June 15th 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Anthony Albanese: NSW left factional warlord takes charge

EDITORIAL Religious freedom: the political and legislative challenges

CANBERRA OBSERVED Will Bill Shorten emerge from the shadows again?

FEDERAL ELECTION Queensland voted for jobs, life and country

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Keating's 'nutters': Don't blame the messenger

ECONOMICS AND SOCIETY Health policy is not immune from neoliberal infection

HUMAN RIGHTS Canada accepts Asia Bibi and family as refugees

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Families keeping the faith: the Benedict and other options

IDEOLOGY Feminist claims for equality, Part 1: The context

HISTORY OF SCIENCE Faith and reason and Father Stanley Jaki, Part 3: More on science and ancient cultures

LIFE ISSUES Families, youth boost crowd at WA Rally for Life

MUSIC Muse of delight: The laugh ascending

CINEMA Asterix: The Secret of the Magic Potion

BOOK REVIEW Pioneering aviator's flights and fancies

BOOK REVIEW Catholic resistance in a forgotten war

BOOK REVIEW AFA patron's long life of public service


NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cardinal Pell's appeal, June 5-6, 2019: An account from the live streaming

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Muse of delight: The laugh ascending

by David James

News Weekly, June 15, 2019

The recently departed poet Les Murray, surely our greatest ever, was once asked where poetry comes from. He responded: “From the impulse of delight. You fall in love with it and start thinking, I can do that, and you spend the next 50 years or so discovering whether you can or not.”

The character Monostatos from Mozart's Magic Flute.

That answer not only represents a welcome departure from the dreary parade of, usually poor, poets with a political “message” or, worse, an expression of their “identity” (preferably a marginalised, or misunderstood one). It is also not a bad starting place to consider the difference between good and ordinary music.

Here, then, is a rough list of music that exhibits delight, with a brief consideration of why. First, way out in front, comes Mozart, whose music is saturated with delight to the point of the sublime. It is central to his aesthetic.

There is a story about Mozart hearing a bad violinist in the street and insisting that he keep playing so he could delight in his exquisite awfulness. If true, it is very revealing of how he saw the world. His much-vaunted sense of humour, evident often in his compositions, is also predicated on the distance, a certain lack of seriousness, that is part of what makes up delight.

Mozart’s opera’s are so effective because it is evident that the composer delighted in human failings like intemperate love, jealousy, lust, vanity. My favourite opera of his, The Magic Flute, is predicated on pure delight. Its sublimeness derives from a delight in purity, albeit mythic. Even the pure evil of the Queen of the Night or Monostatos has the composer revelling in wickedness, and the buffoonish qualities of Papa­geno, or the simple Pamina, are based on enchantment with the artless.

The importance of not being too earnest

Mahler has an element of delight in his music, but it is not delight with the earthly. Rather, it is delight in the ineffable, that which is beyond understanding. He revelled in the feeling of soaring into unknown places, where the earth could be seen from a distance and other worlds could be sensed, if not understood exactly.

It was an obsession of 19th-century composers, influenced by Kant, whose aesthetic was based on the revelation of the secret meaning of things, the infinite, the absolute, the transcendental or the ineffable. Yet it is perhaps only Mahler who delights in the reaching into the beyond; his Romantic predecessors are too earnest – horribly so, in the case of Wagner – for that.

Jazz’s Clown Prince

Looking into the jazz arena, perhaps the best exponent for an aesthetic of delight is Thelonious Monk, who based his playing on pure oddity. He delighted in what fell in the cracks: the cracks bet­ween the notes – an effect he achieved by continually playing discordant semi-tones together – and the cracks between beats, which he achieved by playing time that was between the normal pulses (it is something that is almost impossible to imitate, and no pianist emulating Monk ever has – they all sound too smooth).

There is delight in the singing and vocal improvisations of Ella Fitzgerald and the grunting comedy of tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins. But for the most part, jazz is not predicated on delight. There is simply too much darkness and suffering, derived from the American background of white racism and over-exposure to dissolution.

The quality is entirely absent in the singing of Billie Holliday; there are only flashes of it in the drug addled Charlie Parker; and neither the plaintive Miles Davis nor the whirling dervish outpourings of John Coltrane exhibit it to any extent.

There is a certain delicacy and balance in delight, and none of those musicians was looking for that. They were instead aiming for extremes of expression.

In popular music, delight is evident in individual songs rather than bodies of work. A song like Katrina and the Waves’ Walking on Sunshine, for instance, has a great sense of rhythmic joy, but it was a one off for the band. There is, of course, no delight in Heavy Metal; and the only delight that rap music could ever produce is if it was to be wiped off the face of the earth, never to return.

It is probably fair to say that delight is more absent than present in great music. It is not especially evident in Bach or Beethoven, for instance. But it remains perhaps the greatest of musical qualities, for those few who have been able to realise it.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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