January 4, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Photo by Hans Kumpf

Some more half-baked thoughts on music and morality:

Science tells us that all matter is vibrating atoms and that it is the frequencies at which these atoms vibrate that constitute all the various forms of matter, visible and invisible. The substance of music consists of the audible spectrum of vibration (roughly 20Hz to 20kHz) and, as such, reflects the sublime order of the universe. Therefore, when we listen to music, we are (for lack of a better way of putting it) contemplating the divine.

So, does this make the musician a priest in some quasi-religion? Here, things get tricky. Like all human endeavors, music is made by imperfect beings and is therefore imperfect in practice. But the “stuff” of music is the ultimate abstraction of universal truths - a form of prayer - and it is this element that binds people to its endless, necessary, performance in all its variegated diversity of styles and genres. Some music is explicitly sacred, some is as nihilistic and offensive as possible; but its usefulness resides in that contemplation of “cosmic vibrations.” For some people (like me), Sun Ra’s music is most useful; for others it might be Kenny G. For some people it is the explicitly sacred music of their personal faith; for others it is the pop music of the day. The art music world has taken a near-scientific approach to examining the phenomena of music and its investigations have demonstrated that music’s possible manifestations are indeed infinite. Whatever our tastes (and tastes are, of course, nothing but a cultural construct - learned behavior), our need for music arises from its fundamental substance: it is the exact representation of the vibrating universe. This is why we listen to music.

From that we can conclude that all music is intrinsically “moral” in the sense that its essence is the audible manifestation of vibrating matter and our attention to it allows insight (even if unconscious) into profound truths. But to go further and suggest there is more-moral or, conversely, an immoral music is, while tempting, probably too divisive to be useful. Assertions of moral character - even Sun Ra’s - are merely words and, while useful to those who are susceptible to the message, are nevertheless unproveable claims and do not – cannot - inhere in the music itself, except as suggestion, as context. And, as Sam pointed out, “context is everything.” He helpfully pointed to an interesting article that suggests how meta-data influences our interpretation of music by contrasting the inflammatory titles utilized by Muslimgauze (Bryn Jones) to the rather anodyne music itself; any supposed “morality” or “immorality” is wrapped up in a title irrevocably tied to a piece of music in which such controversy or intent is patently absent. Obviously, music’s power can be harnessed as an effective propaganda tool, but human motivations are complex and often contradictory. Even so, we need music in order to comprehend our place in the cosmos, even if our understanding is fractured and incomplete.

So, for me, today, it is Sun Ra (tomorrow it will be someone else). For others, it may be Muslimgauze. Our susceptibility to the proclamations of composers (and others) may allow us to “hear” the morality (or immorality) of their musical creations, but words and their contexts can and do change and what remains are simply the vibrations, the sound itself which so easily expresses the inexpressible and exists beyond the words. The very concepts of morality and ethics are human constructs that music naturally resists when pressed. Music is what is, unconcerned with human frailties. When we experience music, we know more than we can ever say.

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