Peter Gabriel‘s soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, entitled Passion, is, I think, the best film soundtrack ever recorded, and it ranks quite highly on my list of Greatest Rock(ish) Albums Ever. Let me set the historical backdrop with four musical events:

In 1963, Sandy Bull created what became known as “world music” by fusing Eastern musical forms (like the Indian raga) and scales (like Mediterranean tunings) with Western forms (like the rock song) and instruments (like the modern guitar). In 1969, experimental ensemble Third Ear Band created a new music that fused a variety of world musics (medieval, Native American, gypsy, Indian, minimalist, jazz, and more) with no relation to rock music at all. In 1978, Jon Hassell, who had studied under Karlheinz Stockhausen (the most cerebral avantgarde composer ever), invented his “fourth world music” by combining ancient world musics, futuristic electronic musics, and his unique trumpet sound that mimics the voice of Hindustani singer Pandit Pran Nath. In 1981, rocker David Byrne and producer/composer Brian Eno invented techno-ethno-funk, a funky music that uses avantgarde techniques to blend Third World percussion and electronic soundscapes.

Since 1969, first with Genesis and then in solo projects, Peter Gabriel had been crafting an atmospheric, psychological prog-pop. The albums were mediocre to decent, but when Scorcese asked Gabriel to compose a soundtrack for his controversial Jesus movie in 1989, something amazing and unprecedented happened. Gabriel applied the lessons of Sandy Bull, Third Ear Band, Jon Hassell, and Byrne & Eno to his oneiric vision of an ancient middle-eastern emotional holocaust to create a spiritual masterpiece that transcends all time. I cannot write a better review than Piero Scaruffi:

The funereal flute litanies and the syncopated beat of “Of These Hope” evoke a prayer in the desert, while gentle winds scour the sand dunes and caravans sail towards the horizon. Desperate voices surface out of the dark, swampy beat of “A Different Drum”, materialized by the lugubrious organ drones. “With This Love” features a tender oboe melody, worthy of Schubert, that floats over a double-violin simulating the cello of baroque music. This piece, the album’s highlight, exudes the sorrowful fatalism of Ennio Morricone’s scores and the dejected majesty of Albinoni’s “Adagio”.

“Passion” is a cosmic raga that seems to encompass Islamic, Christian and pagan liturgy through the interplay of three voices: Gabriel’s muezzin-like lament, Nusrat Fateh’s angelic soprano,
and Youssou N’Dour’s equatorial cry. They are hypnotized by the macabre phrases of Jon Hassell’s trumpet, while Brazilian percussions and gloomy electronics create a metaphysical suspense, evoking both genesis and apocalypse.

Gabriel indulges in several formats, as if to explore the same theme through different eyes: from the whirling Persian dervishes of “The Feeling Begins” to the minimalist concerto of “Zaar”, from the psychedelic ecstasy of “Open” (another highlight) to the distant echoes of galactic music that constitute “Stygmata”. The idea is often so abstract that music flows backwards, towards the maternal womb rather than towards the real world. Occasionally one sees snapshots of Robert Wyatt’s most otherworldly visions.

The shorter pieces are no less suggestive and ethereal. Far from merely reenacting impressionism in music, these miniatures continue the theme of the “foetus” music: the new-age psalm of “Lazarus”, the austere chamber music of “Gethsemane”, the “breathing” music of “In Doubt”, the cyclic exorcism of “The Promise of Shadows”, even the Talking Heads-ian techno-funk of “Troubled”.

The last three “songs” are more explicitly related to the story, and compose a moving crescendo: in “Disturbed” the synthesizer plays a droning requiem over chaotic percussions, and the jubilant “wall of sound” of “It Is Accomplished” leads to the languid hymn of “Bread And Wine”.

Gabriel’s Passion is, first and foremost, a study in “sound”. Each piece cultivates its own sound almost in semiotic terms (each piece being a sign, rather than an object). Jung’s collective unconscious comes to life in Gabriel’s supernatural scores.

Passion is one of my favorite pieces of music of any genre, and a worthy addition to any music lover’s library.

A spiritual masterpiece like this from a secular artist gets me thinking about about the state of Christian music (again). CCM has never shown any passion for art, so even though Christianity claims more adherents than any other religion (and Islam is hardly involved in the music industry for cultural reasons), the most spiritual (and even Christian) works of innovative music today are written by non-Christian artists!

Several Christian composers are writing innovative, emotional, spiritual Christian music (Arvo Part and John Tavener). Two of the most well-received classical compositions of the last decade are Passion According to St. Mark by Jewish composer Osvaldo Golijov and Water Passion after St. Matthew by Eastern mystic and composer Tan Dun. And if humanist John Adams’ Harmonielehre (1985) isn’t the best existing symphony of God’s glory, I don’t know what is.

These works may be sonically inaccessible to most people, but popular music is no different, and Peter Gabriel’s Passion is only one example. What CCM artist can claim the religious intensity and ethnic fusion of Spleen and Ideal (1985) by Dead Can Dance? The tribal-ambient devotionals of Well of Souls (1995) by Steve Roach? The sacred eternity and mystery of Remnants Of A Deeper Purity (1996) by Black Tape for a Blue Girl? I could list dozens of examples, and the entirety of Christian rock music pales in comparison.

Once again, I call upon the Christian community to glorify God not only with lyrically edifying jingles, but also with complex and beautiful and innovative and intense phantasmagorias of sound! God is the most amazing artist ever, and he gave us artistic talents to glorify him and enjoy his beauty. We should use these talents for more than derivative ditties.

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