Sea battles on land

For listeners of music, analytical perspectives are one way to assert our association to a song over a fellow listener In a podcast released last year, the Canadian writer, Malcolm Gladwell, explored the history of the legendary pop song called ‘Hallelujah’ which was written and composed by the great Canadian singer-writer Leonard Cohen. Gladwell tracked the song’s improbable journey — from an obscure melancholic ballad to an all purpose secular prayer for the West (“your faith was strong, but you needed proof”). The song, which was written after many drafts, met with little success early on. Even Cohen’s record producer found the song trite. Another described the song’s undergraduate gloom as “so hyperserious that it’s almost satire”. Perhaps that isn’t entirely untrue. Nevertheless, the song has the marks of Leonard Cohen’s self-referential weariness. A temperament that sees the world for what it is, without bitterness. Lifted out of the abyss After ‘Hallelujah’ was released, it sank into the unfathomable abyss of 1980s pop music. Then, through an elaborate contrivance of fate, a young singer called Jeff Buckley ended up singing it. His aspirated voice sang slowly, more deliberately. His voice ached with the angst of a penitent who has lost his religion. A few years later however, tragically, Buckley died in a swimming accident. He was 31 years old. Thanks to our fondness (at least since the poet Arthur Rimbaud) for artists with a sprinkling of genius who die young, Buckley’s version of ‘Hallelujah’ broke into popular consciousness with the force of a mid-life romance. By 2014, the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry added the song into its archives to commemorate the cultural life of the United States. At the heart of Gladwell’s narrative about this song’s history was his thesis that there are two kinds of genius. Some acts of creative genius don’t burst into the open as singular, finished products — say, like Picasso’s works or Shakespeare’s tragedies. But rather, these works of art are often half-born, nearly asphyxiated by the umbilical cord that is still attached to the frenzies of its creator’s imagination. To fill this newborn with a life-giving force requires the continual work by many, the repeated cleansing and scrubbing by different minds, so that the underlying art eventually froths outwards, like butter from the milk of everyday living. Listening to Gladwell, I found myself nodding. It all made sense. Then suddenly, I realised, his narrative didn’t tell me much about why the song stirred so many, or even me, when I had first heard it. Perhaps that was never his intention. What he did provide was a critic’s view of the melody, the history of a song. For many listeners of music — which is most of us — such analytical perspectives are one way to assert our association, or even devotion, to a song over a fellow listener. During the Margazhi festival, the sight of connoisseurs competing to identify ragas faster than the other has often made me wonder what is it they race to arrive at.

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