Eternal Song

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

An issue of the Animal Man comic book published in 1990 includes a surreal sequence of panels showing a group of second-rate superheroes in an unusual state of self-reflection. On the brink of being discontinued, these now-irrelevant heroes descend into panicThe story’s enigmatic and sometimes-psychedelic writer, Grant Morrison, depicts the anxiety as these characters become aware that their storylines are in peril. One of them shouts forlornly, “If they write me out man, I ain’t gonna be seen again!” A more introspective figure consoles the crowd of hapless crusaders: “We can all still be seen. Our lives are replayed every time someone reads us. We can never die. We outlive our creators.”

The notion of eternality through revisitation resembles the “eternal return,” a theory popularized by religious historian Mircea Eliade. Ritual practices, explained Eliade, return participants to the mythic time in which the events commemorated purportedly took place. A ceremony marking the creation of the world or defeat of an existential enemy, for instance, brings a congregation into that extraordinary moment. In more than just a symbolic sense, each ritual repetition relives the sacred past. Like soon-to-be canceled heroes who achieve immortality on the re-read comic book page, periodic rituals enable myths to outlive the civilizations that produced them. They procure an eternal life transcending the constraints of linear time.

It is debated whether this cyclical idea of time should be viewed literally or as an inflated conception of nostalgia. Bernard Lewis, for one, has warned us of the human tendency to creatively remember, recover and reinvent our cultural heritages. Whatever the case, there is a powerful “as if” in play during ritual repetition, perhaps best articulated in the Passover seder when Jews of every era proclaim, “We were slaves in the land of Egypt.”

This phenomenon occurs as well in (non-improvised) music, especially when replayed on recordings or replicated with reasonable precision in live performances. Songs often transport us to where we first heard them or to a phase of life when they held an important place. Old feelings, old relationships, old situations are resurrected and made present through sound. As long as we continue to hear those songs—and each time we do—that bygone period is restored to vibrant immediacy.

Time-tested music also serves as an intergenerational pathway, promoting a real or imagined sense of continuity between past and present. Songs known (or thought) to be deeply woven into the societal fabric bring us face to face with long-dead ancestors and with a world we did not inhabit but feel viscerally connected to.

This is not the extent of how music connects us to eternal time. Further reflection would yield further indications of this effect. And it bears reiterating that these musical sensations are not experienced simply as emotional memories, but as the past made present once more. On a practical level, this explains the regularity with which recurring repertoires are affixed to communal rituals, both religious and secular. Such music helps tie participants to the activity itself and to the flow of history in which similar activities have already occurred and will occur again. Succinctly put, eternal myths are made eternal in part through eternal tones.

Although this discussion of return implies endlessness, it is not a static process. As we have learned from countless time travel tales of popular fiction, inserting ourselves into events that have already taken place invariably introduces new elements and causes new variations, subtle and not-so-subtle. So it is with time relived on the pages of comic books, retold in rituals and contained in repeated songs. Each of us is a constantly changing accumulation of thoughts, feelings and experiences, and every time we return to the familiar—the eternal—we approach it from a different vantage point.

Far from discrediting the notion of timelessness, the changes precipitated when our current selves encounter the perpetual past can be understood as the dynamic anatomy of eternity. Without this potential for freshness, the eternal return would hardly be longed for.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

1 thought on “Eternal Song

  1. Bob

    Your observations are very interesting and you state things that seem to me to be true. I am “into” of depth psychology and tribal cultures, and so on, and in those fields your observations ring true. A musical construction can become the thread that draws any and all generations into their own experience of it, and that experience is at the same time universal – insofar as the music being heard always has the same inherent substance and produces the same physical manifestations of the notes and expressions involved, (the vibrations and other effects on the air and other elements of matter found when the piece is played), which become the axis the cyclical experience spins around, and individual value, because each psyche hears it in a different way.

    I would like to add one personal twist to this, though. You say, “This phenomenon occurs as well in (non-improvised) music, especially when replayed on recordings or replicated with reasonable precision in live performances”. I have found that, for me at least, improvised music which is recorded (and maybe you meant just improvised music live and not from a recording, come to think of it) triggers memory and cyclical immersion too, as the very notes of the improvisation are engraved in my psyche as much as any actual “literal” melody is. The whole sequence of notes that the musician pulled out of the air, so to speak, becomes the bedrock of what I experience each time I hear that particular recording.

    I have found sheet music books where solos of the great jazz geniuses, like Bill Evans and Dave Brubeck, are memorialized and “eternalized” in written form. The improvisation really IS the musical piece in those cases.

    “This phenomenon occurs as well in (non-improvised) music, especially when replayed on recordings” could legitimately be changed to “… occurs in both improvised and non-improvised music. In the case of improvised music, it occurs when the same specific recording is the one that is always played. What was improvisation becomes, through the medium of recording, the foundation that gives rise to cyclical experience.” Etcétera, etcétera, in the words of the King of Siam.

    Just that. I hope I made my point clearly.

    Thanks again for broaching this subject, and doing it so well.


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