Slow Work and Plain Chant – An Apology for the Failed Life

‘I am groping for clarity and coming up with something else, as if the object I wished to grasp, to hold up, rotate, study, understand is not after all susceptible of direct observation. The big things never are. You deduce them, see them askance, by inference.

‘But let us anyway postulate that object and give it a name, and let us call it The Failed Life.’

– Anatomy of Norbiton

Several years ago I set out to inspect and describe a form of existence which I had come to recognise as The Failed Life – a life that has nothing to do with either success or failure, except insofar as their sudden irrelevance gives it time and space to emerge. I arranged the various heads of my project alphabetically, from aetiological to zoological, and set to work. I am up to L.

I wanted to offer in this essay a defence of The Failed Life, but I found, as ever, that my best angle of approach was oblique, that I could only get near it by handling, not The Failed Life directly, but some of its proxy objects: objects such as Slow Work and amor infiniti – the endless decorative subdivision associated with, for example, gothic tracery and illumination, the grotesque marginalia of the Renaissance, and the melismatic proliferation of Frankish plainchant.

I digressed, in short, and since digression is not merely characteristic of The Failed Life, but is in fact what it is, I let my ornamental digression stand.


In 1829, aged 20, William Ewart Gladstone wrote in his diaries of his struggles with Herodotus. At school he had found it ‘extremely stupid and heavy for the most part”, but now he was once again “endeavouring to get up some Herod[otean] history and geography – slow work’.

Slow Work, as Gladstone was discovering, is an ocean journey or a polar walk. You are cast off from whatever hopes or expectations originated your endeavour and are not yet in sight of its hypothetical outcomes. Each day resembles the next. There are no landmarks beyond the abstract accumulations – page numbers, word counts, latitude by dead reckoning. You achieve a state of almost pure detachment and suspension; there is only the here-and-now, this detail, this page, this problem; there is no goal, no purpose, no pressure, no history of defeat and confusion. Whatever it is you achieve, you do so almost involuntarily, by stalagtital accretion; there is no sense of anything getting done.

At its most evolved, Slow Work is characterised by a charmed lack of density. Those hours of work are porous and light. You can move freely in and around them, there is room for extraneous contemplation, for the ornament of thought, the drift of the mind, the pottering of the soul, an orderly and salutary mental housekeeping. There is room, in short, for elaboration.


Hymn singing is Slow Work, and as such has its patterns of ornate indiscipline.

In a 1981 article Nicholas Temperley described a style of hymn singing which has been observed and reported on in isolated communities over the last few hundred years in Europe and North America, which he refers to as the ‘Old Style of Singing’ or the ‘Old Way’, and which he summarises thus: ‘In places where congregations are left to sing hymns without musical direction for long periods, a characteristic style of singing tends to develop. The tempo becomes extremely slow; the sense of rhythm is weakened; extraneous pitches appear, sometimes coinciding with those of the hymn tune, sometimes inserted between them; the total effect may be dissonant.’

Wesley Berg, working with Mennonite congregations in Western Canada, confirmed this by direct observation. Congregational singing tends to drag, as less confident singers hang back to allow the more able to find the correct note; not everyone will hit the same note at the same time; the more confident musicians might insert passing notes between the trickier intervals, particularly as things slow down, or might freely ornament a note as they wait for their brethren to catch them up on it; certain gestures, or tics, or inflections, will catch on; diatonic tunes will slide back into more comfortable modes; familiar chunks of chorale will be spliced into the less familiar; patterns of ornamentation become loosely formalised and sometimes codified (although in general we are talking about oral transmission), so that, for example, any movement from the fifth to the sixth degree of the scale will be ornamented in such-and-such a way. And so on.

Like isolated gene pools, the hymnody of these congregations drifts apart and mutates. In time it becomes impossible to reconstruct the original tunes, to trace them back to their sources and purify them. And while it may not be, to a trained ear, a pretty business, the congregations themselves will defend their singing, the oole Wies, the Old Way, against all comers. Nothing, they argue, has changed.


Some have seen in the cacophonous entropy of the oole Wies an illustration of an innate musical process which can in part account for the drift towards elaborate polyphony in Western liturgical music.

The earliest form of notation in Western music are the so-called neumes of Frankish plainchant, used to support the importation and diffusion of canonical Roman Chant into the Holy Roman Empire in the eighth and ninth centuries.

Neumes are not strictly speaking a written form of music (indeed the derivation of the word, from the Greek pneuma, breath, suggests a particle of sound consistent with the length of the breath); they provide no information about absolute or even relative pitch, they merely indicated the shape of a given phrase – up-down, up-down-up, and so on – which in a predominantly oral tradition will be activated by the memory in accordance with known practice. They are mnemonic aids.

But they do bear witness to the increasing ornateness of Frankish plainchant. Chant, it seems, had long been decorated with so-called melismatic ornament. A melisma is a cascade of notes; where in the chant proper there is a correspondence of note to syllable (homosyllabic chant), in the antiphons and responds, and in particular those reserved for the most significant dates in the church calendar – Easter, Christmas, Pentecost – one syllable can run over line after line of ecstatic musical flow – what St Augustine called ‘the expression of a mind poured forth in joy.’

In time these melismas became so long that fresh words were set to them as mnemonic aids in themselves; and these melismatic units, with their words, broke free, took on a life of their own, became hymns which would in turn intersperse the developing Office and Mass settings as introits and graduals, provide new material in turn ripe for ornamentation. Chanted psalms calved entire new forms, spun like complex strands and molecules of music drifting around monastic cells, office after office, day after day, year after year.


Unlike the oole Wies, there is a remarkable degree of homogeneity in the corpus of chants of the Carolingian empire and thereafter. In particular, certain ornamental figures appear again and again in different chants, but always in chants of the same flavour, so to speak – thus, a certain ornament was felt to be appropriate only for graduals, and is found, without exception, in graduals.

It is unlikely that the neumes, either the early staffless neumes or the diastematic or staffed neumes introduced in the 11th century, were wholly responsible for arresting the anarchic drift of musical form; more likely the consistency is a function of musicianship – musicians, in other words, consciously driving the direction of development. But written form and bound manuscript testify to something else going on, a gathering awareness that here were things being made, or more precisely, being spun off from an underlying practice. The bundled manuscripts of chant represent a genial harvest.

We are not dealing with pieces of music as such. It seems plausible from the organisation of twelfth and early thirteenth century manuscripts that any sung performance was an unstable configuration, assembled on a mix and match basis from a variety of possible sources. But by the time of the great fluorescence of early polyphony, in Aquitaine and then at Notre Dame, musical space has nevertheless become conspicuously lumpy, aggregative. Musical objects, while still no doubt generated in oral practice, can be held and turned in the mind. Those long melismatic ecstasies no longer follow but overlay the plainer, homosyllabic chant line (which will in time become the cantus firmus of full-blown polyphony) like florid interstitial meditations; a single syllable in the chant line can correspond to any number of notes in the so-called vox organalis, the more mobile melismatic voice; a performance is now a finely engineered differential gearing of musical thought and experience.


Slow Work does not operate according to some sort of organic mutation, some vegetal proliferation; Gladstone was not putting forth roots from his toes and leaves from his finger tips as he sat over his Herodotus in mute involuntary incomprehension. No, Slow Work, like medieval polyphony, is directed, considered, studied; material is constantly being worked.

I would go further, in fact, and suggest that ornamental elaboration is not only an ecstatic release: it is a search for precision. It is how you solve a crossword puzzle, crack a code. The scattergram of melismatic notes is, in turn, like a statistically improved hunt for a hypothetical One True Note – a note that cannot be heard, as it were, in one aural gulp but must be built up from an infinitely divisible sequence of tones and semitones and liquescent microtones: a thing, in other words, of universal detail.


‘I viewed all this slow deep sea life not with the detachment of a diver but with the bemusement of a drowned man who finds he can breathe.’

– Anatomy of Norbiton

Ours is not an ornamental age. It is not an age fitted out for Slow Work. Rather this is an age for thrift and economy in which the need to have done or to be seen to have done has triumphed over the need merely to be doing. If you are doing, then you are not done. We are what we accomplish and for the most part we accomplish nothing. Ornament, in this context, is a disease, a pathology of form, an encrustation of gothic irrelevance.

I do not know whether, in singing The Failed Life I am more tone-deaf Mennonite dragging his heels over a corrupted Lutheran chorale, or monkish cantor driving his melismatic carol to the rafters and beyond. Certainly not the latter, probably not the former. But on the odd occasion that I find myself, like Gladstone, adrift in the paradigmatic moment of Slow Work, going about my unmanaged, but not wholly undirected, business, and enjoying all the advantages of a properly Failed life; it is then that I am paradoxically conscious, not of having retreated from the World – that commonality whose beginnings and ends lie outside our own lifetimes, a great Slow Work if there ever was one – but of having found, in its boundless interstitial spaces, a way to occupy it.