Low’s Secret Name
The Minnesota-based indie-trio Low, when they are noted at all, are typically noted for two points: 1) for being “that slow, quiet band” that produces minimalist music at a deliberate pace and hushed volume; and 2) that the husband-wife duo at the band’s core are practicing Mormons. Point 1 has not been strictly true for about 3 albums now, though their slow embracing of the distortion pedal and amplifier has not apparently harmed their minimalist ethos (nor their critical love or the devotion of their cult following). Point 2 tends to come up only in passing, to explain such oblique lines as “Oh speak to me/Adam and Eve” from the song “Missouri,” off their 1999 album “Secret Name.” But these discreetly-LDS references are few and scattered across their 18-year, 9-album discography; and though band-leader Alan Sparhawk has said in interviews that he doesn’t differentiate between his spirituality and his art, Low is not a proselyting group (no pass-along cards are to be found at their shows). Few if any would classify Low as a “Mormon band.”
Nevertheless, I would like to explore how point 2 bears on point 1—that is, I suspect that Low’s Minimalism and Mormonism go hand in hand (and not just for the handy alliterative quality). Specifically, I argue that it is Low’s minimalism, their fearlessness in embracing the silences between notes, that allows Low to interact with the very things that can’t be said, that can’t be represented, the “unspeakable” thing outside discourse that is most responsible for Mormon spiritual conversion. Low does not fear the silence, for the silence for them is not nihilistic void, but where the religious experience lies. Low’s music doesn’t try to speak the unspeakable, but instead creates a space for it that calls attention to it. It is this ethos of silence that I argue is quintessentially LDS, more so than most the LDS-themed art currently extant. Let me explain.
Paul Signac, the neo-impressionist painter, is attributed to have said, “The anarchist artist is not the one who creates anarchist paintings.” That is, it’s not the painting’s content that renders it anarchistic, but rather the manner in which the painting’s style violates convention; a Greco-Roman propagandist mural may be radical in its politics, yet utterly conservative in its traditional form. Similarly, a Mormon artist may produce art that is “Mormon” in content yet devoid of a Mormon spiritual ethos in execution; hence we have Michael McClean producing LDS-themed “Forgotten Carols” in the mawkish, sentimental style of Broadway musicals, a style so conventional, so formulaic, that the hacks behind “South Park” were able to ape it to Tony-sweeping effect in their mocking “Book of Mormon” musical. (Seriously, “The Book of Mormon’s” show-stopper “I Believe” could, with only a few slightly-less-ironic lyric changes—and not even that many—be featured on an EFY CD. There is nothing inherently LDS about McClean’s song-craft). McClean is Signac’s faux-anarchist, LDS in content but not form; but Low, I argue, while only rarely LDS in content, is distinctly LDS in a form that Trey and Matt couldn’t even conceive of copying.
I’m comfortable exploring religion’s influence on musical form because music critics and historians have been doing so all along. The Blues, as I was taught in college, has its roots in old Black Spirituals (which Jack White of the White Stripes has explicitly called attention to in his own retro music); Elvis certainly didn’t shy from the bombastic Gospel music that influenced his Rock ‘n Roll; even today, music critics speculate on how much Billy Corgan’s Irish-Catholic background in Cathedral acoustics influences his multi-layered guitar-reverberations.
But how, then, is Low’s minimalist form distinctly LDS? Certainly there are no Mormon groups I’m aware of (admittedly a small list) trying to do anything remotely similar to Low’s artistic ethos. The closest act I can think of, tellingly, is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Run with me for a second on this one: both strive for religious experiences within the experience of the music itself, not just in the words; both are capable of exploring deep passion and quivering emotion in very low tones; both are masters of the slow build-up; both know how to turn up the volume when necessary without sacrificing their central artistic ethos; neither feels bound to religious-themed music (the Tab choir has a large repertoire of secular music that is nonetheless distinctly Mormon Tabernacle in style); and neither is afraid of the empty spaces between notes.
In the days before CDs, I recall having to hit the Seek button on my car’s cassette-tape player to find the next song—the player would find the next empty space devoid of music on the tape, and assume that that was the space between songs. This feature usually worked well, except with my Tab choir cassette. The song “O Divine Redeemer,” for example, was so full of silent lulls, that my tape-player kept stopping in the middle of that song.
It is this embracing of the silence, of the spaces between notes, between words, that for me sets apart both Low and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as distinctly LDS in form.
This is because Mormons, unlike many Christian denominations, are not Biblical literalists; we believe the Bible only insofar “as it is translated correctly,” implying that its words often fail to transmit meaning correctly, as do all words. Even our own Book of Mormon is filled with laments of the inadequacy of language— of “our weakness in writing” (Ether 12:23), that words cannot communicate even “a hundredth part” (3 Ne. 26:6; WoM 1:5; 3 Ne. 5:8; Jacob 3:13; Ether 15:33; Hel. 3:14) of intended meaning, of the “imperfections” (Morm. 9:31, 33) inherent in any text, of how “Neither am I mighty in writing, like unto speaking, for when a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost…it carrieth it unto the hearts of the children of men” (2 Nephi 33:1), clearly delineating how Spirit is often communicated in spite of the words, not because of them. The Holy Spirit merely accompanies words, but is not contained in them; and this Spirit is a “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:12) that often requires complete silence to be detected—though “often times [the Holy Spirit] maketh my bones to quake while it maketh manifest” (D&C 85:6), and grows in amplification to overpower all else, much like the later music of Low.
Mormon missionaries are trained to “preach the gospel; and if necessary, use words” (Elder Holland), implying that words are the least relevant element of Spiritual conversion. The trend in recent Mormon missionary programs has been towards less speaking, fewer discussions, for the Spirit itself does “not multiply many words” (3 Nephi 19:24), since words just get in the way of Spiritual experiences. LDS missionaries proselyte with the word-filled Book of Mormon, but they do so in hopes not that the potential-converts will be convinced by well-worded arguments, but by a manifestation of the Holy Spirit that accompanies these words, the “unspeakable gift” (2 Cor. 9:15; D&C 121:26), that “maketh intercession for us with groanings that cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26)—in short, in Mormonism, the Spirit is a thing outside discourse, beyond words, beyond utterance, that exists in the silence spaces where words fail to mean. It is not a hot emotional surge, it is not a sudden outburst; though the Spirit may produce these things, it is not these things. The best missionaries understand that their words must get out of the way of the Spirit—as so understands the Mormon Tabernacle Choir—as does Low.
This philosophy of embracing the silences that bypass words is perhaps best enacted in “Words,” the first song of Low’s first record (1993’s “I Could Live In Hope”), which song may very well function as Low’s mission statement. Watch the music video before you read on.
As one can see, actual words make up very little of “Words,” for words are the least relevant part of experience. The arrangement is simple to the point of austere. The strange verses communicate a mood more than a clear meaning. The most clearly discernible line among these cryptic lyrics is “too many words/too many words,” expressing a desire to be free of the cluttering words that impede religious-aesthetic experience of silence; and the chorus line of “And I can hear ‘em…” acknowledges the presence of the words without ascribing them meaning, thus keeping the words out of the way of the unspeakable beyond utterance. In the video, the band members stand far apart from each other, in a large room that calls attention to the spaces between them. The song alone fills the empty spaces between the band members, just as the notes fill the unbridgeable gap between word and meaning, just as the silences bridge the gaps between the notes. The silences are as integral to Low’s songs as the instrumentation. In fact, the silence is where Low’s music actually lies.
As mentioned earlier, Low would go on to embrace the distortion pedal and amplifier (on 2005’s “The Great Destroyer” and 2011’s “C’mon”), as well as strings and horns (on 2001’s “Things We Lost In The Fire”), fuzz bass (on 2002’s “Trust”) and electronica (on 2007’s “Drums and Guns”). But as more competent music reviewers than myself have noted, Low’s ultimate increase in volume, while perhaps a surprise, was not necessarily a shock, for there had always been a menacing “violence” lingering beneath the silence. But I’m not even sure violence is the right word, though—“violence” implies a nihilistic threat to the self, and as Low made clear on the first song off their second record, “You can’t trust violence.” One can feel a nihilistic threat from the all-consuming silence, to be sure, but only if one believes that silence is equivalent to the void. Nothing could be farther from the artistic ethos of Low: for them, silence is not where the threat lies, but the redemption. The words were the threat, what separate us from each other; outside the words is where one becomes reconciled, at-one, with the silence that contains the groanings beyond utterance.
Of course, Low is far from the first artistic act to embrace silence and space; John Cage was doing so musically half-century ago, as was Samuel Becket in his writing. Even in critical theory, Deconstructionism and Post-Structuralism have long cornered the market on analyzing at what a piece of writing doesn’t say, on the silences between the words that collapse in meaning. But perhaps an LDS deconstruction can veer away from the predictable nihilism of such theories, and instead treat the silences not as empty but full, even as redemptive, as Low always has.