Tag Archives: William James

Music Complete and Incomplete

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “Music, like time, is measured but immeasurable, is composed but indivisible” (Either/Or, 1843). A subject in William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) compared a spiritual experience to “the effect of some great orchestra when all the separate notes have melted into the swelling harmony.” These quotations speak to the immediate and all-consuming effect of music. While musical elements can be distilled and analyzed through the study of a recording or score, their collective impact defies mechanical examination.

Such is the nature of musical completeness. In an instant too brief to quantify, the entirety of one’s being is affected by an indivisible sonic force. The congealed parts of the musical whole—pitches, rhythms, timbres, durations, dynamics—stimulate the inseparable components of the person—mind, body, emotions. It is a holistic experience.

Yet, there is also a sense in which music is incomplete. Both Kierkegaard and James’ subject allude to an attribute common to all music: evanescence. Much of music’s effect comes from its instantaneous materialization. It tends to enter our perception without warning and manipulate us with or without our permission. However, just as quickly as it enters our awareness, it disappears. Each passing beat, each successive phrase, each fleeting chord evaporates as soon as it is heard. The sounds emerge without physical substance, and leave no physical trace behind. Of course, efforts can be made to transcribe or stipulate a performance with written notation; but this is only an approximation. Every performance is unique.

Something similar occurs with recorded music (and to a lesser degree synthesized music). Though recordings can capture musical occurrences and replay them with near precision, the listener will never hear them the same way twice. Musical perception is influenced by the accumulated experiences leading up to a particular listening, not to mention what the listener is doing, thinking, and feeling when the recording is being played. Thus, permanence is lacking even in the most carefully fossilized music.

Music is, then, both complete and incomplete. In the micro-moment of perception, it is a single, wholly formed, and ineffable force. The listener’s response is likewise inclusive, engaging the mental, physical, and emotional realms. But when we zoom out to view the broader phenomenon, this completeness—so viscerally felt by the listener—begins to dissipate. What once seemed absolutely whole becomes fundamentally partial. The image of indivisible notes melting away into an all-embracing harmony is replaced with rapidly appearing and disappearing musical phrases, the effect of which changes in accordance with changes in the listener.

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

Spirituality of the Human

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Many secular people are averse to the term “spirituality.” To them, it connotes something hopelessly religious, patently unscientific and irrationally romantic. These objections are not unfounded. The popularization of spirituality in the twentieth century owed to theologians like Rudolf Otto, religious enthusiasts like William James, and New Age groups like the Theosophical Society. We have inherited the term from pious sources, associate it with mystics and proselytizers, and encounter it in devotional discourse. As a result, the very idea of “secular spirituality” might seem a careless cooption of a faith-filled concept or, worse, a laughable oxymoron.

But a growing number of secularists are adopting “spirituality” as a useful designation. They discard the supernaturalism of an immortal soul, divine entity or astral plane, but recognize opportunities for transcendence in human qualities such as compassion, love, harmony and contentment. These ideals exist prior to and independent of religious doctrine. Without relying on otherworldly interpretations or deistic explanations, secular spirituality seeks inner tranquility, pursues higher virtues and cultivates awareness of something greater than our physical selves.

While this process takes place in the realm of cognition, the overall effect is, by definition, beyond the ordinary experiences of mind and matter. It is thus better to describe it by way of example than to rely upon the limited resources of language.

There is a church in Albuquerque, New Mexico that boasts of offering Sunday services “minus religion.” It is called the Church of Beethoven, a congregation dedicated to presenting “professional live music performances of the highest quality, together with other artistic expressions from fields including poetry . . . in a manner that transcends the commonplace.” The church gathers each week for a one-hour program, typically comprised of a short musical selection, a poetry reading, a two-minute “celebration of silence,” and a substantial work of chamber music. According to its founder, Felix Wurman (1958-2009), the gathering places music “as the principal element, rather than as an afterthought.”

It is no coincidence that music plays a key role in many of the world’s religions. Melodic expression, it is widely believed, helps prepare us for transcendence. Yet music designed for sacred purposes is generally used in support of words (“worship music” usually refers to song-settings of poetry and prayer). Such music is programmatic, guided by textual narratives and meant to convey specific extra-musical themes. In contrast, most of the music performed at the Church of Beethoven is absolute, or music for its own sake. For example, a past service consisted of Bach’s Sonata in E-minor, Höller’s SCAN for Solo Flute, and Mozart’s Quartet for Flute, Violin, Viola and Cello. The intent behind this music is not religious per se. However, as the church insists, these performances can foster the ecstasy and communal bonding one would expect from a religious service—just without the dogma.

Music has the potential to bring us to a higher place. This can occur within or outside expressly ecclesiastical contexts, and may be achieved with music made for many purposes. The Church of Beethoven embraces this realization. It offers an alternative to conventional worship services, which are cluttered with rules of doctrine and practice. Its gatherings are, in a way, “pure” activities, unhindered by agenda or ideology. The same applies when we find spiritual uplift in a child’s joy, the sight of nature and other this-worldly pleasures. Spirituality belongs to us all.

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