UCLA Seminar: The Music of Rufus Wainwright #3

February 2, 2006

Today we discussed “Agnus Dei” and “The Maker Makes.” The class opened with an attempt to define the difference between “religion” and “spiritiuality.” There are all types in the class: Catholics, Jews, agnostics, atheists, humanists, Muslims… and each had their own takes on the notion of spirituality.

I didn’t tell them what I knew to be Rufus’s own reasons for writing “Agnus Dei” but rather let them discover what it might be. There was, of course, the traditional analysis of the Latin text verbatim. One wondered whether he liked the text more for emotional reasons than doctrinal. One speculated that WE are the lamb of god, and that WE are urged to take away the sins of the world. Several commented on the distinctive Middle-eastern flavor of the tune. I put a five note minor scale (abcde) on the board, outlining the melody on the piano, and then showed how at the end, the C was replaced by C#, making it major instead of minor. The substitution of the B flat for the B is the culprit in making the tune sound Middle-eastern. So, the beginning of the tune features an ascending minor (I put the example in a minor instead of B flat minor which is too scary for non-majors), abcde, and as the tune descends, it becomes A Bb C# D E. The gap between C# and Bb is known as an augmented 2nd. I asked why Rufus might be interested in evoking a middle-eastern flavor and the class got it.

In the interest in not revealing the plot in “Brokeback Mountain,” I’ll keep my report on “The Maker Makes” brief. The class found the song to be completely and perfectly tied to the movie’s plot. It delighted in certain ambiguous words that could mean different things to different people: the “maker” could be God, but could also be the society that makes the rules that prevents men from loving one another in a gay relationship; “notch” was interpretted as ticks on the wall in prison, or counting the days until the separated lovers reunite, as a notch on a gun or fighter plane to denote killed soldiers or downed enemy planes, and also notches as wrinkles on the face.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

slvrlark February 5, 2006 at 12:45 pm

I was wondering if Roger’s Rufus class was going to be entirely about the lyrics to his songs, so I was glad to see some musical discussion show up this time. It made me want to express the things that drew me to Rufus’s music in the first place, and all of those things were musical (and a phrase here and there of lyrics):

1. his melodies: I often refer in my own head to his “opulence of melody,” or his “generosity of melody.” It’s just so wonderful to hear melodies that have interesting, unique shapes to them, that have sweep, that have an unconfined range—especially after decades of horribly narrow, unremarkable, deadly-dull melodies in pop, classical, and jazz;

2. the variety from one song to the next—it’s truly remarkable how different one song is from another, something we have not heard from a single song writer in a very, very long time;

3. accompaniments: I was taken almost immediately by the variety of textures of his accompaniments, not to mention the ever-surprising details that include contrapuntal lines, exotic instruments, sounds that don’t usually go together, etc.;

4. unusual phrase structures and meters: sometimes measures group together in most unusual lengths, and though there is nothing at all wrong with a four-measure phrase, it’s nice to hear in “non-classical” music (for want of a better term) phrase lengths and meter changes that take your ear by surprise.

As far as lyrics go, though I find Rufus’s lyrics intriguing and often beautiful, my experience is very much like it is with classical music songs and opera: I can utterly fall in love with a Schumann song or an aria from Carmen without knowing at first what it is about. Partly that is because of not understanding the words (sometimes even if they are in English), but partly it is because the music really does convey so much of the song, and that’s what gets me all caught up.

It’s ironic that I say that, since in my own songs, I am intensely in love with the words and am very concerned about conveying what they are about through my music. So I guess my point here is the fact that, if it were the lyrics that mattered most, we’d be talking about Rufus’s poems. But given that they are songs—which by nature are, of course, a wonderful union of words and music—it is the music that matters most, at least to me.

Roger Bourland February 7, 2006 at 11:33 am

Good idea! I think the songs we’re discussing are “Old Whore’s Diet” and “Gay Messiah.” The theme of the week is “Over the Top?”

I think I’ll take your advice and this week do close listenings instead.

As you probably know, some people gravitate to the words first, and some to the music. I’m in the latter category,so I come to Rufus music first and foremost through the music.

rdaley February 9, 2006 at 12:27 am

I’m usually lyrics first but not with Rufus—I just revel in the music for the longest time and only after then do I get my second high by getting into the lyrics. And I still have a 3rd round I guess, as I need to research more to find out what HE was thinking when he wrote certain lines, etc.

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