Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Music and spirituality in the 21st century

SoundsImage by Fey Ilyas via FlickrYou don't need to be an  ethno-musicologist, an evolutionary anthropologist or musician to appreciate the deep link between music and spirituality. In Christianity one might speak of finding the Spirit through sound, while in Buddhism sound is one of the gates of perception which can lead us to a direct awareness of our deepest mind.

If we get too mechanistic about it (these sounds trigger these clusters of neurons) without looking at the holistic, in this case humanistic, perspective, we run the risk of failing to appreciate anything more subtle the relationship between mood, awareness and music has to tell us. Any sensory data is translated and transduced to mental phenomena in the brain, taking on a new quality. This can include sounds, sights, tastes/smells, and touch.  In turn these can affect, via the connections in the thalamus, a variety of brain-influenced or directed systems in the body, even the immune system.

In other words, psychosomatic is no longer the "dirty word" once used so derisively to explain away the experiences people claimed to have in their bodies because of what was happening in their brains. The mind-body connection that was once scoffed at a "New Age woo woo nonsense" in many parts of academia is increasingly the subject of intense formal study.

And while that is all well and good, what do centuries or millenia of practical experimentation by various sacred traditions have to tell us about the music-mind connection? What about our own personal connections? 

My own suspicion, under development for a while, is that it is about connection, or rather, interconnection. I recall running across a reference to a book written by someone who claimed to witness something amazing after videotaping some children playing, although I have no idea if it is bunk or if it might have legs, and I hate to give such a long quote, but here it is, taken from The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time by Edward T. Hall:

Rhythm is basic to synchrony. This principle is illustrated by a film of children on a playground. Who would think that widely scattered groups of children in a school playground could be in sync. Yet this is precisely the case. One of my students selected as a project an exercise in what can be learned from film. Hiding in an abandoned automobile, which he used as a blind, he filmed children in an adjacent school yard during recess. As he viewed the film, his first impression was the obvious one: a film of children playing in different parts of the school playground. Then — watching the film several times at different speeds, he began to notice one very active little girl who seemed to stand out from the rest. She was all over the place. Concentrating on the girl, my student noticed that whenever she was near a cluster of children the members of that group were in sync not only with each other but with her. Many viewings later, he realized that this girl, with her skipping and dancing and twirling, was actually orchestrating movements of the entire playground! There was something about the pattern of movement which translated into a beat — like a silent movie of people dancing. Furthermore, the beat of this playground was familiar! There was a rhythm he had encountered before. He went to a friend who was a rock music aficionado, and the two of them began to search for the beat. It wasn’t long until the friend reached out to a nearby shelf, took down a cassette and slipped it into a tape deck. That was it! It took a while to synchronize the beginning of the film with the recording — a piece of contemporary rock music — but once started, the entire three and a half minutes of the film clip stayed in sync with the taped music! Not a beat or a frame of the film was out of sync!

How does one explain something like this? It doesn’t fit most people’s notions of either playground activity or where music comes from. Discussing composers and where they get their music with a fellow faculty member at Northwestern University, I was not surprised to learn that for him, and for many other musicians, music represents a sort of rhythmic consensus, a consensus of the core culture. It was clear that the children weren’t playing and moving in tune to a particular piece of music. They were moving to a basic beat which they shared at the time. They also shared it with the composer, who must have plucked it out of the sea of rhythm in which he too was immersed. He couldn’t have composed that piece if he hadn’t been in tune with the core culture.

Things like this are puzzling and difficult because so little is known technically about human synchrony. However, I have noted similar synchrony in my own films of people in public with no relationship with each other. Yet, they were syncing in subtle ways. The extraordinary thing is that my student was able to identify that beat. When he showed his film to our seminar, however, even though his explanation of what he had done was perfectly lucid, the members of the seminar had difficulty understanding what had actually happened. One school superintendent spoke of the children as “dancing to the music”; another wanted to know if the children were “humming the tune.” They were voicing the commonly held belief that music is something that is “made up” by a composer, who then passes on “his creation” to others, who, in turn, diffuse it to the larger society. The children were moving, but as with the symphony orchestra, some participants’ parts were at times silent. Eventually all participated and all stayed in sync, but the music was in them. They brought it with them to the playground as a part of shared culture. They had been doing that sort of thing all their lives, beginning with the time they synchronized their movements to their mother’s voice even before they were born. [...]

Before the Renaissance, God was conceived of as sound or vibration. This is understandable because the rhythm of a people may yet prove to be the most binding of all the forces that hold human beings together. As a matter of fact, I have come to the conclusion that the human species lives in a sea of rhythm, ineffable to some, but quite tangible to others. This explains why some composers really do seem to be able to tap into that sea and express for the people the rhythms that are felt but not yet expressed as music.

“This world is indeed a living being endowed with a soul and intelligence … a single living entity containing all other living entities, which by their nature are related.”– Plato, 4th Century, B.C.

I haven't yet had the chance to read this book, but it fits well with my sporadic musings on interconnection and resonance at the level of the story, which I increasingly am convinced is a defining trait of our own species Homo sapiensthat is, that some of our other major defining traits, particularly our linguistic and creative cognitive capacities, revolve around sharing stories. Not just for gossip about the social hierarchy or conveying useful information about the natural world. It's a matter of exaptation or renovation, the recognition that traits never have only "one function" but are as useful or as useless as circumstance permit.

In this case, the basic premise is that while the aforementioned uses may have been important in establishing the precursors for our linguistic and creative capacities, it was story telling that became the central focus. I cannot say whether closely related group such as Neanderthals would have attached the same significance, but it seems that we as a species have always created our worlds out of our stories, from the earliest creation myths and shamanistic tales of the world tree to our current scientific meta-theories. And it is the capacity of stories to resonate with people, or perhaps give the above quote, people's ability to resonate with stories, that helps to explain the fullness of meaning which our stories impart. 

It's just a thought, of course, and discussing the resonance of stories or the resonance of music in terms of mediating and creating our (perceived) landscapes of reality doesn't make it so. But it seems like an intriguing avenue to pursue. So I leave you with another quote from a book I haven't yet read, and the idea that others are pursuing this idea in their own ways:

 I will tell you something about stories[…]
They aren’t just entertainment.
Don’t be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
all we have to fight off illness and death.
You don’t have anything
if you don’t have the stories
—Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony 

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1 comment:

  1. I think your instinct is right on target regarding the early evolution of rhythm as a form of human communication, well before language. You might want to read a well-written book by Steve Mithen called "The Singing Neanderthals" which convincingly makes this argument with rigorous academic paleoanthropological evidence.

    Rhythm binds us humans together below the level of consciousness in a far deeper way than language, which is a fairly recent development of our symbolic consciousness.


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