Music and Death: Interdisciplinary Readings and Perspectives

Cover of Music and Death: Interdisciplinary Readings and Perspectives


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(15 chapters)


Pages i-xiii
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Contemporary funerary culture in the Netherlands is often characterised as secularised and individualised. This chapter focuses on images of heaven and angels and various versions of the Ave Maria in contemporary funeral music. How is this musical repertoire interpreted in a secularised context? This study builds on earlier research on images of heaven and angels in the context of death (Quartier, 2011; Walter, 2011, 2016a, 2016b) and demonstrates how images of heaven and angels and the Ave Maria in the context of contemporary funeral rituals in the Netherlands are related to ‘lived religion’ – how religion is ‘lived’ both in- and outside institutionalised settings – and ‘continuing bonds’ – how bonds with the deceased are not severed but continued. It also shows that the range of applicability of these concepts should not be overestimated, as musical references to heaven and angels, and the song Ave Maria, can also be regarded as ritual repertoire.


In this chapter, I discuss the artistic representation of the musical illustration of funeral rites and ceremonies in contemporary Poland. The death of a person in many cultures is perceived as an important point in the life of a given community, especially a family; hence, people tend to express feelings stemming from these circumstances through art. Songs sung at funerals and during the mourning period have been used for centuries as a way for the living to express their grief for the person who has died. From an anthropological point of view, the main function of music accompanying funeral rites is to help family and friends of the deceased recover from their loss.

To illustrate my argument, I analyse the recording of folk songs by Adam Strug and Kwadrofonik: ‘Requiem Ludowe’ (‘The Folk Requiem’), released on CD in 2013. The musical motifs and lyrical themes are based on original folk tunes of Eastern Poland (Podlasie and Lubelszczyzna regions) that are still used in the villages during the bereavement period. The songs on the CD, which are: ‘Czemu tak rychło, Panie’ (‘Why is it So Soon, my Lord’); ‘Żegnam cię mój świecie wesoły’ (‘Goodbye my Merry World’); ‘Żegnam was mitry i korony’ (‘Goodbye to you Mithra and Crowns’); ‘Żegnam was wszystkie elementa’ (‘Goodbye to you all the Elements’); ‘Powiem prawdę świecie tobie’ (‘I Shall Tell you the Truth, my World’); ‘Piekło’ (‘The Hell’); ‘Czyściec’ (‘The Purgatory’); ‘Niebo’ (‘The Heaven’); and ‘Wieczność’ (‘The Eternity’) are rooted in Christian funeral traditions and they are supplemented by elements of Slavic folklore.

The lyrics of the mourning songs published on the recording display a specific attitude to the mythology of death and bereavement present in the culture of Polish peasants. The main themes of these folk songs, namely, the praise of the deceased, the grief of the remaining family, the preparation of the dead one for eternal life or the attempts to cross the threshold of life and death, are presented by the artists as the soul’s journey from the Earth to the Underworld, and through Purgatory to Eternal life as a final stage of a person’s destination. They show how the rural people imagine death itself and express their feelings of loss and grief in art to overcome the fear of the unknown.


This contribution provides an account of the author’s journey from first receiving notice about the Music & Death conference in Vienna, to his eventual presentation there in December 2017. The lure and impetus for the whole project was an unknown uncle of the author who had studied, performed and died as a musician in Vienna, when the author was an infant. This chapter combines reflections on the author’s first visit to Vienna, with journal writing undertaken at the time.


This personal, non-fiction essay explores the punk subculture and themes of death as a teenager growing up in the post-industrial city of Buffalo, New York, in the 1990s. Within this text, punk and indie music releases, exposure to live performances in unconventional spaces, independent record stores as an alternative education, and participatory fanzine culture, serve as a pivotal catalyst for rejuvenation and release – for creativity and self-expression while grieving the loss of one’s mother from cancer. The punk subculture and its related ‘do-it-yourself’ (DIY) media communities which eventually led to a professorship prove to be both inspirational and a transformative method of healing and being.


Metal saved my life. It is not the first time and it probably will not be the last. The death of my mother when I was twenty-one meant that I was alone, and if it had not been for metal, my grieving process may have been the end of my story. The death, of course, is one thing, but mourning is something that surfaces many years after the event. If I had not bought my first guitar the year she died, the last nineteen years of my life would follow a very different narrative.

I firmly believe that metal and metal performance prevented my suicide and any plans for revenge. It matched my pain, sonically, texturally, musically and aesthetically. It initiated a cathartic process that I have returned to since, because it offers me emotional and psychological balance that other music forms do not. This may be a purely subjective engagement, but that is precisely the point.

Remembering this time in my life is not easy, and can often come in hesitations, blanks and painful memories. By using interpretive performance autoethnography, a methodology that Laurel Richardson calls CAP or creative analytic practice (Richardson, 2000, p. 929) means:

[it] allows the researcher to take up a person’s life in its immediate particularity and to ground the life in its historical moment. We move back and forth in time, using a version of Sartre’s progressive-regressive method. Interpretation works forward to the conclusion of a set of acts taken up by the subject while working back in time, interrogating the historical, cultural, and biographical conditions that moved the person to experience the events being studied

Through this methodological application, this paper seeks to analyse how metal and metal performance helped me write my trauma into a performing life that ultimately liberated me from my grief.


This personal essay explores the palpable connections between music, memory, dreams and language through the lenses of international auto travel, a commingling of the author’s adult and adolescent recollections and a rock’n’roll band called the Tragically Hip. The vitality of Canadian music, radio, growing up on the US-Canada border, new parenthood and familial bonds are through-line themes. Death takes centre stage, of course, via rumination on the Tragically Hip’s final performance of its final song in 2016 – during which most, if not all, listeners and viewers knew that the group’s singer, Gord Downie, would shortly thereafter succumb to a terminal illness.


The artistic object is born from an initial moment or state that triggers a creative or creation process. This beginning is described by many as a fleeting moment during which a creative idea suddenly arises. I consider here that a creative vision is something that occurs in a very similar way, being able to capture a unified all like the finished artistic object, even if it amounts to a micro instant. This phenomenon uncovers a new form of capturing time and, therefore, a way to face temporality; the past, present and future are united and blend to originate new meanings.

The ‘vision of death’ is a concept that I explored in a musical composition, more specifically in the work Death Vision (On a January Day), in which performance becomes its possibility for representation and materialisation. The composition of the work arises from a personal vision of death, yet, to the performer, it is a construction of his or her own vision through musical interpretation. Be it in ‘vision’ as in ‘death’, some musical aspects connected with time stand out and communicate between themselves in a subtle manner. I will identify these moments through some examples of performances and representations in a cinematographic context, such as Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders (1987), Scena by Tomás Maia and André Maranha (2008) and Vai-e-vem by João César Monteiro (2003), where the visual plan is preponderant.

I will conclude that vision brings with it the possibility to intersect the real and give time back to what it has been missing: its unity. On the other hand, the vision of death in the musical performance finds its moment of fruition in linear time – in the possibility of openness and positivity that time itself gives.


New circus explores a wide range of contemporary global and existential questions. From the dystopian performances of pioneering French new circus Archaos, and the ongoing social justice agenda of Circus Oz, to the themes of social decay and environmental degradation in Oozing Future’s 2019 production Autocannibal, new circus has sought innovative ways to challenge and confront audiences mediated by the human body. With a focus on emotive narrative representations of risk and death, this qualitative research examines the interaction of embodied movement and music in Zebastian Hunter’s Lacanian-inspired Empty Bodies and the author’s development of a circus opera, The Blood Vote. The immediate and embodied artforms of music and circus combine to engender a non-literal, yet powerful, form of speech surrogacy that communicates meaning and emotion, so we are reminded that anything is possible, not least of which is the illusion of the victory of life over death that circus performance itself embodies. Death is ever present in life, a fact we try to repress; circus confronts the audience with the undoing of this repression: we are going to die. This is what captivates us. In this way, contemporary new circus functions as an important signifier of meaning in contemporary performing arts.


Freddie Mercury rose to fame as the lead singer of the UK pop group Queen. The group started working on tracks for their fourteenth studio album, Innuendo, in early 1989, and the album was finally released in February 1991. Progress on recording was slow as Mercury, who had been diagnosed with AIDS, was unable to work for more than a few days at a time. Innuendo became the final Queen album to be released during Mercury’s lifetime, and ‘The Show Must Go On’ is its final track. Its placing is arguably significant, given that both Mercury and the remaining band members must have assumed that this would be the last album that they would record together. In this chapter, I present an analysis of the song’s music and lyrics, along with the music video that accompanied the single release, with reference to Mercury’s illness and his wish to contribute vocals for as long as he possibly could, knowing the seriousness of his condition meant that this would be one of his last recordings.


Pages 119-121
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Cover of Music and Death: Interdisciplinary Readings and Perspectives
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Emerald Interdisciplinary Connexions
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Emerald Publishing Limited