what is it about musicians?

I was at the bookstore at the airport, and you know how much selection they have there, don’t you. Close to nothing at all. Couldn’t believe I was traveling without a book in my bag. But then again, the whole point of the trip was to go collect books, so it also made sense not to head out with one. This was SFO, however, and so I picked up volume something or other of lesbian erotica, right there at the airport. And as I read the tales, all I could think was, I could write this better.

And so I did. The one story I’ve ever written in my life.

And then I read it to her, when I got back in town. And it just blew her away.

what is it about musicians?

That’s what it was called. And I thought about it tonight and tracked it down in a very old file still on my computer, but in dire need of translation to an updated Word file, and then reformatting and the like just to be able to read it.

But I didn’t read it. The point was only that I found it. Only that it was a reminder of the hold musicians have had on me. Used to have on me. Not now, of course — I won’t allow that trespass.

Because I’ve been on musician strike. A boycott of all things music. Especially musicians. Like an addict who finally says enough is enough — and seems to mean it. Like Alex in A Clockwork Orange being desensitized. Like a moth to the flame saying no!

I’ve had it with musicians.

No. The truth is, I’ve had it with myself around musicians. And the weird thing about that is that I’ve always been so careful and restrained.

I do not play.

I will not dance.

I met a Yoruba today who made me smile. He went to school not 20 miles from Ile Ife. He told me tales of the Oduduwa, the original ruler of the Yoruba. That his grandfather was chief of his village. His father declined, and so did he.

“I can’t worship all those deities,” he said. “I am a Christian.”

But his face lit up at the mention of Ile Ife. It wasn’t just the surprise at my bringing it up. I could watch him fill with joy and pride. We talked about the rhythms of the Orisha… and I was happy, just like that. Happy.

And there we were again, at the power of music and musicians. It’s inescapable. And I’m still trying to escape.

I’m trying really hard here not to use the word ‘seduction.’

But maybe there’s no other word for it. The spirits entangle us through their rhythms. They wrap us up or make us writhe (or if we don’t writhe, we write instead). Those rhythms that draw us, that suck us in, that drive us mad with desire — it’s a visceral thing that cannot be resisted.

And here is me resisting hard — since I was a very small child. Knowing that the music is a trap. Entrapment. Maybe even a subspecies of rape.

You think I’m being overly dramatic here. I may well be. But hear me out. This is about loss of control. Losing our minds. Losing our souls. And something else enters us of its own volition, and doesn’t let us go. With or without permission. You know what it’s called. It’s called possession.

And I’m afraid of being possessed.

I asked my new Yoruba friend about the Hauka, and if they still inhabited West Africa — but he had never heard of them. He suggested Googling them, which was pretty funny. Of course, I’ve tried. And I come up with Rouch and Stoller and not much more. I had heard that the Hauka had entered Brooklyn in the 1980s, but maybe that was wrong.

I don’t like the Hauka rhythms — they’re too annoyingly European. But that’s the point isn’t it? It’s what happens when your (spirit) possessor is your (colonial) possessor. The music is just there to hook you, nothing more.

So, I wrote this beautiful story about how musicians can take over your body and soul. And you’re powerless to resist their every move. And they tie you up with silken cords, and play you. And play you. And what could be more intoxicating than that voice, or the voice of their instrument? And your volition melts into the ether. And you’re on the road, you’ve turned the corner into the other world, you’ve walked through the crossroads. You’re lost on the other side.

How many visions did those damned musicians give me!

And here comes this seductress walking into my life. Another musician. And one who can write! And write the seduction of the music and musician. Who can articulate the power the musician has (or can have) — and articulate how the musician wields that power.

And offers me a taste!

And this is me saying no!

And running as far away as possible to not feel it. Not hear it.

I’ve been boycotting music like I’ve been boycotting humans altogether. The more drawn I am to their rhythms, the more dangerous they become. It’s not that the music is bad. No, it’s that it’s powerful.

My favorites: Nusrat. Cheb Khaled. Rachid Taha. If I listen any more, I will fall right through this world into the other. And (at least for now) I can’t afford to fall.

It’s a form of imperialism. The imperialism of the soul.

It’s a very hard thing to admit to being so thoroughly vulnerable to the sound of certain sounds. To admit to having put on this hard shell of resistance very much on purpose. Trying to keep the music at bay.

To those of you (which may well be most of the planet) for whom music is just that, music — or worse still, background music — well, I think that’s great. For me, music is just never in the background. It’s the primary thing happening, and when I hear it I can’t do anything else but crawl inside it as it crawls inside me. I think most people are just fine with that. But these days I’m listening to nothing more harmful than NPR. Especially in this time of mourning.

So. Musician.
I cannot hear you play.
Not now.
It will shake me to the core, and I cannot take it.

Not ready for music. Not ready for musicians. Not ready to unleash a floodgate of either tears or joy. Not ready to let anything or anyone in until the heart is mended. I know, I know — they say that music’s healing. But if you play me that Mourner’s melody, you will surely possess me. And then you’ll walk away. With my heart.

And then I’d have to write another story.

By 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.

16 replies on “what is it about musicians?”

Remember that musicians are often not at their fullest powers. I believe that the current quality of my playing of Kaddish is more a cold shower than a seduction.

More to come. Much more.

Just as there are more effective and less effective lectures on the same subject. So many variables, from audience to lighting to the quality of the air…

But if you tell me that musicians are often not at their fullest powers, well, yikes! What if my own contact with you-folk has only been at low voltage all this time? Think how deadly you can be at whatever 'full power' might entail!

Intriguing question, and I'll put it back on you: what if it's never been the musicians at all, but the power of your listening? Perhaps that's where the voltage is high. Sometimes we musicians are mere media, servants to music we might barely understand ourselves, and our listeners create the experience.

Aaah — you remind me of a shape-shifter friend, who insisted that it was not he who transformed, but the observer who needed to see …

Oh, Mira. I never did get around to reading your early posts, like this one. Just read it today.

There is middle ground between utterly seduced, even violated (in the sense of, canceling out your own volition) and “just music” (never mind “background”). There is. I live in it all the time. I work with it all the time. I paint with music. And words. With rhythm, and silences. With communal, and antiphonal, and one voice. With intellect and sound. With midrash and music. It’s what I do. I can’t predict what effect it would have on you, but it works for so, so many people who walk through the door. Takes them someplace that’s good for them to go, and brings them safely back.

So I know it exists.

I wasn’t formally trained to do this; it’s what has evolved, from camp — yes, that music you and Erin bonded over despising — and from my grandfather and from my father and from my other grandfather and from my mother and from my teacher R. Larry Hoffman and from many, many teachers who didn’t necessarily know that this is what they were teaching me, and then from, as I say, “Trying to lead a service I could stand to be at,” and getting feedback over more than 13 years that it was, in fact, working for others.

I understand very well the confidence inspired by participating in a tradition (such as West African drumming, which you mentioned) which has had generations if not millenia to work out best practices. It’s a deep part of why I love folk music — for me, particularly British Isles. It has deep roots. I relax into it, not primarily because I consciously trust it, though I think that’s in there, but because of what it intrinsically is. This reminds me of what you said about learning music from Reb Zalman, too.

I have much more trouble with pop music, and an acoustic guitar riff will relax me in the middle of something I don’t otherwise like or trust so much. Huh. Hadn’t thought it through that far. For me, amplified music, rock and pop and so on, are what I distrust, and I distrust how large masses of people behave under their influence. I’m asking myself about hip-hop and not getting a clear answer; maybe I haven’t listened to enough, and certainly don’t know it in cultural context.

Anyway. You were/are very brave, to take this on. A year is a long time.

It puts Erin’s attempt at “musical seduction” into a stronger context than I even knew. Humph.

Mira’s bravery is even more remarkable if you consider that she’d never heard the piece before, she had no way of knowing it’s brief (usually around 0:03:30), and she had no way of knowing whether I’m even a decent horn player. At the time, our mutual friend had only heard me playing tuba, which is certainly not my forte.

Living in the middle ground I think might be what most people do, or are able to do. I am not able to at all.

Regarding Reb Zalman — no, no, noooo! I did not learn music from Reb Zalman. What Zalman is so good at are words. Words that transcend the ethnocentrism of our own tradition in favor of the willingness to explore the ethnocentrisms of other peoples’ traditions. A very anthropological approach to his immersion in Jewish and non-Jewish spiritualities. What was so comforting about Zalman is that he did not rely on music to hook people. That’s what Shlomo did. Zalman used intellect and rationality, and mystical principles rooted in grammatical ones, rooted in pre-Judaic ones.

By your own admission, above, you are one of those can ‘make it work for so many who walk through your door’ and ‘take them someplace that’s good for them to go, and bring them back safely.’ And clearly this is consensual. They come to you for this.

But I stay away exactly for this reason.

‘make it work for—’ implies they cannot get there themselves
‘so many’ — collective entrainment is all the more powerful!
‘take them someplace’ — which is not of their choosing
‘that is good for them’ — also determined from the outside (wreaks of infantilization!)
‘bring them back safely’ — ditto, and maybe not

And here am I allowing Erin to do these things! Yes, I’m brave. And yes, a year is a long time. But what makes it work is that we are both engaged in a version of this. The influence is mutual, as is the learning and discovery. A kaddish in two-part harmony — egalitarian to the core.

Hm. I wonder where you’re taking her, that’s so hard for her to go. Or is that also in a post from November that I have not yet read?

No, “that is good for them” is what they tell me afterwards. And “bring them back safely” is based on the fact that most of them are members of my community and they — and I — are able to evaluate their experiences in services over time. And I don’t think the places aren’t of their own choosing at all. Your take on it implies that I am directive! I open doors. People go through them individually and quietly and internally. Or not. But if they do, the door they go through is their own.

Where does Mira take me that’s so hard for me to go?

All over the place.

She’s got me grappling with Avram and Sarah (about whom reasonably well-read Christians know little), Middle East politics and millenial-grade political theory, the nuance of Semitic languages, the conundrum of optimism in the face of preponderant misery, and…

Oh. That’s not what you meant, is it?

Well, she’s been asking questions I don’t enjoy answering, or don’t realize I ought to answer, until I start trying to answer them. And then she points out that these uncomfortable topics are exactly what I need to write about next. One such topic has been sitting in drafts for several months now, waiting for me to have the courage, the time, and the perspective to finish writing it. No, several such.

So I’d better get to work.

You know, I don’t even know if I open doors. I might create the opportunity for portals. This is all metaphorical for me, please remember; a way of putting into words stuff that I experience intuitively and channel somewhat physically, though it’s emotional and intellectual as well. This world is all I know or understand.

But I really hate bad metaphor, and rebel against every guided meditation I can ever remember being in, because I will be going wherever it makes sense for ME to go, not following someone else’s metaphor, which is generally too cookie-cutter and not nearly nuanced enough.

So what I do in services is, perhaps, provide an ambiance. Give people something to think about. Provide opportunities for connection — with ideas, with each other, with whatever’s going in internally, with history and tradition and text, and yes, with music…

It might not be a safe experience for you. But the growth of a healthy community around it, for over a decade, suggests to me that indeed, whatever I am doing is working well for people in the community.

And they give me feedback, you know. It’s not unidirectional. And parts of the service take place as a conversation.

I keep thinking of Maude, in Harold and Maude:

“Maude, do you pray?”

“I communicate.”

I can’t deal with other people’s guided visualizations, either. When I learned self-hypnosis for managing audition anxiety from my anesthesiologist friend David, he didn’t guide me through his idea of a pleasant visualization, and it’s a good thing—he would have had me on a sunny beach with ocean waves lapping at my toes and the sun shining warm on my body. I don’t think I’d ever seen an ocean at that point in my life, I hate being hot, and like most Scandinavians I’d get sunburned before I’d get comfortable with being out in public in a bathing suit.

Instead, he talked with me for a long time about where I felt the happiest, the most at peace, the most myself.

Eventually what I came up with was canoeing on a cool, barely sunny summer day in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness near the Minnesota/Ontario border north of Lake Superior. He had me describe that experience to him in such intense detail that he could then recreate it for me in his own description as he guided me into a relaxed, focused state, and the further I descended into this state of relaxation, the less he said and the more he asked me to fill in—what was I wearing? what did I hear? what did the lake smell like?

And questions about all these things were part of the genesis of this project: what is my role as a musician? what is my power, and what, therefore, is my responsibility? what is a listener’s responsibility in return?what does a listener do for herself? what power comes from the music itself, where I am (just) the medium? what does an intense engagement between musician and listener (and listeners) do to the music? what does the music do to the engagement? can I take a listener someplace, or do I help a listener go where she was already headed? can I seduce a listener, or does the listener seduce herself? what about the listener’s seduction of the musician?

Having an attentive audience is seductive, too, you know.

Mira and I explore these questions regularly and quite directly—sometimes uncomfortably—in our private conversation backstage and somewhat more vaguely and episodically (when one of us has reached something resembling a conclusion or at least a good question) onstage here at the blog.

I would be interested to know what our other readers and listeners are experiencing.

Agreed. There’s a feedback loop between performer/audience as there is between professor/student/s. That loop not only energizes us but it also gives us more to think about. It changes the performativity. You make me notice that when I say kaddish I know that I’m saying it to you/for you and in a contemplative way rather than directed at a single mournful loss. If I were to say kaddish with mourners in shul, it would come out fairly pro forma, and the intentionality would shift to congregational solidarity (of which, to be sure, I have none).

I too would be interested to know what other listeners are experiencing. We don’t really have a place for that yet on our site. When the podcast is up, perhaps we can include a place for comments for each kaddish. What I would love (not being a musician) is to hear responses in music — someone playing back at you a Kogan kaddish response. Or a piece of their own construction. Maybe the problem with words is that they’re too easy. And I’ve just been wrong all this time!

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