Religion & music

As I remarked in the article on relevance, religious expression has been one of the fundamental forces behind music and its historical development. Today the relative position of this aspect of expression is also critical to several larger issues, the first of which is that we live in a less religious time and consequently that people feel less willing to discuss it. This leads directly to the idea of finding spiritual fulfillment in music, and especially to a general desire for the words in so-called relaxing music not to be pronounced clearly. This idea is indeed critical, and must be contemplated further. A related issue is scientific rationalism supplanting religion per se, and consequently creating the more "practical" personal orientations which involve questioning the relevance of art in sum. This idea has hopefully been handled sufficiently for the present time, but one final aspect will be treated around the theme of "democracy" in the next article. The third larger issue related to the role of religion today is the emotional need for devotion and consequently the veneration of music and musicians by some enthusiasts. Both components of this idea need closer attention.

One is not supposed to discuss religion in polite conversation, and so the topic should perhaps be approached with trepidation in an aesthetics article as well. Nonetheless, especially as regards so much medieval music, the topic must be tackled directly. In the West, the idea of religious discussion being socially divisive is linked clearly to the rise of Protestantism and the subsequent battles involved. Protestantism also advocated a less spectacular religious ritual and correspondingly simpler music, and in the case of some denominations, no music at all. Prior to this point, music had been a significant part of religious services, as it is in most of the world's religions, aside from the more puritanical denominations of Islam. Serving religion by glorifying the divine has therefore been one of music's primary functions, and consequently one of the forces to shape it. This is an obvious fact, but one frequently downplayed by people who want to enjoy some music without facing up to the ideas which underly it. Although facing the meaning does not necessarily dictate accepting it, neither cute dismissals nor avoidance will circumvent this fundamental issue. In that sense, the widespread preference for not clearly pronouncing words in "ethereal" medieval music performance is an uncomfortable avoidance mechanism. There must be some shame involved, at some level. The people involved feel strongly that they should eschew religion, yet also feel a need or desire for some of its purest expressions. The dominance of textless music following the so-called Enlightenment is also a part of this phenomenon.

The idea of art as a pure expression of religion is hardly unprecedented. There is a tension today between spirituality as a personal thing and religion per se, its institutional arm. Railing against institutions is an American tradition, but is also buoyed in this case by a smaller world in which it becomes rather silly to speak of "one truth" articulated so precisely. In many ways, this is a problem with literalist or exclusionary readings in general, but it is also related to historical enmities between different faiths. Argument and violence are inherent to humanity, and so their historical connection to religion says little more about religion itself than that it has been an important topic. Religion has been a social system of community, and in the absence of religion per se, people continue to form their own similar groupings around their own beliefs and priorities. It is quite evident that the result is frequently indistinguishable from religion in its contours, with such details as the lack of a Supreme Being being much more important to the "believers" themselves than it is to any sociological analysis. And of course the groups create and perpetuate enmities & prejudices on this basis, as groups of people almost always do. Into that context, medieval music yields a feeling of spirituality, from which the rather specific religious circumstances seem paradoxically distant. They could hardly be less distant from the music itself, but perhaps the remoteness of the culture in total makes its religion seem somehow distinct from the religious arguments of our day. There is, after all, no particular reason one must believe a statement in order to find it interestingly stated.

A stance of detached interest can easily trivialize the object of one's attention. This is a crucial aspect of religion in music, because it so frequently reflects the idea of human devotion to the divine. Devotion is basically the opposite of trivialization, and must be understood in order to fully appreciate the music. Devotion is essentially an emotional stance, and reflects two significant things: a recognition of something greater than oneself, and a willingness to be caught up in the moment. The latter part is necessary for any kind of meditation or even more ordinary secular pleasures such as riding a roller coaster. That it would be necessary for feeling a piece of music deeply is, I think, clear. The former part is more open to philosophical debate, but involves first the virtue of humility. To put a decidedly modern turn on it, this is an aspect of the feeling one must have to want to recycle or throw one's litter in the appropriate receptacle. Even if it can be phrased very differently, it is certainly a healthy feeling to have. The idea of devotion as an emotion per se requires further discussion. Technically, this sense of the term is obsolete in English. However, it is the natural translation of the Indian term bhakti which is classically one of the basic emotions (rasas) to be elicited by art, and one which dominates Carnatic music. There it has been demonstrated more than sufficiently that devotion is a stance which supports a wide range of emotional subtleties and a richly varied musical substance. As a final remark, it is almost a truism that one would want to be devoted to something good, and one function of religion has been to exemplify the good. The translation to other frameworks of social thought is, I hope, obvious.

Perhaps ironically, for some people, music & musicians have replaced religious symbols as objects of devotion. Although in some sense, this is a natural translation, it does involve shifting the distance of one's perspective. If one is not devoted to something beyond the music, but rather to the music itself, one is devoted to the work of a human, and that presumably reflects a humanistic "religious" stance. The primary pitfall in such a view is that masterpieces do not spring fully formed from the mind of a genius, but rather become invested with that status as the result of a complex social process. In that sense, such a stance really does become veneration of humanity as a whole, so long as the sometimes arbitrary nature of the process is recognized. In the absence of recognition, fanatics for particular works or composers can be little more than zealots or sycophants, serving to inhibit the further development of music. Someone one happens to meet cannot be an icon, even if he will become one to future generations, and so such expectations place an artificial distance between oneself and the contemporary process of artistic creation. Shifting the perspective of devotion to individuals affects the nature of shared experience, and shared experience has been one of the fundamental motivations of religion.

Administrivia: With summer here, writing frequency will fall off somewhat. Next column in three weeks.

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Todd M. McComb