This is why I never started a blog – it’s been almost a whole school year since I last posted. But while I wasn’t writing, one project I’ve been working on is a collection of electronic pieces, Of Earth and Starry Sky. I have played these a few times over the year an will present them again on May 4 at Augustana’s Celebration of Learning. Of Earth and Starry Sky is based on the Orphic Gold Tablets, small pieces of gold foil inscribed with Greek texts found in ancient graves, mostly in southern Italy. The ancient Greeks had a limited understanding of the afterlife; rather than going to heaven or hell, the soul lingered in a type of limbo, neither rewarded nor punished. The desire for eternal life was addressed in Mystery cults such as the Eleusinian, Dionysian, and Orphic. All three of these rites are based on myths about descent or death and return: Persephone was abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld, before being rescued by her mother Demeter; the infant Dionysus was torn to pieces and eaten by Titans, but his father Zeus resurrected him from his salvaged heart; Orpheus, this program’s patron, through the power of his music, was able to secure the release of his dead wife Eurydice from the underworld on condition that he not look at her until they returned to the land of the living, a command he famously failed to keep. The initiates of these Mystery cults succeeded in keeping them mysteries – we will never be sure what they did or taught, but it may be that the offered secret teachings about the soul’s passage through the underworld. This would make the Orphic Gold Tablets reference sheets reminding the soul of the necessary instructions and passwords need to pass various underworld guardians and challenges on its way to immortality. As can be seen from the translations, these instructions are often mysterious and cryptic.
The Tablet pieces are based on recordings of my colleague, Dr. Mischa Hooker reading the tablets in both Greek and English. The Greek text was altered using a technique called granular synthesis. Small clips (or ‘grains’) of the recordings were repeated and varied by the computer to generate new sounds, which make up the musical content of the piece. The English translations are presented without electronic manipulation to allow the listener to follow the text.
The electronic pieces are framed by pieces for solo saxophone, thus Of Earth and Starry Sky is actually a collection of different pieces presented as a single multi-movement work. An interesting part of the project is that these pieces have changed throughout the year. In the fall I used Vir and Gyn by Christian Lauba, and Le fusain fuit la gomme by Marie-Hélène Fournier’s. Later in the year one of my Mutiphonic Etudes rotated in, and next week I will use three pieces taken from Aphorismes by Franco-American composer Étienne Rolin. The composer describes the set as an “overview of the new techniques and expressive possibilities of the saxophone,” which can also be said of each of the pieces used with Of Earth and Starry Sky. These new techniques, such as mutliphonics, tone color variation, and microtones, are presented as fragmented gestures that flicker and float through a shadowy landscape. Taken as a whole this set is an imagined depiction of the soul’s passage through the underworld. For many listeners, the unusual musical qualities will be disorienting, placing them in an analogues situation as the soul in its liminal journey.
Of Earth and Starry Sky is a creative work that is intended to foster the interaction between art and scholarship. It is generally understood that these endeavors explore opposing modes of thought and activity – creativity, intuition, and tangible expression on the one hand, analysis, reason, and intellectual concepts on the other. But this project was an attempt to blur these traditional boundaries and to explore art and scholarship through the dispositions of the other; such collaboration can be mutually beneficial to each. In this case exploring a specific and somewhat obscure research topic has led to new musical directions: the Greek text has its own sonic possibilities which shaped the electronic pieces; chaining together different pieces into one continuous whole, in order to better recreate the underworld passage, subverts the traditional concert model of perform-applause-repeat; contextualizing unfamiliar music helps to make it more assessable to the audience. This collaboration also provides a context to engage the imagination, unfettered by the responsibility of scholarly accuracy, and to participate in the human conditions embedded within the Orphic Gold Tablets. The Tablets address certain eschatological and soteriological issues, universal human questions of life, death, and the yearning for immortality – the simple longing that my consciousness, my awareness of myself, will not be extinguished despite the great inevitability of death. The Orphic initiates approached these question in their mystical rites and on the golden plates they buried with their dead. In this performance, these issues are reframed in the language of experimental music for saxophone and electronics. In so doing we can imagine what an Orphic rite might have sounded like. While this is obviously not an accurate recreation of such ancient ceremonies, it does animate the Gold Tablets, giving them tangible, audible form, through which we may better experience the same human conditions that originally inspired them.
When I started this blog a few weeks ago, my plan was to add to it regularly, but of course life has a way of changing our plans. In addition to all the typical responsibilities of a family guy, we were recently slammed with some unexpected home repairs (short version: a few water spots turned into a gutted and – hopefully – soon to be remodeled bathroom). Needless to say, waxing philosophical about the deeper meaning of saxophone slide to the back burner. Paradoxically, even practicing saxophone has started working against this deeper meaning. Summer is quickly fading and the joy of reconnecting with the instrument and playing new music I experienced at the beginning of break is rapidly deteriorating into a scramble to finish learning everything before school starts – discovery is replaced by urgency.
In this we find a tension between our ideal world, the world as we’d like it to be, and the world as it really is, between the artistic drive (to imagine, create and express, to reach deep levels of human experience, to practice without interruption until we are actual finished for the day) and everything we end up doing instead (cutting the grass, doing the dishes, calling contractors, messing up passages we have worked in excruciating detail). The list goes on and on. In the end we find that all of the doing and deadlines pull us away from the way we’d really like to spend our time, not just in art, but in all aspects of our lives: the people we want to see, the activities we find rewarding, the books we’d rather be reading…
The tension between the ideal world and the ‘real’ world is also expressed in religion and philosophy, especially if we take Plato seriously. Platonic idealism offers a radically different perspective from the way our modern scientific-empirical society sees the world – and that’s the question, how do we ‘see.’ To over simplify, from an early age we are taught (or indoctrinated) that the real world is the world around us, the one we can see with our physical eyes, hear with our ears, and touch with our hands. Certain knowledge comes from measuring that world, and if it can’t be measured it can’t be known. In idealism this is reversed, the physical world around us is the illusion and reality, the real reality, is the sphere of ideas (hence real in quotes above), or as Plato called it the Forms. This reality is experienced through the mind (Greek nous, sometimes translated as intellect). For our purposes the key point is that this reality is non-physical and that reason, the faculty of mind (as distinct from brain), is the way we interface with what is real. From this perspective measurements wont tell you much about reality. This also means that all religious, spiritual systems, and metaphysics are, at least in a very general way, Platonic in the sense that they emphasis what is not physical as primary, more vital, or more real than what is seen with the physical eyes. Master Yoda is direct about his Platonism: “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”
The Neo-Platonists (Plato’s interpreters working several hundred years after him) focused on the religious implications of Plato. Chief among these was Plotinus, who said that the source of this non-physical reality is the One, which spills over from itself and fills reality with its essence (sounds a bit like the Force to me). Although the mind is the faculty by which we approach the One, it so transcends the limits of human reason that it cannot be known. Any attempts we make to understand or describe it fall woefully short because our thought and language are limited to what we can understand. Every attempt to articulate or even think about the One is necessarily faulty because our understanding is bound to our material existence in time and space – how do we think a thought that cannot be thought. The One exists beyond time and space, which is to say it is eternal. But we still have a problem of language because the One cannot even properly be said ‘to be’ because existence itself is too limited a condition for the all encompassing One. Here we come to the roots of aphophatic or negative theology. Since nothing can be said about the One, we can only say what it is not, but these negative statements are as equally inaccurate as the positive ones.
So we are in a negative loop of incomprehensibility that can bend the mind of the average westerner, but is old hat in India: “The Seers…call Him akshara, the Imperishable Reality. He is neither gross nor fine, neither short nor long, neither hot nor cold, neither light nor dark, neither of the nature of air, nor of space. He is without relations, without taste or smell, without eyes, ears, speech, mind, vigour, breath, mouth; he is without measure, without inside or outside. He experiences nothing and nothing experiences him” (Brhadaranyaka Upanishads 3.8.8). Note that not only is ultimate reality described in terms of what ‘He’ is not (which is not a description, but a negation, not to mention the whole masculine pronoun issue), but each negation comes with its opposite (neither hot nor cold, light nor dark) so that there’s no temptation of describing Imperishable Reality as the opposite of what it is not – both are equal faulty. This process of negation also works in the positive: he is light and he is also dark, thus reconciling opposites. Ultimate reality simultaneously is (and is not) it’s opposite, and by being both oppositions of every polarity (and not those oppositions) it dissolves into an ultimate, unlimited unity; what better to call this than ‘the One’. (For the record there’s no evidence that Plotinus got his ideas from India, but the parallels are striking.) If all these seems bizarre or groovy, it’s really nothing new for monotheists either if you stop to think about it, “‘for my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
The Christian mystic Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite developed Plotinus’ idea of the incomprehensible, indescribable, unknowable source. In his brief but very dense and rewarding treatise Mystical Theology, he discusses Moses’ ascent up Mount Sinai, and there he encounters the limits of the senses and reason in the face of the utter transcendence of God: “leave behind the senses and the operations of the intellect, and all things sensible and intellectual, and all things in the world of being and nonbeing, that you may arise by unknowing towards the union…with it that transcends all being and all knowledge. For by the unceasing and absolute renunciation of yourself and of all things you may be borne on high, through pure and entire self-abnegation, into the superessential Radiance of the Divine Darkness.”
Religion can be like the nervous musician frantically working on learning a part, but missing the music. Too often religion is reduced to morality, ethics, or (worst of all) doctrine – the actions and doings of faith, all of which bind us to the sensory-material world that can be defined and understood (i.e., measured). This misses what I would argue is the true mark of religion, which is to experience what Dionysius describes so well as the “Radiance of the Divine Darkness.” This experience comes not from doing or knowing or being anything, but rather form negating all knowledge, action and being, all of which are qualities of time and space. All of our conceptions about God are fundamentally flawed because when we conceive of something beyond conception, by definition, we are going to miss something. I think this is why the 13th century German mystic Meister Eckhart meant when he declared, “I pray God that he may quit me of god, for [his] unconditioned being is above god and all distinctions.” The goal is to transcend the material world and enter into the wholly other existence/non-existence of eternity. (To be sure ethics and morality are important, but they are results more than causes of this experience.)
If you hung in there this long and you felt like the system crashed, than you got the point – this type of negation is designed to crash rational thought and remind us that the mysteries of life and existence, and the ultimate source from which they spring is beyond our ability to comprehend, imagine or represent. Joseph Campbell sums all this up succinctly when he says that ultimate reality is “beyond names and forms.”
In his Celestial Hierarchies, Dionysius proposes that symbols are an essential way to interacting with that which is beyond names or forms. Psychologist Carl Jung defined a symbol as “the intimation of a meaning beyond the level of our present powers of comprehension,” while Art historian Anada Coomaraswamy describes symbolism as “the representation of a reality on a certain level of reference by a corresponding reality on another.” In other words, a symbol gives form to something we can’t understand or articulate and links the physical to the ideal. Symbols take many forms, but I think that what makes a proper symbol is the intent to use something material that we can encounter through the senses, to lead the mind beyond the senses to non-material reality.
St. John of Damascus, following Dionysius, explains the symbolic importance of religious icons: “Visible things are corporeal models which provide a vague understanding of intangible things…Anyone would say that our inability immediately to direct our thoughts to contemplation of higher things makes it necessary that familiar everyday media be utilized to give suitable form to what is formless, and make visible what cannot be depicted, so that we are able to construct understandable analogies…a certain perception takes place in the brain, prompted by bodily senses, which is then transmitted to the faculties of discernment, and adds to the treasury of knowledge something that was not there before” (On the Divine Images). Also influenced by Dionysius, Abbot Suger developed the Gothic style during his restoration of the Basilica St-Denis in Paris. The large stained-glass windows of the Gothic flood the church in light in order that, as his inscription on the church doors tells us, “the work should brighten the minds, so that they may travel, through the true lights to the True Light where Christ is the true door” so that “the dull mind rises to truth through that which is material and, in seeing this light, is resurrected from its former submersion.” This symbolic goal is characteristic of sacred art and architecture around the world and from many traditions. Again we turn to Campbell to neatly summaries, “Behind all these manifestations is the one radiance, which shines through all things. The function of art is to reveal this radiance through the created object” (The Power of Myth).
The symbols I am most interested in are sound-symbols. The ultimate goal of music making is not technical accuracy (despite my increasing stress about learning my parts!), but rather musicality. But what does it mean to be musical? We hear a lot of talk about feelings, emotions and self-expression in music circles, and to be direct I’m not very interested in any of those things. What I am interested in is the symbolic function of music (and more precisely sound) to reveal the “Radiance of the Divine Darkness.” I will even go so far as to say that this goal is at the core of my unique musical language. But fearing I have already exhausted the reader’s patience, I’ll leave the particulars until the next post. Besides, it’s time to practice.
With the revamp of my website, I've decided to add a blog, a move I've been considering for a while. One reason I’m starting is that I’m afraid that my performer bio (found on the 'About' page) is a bit of a failure. The point of a bio is not only to summarize professional accomplishments, but also to explain what makes one's music distinctive, and why in a world overwhelmed by art and information anyone should care. In the end I’m afraid that my bio does not fully articulated my specialized aesthetic and (apparently) unique perspective on music, and does not explain to you, the reader/listener, why my music merits your consideration. With this in mind (coupled with the fact that our civilization is moving online), a blog seemed like the best way to go.
My music has been described as everything from 'shockingly modern' to ‘nervous music’ to (my personal favorite) 'abstract Randy-ism.' While my work is well received by enthusiast of what is alternately called contemporary, experimental or avant-garde music, others listeners are baffled. To be fair my music does contradict many of the expectations of traditional music, but this is not simply some nihilistic attack or acting out against 'regular' music (ok, there might be a little of that in there), rather there are specific rationales and goals that explain why the music sounds like it does; these reasons are musical (or perhaps better called sonic), aesthetic and philosophical, and for me the discussion of them is as engaging as creating the music itself.
One of the provocative features of experimental music is that it often challenges the very notion of what music is. As our musical expectations are confronted, we often find that we have never really thought about them – never considered why we think one sound is music and another sound is noise, how our certain musical knowledge is determined by a mix of social norms and personal bias, whether music is a feeling or an idea. As we consider these questions our sense of musical absolutism weavers, our resistance to certain sounds weakens, and we open to new sonic possibilities. Once we start down this line of questioning we might start to wonder what’s the point of music at all – and if we can’t explain or don’t really know what music is (when we thought we knew all along) we might begin to wonder what else we’ve been taking for granted all this time; this in turn might give us pause to wonder how we actually know what we ‘know.’ And down the rabbit hole we go...
It turns out that in addressing these apparently musical questions, I have gone far beyond music itself to issues of aesthetics, religion, mythology, symbology, ontology and epistemology. Writers that have had their influence include (in alphabetical-ish order): Robert Bly, Boethius, Titus Burckhardt, John Cage, Joseph Campbell, Ananda Commaraswamy, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Mircea Eliade, Marsilio Ficino, Joscelyn Godwin, St. John of Damascus, Terrance McKenna, Carl Jung, Plato, Plotinus, Frits Staal, Władysław Tatarkiewicz, D. P. Walker, and Frances Yates, among others.
I teach music at a liberal arts school. Studying music in this environment means the possibility, even the expectation of being a thoughtful musician – of going beyond working with and creating sounds (as addictive to that as I am) to the ideas which are manifested in those sounds, and, in return, shaped by them; to be absorbed by the perennial questions of ‘why’ and ‘what if’ and give unfettered play to the imagination; to find a format of presenting music that goes beyond the regular protocol of perform-applause-repeat; to directly integrate what is often assumed to be the distinct worlds of art and ideas.
As this blog grows, I hope to delve into these issues in greater detail and, in so doing, better explain what it is that I’m up to as a musician. I welcome you to join me.