Ritual & transcendence

Although it may be more productive to continue developing ideas on economic constraints and their relationship to the "core" of the Western tradition, the idea of constraint itself finds a certain apotheosis in ritual. Ritual depends on constraint, whether through repetition and ceremony or through an "unusual" absence of constraint. Constraint is the vessel within which ritual resonates, and it is precisely such a resonance which brings transcendence. The classical example of the Dionysian celebration was to bring catharsis through a brief absence of ordinary social mores, and consequently serves to illustrate the prototype of the no-holds-barred ritual. That such circumstances could lead to transcendence is tied closely to their uniqueness, and were the mores to be entirely removed, social constraints would no longer form a framework against which transcendence could occur. Our own creeping relaxation of constraints against hedonism today ultimately means that the spiritual side of "bingeing" will be lost, simply because one can do it every day. Similarly, the relative lack of boundaries in society actually serves to inhibit creativity.

The motivation for experiencing transcendence is to have a glimpse into the numinous and beyond the bonds of this existence. That such a notion should be relatively deprecated in the wake of today's distaste for religion is hardly surprising, but transcendence is not truly deprecated. People want to experience it every day, a logical impossibility. The contemporary image of "been there, done that" teenagers is a tangible representation of this fact. What is lacking is a vessel, a real instantiation of social constraint, and consequently a reality to transcend. The situation of contemporary music is analogous. Although I am generally one to hail variety as a good thing, ultimately there are so many styles that composers must build up their own musical constraint-expectations within the same piece in which they play off against them. I have discussed this situation in the past, but the idea of ritual itself remains somewhat under-explored. The Dionysian aspect is certainly not under-explored in the 20th century, from Stravinsky's Rite of Spring to Stockhausen's "intuitive" styles, but such an absence of constraint can only lend an air of ritual today under some circumstances.

One place to examine is the public concert setting itself, which buoyed mainly by the gathering of so many people in one place for one purpose, has a sense of ritual. Gathering people together has an inherent power to it, and the various conventions of the concert setting, silly as they may be, have a ritualistic quality. The seating, the dress, the decorum... all serve to charge the situation. These ancillary aspects may also be key players in the crossroads at which "classical music" presently finds itself, as the younger generation demands a transcendence-a-day absent the constraints of ritual which serve to facilitate it. The ritual of the concert setting is actually a factor keeping people away, much as the ritual in church does the same, or the ritual in anything which has been "outed" as no more than arbitrary. Well, many things may be arbitrary, all things may be arbitrary, but we still must fill the "stuff" of our existence with something. That is the underlying essence behind belief in the absurd, because the absurd is simply more interesting. The absurd combined with validating conventions is fertile ground for ritual and transcendence. If that were really true, the absurdity and convention behind the ritual of watching television should ultimately allow transcendence, but does it?

The example of television raises the issues of social dynamic and material suitability. Advertisers aren't looking for transcendence, that is for certain, and so some players in determining the material for the "ritual" are not pulling their weight. But it is ultimately the social setting which matters here, since solitary rituals require much greater concentration, and so an easy question arises: Can there be a social ritual over distributed media? Sports events seem able to function in this way at times, due undoubtedly to the synchronization in time. Can music do the same, or in other words, can music retain its ritual power via the CD medium? This is a difficult question, and a crucial one. Changes to society regarding the dispersal of shared interaction, as well as the advent of some "music healing" programs in the West, serve to place double emphasis on this issue. It becomes, if I dare say it, critical to our collective sanity. There is a need to ritualize dispersed media, meaning CDs and their logical extension on the Internet, in order to provide some transcendence i.e. relief to a larger population starving for it. The first steps in such a process are clear: The constraints of the medium itself must be stabilized and then explored and played off, perhaps creating a radically new musical format.

The idea of sharing public ritual through one's computer is absolutely radical, something we may easily forget while in the middle of it, and there is consequently no reason to believe that music which accomplishes this goal will not be just as radical. Even if I claim that medieval music provides both a unifying thread to contemporary musical ideas and fertile ground for mining practical techniques, the idea that any ultimate electronic musical ritual would have anything naïvely in common with it is not so easily surmised. After all, the framework of ritual has been radically altered since that time, in its constraints, in its framework, and even in its metaphysical basis. In one sense, medieval music simply gives us the perspective to perceive this fact. Contemporary composers have been experimenting with radical electronic music for some time, but there is a fundamental "chicken & egg" problem there, precisely because the "constraint gap" between live human performers and far-flung electronic distribution is so great. The biggest gap continues to be the issue of shared experience, precisely part of the divergence medieval music may help to connect, yet inherently a physical problem with the new medium. Ritual ultimately derives its power from shared experience, and so musical transcendence must revolve increasingly around transcending the fact of our physical isolation.

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Todd M. McComb