3rd Prize – Kai Konishi-Dukes

RPS Young Classical Writers Prize 2022

In this entry, the panel commends a young mind earnestly and ardently making connections between a range of cultural touchstones that sit centuries apart. These are sentences to read, and read over, and contemplate their resonance. Whatever we each may hear in the Josquin mass that Kai leads us towards, he writes with sincere conviction that music can speak to the biggest mysteries of our existence.

On being scattered in times

For many, the human experience is characterised by the wrenching enigma of time. Every instant is lost, as soon as it begins, to the past; the future, towards which we project our meagre shred of present existence, always eludes us, forever receding upon our approach.

To me, no one has quite articulated the tortuous pain of our temporal life as beautifully as Saint Augustine. In his Confessions, written at the end of the fourth century, he says, ‘I am scattered in times whose order I do not understand. The storms of incoherent events tear to pieces my thoughts, the inmost entrails of my soul…’ Augustine believed that respite would come only in death, when we may finally ‘flow together and merge into’ the tensionless stability of God’s eternity.

For others, it is music that affords an escape from the relentless fracturing of time, by gathering up alienated moments and knitting them together into a temporal shape, wedding past, present, and future into a meaningful whole.

In Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel Nausea, published in 1938, the protagonist Roquentin temporarily soothes the malaise of his existential crisis by listening to the jazz song Some of These Days. The refrain, through the organic inevitability of its arrival, retroactively redeems the fragmentary nature of the introduction’s isolated notes, a ‘host of little jolts’ which are immediately ‘obliterated’ in passing. He thinks, ‘I love that voice…because it is the event which so many notes have prepared so far in advance, dying so that it might be born.’

But is this all that music has to offer, a soothing balm for souls stretched apart in time? Should we not embrace, rather than smooth over, the distress of our temporal homelessness which, after all, is precisely what makes us human? And is not music, the most temporal of the arts, uniquely capable of encouraging us to appreciate this tension?

In the middle section of the Agnus Dei of his Missa L’homme armé super voces musicales, written in the late fifteenth century, Josquin constructs what is known as a prolation canon: all three voices begin simultaneously and sing the same melody, yet each sings at a different speed, with the lowest and middle voices two and three times slower than the highest, respectively. No other music evokes for me such a strong sense of the agonising distension of temporal existence; for, when I am fully immersed in the world of the canon and sensitive to the strivings of each note, I find myself wrenched apart by three conflicting speeds, scattered in times.

And yet this experience is beautiful. In his poem of 1918 entitled To Music, Rainer Maria Rilke muses that, in music, ‘the innermost point in us stands outside… as the other side of air’. When I listen to Josquin’s canon, I understand what he means. I feel as if the weaving melodic lines are drawing out – from the inmost entrails of my own soul, to use Augustine’s words –my longing for time’s incoherent storms to be calmed. This longing, clothed with sound and given a voice, speaks back to me in the consolatory tones of beauty.