Music: More Real than Reality

Desiring Music, part 1

We’re talking about desire. What do you want? What should we want to want?

However you describe the ultimate want – a full and rich life, a meaningful life of contribution to others, connection and love, joy, peace – what are the things to want along the way that will be helpful in getting to that best possible life, however you would describe it? And how do we manage the desires that pop up along the way that might be counterproductive for the best life? These are the big questions -- bigger than I can address today. I leave you to wrestle with them in your Journey Groups. Perhaps, though, some light may be shed by exploring certain specific desires.

One such desire is social position – status. As noted in an earlier series (SEE HERE), it’s probably best for us to desire it some, but not too much, and achieving that balance requires being aware – as we often are not – of how powerful that desire is.

Today I want to explore a very different kind of desire: the human – perhaps animal -- desire for music. I might have chosen to address the more general desire for beauty, but I want to look at a particular kind of beauty: the kind that expresses in sound, and with rhythm and melody.

Why are we attracted to this thing, music? How is it that it seems to be good for us – unlike addictive substances, to which we might also be attracted?

Music, like spirituality, with which music is connected, helps us see the world differently. In fact, it helps us see the world more truly and rightly. What does it mean to see the world rightly and how does music help us do that?

To see the world rightly, we must see through the distortions that language imposes, and music, crucially, is beyond words. Therein lies its power. In instrumental music, we enter the wordless place, and in singing, the power of the wordless is added to the words. From the wordless place, one can see the world rightly.

Ludwig Wittgenstein's 1921 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is 80 dense pages written as a series of bullet points. The last sentence of the Tractatus, the last bullet point, is:
“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
After 80 pages limning the limits of language, he meets the limit, and at that point, there is nothing for it but silence. In fact, his next-to-last bullet point is:
“Whoever understands me will recognize that all my propositions are senseless. One must surmount these propositions; then one sees the world rightly.”
Seeing the world rightly, evidently, can’t be said – we must remain silent. Another philosopher, Frank Ramsey, famously rejoined to Wittgenstein:
“What we can’t say, we can’t say, and we can’t whistle it either.”
Whistle it? Oh, maybe we can! Or if human lips and tongue are insufficient instruments, perhaps we can flute it, violin it, or piano it. Some would say Jimi Hendrix definitely electric guitared it. The deepest awareness – the awareness to which we are drawn beyond the concerns of our separate personalities, beyond the concepts realized in our words – cannot be said. Can it be played?

When our Music Director, Adam Kent, stepped into this pulpit last November to talk about music, one of the things he talked about was opera. He said:
“In the strange, alternative world of opera, characters walk around singing all the time. Sometimes to one another, and sometimes all by themselves. How real is that? These characters who walk around singing—do they realize they’re singing all the time? Do they get that they have a 100-piece orchestra in a pit accompanying them? Do the other characters hear them singing? Or are all these just theatrical conceits we’re supposed to understand symbolically?”
I love those questions! The questions invite us to reflect on what the answers could be. What, exactly, is going on with opera?

“How real is that?” Why, more real than so-called reality.

“These characters who walk around singing—do they realize they’re singing all the time?” Maybe they don’t realize it, but that's what they're doing. If they could really hear themselves and each other, they’d hear that. And we are – singing all the time. What we learn from the art is to see, to hear, what’s really there, though we typically miss it. We’re all singing all the time – like birds, who, perhaps, also don’t know that what they’re doing is singing. If we could but really hear ourselves and each other, we’d hear that.

“Do they get that they have a 100-piece orchestra in a pit accompanying them?” Maybe they don’t get that, but they do, and we do. In fact, we have a million-piece orchestra accompanying us. From the pit – the pit of disappointment or loneliness or loss -- comes the strains that always accompany us. In that partly-hidden, partly-visible pit, the world is harmonizing with itself, inviting you to add the melody of your aria.

“Do the other characters hear them singing?” Do we hear each other’s songs? Maybe sometimes we don’t, but when we attune – “at-tune” – truly to one another, we hear nothing but song.

“Or are all these just theatrical conceits we’re supposed to understand symbolically?” No, it’s not symbolic. It would be symbolic if it was one thing representing something else. But it doesn’t represent – doesn’t re-present. It directly presents the reality that we might otherwise miss.

The experience in the theatre shows us something we can then better notice in our world outside the theatre. We’re all singing – every time we open our mouths. And when we’re standing around with our mouths shut, the world is an orchestra playing all around us.

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This is part 1 of 3 of "Desiring Music"
See also
Part 2: Music and Religion
Part 3: Music, Spirituality, and Seeing the World Rightly

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