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Fifty Shades of Spem
by Charles Leech| Toronto, Canada
Monday, 28 January 2013
tags: americas, culture, making sense, semiotics
One of my favourite pieces of choral music has hit the mainstream lately: Thomas Tallis’s 40-part choral motet Spem in Alium has exploded in popularity due to the role it plays in EL James’s erotic bondage trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey. Current public opinion on this combination ranges from bemusement and puzzlement to gratitude (on the part of record companies), but I haven’t been able to find any decent explanation for how – or even if – these two texts work together. So let’s fix that.
First of all, the texts themselves.
Spem in Alium is a Renaissance motet, composed around 1570 by Thomas Tallis. In choral music circles it’s quite famous for a number of reasons:
For starters, it’s simply spectacular, if you like that sort of thing (I do). It starts small (one ‘voice’) and ends big (all 40 voices), and in between is a lovely, rich, surging, swirling, immersive, infinitely-complex texture of harmony and melody. Normally, it’s the kind of thing you’d like to wake up to on a lazy weekend morning (you might not notice it starting, but you’ll certainly be awake by the end).
It’s also famous because it’s rarely heard or performed live, since it’s written for 40 separate parts. It’s a crazy number: most choral music is written for 4 parts, and sometimes 8 parts if the composer was feeling unusually ambitious. 40 parts usually means a minimum of 80 singers, and that’s tough to arrange in this age. As a result of this low profile on the live stage, Spem in Alium has been the secret handshake of choral music lovers for ages: not as well-known or as popularized as, say, Handel’s Messiah, or any of the Requiems. Spem is the shibboleth of High Anglican choral snobs.
Fifty Shades of Grey is a 2011 novel written by EL James, and it has two sequels (Fifty Shades Darker, Fifty Shades Freed). The novels are a massive success and currently hold the world record for fastest-selling paperbacks of all time. They’re also famous for bringing sexual bondage, discipline and sadomasochism (‘BDSM’) into the mainstream limelight, inspiring reams of articles and opinions on why this seems to have defined today’s zeitgeist – especially for housewives and middle-class mums.
But for now, let’s not go there: let’s pause on the fact that the dominant male character of the book, ‘Christian’, likes to play Spem in Alium while he has BDSM sex with the submissive female protagonist, ‘Ana’:
"The singing starts again … building and building, and he rains down blows on me … and I groan and writhe … Lost in him, lost in the astral, seraphic voices … I am completely at the mercy of his expert touch …
"'What was that music?' I mumble almost inarticulately.
"'It's called Spem in Alium, a 40-part motet by Thomas Tallis.'
You can imagine the classical music purists howling in outrage: how DARE a trashy pop-culture beach novel drag Tallis’ most celebrated work into the muck! Shock! Horror! Indecency!
And yet, it makes perfect sense when you look at it carefully – semiotically.
First off, there’s the issue of narrative congruence, or, in this case, ‘ironic narrative congruence’ or ‘deliberate narrative dissonance’, where the shock of placing a sacred text like Spem into the context of BDSM is precisely the point: if Fifty Shades (and BDSM) is about pushing boundaries and exploring the forbidden, then fifty shades of Spem is a perfect example. How dare they? Exactly.
But is it truly ironic? There’s Philip Tagg’s ‘genre synecdoche’, where an imported, re-contextualized musical reference can bring the connotations of an entire culture into the picture for semiotic mastication. How fascinating, to consider how music like Spem in Alium affects our experience of [reading about] BDSM! The music is transcendent, sublime: it transports listeners to a higher plane of consciousness, away from the corporeal and closer to the divine. BDSM, like all sex, tries to accomplish the same: transcending the physical (through the physical) to ecstasy, to touch the divine. Spem in Alium is also about discipline and control: breath, voice, diaphragm, timing; BDSM is entirely about control (who delivers pain, who receives pleasure). EL James knows this, with her description of Ana being “lost in him, in the seraphic voices”.
Although they’re sung in Latin and indecipherable in the music, the words of Spem are congruent with the narrative of the BDSM submissive: “I have never put my hope in any other but You . . . who can show both anger and graciousness . . . be mindful of our lowliness.” Spem fits Christian’s god complex (his name is no accident, either).
Musicologically, Spem is a kinetic anaphone (Tagg) for any kind of ecstatic sexual experience: immersive, sensuous, emotional, ebbing, flowing, teasing, climaxing.
And in the story, Christian’s knowledge of Spem gives him instant cultural cred. He is the grown-up, sophisticated adult version of Alex from A Clockwork Orange, having graduated from raping and Beethoven (both oh so crass).
Claudia Gorbman talks about ‘mutual implication’, which is one of the hallmarks of intertextuality: when you put two texts together, they affect they way each is perceived in culture. Sometimes this effect is small, sometimes it achieves massive cultural synaesthesia, where an entire generation is unable to, say, hear music like Wagner’s Ride Of The Valkyries without visualizing the Huey helicopters from Apocalypse Now. Synaesthesia can only happen when there are deep narrative congruencies in the combined texts to support and inform the initial shock of unexpected juxtaposition.
But some multimedia text combinations are harder to lodge into people’s minds, and I doubt whether the music of Spem in Alium will become synaesthetically fused with BDSM imagery just through the written words of EL James on paper or Kindle screen . . . but just wait: the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey is already in development. The music credits will hold no surprise, and then we’ll really get to see ironic narrative congruence in action.
© Charles Leech 2013