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Falling Into Your Soul

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Falling Into Your Soul

I wasn't raised with any spirituality at all. When I was young, I tended to make fun of religious or spiritual people because it seemed ridiculous to me. As I matured I decided that anyone who was trying to be a moral person deserved all the respect I could give them, and that included a lot of religious people.

But at the same time, there is a great deal of music that is hard to understand or enjoy without acknowledging its spiritual aspects. Some examples: all that great 15th and 16th century polyphony, Bach, and the newer spiritualists like Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki. I was always aware and sensitive to this aspect of music though I thought of it as being aesthetically transcendent rather than religious or spiritual. While I am still uncomfortable with the idea of a personal god, that there is a spiritual or transcendent aspect to reality seems perfectly obvious. It has been said that the unlikeliest theory of all is that all of reality consists of nothing more than the swirl of atoms in the empty void.

Listening to some Morton Feldman recently, it occurs to me that his music could be seen as very spiritual as well. There are certain musical experiences that I don't know how to characterize except through metaphor: I think of them as "falling into your soul" as if your soul was like a well deep inside that you knew was there, but most of the time succeeded in ignoring. Much music is perfect at distracting you from it. But some music is so, what? Empty? Focussed? Extended? --that it seems to lead you to or drop you into your soul.

I guess there are a couple of ways to get there: one is through delirious ecstasy: the whirling dervishes or the music of Steve Reich or perhaps Philip Glass. But another way to get there is through austerity--think of Thomas Merton writing about the Desert Fathers who lived alone in silent prayer. Morton Feldman, in his later years, wrote music of great length and great austerity where small events loom large. This is the opposite of the approach to composition of maximum complexity. That could also lead to aesthetic transcendence, I suppose, but it never seems to.

Richard Taruskin in the Oxford History of Western Music (volume 5, p. 101) describes the later, lengthy music of Feldman as resorting to extreme measures to "preserve the specialness of the esthetic experience." He says: "Only by dint of extreme measures could the romantic sacralization of art continue into the age of science." Well, maybe. How to access the transcendental seems to call for different measures at different times in history. We are still just coming out of a long period when the "romantic sacralization of art" or perhaps, art as religion, reigned. This rather came off the rails with the First World War, when everything cultural became suspect.

Still, one of the fundamental goals of art is to, somehow, take you out of yourself. Certainly out of your daily self. This is one of the reasons that I think that the mechanical reproduction of music, enabling it to be present as a constant soundtrack to our lives, has been very much a mixed blessing. If you want to point or lead away from that kind of everyday experience, you need to do something different--but just technical innovation doesn't seem to do it. The very lengthy pieces of Morton Feldman seem to do something unusual. One commentator on a YouTube clip said they change your mind without putting any ideas into it. To me it feels like falling deep inside yourself into what we might just as well call our soul.

I honestly think that for many of us, no more needs to be said, while for others of us, nothing could be usefully said. I suppose you either get it or you don't.

At the core of a lot of transcendental music is a certain simplicity. Here are some examples:

Bach: Dona nobis pacem from the B minor Mass:

For Bach that is fairly simple music. The Prelude in C major from the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier is another example:

Here is an example from Arvo Pärt: Spiegel in Spiegel:

An unusual example from Shostakovich: the first movement, Elegy: adagio, from the String Quartet No. 15. There are five more movements, all adagios.

After that, when we come to Feldman, it doesn't seem so strange. Here is his two hour piano piece, Triadic Memories:

Which is dwarfed by his Second String Quartet, usually said to be six hours long, but the Vogler Quartet whistle through it in a mere four and a half hours:

Don't you feel you have, well, earned something after listening to some of this music?

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