Monday, February 22, 2016

Where have all the varieties of musical experience gone?

Much of my recent listening has been devoted to the 17 CD anthology The Music of Islam. It is a measure of the ideological traps surrounding art music that my opening sentence and header graphic will have sent many readers clicking off to safer ground. And the danger of those ideological traps is highlighted by the sad fact that this post would have reached a far wider audience had it been devoted to one of the more fashionable causes currently preoccupying music's champagne activists. But for those readers that remain, I would point out that in an interview Alex Ross explained how he kept William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience on his desk for philosophical guidance, because the book "shows the way out of ideological traps and abysses". And it is surely no coincidence that at this desk Alex wrote The Rest is Noise, the seminal guide to avoiding the traps associated with the appreciation of 20th century art music.

William James' was a leading proponent of pragmatism; but he also recognised the importance of experiences beyond those that can be rationally explained by what he described as " logic-chopping rationalistic talk". Not only did James acknowledge the power of mysticism, but he described mystical experiences as the “root and center” of religious experience which provide "states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect". In a bold rejection of spiritual authority - The Varieties of Religious Experience was published in 1902 - William James placed little importance on established theological doctrine, and viewed organised religion as a “contamination” of what should be a personal experience of the ineffable.

Because music is viewed as a contamination by fundamentalist Islam, much of the Music of Islam is devoted to the faith's mystical fringes. Practices on these fringes resonate with William James' view that the most important experiences are those that cannot be explained, and that the personal transcends the established. The recordings were curated by producer David Parsons in the 1990s for his Celestial Harmonies label, and range from Morocco to Indonesia. With its mix of studio and field recordings - the Bedouin nomads of the South Sinai recorded under a full moon in a desert wadi is just one highlight - the anthology sits alongside the ethnomusiclogical achievements of Béla Bartók, Cecil Sharp, Paul Bowles, and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The Music of Islam is a triumph, both as an ethnomusicological document and - to quote Alan Watts on John Cage's work - as a " project for cleaning the ears of the musically educated public". As Western classical violinist turned Sufi musician Ali Keeler recently pointed out: "It would be good for Western classical music to connect with other living traditional forms of music". All these living traditions share the root of musical truth, and listening to the Music of Islam reminded me of how this musical truth spread from the heartlands of Islam into Europe via Moorish Spain, and on through the art of the troubadors to fuse with other traditions and become Western classical music. Just as there are varieties of religious experience, so there are varieties of musical experience. In our media moderated monocultural age this teaching of master musician and Sufi sage Hazrat Inayat Khan rings so true:

The weakness of man has always been that he only considers as truth that to which he is accustomed, and anything he has not been accustomed to hear or to think frightens him. Like a person in a strange land, away from home, the soul is a stranger to the nature of things it is not accustomed to. But the journey towards perfection* means rising above limitations, rising so high that not the horizon of one country or of one continent only is seen, but that of the wole world. The higher we rise, the wider becomes the horizon of our view.
* 'Perfection' in this context means the Sufi goal of unity with the Divine, rather than eradicating all human frailties. No review samples used in this post. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

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