Some Musings on Ritual and Music

Some Musings on Ritual and Music

In today’s world, individualist capitalism rules, driven globally by instant communication. Individualism affects every aspect of life. The ‘I’ is central, hastening the collapse of many of the old organized religions, and dominating political thought. Ritual is one of the elements that form social cohesiveness. The contribution of individual skills to a larger group is believed to be the secret of why Homo sapiens dominated the physically stronger Neanderthals. Giving one’s individual skills up to a greater whole, and submitting them to it, is the essence of corporate music making, and of ritual. The making of music together is partly ritual in function, as is dance.

I listened to a recent concert given by Notes Inégales. The music was a delicate admixture of improvisation, and carefully and sensitively ordered, notated sounds, in which the rhythmic/metric texture sometimes surfaced, and then drowned, but always enough for me to follow the line. Following the line is the basis of the predictive listening that forms, for me, a great source of musical pleasure. This, contrasted with the improvised sections, featured a rather ‘circular’ stasis, like a revolving wind chime. It was the balance between the two, and how they enhanced each other, that first set me thinking about a balance between social cohesiveness and individualistic stasis. I understand well that improvisation requires a social listening and response that is highly ordered and disciplined, but to the listener this is not necessarily evident. Whereas in improvised jazz the known song is the guide, in much improvised music the codes remain secret without an aural Enigma machine easily available to all.

Despite reactions to formal dress over the last decades, Notes Inégales still preserve the vital function of ritual, which is otherness, and their performing space becomes the Jungian temenos. Their black and a touch of red is a sacerdotal element adding a cohesive emphasis to the group. The visually and sonically impressive instruments have a symbolic strength of promoting globalism, while preserving the vital sublimation of the self to the whole.

I see our society’s current obsession with individualist capitalism as a complete and rapid take-over by the Dionysian principle, driven faster only in the last twenty years by the Internet. In Caliban Reborn (1967), Wilfred Mellers used the opposing terms Eros and Agape. As I remember it, he described the transition from western European medieval music, through Renaissance, and beyond, as a gradual infusion of body rhythm – dance – into the making of music. This is followed, though, to the point where the limbic and reptilian Dionysian (Eros) brains begin to take over from the higher Apollonian (Agape) cortices, producing first jazz, then pop, and more lately rap, etc., where the basic limbic response is fundamental. No longer is music listened to, but rather it is heard, and becomes a stimulant for individual actions.

In Western classical music, the Second Viennese School promoted a total and severe Apollonian culture, throwing out body rhythm, or, subsuming it through complexity. What was challenged most was the ability in listening to music to achieve and enjoy the balance between Apollo and Dionysus. As this aesthetic affected the following generations of composers, so their audiences began to retreat from Apollo and embrace Dionysus. However, the apogee of the Dionysiac ritual is death, and Dionysianism is a death cult, as was the German Romanticism against which Schoenberg was reacting.

In my little book, The Sounding Symbol (1985), I use a parallel argument through trying to understand the neurology of listening and performing. I taught my music teachers in training, “Right brain in, whole brain out”. The brain receives musical sound first through the right (Dionysian) brain, where melody is first received and processed even in the womb, and it passes immediately through the connecting corpus callosum to the left (Apollonian) brain, where it is analysed, at the same time engaging the limbic systems of both right and left, and the older cerebellum, the more reptilian brain, where physical action lies. All of these areas work in harmony in making music, or react sympathetically: hence, “whole brain out”.

My observation about much new music as I experience it, is that I listen for the balance of all those parts of the brain in harmony. I love new and beguiling tone colour, and I need body rhythm in some shape or form. I appreciate the corporate individualism of improvisation for both its symbolic and generative power, but lacking dance, I easily lose interest, since the individualism can produce homogeneity that can become boring. What dance does fundamentally is to provide a matrix for our process of prediction, which, for me, is a vital element in receiving, processing, and enjoying music.

©George Odam – July 21, 2016

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