the problem with music: a preamble in expectation of a response

I’ve got to put my cards on the table here.  Finally.  I’ve let my collaborator-extraordinaire do all the music-talking, and I’ve sat in the shadows and nodded (frequently without comprehension) and watched — and mostly listened.  Sometimes I’ve even heard.  The fact is, I can’t believe I agreed to this contract we have at all.  As some of you now now:

I hate music.

I’ve been on a music strike, or sabbatical, or fast for nigh on almost three years now.  Just can’t listen to the stuff, it gets me so angry.

The fact is that I’ve never been much of a music person to begin with.  Saw it primarily as a vehicle for words.  A selling of words.  Even if those words do not manifest as lyrics or libretto, but as subtext.  I was always Dylan over Beatles when that was an argument that mattered. I need words.  Not just words, but words that matter.  When music is present, my brain ceases to function properly.  The way I imagine alcohol must affect people.  The body responds without thinking.  Everything else is subsumed in the face of its supremacy.

For me, music is never in the background.

I’m suspicious of music. I don’t trust it.  I don’t trust musicians.  I don’t trust myself in their presence.  They make my knees quake.  Make my body shake.  And then they do it again.  On purpose.  I have no desire to fall under that spell anymore.  To be honest:  I don’t want to feel. I’m just too old for being putty in their hands.

Rationality has always been a refuge for me.  If I can distance myself sufficiently.  Be the observer.  The anthropologist.  I feel safe and quite happily engaged.  I know what my place is, my role, and how I can help.  Put music into the equation, and my nice little bubble gets disrupted — unless that music is ‘good data’ to be collected.  Then, with notebook in hand, I’m okay again.  Just collecting it.

As with alcohol, I don’t like what music can do to people.  Especially music with a catchy driving beat.  Or so sweet that your eyes cannot help but tear.  Or so unbearably lovely that your heart just breaks to hear it.  We are captives when we are captivated.  We lose control.  Our bodies sway.  Or march in goose step compliance to the Fuhrer.    How could I not despise such deliberate entrainment?  How could I not suspect the motives of the musician?  They wield the weapon called music, and before you know it, millions are incinerated.  They play and our minds just nod in assent, as our bodies thoughtlessly respond.

Now, I know the argument:  Music provides a well-needed release of emotions that have been repressed, suppressed, or just plain pent up.  When we come under its sway, we are healed, eased of our pain, brought back into community.  Our bodies release chemicals that change our brain chemistry.  We are healthier.  We live longer.  It’s just plain fun, get over it.  Bla bla bla.  I don’t believe a word of it.

In North Africa, healing does indeed take place through music.  Spirits are associated with particular rhythms, and those afflicted need those rhythms played.  They dance, the spirits do.  Even spirits need a good release once in a while, they say.  And I take notes. No problem.

But I don’t want it to get me.  I want to stay inside my rational-brain head.  Stay inside my notebooks.  Analytical mode.  Don’t want to succumb to the power of musical entrainment.  Why, you say?  What’s your problem, you say?  But you already knew.  Like an alcoholic with alcohol, I know that I am terribly drawn and hopelessly vulnerable to its seduction.

Music gives me visions.

Maybe it’s a self-protective device.  Instead of feeling, I see stuff.  I think that keeps me fairly safe, but I’m not quite sure.

When I stopped listening to music, it was primarily because my car radio sucks.  Sticking to NPR is really all my RAV4 can handle, and even that’s a tough sell.  My otherwise sweet vehicle falls into static fits on a regular basis.  And that’s after having Toyota try to rectify the problem, replace the radio, check out the antenna.  Or maybe it’s just my hearing starting to check out.  Or maybe I’m just a whole lot more impatient than I used to be.  I still am drawn to the same music that I was before: Nusrat and Cheb Khaled, Rachid Taha and Ofra.  The Pastoral and a three violin concertos. Il Trovatore.  John Handy’s ‘Spanish Lady.’  Then there’s that certain beat that my daughter can identify.  When she wants to move me, she’ll play it surreptitiously.  Putty.  My son could drag me into his room not by calling, but by playing a certain series of chords he knows I cannot resist.  More putty, putty  in his hands.  I hear that certain-something walking past a cafe, and my legs refuse to pass it by.  I am struck to the core by that beat I cannot describe.  A sequence of notes. Powerless under their spell.  There are sequences of individual notes that make my brain swoon.  They know who they are.

And you know where I’m going with this.  So I’ll just put it out there:

What on Earth am I doing allowing myself to a) collaborate with a musician, and b) come into daily contact with a manipulative little heartbreaker like Kogan’s Kaddish?  How could I have allowed this?

But there it is.  I did allow it.  Thinking (as I do) that this project of ours is too important to forego.  The Greater Good, and all that.  Thinking as I did that I’m not immune to the power of music.  That I’m tough enough to endure.  Self-sacrificing enough to persevere.

But suddenly, Erin.  It’s all her fault, of course.  Well, I’d like to be able to say that.  But as she reminds me, I’m the one who came up with ‘kaddish in two-part harmony’ as the title for what we’re doing.  What was I thinking?  And why wasn’t I paying attention?  Ah, the little cosmic jokes we play on ourselves!

So.  Confession:  I am no longer neutral.  No longer unaffected.  The music is starting to get to me.  And I don’t understand why.  I don’t even like the piece.  How could I have lost my objectivity?  Lost my anthropological distance?  Lost control over my heart?  I thought a ‘project’ was a nice safe place to shove down all my feelings.

They’re leaking out now, and I’m in trouble.  All that grief.  All that love.  All that loss.  Before you know it, without some help here, I’ll be drowning in it.  What I need is a good solid explanation.

Words.  And then I’ll be fine again.

About mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.
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16 Responses to the problem with music: a preamble in expectation of a response

  1. Pingback: recent kaddishim: on connection and music

  2. erin says:

    Anything you care to say about kaddish_2011.02.06_ziggy, perchance?

  3. Pingback: what is it about words? a rant in response to a preamble

  4. Reb Deb says:

    Mira — You’ve explained it in your very metaphor. Most people aren’t alcoholic. Very, very few people *see things* in response to hearing music. Music puts you into an altered state that it just doesn’t for most people. Of course you’re terribly careful about that!

    As far as music being used to entrain people (had to look that word up — thank you!), see my comment to Erin’s post “What is it about words?”

  5. Reb Deb says:

    And the other thing, regarding the potentially dangerous power of music over large groups of human beings: I’ll bet it’s more about rhythm than tune.

    And there are good biological reasons for that. We are awash in rhythmic sound before we are ever born. A wonderful young woman in my congregation, who’s now studying to be a midwife, taught us this when our first foster-baby came to live with us. It’s why we quiet each other with “shush-shush” — that’s the sound we were bathed in for most of the nine months of our development. And heartbeat. There are reasons that rhythms entrain us. And like all such realities, such a powerful thing can be used as a tool for good or for ill.

  6. mira says:

    Yes, Deb, precisely — it’s primarily the rhythms that entrain us. Which is partly why I have such a hard time listening to Lev Kogan’s Kaddish — I can’t find the rhythm of it anywhere, and it’s maddening. I have no place to grasp, to hold onto with the piece. It just kind of wanders around, a trail filled with peaks and valleys, but no rhythm to make that walk memorable. I could not hum you a single bit of it, for example, and that’s after listening to it night after night for over three months! I am as lost now as I was the very first time. Not that it matters. No. It doesn’t matter a bit. I’m committed to walk those trails no matter what. And I’m still a pretty good walker.

    As for the rhythms, there’s quite a lot written on the subject and I do lecture on the entrainment of rhythms, particularly in North and West African trance traditions. … At one point I wanted to do a study of it, but let it go for lack of a suitable collaborator who could help with collecting the drum patterns. Collecting the tales of the spirits associated with each rhythm is absolutely fascinating…

    • Reb Deb says:

      So music makes you see things, which is personally powerful & dangerous; and rhythm is potentially communally intoxicating. Yet without rhythm, Kaddish is especially difficult to listen to.

      Erin’s playing has shifted, & I have heard more of the rhythm as written in some of the 2nd & 3rd months’ recordings. I didn’t know, of course, until I saw a copy of the music: It’s full of triplets. I think one could quite possibly play it as a waltz! (We’re returning from a Shabbes afternoon spent at the Dance Flurry.) The idea intrigues me, from a lturgical standpoint, & delights me as a potential walzz.

    • erin says:

      Please consider this my application for the job. Rhythmic dictation—that I can do!

      • mira says:

        This I’ve got to hear! Next question: Can the Kaddish be recited in triplets? Some of it has a very nice rhythm, but it shifts from section to section. Erin has broken it up into pieces interspersed with horn in a way that works for me. And I’ve added some invocations that also work. I wonder if by November we’ll have built a structure that really stands on it’s own four feet!

        • erin says:

          There’s no reason it couldn’t be played as a waltz. I’ll work on it! And you might record a new recitation that syncs with the rhythm of the music.

          Stay tuned for new Kaddishim near now…

          • erin says:

            Today’s kaddish, kaddish_2011.02.27_waltz, is a first attempt at playing Kogan’s “Kaddish” as a waltz on horn, with tuba and shaker-egg accompaniment, and with Mira’s “bismelleh Kaddish” over the top.

  7. mira says:

    A waltz intrigues me as well — I’ve done experiments with three-steps (not dance, however). If it’s there, I’d like to work with it.

    • Reb Deb says:

      Thought you might. What are 3-steps that aren’t dance?

      • mira says:

        There are three-step moves in Aikido in which uke and nage reverse or alternate a kind of power surge. Attacker (uke) is thrown by the force of his own intention, sure, but in the three-step, the uke ‘learns to see the world from a new perspective’ is the way my sensei used to put it. I don’t want to call it a reversal of power, it’s not that, exactly. Then there’s simply shifting into a three-step rhythm coordinated with circular breathing — it could be in cross-country skiing, running, walking biking, even swimming — that confers greater vitality, speed, smoothness… especially good if you’re running late, but still want to arrive composed. Call it a moving meditation, maybe.

        • Reb Deb says:

          3 steps for the breath in, 3 steps for the breath out? That seems very familiar. Overlaying rhythm onto my walking. Or X-country.

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