Tag Archives: music

Nine Inch Nails and the Attraction of Nothingness

This past Saturday evening, as happens from time to time, I returned home from a late night of pub karaoke feeling pretty wired.  I sang three songs that evening, and was still somewhat jittery from the experience.  Those of my readers who have done any performing or public speaking know that there can be a kind of shakiness and high-alert feeling you carry around with you, even an hour or two after you’ve stepped out of the spotlight.

Because I was very much awake, I turned on the television to find something to watch until I felt ready to go to bed. I happened upon “Austin City Limits”, the PBS show featuring live concert performances from Texas’ capital of weird, and a performance by the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails.  Much to my surprise, I sat down and watched the whole thing from start to finish.  I came away strangely impressed by what I heard, but glad that I have been able to choose a different way to confront the deeply human concern we all share over nothingness.

Back in high school, when Nine Inch Nails – or “NIN” – first became popular, I was never attracted to their music.  NIN was a very different sort of group from the metal hair bands and pop-rap acts of that time, even though they went on tour with Guns N’ Roses, of all people.  My musical choices tended to be less on the full-out-sensory-assault end of the spectrum, where acts like NIN tended to congregate, and more on what the British refer to as the “shoe-gazing” end of things.  So when I sat down to watch this concert, I had no clue what to expect.

For starters, I was blown away by how engaging the band was.  NIN frontman Trent Reznor – who looks better now at nearly 50 than I remember him ever looking in his 20′s – is a dynamic, charismatic performer, reminding me of a more techie, introspective version of punk legend Henry Rollins.  His bandmates and back-up singers were, like him, all intense, focused musicians: and they had to be.

The music itself was unbelievably complex.  There was hardly anything melodic about it, even when there were actual choruses.  There were unexpected rhythm/volume/pitch changes, and unusual combinations of harmony and dissonance.  This was combined with a lyricism which, while unfortunately often scarred by profanity, expressed a very deep understanding of very human things: pain, loss, etc.

In a brief interview, Reznor commented that the band’s new album, from which the concert took its material, was probably the closest he had ever come to creating a musical composition based fully on dreams and stream-of-consciousness thinking.  That certainly came across during the show, particularly in its semi-conscious waking and nightmarish moments.  However there was also something else going on.

There is an underlying tension in all of mankind regarding the fundamental question of meaning versus nothingness.  How you choose to answer that question is going to have a significant impact on how you treat yourself, other people, and the world you live in.  And this debate, this exploration of whether there is any meaning out there, is something Reznor and his band tapped into rather powerfully in this performance.

To their credit, if one can move past the regrettable language and imagery in some of their lyrics, NIN do so in an almost contemplative way.  Despite the level of sheer noise they can achieve, particularly when expressing anger and frustration, this is not a toe-tapping kind of music, but rather something demanding that the listener actively engage his brain.  Is it pleasant? Well frankly, no: it’s decidedly unpleasant. But is it real? Oh, very much so.

This kind of creative exploration is in fact as old as mankind itself.  Look at the Book of Job or some of the Psalms, study the black paintings of Goya, or read the work of Virginia Woolf or Charles Baudelaire [N.B. whose birthday is today.]  Throughout human history, you’ll find men and women staring into the abyss, and not finding it easy to avert their eyes from the possibility that there may very well be no meaning to all of “this” around us.

I see and understand what Reznor, et al., are trying to say.  And quite frankly, I respect them for saying it.  Here, there is no papering over the hard things in life with a shallow, feckless sort of veneer, as so often occurs in contemporary culture.

Where we part ways, however, is that I am a Christian, and a Catholic one at that. So even as I witness, and at times experience first-hand, the kind of painful emotions which Reznor describes in his music, I choose to find hope and meaning in such suffering.  Rather than simply pointless, cruel occurrences, these are opportunities for me to come to understand Christ better, and hopefully draw closer to Him.

That doesn’t mean I always succeed, of course.  I can complain and moan and…well yes, swear….about perceived slights, abuses, or injustice, when I give in to such feelings.  However I hope that, over time, I’m getting at least a tiny bit better at accepting these things, even if I am very far indeed from perfection.

That being said, one has to give credit where credit is due.  I wouldn’t recommend picking up the new NIN album to listen to in the car on the way to work, any more than I would recommend you purchase a print of “Saturn Devouring His Children” by Goya to hang over the dining room table.  However the fact that a rock music concert caused me to pause, listen, and reflect, is something which for me, does not happen very often at all. And in the end I’m actually rather grateful I had that opportunity.

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails performing on PBS'  "Austin City Limits"

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails performing on PBS’ “Austin City Limits”


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Escolania of Montserrat Gives Magnificent Performance in DC

To a packed house and rapturous applause, the Escolania – the boys’ choir from the Benedictine Abbey of Montserrat in Catalonia – gave a glorious concert yesterday afternoon at the Music Center at Strathmore here in the DC area, as the final stop on their first tour of the United States.  In a two-part program the choristers, whose group was founded at the Abbey over 800 years ago, led by Choirmaster Bernat Vivancos, performed music composed in honor of Our Lady of Montserrat over the past several centuries, followed by a selection of popular Catalan folk songs.  While the setting may have been secular, the combination of sacred and traditional song, on a gray day threatening with snow, clearly touched the hearts and souls of the audience, leading to multiple standing ovations  and much cheering.

In attendance were His Excellency the Spanish Ambassador to the United States, Ramón Gil-Casares; the widow of legendary Catalan cellist and composer Pau (Pablo) Casals, Marta Casals Istomin; several representatives from the Catalan government; and monks from Montserrat Abbey.  Fortunately for those not familiar with the music, some of which was in Latin and some of which was in Catalan, the program provided thorough translations  for the audience.  However it was the music itself, and the vocal dexterity of the singers, which seemed to make a profound impression even on those who did not understand the words that the boys were singing.

In an unusual arrangement that was bookended at the conclusion of the program, Choirmaster Vivancos began the concert with the 50 choir boys lined up in a single, C-shaped row, wrapping around the three back walls of the stage. Intoning Gregorian chant, they set a prayerful and contemplative mood for the audience.  Not only did this produce a remarkable acoustic effect, enveloping the audience in sound, but it previewed the fact that this was not simply going to be watching a group of singers standing motionless on risers. For each piece, there was a shift in the arrangement of the choristers, depending on the auditory effect which Sr. Vivancos was trying to achieve; at one point for example, four of the boys went up into the balcony overlooking the stage, to sing in responsory with the bulk of the choir down below.

Similarly, in pieces which contained a solo or duet, the singer or singers in question would be brought to the front of the stage, perform their part of the piece, and then return to their brethren in the choir. Perhaps one of the most charming aspects of this was at the conclusion of each composition, when the lad(s) in question would be directed to step to the front and take a bow: they did so smiling widely from gratitude but at the same time charmingly blushing from embarrassment.  It was touching to see how they would look over periodically to Sr. Vivancos as they took their bows, making sure that he was pleased, but one also suspects wondering if they could get the signal to go back to their friends and stop being the center of attention.

While the first half of the program contained sacred music in a wealth of different styles from the 13th through the 20th centuries, all originally composed for the Escolania, the second half consisted of a number of folk songs from Catalonia, some of which were given very unusual arrangements.  The popular “Muntanyes de Canigó” for example, which was performed with an undercurrent of dirge-like humming, on the surface seems to be a longing for a visit to the mountains and sorrow over the death of a nightingale.  Yet the tune is in fact an allegory of how these mountains were ceded to France in the 17th century, after the Catalans unsuccessfully tried to regain their independence; the buzzing sound beneath the singing seemed to recognize this stirring.  This was followed by a folk tune with a similar theme, “El Rossinyol”, which is in fact a pun on the fact that the word means “nightingale” in Catalan, but was also the name given to this lost part of Catalonia.

Another unusual touch was the performance of the medieval carol “El Cant dels Ocells” or “Song of the Birds”, which has become associated over time with Catalans who went into exile after the Spanish Civil War.  Pau Casals, who composed and arranged many pieces for the Escolania during his long career, would often end his own performances with this piece.  At yesterday’s performance, the smallest choirboy singing a lovely high soprano down front, and his brother choristers arranged around the three sides of the back stage, were periodically joined by the sound of chirping bird flutes that would bounce back and forth and echo into the audience.  It gave a real sense of songbirds in flight, and an unexpected contrast to the mournful, but powerful melody of the carol.

Before the intermission, as the Escolania was heading offstage for their break, an elderly Catalan lady in the audience stood up and called out, in mixed Catalan and English, “Rosa d’Abril [Rose of April]! Please!” These are the first words of the “Virolai”, the 19th century hymn to Our Lady of Montserrat, recalling that her Feast Day falls on April 26th.  Thr hymn encouraged Catalans both religious and secular to hold on to hope, and became even more popular during the Franco regime, when Catalan language and culture was almost universally banned in a – fortunately unsuccessful – push to stamp it out.  Sr. Vivancos did not disappoint, and the final encore involved the Escolania singing this beautiful piece while the audience was on its feet, with the Catalans in the audience singing along, just as occurs when it is performed at the Abbey of Montserrat.

It was a real privilege for this scrivener to be able to attend the concert, particularly since I have not been able to get back to Barcelona for a couple of years now. I offer my sincere thanks to the Delegation of the Catalan Government to the United States for inviting me to participate.  Yet most of all, my thanks to the Escolania, Bernat Vivancos, and the monks at the Abbey of Montserrat, for bringing some of the sounds of Catalonia here to America, and in such a magnificent way.


The Escolania de Montserrat with some of the dignitaries in attendance,
following yesterday’s concert at the Music Center at Strathmore


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Adiós, Paco de Lucía

I was very saddened this morning to learn of the untimely death of Paco de Lucía, the great Spanish flamenco guitarist.

Born in the port city of Algeciras in Andalucía, on the far southern tip of Spain, Paco de Lucía came from a long line of flamenco guitarists and singers, and grew up performing in the streets of his home town along with his family. Because of his extraordinary talent as a musician, he was able to study and work with all of the great flamenco musicians of Spain beginning at an early age, and even began touring in America in his teens.  He is perhaps most famous for his collaborations with singer Camarón de la Isla, with whom he had a tremendous influence on the history and development of the flamenco genre through their many albums together in the 1960′s and 1970′s.

Paco de Lucía helped shift flamenco into a world music influence and phenomenon, in ways that did not exist previously.  Prior to him, flamenco music was essentially split between popular and traditional.  The former was cleaned up and made palatable for tourists and Spanish radio under General Franco; the traditional could best be heard at local celebrations, or in private performances.  To make an American analogy, even if not an entirely accurate one, we might describe it as the difference between the rhinestone-bedecked country music of the Grand Old Opry, and a jam at the back-country whiskey joint.

One of my favorite albums of de Lucía’s is an example of the type of innovative way he had of looking at music.  In his 1967 release “Dos guitarras flamencas en América Latina”, with his older brother and fellow guitarist Ramón de Algeciras, with whom he collaborated many times over the years until the latter’s death, de Lucía took a number of popular, traditional songs from places like Mexico and Peru, and composed adaptations of them in a flamenco style.  These source material songs themselves were, to some degree, the descendants of earlier Spanish musical influences, that had mixed with local traditions in the various regions of Latin America.

The result was that de Lucía began to build a musical bridge between Spain and its former colonies.  As time went on and he began experimenting more, both as a composer and as a performer, he was able to change flamenco from being purely a traditional musical style to something that could be mixed with and appreciated in many musical genres.  He would collaborate not only with Latin musicians, but also jazz, rock, soul, funk, and even other ethnic influences, particularly from the Middle East, Africa, and India.  The birth of what is now called “nuevo flamenco” in the 1970′s, which continues to evolve both on a popular and specialist level today, must be credited in large part to the work and influence of de Lucía over many decades.

Arguably de Lucía’s most famous original composition “Entre dos aguas”, from the eponymous 1976 album, is something which the reader has probably heard, perhaps in a restaurant or bar, without even realizing who wrote it.  One can hear how it mixes traditional flamenco with elements from rock, jazz, and soul in an engaging way.  While today it would not find strange to hear this in a shop, hotel lobby, or dinner party, at the time this was truly revolutionary music, taking flamenco out of the bullring or the gypsy cave, and blending it with other sounds.

However I must confess, as much as I love the somewhat highbrow music which he could compose and perform, my favorite work by de Lucía just happens to be his collaboration on a movie theme song.  “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman” from the soundtrack of the film “Don Juan de Marco” starring Johnny Depp and Marlon Brando, was written by Canadian pop-rock star Bryan Adams, but features de Lucía playing in his fluid, expressive, and innovative way along with Adams’ straight-ahead rock-and-roll chords.  I love the song not only because the music itself is beautiful, and the idealistic lyrics can make me choke up just thinking about them, but because it speaks to me as someone from two different cultures, both American and Iberian.

Deep down, I love both the jangle of something like honky-tonk AND the passionate staccato and drama of flamenco.  They speak to me in different ways, but when they can come together, in a strange way I actually recognize myself in them.  For I myself am a result of a collaboration between two people from opposite sides of the Atlantic, and in this particular song, the marriage between the two creates something good, a balance between the Old World and the New, and by aspiring to tell men what it means to be a good man, when in a relationship with a good woman.  Naturally, that is something which I hope to achieve, as do all men and women of good will.

Unfortunately I never got to see Paco de Lucía perform live, even though thanks to his prodigious output we all have decades of recordings and films featuring him to enjoy.  Yet in a way, he will be there if and when the right woman comes along.  I’m saving up that song for when she does, you see.

Paco de Lucía (1947-2014)

R.I.P. Paco de Lucía


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Legendary Catalan Boys’ Choir from Montserrat Abbey Comes to DC March 16th

On Sunday March 16th at 3:00 pm, at the Music Center at Strathmore, Washington-area residents and visitors will be able to enjoy a concert by one of the oldest boys’ choirs in Europe, the Escolania de Montserrat.

Founded in the 13th century at the mountaintop Benedictine Abbey of Our Lady of Montserrat outside of Barcelona, the Escolania consists of over 50 boys, aged 9-14, who sing soprano or alto.  After a rigorous selection process, each chorister is chosen to live and attend school at the Abbey, study music, play in the orchestra, and sing for pilgrims at Mass and daily prayers.  The Escolania has performed and recorded with many luminaries of the classical music world, including Mstislav Rostropovich, Sir Neville Marriner, and Jordi Savall, among others, and they have toured a number of countries.

For Catalans (or half-Catalans like myself), the Escolania is one of those institutions that speak of ancient tradition in Catalonia: its deep love of music in general but of singing in particular, which is native to all Catalans.  Just as Our Lady of Montserrat is the patroness of Catalonia, so too these boys, who serve God by singing His praises at the Abbey, are collectively the voices of the children of Catalonia.  At the same time, as is the case with all great artists, their outreach goes well-beyond the land that they come from.  They remind the listener of the virtues of peace, love, and hope, in an age which so desperately needs all three in far greater measure.

This is the choir’s first tour of the United States, beginning in New York at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Midtown Manhattan on March 13th, followed by their performance here in the DC area on March 16th at 3:00 pm at Strathmore.  The concert will last just under two hours, with an intermission. Tickets range from $25.00-$35.00, and can be purchased directly from the Strathmore website.  I hope to see many of you there!

For a sample of the superb voices that make up the choir, check out the video below.  This is a truly unique, hauntingly beautiful adaptation of the famous Schubert “Ave Maria”, arranged in a minor key by the Escolania’s present Choirmaster, Bernat Vivancos.  It features the choristers themselves in concert, as well as scenes of the magnificent Montserrat Abbey:


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Words to Keep Close

Martin Jahn (c. 1620–c. 1682) is probably not a name with which you are familiar, and that is perfectly fine.  For to be honest until yesterday I was not familiar with his name either.  Allow me to rectify that for both of us, gentle reader.

During the Offertory at Sunday Mass, our choir performed what is commonly referred to in English as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” by J.S. Bach.  However instead of using the English adapted lyrics, with which most of us are familiar, particularly around the Advent and Christmas season, the choir sang the words of the original, earlier text by Jahn.  Fortunately, our parish music director prepares handouts for Mass each Sunday containing not only the listing of the hymns which the congregation will be singing, but also the texts of the pieces which the choir sings during communion, etc.

Reading the unfamiliar words to this very familiar music, I was struck not only by their intimacy, but their hopefulness in the face of suffering. Admittedly, all translations are but an approximation of an original text.  As anyone who has studied foreign languages knows, some of the subtlety of meaning is lost when a work is adapted to another tongue.  That is particularly true in areas such as poetry or in lyrics, for oftentimes a composer has deliberately chosen a certain word or phrase to express a host of ideas in an economy of language.

However even in their admitted imperfection in English, this short, simple reflection of one man’s love for Christ is powerful in its sincerity: it gets down to the heart of the matter. If you have ever been in the place where Jahn clearly must have been, in order for him to be able to so succinctly express the nature of worry and pain overcome by hope and love, then this will speak to you, or to someone you love who may be going through a tough time.  (And if you have not experienced such things yet yourself, just wait.)

In short, these are words to keep close.

Wohl mir, daß ich Jesum habe,

Wohl mir, daß ich Jesum habe, o wie feste halt’ ich ihn,
daß er mir mein Herze labe, wenn ich krank und traurig bin.

Jesum hab’ ich, der mich liebet und sich mir zu eigen giebet,
ach drum laß’ ich Jesum nicht, wenn mir gleich mein Herze bricht.


Well for me that I have Jesus, o how strong I hold to Him,
that He might refresh my heart when sick and sad am I.

Jesus have I, who loves me and gives to me His own,
ah therefore I will not leave Jesus, when I feel my heart is breaking.


Detail of “The Descent from the Cross” by the
Master of the von Stauffenburg Altarpiece (c. 1454-1460)
Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, France


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