Wedding – is well known. Interestingly enough, the purposefully non-expressive white voice, without vibrato, is a characteristic of a number of African initiation rites.

The use of frames: we have seen at the beginning of this conversation how the ritual process involves the definition of a separated space, where the rite can take place. The framing devices that we find in works like Renard, The Wedding, Oedipus Rex, Persephone, by using a narrator, situate the story in a suspended space-time, and underline the ritual character of the action. The work becomes a ritual act, the re-enactment of a ritual drama. The frame creates distance. The connection with the parallel research of Meyerhold in the theatre, with the Theatre of Masks, is rather important, and this goes straight to Grotowski.

One of the most powerful compositional devices to confer on music a ritualised character is of course the use of repeating melodic, harmonic and rhythmic cells. Of special importance is the substitution of harmonic syntax with shifting harmonic fields. When we talk of harmonic fields we talk of static, non functional sets of pitches, that instead of obeying the rules of organic and dynamic growth, are layered and shifted, like planes in a Cubist painting, to give an idea. The internal movement of the fields can be extremely agitated, frenzied, but the overall impression is of a static landscape, since development happens by shifts of position and juxtaposition between different elements, rather than transformation.

The perfect example of this kind of ritualised music is the incantation effect, the kind of trance-like, multi-layered endless circular motion so characteristic of many Stravinskian endings, from the Symphony of Psalms to the Requiem Canticles, from the “Cantique” – 3rd of the Three Pieces for String quartet to the Symphony in C, Apollon Musagète, etc. The effect is of a frozen landscape slowly turning on itself. In his fundamental book Musique et transe Jean Rouget shows how the incantation music of many trance-inducing rituals in tribal societies follow the same patterns. It’s an easy step from here to contemporary techno in its various declinations of ritual, ambient, trance, and so on.

The need for ritual and popular music
In rave parties the dj becomes a shaman, the master of ceremonies, while the venue, usually a warehouse, becomes a church. Rave as TAZ, Temporary Autonomous Zone, identical concept to the liminal phase of the ritual process according to Victor Turner.
Rave as a “trance device”, where the individual drowns in the collective rite, losing the sense of self. In the dichotomy figure/background, the figure fades away, the background becomes important. The big techno revolution is in this layering of sounds, and in the loss of the melody/accompaniment model of pop music. Background as a surface on which anything can be projected, where any sound objects can be layered freely. The background is the ritual dimension itself, the static element that allows the rite to set in.
The electric body, vibrating and pulsating with the music. The Dionysian principle in its basic form.

Repetitive is an adjective that of course can be used for what has been called Minimalist music.

One of the ritual elements that have been more successful in 20th century music is the non-narrative plot, the circular closed action, often inspired by a classical myth, and re-enacted as a ritual drama over and over again. And indeed, the perfect territory for the investigation of non-narrative techniques, is the music theatre and the opera. Writing for the opera the composer interested in a ritual approach is faced with the possibility of merging into one the two aspects that I outlined at the beginning: the ritual of the performance can indeed become the performance of a ritual. This is because in operas we can see in action both the external ritual of the performance, and the ritual nature of the opera itself. The example of Wagner’s Parsifal shows how tempting it is to think of opera as a kind of sacred performance, a religious celebration.
It comes then as no surprise that composers have looked at the non-narrative examples of ritual structures, from Greek tragedy to Japanese No theatre, as a way to overcome the stale narrative formulas of 19th century opera. If we take two works as different as Luciano Berio’s Outis, premiered in Milan on 1996, and performed again in Milan and Paris in 1999, and Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus, we see how in both of them the composers used the same story, or rather the same mythical, symbolic sequence of events, and repeated it over and over again, seeing it from different angles, in the best tradition of Levi Strauss’ structural anthropology. In Outis – meaning “no one” in Greek, and inspired by Ulysses – the same series of symbolic events is repeated five times (initially it should have been six times), always starting with the same event, the death of the father. Another work by Berio that fits the description of a ritual drama is Passaggio (1961), on a text by Edoardo Sanguineti, a real modern example of a passion play.

Berio defines all his works written for the theatre as “musical actions”. The term has not really been employed widely, but he insists on using it. For Berio a musical action is a theatrical action that is generated and determined by the music. Music in control, so to speak, like in Wagner’s operas. In truth, there’s not much action to speak of in any of his operas. Without a story, and a story projected onto the music – as Kerman says – opera becomes a lyrical form , a ritual form, a plain entertainment form, or any combination of the three, but it loses its status as a dramatic form.

I became interested in rituals while working on my opera Magma in the mid-90s. I know that the ritual approach can be misleading for its immensity. The risk is always present of falling prey of the globality of the ritual approach. Think about the following; the indo-european root for the word is ar-, from which the following words also derive:

Ornate, Adorn

It is a powerful cluster of concepts, but too open. In fact, a lot of things can be interpreted as a ritual process, and it is very important to maintain an alert critical mind when dealing with rituals. An example of this is the work of the social anthropologist Victor Turner. He started from the basic triadic sequence of separation, margin, reintegration – as postulated by Arnold Van Gennep – and used it to define the very nature of social interaction, social crisis, social change. Following his personal experience with the Ndembe population in Africa, Turner saw how social dynamics in time of crisis in the life of the village were not “free”, but rather followed a determined sequence of situations that reflected a ritual process. By focusing his attention on the marginal – the liminal phase of the ritual process Turner has been able to show how the reshuffling and reordering of society values during the liminal phase is the most creative time in the history of a society. This is a powerful intuition that can be extremely useful for composers, because it allows them to look at historical events or human behaviour with a deeper knowledge of the common model that they follow. A model that can be reinterpreted and translated into music, and still preserve some of its archetypal energy.

© 2002 Lamberto Coccioli