Music to tie up and whip your lover by

FILE - This July 12, 2012 file photo shows author EL James posing with her book "Fifty Shades of Grey" at a book signing during the first day of Comic-Con convention held at the San Diego Convention Center in San Diego. James will soon make her first visits to two hotspots featured in her erotic trilogy
FILE - This July 12, 2012 file photo shows author EL James posing with her book "Fifty Shades of Grey" at a book signing during the first day of Comic-Con convention held at the San Diego Convention Center in San Diego. James will soon make her first visits to two hotspots featured in her erotic trilogy (Denis Poroy)
Posted: August 08, 2012

Heavy breathing is not unusual in Thomas Tallis' 16th-century motet Spem in alium, written for 40 voices that unfold in expanding vocal vistas that stretch as far as the ear can hear.

But who would have thought the piece would reach a huge new audience through its association with sadomasochistic sex in the best-selling book Fifty Shades of Grey (Random House, $15.98) by the English author E.L. James? Its heroine is handcuffed to a bed while her control-freak boyfriend torments her with mounting sexual anticipation. After it's over, she asks what the music was, and the answer is Tallis. Her reply: "It was overwhelming."

A strong recommendation? Strong enough that the piece recently was the top "classical singles" download in England (source: Official Charts Co.), besting such evergreens as Luciano Pavarotti's "Nessun dorma." (Chart activity in the United States has not yet been determined.)

The beleaguered recording industry can't help but be pleased that a pop-culture phenomenon is giving it more mainstream exposure. One such person is Peter Phillips, founder of the Tallis Scholars vocal ensemble, whose recording is the main beneficiary of the book's visibility.

Phillips even got into the bondage-and-discipline spirit of things by translating Spem in alium's last line of text, "respice humilitatem nostram," as "be mindful of our humiliation." Usually, the line is about "humility" - knowing your place in the world - rather than degradation.

There's nothing about the music or text that suggests a future association with handcuffs; the incongruity seems to be part of the dynamic between the book's main characters, the sexual neophyte Anastasia Steele, and sexy, experienced, successful CEO Christian Grey. His distant, imperious personality is always throwing her curveballs and revealing curious bits of knowledge, like Spem in alium, that keep her fascinated and always on the edge.

If I seem unsure as to what exactly makes this book tick, it's probably because I'm not the target audience (wrong gender; too old) and not British (a culture that seems particularly fascinated with bondage). Sorry, but I find nothing to envy in the book's parade of explosive sex sessions and complicated power games, and the accessories necessary to carry them out. It all seems so basic, so 1980s, that one might call the book S&M for Dummies.

Here in 21st-century America, I know a guy who answered a personal ad that began, "I want to hunt you down!" With that came an elaborate scenario whose escalating degradation began with a meeting in Pittsburgh and then transportation, blindfolded (wallet and keys confiscated), to some multi-acre estate in New York, where he'd be turned loose and then, well, hunted. I believe these things are more fun to think about than to do. And what music do you play? Mozart's lilting String Quartet 17 in B flat major (K. 458, "The Hunt")?

Spem in alium certainly wouldn't be appropriate. Even for those who can get past the possibly blasphemous sex-and-God nexus of the situation, the piece is only 12 minutes long. How can you get anything done in that short a time? Mahler symphonies are long and provide a good sound shield for those who live in high-density apartment buildings, but their anguish may be contageous. You don't want anybody having an existential crisis until after orgasm.

Steady rhythm is good, but Bolero is as short as Spem in alium. Early Philip Glass could work if the repetition factor doesn't drive your beloved crazy. With its church associations, organ music could kick up a nascent guilt complex. Definitely stay away from the Verdi Requiem: That piece wants to induce guilt. Opera, in general, is too distracting. As great as they are, Maria Callas recordings would be a seduction disaster.

With my limited understanding of S&M, I don't really see any suitable classical candidates. Switching genres, you could always accompany torture with torture, Iron Butterfly's 19-minute "In a Gadda da Vida" for example.

But as life becomes ever more complicated, who really has time for ropes or pulleys or playlists? Sooner or later, you're likely to return to sex at its low-tech best, in which consenting adults are quite enough.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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