“Michael Kieran Harvey and Arjun von Caemmerer’s shared conversations must be a blast, this album, a superb example of their continued artistic collaboration.”
I was fortunate enough to be in the audience at ANAM, South Melbourne Town Hall, when this work was performed and recorded. The space is large and highly resonant and the sound was incredibly rich, pervasive and persuasive! It was an extraordinary experience. The unity between players, given the incredible complexity of the music, was astounding, and the sound combinations, including tubular bells, mallet percussion and theremin, drumkit, keyboards and double dose grand pianos, was intoxicating.
Harvey began questioning the veracity of the Bible when, as an eight year old, his suspicions were piqued because, as an altar boy, the altar wine which embodied Christ’s blood tasted ‘the same as the Woodley’s Cream Sherry I found in the Sacristy’. It is strange how such metaphors with the sudden realisation of their mundanity can lead to the exposure of accepted wisdoms, when someone simply questions them. But it is unsurprising in this instance, with the agile mind of this particular youth, who, in many ways, has been fertilely pondering everything ever since.
Harvey has a particular interest in the ground-breaking work of Messiaen, despite the composers’ very different views on religion. There are confluences in the two composers’ musical visions and Harvey draws on Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux in the structuring of Catalogue des Errances Bibliques. There are also musical techniques from Messiaen’s oeuvre, such as his employment of unusual sound combinations, his writing for individual parts, harmonies, and use of time for example, that obviously inspire Harvey.
However, the influence of Frank Zappa is much more prevalent on this album, and certainly the latter attunes more with Harvey’s questioning of entrenched ideological ideas. All have a penchant for percussion, for exploring chromaticism of tuned instruments and messing with time structures. All delve into complexities of sound combinations.
Author, C. Dennis McKinsey’s The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy, a critical analysis of misconceptions and contradictions in the bible, influences Harvey and comrade in alms (!) poet, Arjun von Caemmerer, who explore such errancies in this work with insight and wit.
In our age of pervasive spin, it is von Caemmerer’s task to emulate its weaving as it relates to the bible. The poet uses scientific jargon, mathematics and ‘at first glance’ logic, to conflate ideas in the bible into humorous absurdities, so that one is forced to tread the wire between truth, belief and distortion. For example, he unpacks the necessary feet size for Jesus to be equipped to walk on water:
Matthew, Mark and John all agree: Jesus walked on the Sea of Galilee. Since we therefore know for a fact that Jesus walked on the Sea of Galilee (not running over the waves at the requisite 535 furlongs/hour to stay afloat), we must conclude that his feet were large enough to allow his light-filled weight to be supported by the surface tension of the salty water.
Just how big were Jesus’ feet? The Bible allows us to formulate a crude estimate: we know that after Jesus dined with Lazarus (recently raised from the dead), Mary anointed His feet using no less than a whole pint of spikenard, that fragrant and expensive oil, happily also useful in treating Athlete’s Foot. A pint is 473mL. From the website of Bunnings Warehouse we learn that a similar volume of oil-based paint easily covers an area of 6m2, meaning ~ 3m2 for each one of Jesus’ feet. Even though Mary slightly over-estimated how much oil was needed (employing her own tresses to mop his feet after her libation), by following the ancient dictum ‘As Above, So Below’, we can estimate each foot’s wave contact area was about 1.5m2. With the average foot being four times as long as it is wide, we deduce that each of Jesus’ feet was approximately 20cm wide and 80cm long. If Jesus did not suffer the flat feet of fallen arches, the dimensions of his feet must have been of even greater magnitude! Verily John the Baptist spake the whole truth: He that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear.
Harvey’s response too, is full of humour. It is laden with an onslaught of sound mass, confirming that any feet of this size would sink. All twenty-five texts by von Caemmerer are followed by short musical pieces by Harvey, re-worked around the chapter titles of McKinsey’s book and von Caemmerer’s writing. Matching the laser focus of the texts, the music texts are brief, but powerful, making the most of the gathering of percussion and electronic instruments and their wondrously well-equipped players.
There is a theme of speaking in tongues that emerges in the opening. ‘In the beginning was the word’. The words are ‘Bible, Babble, Bubble, Babel’ and von Caemmerer, as is his wont, plays with the sounds of words, their meanings and the merging of the biblically historical with contemporary cultural references, always highly researched, cleverly manipulated, humorous and, at times, eviscerating. The message, via the message, is that techniques of persuasiveness take, and have always taken, many forms. ‘Oh Lord! By such Etceteric Excess we are blessed and are messed!’
Harvey’s musical embodiment of this truth in the track, ‘The Bible’s chaotic composition’, utilises the full onslaught of instruments, with a theme built on the syncopated use of octaves offset occasionally with semitone falls and rises, followed by chromatic modulations that lead to musical chaos. The piece is emphatic and filled with portent.
But many other tracks are highly uplifting. ‘Jesus Christ?’ is rhythmically funky and encapsulates 70s and 80s sounds with its use of synthesised ‘Hammond organ’. The musical double entendre employed by Harvey is that this instrument is also used as a substitute for the pipe organ in many churches. Indeed, its application in soul and funk derive from this source. The piece follows the re-telling of a story about a cheese toastie made in 1994 that refused to degrade and was sold a decade later, in pristine condition, on e-bay for $28,000, after the maker (not the Maker) claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary in it. (Never mind the preservatives!)
Unsurprisingly, the seriousness of Harvey’s ‘The Bible’s chaotic composition’, combines with the jazz funk feel of ‘Jesus Christ?’ in his Contradictions. The piece follows von Caemmerer’s exploration of the hypocrisy of the church, which teaches about the meek inheriting the earth, despite the reality, which paints a very different picture. Harvey’s upbeat syncopated rhythms merge with his fury in this technically complex piece, where emphatic, often dissonant sound clusters compete with the strong rhythmic element, one never assuming greater prominence than the other.
The offset of text against musical content can also be fabulously discombobulating. For example, not only science and maths, but philosophy and objectivity are challenged by von Caemmerer. In ‘The Little-Read Book’ the poet speaks with tongue firmly planted in cheek, of the need for us to work with the truths of a doctrine, whether religious or political, and see these truths in all that we encounter and in the way we engage with the world. We must be wary of subjective imagination, which will lead us astray!
Harvey’s musical exploration, under the title of ‘Other holy books’, which follows this call, is wonderfully imaginative, utterly vivacious in its use of syncopated rhythm, modal melody and a riotous array of percussion drawn from all areas of the globe – a superb slap in the face to pure objectivity, and political mantras.
It is followed by a poetic recapitulation of sorts, where Bible, Babble, Bubble and Babel are reintroduced amongst all the tongues of the earth, ultimately united in the one house and at the mercy of the sound and feel of the wind. Harvey’s response is a ‘blaze of glory’, where all the colours of the world, despite their different perspectives, different sounds and experiences, have resonance and consonance and confluence and noisiness and endurance.
Music here is as articulate as any word combination, no matter the language, and there is something in its miasmic properties which, ironically, give it a particular weight, substance and authenticity. We might call it the McKinsey challenge! Except, of course, as with imagery and words, music is used as substantially to collude and ‘sell’ meaning as any expressive form. So always keep questioning the Woodley’s Cream Sherry.
VIEW AND LISTEN
Catalogues des Errances Biblique Digital Booklet:
Messiaen – La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jesus-Christ
Frank Zappa – Inca Road (A Token Of His Extreme)