Music and the cathartic art of losing control
That is the brave cover artwork for saxophonist Sonny Simmons' new album Nomadic: brave because there is no typography identifying album title or artist. Sonny Simmons was born in Sicily Island, Louisiana in 1933. He was a prominent figure in the avant-garde free jazz scene of the 1960s, but personal problems left him homelessness and busking on the streets of San Francisco for years. His career reignited in the 1990s when a French club owner heard him busking and hired him. He went to Paris in 1995 where his music subtlety changed direction. To paraphrase reviews of his recent albums, Sonny Simmons plays jazz with teeth, but it won't bite you; it dispenses with the dissonance and weirdness of 60's free jazz, but retains the passion and creativity of his early recordings.
On Nomadic he is joined by the French trio intriguingly named Moksha Samnyasin - which translates roughly from Sanskrit as detached enlightenment. Moksha Samnyasin comprises bass, percussion/electronics and sitar, and as the powerful artwork suggests, the album is a cathartic blend of psychedelic rock, free jazz, and experimental drone metal. (There is questionable copyright auditioning of complete album via this link.) If you really want to blow your comfort zone out the window try Atomic Symphony which features Sonny Simmons jamming with the rock/free-jazz fusion Norwegian Crime Time Orchestra and sixty-five musicians from the National Norwegian Radio Symphony Orchestra; experience the art of losing control by auditioning the Atomic Symphony via this copyright legal link.
With external paths closed, lockdown listening and reading have led me inwards. Sonny Simmons' album was one of the riches discovered on that path, another was The Art of Losing Control, a contemporary guide to the philosophy of human ecstasy by Jules Evans. In the introduction Jules Evans offers a quote from Susan Sontag very relevant to our present pandemic predicament. This warns of the "traumatic failure of modern capitalist society...to satisfy the appetite for exalted self-transcending moments...The need of human beings to transcend 'the personal' is no less profound than the need to be a person, an individual. But this society serves that need poorly". In a thought-provoking chapter on the role of the arts in the search for transcendental ecstasy Jules Evans explains that:
The arts, according to Jung, enable us to communicate with our subliminal mind via the dream-language of symbols, metaphors, and myths. Because the arts bypass rationality and communicate with the subliminal mind, they can be tremendously healing and cathartic, sometimes more so than rational philosophy. They transport us beyond the shed of our ego-construction and help us confront what lies beyond.Jules Evans tells us that the arts take us beyond our ego bunkers to deliver cathartic revelations - what Paul Tillich describes as "an ecstatic experience of the ground of being that shakes, transforms or heals". By contrast entertainment builds and reinforces the ego bunkers built around personal comfort zones. Quite rightly the case is currently being made for emergency funding to help the culture sector recover from the impact of COVID-19, and theatre director Sam Mendes cogently argued this in a recent Financial Times article. But for this argument to hold water the classical music industry in particular must beware of losing its artistic raison d'être of satisfying the appetite for self-transcendental experiences, and there is a very real risk of this happening in the current unseemly haste to turn great music into just another household utility available 24/7 by clicking on a smartphone.
Many of classical's great and good who gleefully tweeted Sam Mendes' admirable article did so from the well-defined comfort zone of their personal ego bunkers. They were oblivious to the blindingly obvious, namely it is difficult to argue that classical music is in dire financial straits when a UK music director is demanding his own new London concert hall costing £300 million and America's top five classical music directors earned an eye-watering US$11.6 million in 2018. Classical music undoubtedly has financial problems; but the biggest of these is the inequality between the celebrities and rank and file musicians. Until celebrity ego bunkers are dismantled and glaring remuneration inequalities are removed, classical music's plea for special financial treatment is hard to support.
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