Music as rite

The idea that music could provide a ritual backdrop to social communion is perhaps the most critically under-explored avenue toward its renewed relevance today. It is also a notion frequently stated without explanation, or more specifically, without a plan to bring it to fruition. To some extent, music does continue to connect us, as any shared experience does. If nothing else, it is something about which to talk afterward — or, increasingly, during. We can go on to share recollections, such as "Do you remember the time...?" However, such an exchange frequently has no real conclusion; it is remembrance only. Is that refreshed communion as consummation, or are we unable to transcend shared experience as merely shared experience? Anything can be shared, but at least historically, only particular acts are rites. Can music create a rite, or does music serve a rite?

We must establish some sort of philosophical basis for having shared experience at all. Some might wish to deny the possibility, but as it is commonly understood, people share experiences. They might even share knowledge & meaning. If we can establish those correspondences, then something becomes a rite because we say it does. We have new "rites of passage" proclaimed regularly. Concerts become rites, very powerfully for some people. Indeed, when discussing the bifurcation of art & entertainment, it was difficult to separate sacred or ritual uses. To the medieval mind, sacred interaction and the catharsis of song would have been present often. Indeed, a renewed emphasis on human ritual must seek ritual anywhere & everywhere. It can be sought in any music too, whether art or entertainment.

Does entertainment today really imply atheism and eschew religion? Looking specifically at what occurs, the answer is obviously yes. One might better ask whether such a trend is linked fundamentally, or if it is a coincidence of two cycles. Might entertainment & religion provide positive contexts for each other? If music-as-rite is to be a mainstream touchstone, then such a positive interaction must be constructed in some way, if only to form poles between which music can arc like lightning. While the ritual nature of the concert setting has possibly been increased by shifting social context, and especially the ubiquity of recordings, the idea that music generally occurs in any particular place is increasingly strained. Even if we extend the idea of "place" to the web, there is little uniformity for the people involved.

Rites have been about uniformity, and about repetition. Must it be so? After all, we are talking about new music to fulfill this function, some sort of new music which transcends medium & paradigm & space — maybe even time itself. Music has been defined by its measurement of time, or at least its filling of time, time which we now measure & fill with industrial precision & indifference. Can a rite occur outside of time? Obviously this train of thought is becoming almost too absurd for itself. A hypothetical musical rite will presumably consist of sounds, sounds existing in time. How will those sounds be brought to their audience, or indeed how might the audience create those sounds for itself? The idea that people might commonly make music may be ready to return, especially under a radical redefinition in which a few computer keystrokes "makes" the music.

More than that, though, how do we create the communion, the shared experience? I have posited without much justification that we want to create this social communion, that we need to create it. There is a wholeness to direct human interaction which is being stripped from our postmodern existence, and it is a wholeness which society increasingly needs. Toward that end, music has had a ritual function in much of history, and for many cultures. Music has even been able to transcend culture, given its abstract nature (related to ideas on absolute music). Music need not have words, and at least as sound, it is ephemeral — it requires repeated acts to sustain it. Music is different from a narrative art such as theater, or a concrete art such as painting. The former rarely has the possibility of cultural independence due to its lack of abstraction, while the latter is a single physical instantiation the audience for which comes and goes with no renewed act.

Music is also in danger of becoming entirely an artefact. This fact is a fundamental motivation for suggesting a radical change; music is already undergoing a radical change. How does one bring people together if they increasingly listen apart, maybe even with headphones? Perhaps we can take advantage of the "differently-connectedness" of the web, and offer radical possibilities for connections which do not involve physical space or time. We already transcend some previous physical limits. But do we do so without creating new isolation? Of course not; not at all! Can isolation become a ritual constraint of its own? Solitary practice certainly has a historical ritual basis, although it was a path generally deemed fit for only a few people. To some degree, however, that was a matter of economic practicality, while today many people's need for interaction in the workplace is limited. They meet, but they perform their tasks separately.

Devices such as computers and television have changed what "isolation" means, even as they fail to provide people with any real closeness. They provide a misdirected public impression of commonality, but without direct emotional feedback. They create an axle with spokes which rarely connect, an axle which blocks all connectedness through itself. There is a central impression there, and something to speak about remembering, but an impression which is isolated. Even the idea that we see ourselves on screen is increasingly strained, as characters & scenarios become more absurd. They are accompanied by formulaic music, formulaic everything. How can music reach across this particular chasm, especially without synchronicity in space or time? It has the potential to redefine those qualities, and at least to bridge space with traveling sound. If it can somehow gather people into one act, it can lend itself to a rite, and so the challenge for the creator is to reconstruct the meaning of "act" in such a way as to let people share it amongst themselves.

These thoughts have been vague & questioning, a tentative rethinking of a proclamation on expression. They do little to circumscribe the idea of music-as-rite, and barely deconstruct it. Hopefully they can soon be expounded differently, in a more concrete way.

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Todd M. McComb