The Avid Listener: World Music

6 posts categorized "World Music"

October 13, 2014

Spiritual Listening

Andrew Dell'Antonio (University of Texas, Austin)

Listen to the reed and the tale it tells,

how it sings of separation …

Whoever has been parted from his source

longs to return to that state of union.

Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, The Song of the Reed, Chapter 1; trans. Kabir Helminski

Islamic Middle-Eastern Sufi practice has long established at its core the concept of attentive spiritual listening, or samāʿ, which involves training the mind to understand music and movement as manifestations of divine presence—and as paths to spiritual union with the divine Beloved. Indeed, people all over the world use organized sound to enhance and even transcend the possibilities of language. This maybe comes too close to the notion that music is a “universal language”—a well-rehearsed truism, one that rings hollow in the context of the wondrous diversity of human cultures. But just as language is a trait all humans share, the ability of sound to intensify and surpass words and reason is a powerful resource for people all over the world.

This ability, however, has long bedeviled would-be guardians of spiritual orthodoxy. Listening is deeply personal, its effects tied to the sensuous experience of the body. Many religions have contrasted the boundless possibilities of the divine to the impermanence of human sensation, to the detriment of the latter. The bodily pleasure created by sound has been either shunned or reimagined as a mere conduit to the understanding of “greater” pleasures.

Medieval European singers created glorious melismatic plainchant (listen especially to the passage between 1’ and 1’20” on the linked recording, where more than one note rides on a single syllable) to reflect on divine glory for the Christian ritual. As that single-voiced plainchant evolved into the multi-voiced resonance of polyphony, conservatives were shocked by the sensuous distraction that new and increasingly complicated sounds could wreak on the sacred meaning of the prayer. Words, not sounds, carried meaning to God, they argued, and sonic ear-candy would doubtless distract the faithful from scripture. But those who champion musical novelty have long replied that words fly to the heavens with greater power when carried by the complexity, beauty, and intensity of humanly organized sound.

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