Perfect Sound Forever

The Birth of kd lang's "Hallelujah" out of the 'Spirit of Music'

Performing Desire and 'Recording Consciousness' on Facebook and YouTube
Part II by Babette Babich

The song affects everyone who hears it, 20 and because kd lang's great secret is that she listens to the space around her, even to the extent of feeling it bodily -- she even does this in 2010 at her live performance at the Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver -- but this listening also means that she is affected as well and in 2005 the smile she gives the audience in response to their response after the song ends, is a striking contrast to the composed professionalism of the song in its pace and delivery. Indeed, when kd lang sings this to Leonard Cohen's own approbation on the occasion of his 2006 induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, she knows at every instant exactly where she is and in whose presence she sings. And she also knows whose song it is, giving utter and moving homage to Cohen: running down from the stage to greet him as suppliant, touching her head to his solar plexus, all deference, concession, gratitude.

On the Halleluja Technique: Post-Script

Every bit of what I have described above is deliberate, controlled, contrived, packaged, performed. To say this takes no part of the achievement away from either kd lang or Leonard Cohen. We are watching a consummate artist at work. And as Nietzsche said, speaking of Wagner, we might do well to ignore issues of technique, questions concerning the conditions/motivations/practices of the artist where, as Nietzsche supposed, what matters is the work, the working of the work of art on us, as music.

Nietzsche himself sugests that he would be both drawn in by and made anxious at the same time by what he in The Gay Science described as Women who Master the Masters. As Nietzsche reflects and his observation touches on the voice quite apart from gender and apart from music, but not apart from the stage:

A deep and powerful alto voice of the kind one sometimes hears in the theater can suddenly raise the curtain upon possibilities in which we usually do not believe. All at once we believe that somewhere in the world there could be women with lofty, heroic, and royal souls, capable of and ready for rule over men because in them the best elements of man apart from his sex have become an incarnate ideal. (GS §70)
The problem for Nietzsche is that this ideality is usually then read back into men and that the entire project still falls short of what real human beings do, or better said what they do not do. If Nietzsche had learned one thing from his Faust, it was to see through love and its vanities.

But where Nietzsche challenged that the theatrical bet placed on the efficacy of such voices, female, or as he pointed out, mostly male (as in "the ideal male lover such as Romeo" [ibid.]) tended not succeed, McClain reminds us that Cohen's achievement is a real or working one, a practiced one, attuned to musical efficacy, for us, today. Thus when I asked about the chord in question, about what secret might be meant McClain explained that there is no secret at all, everything is overt, announced. The song elaborates a musical joke, a tease:

The jest in the words is exactly what they describe. He mainly oscillates on the mild colors of major tonic and relative minor, with two tones in common, as I described. His first "very strong" "progression" is a truncated cadence ("You don't care for music, do ya?") (meaning MOVEMENT, a whole tone upward from Subdominant to Dominant) but he is late getting to the latter and "throws it away" on the tonic "do ya." 21

For McClain all this is calculated artistry, not only brilliantly plain but consummately effective and that is to say: on musical terms. It is Cohen's song that allows kd lang to do what she does. And this is also why it is quite believable, whether true or not (I do not know), that Cohen wrote some 80 verses to it. What is certain is that where when he accepted his induction in 2006, after listening to kd lang's performance, Cohen was moved to reclaim, that is to recite just one more verse.

But this too is the heart of Cohen's hallelujah, as McClain analyses it:

After the 3rd verse Cohen extends these responses by six measures, and after the last he writes an extended coda of 2 measures (longer than his song of only 26). 22
In this way, Cohen loses not a thing by telling us what he does, in a never-mind, why-not-be-postmodern kind of way:
The composer is whimsically describing his effort by "embodying it." – AND HE HASN'T ANYTHING MORE TO SAY! THE ALLELUJAH'S THAT FOLLOW ARE "ANYTHING BUT." It doesn't matter who says them, they are ironic nothings where you might expect a real answer from the chorus. This is a burst bubble. Subsequent verses introduce slight rhythmic variations that are not really motivic but inspired by his --- which needs the words pronounced with proper stress. This man's (wo-man's: bubble bursts four times in a row (four strophic verses to the same melody and harmony), and all the halleluyahs are "sour grapes" (milking the audience for sympathy, that it gladly gives). 23
There is a lot said here and I leave the claims that McClain makes to one side for the moment to note the audience's sympathy, here, and this is common for popular music, as a kind of singing with or what I have, and this may be what drew me to this analysis, have elsewhere called concinnity, that is also a "singing with" in the specific context of Nietzsche's philosophical style and with regard to his epistemology. 24

Between Performance Practice and the "Becoming Human of Dissonance"

Nietzsche's philological and phenomenological investigations of the spirit of music in antiquity began with his explorations of the musical character of the Greek language as spoken/sung, beginning with his reflections on Greek music drama and dance, all replete with little illustrations, arsis/thesis.25 Nietzsche's exploration turns out to be all about dance, drama, but above all about the literal music of the poem itself, which phenomenological hermeneutic in turn was dependent upon Nietzsche's discovery of the musical resonances of ancient Greek.

And because kd lang walks the music as she does, it struck me that we might learn something hear something, guess at something, for, as Nietzsche also always reminds us, we need to guess where we do not, cannot know. What might this tell us about the chorus, about its movement in ancient Greek tragedy, and about the tragedian, qua lyric artist, as Nietzsche posed this question, but also and indeed in terms of the song itself?

Nietzsche argued that the artistic role of his own science, namely of classical philology as science, corresponded neither to that of the artist nor that of the composer but and much rather to the performer, the scholar's work would amount to a virtual making present, a Vergegenwärtigung of the kind one can perform by articulating, that is speaking/singing "sight-reading" ancient Greek within the constraints, that is also to say the "chains" of rhythm and time -- that is to say: out of the spirit of music.

Nietzsche alludes to Beethoven's music as artist and not less theoretically by way of Beethoven's early 19th century Harmonienlehre of dissonance and consonance26 and Beethoven's reflections on dissonance are of interest to Nietzsche's own writings on dissonance but also on harmony and not less on the differences between Greek musical forms and lyric convention, as Beethoven rather didactically explains: "Keine Dissonanz soll eher resolvieren, als bis der Sinn der Worte völlig geendet ist -- Wo man sich verweilet: lange Noten; wo man wegeilet: kurze Noten" (No dissonance shall ever be resolved until the meaning of all words has completely ended -- where you spend a lot of time: long notes; where you run off: short notes). 27 We note that Nietzsche emphasized a similar precision at the heart of poetry in a religious if demystifying context in his own writings: rhythm and rhyme are used to influence the deity. If Beethoven's significance cannot be overstated, 28 we may also recall, as Nietzsche did, that and since Hölderlin's Sophocles, the heart of tragedy is "joy": das freudigste, freudig zu sagen. 29 And at the end of his first book Nietzsche could attempt to illustrate what he called "the music" of the tragic art form: a "playing" with dissonance, with the "thorn of suffering." The key metaphor is musically technical. 30 And with Beethoven, we are, as the musicologists tell us, already underway to what comes to be called the "emancipation of dissonance"31 in studies of early 20th century atonal music. 32

We have emphasized that Nietzsche's resolution of the question of tragedy was musical (BT §22), referring to the sound, the music of very words themselves, that is to Greek as it was sung. But where our reflections return to kd lang, singing of desire and its indigence, its failures -- "our love is not a victory march" --referring to the paradoxical question that illuminates the problem of pleasure and pain in the ancient Greek tragedy play, speaking of the very phenomenon of "musical dissonance" (BT §24), we are returned to kd lang's as she sings, repeating Cohen's "Hallelujah"s and including the gut pain of loss and disappointment in oneself; both defiantly and as she crouches into this, drawing her singing out of the depths: "Hallelujah" in the face of pain, hence and thus they embody, incarnate, Nietzsche's description of the "becoming human" (BT §25) of dissonance.

For McClain, this is the strength not the weakness of popular music and this is why, if we follow his argument, so many artists are drawn to 'cover' Cohen's "Hallelujah." 33 In another context, I would keen to emphasize that the language of 'cover' is a music industry term: all about copyright and royalties. Here the point takes us to the heart of the "problem of the artist" as Nietzsche posed this problem, although it should be noted that Nietzsche only raises the question as he does because of his keen concern for what he also called the "genius of the heart," that quality, whatever it would take, that would be able to break everything as Nietzsche says, "self-satisfied" about us, and we are if anything consummate masters at self-satisfaction even as our world goes as it were to hell in a handbasket, animals, life of all kinds, destroyed at a pace like no other, human beings along with every other being, and the earth with it.

This genius of the heart might expose us, where being so exposed is the first condition for reflection, compassion, for what Heidegger called 'thinking.'

Here we note the reality of dissonance in tension with the ideality of consonance. And it is for this reason that in his notes Nietzsche gives us his reflections on pain as productive, and that is to say, and it is here that Ernest McClain's analyses of pain in musical metaphorics can be useful to us, 34 related as counter-color and as generating the beautiful, to use the language of generation as McClain illustrates it. The indifference, the equanimity in the face of either pleasure or pain that is an allusion to Schopenhauer in Nietzsche is also the same that alludes to the dreamer's insight into, or through the veil of Maja. It is we ourselves who are the figures in the dream of a god, -- figures, as Nietzsche reflects upon Schopenhauer's initially Buddhist point, who have figured out how that god dreams.

Beyond Nietzsche's published work on the work of art, on the artist, on consonance, dissonance, harmony in The Birth of Tragedy and including discussions of both tragedy and music in Human, All-too-Human, one has in the notes numerous discussions of these themes but in each case it makes all the difference to note the relevance of Nietzsche's inquiry into what he titles in his notes the "Origin and Goal of Tragedy." As Nietzsche here explains:

What is the feeling for harmony? On the one side, a subtraction [wegnehmen] of the with-sounding mitklingenden overtones, on the other side, a not-individual-hearing of the same. (KSA 7, 164)
To explore what we might call Nietzsche's Harmonienlehre further here would require a hermeneutic of influence and reference but at this juncture, in this context, it is worth noting that in the same locus we read Nietzsche's critical accord with Schopenhauer, invoking nothing less modern than the notion of a "false tone" (KSA 7, 202) included together with pain -- and we may think of Cohen's "cold and broken Hallelujah," as we also recall what I once called "Nietzsche's impossibly calm ideal," 35 in order to characterize his elusive image of a "cold angel," just short of the calm that is the extraordinary breath that is the end of kd lang's "Hallelujah."

The question of the artist, the question of the performer, of the dynamic actuality of the singer, invokes the working power of the work of the composer, as it is this that was also for Nietzsche the very political question of musical culture. There is for the Greek "no term for art," there is for the Greek "no cult of the artist" but rather a contest between artists, in a democratic culture of contests that involved the entire polis. It is thus that I understand Nietzsche's musing: "es muß viele Übermenschen geben" (there must be many super-men) (KSA 35 [72], 541) for, and as Aristotle also emphasized, good things can only develop among like and similarly good things. But this makes the exception problematic.

Thus Nietzsche struggled from start to finish with the question of whether the artist, the genius, the maestro was to be valorized as we do indeed valorize the artist. "The problem of the artist" is thus related to the "problem of the scientist," which Nietzsche would also go on to differentiate in more colorful terms as "gay" versus "gray," that is as plodding researcher vs. "Argonaut" of the spirit. Thus Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy distinguishes between what he calls "the spirit of science" (BT 17, cf. HHI, §6, §224, §264) and the Spirit of Music out of which he traces the genesis of the tragic work of art. And arguably, it is the cult of the artist, the cult of the star, that is also to say: the music-industry, the culture-industry that similarly blocks our path today.

Here we return to kd lang. For Nietzsche, the scientist is an artist tout court, but one who not only fails to know this about him (or herself) but who also denies it, dissembling this 'artistry' whenever an inkling of this truth comes to light be it for him- or herself but above all for society -- inasmuch as here too one finds (as everywhere) will to power and it is science today, rather than religion, that is the very best means for the advancement of both our slavish capacities and our slavish morality, where there is for Nietzsche, and of course, no other kind.

kd lang, so I have argued above, would seem to know all this -- and more -- about the artist. And thus Nietzsche privileges the artist above the scientist, but and only for the sake of life.

As kd lang sings what Cohen would say: Hallelujah.


1. Lori Burns, "'Joanie' Get Angry: k.d. lang's Feminist Revisions," in John Covach and Graeme M. Boone, eds., Understanding Rock: Essays in Musical Analysis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Guy Capuzzo, "Neo-Riemannian Theory and the Analysis of Pop-Rock Music," Music Theory Spectrum 26.2 (2004): 177-199, Martha Mockus, "Queer Thoughts on County Music and k.d. lang," in Philip Brett & Elizabeth Wood, eds., Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology (NY: Routledge, 2006), Judith Halberstam, Female masculinity (Duke University Press, 1998), John M. Sloopm, Disciplining Gender: Rhetorics of Sex Identity in Contemporary U.S. Culture, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005), Stella Bruzzi, "Mannish Girl: k.d. lang from Cowpunk to Androgyny" in: Sheila Whiteley, ed., Sexing the Groove: Popular Music and Gender (London: Routledge 1997), pp. 191-206. Keith Negus, Popular Music in Theory: An Introduction (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996), etc.

2. This immediate responsiveness is perhaps the most important aspect of the subjective experience of computer culture, qua computer culture, which I observed already as a student working with computers in college in the mid- to late 1970s and early 1980s in grad school. I realized that the reason my peers at MIT (I preferred to use the gym there when I was at Boston College) were fascinated by their computers was that literally everything they did was reinforced: touch a key and the response is a direct echo, no countering word, no dissonance, no unpredictability. The computer is a poster child for what psychologists call "mirroring." The then-popular Eliza program was only a variant on the same and so it continues to this day. See for a sophisticated discussion focusing on the effects of this technology on pre-adolescents, adolescents and, indeed, the elderly, Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011).

3. This idiom is native to my New York. To explain: falling off the floor is not ordinarily a possibility and thus the phrase works as a superlative.

4. See Babich, Words in Blood, Like Flowers, Philosophy and Poetry Music and Eros: Nietzsche, Heidegger Hölderlin (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006). I also make this point in "Postmodern Musicology" in Victor E. Taylor and Charles Winquist, eds., Routledge Encylopedia of Postmodernism. (London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 153-159 as well as, albeit more obliquely, in my discussion of nihilism in "Ex aliquo nihil: Nietzsche on Science and Modern Nihilism," American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly. Special Issue on Nietzsche, 84-2 (Spring 2010): 231-256 and "Adorno on Science and Nihilism, Animals, and Jews," Symposium: Canadian Journal of Continental Philosophy/Revue canadienne de philosophie continentale, Vol. 14, No. 1, (2011): 1-36.

5. But see for an overview of the ‘engineered' conventionalities of "virtual audio," Freeman Dyson, "When is the Ear Pierced?" in: Mary Anne Moser and Douglas MacLeod, eds., Immersed in Technology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1900), 73-101, esp. pp. 80ff.

6. Babich, "The Science of Words or Philology: Music in The Birth of Tragedy and The Alchemy of Love in The Gay Science," in: Tiziana Andina, ed., Revista di estetica. n.s. 28, XLV (Turin: Rosenberg & Sellier, 2005), pp. 47-78.

7. Here it is important to note that critics have divided views on this matter and when I spoke recently with Percy Adlon about her film acting debut in Salmonberries, he emphasized the impression left upon him by kd lang's aptness for whatever she was exposed to. Nor would Adlon be the only one to have been left with the impression that lang is in many respects the incarnation of a quick study works well here.

8. See, for the context, Michael Chanan's Musica Practica: The Social Practice of Western Music from Gregorian Chant to Postmodernism (London: Verso, 1994), and here, p. 190.

9. Thus there is effectively no need for anyone to develop a cell-phone app, as one reviewer in the popular press noted, to let heterosexual women looking for a hook-up know where, say, in their immediate vicinity, similarly inclined men might be found; an immediate marriage-proposal app, nota bene, would be whole other story.

10. I discuss some of the consequences of this in the section entitled "Guerilla Phenomenology" in Babich, "Great Men, Little Black Dresses, & the Virtues of Keeping One's Feet on the Ground," MP: An Online Feminist Journal, Vol. 3, Issue 1 (August 2010): 57-78. Pp. 67ff.

11. They prefer, indeed as kd lang herself prefers, to be called handsome as opposed to ‘pretty' and we've already mentioned the limitations that come with speaking of their beauty in cases where one is not, say, Plato or Socrates.

12. See Babich, "Women and Status in Philosophy," Radical Philosophy, 160 (March/April 2010): 36-38.

13. There is, and for this reason I will refrain from citing it here, a well-known and massive literature on this topic.

14. Personally speaking, I am quite keen on the very idea of performing in bare feet, as kd lang occasionally does and this may well be because while I notice shoes (mostly men's shoes), I usually find women's shoes both unattractive and uncomfortable. See for a discussion of Alexander Nehamas's shoes in particular, Babich, "Women and Status in Philosophy."

15. See the third essay in Nietzsche's The Genealogy of Morals, and for Nietzsche and sex and sexuality, see Babich, "Nietzsche und Wagner: Sexualität," trans. Martin Suhr in H. J. Brix, N. Knoepffler, S. L. Sorgner, eds., Wagner und Nietzsche. Kultur -- Werk -- Wirkung. Ein Handbuch (Reinbek b. Hamburg: Rowohlt, 2008), pp. 323-341. On women in Nietzsche, see "Nietzsche and Eros Between the Devil and God's Deep Blue Sea: The Erotic Valence of Art and the Artist as Actor -- Jew -- Woman," Continental Philosophy Review, 33 (2000): 159-188.

16. Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet (Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive, 1998 [1986]).

17. Email from Ernest McClain to the author: Friday, April 29, 2011 02:31PM and Saturday, April 30, 2011 07:02AM. This would be almost like the immensely popular 1955 song by Alex North, with lyrics by Hy Zaret, "Unchained Melody," composed (and who else pays for compositions?) for film in the version sung by Bobby Hatfield, recorded by the Righteous Brothers (as a B-side) in 1965. Note that the ‘unchained' in the title does not refer to the melody although there are commonalities in what can be done with the song. As songwriter, as both musician and lyricist Cohen is able to things with his music and his words. This is his ‘cleverness' as McClain puts it: "sticking to basics in a genre that invites performers to vary his melody at their pleasure, shifting to higher tones in the same harmony, singing the text either with or AGAINST the background of the accompaniment, as if the musical discipline is as relaxed as the morals." Ibid.

18. See again, Babich, "Nietzsche and Eros Between the Devil and God's Deep Blue Sea."

19. See my discussion of this "knowledge about love," Babich, Words in Blood, Like Flowers, pp. 162ff.

20. As one comment on her 2006 performance for Cohen's Songwriter's Hall of Fame induction puts it: "If you told me that God brought the universe into existance 15 billion years ago because he wanted to hear K.D. Lang sing Hallelujah, I just might believe you..." signed by Waltham1892, 1 year ago 29.

21. McClain, email to the author: Saturday, April 30, 2011 06:58PM . McClain's further and astonishingly fluent "sight" musicological analysis of Cohen's music repays citation here at some length: But the 16 measure traditional "bar-form" has a jest in the harmony for the king approaches his own Hallelujah by arcing over the upper octave and then veering off to a "deceptive cadence" (the G sharp seventh chord in measure 14 is the dominant of the tonic's relative minor, and the only "chromaticism" [repeated in each verse]). This harmonic "dislocation" motivates the string of muttered hallelujahs that follow as the tonic is recovered in time for the next verse. Email to the author: Sunday, May 01, 2011 06:41PM.

22. McClain, email to the author: Saturday, April 30, 2011 06:58PM.

23. Ernest McClain, email to the author: Saturday, April 30, 2011 06:58PM.

24. See Babich, "On Nietzsche's Concinnity: An Analysis of Style," Nietzsche-Studien, 19 (1990): 59-80 and further Babich, Nietzsche's Philosophy of Science (Albany: SUNY Press, 1994), ch. 1.

25. See, again, Babich, "Wort und Musik in der Antiken Tragödie. Nietzsches ,fröhliche' Wissenschaft." Nietzsche-Studien 37 (2007): 230-257, here p. 235.

26. See here Beethoven in Henry Hugo Pierson, ed., Ludwig van Beethovens Studien im Generalbass, Contrapunkt und in der Compositionslehre aus dessen Handschriftlichen Nachlass gesammelt und herausgegeben von Ignaz Xaver von Seyfried (Leipzig/Hamburg/New York: Schuberth & Comp, 1853 [1832]), throughout but especially p. 130.

27. Ibid., p. 316.

28. See for a contextual discussion of what the author calls the "symphonic monument that towered over the nineteenth century," Daniel K. L. Chua, Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 235f.

29. Beethoven and Hölderlin were both born in 1770 and as Günter Mieth observes the influence of Schiller's Ode to Joy, "An die Freude" is to be seen in Hölderlins' representation of Bacchus as "‘Freudengott'" in Miethe, Friedrich Hölderlin: Zeit und Schicksal (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2007), p. 113.

30. See further on this technical dimension, Babich," Mousike techne: The Philosophical Praxis of Music in Plato, Nietzsche, Heidegger" in Robert Burch and Massimo Verdicchio, eds., Gesture and Word: Thinking Between Philosophy and Poetry (London: Continuum, 2002) pp. 171-180; 200-205.

31. A visual metaphor for this same "emancipation" with reference to Beethoven is already evident in Nietzsche's commissioned woodcut illustrating the liberation of Prometheus and used as frontispiece for his first book. But it is also important to note that the subtitle of Thomas Harrison's 1910: The Emancipation of Dissonance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996). The term as such is usually attributed to Arnold Schoenberg who uses it in his 1926 essay "Gesinnung oder Erkenntnis?" in: Schönberg, Stil und Gedanke. Aufsätze zur Musik, ed. Ivan Vojtech (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1976), Vol. 1, p. 211. But for a discussion of the origination of Schönberg's "Emanzipation der Dissonanz," see August Halme's 1900 Harmonielehre, analyzed as "Befreiung der Dissonanz." See too Rafael Köhler, Natur und Geist. Energetische Form in der Musiktheorie (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1996), throughout, but here: p. 230ff. Of course the claims in this regard go even further back in the 19th century (see here, among others, Barbara R. Barry, The Philosopher's Stone: Essays in the Transformation of Musical Structure [New York: Pendragon Press, 2000]) a circumstance to be expected given the dynamic between consonance and dissonance as this Beethoven discusses just this tension in his own writings on composition.

32. Musical dissonance permeates the 19th century and this is where Nietzsche took the notion of dissonance from in the first place. This is not quite the place to argue this but this may be where, perhaps, Adorno himself might have been going in his Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988).

33. "The appended Hallelujahs sung here are freely varied by the singer to please herself (and NOT what is printed). They are an equivalent to your expected Greek choral response, and Lang makes them her own as a "reaction" to the memory of the verse she has just sung, a counterpoise of nostalgia and disappointment shared universally--in which the audience is invited to participate sympathetically and does; people are partly applauding themselves along with her professionalism." McClain, email to the author: Sunday, May 01, 2011 06:41PM.

34. See McClain, "A Priestly View of Bible Arithmetic: Deity's Regulative Aesthetic Activity Within Davidic Musicology" in: Babich, ed., Hermeneutic Philosophy of Science. Van Gogh's Eyes. and God (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002), pp. 429-443.

35. Babich, "Nietzsche's Critical Theory: The Culture of Science as Art," in Babich in consultation with R.S. Cohen, eds., Nietzsche, Theories of Knowledge, Critical Theory (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1999), pp. 1-24, here p. 13.

Special thanks to Thomas Ziegler for help with translation

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