Everything You Own in a Box to the Left: Reclaiming the Potential of the Sacred in Music – By Lieke Wijnia

Lieke Wijnia on Christopher Partridge’s The Lyre of Orpheus

Christopher Partridge, The Lyre of Orpheus, Oxford University Press, 2013, 368pp., $24.95
Christopher Partridge, The Lyre of Orpheus, Oxford University Press, 2013, 368pp., $24.95

In the song Irreplacable (2006), Beyoncé puts her lover’s possessions in a box and moves it to the left. He should never think he couldn’t be replaced by a new love interest. In religious studies, the realm of the left is associated with the taboo and the evil spirited, while the realm of the right is the domain of the celebrated and idealized. That which is celebrated is under continuous threat of the taboo, having the power to contaminate, challenge, or even replace the celebrated. Both realms are set apart from the everyday life. The celebrated has to be cherished and protected, while the taboo has to be kept at a distance and fought at length. These domains are crucial features in the conceptual understanding of the sacred: the former is called the pure sacred, the latter the impure sacred.

In his book The Lyre of Orpheus, religious studies scholar Christopher Partridge explores the theoretical potential of the sacred in relation to popular music. But it is definitely not Beyoncé’s music he is after. Instead of studying the mainstream and globalized popular music scenes, he analyzes the more alternative forms of popular music genres as hip-hop, folk, and singer-songwriter music. His interest lies with the music in the peripheries rather than that at the heart of the business and the influence it possibly exerts from the margins. Without the taboo, the celebrated does not make sense, and vice versa. In music, the taboo and the celebratory can be found in sound, lyrics, and performance practices. Partridge approaches popular music for its power to function as edgework, as a source of transgression that challenges the celebrated forms of the sacred.

Usually the term sacred in relation to music refers to the genre of sacred music. This genre is in turn taken to express collective identities of religious communities. It might immediately evoke the serenity of Gregorian chant, the walls of sound as produced by Renaissance polyphony, or Adhan chants, the Islamic call for prayer. Many music festivals that have the term musica sacra in their names present programs filled with Brumel, Bach, and Bruckner, performed in church buildings and theatres alike. Conventionally, the notion of sacred music is interpreted as reflective of music that is inspired by religious subject matter or written for liturgical contexts. In his Sacred Music in Secular Society (Ashgate, 2014) theologian Jonathan Arnold has the aim of exploring the reciprocal relationship between the domains of the religious sacred and the secular. His use of the term reinforces the equation of sacred music with religious music and more precisely, Christian music. Or, in Sacred and Secular Musics: A Postcolonial Approach (Bloomsbury, 2015) sociologist Virinder S. Kalra links the diminishment of religion in Europe to classical music receiving an aura of sacrality. This approach views music as a replacement for religious practices. Generally, the sacred in music implies a direct link to religion.

It is not Partridge’s intention to denounce importance of religion in his considerations of the sacred in music, as it reflects an interesting and valid approach within its own right. However, the dominance of its position has the danger of excluding and, even worse, preventing inquiry into other approaches. The equation sacred music is religious music seems so self-evident and all-encompassing that it largely ignores the conceptual potential of the sacred. In The Lyre of Orpheus, Partridge aims to right this wrong. In looking beyond this perceived irreplaceable status of religion, the notion of the sacred offers a realm of opportunity in understanding the dynamics of music in contemporary culture.

Ever since sociologist Émile Durkheim made the sacred-profane distinction pivotal in his famous The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), the notion of the sacred has been subject to much debate, involving two general lines of enquiry. The substantive approach regards the sacred as a mysterious and transcendent power, by calling it the numinous and regarding it as something that exists, and that can be encountered and revealed. The situational approach regards the sacred as a dynamic of human behavior, a relational structure that has no manifestation in its own right, but requires active construction. Partridge takes the situational approach. To him, the relevance of music is not primary located in musicological aspects like composition and lyrics, but rather in its appeal to performers and listeners. His main concerns lie with the questions of how music is able to create affective spaces, how listeners incorporate musical experiences in their lives, and how attributed meanings function and develop over time.

Taking the mythological figure of Orpheus as his point of departure, Partridge sets out to explore how music has the ability to break through the status quo, open up new worlds, and introduce new standards. With his song, Orpheus was able to persuade the keepers of the underworld to let his lover Eurydice return to the realm of the living. Regarding music for its power to seduce and transform ideas or feelings, Partridge aims to look at the construction of emotional experiences that reinforce or transgress social values. Two introductory chapters deal with music’s emotional and social functions, and its particular importance in human’s quest for meaning making in life, while each of the three core chapters treats a theme that can be useful in the exploration of the contested boundaries between the pure sacred, the impure sacred, and the profane: transgression, Romanticism, and religion.

According to Partridge, popular music is fundamentally transgressive. It operates in the margins, and its history is characterized by rejected behaviors and ideas. Because of this, music is able to challenge established sacred discourses, transform them, and establish new ones. The focus on transgression helps to understand popular music’s impure sacred potential in challenging the pure. A fine example is his analysis of bluesman Robert Johnson, who through his music criticized the American slavery system in the 1930s, while simultaneously offering a voice to those subjected to the system. While this system was celebrated by white America, Johnson gave voice to the taboo by challenging it.

Going beyond the genre of sacred music, it is relevant that Partridge argues for the importance of popular music in terms of the sacred. However, the analyses primarily focus on how alternative music styles — ranging from Goth to Hardcore, from Straight Edge to Rastafari — function as transgressive sources. Yet, the field of popular music does not solely consist of alternative music. It would have been valuable to see how alternative and commercial popular music interact in terms of transgression and their respective contributions to constructions of the sacred. Maintaining a more differentiated view on popular music might have brought to the fore that there is difference between the transgressive power that challenges the mainstream by offering alternatives and transgression that eventually confirms that mainstream.

The relationship between emotions and music is central to the argument about the transgressive nature of music. In the chapter on Romanticism, Partridge refers to philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s view of the romantic, which has a transgressive tone to it: “that which oversteps all bounds.” The core elements of romanticism are identified as a spiritual view on life; a critique on Enlightenment rationality that made an appeal to experience; confidence in the individual’s ability to know the truth through feeling, intuition, and imagination; and a concern with artistic authenticity understood in terms of spontaneity, originality, and inner truth. All these matters are at the heart of how popular music is consistently seeking to evoke Romantic affective space. The forms of these evocations range from a return to natural idylls achieved through festivals in the countryside such as Glastonbury, to the use of technology in evoking nature’s majesty and mystery, creating meditative atmospheres as has been done by Kraftwerk.

Beyoncé. Image by .S via Flickr.
Beyoncé. Image by .S via Flickr.

Partridge contends that music can make individuals transcend their everyday lives through profound inner experiences. These lead in turn to a spontaneous experience of community, addressed by means of Victor Turner’s famous notion of communitas. While it makes theoretical sense to characterize the temporal experiences of musical performances and festivals, it remains to be seen whether in the reality of contemporary music consumption this theoretical collectivity is actually achieved. Moreover, it might be questioned what is left of this experienced connection and its collective consequences after the performances and festivals are over.

The Romantic yearning to which music alludes is grounded in a desire to be separate from the status quo, to be apart from society. It can even reflect a utopian longing for something other than the life one is in. After an extensive analysis of how this longing is cultivated in folk music, it is only in the concluding comments that Partridge addresses the ambiguous character of a Romantic yearning for the past: “we can embrace enchantment because we can control it. We can look back to the premodern world nostalgically and sentimentally, because we don’t have to live in it.” This paradox could have offered an interesting departure point for dealing with Romanticism in contemporary culture, but Partridge unfortunately does not push this issue further.

After quite successfully moving music into the theoretical realm of the left, Partridge concludes the book with a return to religion. While religion is a symbolic structure organized around the sacred, in turn the sacred is at the heart of all other symbolic structures. To tackle this complexity, he sets out four points around which he analyses different religious studies approaches to popular music cultures: how religion acts against popular music, how religion can transform popular music, religious popular music as a genre, and how popular musicians can be transformed into religious icons.

These are all legitimate approaches to study the multifaceted position of religion in popular music. But after the innovative and well-argued conceptual understandings of music in terms of the impure sacred, transgression, and Romanticism, this final chapter on religion seems like an obligatory box that needed to be checked. It is the pitfall of the sacred equals religion. These approaches do not necessarily add to the understanding of the edgework dynamic that was outlined before. The final chapter rather offers a safe route along the notion of religion, in contrast to the adventurous route along transgression and Romanticism as presented in the previous chapters.

The Lyre of Orpheus itself functions as edgework too. In an academic context in which studying the sacred dimensions of music often result in an exploration of a particular genre, Partridge offers us insights in the analysis of how music works and matters from an original perspective. He demonstrates how the relationship between sacrality and music extends beyond the genre of sacred music. This approach would be worthwhile to extend into other musical fields, such as classical and non-western music. It is about time to put everything perceived as irreplaceable about the musical sacred and move it to the left.