Faith in lowercase music
Learning to see music’s role in the world through an “endless pilgrimage of the heart”
It occurred to me on Friday night, as I talked with a friend who works for an improvised music club, that believing in music as a public good is kinda like believing in capital-G God.
We believe in music-as-good-for-the-world, we need ourselves to believe it, but at the end of the day we’re kind of relying on specific instances of miracles (“your show saved my life”) and words from soothsayers to keep us going in the faith.
I say “we need to believe it” because it can come to feel like a pretty narcissistic, feckless thing to devote your life to making or facilitating music. You can look around to all the people doing medical research or administering social work and feel like, “Fuck, I’m a bohemian idiot.”
So we ask ourselves, “Isn’t music really good? Don’t people need it? Aren’t I helping too?” (My dad has two great books on this subject. And every thoughtful musician I know is grappling with this all the time.)
I deeply believe the answers, in general, are hell yes. If we all woke up tomorrow and no one made music anymore, and the commercial structure for music had evaporated, most people would be unhappy, I think. (So too would we be if people only made music—a case for a diverse world and maybe even for a diverse life, not exclusive to any one vocation.)
But those are ultimately faithful guesses about music, not facts. Just like belief in the picture-bible, bearded-man-in-the-sky version of god is, um, notoriously hard to support with facts. You don’t really know, by the usual standard of knowing, that music is helpful enough. When we ask ourselves questions about music that can only be answered empirically I think we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment, because we don’t have the empirical smarts to answer them. (Or do we? Actuaries sound off?)
So I’ve stopped asking that of music just like I stopped, a long time ago, asking that of god. (In truth, as a mostly secular Jew, I never really started.) That is, I stopped asking for a specific “proof” to turn a grand belief into knowledge, and started trying to be comfortable in the indefinite state of receiving evidence all the time, for music’s goodness and lowercase god (separately and together), with nothing to prove.
The miracles we employed to keep ourselves going in the faith were real! It’s just that: They mean something even if they’re not being used as an instrument to believe in something unreasonable. They’re kind of all we have.
Not Music as Public Good, Bringer of Help.
And not God as Bearded Man, Smiter of Fuck-ups and Giver of Good Fortune.
But instead: music, as nice thing we do alone and with each other, that we’re glad to make, glad to perceive, a blossoming of fundamental things about physics, harmony, etc.
And god, as sum of the whole universe, the continuous, gapless touching of everything to each other, energy, and much that’s too esoteric or ineffable for us to write about. At least for me to write about… on Substack! LOL.
I think it’s a less anxious existence believing in the latter set than the former set. Of course, anyone should do their own thing. If they feel secure in a Music or God type of thinking, great, as long as they’re treating people kindly. Otherwise, it’s nice to let go of the faith demanded by too-big questions. It feels nice to believe in what’s apparently there, and even nicer to know that what’s apparently there is huge, everywhere, and worth everything.
Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote this passage/poem that encapsulates all I feel above (the Hesch uses the capital “He” but his writing suggests that his “He” refers to the lowercase god concept discussed above):
Like a Bell
Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart. Audacious longing, burning songs, daring thoughts, an impulse overwhelming the heart, usurping the mind—these are all a drive towards serving Him who rings our hearts like a bell. It is as if He were waiting to enter our empty, perishing lives.
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See also “The Holy Dimension.” It took me a few times to chew, then it nourished me.
What gives rise to faith is not a sentiment, a state of mind, an aspiration, but an everlasting fact in the universe, something which is prior to and independent of human knowledge and experience—the holy dimension of all existence. The objective side of religion is the spiritual constitution of the universe, the divine values invested in every being and exposed to the mind and will of man; an ontological relation. This is why the objective or the divine side of religion eludes psychological and sociological analysis.
… To have faith is consciously to enter a dimension in which we abide by our very existence. Piety is a response, the subjective correlative of an objective condition, the awareness of living within the holy dimension.
When we see, again and again, music awaken a loved one deep in dementia or Alzheimer’s, it is proof of how important is. Whether it’s a commercial jingle or a favorite song, our mind made connections that are so deep and important for us that they remain even in our darkest times, waiting to be triggered to give us the joy we found in those notes and words. I believe in music.
George Harrison talked about music being the love that musicians give to the world. and if "the love you make is equal to the love take" than you are giving a lot of love. And it is a giving of yourself, from your soul. So YES, music and art is so important!!! I turn to it over and over again.
Your blog is also great. The musings we all grapple with in trying to find our way through life. What does it all mean? if anything. What is the point of 'me', or the collective. But we are a social species and need one another, need the trees, water, plants, air; need every bit of what the earth has and need to give the gifts we have. You are a gift and your talent and intelligence are part of that gift. Thanks for sharing it.