Fretting the Fire: Ronald Dyson and Walter Harris, “What A Piece Of Work Is Man” (1968)

Hair cast
Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.
—Kant[1]

If Kant is right, it seems that in a time of discouragement one should be able to boost one’s spirits by checking in with at least one of the perennial sources of inspiration, even if the other is temporarily unavailable. Poor Hamlet, however, went off his awe in both directions at once: full of sickly doubt about the moral purpose of his life (avenging his dad), he tried looking up at the starry heavens above and found

This brave o’erhanging firmament,
This majestical roof, fretted with golden fire—
Why, it appears no other thing to me
Than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.[2]

Hamlet’s disenchantment becomes a moment of surprising emotional thickness in “What A Piece Of Work Is Man,” a duet written by Galt MacDermot for the captivating voices of Ronald Dyson and Walter Harris, two Tribe members in Hair. It comes right before an Aquarian refiguring of the heavens in “Good Morning Starshine.”

The piece starts out totally cheerful and thus totally ironic. It’s like children’s music, the springy melody and I-IV chord changes keeping everything earnest and obvious:

What a piece of work is man!
How noble in reason!
How infinite in faculties!
In form and moving how express and admirable!

“What A Piece Of Work Is Man” 1

Whereas we know these truths to be not self-evident.

When we get to “I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth . . .”  we are still hearing cheerful chords and obvious changes, but we are not advancing in a steady lilting way. There is a more uncertain recitative.

This goodly frame, the earth
Seems to me a sterile promontory.
This most excellent canopy, the air—look you!

“What A Piece Of Work Is Man” 2

Then comes an ascent, first returning to the I chord (C major) and one of the highest notes we’ve previously heard (G) on “firmament,” and then up to the highest note yet (B) on “roof” accompanied by an E minor chord, and then “fretted with golden fire” on an F chord, the melody stepping down quickly from the strained sharped-fourth B to the F chord’s normal third, A.

What just happened? There is a specific effect in going from a major chord to a minor chord in what threatens to be a real key change from major to minor as opposed to a normal chord progression within the major key. Going from C major to E minor we made the impassioned minor shift upward rather than the sad minor shift downward to A minor. We strained upward because we were trying to see the heavens properly. Just then, in “majestical roof,” the rhythm gave a little kick, as though we might actually climb up there.[3] But then, realizing defeat, we relaxed in two melodic steps, one note conceding that it’s too far out (the B with the F chord) and the next note settling more comfortably back into the earlier frame of reference (the A with an F chord, letting the F chord separate from the E minor and find its affiliation again with C major). The defeat, mind you, is not the traditional humbling of humanity before the celestial sublime. It’s the defeat of sublimity itself become “vapors.”

What the song-event means on the line “fretted with golden fire”—God having fretted-decorated the roof of Creation, Hamlet fretting-anguishing over his position, Dyson and Harris now fretting the musical thread with their husky harmony—is tremendous, unfathomable, and lodges in the mind in less than six seconds.

________________________________________________________

[1] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, trans. Lewis White Beck (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1956), p. 166 (Ak. 161).

[2] William Shakespeare, Hamlet Act II, scene 2.

[3] A funny incongruity, that skipping little kick on the word “majestical”! Hairish irreverence.

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Passions & Attitudes, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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