Purple Magazine
— F/W 2014 issue 22


forget your playlist



For my “anti-column” I spoke with Olivier Zahm about writing a piece on Depeche Mode, which in my view is the best pop group of the last 30 years, the only worthy successors to bands like The Beatles or artists like David Bowie. In passing, I also told Olivier, “I haven’t listened to anything except serious music for the last seven years.” A surprised Olivier took the bait and asked me why I almost never listen to “popular” music anymore, except during a few “regressive” moments, like my return to Depeche Mode over the last few months. There actually isn’t a particular reason, except for curiosity and a will to expand my horizons.

I listened to rock and pop quite unhealthily until the age of 33 or 34, along with a few classical records, such as those of Debussy, but not much else. And there was a two-year period during which my hip-hop knowledge grew incrementally: I knew everything about it. But the trigger point for my transition was seeing Joseph Losey’s Don Giovanni on DVD. I suddenly realized — it was quite a Proustian moment — that when I was a child, eight years old, I had heard this entire opera at my uncle’s house (he was a music fanatic) following along line-by-line with the libretto, straight through from beginning to end. And I remembered those three full hours of non-stop music, which I had never heard again, except for short excerpts heard here and there — for almost three decades. Forever Mozart.

I experienced such musical bliss in that instant that everything changed, and I wanted to know more. It happened at a time when I had not listened to much music for perhaps two years, without really being able to say why. Perhaps because my girlfriend at that time didn’t listen to much music either. Or maybe I was tired of looking for possibilities in popular music, which I had explored extensively, and was now unconsciously looking for something new.

So it was through opera that I came to “serious” music. I began devouring opera DVDs, which became a new passion: Strauss’s first two operas became my favorites (there’s a staging of Elektra that is worthy of the darkest dreams of Antonin Artaud, the most beautiful application of the concept of the “theater of cruelty” ever seen), along with those of Monteverdi, of Mozart, of course, Schönberg’s first opera, Berg, too.

Perhaps, at least in part, popular music has been influenced by the “grand” music that preceded it. But it is not so much classical or romantic — without mentioning “contemporary” (atonal) music — which is close to pop, but Baroque, even Renaissance music. Guillaume de Machaut, an amazing French monk from the 14th century (who was both the Baudelaire and the Wagner of his time, two for the price of one), as well as Monteverdi, practically invented the whole format of today’s pop songs. But there is also to be seen (or heard) a classical heritage: I told a friend who listens only to heavy metal that 80% of rock ‘n’ roll riffs were invented rhythmically by Beethoven (this is clearly illustrated by the genius of Stanley Kubrick, a major music lover, in A Clockwork Orange: The film’s hero, Alex, an ultra- violent, lewd sociopathic punk, does not listen to The Rolling Stones, but prefers good old “Ludwig Van”). My friend laughed in my face; I played him the symphonies of the partially deaf master, and he was blown away. Beethoven’s deafness made him work much more with the rhythms of his music, the scansions, the timing: the chords in his symphonies created all the effects of breaks and scansions that we would find a century-and-a-half later in rock ‘n’ roll.

It is possible, too, that even so-called inaudible “contemporary music” also indirectly influenced something, maybe not “pop,” but the underground stuff, or popular but not mainstream sound, like certain extreme forms of heavy metal: goth, death, black, a certain Alan Vega (the terrifying “Frankie Teardrop”), etc.

Another time, I was talking to several different friends, telling them that in Schönberg’s Erwartung it was the first time in the history of music that we could hear fear, actually feel it. (Up until then, a character might express fear in an opera or an oratorio, but we would not actually experience it. There is one possible exception: the music of Gesualdo, a 16th-century composer, the murderer of his wife and her lover, who was haunted by mental illness and whose tortured music went beyond his time. He was quite a rock ‘n’ roll composer!) They laughed in my face again. Then I played them Erwartung, a monodrama sung by a psychotic necrophiliac, and they stopped laughing. Next to this lady, the most degenerate underground groups like Throbbing Gristle or Skinny Puppy would be considered quite genteel. When I played Ligeti’s Requiem for my friends (you know, the music that Kubrick, yup, him again — used in 2001: A Space Odyssey when the astronauts are landing on the planet with the terrible monolith), they thought I was crazy. But for me it is one of the most beautiful pieces ever composed, a voyage into space. It’s the same for electronic music: when you’re fully into a techno trance, listening to Autechre or Aphex Twin, how can you not think of going to the next gear, spinning into outer space with the electronic pieces of Stockhausen?

As we know, rock is “proletarian,” whereas classical or contemporary music is “bourgeois.” Let’s stop screwing around here. To the depressed rock critics who want to forbid us from listening to anything predating the ’60s — under the pretext of “democratism,” of course — I solemnly challenge them to find a single rock, pop, or even rap icon who had a worse, more proletarian childhood than, say, Stockhausen. Do we have to remind these people that Bach and Haydn were still domestics, socially speaking? Do we need to explain that the only things they know about Mozart and his destiny come from Hollywood? Would it be pretentious, as a “popular” singer says, to mention Schubert, Schumann, Bizet, Berg, Zimmermann, and so many others who died of hunger, who went crazy, who committed suicide? Do we have to repeat that Beethoven — one of the most complete artists who ever existed, maybe the artist who believed the most in his art — came from common stock and lived most of his life in abject poverty, particularly during the last 10 years of his life, when all of Europe knew he was its greatest living composer?

Whatever attachment I have to Kurt Cobain, how can one compare, even a little bit, the destinies – as Christ-like as they may have been (cf. Hendrix, Joplin, Curtis, Cobain, Graham, etc.) of our millionaire rock, pop, and rap stars — to those of our great composers, who were often from quite modest backgrounds and remained that way for the rest of their lives?

Music is one of the most precious gifts humanity has to give. We have only one life. And I thank fate every day that I have not yet died without having listened to loops of Debussy and Dutilleux, the way I used to listen to The Velvet Underground or early tracks by the Cure. Or recent masterpieces by Depeche Mode. Humanity has only a range of six centuries of musical memory, nothing really, so why should we confine ourselves to parts of only six decades?

Mehdi Belhaj Kacem is a Paris-born Franco-Tunisian writer, philosopher, and long-time contributor to Purple. His latest book is Être et Sexuation.

[Table of contents]

F/W 2014 issue 22

Table of contents

purple EDITO

purple NEWS

purple BEST of the SEASON





purple BEAUTY

purple LOVE

purple SEX

purple NIGHT

purple STORY


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