Review: How to Listen to and Understand Great Music

Review: How to Listen to and Understand Great Music

How to Listen to and Understand Great Music by Robert Greenberg

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


As I wrote in my review of the standard music history textbook, writers of survey material find themselves in an uneviable position: threading the needle between technical description and subjective response. In other words, a textbook writer must somehow discuss the music objectively, but with an absolute minimum of specialized vocabulary. As a result, even the best writers are bound to fall a little short of perfection.

But Robert Greenberg resolves this dilemma by avoiding writing altogether. Indeed, the audiobook format is arguably a far better medium than paper for a survey course on music. Rather than resort to scores or diagrams, Greenberg can simply play a recording of the music; and if he needs to break it down, he can play sections on his piano. The result is more integrated and more satisfactory than the textbook approach. What is abstract on the page—motivic development, thematic contrast, timbrel coloring—can be clear as sunlight when heard.

If the format is ideally suited to the subject, the man is ideally suited to the occasion. Robert Greenberg is a wild ball of energy—joking, screaming, whispering, laughing, and blabbing—all while waving and jabbing his arms about. Seeing him lecture is a performance in itself, as he goes the whole forty-five minutes without a single misspoken word. While some might find him grating, and others merely hokey, his animating presence helps to make this most abstract of all art forms into something eminently approachable.

But Greenberg would be little more than a clown if he were not, as well, an extremely knowledgeable and passionate musician. His examples are all well-chosen to illustrate his chosen lessons, and his explanations are both insightful and easy to follow. The lectures work so well because he can immediately exemplify any point simply by playing the relevant bit of music, thus sharpening our ears. Of course, this being a survey course, he does not go into great detail in any one area, and there are many omissions. But considering the time constraints, I think it would be hard to improve upon these lectures.

After finishing the aforementioned music textbook, I wondered whether language might have something to do with music development. I am gratified to find that Greenberg, at least, thinks that it does. The dominance of German-language composers in these lectures is overwhelming. After German, the composers’ languages by frequency are Italian, French, Latin, Russian, and English. Personally, I found it striking that there was not a single Spanish composer even alluded to in the course. Certainly you could not do a survey of visual art or literature with the same omission.

I am not subscribing to some kind of linguistic determinism (though the idea that linguistic patterns influencing musical patterns is intriguing); I am only remarking on the strangeness that one culture, even one city—Vienna—could be so dominant, and another equally affluent culture so comparatively minor.

This is all rather beside the point. I am very glad to have listened to these lectures, and even a little sad to be done with them. Luckily for us, Greenberg is an extremely prolific teacher, and has seemingly endless courses on every area of Western concert music. Where does he find the time to conduct, compose, and play his own music?



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Woodstock: 50 Years Later

Woodstock: 50 Years Later

This past Friday I went to Bethel Woods for the fiftieth anniversary of the Woodstock Music Festival. Ringo Starr and his All Starr band was headlining. Each of us had a special connection to the event. My mother grew up nearby, and was able to attend one day of the original concert, seeing Joe Cocker perform “With a Little Help from My Friends.” My brother and I, meanwhile, had gotten into the music from the sixties in high school, and had watched the Woodstock film many times. We had even seen Richie Havens, who opened the original festival, twice—once here in Bethel Woods. Besides that, all of us are devoted Beatles fans.

My mother stressed for months preceding the event. There were so many instructions—parking passes, when to arrive, what you can take in, and so on. She had called the organizers several times in order to make sure that we were properly prepared. Even so, when we arrived (after taking the same back roads my mother had taken, fifty years ago) we were promptly informed by a state trooper that we needed an additional parking pass, the “green one,” even though we already had one they had mailed to us. To get it, we had to drive over a mile to the information tent, asking for directions several times along the way (the original trooper forgot the name of the road, which was Huckle Puddy).

This done, we circled back and were finally allowed into the parking lot, being waved on by dozens of attendants. The walk to the venue took us past a great many signs, each one adding to the ever-increasing list of prohibited items and activities. No weapons, of course, or “any object that may be used as a projectile” (quite a broad category), nor professional cameras, posters, banners, selfie sticks, iPads, or lawn chairs. If you wanted to bring a camera, it could not have an interchangeable lens. If you wanted to bring a bag, it had to be plastic and transparent, allowing the staff to easily see what was inside. Among the list of permitted items were umbrellas, strollers, and “two 20oz. factory sealed bottles of water per person.” On the list of prohibited items were musical instruments.

Before going inside, we had to pass through metal detectors (no precaution can be omitted in the age of mass shootings), and then have our tickets scanned. After a slight wait, we were allowed inside. 

The Bethel Woods Center for the Arts is a cultural complex located on the original grounds of the 1969 Woodstock Festival. The site was opened partially to combat the economic downturn of the region. Years ago, the Catskill Mountains were a popular vacation spot for those living in New York City, especially in the summer when the city became unbearably hot. But events conspired to make this option ever less popular. The widespread use of air conditioning made it unnecessary to escape to the mountains, and the rise in cheaper air travel made destinations further afield more popular. Resorts and hotels closed down, leaving the region devoid of an economic heart.

Bethel Woods has several venues, including a small indoor one (where I saw Richie Havens) and the outdoor pavilion, big enough (with lawn space) for around 10,000 people. (Since you cannot bring in your own lawn chair, you must rent one from Bethel Woods if you sit on the lawn.) This is where Ringo was to perform. The complex also has a museum dedicated to the sixties: counterculture, Vietnam War protests, the Civil Rights Movements, and so on. I visited this museum back when I was in high school, and I remember an old Volkswagen Bus on display, as if it were an antique horse-drawn carriage or a space shuttle.

Riche Havens at the original concert.

On this day there were tents set up all around the space, selling knick knacks, Woodstock paraphernalia, and overpriced food and drinks. A single can of beer cost $14. There were a couple cordoned-off bar areas that only catered to visitors with special tickets, who sat behind the barrier on plush chairs drinking overpriced drinks. People wearing tie-dye shirts and bell bottom jeans, with flowers sticking out of colorful bandannas, strolled around sporting bags and other merch that featured the iconic Woodstock symbol, a guitar with a dove perched on it. The average age has increased quite a bit since the first festival, though not quite by fifty years. In general the crowd was overwhelmingly white—more so, I suspect, than the original crowd, if I can judge from photos and videos. Despite threatening rain, it was a fine, sunny day.

When the original Woodstock Festival was held, this land was a dairy farm, owned by Max Yasgur. Like the anniversary concert, the original one was planned to make money. In today’s dollars, tickets for all three days cost well over $100. About 200,000 attendees were expected. But the organizers had difficulty finding a venue. The town was opposed to the concert, even though the organizers lied and said that only 50,000 would come. By the time they secured Max Yasgur’s farm, three days before the concert, they did not have enough time to build the fences. The event became, de facto, free; and more than 400,000 people came. Logistically it was a nightmare, with massive traffic jams, insufficient food, water, and toilets, and muddy fields caused by the rain. What prevented the event from becoming a calamity was a spirit of cooperation and camaraderie that prevailed among the concert-goers.

In short, the event became an iconic moment in the counterculture movement of the sixties. And though it was, financially, a disaster for the organizers, the 1970 documentary of the festival more than recouped the expenses.

Nothing I could write would capture the amazing energy of the original festival better than the documentary. While the youth were boiling over with indignation at the horrors of racism and the Vietnam War, they were simultaneously filled with an extraordinary hopefulness, actuated by the belief that music and love could herald in a better world.

No event, then, could be further in spirit from the original festival than the anniversary concert. Hippiedom has passed from counterculture to kitsch. If the original event was a logistical disaster, this one was impeccably planned. If the original event did not turn a profit, this one certainly did. The hippies were filled with a do-it-yourself ethos; they thought that they could escape the perils of commercial culture by creating things by hand, by getting back in touch with nature, by cooperating rather than competing with each other. Now, hippie garb can be bought at the gift shop, for inflated prices; and Bethel Woods transparently squeezes its visitors, by prohibiting them from bringing anything from home into the event.

The original attendees slid around on the mud and bathed in the river; they entertained themselves with drum circles. You cannot bring a guitar or a drum into Bethel Woods, and to see the music you sit on either a rented lawn chair or within the concrete pavilion. The hippies tried to reject capitalism. Now, two jumbo-trons beside the stage play commercials and display ads before, between, and after the show. And the contrasts did not stop there.

The first band to play was Blood, Sweat, and Tears, who in another iteration had played at the original festival. The band’s line-up has changed quite a bit over the years; and nobody currently in the group was present at Woodstock. In fact, the current vocalist, Keith Paluso, was years away from being born in 1969. The 30-year-old singer rose to fame as a contestant on the NBC show, The Voice; before that, he informed us, he had been a park ranger in Tennessee. “So don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t be anything you want,” he said to a cheering crowd. But I wonder if the hippies of 1969 would have thought that being chosen on a corporate TV show by a cast of super-rich celebrity judges was a really inspiring origin-story.

The band played well, sticking to its signature style of jazz-rock—a fusion of exotic harmonies, elaborate solos, and a steady backbeat. Paluso said that they played nearly the same set as the band did fifty years ago (though their set wasn’t captured on the documentary).

The next to perform was Edgar Winter, brother of the famous guitarist Johnny Winter, and famous in his own right for the hit song “Frankenstein” in the seventies. The aging rocker played with a power trio, guitar, bass, and drums, while he switched between synthesizer, saxophone, and timbales, all the while singing in his surprisingly powerful falsetto (he’s 72 years old, after all). His act featured a lot of jamming, with Winter playing call-and-response with each of the instrumentalists in turn, scatting a lick and having the player repeat it. I thought it was a little much.

Finally Ringo came out, accompanied by his All Starr Band. The idea of this band is that Ringo gathers together former members of prominent rock groups, and each of them performs songs from the high points of their careers. It is like a retirement home for aging rockers. The current line-up features Colin Hay, of Men at Work; Hamish Stuart, of Average White Band; Steve Lukather, of Toto; and Gregg Rolie, who played with Santana at the original Woodstock. During their set, then, Colin Hay sang “Land Down Under,” Hamish Stuart sang “Pick up the Pieces,” Steve Lukather sang “Rosanna,” and Gregg Rolie sang “Evil Ways.” Ringo, for his part, sang several of his hits from the Beatles, including “Yellow Submarine” and “With a Little Help from My Friends,” as well as some hits from his solo career, like “Photograph.”

Ringo was charming as ever, effortlessly funny even if occasionally sounding out-of-tune, such as when he asked “Are there any young girls in the audience?” before singing “You’re Sixteen.” In the age of Jeffrey Epstein, this does not sound like an innocent question. The other members played and sang well, too, delivering a crowd-pleasing performance. I was happy to see Ringo, not only since I think he was one of the keys to the Beatles’ success (despite his reputation, his drumming was innovative and crucial to the band’s sound), but also because this meant that I had seen both living Beatles (having seen Paul McCartney in Yankee Stadium, years ago). For a man of 79, he looks and sounds great.

While I do not wish to disparage the music of the anniversary, I think it also illustrates a major shift since the days of Woodstock. Rock music used to be the affair of amateurs, who figured out how to play and sing by themselves. Nowadays, rock music has been professionalized. The musicians at this concert played with a technically immaculate polish that was very different from the original generation of musicians. As a contrast I might offer Richie Havens, a man with no musical education who created an entirely original way to play the guitar, tuning it to an open chord, barring it with his thumb, and strumming like a madman. Or I might mention Jimi Hendrix, whose self-taught style has remained basically inimitable. The guitarists who played at the anniversary, by contrast, were studied professionals, capable of playing flawless blues solos, jazz chords, or funk riffs. They could sound like anyone, in other words, except themselves.

So what are we to make of this immense contrast? In truth, it is not surprising that the youthful hippie culture puttered out. People get older, more successful, more integrated, and more conservative. Besides, such an outpouring of naïve hope was perhaps unsustainable. In any case, as a method of social change, the hippie way was rather self-indulgent and hedonistic, hoping that drugs and dancing was enough to change the world.

The change also illustrates the immense power of the culture to absorb a counter-culture, commercializing everything to the extent that it loses its teeth and even its identity. We actively buy into this commercialization. Money is basically irresistible.

Yet for all the naiveté, the fuzzy thinking, the hedonism, and the self-righteous nonsense of the hippie movement, it is difficult not to regret the disappearance of that immense, hopeful energy, that impossible dream of ushering in a new world. Now we have many of the same problems as the hippies had—foreign wars, racism, exploitative capitalism—but without the spirit of cooperation, inventiveness, and optimism that might allow us to push back. For Woodstock was not about the trappings of hippiedom, or even ultimately about the music. It was about a dream.

A Conversation with a Music Teacher

A Conversation with a Music Teacher

I have been teaching music classes with José Ramón since October. As a teacher, he really takes advantage of the available time: dividing the class between performance and theory. In the performance section we accompany the kids on guitar as they play songs on Glockenspiels, such as Gary Jules’s “Mad World.” In the theory section we learn about how music works—key signatures, meters, dynamics, instruments, and so on. Last week JoseRa (as people call him) sat down with me to tell me more about music education in Spain.


ROY: Tell me about your background. What did you study in university?

JOSERA: I got a bachelor’s degree in the history of music (musicology) and in the philology of Romance languages. I also got a professional degree from a conservatory, in classical guitar and music theory, harmony, counterpoint, and so on. And I have a masters in comparative literature.

R: So you have four degrees, in musicology, philology, guitar performance, and comparative literature?

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JR: That’s right.

R: What kind of literature?

JR: The masters was focused on Mediterranean literature, specifically in the Iberian Peninsula—Catalan, Basque, Gallego—and their connections with the wider Mediterranean culture. I did this degree because I wanted to diversify my CV. I’m very interested in the humanities in general. For example I studied quite a bit of philosophy, too.

R: How did you get interested in music originally?

JR: It was because of my neighborhood. I came from a working-class area, and in my neighborhood there were a lot of young boys and girls who played guitar. And we were very interested in underground music. I started to play guitar, and I tried to play Lou Reed, the Velvet Underground, David Bowie. That was very hard here. We didn’t have any video recordings available. In those days Spain was a very closed country. It was the last years of Franco. We couldn’t see the musicians, we could only listen to the music and try to imitate how it sounded.

R: Why weren’t there videos? Was it censored?

JR: No, it wasn’t illegal. There just weren’t a lot available and it was too expensive for us. For example we commonly listened to pirated versions of cassettes. In my high school, when I was around fourteen years old, if one student had a record everyone else in class had a copy too. We also used to listen to the radio station. But if you tried to imitate the music by just listening, it was very hard. I would go to concerts and try to stand in front of the guitarist, look at their hands, and try to do the same. But when I got home I didn’t know. It was hard.

R: Were there any bands or musicians that really caught your attention?

JR: Oh yes. For example, The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, and some Spanish bands, like Leño, La Banda Trapera del Río, which is a punk band from Cataluña. And Sex Pistols, Bowie, and new bands like Chameleon. Psychedelic music, punk rock.

R: How old were you when you started playing guitar?

JR: I was twelve, more or less. But I started playing seriously when I was fourteen. My first guitar was my brother’s guitar, a Spanish guitar (with nylon strings). To buy my first electric guitar I had to save money for four years. It was very expensive to buy a guitar here. Very difficult.

R: Now that you’re a teacher, do you still play and perform?

JR: Yes, nowadays I play with a band. But I can’t play classical music because I don’t have enough time. It’s very depressing. Because you know how to play but you don’t have enough time to play it how you want to. In my rock band we play covers of Spanish, English, and American bands, like the Strokes, Sex Pistols, Thin Lizzy, the Rolling Stones, and a song by Judas Priest. There are five of us in the band. We’re called “Disorder” (Desorden in Spanish).

R: Can you give me some idea of music classes in Spain. What is the curriculum like?

JR: We have a problem because, in Spain, there isn’t a tradition of learning music in public schools. And it’s very difficult, because the students don’t think that music is important. In primary school there are only 45 minutes per week, and the teacher can’t do a lot of things in that time. Here in high school, in the second year [American eighth grade], we try to explain musical terminology, and play recorders and xylophones. In third year we study the history of music and listen to some pieces of classical music. In the fourth year music is not compulsory, it’s an elective. For me it’s more attractive for them; we learn about rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, musicals—modern music.

R: In the United States, schools often have many performing groups. For example, in my high school we had at least five separate performance groups (band, orchestra, chorus, etc.). Why isn’t this the case in Spain?

JR: It’s impossible here, because we don’t have this kind of tradition. If you want your children to do an activity like this, you need to pay a private academy to do it after school. Instruments and other resources are very expensive. And our national policy is not in favor of such programs. Of course, it would be a good thing to have these performance groups, but here it’s impossible. It’s strange because Spain is a country that has exported great musicians. But people here don’t think that music is an important skill.

R: Why do you think we have music classes in high school? Is it really necessary?

JR: I think it’s an important subject, and not just because it’s my subject. Music helps you to concentrate, work together… It is holistic knowledge. So on the one hand it teaches general skills. On the other hand music itself is very important. Everyone listens to a lot of music. But many people don’t want to learn it. They think that music is just for entertainment. This is a mistake.

R: In my case I think that music classes helped me to become a more dedicated and focused person. Music requires a lot of practice.

JR: Yes, music has a lot of benefits.

R: What are some of the challenges of teaching music to adolescents?

JR: Oh, to maintain their attention. Nowadays they are very narrow-minded. They don’t know a lot of things about modern pop music, and they don’t want to learn more about it. You play punk rock and they think it’s very strange. Another challenge is to convince them that music is important in itself. Music has the magic touch, so to speak, that allows you to discover more things. It is a sentimental education, important in the development of your emotions. Music can take you out of your comfort zone. Arts in general do this. And many people don’t like to study music and the arts for this reason. Art changes your life; and people don’t want their lives changed.

R: Some people insist that they have “no talent” for music. Do you think that’s true?

JR: I don’t agree with this idea. I think you can discover your place in music. We have this idea from the Romantic age of the musical genius. If you are going to do law, medicine, economics, you don’t think you need to be a genius in these fields. But people that start studying music think they have to be geniuses. This is wrong. Amateurs are the base of any artform. All people can play some instrument. They just need to discover which one. Maybe not everyone can be Mozart, Beethoven, or Miles Davis, but they can do it.

R: Do you think music classes benefit society in general?

JR: Yes. The upper classes always try to keep music for themselves. And this is because music helps us to develop our skills, our emotions, our culture, and this can be dangerous.

R: Would you recommend any Spanish musicians, styles, or bands that Americans might not know of?

JR: Nowadays Spanish pop has a good level. There are some bands that I think are quite good, with well-written lyrics. People can be very demanding with the meaning and poetry of lyrics in Spain. Bands like El Columpio Asesino, León Benavente, Mucho, Perro, Leño, Radio Futura… In classical music one of the best musicians of the twentieth century is Andreś Segovia, the famous guitarist, or Jośe Luis Turina, who composes atonal music. A philosophy teacher here sings in a good indie band, Ornamento y Delito. Check it out.

Review: History of Western Music

Review: History of Western Music

A History of Western MusicA History of Western Music by Donald Jay Grout

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The audience for “serious” music—art music of a certain complexity that requires some effort to understand—has never been more than a small fraction of the population.

What seems like a long time ago, I worked in a university music department as a professor’s office assistant. At the time, I was trying to improve my meager understanding of art history by reading E.H. Gombrich’s excellent Story of Art. Seeing art as an integral part of civilized society, in the context of historical change—rather than as decontextualized globs of color on canvass—really helped me to appreciate it in a way I could not before; and I wondered if the same might not be possible with music.

One day I asked my boss if there was a book similar to Gombrich’s about music, and he responded with one word: “Grout.” Finally I’ve gotten around to following up his recommendation.

A History of Western Music is the standard music history textbook in use on college campuses, at least in the United States. Its first edition was written by Donald Jay Grout; later editions were revised, first by Claude V. Palisca, and then by J. Peter Burkholder. I bought the fifth edition, mainly because it was cheap. Between the previous edition and this one, Palisca had entirely rewritten the book, removing the last remaining traces of Grout’s prose. So in this review I’ll being talking about Palisca.

Any author of a general music history textbook deserves some sympathy. First, it is proverbially difficult to write about music. The poor writer is forced to choose between a vague string of adjectives, metaphors, and images, discussing the music’s subjective effects; or he can resort to the technical language of music analysis, which at least allows him to be precise and objective, but at the cost of being inaccessible to music newbies.

Somewhere between these two extremes is the narrow path that Palisca tries to tread, sometimes precariously—veering too much in one direction, and then too much in the other—but for the most part ably. Even so, this middle path carries its own cost: dryness. Since Palisca can neither describe his own tastes and aesthetic responses, nor make any incisive analyses with music theory, he is forced to be a somewhat unexciting guide—the fate of most textbook writers.

The other major challenge is compression. How do you fit 2,000 years of music history into 800 pages? How do you give a decent overview of medieval plainchant, Italian opera, German romanticism, and American minimalism, while also providing the names, biographies, and accomplishments of the major composers, as well as integrating the relevant cultural history—all in enough time to teach it in two semesters? The obvious answer is that you can’t, and Palisca doesn’t. There is simply too much material to do justice to it all. But he does succeed in giving his reader a generous spoonful of all the main dishes.

If I measure this book by my own progress, I must deem it a success. Beforehand, I had only a scattered and incidental knowledge of the major composers. I could rattle off a few names, but I didn’t know who influenced whom, who lived when, who was part of what movement; and I could only name about two composers who lived before J.S. Bach. Now, not only do I feel much more knowledgeable, but the chronological framework will make it easier to learn more.

One of my most pleasant discoveries was the wealth of wonderful music that was written before J.S. Bach even took his first breath, in 1685. There was Leonin and Perotín, Guillaume de Mauchaut, Guillaume Dufay, John Dunstable, Henry Purcell, Claudio Monteverdi, and Arcangelo Corelli, to name just a few of my favorites. Most surprising for me was how much I enjoy sacred music. Like the shadowy interior of a gothic cathedral, the music is tranquil, meditative, and otherwordly—pregnant with tragedy and hope.

So this book does its job. What prevents it from being as great as, say, E.H. Gombrich’s history of art, Kenneth Clarke’s history of civilization, or Bertrand Russell’s history of philosophy, is the lack of authorial personality. In all three of those works, the author is not afraid to opine and speculate. Palisca, by contrast, rarely offers his own judgment, and does not venture to make any theories. His writing is neutral and plain, simply serving up information. There is nothing wrong with this, of course; and many would think that it’s the correct approach. But I think that when you’re dealing with an art form, it is neither possible nor even desirable to be “objective.” Gombrich, Clarke, and Russell are experts, and thus have refined taste. Seeing how they think about their subject, and how they feel about it, is as much an education as the information they present.

As I went through this book, I downloaded and listened to most of the representative pieces discussed in each chapter. I ended up with a long playlist (which you can see here), which I replayed over the course of few weeks before writing this review. I recommend that any curious listener do the same. Several historical trends seem apparent when you do this.

First is the obvious rise of instrumental music, as music shifts from purely vocal, to vocal with instrumental accompaniment, to mainly instrumental. The second is the rise in the prestige associated with secular music, and the attendant fall in the importance of sacred music. The composer becomes increasingly important as time goes on, exerting ever more control over the performance, while the performer becomes merely an executor rather than a collaborator. With many notable exceptions, art music also seems to grow in harmonic and rhythmic complexity, at least in the time since Haydn and Mozart, until the traditional rules of harmony break down entirely.

Something strange happens in the twentieth century, especially in the second half. Music—along with literature and art—seems to split into a dichotomy: erudite and inaccessible, and popular and oversimplified. The first camp, represented most perfectly, perhaps, by Milton Babbitt, write music that does not make sense to the untrained human ear, while popular songwriters make catchy tunes with little depth. This division seems to correspond to sources of income: the university patronizes experimental music; while popular music is obviously commercial. To me it seems that neither of these extremes are desirable, but I don’t know a way out of this dilemma.

Now that I know more about European history than ever before, I can’t help drawing connections between composers’ styles and their cultural moment. The impish, dancing, and perfectly balanced melodies of Mozart now remind me of Voltaire’s prose, suffused with Enlightenment ideals of harmony and wit. I also mentally associate the fall of religious vocal music, and the concomitant rise of secular instrumental music, with widespread changes in attitude towards nature: Nature went from being conceived as animated by intelligence and oriented around humankind, to an impartial force, indifferent to humanity, driven only by mechanical laws.

I also wonder why so many first-rate composers—Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Brahms, to name only some—are from German-speaking countries? (And I might also ask why relatively few first-rate painters have arisen from these same countries.) Is this something to do with language? With the Protestant Reformation? I’m sure there are a few monographs about this, somewhere.

To bring this review back to its purported subject, I think that this book is a competent, well-researched, and intelligent overview of the history of western music. And with this rather bland statement, and with this song, I will make my final bow.

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Quotes & Commentary #31: James

Quotes & Commentary #31: James

In mystical literature such self-contradictory phrases as ‘dazzling obscurity,’ ‘whispering silence,’ ‘teeming desert,’ are continually met with. They prove that not conceptual-speech, but music rather, is the element through which we are best spoken to by mystical truth.

—William James

William James’s book on religion, The Varieties of Religious Experience, is of mixed quality. Penetrating insights are buried in mountains of redundant quotations, and a mass of anecdotal evidence is substituted for a coherent system. After putting it down, the only chapter that made a deep impression on me was his chapter on mysticism.

Before that, I had no notion of mysticism as distinct from organized religion; and yet it is quite discrete. Instead of focusing on external rituals, communally observed, the mystic focuses on his own private experiences; and instead of attempting to translate religious experiences into a mythology or a dogma, the mystic more often reverts to poetry or song to convey the intensity of his private rapture. Mysticism is naturally antipathetic, or at the very least indifferent, to organized religion. A mystic needs no clergyman to access the divine. No intermediary clerics, priests, or theologians are necessary to translate the voice of God into profane speech.

One especially striking feature of mysticism is its ubiquity. While dogmas, creeds, rituals, and mythologies vary greatly, the basic notions and motifs of mysticism are encountered across the world. I have encountered Islamic mysticism in Al-Ghazali, Catholic mysticism in St. Teresa, Hindu mysticism in the Upanishads, and Neoplatonist mysticism in Plotinus. The Tao Te Ching of ancient China is full of the self-contradictory phrases described by William James, such as the famous opening: “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the Constant Tao. The name that can be named is not the Constant Name.”

The common theme running through these works is that the mystic, through intense focus, can look past the world as we know it and gaze upon a higher reality, a divine vision normally invisible to earthly eyes. Right now I am reading a short book by the Hindu monk, Swami Vivekananda, in which he describes a method for attaining exactly this. Once you experience this higher reality, religious doubts become irrelevant; your religion becomes a matter of experience and not of faith.

So if mystics have experienced the divine, why don’t they tell us about it? The problem is that the vision is ineffable. This is why, as William James points out, mystic poets often resort to contradictory language as a way of evoking this mysterious essence. The mythologist Joseph Campbell says almost exactly the same thing: “The person who has had a mystical experience knows that all the symbolic expressions of it are faulty. The symbols don’t render the experience, they suggest it.” St. Teresa of Ávila, for example, had to resort to metaphor after metaphor in her manual on mysticism in order to communicate the experience.

In capturing the mystical experience, visual art would have the same problem as does language, since the artist would be attempting to picture the invisible. Music has the advantage of being neither symbolic nor representative. As sound, it is purely sensuous, perhaps a direct expression of emotion. At the very least sound does not tempt its hearers into confusing the symbol for the symbolized, as language and painting might, and so it can be more safely used to transmit ineffable experiences. Music doesn’t communicate emotions, it evokes them in its audience; it doesn’t represent feelings, it re-creates them in its hearers.

The mystical potential of music was memorably illustrated for me in the autobiography of Bryan Magee. A logical, educated man, and one constitutionally antipathetic to religion, Magee nonetheless describes being so transported by music that he felt he was experiencing another plane of reality, one where there is neither time nor space. This experience was so strong that he felt sure it provided him with some clue about the ultimate nature of reality. But he was frustrated by his inability to translate this feeling into a logical argument. Once again, the mystic insight eludes symbolic expression.

Philosophically, the interesting question is this: to what extent can these intense visions can be trusted? It is beyond doubt that mystics can have ecstatic experiences; the question is what causes them. The sensation of divinity and rapture is so intense that the mystic usually cannot bring himself to doubt its veracity. But this subjective feeling of certainty is a poor guide, to say the least, of what can be safely trusted. This is not just a scientific principle; the Catholic Church was well aware of the unreliability of private visions. This is why Saint Teresa’s book is full of strategies for determining whether your vision is from Satan or God, and careful instructions about how to proceed within the Catholic hierarchy once you have a vision.

Occam’s razor would seem to demand that a naturalistic explanation be preferred for mystic visions. The simplest explanation, and the explanation that most easily harmonizes with our current scientific understanding, is that these ecstatic experiences can be traced to something happening in the brain. Nevertheless, I find it difficult not to sympathize with mystics. If I had an experience that was more intense than anything I’ve seen or heard in my waking live, I think that I would also be unwilling to doubt what I saw.