Music is different from the other arts, isn’t it? “It’s here and then it’s gone,” sings the speaker of “No Expectations,” one of the Rolling Stones’ great ballads. But not quite accurately. I’m not sure that you can capture this quality of music, which is also the quality of our experience of time. Not, first here then gone; only, passingly here. Some of these ideas are in the background of “Marche Pacifiste.” Now I’ve complained elsewhere about the difficulties of discussing instrumental music, but I think that “Marche Pacifiste” actually gives me plenty to talk about. And so I was noodling around on the guitar, or perhaps dumplinging, because I was playing in my beloved mid-tempo (the tempo of “Cathy Ann” and the folk song “East Viginia”) fat chords, not long, skinny lines of single notes. In the key of B no less. And I thought how hymnlike sounded the chords I was playing. And I thought, what am I praying for? And I answered, for peace. I prayed that my country might stop invading places, that fanatical believers might stop attacking others for their beliefs, that the Arab Spring might bring about freedom and peace. I thought about the passing nature of time against the static nature of history (events as objects of analysis), and I thought about how my beloved romantic composers loved the military style, and even my beloved Franz Schubert had written a piece (actually three of them) called “Marche Militaire.” I determined to call my instrumental hymn “Marche Pacifiste.” I thought about how I wanted love, which ebbs and flows when it’s alive, to be constant and ever-present. Let me quickly emphasize that I don’t regard love as inevitably fleeting, because I still love my beloved, whom I married when I was five. But love has its ups and downs.
Aha! says the philistine. You profess to be an unbeliever and yet you pray! “Do I contradict myself? Well, then, I contradict myself! I am large. I contain multitudes.” In fact, poor philistine, I do not contradict myself at all. You are merely laboring under a mistaken notion of the meaning of prayer. You suppose that prayer means only “to petition the Lord with prayer.” The insufficiency of this proposition is so clear to Jim Morrison’s young man in “seminary school,” that he screams, “You cannot petition the Lord with prayer!” Of course, you can, poor seminarian! That doesn’t mean that the Lord is listening! No. In order to understand prayer we must understand time or at least our experience of time. The past has passed; the future is yet to be; only the present is present to us. Therefore, truth, beauty, goodness—everything we could ever know or want—are present, if present, in the here and now. To express our disappointment with the false, the ugly and the bad: that is prayer. All prayer says the same thing: “Would that it were otherwise.” It doesn’t matter whether the Lord is listening. The Thanksgiving holiday is approaching, and I will raise my unbeliever’s thanks. No deity necessary. But true prayer is prayer, that is petition, for the state of things to be other than it is.
And this is why there is art: to give desire (or what amounts to the same thing, anxiety) material form, to put conflict, the would-that-it-were-otherwise feeling, at a safe distance. The creation of art has for the artist a mild therapeutic effect, pretty insubstantial to be honest. But for the world, for society, art has an enormously salutary effect. Through our participation in works of art we depart from ourselves a little bit, we experience what it is to be otherwise than ourselves. This effect can range from mere escapism, what it feels like to be somebody better or more exciting than ourselves, to “tragedy wrought to the uttermost.” This is the thought behind that other prayerful song on Madness and Morals, “Pretty Fire (Furry)”:
I want to be obliterated buggered beaten maimed
Because instrumental music lacks even the self-identification of language, because music is so enveloping and participatory, it is the farthest extreme of art’s capacity to take us out of ourselves, out of the world of events and place us—fleetingly!—in the present.
Here I must confess that none of this was conscious to me, neither when I was writing “Marche Pacifiste,” nor when we worked it up as a band. But the churchy sound of the organ, the solemnity of the unornamented drums, the somberness of the guitar chords, and especially the strenuous restraint of the bass (oh! that glissando before the bridge!), make the song a musical prayer for peace. Little more to be said, I suppose. Perhaps I could point out the extreme simplicity, the exclusion of polyphony: the melody is simply the third tone in the parallel triads of the chord progression.
I used “Marche Pacifiste” as the theme music for my podcasts http://podcasting.gcsu.edu/4DCGI/Podcasting/GaPerimeter/Channel_20063/55667832.xml about mutual understanding in education. I believe that people can understand one another and thereby prevent conflicts, which are the worst thing in the world.