Thursday 6 November 2008

Bruno Forte: on music and apocalyptic aesthetics

In my posts on popular culture here at F&T (on films, music, or whatever), I’m often looking for ways to talk about aesthetics in terms of disruption and dissonance – “form” as a kind of apocalyptic grotesqueness; “beauty” hidden sub specie crucis. There are some helpful ideas along these lines in a new book by the Italian theologian and archbishop, Bruno Forte: The Portal of Beauty: Towards a Theology of Aesthetics (Eerdmans, 2008). I went along tonight to a public lecture by Forte, and it was quite stunning – the Catholic archbishop presented a kind of “aesthetics of the cross,” with numerous colourful digressions into Luther and Karl Barth. So now I’ve now been devouring his book – here’s what he has to say in the chapter on music:

“Transposing this understanding of the Spirit to the musical event … one can hypothesize a form of music in which interruption, transgression, and silence are no less eloquent than harmony and sound. It is a matter, that is, of arriving at a kind of music that – without excluding tonality a priori, but also without any rigid adherence to it – would be able to find excessive forms which could transmit the message of that openness, newness and freedom proper to the action of the Spirit in God and history…. Such music would certainly not transmit the classical idea of beauty – the presence of the Whole in the fragment – by way of harmony or ordered numerical relationships. Yet it could render the no less pregnant idea of beauty as the Whole irrupting into the fragment and the fragment opening itself to be embraced in the depths of the unsayable Whole; and this by way of interruption, negation, surprise, silence, no less than of harmony, measure, and relationship” (pp. 99-100).

Ah, just thinking about it gives me a hankering for a good dose of Tom Waits:

       “Well you play that tarantella, all the hounds will start to roar
       The boys all go to hell and then the Cubans hit the floor
       They drive along the pipeline, they tango till they’re sore
       They take apart their nightmares and they leave them by the door”


Anonymous said...

This reference by the visionary and prophetic artist Orozco titled Cortez and the Cross gives a completely different and entirely truthful description of the inevitable applied "aesthetics" of the cross.

And the entire dynamic of American history altogether and the always destructive role of the whiteman and his so called "culture".

the don said...


Thanks for passing this on. I believe that there are traces of this in Jeremy Begbie's work as well. Have you been able to interact with his work at all?


Craig L. Adams said...

Hmm. Actually it sounds to me like Forte is describing the music of Thelonious Sphere Monk.

Dave Belcher said...


I really look forward to getting a hold of this book -- looks great.

In my "guitar" days, I attended a master's class with the great Cuban composer/guitarist Leo Brouwer, and there he made the remarkable statement (which I've since included in a paper criticizing David Hart's "reading" of Bach): Music is traditionally conceived wherein the melody is that of a five-point arc (as in Bach), developing to a climax that is then developed to conclusion/resolution; I rather think of music as instead found in the interpellations, the bridges, transitions, the disruptions....

Anyone who listens to Brouwer's music knows this to be true! Just as anyone who knows Bach knows that though it might sound nice, David Hart's utilization of him as the "best theologian" is misguided at best. (that is, though David Hart's reading of Bach might sound nice -- I like Bach)

Anonymous said...

I published an article a few years ago that might interest you on this very topic of transgression and the sacred. There I do a rather standard lit review of different concepts of the grotesque, but I re-structure them in terms of the the boundary breaching of the presence of the sacred. Here is the basic thesis:

"The grotesque aesthetic and explicitly religious quoting of the Nine Inch Nails provides a clear medium through which the tentative structure of boundaries is expressed opening creative space for the mystery of the sacred to emerge."

Find it here:

I had started a piece on Radiohead's illustration of Weil's notions of necessity and force in OK Computer along similar lines, but never got around to finishing it.


roger flyer said...

There goes Ben troublin' the waters with Tom Waits.

I think Tom dances with the Tarantula.

Anna Blanch said...

Can I second what "the don" said earlier - I think you would Jeremy begbie's work quite up your alley. He will be the New College lecturer in 2010 if you can wait that long!

Ben Myers said...

Josh and Anna, thanks for the recommendations of Begbie — I think I've only read his Theology, Music and Time, so I'll have to get my hands on some others. Any suggestions for the next one to read?

And Drew, many thanks for the link to your essay — I'll read it soon, with great interest! I listen to a lot of NIN — not for relaxation or enjoyment, but I find it to be the perfect background music for writing. Something about the jarring edginess really helps me to concentrate. (At the moment, Ghosts I-IV is my favourite soundtrack for theological writing.) And if the NIN starts to feel overwhelming after a few hours, you can always have another glass of wine, or just switch to Mozart for a while.

Anonymous said...

Ironically I am listening to the Slip right now. But The Fragile is not to be topped by Mr. Reznor. If you can't find theological depth there, I don't know... It starts with total depravity and stays there (Too f'd up to care anymore") but ends with this followed by a meditative instrumental to ponder it:

after all I've died
after all I've tried
you are still inside

all I do
I can still feel you

you remain
I am stained

Damn. That's brilliant.

Which gives me an idea for an essay...


Anonymous said...

I think the best response to that quote is just: WTF?

the don said...


kudos on the NIN insight! i would have never pegged you for that! :)

As for the Begbie reference, I first came across his thoughts about dissonance and the trinity in his lectures that he gave at Regent College, which can be accessed here:

If I am not mistaken, I believe these lectures are spun out of his most recent work, "Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music".

He gives these lectures from the piano and teaches complex musical concepts in a theological key. I'm not a musician at all, but I found these lectures extremely insightful.

Hope this is helpful...


Joel Corney said...

Perhaps Forte was listening to Beethoven's Grosse Fuge when he wrote that...

Adrian said...

I've got to agree with Craig Adams, I think jazz in particular captures some of Forte's insights. The album "the black saint and the sinner lady" by Charles Mingus immediately comes to mind, with its atonal clash of sounds and squeaks, rising and falling finally revealing a broken whole within their fragments. thanks for this recommendation, I'll be on the lookout for it.

Anonymous said...

I agree with anonymous. wtf? I don't get it.

Cobain, Reznor, Waits' little tarantellas in hell are not representative of the way of Jesus.

It is disturbing to at least a few of us in the 'faith and theology' blogosphere that so much time and attention is given to self-loathing rants posing as

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