Volume 9, Number 2 (July 2012)
Author: Ljubica Ilic
In 1969, Phil Ochs pessimistically sang: So this is where the Renaissance has led to/And we will be the only ones to know/ So take a drive and breathe the air of ashes/ That is, if you need a place to go/ If you have to beg or steal or borrow/ Welcome to Los Angeles, City of Tomorrow. If, according to the title of this Spenglerian lament, our collective imagery really began in Eden and ended in Los Angeles, then there is no better place than L.A. to inspire a rethinking of the state of contemporary spirituality. L.A. is a non-place: the desert that it is, literally and metaphorically, it pressures its dwellers to reinvent themselves, their day, their community and identity; the desert in which the real persists exactly how Baudrillard defined it (“only in the vestiges”), Los Angeles is a paradigm of an American city that closed doors to the experience of spontaneous physicality of the everyday (street, city square, crowded public space) long before a plaguing hyperspace without an atmosphere took over our lives (Baudrillard, 2010:1-2). What is the spiritual existence in such space and what is the role of music (if any) in it? Is L.A. actually an ideal contemporary topographic threshold that enables unconstrained spiritual experiences?
It is exactly the concept ofthe threshold that divides or connects worlds but is never decidedly placed in any of them that the philosopher and musician Marcel Cobussen (2008) engages with in his recent study Thresholds: Rethinking Spirituality Through Music. He applies his main metaphor to the book structure, the poetics (rather than methodology: Cobussen’s writing is poetically personal), and the connection between spirituality and music. Influenced by such diverse thinkers, from Friedrich Hölderlin, Maurice Blanchot, and Gerard Ganette to Mark Taylor, Deleuze and Guatarri, and Joscelyn Godwin among many others, Cobussen creates thirteen chapters (thresholds, that is) in which he explores the relationship between spirituality and music (I The Desert in the Desert, II A Short Prelude in Music and Spirituality, V Between Heaven and Earth, VI Sirens, VII Language, Spirituality and Music, VIII Wanderings, XII Para-spirituality) while elaborating on his personal motivation (III Stories), and contemplating on possible spiritual experiences in contemporary music (especially in IV New Spiritual Music, IX The Abyss, and X Silence).
In the opening chapter/threshold “The Desert in the Desert,” Cobussen connects the concept of the threshold to the metaphor of the desert, referring to Derrida’s understanding of the desert as a paradoxical place in which there are no clear boundaries and reference points (an isle is another aporetic place inspired with Derrida’s thinking that Cobussen discusses later on in the sixth threshold “Sirens”). Cobussen finds this unstructured spatiality of the desert in a Derridean sense as a quality that could lead toward spiritual experiences, and relates it to the interpretations of listening/making/thinking/writing about music. In the very opening of the book he turns to the psychedelic vision of the Eagles’ Hotel California in which sounds coming from a distance – a mission bell and human voices – signify the sonic possibility of knowing and being that is never fixed and given (I heard the mission bell, and I was thinking to myself – this could be Heaven of this could be Hell… There were voices down the corridor; I thought I heard them say…) (Cobussen, 2008:3). Indeed, this open, disoriented spatiality of the desert influences Californian cityscapes: L.A. is non-structured, “with no way out or any assured path, without itinerary or point of arrival, without an exterior with a predictable map and a calculable programme” (Derrida, 2002:47). Its map is decentered, and its experience ruins expectations raised by its worldwide mythologization: the dirty streets and cheap stores of Hollywood do not live up to its glamorous image (It’s understood that Hollywood sells Californication), the suburban emptiness of the city is ghost-like, and the continuously empty car lane on the freeway reserved for those not traveling alone is too revealing about the state of the city’s sociability. This decentered and disorienting cityscape, on the other hand, may be experienced as a relief: the lack of pointers offers a sensation of unconstrained freedom while memberships in (re)invented social structures (societies, clubs, gyms) always exist as a surrogate for “real” socializing. But neither Phil Ochs’s pessimism of the late sixties nor The Eagles’ hallucinatory visions of the late seventies seem to reflect our contemporary mentality too accurately. It is more likely that an electronic tripping (“Hell-A-LA, Hell-A-LA”) of the Canadian collective Bran van 3000 describes the current state of affairs in the dream city [the californication of the world made L.A. into a master-metaphor for the contemporary living/spiritual experience with its numerous contradictions, including the deepening economic inequality vs. the dream of social mobility; the dominance of material culture vs. the freedom of cultural identity; the culture of spectacle vs. isolated hedonism in front of the screen etc.]; for, a global obsession with an infinite economic growth epitomized in the lifestyle of the L.A.’s richest creates a paradoxical status quo, posing a question: if our culture is going nowhere fast, what is the state of spirituality in it? (Amerika and Olsen, 2010).
II. Para-spirituality: “Neither here nor there and both here and there”
The biggest problem in discussing spirituality in relation to music as well as to other aspects of human creativity arises from the fact that it has become so common to equate the “spiritual” with the “religious:” the syntagm “spiritual music” usually denotes music performed in church or in some kind of ritual. Although partly inspired by his Catholic background (see the third threshold “Stories”), Cobussen fundamentally opposes to this kind of understanding of either spirituality or music; as he claims “there’s no specific music that can bring us into contact with the spiritual. There are not intrinsic qualities which would legitimize ascribing the adjective ‘spiritual’ to the noun ‘music'” (2008:127). On the other hand, by following the same logic, all music is potentially spiritual. Cobussen refers to Giya Kancheli’s opinion: “…there is no separation between spiritual and non-spiritual music. All good music has spiritual qualities…” [Cobussen inserts sic into to Kancheli’s phrase “good music”, but that emphasis invites a completely different discussion (2008: 36)]. Making music is what the word spirituality implies: taking a breath (esprit), breathing in sound. And it is a strategy so important for every culture, as Cobussen refers to Attali’s explanation, that it runs parallel to religion.
Equally powerful social strategy as the religious, music has been traditionally related to the possibility of “reaching beyond:” in the fifth threshold “Between Heaven and Earth,” Cobussen examines this historically persistent idea that music possesses “otherworldly” properties in that it connects the earthly with the transcendental realm. Interestingly, although he holds an issue with any kind of binary opposition (heaven-earth; object-subject; outside-inside) Cobussen follows this historically persistent “transcendental thread” according to which it is art (music) that offers religious-like experiences. While searching for possible contemporary places of spirituality, and interpreting diverse ideas – from Michel de Certeau’s “musicality of or within poetry” to Deleuze and Guattari’s “music on the side of nomadology” – Cobussen’s discussion inevitably revokes an understanding of music as the most romantic art because, as E. T. A. Hoffmann famously claimed, “the infinite is its source.” In the second threshold “A Short Prelude to Music and Spirituality” Cobussen, inspired with the writings of Maurice Blanchot and Friedrich Hölderlin, claims that “one could say that the spiritual is an open space, more specifically the space between the human and the divine world, the pure place where the two are separated” (Ibid.:10). Although suggesting throughout the book that, theoretically, there is a need for shift from a “putative transcendence” to a more “earthly” immanence, in following Blanchot and Hölderlin, Cobussen stays in the realm of romantic understanding of music in which “it is precisely art (music) that creates this open space, this space between” (Ibid.). On the other hand, while embracing a kind of Nietzschean celebration of this-world spirituality, Cobussen claims that it is “experiencing the materiality of music outside or beyond its linguistically constructed borders” that explains this extraordinary phenomenon (Ibid.:133). In his opinion, spirituality is “neither subjective not objective: it takes place in the space between subject and object; it comes into being in relations, relations stripped off from ordinary structures” (Ibid.:20-21). This concept is very close to the Kantian sublime, but Cobussen does not see it as subjective; in his opinion, spirituality appears in relations (on the thresholds, that is…) This is not to say that spirituality does not exist in other places; it is just that the paradigm of art as transcendental experience as in Cobussen’s understanding (even if not in a metaphysical sense) overpowers others, either through its negation or the constant nostalgia for it. From this position of art as religion, spirituality must be situated on the thresholds.
It is in the eleventh threshold “Listening to the music” that Cobussen sublimates his key ideas about his understanding of spirituality and its relationship with music. He urges us to take into consideration a different kind of listening that is not necessarily structural but first of all visceral, and conducted in the state of mind/body that is somewhere between activity and passivity. This kind of listening, not solely based on intellectual appreciation, fits well into Cobussen’s critique of logocentrism and its impact on thinking in terms of normative hierarchical structures and binary opposites. It calls for a deconstruction of the opposition between subject and object that Cobussen insists on throughout the book according to which spirituality is a movement: it happens in relations to the world (and not inside the subject). Placing the search for the “truth” in constant erring, and in the endurance of weakness, outside the norm, beside, aside, or beyond reason, Cobussen believes that spirituality escapes any fixed definition, norm, or logic. Inspired by Gerard Ganette’s concept of the paratext, Cobussen names this kind of spirituality as a para-spirituality.
III. The Secular Sacred and the Nostalgia for Collective Wholeness
There is a kind of quietness, or even obsoleteness, however, about the subject of spirituality: the silence or the lack of need to problematize the question of the spiritual in intellectual circles today is almost obtrusive. Is it that we somehow finally overcame the division between the material and non-material, between the soul and body? Or is it that we entirely forgot about the meaning of the concept that we have to reinvent it all over again? There is some kind of discomfort (or maybe even pretentiousness) that goes along with the use of the word, a feeling that probably originates from the underlying recurring opinion that the majority of us are somehow unequipped for spiritual experiences, or that something has been irretrievably lost in our technocratized and alienated civilization/culture. Things do not seem so grim in practice, however: institutionalized religion is doing just fine (even in the West), the virtual space offers inconceivable kinds of experiences to everyone, and the ecstasy of the aestheticization of everyday life is at its heights.
And yet, this is somehow not good enough for everyone. The globalized of today, dwelling in a highly normative society that leaves less and less time for unmeasured or unclassifiable experiences, have to continually cross social normative structures in order to experience something beyond their everyday routines in which “habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war” (Shklovsky, 2009:279). This search beyond linguistically constructed borders always appears as a desire for novelty as in (post)-romantic art music, jazz, and in independent popular music genres. It is this out of the ordinary experience, a kind of spiritual exoticism, usually perceived as an authenticity or originality that inspires contemporary listeners to look for the moment of recognition on the thresholds of the ordinary (“When the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning”) (Baudrillard, 2010:16). In words of Mark Taylor: “Suspended between the loss of old certainties and the discovery of new beliefs, these marginal people constantly live on the border that both separates belief and ubelief. They look yet do not find, search but do not discover” [Taylor considers those dissatisfied as a separate group (to which he also belongs) (1984:5)]. It is to these “marginal” people that Cobussen dedicates his discussion: the wanderers who are in between the worlds, experiences, artistic practices, and identities; those who are brave enough to cross boundaries in order to subvert the dangers that lurk behind any stable identity.
Cobussen is adamant: “The space between, the threshold, is the leaving of a reminder that cannot be thought within the framework of Western logocentrism, based on a dualistic logic; or, to state it more firmly, it is exactly what escapes this logocentric order” (Cobussen, 2008:7). Or is it that although being a-topoi, spaces in between, non-places, thresholds hardly escape the logic of binarity, negotiating (successfully or not) the qualities of the two? It is not my intention to problematize the principles of deconstruction theory – an obvious guiding intellectual force behind Cobussen’s work. I believe, though, that one has to be careful when referring to thresholds/spaces-in-between/bridges/ transitions in discussions on transitory phenomena (questions of identity in particular): these potent metaphors are oftentimes too idealistically used for describing the position that is in reality difficult to be in. Along these lines, the overall impression about Cobussen’s Thresholds is his excitement about the possibility of not belonging; he concludes: “… he who deals with spirituality, music, and their mutual relation should be a wanderer, repeatedly deviating from the normal, ordinary, lawful course, way, or path” (Ibid.:73). That one should be a wanderer is a very particular requirement placed upon those of us who are trying to deal with questions of meaning and art. The truth is that this “metaphysical homelessness,” which Cobussen promotes inspired by Heidegger’s involvement with philosophy, is reserved only for few who have enough power to exercise it. For the less fortunate, it is an act with serious existential repercussions. Even Cobussen shortly admits: “Admission and impediment – both are at work here; the one and the other, the one in the other, inseparable” (Ibid.:8). In spite of the popularity and idealization of
the nomadic in recent decades, the reality is that positioning oneself willingly or unwillingly on the border of nationality, gender, or class is as problematic today as ever (except maybe for the elites). Cobussen gives a disturbing example of living “in-between” when referring to the case of the Iranian Merhan Karimi Nasseri who lived in the Paris airport from 1988 to 2006 (2008:77); legally considered as a refugee, Nasseri was refused a visa by French authorities, living for years in the constricted space of the Charles de Gaulle airport. Literal and metaphorical exilers are difficult to compare, but Nasseri’s destiny could be easily imagined in the realm of intellectual, artistic, or philosophical exile. Literal exilers who somehow manage to get power (i.e. speak) are less prone to idealize this position because they experienced the unpopular and uncomfortable truth: spaces in between are in most cases difficult and problematic for the crossers/inhabitants; less “middle” and more a borderline, they are the places of personal and social conflicts and discursive interruptions, the places of literal and spiritual exilers, refugees, mad ones, yurodivy…
But where does this “nomadic heroism,” this thrill with permanent displacement originate from? In Western culture, depending on cultural and historical context, transcenders may appear as lunatics as well as saviors (or as both simultaneously); they can experience the curse of the Cassandra complex on one hand, or the idealization of the marginalized as in the case of the holy fool, on the other. Although the culture of romanticism made a permanent mark on our culture, idealizing marginalization on multiple levels, from the status of the artist to the status of the heroic subject, it is interesting to take a look at the other pole: the Trojan princess Cassandra is a metaphor of all non-voluntary transcenders. Having an ability to cross the threshold of time, she is a tragic character, a lost soul cursed with the talent that she does not know what to do with (Apollo condemned her predictions to the eternal disbelief of those that surround her). Cassandra is usually described as a raving lunatic who roams around Troy and gibers (i.e. Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida), speaking the truth that no one recognizes. The workings of Apollo’s curse put her into this perpetual nightmare that came about with her refusing the supreme authority (male deity), and disrupting the power structures. Francesco Cavalli in his early modern opera Didone (1641) accurately signifies Cassandra’s power to foresee the fall of Troy as a lack, keeping her metaphorically “locked” in a musically constrained space with an obsessive repetition of her chromatic vocal phrase, a secure path to madness. The destiny of the Trojan princess is a perfect metaphor for the female inability to deal with a shift brought upon with social/poetic empowerment (or the lack thereof). In the poem Cassandra (1924), Louise Bogan poignantly describes this state:” … I am the chosen no hand saves: The shrieking heaven lifted over men, Not the dumb earth, wherein they set their graves” (Bogan, 1968). For Cassandra does not want to be the chosen; she has been awarded with an unwanted talent; and many who unwillingly cross thresholds (literally and metaphorically) share her destiny. This “bordering” position, however, is more likely to be romanticized: in this scenario, transcenders are, like holy fools in Orthodox Christianity, the bearers of truth who reach beyond mere historical and political reality; their earthly life may be forsaken, but for the higher good. This is how in the conclusion to Boris Godunov (1868-73), the ability of Musorgski’s yurodivy to recognize the bitter truth about the destiny of Russian people keeps his stammering suspended from an ordinary speech, discourse, reality.
In Western (post) romantic art, it is the artist (the poet) who becomes yurodivy: misunderstood, prophetic, and abject, he is torn between belonging and not belonging, between the banality of earthlings and metaphysical truth. He becomes the high priest of “secular believers” – those who believe but do not want to necessarily define the place of their faith, pointing at the greatness of human creativity as its greatest evidence. This spiritual transcension through art could be considered as an ecstasy of the secular sacred. And it is this kind of spirituality that Cobussen speaks of. Inspired by Gianni Vattimo’s Credeere di credere, he claims:
It is precisely the process of secularization which provides a liberation of human reason from its dependence upon an absolute God thought of as a fearful Judge presenting himself as both transcendent and capricious. In other words, secularization has a cleansing effect on believing; it is a positive fact within the Christian tradition as it makes it possible to deal with the absolutization of some contingent historical values and perspectives, and it gets even with the extreme literalism in the interpretation of dogmas and precepts. Regarded this way, the process of secularization is a blessing for belief, religion, and spirituality (Cobussen, 2008:24-25).
Cobussen’s understanding of spirituality is modern at its core: it is an individual who explores own limits and takes risks (it is just that one’s focus is on surface phenomena rather than on interiority). The postmodern form of this need to overcome the status quo by transcending reality, structure or language (the latter in Cobussen’s opinion) differs only in the multiplicity of the ways the transcension is performed (the self multiplies; from a pessimistic point of view: there is an unthinkable number of ways to be alone). But does this plurality still include spiritual experiences in “traditional” contexts? Are we to exclude choral singing in church, or rare moments of ritual bonding through music as “out of fashion” spiritual experiences in the era of hyper individualism? Is it possible to experience the collective feeling of oneness today and not dread over potential references to the perverted forms of collectivism (fundamental religion, soccer hooliganism, right-wing groups), or the remembrance thereof (communism or National Socialism)? Am I allowed to use the pronoun “we” throughout this text? Cobussen seems to disagree: “The pluralistic world we live in cannot be interpreted by an ideology that seeks to unify it at all costs in the name of one sole Truth” (Ibid.:148). From his perspective, the desire for wholeness is something that every wanderer aspires to but never really reaches, and this is exactly the point of his/her spiritual experience: “the transcendent,” Cobussen explains “should be considered a present participle, referring to the idea that, from the beginning, there is a tension, a fissure, or a deficiency between our experiences and their representations” (Ibid.:145). It belongs to the domain of the secular sacred as described by Bataille: “God is not man’s limit, but man’s limits are divine” (Ibid.:148). Accordingly, Cobussen implies throughout his book: experiencing spirituality is possible, but only for the exquisite ones who are willing to cross the thresholds of common language, and who, by doing so, constantly confirm their own exquisite individuality. But what does an exquisite individuality really mean anymore in the vertigo of hyper-production of everything, including the exquisiteness? To quote Svetlana Boym: “In the age of niche marketing we are nostalgic for some kind of a common canon, or at least a common ground for contestation, a shared map to deviate from” (Boym, 2010). Along the lines of Boym’s inquiry, is it possible to understand dangers of the terror of the master narrative and still feel nostalgia for one? Gianni Vattimo, a great influence on the Thresholds, seemed almost offended with my similarly phrased question at his 2008 UCLA lecture; he reiterated his position on the dangers that meta-narrativity of any kind poses for the co-existence of differences in contemporary society. In the Obama pre-election fever an older man from the audience somehow indentified with my nostalgic inquiry: “The unity will come through change,” he answered. Rather than answering these questions (the answers are yet to come for all of us, I believe), the nostalgia for collective wholeness arises as a silent and yet powerful counterpoint to Cobussen’s main theme.
IV. Music and (New) Spirituality
Cobussen dedicates a significant part of his study to a careful and poetically performed analysis of music that obviously inspired him to begin his spiritual quest in the first place. In the fourth threshold, he explains how his book “found its cause” in the Festival of New Spiritual Music (Nieuwe spirituele muziek) held in 1999 and 2007 in Amsterdam. Cobussen is basically questioning if New Spiritual Music is exactly what its name proclaims, or if it simply falls under the label of modernism. [Cobussen admits that the music related to New Spirituality is quite heterogeneous: from John Tavener and Henryk Górecki to New Age and World Music]. Namely, the proponents of New Spiritual Music strongly oppose twentieth century modernism, and especially what could be called a high modernism in music of Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Boulez, and others. Interestingly, Cobussen finds the attitude of “new spiritualists” as too aggressive, intellectual, elitist, and paradoxically modernist in its exclusion of the other. This is a surprising argument, though, for modernism is still the governing ideology in academic circles: it took decades for those involved in popular music and anything opposed to the tradition of modernism to penetrate the academic environment. Many if not most academic elites still see anything different from modernist heritage as of a smaller value: during a period of over a century (at least from Satie) only reactions to tonality (either as a negation or as an ironic reaffirmation) “counted” as music (Schoenberg, for example, never thought of his pupil Cage as of a composer). If there was/is any kind of elitism and intolerance in music circles over the past century, it came from exactly the opposite direction: from radical modernists to others. The very exclusion of New Spiritual Music and other musics from governing institutions turned them into the fundamentally anti-modernist phenomena.
But there is something even more important in Cobussen’s argument that relates to this new aesthetics. In three musical characteristics that he refers to in relation to New Spiritual Music – tonality, triad, and repetition – it is repetition that truly brings in a fundamental change of paradigm in the tradition of Western music. Repetition is what really opposes to (is different from) music based on teleological development; it denies the beginning-development-conclusion logic, it is “indifferent” toward questions of tonality: more precisely, music based on repetitive structures works as a true disruptor of the dialectical logic because it “ignores” the opposition of atonality to tonality, the predominant antagonism in music circles of the first half of the twentieth century. To refer to Michael Nyman’s observation of Satie’s repetitive poetics: tonality/modality is here merely the medium through which music happens to flow. As a consequence, in pieces based on repetition, dissonance does not have to be resolved; it is simply there. If the dissonance signifies conflicted subjectivity – as is widely accepted in music hermeneutics – then repetitive music structures communicate the subjectivity that is simply (and “unimportantly”) present: most likely alienated but not necessarily torn (as in expressionism) nor lost in the object (as in impressionism). It is not a modernist desire that governs the logic of music but postmodernist pleasure/enjoyment in sound (and maybe escape from the self?) . [This is the key difference between modernism and postmodernism according to Mikhail Naumovich Epshtein. He claims that the second half of the twentieth century brought upon a paradigm shift epitomized in the culture of hedonistic enjoyment: postmodernism is a kind of erosemiotics – i. e. taking pleasure in signs and discourses; but, according to him, desire dies in enjoyment, and this surface-like hedonism is static: it does not lead toward change, it does not ask questions, it does not discover “hidden truths]” (Михаил Наумович Епштејн, Филозофија тела (Београд: Геопоетика, 2009:173-4). Experiencing repetitive music actually quite strongly coincides with Cobussen’s idea of a wandering subjectivity which “no longer rests upon a foundation or moves towards goal,” or with his reference to Nietzsche’s aphorism from Human, All Too Human: “He who has come only in part to a freedom of reason cannot feel on earth otherwise than a wanderer – though not as a traveler towards a final goal…(Cobussen:78). [Indeed, in Gilles Deleuze’s opinion, already Kierkegaard and Nietzsche made repetition into the fundamental philosophy of the future, opposing it to all forms of generality (Deleuze, 1994) 5-7)].
More specifically, in musical composition, repetition negates the romantic idea of a musician who creates a unique work of art spontaneously “as by nature:” by constantly reproducing the same effect, the composer ignores the idea of originality and denies the existence of the originality of the work as in Benjamin’s definition of the Dadaist “relentless destruction of the aura” (Benjamin, 1969:248). Instead of replicating the negative dialectics of the Schoenbergian subject who still wrestles with history, repetitive structures communicate ahistorical subjectivity, projecting what Susan Sonntag calls the “total liberation” “of the artist from himself, of art from the particular artwork, of art from history, of spirit from matter, of the mind from its perceptual and intellectual limitations” (Sontag, 1976:8). Cobussen gets close to this problem in his tenth threshold in which he discusses silence in Arvo Pärt’s music as a positive void, “framed” by sound, and “the will not to want” (Cobussen, 116, 121). By this, he recognizes a non-teleological dramaturgy of repetitive structures that confirm silence as a constituent of both sound and music.
For Cobussen, though, jazz is a prime example of contemporary spiritual nomadism. It is his contemplation on the work by John Coltrane that most poignantly communicates the message of the Thresholds. For Cobussen, a musician (spiritual nomad, wanderer, or mystic) – in this case Coltrane – breaks conventions, creates strangeness in language, achieves “restricted freedom,” and even “hates music.” Jazz is, however, another elitist genre; jazz musicians continue to foster artistic originality and individuality, values inherited from musical modernism only in a much more communicative manner, with musical language that does not deny bodily experience. Jazz musicians managed to achieve what for centuries seemed impossible in Western music tradition: to institutionalize and legitimize music genre that does not confirm the logic of the mind vs. body division. In other words, jazz brings body into the heart of spiritual experience.
It is not a coincidence that Cobussen discusses Coltrane’s albums created at the time that brought upon such a strong mentality change in the West. In Mediations, Om, and Interstellar Space (1965-7), Coltrane introduced so many musical innovations inspired, as many at his time, by his personal spiritual quest. Interest in everything non-Western, including religion, awakened in him a new kind of spiritual awareness that Cobussen sees as progressively developing from the 1961 version of a standard “My Favorite Things.” From the sixties on, Coltrane’s music becomes more and more unconventional in a manner that Cobussen understands as a true spiritual experience: not pleasant and sweet sounding, but dissonant in a manner that is “averse to conventions, free, but informed with brilliant instrumental skills” (Ibid.:94). There is something obsessive in this constant challenge to overcome language (hatred towards music as Cobussen coins it); something tiring in this desire for a relentless (self)questioning. It is a very particular path to spiritual experience, and not everyone’s path: as Cobussen notices, Ravi Shankar did not understand Coltrane’s turmoil, proving David Ake’s claim that “to understand Coltrane’s musical onslaughts as ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘angry’ has much to do with the discourse surrounding his music” (Ibid.:98-99). Indeed, “to create strangeness in language though language” that Cobussen promotes is very much a modernist (anti-bourgeois) strategy developed from a need to overcome a horror of mediocre existence – Shkolvsky’s “estrangement” brought upon by a fear of habitualization; something that, outside of the society that holds individualism so dear, becomes rather incomprehensible.
The major power of Cobussen’s work lies in his ability to grapple with issues that are getting increasingly marginalized, almost sunk in silence, and yet fundamentally intellectually important at the time when our culture is going through a significant mentality change, or as Cobussen would probably have it: as we are crossing the threshold (of time, history, “post-post history,” etc). There are so many questions that Cobussen raises by his work. Have “rationalization, technology, and scientific world view” truly and entirely “dismantled a belief in a metaphysical God?” Is wandering/erring a solution for everyone at the age of supposed pluralism? Does a strong opposition to binary thinking recreate the binary antagonism, i.e. does criticism in general reinforce the position of the criticized? If spirituality happens, if it is a movement, does its theorizing reverse this effect, making it into the fixed and given? [Cobussen’s answer is to use language in a paradoxical way, or to speak in language about something beyond language… (2008:70)]. Is it fair to say that the grand narrative exists today (maybe stronger than ever), not imposed by modern institutions of law, state, academic establishment, or language, but by the globally accepted idea of an infinite economic growth? If this is at least partially true, what happens with the spiritual? Is an idealization of the marginal in such conditions politically depowering? The answers remain to be searched for. For now, Cobussen suggests: “it is through a phenomenological approach to listening – listening regarded as vibration and as a bodily experience – that another possibility announces itself, a possibility to encounter another other world, a world on this side that nevertheless cannot be reduced to the knowable, the namable, the frameable, the locatable, the familiar…” And indeed, the only thing safe to say is that even if the globalizing processes truly ended (for good or bad) the world as we know it, music is not going to stop to influence us on a phenomenological level, imposing a different kind of temporality, and pleasurably reminding us that we are alive, here and now in a moment of extraordinary physical/emotional/mental recognition; either on the threshold of the familiar, or at its very heart.
About the Author
Ljubica Ilic holds degrees from the University of Arts in Belgrade (BA in musicology) and University of California, Los Angeles (MA and PhD in musicology), where she was a Chancellor’s fellow. Ljubica investigates the relationship between music and modernity, and especially focuses on the turn of the seventeenth and the first half of the twentieth century as the two key moments in the formation and disintegration of musical modernity and musical canon. She was an Ahmanson-Getty Postdoctoral Fellow (2007-2008), and a visiting professor in the department of musicology at UCLA (2008-2009). She has presented her research at several American and international conferences. Her first book Music and the Modern Condition: Investigating the Boundaries was published by Ashgate in 2010. Currently, Ljubica is researching connections between sound and ecology at the Academy of Arts in Novi Sad.
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