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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Music and Spirituality: A Real Sticky Wicket.

Brooke and I have been whiling away these colder evenings by reading aloud from the newish book, Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson. It's been pretty fun, even though I already know the story inside and out. When Brooke is reading, I sometimes stop her to tell an anecdote related to the subject she's on. Nine times out of ten, the info is revealed in a subsequent paragraph, with a similar amount of hyperbole. If this is annoying to her, she keeps it to herself. One of the many reasons I love that woman.

The book itself is so-so. There are enough word redundancies to drive a writer (especially two of 'em, as is the case in our household) completely batshit. Brooke actually threatened to "throw the damn thing across the room" the next time she encounters the phrase "interlocking harmonies." Personally, I'm more put off by the author's use of the word "band" three times in a single sentence. But I digress.

Despite its faults, the book has reminded me of the intensely spiritual nature of Wilson's songcraft. As an often vehement opposer of *organized* religion, ie The Judeo Three, I'm aware that my love of his devotional-sounding productions contradicts my otherwise polemic views on religion. Many BW works display strong Christian convictions; why am I forgiving of this but annoyed by other displays of faith?

With a ruling percentage of humanity skewed towards believing in some kind of Santa In The Sky, I find myself increasingly at odds with not just my own culture, but the majority of the species. It's cool, I'm kinda used to it. Still, I figured it was time to examine where my own attitudes toward art and spirituality intersect.

Music history is chock full of expressions of faith, from sacred chant to U2. And don't get me started on visual arts. Anyone who has wandered the Renaissance rooms at the Metropolitan Museum of Art knows what I'm talking about.

I'm also in the middle of a book about Toltec, Mayan and Aztec civilization, and the specific reasons behind their rampant use of human sacrifice. The author's thesis is that these cultures moved progressively from direct mystical experience as directed by their local shaman, towards a kind of mechanized system of offering in order to appease of the hungry demons of their cosmology. In even more ancient times, these metaphysical foes had been forces of positive transformation. Well, according to this dude, anyway.

So what does Quetzalcoatl have to do with sunny Californian pop? I could surely find a link, but you wouldn't want to read a post that long.

Here's a footbridge:

There's a spiritual longing in the artist that's comparable to the desire for religious transcendence. Practitioners of both spiritual trance and applied creativity experience similar states when in the throes of their respective ecstasies.

Unfortunately, there are obstacles.

The priest seeks to canonize, dogmatize and chasten the unpredictable otherness of spiritual revelation; market forces seek to streamline, repackage and uniformly distribute artistic dynamism.

But what's good for the artist is good for the mystic.

Solitary investigation and development is definitely key, as is failure and humiliation. Success, in as much as it can be quantified, is bitchin', too.

Desire is important, but not to the degree that it becomes superficial ego enhancement. Ever wonder why modern radio sucks? Everybody wants to play rock star. Donning the trappings of a sonic superhero or putting on priestly vestments is empty unless the true charge of spirit is underneath.

If you can't become entranced by your undertaking, stop. You aren't fooling anyone, not even yourself. But do try again.

OK. Enough with the lecture. Let's get back to the Beach Boys and Christianity. I was raised semi-Catholic (one of my grandmothers was Poped to the Extreme) and have a fairly good grasp of the origins of the religion — dare I say better than some of its adherents? Anyway, it's not like I have any problem with the teachings of Christ, whether or not he was a real historical figure or an amalgamation of several wild-eyed Judaic visionaries. I could write a lot about what I believe JC was up to during his self-imposed desert exile; let's just say it's consistent with the transformative experiences cataloged in nearly every spirit tradition.

I'm an intermittently lapsed Buddhist, meaning I believe that meditation is just the best damn thing ever. This in and of itself is not incompatible with Christianity.

But there's a major difference between following the advice of a pacifist Kabbalist and believing that you should abuse women and hate homosexuals. How 'bout we burn an ox tonight? I hear it delights Jehovah's nostrils. Yeah, that's in there, too.

I'd like to think that Brian Wilson was more interested in the compassionate teachings of brotherhood than a close-minded doctrine of prejudice and control.

Ergo, I'm cool with the Christian connotations in his music. But keep that Jesus Camp pseudo-goth shit away from me!

PS: Check out Undead Molly's epic pumpkin-carving adventure. What skillz!


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the le duo



It's a firm belief of mine that as a member of a society, it is my constant desire to understand not only positions and people I agree with, but to really attempt to understand people and positions I don't agree with. Some of the best, most enlightening conversations of my life have been with people who don't agree with me, but attempt to hear my position as I attempt to hear theirs. That goes for the God thing, as well as the politics thing. Oddly enough, I am LEAST flexible with my music tastes. Someone tells me that they totally groove on the String Cheese Incident, and my respect for them as a human nosedives. It's a prejudice I'm working firm anti-jamite stance.

But with music and art it's different. As far as I'm concerned, if it speaks to any part of you, then it's doing its job. Do I agree with all the socio-political statements found in popular hip-hop? No. They are sometimes mysogonistic and disrespectful. But damned if they don't make my bu-dunk-adunk shake. (this could get into the responcibility of a consumer, but I digress) So in that respect, they're doing their job. Do I believe in Santa in the Sky? No. But God Only Knows makes me want to cry and hug the nearest person every time I hear it. So it does its job.

I dunno, I just think that if you question WHY a piece of music or art emotionally effects you, it loses some of the magic, you know? You don't HAVE to like it for a reason, you don't have to agree with it completely. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and sometimes a song is just a song.


funny you touch on this subject, i just started reading 'through music to the self' by german musician / composer Peter Michael Hamel.
he talks alot about issues related to spirituality in music. tracing threads through modern composition, improv, pop music, etc. the book was written in the mid-70's but it seems to still be quite relevant now. he also talks a bit about the influence of the East on our culture and music. interesting stuff, you should check it out.

wasnt 'pet sounds', brian wilson's symphony for god as he put it?

i think that the spirituality / feelings in music always lies within the listener. a composer / musician can try as hard as they may to project a certain feeling or spirituality but its always going to be received in different ways by different people. having said that, i do think there are universal and less overt or specifics things in music that can resonate with larger more diverse groups of people.


I love this image of the dark lord and his lady fair, reading aloud to each other. Priceless.


Greg — that book sounds interesting; I'll try to track it down. Also, I agree that the listener brings their own experiences and perspectives to bear on any piece of music. But there's no doubt that Wilson was seeking a "spiritual" sound; he's said as much many times. An aside: It was actually SMiLE that he termed his "teenage symphony to God."

Brooke! — I'm all for the open-minded sharing of arguments, provided those arguing can articulate their points, which isn't always the case. As far as "questioning why a piece of music or art affects you," well, if I didn't, I'd be out of a job. It's this or dishwashing.

Cresmer — I'm glad my domesticity amusues you.


Great post.


oh yes it was smile that was the symphony to god.
and that it is.

i wonder what constitutes a spiritual sound?

BW's 'pet sounds' couldnt be more different than coltrane's 'interstellar space' but they were both going for a spiritual depth on their records. maybe the former 'beauty' and the latter 'ecstacy'. i dunno....


Well, Brian calls going to the dentist "spiritual," so I dunno.

As far as Interstellar Space and Pet Sounds are concerned, I'd say the former expresses transcendence/ecstacy and the latter reverence/devotion. And both are awesome!

You know what isn't spiritual? MeatLoaf's Bat Out Of Hell III: The Monster Is Loose.


Unrelated... on road trip, want to listen to podcast in car, still won't work... dammit.


The host site, EZ archive, is in the middle of a migration to a new URL, so it might be down. I can e-mail it to you... Still have the same address?


Yes! Sweet.

ben maddox

What does the word "spiritual" really mean? It seems to be getting used with many definitions,like the word "hashbrowns."
Before we can say what the hell its doing in music or the musician, we probably should have a little bit tighter definiton.


I agree. That's why I used "spiritual" in Brian Wilson's parlance, which can refer to just about anything.

When I was writing about BW's more *important* works, I chose the term "devotional," because that's what they sound like to me.

The word "spiritual" is, by definition, open to interpretation, since it's a blanket term for a plethora of beliefs and attitudes.

Can music itself be spiritual? Like Greg, I think it ultimately depends on how the composer relates to the piece, and later, how other listeners respond.

But some music certainly feels spiritual; "Gloria In Excelsis Deo," for example, sounds beatific with or without the Catholic system of faith supporting it.

But that might just be conditioning.

Still,there are certain musical methods that provoke different states in consciousness, which is why drone music has been used as a vehicle for trance for, I dunno, a millennium or two.

And why Wagner is good for goose-stepping.

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