The Music of George Sarah

by David Clayton on June 4, 2010

Drum, bass ‘n violins I would like to bring to your attention the music of composer George Sarah. George is a Catholic who lives in Los Angeles and since 1985 has regularly been commissioned by film and TV companies to compose scores for their programming. I won’t go through the names, but his portfolio is impressive. He works for household name shows, as his MySpace page reveals. I came across him when I first visited Los Angeles about 4 years ago. A Catholic friend had organized for me to teach an icon painting class at St Monica’s Church in West Hollywood. George just happened to hear about this and keen to help, arranged promotional interviews for community  radio and TV. You can see the TV show through the panel, right. The music for the opening sequence is one of George’s pieces. This was filmed before I was recruited by Thomas More College and moved to New Hampshire. He writes music for his separately released CDs (or whatever the latest mode of recording via computer is!) and performs his work in concert.

His style has been described as electronic chamber music. He performs with a traditional string trio, but accompanies them on electronic keyboards and drum machines. It has a haunting quality and a modern feel but, and I think it is more than simply the choice of instruments, it has a sense of traditional form about it as well.

If we are to evangelise the culture, then it must be rooted in the Mass. For the Mass, it is important that we employ traditional forms that are united to the liturgy. However, once we go out of the church building it is legitimate, I think to develop them into other profane (ie non-sacred) forms that grab people and then direct them towards the Mass. We are required to develop a culture of beauty that both speaks to modern man and opens up the hearts of men to God’s grace. George is consciously seeking to do this by working within the world of popular music.

If asked he will talk freely and enthusiastically about his conversion, which he attributes to Mary; and his desire to draw people into the Church. However, within the context of his music it is through form rather than words that he seeks to do it. He aims for beauty that elevates the souls of men to God. He is self taught and composes by developing melodies on the keyboard and then building the harmony and counterpoint around it instinctively. To my mind George is doing something very important here. While I firmly believe that the most beautiful music is that which is united to the Mass, plainchant and polyphony, not all are attracted to it immediately. It is an adage in all evangelization that you have to meet people where they are and take them to somewhere better. George’s music heard by many who would never hear Palestrina and is quite different structurally, but I do feel that it is nudging their souls in the Palestrina’s direction.

Some argue that pop and good music are a contradiction in terms. Certainly, I would say, much pop music is detrimental to the soul (and intentionally so). But it is not true of all it. What opened me up to classical music (and who knows, the beauty of God and my eventual conversion some years later) was the music of a band in the 1970s who were writing rock music but consciously employing classical, rather than blues based forms. The early music of Genesis (we are talking pre1976 here, for example the track, The Firth of Fifth) was cutting edge and trendy at the time so as a teenage schoolboy I could contemplate listening to it. I would never, ever, have chosen to listen to ‘Christian rock’, which just made me cringe with embarrassment…and it still does.  Genesis did not write their music as an evangelical tool at all (none are Christians to my knowledge) but its use of traditional form, with intelligently applied rhythms pulled me in and sent me off in the right direction. I have spoken to a number of people since who have said the same. I doubt that 1970s rock will pull in many today, but the idea is still good, and this is what George is doing in a current idiom. It is interesting that he does not see his music as something that is used the context of the Mass. Firmly orthodox, he loves the Latin Mass and would always want to see the traditional forms of plainchant and polyphony.

George was recently commissioned to write an original score for performance at the Los Angeles Film Festival. He could choose whatever film he wished. He picked the 1920s silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc. This is accepted in all circles as classic and so there was no hesitation in accepting his choice, even though it has Catholic themes. George just had to write the music and he could let the silent film do the talking! You can see and hear the show on August 7th this summer in LA, details here.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark June 4, 2010 at 1:30 pm

Very Californian. I love it!!

Reply

Douglas Bonneville June 4, 2010 at 4:46 pm

“Christian rock’, which just made me cringe with embarrassment…and it still does.”

I have maintained a permanent cringe when it comes to Christian “rock”. I was literally thinking about this last night as I went for a long exercise walk. I was listening to some Led Zeppelin on the iPod, shortly after finishing a Rosary mp3 cycle. What makes Zeppelin and other “regular” rock different from Christian rock? I propose that Christian rock is fundamentally missing something very important, and for some reason, Christian rockers are the last to know it.

Take Zep or the Beatles or Hendrix or Floyd. They all have a palpable “spirit”. They have a certain genuine mystique, a legitimate milieu. We could wax on for hours about what it is and whether it is ultimately good or not. At the most base level of discussion, though, it is genuine and is formed from a “cult”, the culture of American Blues, and now it forms part of our popular culture for better or worse. Christian rock tries to appropriate the cult of blues in mere form, but not spirit. In ends up lacking that vital spirituality of Blues that makes it what it is. Again, we could discuss for hours what that is. Essentially, Christian rock is a “muscle car” with an “economy 4 cylinder” for an engine! Or maybe there are just hamsters on a treadmill under the hood.

“Christian rock” is pseudonymous name. “Lame Imitation rock” is more like it. Lame is technically the correct term – it is not able to deliver musically what it promises by name.

But why?

As a revert from Protestantism back to Catholicism, I’m well aware of the gamut of Christian music. It’s all awful. One word comes to mind over and over – effeminate. Not in a feminine sense, as if I was saying that Christian rock is “lite” sounding. Rather, it is emasculated. It is missing the vital ethos that it tries to imitate, it’s core identity, it’s testosterone if you will.

In a sense, you could say that Zeppelin has a genuine spirituality (good or bad is another question) while Christian rock has a false one. Christian rock has the form but denies the power, as a matter of principle, as Paul describes false teachers in the epistles who “have a form of godliness but deny the power thereof.”

Catholicism has the ability to take a true element of culture and supersede, or realign, its incomplete spirituality into a completed one in God. It leaves the cultural trappings intact, the outward visible forms at some base level, and completes the spirituality by connecting it fully to God through the Church. It transforms elemental forces of culture into spiritual ones.

Protestant Christian rock does not have the theological or internal means by which to assimilate and appropriate the true ethos of rock. It is a glaring deficiency, which is seen on many levels in Protestantism, which is also why there is no Protestant art culture to speak of (except what it walked off with). It’s almost a byword how Protestant missionaries have in the past sought to impose a foreign culture on those they minister to instead of appropriating and elevating those cultures in service of the Church. This has caused so much needless work and suffering for our Protestant brothers and sisters. God bless them for trying!

I would propose, perhaps, that the best rock music has yet to be made, since it seems no Catholic has fully completed a pagan takeover of the form that I know of, though I would be the first in line to be corrected. Send me an iTunes link!

Rock music could therefore function as a form of “profane” music that leads towards the holy, if it is appropriated correctly, by honoring the true nature of its spirituality but directing towards God. They “mysteriousness” of great Rock music would seem to be able to open one up to the great mystery of the Mass, perhaps.

I have a huge music collection of about 40 gigs. That vast majority is Classical and Choral. Palestrina, Lassus, Tallis, Byrd etc. What is more beautiful than the Latin Mass sung in polyphony? Or Mozart’s Mass in C minor if you are in the mood for that? Plainsong is an acquired, learned, taste but it is sublime too. That said, the Renaissance and Classical discs in the collection are balanced out by Zeppelin, Hendrix, a zillion acoustic guitar virtuosos (Renbourn, Jansch, Bensusan, etc.). My nighttime walks usually consist of jumping around playlists from Catholic Choral from the Renaissance, to the classic rock of our generation. I find the the “truth” in the genuine spirituality of great Rock something that finds fulfillment in the music of the Mass, where all sublimity is there for us to experience, and I don’t find it contradictory to move from the Latin Mass to Beatles. It’s a juxtaposition that reminds me of our duty as the Pilgrim Church. Its the difference between the Western portrait tradtion, heavy with darkness and shadow, and the illuminating tradtion of Eastern Icons. It stirs me to plan evangelism!

In a word, I think great Rock (and some folk, some jazz, and maybe some pop too) is pre-evangelistic in some way, as is all truly great music or art, but it all ultimately points to the Eucharist for fulfillment. Somehow the Blues is really a longing for God and not the named and cliched things mentioned in so many cheap song lyrics.

I could be wrong, but that’s OK. I love this post! Very though provoking!

Reply

Douglas Bonneville June 4, 2010 at 4:57 pm

Hi again: You might like a little mini article I wrote that prefaces a quote the Pope recently made about the study of music:

http://endofthetrain.com/pope-benedict-the-value-of-the-study-of-music/

Reply

davidicons June 5, 2010 at 11:31 am

Hi Douglas
I agree with your assessment of Christian rock. For me the answer lies in a dislocation between content and form. The form of rock (or all forms of pop) music has grown up, since the 60s, to communicate degenerate values sex, drugs and itself (rock and roll). Therefore, if I try to put Christian lyrics on that it loses its power, especially if I try to take out the aggression or eroticism that is inherent in so much pop I am trying to communicate something good in a vehicle that is bad. The result is emasculated, sentimental pop and what always looked to me when I was 18 like a lot of sad people trying to convince each other that even thought their Christian they’re cool.
The band I referred to Genesis, do not use necessarily the musical form of pop. They used traditional harmonies but put modern (and pretty sophisticated) rhythms on top of it. So I now realising that I was responding to something different here that was inherently Christian (as these harmonies grew up within the Church). But their lyrics weren’t. As posh English boys from a private school, they tended to write about Greek myths and make obscure literary references. I never understood a word of it, but it wasn’t overtly erotic at all. I once heard one of them say that they left an all boys school at the age of 18 and had never had girlfriends, so they just couldn’t write songs about that sort of thing because they had no experience. Just fyi, two tracks I liked (if you like that 70s monster rock stuff are here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SD5engyVXe0
and here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6nhzEBSLOw&feature=related

I would love to see more attempts to do this thing in a way that speaks to people today.

Reply

J.R.Howley June 12, 2010 at 11:11 pm

I too find Christian rock music rather dull and useless. It seems t be a contradiction in terms to put Christian and Rock in the same sentence. There is much good Rock Music as there is good Jazz and Blues if one wants to associate with those forms. I grew up playing electric Blues but left it years ago when the lifestyle that surrounds that sort of music became a dangerous situation, spiritually. But I do appreciate good musicianship and one may have a difficult time finding a better electric Blues guitar player than the legendary Mike Bloomfield from the Paul Butterfield Band days of the 60′s. Sadly, Mr. Bloomfield fell into serious drugs and died young. As for Jazz, you might find this interesting; Tantum Ergo by the Belmondo Quintet. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ljBldEPkUU

Reply

Kevin T April 28, 2013 at 1:41 pm

This is an old article, but I never knew the classical forms used pre-romantic era could also be applied to popular music. That seems like such a rich, untapped field. Not even popular contemporary Catholic artists, like Matt Maher and Audrey Assad, are getting into this. Why is that? I feel like we should send all of them letters or something. We’re being robbed here! But at any rate do you know of any others that do this sort of thing or places where I could go looking for some? I know there’s George Sarah here, and you mentioned Genesis and Bebop Deluxe in another article. But you did mention at least one other current artist that’s doing this. And of course any other leads would be helpful to!

Reply

David Clayton April 29, 2013 at 4:38 am

Steve Hackett – who was the guitarist from Genesis is still composing! Other than that I don’t. As you say it is a huge untapped area of music. There is a jazz pianist Jacques Loussier who did jazzed up versions of Bach. It sounds corney, but they are very very good interpretations and his introduction of rhythm is very careful and varies in according the mood, he’s not just adding a drum beat to a classical tune. There’s plenty of him on You Tube.

Reply

Kevin T May 3, 2013 at 9:15 pm

That makes me wonder a bit. I don’t actually know the principles of classical harmony or anything like that, but what would be the status of such things as traditional folk music or jazz and things similar?

Reply

David Clayton May 4, 2013 at 10:34 am

I am not a musical expert either, but I understand that there are different harmonic schemes. I think folk (unless bluesy) uses more traditional harmonies. Jazz seems to use just about anything right down to the modal music that chant is based on. There are some who say that any dissonance or chord structure that appeared in later music are inappropriate, so for example I hear some people saying that anything after Bach is deficient; or sometimes that the first chord of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde opened the door to modern music. Just from my personal reactions to much modern music, which I like, (and I’m just thinking aloud here) I if it isn’t as simple as that – it is as much down to the way that you use them and you have to consider each piece individually. In painting, which I do know a bit more about, it is a very old principle that you can include ugly details that can highlight the overall beauty of the piece through contrast. If you took this in the musical context, it seems reasonable to have the occasional step into dissonance provided that it resolves in the end and the overall impression of the piece is of elevating beauty.

Reply

Kevin T May 12, 2013 at 10:41 pm

I’m just curious. Where could I learn more about these harmonic structures and the difference between the traditional and the modern? I know here you deal mostly with visual art, but is there another Way of Beauty type blog or something that deals with music?

David Clayton May 15, 2013 at 9:44 am

I’m not sure precisely what you are looking for…or how much you know already, but you could go back to the original sources – Plato – i’ve forgotten which dialogue it is that has a full description of how he builds up the scale from numbers – starting with 1, 2 and 3 and then the squares 1, 4 and 9 and the cubes 1, 8 and 27. It is more complicated than this but right there you ahve the fundamental harmonies of octave, fifth and fourth and the tone (8:9) and Boethius (De Musica and De Arithmetica). If you go to a basic music theory book I think they will tell you how this modified. there is even something called the Pythagorean comma which is a correction of errors that are present in the Platonic method (which he says is from Pythagoras) of building up the musical scale from number alone.

Reply

Leave a Comment

{ 2 trackbacks }