My new year’s resolution is to start doing some higher quality posts here. You can go anywhere to get a bunch of reviews of albums as they come out. I’ll certainly still do those, but I want to delve deeper into some interesting music as well. Somehow I totally missed Ulver’s new album last year and found it while looking at some year end lists. I’ll use this to do an analysis rather than a review.
Most people who listen to this album probably figured out that “messe” means “mass.” They probably also noticed the religiously themed language of the lyrics. What I’m not sure people have realized is that mass does not necessarily refer to the Catholic church service when referring to music. In the so-called Western canon, basically all the great composers have composed masses.
In music, a mass is essentially a long form for a composition in the same way that the “sonata” is a shorter form. It doesn’t make reference to the style of music. The mass is modeled on the ordinary liturgy of a Catholic mass, and usually consists of setting certain texts to music. The mass (just like Ulver’s new album) has six movements.
In modern day, composers have taken this classic form and played with it a lot. It is such a standard form that often times the ways in which it deviates in form and content is the key to its interpretation. The most extreme example of this that I know of is Leonard Bernstein’s MASS which has the standard mass, but a whole theatrical play breaks out around it with people rejecting the utility of God and the mass. I should start out by saying that I am the first to admit that most analyses like the following one are usually tenuous and filled with attempting to make connections where none exist, but in this case I think I have a few things working for me.
I think it is undeniable that Ulver wants us to think of this album as a mass. They have the religious language. They made it six movements. They called it Messe. The other thing is that it is a composed and fully orchestrated work, so a lot of time, effort, and thought went into the composition process. There may be individual details that are stretching it for interpretation (not to mention Ulver admits there is some improvisational/intuitive non-composed material on the album), but I think all major “big idea” deviations from the traditional mass must have been done for a reason with the intent of communicating something to the listener.
The first major noticeable deviation is that of the text. Only two of the six movements use text, yet traditionally all movements have a predetermined text. We’ll get to what the changes are and the possibilities for why those changes were made when those two movements come up. Why omit text then? My first thought was that this was meant to be some sort of “anti-mass” where they are pointing out that the text has all but become nonsense syllables. Modern masses serve so many purposes, yet the same text is used. Why bother?
But upon further reflection and the fact that text is used on two of the movements, I don’t think this is a proper interpretation. Instead, I think it is simpler than that. A traditional mass is a choir singing the text plus an orchestral accompaniment. This album still has the orchestral accompaniment, but no choir. In its place we have the band Ulver. This may sound hokey, but I think the band itself is the choir, and the band’s instruments are “singing the text” through an interpretation into their musical language. Changing/interpreting the text is a fairly standard practice is modern masses, so this isn’t that far fetched.
Let’s move on to the individual movements now. The traditional first movement is the Kyrie. It is the only text in Greek. Ulver’s Kyrie is called As Syrians Pour In, Lebanon Grapples with Ghosts of a Bloody Past. Since it has become common to use the mass as a form for a work about something else, it is also common to introduce what the mass is about in the first movement. In recent years, it has also become very common to write a mass for peace in honor of a particular bloody conflict.
This can be seen in Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem which is an anti-war mass about the two World Wars. Another example of this is Karl Jenkin’s The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace about the Kosovo conflict. Since these pieces are about something, they both use all sorts of extra text and changed text to elaborate on the thematic content. I propose that Ulver’s album is actually a “peace mass” for Lebanon and the altered text suggests that they want to make sure this message makes it rather than getting overshadowed by the traditional text.
At this point we sadly come to a difficulty. The next movement in the latin mass is the Gloria. For the purposes of this analysis I’ll assume that is the type of mass we are dealing with because the title of the album is Messe. The problem is that this movement would come last in a Church of England mass. It is somewhat a possibility this was intended because the movements that have lyrics are in English.
Ulver calls the second movement “Shri Schneider.” Unfortunately, my Google skills were not good enough to find out what this could be referring to. The movement has some of the fastest motion with pulsating electronics and almost bird-like wind instruments from the orchestra. Strictly speaking it doesn’t have the glorious and celebratory feel of a traditional Gloria movement, but more of a reserved understated version of it. This seems to fit with the theme that a war torn nation isn’t feeling sincere in their praise of a God that would let that type of destruction happen.
The next track is “Glamour Box (ostinati)” which corresponds to the Credo. The Credo is also known as the Nicene Crede and as a text is just a statement of the core beliefs of the church. “Ostinati” refers to the fact that a single short musical motif repeats incessantly and endlessly throughout the whole piece. My guess for this one is that the statement of these beliefs has become a mindless rote repetition for the members of the church. Using an ostinato is about as literal a translation from text to pure music as I can think of. It is the longest text of the mass, and it involves repeating very similar things over and over again.
The next track is “Son of Man” which corresponds to the Sanctus. We finally get some lyrics to analyze on this one, and the way this has been changed makes a lot of sense to me in light of being a peace mass. The Sanctus is the last part of the (preface to the) Eucharistic prayer. According to Wikipedia, “The preface, which alters according to the season, usually concludes with words describing the praise of the worshippers joining with the angels, who are pictured as praising God with the words of the Sanctus.”
The lyrics in the Ulver version:
The Destruction of the Temple
The Broken Home
We Are Defined
By Our Blood
The Massacre of the Innocents
And the Sacrifice of the Son
What Kind of Choir
Of Angels will Receive us
These are Biblical stories which gives the language a traditional religious language feel fitting in with being a mass, but they can also be simultaneously interpreted as atrocities in Lebanon (temples destroyed, innocents dead, sacrificing sons to go fight, etc). Instead of “praise of the worshippers joining with the angels” we have the worshippers questioning (What kind of choir of angels will receive us?) what type of divine force would allow these types of things to happen. This is a really moving moment of the album which is anything but “praise.” The music climaxes in what I’d describe as a reserved anger. This idea really ties the rest of this analysis together and is a brilliant way to rewrite the Sanctus (if indeed that is what is what they intended).
The next song is “Noche Oscura del Alma” and corresponds to the Benedictus. The title refers to a poem “Dark Night of the Soul” by St John of the Cross. The poem describes the dark journey of spiritual growth and the trouble of maintaining faith through difficult and painful experiences. Some people might use the phrase “a crisis of faith.” Of course, this again fits with the main theme of a mass about war. This movement is very dark and creepy with some harsh electronics and confusing sampling going on. This supports the idea that they are using a musical language interpretation in place of text.
The last song is “Mother of Mercy” which corresponds to the Agnus Dei. This is the other song with lyrics. The typical Agnus Dei is a plea for mercy, forgiveness, and peace. The altered text is somewhat similar in theme, but the main difference that the prayer is directed at “mother” which is presumably Mary rather than “Agnus Dei” which is Jesus. Overall the text is still a fitting conclusion to a peace mass with lyrics such as:
I Turn to You
From the Valley of Tears
Carry me as a Child
One possible explanation for the changes comes from the earlier analysis. Maybe the point is not to ask a God that seemed to abandon them for forgiveness, but to emphasize the rebirth, growing, and healing that has to be done as a country after such catastrophe.
That wraps up this analysis. I’m not saying I buy everything I wrote, but the purpose of these types of arguments is to take something that seems plausible and then run with it to see where it goes. Maybe it is all nonsense. Maybe some parts seem like good arguments and others seem really weak. At least my thoughts on it are recorded for me to look at later and for you to think about as you listen to it.
Maybe I should offer a warning to metal fans. This album has essentially no metal in it. I found many parts of it to be extremely moving, so I recommend it to you anyway.