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.

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