Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Beethoven and God

(This essay appeared originally in the August, 2010 issue of The Scope Magazine in a slightly shorter version; it appears here with The Scope’s kind permission).

I went to a camp called Merrywood for three summers in a row when I was 10, 11 and 12 years old. It was located in the Berkshire Mountains in Lenox, Massachusetts, less than a mile away from Tanglewood, the famous outdoor venue where the Boston Symphony Orchestra resides every summer. We called Merrywood simply “music camp”. The campers were ages 10 to 18. We played chamber music, had private lessons, there was an orchestra, and we sang in a choir. We also did other camp stuff – swimming holes, hiking, volleyball, etc. The most important trips though, were to Tanglewood. I was so lucky. I saw people like Leonard Bernstein and George Solti conduct, and heard pianists like Rudolf Serkin. Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma were young bucks then, playing chamber music in the smaller shed, rocking our world. It was a tremendous experience.

During my third summer at Merrywood, one of my cabin mates who was a year older than me named Louis turned on to The John Coltrane Quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. He had a cassette of that unparalleled band playing “My Favorite Things”. It was a live version that lasted more than 20 minutes. (Years later I deduced that it must have a 1965 live recording from a club called The Half Note. It was a radio broadcast that floated around for years as a bootleg and finally was released officially in 2005.) Louis was from New York City and it seemed like all the kids who were from New York City were on to the hippest music – not so much new music, but hip older music from before any of us were born. It came from their (also hip) parents and then they got into it and brought it on cassettes to Merrywood. Back home in suburbia my friends were listening to The Police and Van Halen; these New York City kids were listening to Coltrane.

My first time hearing Coltrane’s music was an initiation, and it was ceremonial, kind of like an Indian sweat lodge. The cabins were hot during the day, and usually we would just stay outside during those hours when the sun peaked and find some shade. But Louis and I went into the cabin, and we shut the door and kept the windows shut, and we listened to Coltrane nearly half an hour on his cassette player. I was sweating and freaking out; it was awesome. I had never heard any music remotely like that. When we emerged again from the cabin, I was changed. Sometimes music can do that to you. It raised the bar for my expectation as to what music could – and should – be. The intensity of the Coltrane was something I chased thereafter as a listener. Later on, when I became a jazz musician, it was my ideal when I played.

From my other cabin mate Joe, who was a piano player like me and also a year older, I discovered Jimi Hendrix. We listened in particular to the live Band of Gypsies record from the Filmore East.I had never heard a riff as bad-assed as the one on “Who Knows,” with Billy Cox and Buddy Miles supplying the groove. It was “Machine Gun”, though, with Hendrix’s guitar solo, that took me somewhere else and just dumped me there. I was lost after that solo – that guitar solo seemed to carry the grief of the world on it, and it was so deep and beautiful that I was just lost to it.

The Coltrane and Hendrix that summer registered as pleasure for me of course, but they were a new kind of pleasure. It was destabilizing. It felt like there was something dangerous about their music – I literally got scared by their music the first time, and was trembling. Later on, I was able to pinpoint that fear: This was the confrontation with the sublime that philosophers like Kant and Schopenhauer had mapped out. You confront something that is greater than you and greater than what has until that point been safely contained in your worldview. This new greatness is unfamiliar, and your initial reaction is fear – fear of what is unknown, and also fear of something that is bigger and more powerful than you, something that could crush you.

That sounds dramatic – can mere music do that to you? For me the answer is, yes. Music like Coltrane’s inspires fear and wonder in me in the same that regarding a huge wave swelling in the ocean does, or a huge mountain expanse. It is evidence of something greater than us. That suggests a religious feeling. When the writers of the bible wrote about “fear” of God, I think they were trying to sketch out the nature of this confrontation with the sublime. The big three western religions lost their way and faltered, unfortunately turning away from this kind of truly religious experience. The sublime is actually harrowing, so instead of fearing what is truly infinite and unknowable, people created something that they could fear in a more normative, regulated environment. They began to worship and fear a more human-like phantom, a patriarchal, God – in the three western monotheistic religions, he is variously a jealous, vengeful, conquest-seeking and crusading God. (More recently he is a violent megalomaniac God who tells people to blow themselves up in his name.)

The sublime, manifested in Coltrane, seemed to come from far away, from somewhere I didn’t know about. Those shepherds who were hanging out a few thousand years ago were picking up on something not immediately tractable. It’s something from another time and place that is not our own, yet we are able to view it momentarily, now and then, if we are paying attention. Western religion was correct in one sense: a certain amount of fear is healthy because it teaches humility. Before it got all mangled, and the fear turned sour and wrathful, that was a pretty hip realization. Listening to great music for me is always humbling, and trying to play music is a constant exercise in humility. The ego overextends itself and must be reined in and corrected repeatedly. We should never loose the ability to be awed.

I’m vaguely Gnostic as far as my own religious belief. God is what we confront in the sublime, and because I am a musician, I happen to encounter it most often in music. A great athlete will encounter it at his or her best moments, or a mathematician, or a gardener – the opportunity for a sublime experience is everywhere if we’re open to it. There is a paradox in the sublime. Although it seems to come from far away, when we confront it and don’t shy away from it, it inhabits us for a moment. Some of us even have the ability to operate and create within that realm, like Coltrane. The Gnostic idea that God is far away makes sense to me – God would never talk to us in such close proximity like the male figure of the Western religions, trying to spook us. A God doesn’t need to do that. Yet part of God’s spark or spirit is within us, and manifests itself in the sublime.

Gnosticism veers off wildly from normative belief, making a pessimistic – and potentially defeatist – claim: God has moved away from us now, and is too far to reach. God cannot hear us, and we cannot hear God; the distance is too wide. Furthermore, the God that speaks to us in the Bible is nothing more than an impostor, and is hoodwinking a big chunk of humanity with his game of fear. When I think about this impostor God, I always think of the movie, “The Wizard of Oz”: Near the end, Dorothy and her friends discover that the huge, frightening wizard is a mere apparition, controlled by a small, frail man behind the curtain. The Gnostic critique of normative religion implies that the angry Father-God is a human creation. This God is forged from our fear of death and our desire for security – it’s not something outside of us; it’s just more of us, more of our fear, all knotted up into this big, scary guy with a beard.

That kind of view is tantamount to atheism. It’s no wonder that classical Gnosticism – a heretical offshoot of Christianity in its early stages in Alexandria, Egypt – got shut down pretty quickly. But this perspective is not so cut and dry. There is a big group of people who reject the normative division between God and man that the western religions make - especially the way in which those religions imagine God as a patriarchal, human-like figure in the sky somewhere, hurling thunder at us and parting the sea. Yet we in this group cannot simply disavow God’s existence, because we have evidence of God everywhere.

It is not possible for me to do away completely with a specifically anthropomorphic God, this Father-God. He has another face as well: a benevolent, loving face. He is a God that I have turned to and called on and has gotten me through some rough times. The question really comes down to whether or not we believe there is an ultimately benevolent force guiding things in the universe. If one simply doesn’t, then the problem is solved; the universe is cold and lonely and we take what we can from it, hoping for a minimum amount of pain along the way. But many of us want to believe that despite all the catastrophe and suffering in the world (so much of it created by mankind), there is still a benevolent force behind everything that will eventually ease that suffering. I like to believe that some days, and when I do, that force often takes a fatherly shape.

There’s another problem with throwing away the Father-God for me: I need someone or something to guide my moral compass. I have been socialized to act a certain way as to not inflict suffering on other sentient beings, and have expanded that “Live And Let Live” credo to include the earth itself as well. If there are others witnessing my actions, they bear witness to my moral righteousness, or lack thereof, at any given moment. But if I am alone – and we are ultimately alone with our own thoughts, formulating our own responses to events and the actions that will accompany them – there is not an immediate moral context for my actions beyond the one that I create then and there. And sometimes the fatherly presence arises at those moments.

I guess it’s because the whole enterprise of morality is a human enterprise – we have drawn the map ourselves. It may be that one’s pet dog or a salmon swimming in the stream also have moral guidelines, but we are as of yet not privy to them. When we look to a moral arbiter, it often takes a human form, because the notion of judgment itself is also particularly human. The alternatives to the anthropomorphic God are often vague: If one says, for instance, that he or she answers to the universe, or to our collective spirit, where moral matters are concerned, it is merely another image: eventually one conjures an imagined judgment – a human kind of judgment. It is, after all, difficult to feel chastised or guilt-ridden about a wrong action when the judging force is a ball of light.

Then there is the metaphorical approach to religion, the one that keeps the shelves of the New Age bookstores full. Martin Luther got the ball rolling when he called for a direct confrontation between the believer and the Bible, without the interference of some far-off Church in Rome that claimed absolute authority over how to worship and what to believe. One result of his influence is that there are a myriad of ways to interpret the Bible, and they are often metaphorical. If we are understanding a text merely metaphorically, though – if the story of Jesus’ resurrection, for example, is not meant to be taken literally, but more as an inspiration for us to be “reborn” here and now; if we don’t really believe that Mary was visited by the Holy Spirit and Jesus was immaculately conceived; if we don’t believe that Moses was talking to God on Mount Horeb and there was a burning bush – then we are always reading these texts with an ironic perspective. Consequently, we will have reservations about the whole enterprise, because the story is telling us, nevertheless, with no irony, that these things did indeed happen, literally – that, yes, the earth was created only several thousand years ago. We place ourselves above the actual text, though; we don’t suspend our disbelief at all. Yet we still seek truth and absoluteness from that text. This is Sartre’s mauvaise foi – we are not willing to make a break from the whole business. This is the rub of the big three western religions – they loose their thrust if they are not swallowed literally. So many people just can’t get behind the kind of stuff those religions profess – most people I run with, anyways – but we can’t completely do away with their comforts either.

I remember a while back hanging out with an older guy and he said something that I’ll never forget. He said, “If there’s one thing I could have, if I had one wish that could come true, I would wish for unconditional faith.” I know exactly what he means. Those folks who believe that the Earth was created 6000 years ago in spite of scientific evidence otherwise, or the Jehovah’s Witnesses who are all packing up to get saved pretty soon with their flock, believing the rest of humanity will perish – these are the Last Days, don’t you know – all have that unconditional faith. They’ve got it, and a lot of things are settled and resolved for them. It looks comfortable, their certainty – and appealing, in a way. But it’s not in the cards for me.

I also remember a vacation to Morocco a few years ago. There was a group of nine of us. We were driving from Tangier to Fez in a van with a guide and were really out in the sticks. We stopped somewhere for food and everyone stared at us. They didn’t approve of us, the women dressed the way they were, all of their hair showing, and their skin. We ate and walked outside to leave. A man from the village approached us; he was with a group of men and looked like the ringleader, or at least the one who talked the most. He addressed us in French, asking one guy we were with directly: “Do you believe in Allah?” The guy we were with answered, “I don’t know if there is an Allah – I just don’t know.” It was an honest answer and I respected him a lot for that – he just told the man the truth – that he didn’t know.

The man was incredulous. “But look!” he said, and he gestured outward with his hands. “Allah is everywhere. Look around you! He is in the sky, he’s in the earth, in the air – he is everywhere!” We smiled politely and left. There was nothing to say to this guy that would convince him otherwise – not that we wanted to. He had that certainty. I looked around us – there was garbage on the streets, there were run-down, cheaply-made shacks, a bunch of other guys with no work, milling around, doing nothing, with all of the women separate from them, somewhere else. There was nothing appealing about the whole scene. He probably couldn’t even read, but what did it matter? He had that certainty – he saw Allah everywhere. I had my wealth, I had my belief in the separation of church and state; I had my education with all the books I had read. From those books, I had learned the relativity of my views. It’s such an important lesson for someone with a secular outlook – to learn that your own beliefs are contingent – contingent on where you come from, how you were raised, etc. But it will only lead to more uncertainty.

Secular folks must live in uncertainty – they do not swear by the Bible, the Torah, or the Koran. Those are merely books like other books, with imaginative, canonical writing in them, written by human hands. Everything is contingent on our time and place in history, which means that our very beliefs, even the ones we hold fast as immutable, are always in fact subject to reevaluation. I praise other humans and sometimes even put them on a pedestal for a while, but they don’t need to stay up there forever. If someone comes along and knocks someone else off that pedestal, so be it. Everything is in flux. We are all temporary anyways, so there’s no sense in trying to pick a winner – there’s no sense in trying to imbue some vaulted deity that we worship with a permanent, non-transitory quality. Really, actually, there’s no sense in worshipping anything. It seems to be some deep need that humans have – to acquiesce to someone or something, imagined or real, that is stronger. The desire to worship may be part of our make up, but the best lights in history are always the ones who don’t bow down to others, the ones who don’t supplicate, but simply act.

We are meant to think for ourselves. This is a part of maturation. In Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, the boy Siddhartha comes face to face with Gotama himself – the living Buddha. Instead of joining the retinue of monks to follow Gotama’s teaching like his friend Govinda, he walks away to pursue his own course. This is the beginning of his awakening. As the Buddha walks away from him, Siddhartha resolves never to bow down to anyone, ever again:

“Einen Menschen sah ich,” dachte Siddhartha, “einen einzigen, vor dem ich meine Augen niederschlagen mußte. Vor keinem andern mehr will ich meine Augen niederschlagen, vor keinem mehr. Keine Lehre mehr wird mich verlocken, da dieses Menschen Lehre mich nicht verlockt hat.”

(“One person I saw,” thought Siddhartha, “one only, before whom I had to bow down my eyes. Before no others do I want to bow down my eyes anymore, before no one else anymore. No teaching will seduce me anymore, just as even this person’s teaching has not seduced me.”)

Even the Buddha is a human, Siddhartha realizes, just like himself; even his teaching is contingent and merely human. Part of Siddhartha’s enlightenment is growing out of the human wish for teaching, for instruction – even from the Buddha himself:

Er stellte fest, daß eines ihn verlassen wird, wie die Schlange von ihrer alten Haut verlassen wird, daß eines nicht mehr in ihm vorhanden war, das durch seine ganze Jugend ihm begleitet und zu ihm gehört hatte: der Wunsch, Lehrer zu haben und Lehren zu hören. Den letzten Lehrer, der an seinem Wege ihm ershienen war, auch ihm, den höchsten und weisesten Lehrer, den Heiligsten, Buddha, hatte er verlassen, hatte sich von ihm trennen müssen, hatte seine Lehre nicht annehmen können.

(He realized that something had left him, just as the snake loses its skin, that something was no longer at hand in him, something that had accompanied him his entire youth and had belonged to him: the wish to have a teacher and the wish to receive instruction. The last teacher who had appeared along his way, even him, the highest and wisest teacher, the holiest – Buddha – now he had forsaken even him; now he had to break himself from him; he could not embrace his teaching.)

Like they say, as you get older, you either get smarter or you get stupider. And the people who get stupider are the ones whose thinking gets stuck. They lack the ability to continually re-contextualize themselves in the ever-changing world around them. Wisdom is nothing less then a deep understanding of our contingent nature. It is not learning a set of truths and then resting with that knowledge and living out your days. Wisdom involves accepting that truth itself is variable. To really know this involves humility, for one must be humble to forsake one’s own claim to unshakable truth. The best literature is wisdom literature. It’s always teaching us to not give into our vanity, and it’s teaching us to constantly question a presumption we make before it becomes calcified into personal dogma – in this way, we don’t get stupid. Wisdom literature will teach us to not fall under the sway of teaching – even its own teaching. The best learning is always inherently contradictory, malleable, and full of irony. It will always contain a clause that renounces any supposed absolute truth that it might possess. It is something to play with and discard, and then perhaps come back to again at a later point in life, when there is something else to be gained from it, something new and different. Any great wisdom should have this ability to re-contextualize itself at any given moment. If ideas cannot be re-contextualized, they are mere dogma, and wind up in that trash bin of history.

* * *

It might be possible to speak of my Coltrane experience with Louis that day in the cabin at Merrywood as a “religious” one. Religion, though, implies a moral directive. And here is the rub – the evidence of something fear-inspiring and larger than myself that I found in Coltrane’s music was not morally applicable to anything. It was not fear of retribution that I was feeling; it was not a negatively felt fear. 

One often speaks of listening to great music as a “spiritual” experience. Fair enough – Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Coltrane’s Love Supreme, Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” – the experience we can have listening to that kind of music deserves and needs a better term than mere “pleasure”. The term “spiritual” in this context, though, perfectly expresses the vague, and I think, ambivalent relationship between art and morality that is part and parcel with modernity – let’s say, roughly, from the Renaissance onward, from the time that music starts becoming more about the individual composer and less an anonymous tribute to the Godhead. That span of several centuries is a trip away from the objective, faceless music of the church – however beautiful it is - towards an ever more subjective kind of expression.

The subjectivity reaches a zenith in Beethoven’s music. Beethoven – the first true rock star in music, the first guy who really struts and wags his dick in front of us with his music, before Liszt, Howlin’ Wolf or Keith Richards – wrote theMissa Solemnis late in his life. It’s a truly awesome piece of music that everyone should know, but it doesn’t get a fair hearing because it’s neither fish nor fowl. It is formally a Mass of the kind that his predecessors like Mozart and Haydn wrote, with the appropriate liturgical Latin texts, split into a Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, etc. It’s much too long, though, to be played as part of an actual mass service in a church, and while it embodies church music in a myriad of ways, it also eclipses those expressive boundaries, already in its length alone, and in the level of virtuosity required of the instrumentalists and singers alike. Likewise, it doesn’t turn up in concert halls too often, perhaps because programmers shy away from its devotional nature, or because of its girth – it requires a full orchestra, soloists, and a chorus.

There is an undeniable feeling of piety to the music. It is on the one hand Beethoven’s humble offering to his Creator. That offering is so personal, though, so uniquely Beethoven, that it draws our attention to it, unto itself – independent of the religious context it inhabits. The importance of that context thus diminishes. This is particularly the case in theSanctus, which is really the emotional center of the work. The devotional quality of the music becomes dangerously arbitrary; the music seems to lose its utility in that regard. Did it ever have it?

Like so much of Beethoven’s music, the Missa Solemnis is deconstructive, poking away at the foundation of a long-established, strongly defined binary opposition in Western thought: the omnipotence of a Creator vs. the greatness of purely human achievement. Beethoven is a hero for the humanists and takes his place in a gallery of independent minds – those like Siddhartha who dare to think for themselves. For us, the listeners, the locus of our admiration is fuzzy and shifting – we can reflect on the glory of God, or the glory of Beethoven, or some mix of both. It does not bode well for one who wishes to keep the focus on that omnipotent Creator.

The relationship between any creative mind and the citadels of religious devotion is fraught, and this troubled mix of dick-wagging swagger and piety is the history of modern music – it’s Beethoven, it’s Coltrane, it’s Jimi Hendrix; it’s everything you want to hear. The composer, the improviser, the singer, the guitar player – they all say, “Look at me, look at what a badass I am!” And at the very same time, they say, “I am in the service of something higher and greater than myself, it is not corporeal, and I am humbly transmitting that to you.” So we look for a word to describe that dichotomous expression and we come up with “spiritual”.

“Spiritual”, unlike “religious”, does not imply a moral code. That unfixed quality is its dubious virtue. As music-listeners, we can go any direction. Music may indeed act as a speechless moral guide: The evidence of order and resolution in Bach, for example, may inspire someone to seek out order and resolution in other areas of his life – he may carry that into his other affairs. But what if order and resolution for him means brutally beating his kids when they speak out of turn? The sentiment of victorious brotherhood in the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony may inspire a call to unity among nations, an appeal to the higher, better urge in all of us – the universal good. But what if that brotherhood is exclusionary – what if it’s a kind of tribalism; what if the victory means mercilessly vanquishing a foe, regardless of what that foe did? Then the Symphony might be played to celebrate any kind of nihilistic, evil urge.

Music packs such a visceral punch, and at the same time, it appeals to what we call our spiritual nature. But our “spirit”, to whatever extent we can qualify an abstract concept like that, is not, it seems, inherently benevolent. Music often simply acts as a booster: It takes whatever is already in us and tweaks it, pushing it further in the direction it is already headed in, intensifying it – more towards peace and love, more towards death and destruction, more towards rational thought and orderly behavior, more towards lustful urges and bacchanalian fests. This is why music freaked out Plato early on – he gleaned that it is completely devoid of moral directive.

Perhaps then it’s best to break from the Western division of Spirit and Sense when we think about music – maybe that’s actually what’s so great about it, that yoking of the spiritual and sensual, which are so often bracketed out from each other in our day to day experience. Music dissolves these boundaries, or at least questions their stability. When we confront the sublime in great music – when we confront the sublime anywhere – hopefully we are ready for it. Hopefully we can submit to it, letting its power fill us, even while we remain humble, awed by its beauty. Rilke described that confrontation famously in his first Duino Elegy, imagining a meeting with an angel:

Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel
Ordnungen? und gesetzt selbst, es nähme
einer mich plötzlich ans Herz: ich verginge von seinem
stärkeren Dasein. Denn das Schöne ist nichts
als des Schrecklichen Anfang, den wir noch grade ertragen,
und wir bewundern es so, weil es gelassen verschmäht,
uns zu zerstören. Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich.

(Who, if I shouted, would hear me out of the angels’
order? And even if one of them suddenly took
me against his heart, I would perish from his
stronger being. For Beauty is nothing
but the beginning of a dread that we can still just endure,
And so we marvel at it, as it calmly declines
to destroy us. Every angel is frightful.)

Listening to Coltrane is like looking at one of those angels.

© Brad Mehldau, May 2010
All Rights Reserved