MERCY

A paper by Andrew Hugill given at the conference
"Leaving the Twentieth Century: Visions and Ideas for New Musics"
University College, Bretton Hall
March 30th, 1994

I should begin by offering an explanation how these few thoughts about Mercy might conceivably represent some kind of personal vision for music leaving the twentieth century. As a composer, I take a holistic position. To paraphrase Lenin, amongst others: "everything is connected to everything else". I assert, therefore, that the ideas and concerns I am about to describe directly affect my actions when writing. Of course, this could be said of any ideas or concerns that are in my mind, whether consciously or unconsciously, and, thus, this paper could have dealt with any topic. I selected Mercy partly because it is an idea which I do not fully understand (and therefore I find interesting) and partly through serendipity: a friend (Joanna Scanlan) and I had had a lengthy discussion on the subject a few days before the request for conference papers arrived. If such a flimsy basis for a conference paper tries the patience of some of you, I can only ask for some indulgence and hold out the hope that, paradoxica lly, some kind of vision will emerge.


I will attempt to apply the idea of Mercy directly to music: to composition, to performance, and to the audience. But in order to do that, a more general consideration needs to be made. From an historical, even a millennial, point of view the question of Mercy seems outmoded. In 14th Century British churches certain pews were designated "misericords", or mercy-seats (after the Arc of the Covenant). For a consideration, individuals bought the right to sit on these seats, which were distinguished from thei r neighbours by a hinged seat/flap. Underneath each of these was a personalised wooden carving, often of the "leering gargoyle" type. Presumably, it was hoped that the quality of Mercy would enter the sitter through the posterior.


The 20th Century apparently has little need of such superstitious fetishes, being in all ways more advanced and more knowing than the Medieval period. And yet, we have our own plague: a virus without mercy, whose victims are shown little mercy by society , as if they somehow embodied the mercilessness which has afflicted them. We have our own fears and, with this Millennium, our own vision of the impending apocalypse, complete with the firm conviction that we know that it is real, that our science can tel l us for sure that the sky is about to fall on our heads. In the words of the pataphysicians, the Middle Ages have plagiarised us by anticipation.


Justice tempered with Mercy is the British tradition. Just as the French colonialists exported Taste, so Britain gave to its dominions its legal system. The heart of the notion of Britain's essential fairness is its law, and the heart of that law is its idea of Natural Justice. On February 17th of this year, fourteen Law Lords unanimously voted to outlaw mercy-killing, or "voluntary euthanasia" as it is more euphemistically called. Mercy-killing becomes desirable when it is generally agreed that an indiv idual is suffering so much, without hope of remission, that death would be preferable to the continuation of such a state. In the animal world, such cases are dealt with quickly and efficiently: I recently watched a flock of gulls peck to death one of the ir number which had sustained a broken wing. But for humans, with their famed self-awareness, such a merciless solution is unacceptable. Spectres of the Final Solution, death-camps and the problem of the definition of suffering are invoked to support the idea that Nature (and, by implication, God) should be respected and Life should be sustained up to the point at which Fortune's wheel turns to Death. In other words, we may sympathise, pity, show compassion, even empathise with the suffering of another, b ut mercy is an altogether higher and ineluctable quality whose ways, like those of God, we cannot fathom. We pray for mercy, but we cannot deliver it ourselves. "Pro-Life" means a surrender to a merciless Nature/God.


At this point, it would be useful to make some distinctions between Mercy, Pity and Compassion. The latter springs from an identification or fellow-feeling with the sufferer, and is shown. The word has common roots with Pity; in the Latin: pietas, meanin g piety. Gradually the different forms separated, to the point that pietÈ, which closely resembled the original form, kept the original sense, whereas pitiÈ retained the extended final syllable to denote pity. Pati, another version of the same root, came to mean suffering, and so compati or compass meant suffering together with, hence: fellow-feeling.
Pity is both a noun and a verb and in both cases refers to the feeling or emotion of tenderness aroused by the suffering, distress or misfortune of another. One nuance of the meaning of pity, however, is a slight contempt for a person, attributing to him or her some moral or intellectual inferiority. Pity is linked to Terror, and in this regard it is useful to quote the two definitions given by Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

-Aristotle has not defined pity and terror. I have. I say...
-Pity is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the human sufferer. Terror is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause.

Mercy differs from both Compassion and Pity in that it involves forbearance. Mercy is compassion or pity shown by one being or person to another who is in his power and who has no claim to receive kindness, indeed severe treatment is expected and, possib ly, merited. In the Christian world, especially the Medieval Christian world, mercy refers to the reward in Heaven, and, hence, God's pitiful forbearance towards His creatures and His forgiveness of their offences. The appropriate response to mercy is, na turally, gratitude, hence the archaic gramercy (meaning:thank you) and, indeed, the modern French merci. The modern French word for mercy is misÈricorde.


Mercy, in common with other virtues, has been represented allegorically. In the pieta paintings of the 14th Century, misericord is shown as one of four virtues nailing Christ to the Cross: the message is that these virtues brought about His execution. (I t is worth mentioning that parallel images depict Christ being nailed to the Cross by Sins). The opening prayer of the Latin rite - kyrie eleison - is a plea for mercy and the Roman Church developed the idea that God's earthly representatives dispensed me rcy. Condemnation by the Inquisition was an act of mercy: the condemned was released (either from possession by Beelzebub, or from the attentions of the Inquisition itself) to God's mercy. A show of repentance at the last would guarantee the heavenly rewa rd.
Probably the most famous account of mercy is the speech written by Francis Bacon under the pseudonym William Shakespeare in the play The Merchant of Venice. In the courtroom scene, Portia, "dressed like a doctor of laws" attempts to persuade Shylock to f orgo his pound of flesh with a celebrated speech which begins:

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice bless'd;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

She sums up the notion of justice tempered with mercy in the following way:

...Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.

This sentiment, of course, wins support from all the law-loving Venetians, but cuts little ice with Shylock, who pursues his claim unmoved. Bacon, as a lawyer (and subsequently as Lord High Chancellor), knew only too well the ironies of this situation an d the absurdity of such appeals to a higher moral sense, indeed he was later to fall victim to a false prosecution himself.


Mercy, then, is an active and "knowing" ingredient in an exchange of power. An anonymous, unperceived mercy is not mercy. One could even say that mercy only exists insofar as we recognise its existence: it does not exist a priori.


On the personal level this idea is theatricalised in power-exchange relationships, or sadomasochism. Here, mercy is currency, to be shown and denied in pursuit of mutual pleasure. The submissive begs for mercy, the dominant denies it and is thus the mor e merciful in showing no mercy. This translates into the well-known joke, which defines such relationships succinctly: "Whip me" says the masochist. "No" says the sadist.


In a recent court case resulting from a police operation codenamed Operation Spanner, the paradox of the State's attitude to such relationships was thrown into stark relief. A group of male homosexual sadomasochists were unwise enough to video their acti vities and to circulate these videos through the Royal Mail. Routine opening of the mail (this is common and standard practice, you may be surprised to learn) led to one of the videos being sent to the police, who, horrified by what they saw, initiated a murder enquiry. It took a short while to establish that, far from being murder, none of the participants required any medical treatment and all the acts filmed were done with the full consent of the apparent "victims". This was simply a case of the famili ar practice that the French refer to as le vice anglais - the English vice.


Notwithstanding these revelations, the police decided to prosecute all the participants and the case came to court in November 1992 . All were found guilty of a range of crimes including assault, and sentences were handed out ranging from seven years imp risonment for the sadists to one year for the masochists. A subsequent appeal brought about a reduction in the length of these sentences, but the convictions were upheld. The case is now being taken to the European Court of Human Rights. A vigorous press campaign at the time, which pointed out that, technically, this rendered love-bites a criminal activity, had little effect. The police countered by publishing some grossly exaggerated accounts of the content of the videos. The nation was duly shocked.


This case presents us with the spectacle of a State showing no mercy to people whose transaction apparently begs for cruelty. A masochist should enjoy prison, and as for a sadist... well, it serves him right. But the difference between such consensual se xual acts, however bizarre, and the vicissitudes of their "real-life" counterparts, is enormous. The imprisonment of these men is an alarming injustice, perpetrated by a judicial system whose representatives' own proclivities in this area are legendary.

Another ritualised situation in which mercy is denied occurs during chess. The game itself ends with a symbolic act of mercy: the King is not taken in a checkmate, his "life" is spared. But reaching this point has involved a merciless exposition of the o pponent's weaknesses by the victor. The situation is less straight-forward when the game is evenly balanced. Here, the merciful end that emerges is an end to the struggle. As each player tries and fails to find weaknesses in the opponent's position, the c umulative effort exhausts itself in a mutual desire for a cessation. Rather like de Sade's characters in The 120 Days of Sodom, the torturers and the victims inhabit the same Hell, driven on by an inexorable decline to an inescapable annihilation. The mer ciful solution to this is provided by the etiquette of the draw. One chess-player offers a draw: the other may accept or decline. Acceptance is indicated by a proffered hand, declining may be done verbally or, more aggressively, by simply playing the next move without comment. To decline the draw is a clear indication that one believes one has a potential win. It also implies that the opponent's analysis of the position is faulty. Thus, to decline a draw when one is in a losing position is a highly unmerc iful act. It rejects the mercy that is offered. It can also be very effective, and I have seen a number of games where winning positions have disintegrated following such an exchange. But this is a very risky strategy, and much depends on one's perception of the psychological state of one's opponent, something that can only be deduced from his or her play.


Certain artists and writers have chosen not simply to deal with the theme of mercy in their work, but to constrain without mercy the creative act itself. A good example of this is the work of the group of writers known collectively as the OuLiPo. The nam e is an acronym for Ouvroir de la Litterature Potentielle. Ouvroir is a slightly odd word, meaning both a "workshop" and, more accurately, a "sewing-circle" or "Dorcas-circle": a way of belittling the groups own activities. The aim of the OuLiPo is to dev elop potential literature, and to that end it has devised numerous systems and constraints. However, the group includes and included such writers as: Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino, Harry Mathews and Georges Perec, so it also, evidently, produces finished literary texts.


Of the OuLiPo, none delighted in submitting to punishing compositional constraints more than Georges Perec. 500-word palindromes, poems consisting entirely of anagrams of a single word or phrase, minutely detailed descriptions of every room in which he had ever slept: such mind-blowingly virtuosic technical displays seemed to come easily to him. Perhaps the most extraordinary example is La Disparition, a lipogrammatic novel written entirely without the letter e. I raise this here because research by Be rnard MagnÈ has revealed that this extreme and merciless constraint embodies not simply an amazing technical device, but also a symbolic representation of the most famous theatre-without-mercy of the century. La Disparition is a detective story, in which characters disappear, or are murdered, at the point at which they are about to utter a word which contains the letter e. Perec wrote the story longhand, correcting the very occasional appearances of e as they occurred. In other words, he had eliminated e- words from his vocabulary, an astonishing feat in itself. In French the letter e is pronounced eux, a word which itself means: them.. This becomes more significant when one knows that Perec's mother, CÈcile, was taken from the family home when Perec was a ged 5, transported to Auschwitz , and gassed. Perec records in W, or the Memory of Childhood that he was not aware of this event until much later in life, and so had little opportunity to grieve for his mother's loss. Instead, he became conscious of a ga p, an important missing component in his life. Later, he realised that there were many of them, that they, like his mother, had disappeared.


They disappeared to a world without mercy. The guards would tell the prisoners that not only were they to die, but that nobody would ever know they had existed.
Perec's favourite review of La Disparition damned the book as: "raw, violent and facile", reading "more like a pulp novel than a criminal investigation". The review was, of course, unfavourable, but what delighted Perec was the fact that the critic had n ot noticed the absence of the letter e!


And so to music. I can identify four characters in this case between whom mercy can flow: the composer; the performer or performers; the audience; and the piece itself, which I would hold has its own kind of life.


The composer can show mercy to the performer through the technical and musical demands he or she makes. Having just taken part in a performance of Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians, I can testify that, however "accessible" the sounding result might be , the technical demands made upon the performer are merciless. Any weakness is ruthlessly exposed, both to the other players and to the audience. The intention and the result of the piece are so nearly identical that it is immediately apparent where one h as failed, even slightly, to match them. Furthermore, the demands are not "musical" in the conventional sense, having far more to do with physical stamina and mental attitude. More familiar approaches to scoring allow for a degree of choice, particularly with regard to fingering and articulation. A composer such as Brian Ferneyhough, whose notations seem to demand impossibly high levels of technical realisation, turns out to be rather merciful towards the performers, accepting approximations, in accuracies and a general "improvisatory" feel as a hazard of his compositional practice.


The composer's mercy towards the audience is harder to determine, in fact it seems to turn upon a reciprocal sense of mercy the other way. Accounts of the first performance of Peter Maxwell Davies' Worldes Blis, for example, stress the impossibly tough d emands made upon the listeners' attention. On the other hand, the audience showed the composer no mercy, and the spectacle of furious booing is common enough, as is the phenomenon of the rehabilitation of the disgraced composer and his work. A piece such as Satie's Vexations, in my view, lacks any sense of mercy. At the same time, I doubt that this piece was ever intended to be heard by an audience. Rather, it seems to me an intensely private philosophical and alchemical investigation to be undertaken by the performer alone. I would add in this regard that I have often thought that radio would be the perfect medium for this piece, retaining the element of privacy at all levels whilst simultaneously being available to anybody. I did suggest to Nicholas Ken yon that Radio 3 turn over a whole 24-hours to Vexations, but it appears that would present problems with the intermittent but obligatory station identifications.


Performers have it in their power to show mercy to the composer through their treatment of the piece. Here, cultural and aesthetic concerns seem to dictate the course of events. I have watched very committed players struggle and suffer with badly written material through a sense of dedication to "new music". By the same token, I have witnessed whole orchestras disrupt and destroy perfectly fine music out of antipathy towards the aesthetic or the composer. In both cases, I think the quality of mercy is a determining factor, although it would probably not be acknowledged as such, since such moral or ethical ideas tend to find no place in the quasi-rational world of musical performance.Ý


I mentioned the question of audience reaction earlier, and I suppose one hopes for an ideal listener, who will be merciful in his or her judgements, although it is rather hard to say what this might mean. However, the audience's judgements are purportedl y given voice by the critics, and here the question of mercy is a much starker issue. It is a commonplace, particularly of commercial music and musical-theatre that a damning review can destroy a piece. Criticism seems to delight in its own power, and me rcy is frequently withheld by critics who love the sounds of the resonant banalities which flow sweetly down the newspaper columns. Mercilessness equals sophistication in this scenario, the most damaging aspect of which is the barrier it throws up between the audience and the work.
Finally, consider the composer and the piece. How often is one forced to acknowledge that the procedure one adopts in composing is producing unsatisfactory results? And, given such dissatisfaction, to what extent is one prepared to be merciful: to onesel f for being such a damned fool as to embark upon this endeavour in the first place; and to the wretched product of such misguided effort? Stravinsky valued the eraser above all compositional tools, and I don't suppose any composer would wish to appear slo ppy and self-indulgent enough to allow things to stand that are less than satisfactory. But we all know that this does happen (even in the work of Stravinsky). At some point, all of us hold back from what we should do. Like the little gods we imagine ours elves to be, we dig the music out of the bin and, with great forbearance, start again.