John Coltrane, “A Love Supreme”: IV. Psalm
July 18, 2010 § Leave a Comment
A psalm is so called because a psalm used to be something sung. By reminding us of this, the quartet defies our expectations. For when we interact with the Old Testament psalms nowadays, the tendency is to treat them in the manner we might spoken poetry. Maybe the perfunctory lament before getting down to the business of strong, plodding recitations:
“Yes, yes, a shame the original tunes are lost forever, but thankfully the most important things have survived that most difficult journey through history. At least we still have the lyrics.“
In the absence of the aural tradition, the Psalms are, for us, words on a page first and foremost.
Deep down, though, perhaps we know it was actually David’s singing–the way his vocal melodies wove in and out of dense, intricate strumming patterns, the way he could will tones and timbres into and out of solution effortlessly–that truly brought solace to King Saul’s troubled soul.
At various times, subsequent musicians have attempted to reanimate David’s Psalms with music of their own devising. A great many medieval plainchants are based on Psalms, for example. The Christian Reformed Church’s Psalter Hymnal is a similar, more recent, attempt.
However, the quartet skips right over this step, refusing to settle for the mere reintroduction of music into a supposed larger textual ecology. For them it seems to be the other way around. Music, perhaps, is the stage–the bog, the forest, the meadow–on which verbal creatures perform. Or maybe music is better conceived of as that cloud of connections, symbioses, intersecting interests, that draw up ‘individual’ lives into larger, inextricable bundles that are themselves organisms of sorts. Isolated words are lonely worlds unto themselves. They are hermetically sealed, and, as such, are deaf, blind, mute, lonely, and devoid.
The quartet doesn’t even use words:
In the dungeon still, the blind ascetic, emaciated, trembling, faint. Yet hear the wafting harp and vocalises. The immediate sense that ritardando, has already set in. Melodies now burlap, now silk, now chain mail ribbons dragged through pounding heart’s four chambers up through esophagus, over tongue, teeth, lips. They drift about the room for a time lingering at the rusty door high above.
In the shadow of the shadow of the shadow of death, angel with lock-picks comes.
The sweet spray of Zildjian seas.