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Into the music

Music | Van Morrison defies labels but invites revisiting

Issue: "The Road to Cana," Feb. 23, 2008

Ever since Van Morrison emerged in 1965 as the R&B-shouting lead singer of Them, record stores have stocked his music under "rock," but they could've just as easily stocked it under "soul," "blues," "jazz," and-occasionally-"gospel."

Perhaps the only completely accurate Van Morrison category would be the one that Morrison himself has repeatedly embraced: "mystic." In dozens of songs documenting his Celtic soul's restless quest, he's made a career in popular music seem like a higher calling.

In January Polydor/Universal Music launched its Morrison reissue campaign by releasing the first of what will eventually comprise 29 remastered, bonus-track-enhanced editions. Of the initial seven, Tupelo Honey (1971), Wavelength (1978), and Back on Top (1999) have long been bestsellers, but it's Into the Music (1979) and Avalon Sunset (1989) that will continue to fascinate Christians.

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On Into the Music, Morrison sang of reading his Bible ("Rolling Hills") and finding "sanctuary in the Lord" ("Full Force Gale"), on Avalon Sunset of God's all-sustaining omnipresence ("When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God?") and the healing power of "Jesus' name" ("Whenever God Shines His Light"). (The reissue adds a version of "When the Saints Go Marching In," in which Morrison name-checks St. Augustine, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. John of the Cross.) Coming from someone famous for "Brown Eyed Girl," such sentiments are attention-getting. What makes them compelling is Morrison's dramatization of them as statements of deep conviction.

Morrison, who has recorded songs about or under the sway of everything from great poets to Scientology's L. Ron Hubbard, is tight-lipped, sometimes antagonistically so, about what he believes. There's little doubt, however, that under the influence of "the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost" ("In the Garden," 1986) his talents have come to some of their fullest fruition.

Traffic calming

Classical composers: Taking Bach to the streets

Classical music seldom makes headlines these days, but it did so late last year in stories that got to the root of serious music's role in contemporary society.

The first headline, "Washington City Using Classical Music to Chase Gangs from Bus Stop," announced plans by Pierce County Transit officials to "reduce disorder" at a Tacoma mall by using classical music to discourage loitering.

The second, "Pope to Purge the Vatican of Modern Music," told of Pope Benedict XVI's hopes to "correct the abuses" that have long afflicted public Catholic worship by "wide[ning] the use of Gregorian chant and baroque sacred music."

The utilitarian effects of classical music are sometimes exaggerated. (One recalls the recently popular idea that immersing infants in Mozart would help them grow into National Merit Scholars.) That the illnesses of either Tacoma or the Catholic Church can be ameliorated by an infusion of Bach may say more about the naïveté of those in whose breast hope springs eternal.

But the fact that two apparently unrelated communities were simultaneously struck by the same idea (that music meaningfully organized along emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually ascending lines can create environments inhospitable to man's darker impulses) at least suggests that people have begun to resent the erosion of what were once islands of civilization and tranquility.

More importantly, the stories also encourage inhabitants of those islands to think of themselves less as isolated survivors awaiting rescue than as members of a community troubled by chaos (whether on street corners or in cathedrals) but unified by the need to "be still." -A.O.

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