For the past decade my wife, Jess, and I have cultivated an evening ritual in which she prepares dinner while I read a book out loud: the sights, smells, and sounds of stir fry, enchiladas, soup, and barbecued kebabs mingling with spirited performances of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Madeline l'Engle, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George MacDonald. One author who has received special attention is J.K. Rowling. Her Harry Potter series has received no less than seven complete and enthusiastic renditions in ten years and we are currently knee deep in Book Four for the eighth time! The books are like old friends and have been a rich source of comfort, entertainment, thoughtfulness, and extemporaneous nonsense.
This year I've also been enjoying a podcast entitled "Harry Potter and the Sacred Text". The co-hosts Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile, graduates of Harvard Divinity School, ask us to consider what might happen if we were to take the Harry Potter series and treat it with the same seriousness and devotion as when we read a sacred text. What might a piece of fiction reveal or teach, convict or inspire if we were to approach it with the expectation that by engaging with it we engage with something sacred? I find this project fascinating, whether or not I agree with their various readings, and it has inspired a whole new host of conversations at home.
For a while I have been interested in blogging about the role of music in the Harry Potter books. In the spirit of the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast, I'm going to try this out by selecting a music-related excerpt from the books and reading it through the lens of a sacred reading technique. I'll be using lectio divina, an ancient Christian practice that follows a four-step process of reading, mediating, conversing, and praying to enter into a sacred text. I'll be using the altered format that is employed in the podcast along with my own additional step:
- Context: What is happening in the story when this excerpt occurs?
- Musicology [MINE]: What might this music sound like and what ideas are associated with it?
- Metaphor: What imagery or associations does this excerpt suggest?
- Personal: What personal memories does this excerpt recall?
- Action: What does this excerpt motivate you to do in your life?
You may recognize this first passage as that poster on the wall of every junior high band room.
"Ah, music," he said, wiping his eyes. "A magic beyond all we do here!"
This quote appears in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (US version, page 128), Chapter Seven "The Sorting Hat" and is spoken by the headmaster, Albus Dumbledore. It is the start of another academic year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the new students have been separated into their houses by the Sorting Hat and are sitting at their various House Tables in the enchantedly open-aired Great Hall. The customary feast that celebrates the start of term has been voraciously consumed, the golden plates magically cleaned, and Dumbledore has given out announcements both perfunctory and mysterious. As a benedictory gesture the headmaster leads the student body in a performance of the Hogwarts school song. Uniquely, the students were not taught the music to the song either by rote or by notation; after writing the words to the song in the air with a golden ribbon, Dumbledore declares, "Everyone pick their favorite tune and off we go!" Rowling continues, "Everybody finished the song at different times. At last, only the Weasley twins were left singing along to a very slow funeral march. Dumbledore conducted their last few lines with his wand and when they had finished, he was one of those who clapped loudest." After this Dumbledore delivers the excerpted quote and then excuses everyone to bed.
Technically the musical event that Rowling describes is an instance of aleatoric polyphony. Polyphony is the simultaneous sounding of more than one distinct melody. For instance, in "Ihr aber seid nicht fleischlich" from Jesu, meine Freude by J.S. Bach (1685-1750) five different melodies vie for your attention, each entering one at a time with the same theme before doing their own thing. This type of texture is more challenging to listen to than, say, a song with a clear melody over a clear accompaniment, and you may need some practice for your ears to make sense of it all. The good new is that, in this instance, and likewise for countless other examples of polyphony written in a certain idiom (ie tonal music), the challenge of listening to individual voices simultaneously is lessened by the fact that everything occurs within a stable harmonic and metric framework. This means that the dense texture actually has a solid and carefully crafted harmony that controls the vertical aspect of the pitches and a solid and carefully crafted meter that controls the horizontal aspect of the rhythm. Put more simply, it all lines up.
However, there are some extremely conflicted instances of polyphony, especially from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (ie not tonal music), where this harmonic and metric framework is lacking. Chaos reigns supreme! Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) depicts pandemonium with a creepy polyphonic beginning to his Second Symphony with thirteen extremely independent voices, Elliott Carter (1908-2012) wrote his Third String Quartet to sound like two pairs of instruments that just happened to start playing completely different pieces in the same room at the same time, and Andrew Norman (b. 1979) musicalized the flamboyant Baroque architecture of Bernini in the "Teresa" movement of his The Companion Guide to Rome with extreme polyphonic madness.* However, I think the piece that gets us closest to the Hogwarts school song, remarkably, is from 1673: Battalia for ten string instruments by the surprisingly modernistic Baroque composer Heinrich Biber (1644-1704). The second section of this piece, entitled "Die liederliche Gesellschaft von allerley Humor," instrumentally depicts a mass of soldiers, perhaps inebriated, definitely enjoying themselves, singing ten different songs simultaneously. For each instrument, Biber composed a different song at different speeds, keys, and rhythms, ending on a triumphant cluster chord. Yikes! Check out this link and listen from 1:44 to 2:30.
Yet, as dissonant as Biber's example is, all of these polyphonic examples fail to truly represent the chaos of the Hogwarts school song because none of them are aleatoric.** Aleatoric music is music in which some elements are intentionally left to chance and the performer chooses what to play in the moment of performance. The composer could, for instance, indicate that a melody is supposed to rise in an arc and come back down after a given amount of time, but not specify the pitches, rhythm, articulation, or character. Such music could hardly ever be played the same way twice and the whole idea blurs the line between composition and improvisation in a very avant-garde sort of way. John Cage (1912-1992) stated that in his Concert for Piano and Orchestra "The only thing I was being consistent to in this piece was that I did not need to be consistent." He leaves just about everything you can imagine to chance and choice, including melodies, textures, instrumentation, and duration. Here are three vastly different performances of the same aleatoric "work": 1) Orchestre Philharmonique de la Radio Flamande, 2) Orchestra Laboratorio del Conservatorio di Alessandria, and 3) Chironomids Outerspace Group.
The singing of the Hogwarts school song is a an extreme case of avant-garde chaos. Depending on how you count, there could be as many as 300 to 2000 individual voices, each singing any melody, in any key, and at any tempo. This is not some stately rendition of a venerable alma mater. This is aleatoric polyphony at black hole density!*** Dumbledore obviously does not have the same ideas of institutional prestige as other Headmasters.
*My guess is that Dumbledore regularly listens to Elliott and Norman in his office, with his fingers lightly pressed together. His Chocolate Frog Card does specify that he enjoys chamber music!
**This is why the cut scene from the fourth Harry Potter movie by Warner Brothers (and I assume by the score composer Patrick Doyle) doesn't do Rowling justice. If you watch it, you'll notice that, while spirited and rather noisy, it's really only a canon. Polyphonic? Yes. But not even close to the chaos described!
***Can someone please attempt to recreate this event and record it?!?! Send me a video!!
I read the theme of participation in this excerpt.
First, the participation of the students. The start of term feast is full of identity formation. Students become Gryffindors or Slytherins or Ravenclaws or Hufflepuffs, four distinct Houses separated from the others by personality traits, founder histories, dormitory locations, eating arrangements, animal mascots, color schemes. Within those Houses there are other divisions based on your year, your academic abilities, your course schedule, your Quidditch skills. These various (polyphonic?) boundaries crisscross and obscure the inherent unity of these students as a whole, namely that they are all witches and wizards. The singing of the Hogwarts school song momentarily sweeps aside these divisions and unites each and every student through—not just song—but a musical act that is radically egalitarian, welcoming, and accepting. Think about what it would be like to be participating in this event: every student hums, chants, bellows, croons, raps, squawks, or sings-with-good-diaphragm-support-and-excellent-vowel-shapes, with again, any melody, in any key, and at any tempo! It's a musical experience that offers each and every student a chance to participate exactly as they are. And while there are no musical barriers to participation, it's almost as if there are no social barriers as well.
Second, Dumbledore's participation. (Spoiler Alert!) Dumbledore can't get enough of this experience. He sets it in motion, basks in the chaos of the event, vigorously applauds its conclusion, and feels so brimful that tears well up in his eyes as he places music above all learnéd magic. What do those tears mean? Is he actually moved by the musicality of the moment? Is he being sarcastic and pointing out the inherent senselessness of reality? I think neither. I think that his participation in this odd experience has meaning for him because of his troubled relationship to power; later in the books we find that tragic events in Dumbledore's past caused him to distrust himself with positions of authority and with intimate relationships. Hence his reticence to confront Grindelwald. His refusal to take up the Minister of Magic post. His seven-book-long secret-keeping from Harry. I would imagine all these withdrawals, and the remembered, familial trauma of which they are a constant reminder, would have been a source of deep pain for Dumbledore. When he spreads his arms in welcome to the room full of students, perhaps he simultaneously fears to get too close and risk hurting those he loves. But, when he participates in the school song, he has a moment of respite. As long as that chaotic riot of aleatoric polyphony rages, Dumbledore is embracing and embraced in an intimate family. For Dumbledore this unity is a magic beyond all that can be taught at Hogwarts because it is a magic that reunites him with the closeness that he has both longed for and feared for a lifetime.
My mother actually composed my school song. For a good portion of our lives, my siblings and I attended Owens Valley Unified School District in Independence, California, a small K-12 school in a small desert town. And when I say small, I mean small. There were ten people in my graduating class. And it was an abnormally large class! I remember by mother, a singer and flutist, sketching out some words and melody on our electric keyboard in the back room. But it didn't just remain a sketch. Pretty soon we were all learning it in classes. And before you knew it we were singing it as a student body at assembly meetings and pep rallies in the gym! I've written it out below from what I can remember.
In many ways growing up in Independence was a lesson in scarcity. But it was also a place where, because of its small size, each person's individual contribution had great significance. My mother decided to write a school song and so we had one! We can easily lose that feeling of agency and importance in the larger picture of the world. I doubt that the song ist still sung at O.V. today. But I'd be interested to know if students from around my year still vaguely remember the birth and brief iteration of our very own school song, and whether they found any camaraderie in shouting "Orange and Black!" at the top of their lungs.
Life seems pretty chaotic to me right now. I'm a dissertating graduate student, husband, father of a toddler and a newborn, with one car, living in an expensive city. It's aleatoric polyphony of calendaring and commuting and writing and cleaning and choosing and questioning and failing and rising and trying again. Often it feels heavy. But this passage of Dumbledore's has me thinking that chaos is a particularly rich moment to notice the magic of participation. I don't have to do these things. I choose to. I get to. And it's worth it. "A magic beyond all we do here." Where can you look for magic in the chaos of your life? Where can you sing connection and participation into your community?
I also find it significant that the sound-world that invites community and belonging through participation is decidedly avant-garde. Perhaps I can think of the chaos of life as the deployment of the avant-garde, the advance guard pushing forward into something new. Do we have our wits about us as we march forward into both the knowns and unknowns? Who do we bring with us on this mission? When and how do you rest?
NEXT: Ghost music...