back to

e-flux conversations

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence: The Voice in Mike Kelley’s Music


Let all mortal flesh keep silence

and with fear and trembling stand
ponder nothing earthly minded.

—“Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” Li­tur­gy of St. James

I was mediated … I was Pop.

—Mike Kelley

Mike Kelley’s engagement and rupture with popular music began as a teen in Detroit, in the candle-lit gloom of the Catholic Church, with such polyphonic choral chants as the revised fifth-century liturgy “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” A piece of music that in “its dark and gloomy quality set the mold for much of my [Kelley’s] future musical interests.” The ancient order of choral music would evolve through popular tongue and secular insertion—French rather than Latin—to threaten, through undulating voice, the Church itself. Thirteenth-century clergyman Jacob of Leige decried this new music and its singers, saying that they “bay like madmen nourished by disorderly and twisted aberrations, they use a harmony alien to nature itself.”

A papal bull—a charter written by the Pope, in this instance Pope John XXII—issued in 1324 listed the offences of this new music as: “doing violence to words … they intoxicate the ear without satisfying it, they dramatize the text with gestures and, instead of promoting devotion they prevent it by creating a sensuous and innocent atmosphere.” It was musical innovation, the pursuit of vocal polyphony and counterpoint, that threatened the Church and its steadfast plainsong and vocal chant. New compositions relied on secular and vernacular texts in order to employ new vocal devices. Control of the voice and of text slipped away from the Church and toward those wandering singers, those poets on the loose who sang in the marketplace. Among them were the Goliards, clerical students from France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and England who protested the contradictions of the Church, from the Crusades to its financial abuses, expressing themselves through lewd performance, song, and satiric poetry. The Goliards, beloved of English writers such as Samuel Butler and Jonathan Swift—both of whom borrowed their strategies of satirical verse—were, in effect, a literary and spoken-word protest movement. By the fourteenth century, ritual and religious music, its vocalizing and text, had become a popular rather than a clerically aligned form: secular rather than sacred. The earthly mind was pondering, the flesh no longer silent!

The history of ritual, religious, and popular music is one of successive breaks in faith through disrupted form. The Goliards employed satire, reworking Latin texts to prick at the Church and its sacraments. In their ritual and apocryphal “celebration of the ass,” a clothed donkey is led to the chancel during mass. Dancing priests dressed as women sing in the choir and cense the church with the burning soles of old shoes. In response, the congregation is invited to sing a warped version of the Eucharist, a blasphemous “He Haw, Sire Ass, He haw!” The Goliard poets borrowed from church minstrelsy, their mocking, irreverent verses providing a witty commentary on the social and moral climate of medieval Europe. The precursors of modern verse, their bawdy ballads sung in beer halls celebrated the pagan rites of spring and the immemorial urges of the flesh.

Read the full article here.