Some observations about defining the spiritual in music – An ongoing consideration: 1998 – 2013

Some observations about defining the spiritual in music – An ongoing consideration: 1998 – 2013 – Bob Gluck – Version III, December 22, 2013

This is a very personal discussion of what I believe to be important musical concerns. It remains in ongoing draft form and is written for my students in memory of my father, visual artist Stan Gluck, who lived his life on the border between art and commerce.


1.“Whoever says You (“Du”) does not have something; he (sic) has nothing. But he stands in relation.” –Martin Buber

[- I and Thou, available in many editions, including Walter Kaufman, ed., New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons]

More than anything, art is about moving the imaginative or not fully perceivable into view. What can emerge are understandings and experiences that are usually hidden from sight and hearing, awaiting our discovery. Art is like a living being, it exists in fluid interrelation with life. It offers the magic of discovery that cannot be packaged and consumed and yet remain the same.


2. “I consider that if I have a purpose it’s not to produce records or concerts, it’s in the process of perceiving more. Since my specialty is music, that perceiving takes the form of sound… The only thing that matters is that at the point when you make a sound you’re living and breathing that sound–and the only way is by living and breathing the silence previous to it.” -Keith Jarrett

[- Interview by Edward Strickland, American Composers: Dialogues on Contemporary Music, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987]

Jarrett’s solo concerts during the 1970s and 1980s (and subsequent) accepted as their starting point notions of minimal preparation of materials or pre-conceived ideas. His personal hope was to find some level of communion with his audience. His goal for the audience was to engage their listening to sounds as they exist in the present moment.

When Jarrett’s solo concerts became identifiable as a repeatable commodity with a clear audience base and mass audience expectations, did this value become compromised? In his interview with Strickland, Jarrett speaks of an audience member who was upset that he played a Bach prelude in place of a “Jarrett-style” improvisation after a curtain call.


3. “… The decisive question today for anyone who makes music is, in my opinion, whether this planet with its inhabitants is a place of pleasure where people entertain one another in an enjoyable way–for instance, with music–or whether this planet is a school. I am convinced it is a school… You must, however, decide for yourself whether music is used as a means of drawing humanity upwards into higher realms, or whether it merely serves as a way of agreeably passing time.” – Karlheinz Stockhausen
[- Towards a Cosmic Music, essays and talks selected and translated by Tim Nevill. Longmead, UK:: Element Books, 1989]

During the 1970s, Stockhausen’s “Intuitive Music” (Aus dem Sieben Tagen – From the Seven Days) drew upon imagistic poetic texts (“Play a rhythm in the vibration of your body…” “… sound turns to gold, to gently shimmering fire…”) to inspire meditative collective improvisation. The musician was to experience a state of oneness with their instrument, the self, the other players and ultimately with the universe. The line between meditation and musical performance became blurred in a manner unusual in the West.


4. “My goal is to live the truly religious life, and express it in my music. If you live it, when you play there’s no problem because the music is part of the whole thing. To be a musician is really something. It goes very, very deep. My music is the spiritual expression of what I am – my faith, my knowledge, my being.”
            – John Coltrane [Coltrane on Coltrane: The John Coltrane Interviews]

On an surface level, at least some of Coltrane’s music of the 1960s can be viewed as a form of worship. His 1964 Quartet work, A Love Supreme is accompanied by a poem expressing, in theological terms, appreciation and supplication. It is often described as a culmination of Coltrane’s recovery from addiction. The poem begins in this way:

“I will do all I can to be worthy of Thee, O Lord. It all has to do with it. Thank You God. Peace. There is none other. God is. It is so beautiful. Thank You God. God is all. Help us to resolve our fears and weaknesses. In you all things are possible. Thank you God. We know. God made us so. Keep your eye on God. God is. He always was. He always will be. No matter what… it is God. He is gracious and merciful. It is most important that I know Thee. Words, sounds, speech, men, memory, thoughts, fears and emotions–time–all related…all made from one… all made in one. Blessed be his name. Thought waves–heat waves–all vibrations–all paths lead to God. Thank you God…” – John Coltrane (1964, liner notes to A Love Supreme)

Some find concrete religious symbolism in Coltrane’s work, particularly tied to the Christianity of his childhood. Yet in the pivotal later years beginning with A Love Supreme, Coltrane did not see himself as a Christian. Price understands the seven-year period beginning with Coltrane’s breaking his drug happen in 1957 as a time when “he also merged his religion and his music, fusing them into an inseparable bond. The religion was nothing without the music and the music was nothing without the religion.”* So far so good. But part of Price’s argument is tied to locating embedded religious meaning in Coltrane’s use of triplet note patterns throughout this period. He may be right, but what connection can we make between an artist’s choice of materials and what is conveyed to the listener?

Music is inherently abstract. When there are lyrics, unless those lyrics lock other musical elements into fixed, even semantic meanings (and sometimes doesn’t the music resist or push back?), one can say: this symbol holds x, y, or z concrete meaning. But music more often communicates highly subjective emotions that are heard differently by each listener. Is there significance, beyond analysis or anecdote, to the use of a particular musical device? Opera composer Richard Wagner sought to embed ideas within his “Ring” cycle, but unless one has memorized the intended meaning of each of these many musical figures, they become just elements within the musical fabric. Remember too that other jazz musicians, including Coltrane Quartet drummer Elvin Jones used triplets throughout their work.
[*Emmett G. Price II, “The Development of John Coltrane’s Concept of Spirituality and Its Expression in Music”]


5. Coltrane titled the four sections of A Love Supreme: “Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” “Psalm.” But what relationship can we draw between what may (or may not) have been Coltrane’s original intention behind these titles, and what the listener receives or perceives? Is the value of the religious impulse relevant largely to the composer’s own internal experience? Maybe this is sufficient. Is it possible that Coltrane’s own relationship of meaning changed between conception and performance–particularly when involved other musicians are involved? Can the meaning change?

Might the titles describe Coltrane’s “spiritual transformation or ascent” as some have suggested? If so, what is the significance of this deeper meaning or narrative for the listener? All listeners today experience this work outside of the original recording studio and club settings. Those were not places conducive to religious experience! What then if the listener’s intention is specifically to attempt to re-experience Coltrane’s religious journey? Or to treat the recording as impetus for personal religious experience…? How does this affect the relationship between the titles (or the music itself) and what the listener experiences?


6. “My music is the spiritual expression of what I am — my faith, my knowledge, my being… When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hangups… I want to speak to their souls.”
– John Coltrane [from an interview, quoted in Lewis Porter: John Coltrane, His Life and Music. University of Michigan Press, 1999]

Being a musician is personally useful in a deeper way once one moves beyond technique or literal realization of a score. The act of playing can then reveals aspects of oneself that you do not otherwise know. Often this occurs during trance-like moments, when one becomes less conscious of what specifically one is playing. What does Coltrane mean when describing his music as a “spiritual expression of… my being?” If Coltrane were mining his inner self, what would he be looking for? What would he see, learn, or know? What do you the listener sense of your own self in what you hear? If this were your own performance–can you imagine that while listening–what might you learn about, expose, hide… about your own self?

Coltrane suggested on several occasions in the 1960s that a deeper search is what his music was about, not about playing tunes! What the musician can discover-if one pays close enough attention-can be the pretty, the ugly, the embarrassing, the source of pride, the celebration, the mourning, the loss, the surprise discovery… about oneself. Making music becomes a kind of meditation. The Tibetan Buddhist tradition referred to as Vipassana, at least as translated into American culture, teaches that when one is silent, one can notice the contents of one’s thoughts. Instead of stillness, one can experience the chaotic activity and confusion of what actually goes on within our heads, the stuff from which we usually distract ourselves.

Among the sources of this approach might have been Coltrane’s reading of Jiddu Krishanmurti’s writings. You can find a wide assortment of these here:

Krishnamurti used the term “meditation” not in the usual manner—as a technique—but as a way of being. Listen to Krishnamurti (many of his writings were actually delivered as oral discourses and then transcribed):

“Meditation is to be aware of every thought and of every feeling, never to say it is right or wrong but just to watch it and move with it. In that watching you begin to understand the whole movement of thought and feeling. And out of this awareness comes silence. Silence put together by thought is stagnation, is dead, but the silence that comes when thought has understood its own beginning, the nature of itself, understood how all thought is never free but always old – this silence is meditation in which the meditator is entirely absent, for the mind has emptied itself of the past.”

“Meditation is a state of mind which looks at everything with complete attention, totally, not just parts of it. And no one can teach you how to be attentive. If any system teaches you how to be attentive, then you are attentive to the system and that is not attention.”

[- J. Krishnamurti, Freedom from the Known]

So, again, what does it mean to learn about oneself? Krishnamurti offers some useful guidance, noting that “knowledge” implies something that is fixed. Rather, one’s being changes from instant to instant. As soon as one fixes on a particular impression-turned-to-“knowledge,” time has passed and what one is aware of is now a memory, impeding the ability to notice what is actually true in the moment.

“… I know nothing about myself. I don’t start with a conclusion – I am god, I am not a god, I am the state, I am not the state, I am the world, I am not the world, or I am the world – I know nothing. Right? So I begin there. I know nothing. What I know is what other people have told me. Propaganda. What I know, what I am is the result of what others have made me. Or in reaction to the world I am. So I really don’t know anything. Right? So I can begin to learn. Right? May I go on? No please, share together. It is not just I go on talking. As I know nothing I begin to learn. So I must find out what it means to learn. What does it mean to learn, not knowing anything, what does it mean to learn? I know, I have to learn a language – Italian, Greek, French or whatever it is. And I store up the words, the meaning of the words, the verbs, the irregular verbs, and so on. So I know a language. I know how to ride a bicycle, drive a car, dig in the garden, or run a machine. I know all that, but actually beyond the technological knowledge I know absolutely nothing about myself. Can we start from there? Can you honestly say, ‘I really don’t know anything about myself’ – not out of despair, not out of a sense of frustration: not knowing myself I am going to commit suicide! You follow?

“… What do you mean by saying you know nothing about myself. What I am. Why I do this. Why I think that. What are the motives, the impressions, the… you understand? I know nothing about myself except the technological knowledge, the information, the activity in that field. So I know nothing about myself. I only know what people have said to me about myself – the philosophers, the analysts, the psychoanalysts, the mothers, the fathers, the books – I put all that aside. So I am going to learn – learn about myself. And so before I use that word, I must find out what it means to learn.

“If I learn about myself, does that learning lead to knowledge about myself, and from that knowledge I act – you are following? I want to learn about myself – learn. What does that mean? I have learnt a language, ride a bicycle and so on. Myself is a living thing, isn’t it? Changing, demanding, asking, lust, anger – all that. I must learn about all that. Now if I learn about anger, that learning can leave the residue as knowledge. Right? From that knowledge I act. Therefore I have stopped learning. I wonder if you understand this?”

[- J. Krishnamurti, Second Public Dialogue at Brockwood Park, September 1973]


7. Coltrane’s work from 1965 until his death in 1967 is too often viewed in terms of its abstraction, relentless intensity–and not as often in terms of spiritual expression. I experience it as intensely emotional music, in some ways not unlike how I experience the act of actually playing music, or how I hear late Romanticism in the music of early Schoenberg or late Wagner. A large body of music exists that reflects the dynamics of periods when conventions of harmony, melody, and rhythm have been pushed to their limits. This is true for both these composers, and certainly Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, and others as the 1950s came to an end.

Listen to John Coltrane’s Meditations (1965, recorded near the end of Coltrane’s Quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones) and to Interslellar Space (1967 duets with drummer Rashied Ali). Ok, Live in Seatle with his final band and… ok, I’m opening up the door to too large a body of great work, so stay with Meditations and Interstellar Space as openers!

Here’s what I suggest you do:

Listen closely through the entirety of Meditations. Listen a second time and then…

Describe in writing Coltrane’s playing, the textures, what they evoke in you.

Choose a fast movement and listen two more times and write again. Write more. Aim for interesting musical details but also images, colors, feelings, patterns, dream sequences you personally experience.

Movement one: what would this look like if it were a painting? A folk song? A building?

Try the same with one of the quieter movements.

Beyond Coltrane’s own personal expression-and that is obviously a strong focus of this music-would this work be the same without the saxophonist’s engagement with the other players? As yourself how the musicians are musically interacting? What are they “saying” to one another, as if this were a conversation? How do they support, jab, foment, ignore, spur on Coltrane? Listen to pairs of players—Coltrane with Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner with Jimmy Garrison…

Ask yourself: “what is Coltrane discovering? What is he revealing? What does he have to offer to you the listener.” What do you think he discovered about himself? Is it true that the longer he plays, more of himself is revealed, warts and all? What do you notice about yourself while listening? Your discomforts, resistance, confusions-maybe these at first-but maybe followed by moments of engagement, passages you want to re-hear, joyful moments, and emotions you experience?


8. As an improvising musician, I have experienced art as a vehicle for discovery–discovery of the world and discovery of one’s own self. Personally, music and visual art making began early in the development of my language skills. Music, especially, became a primary means of my own self-expression and it has been a significant avenue through life for my interaction and relationships with others. Music is a prime way by which I often speak, despite my love of language. I also took fifteen years away from playing and so learned about how life is possible in other modes. There are advantages to not having to practice the piano! Yet ultimately I returned and continue my relationship with music as a performer and composer.

I discuss at length the spiritual experience encountered by members of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band in my 2012 book You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band (University of Chicago Press). Beginning with their November 1970 month-long engagement at a Chicago supper club, the band found the process of collective music making driven by intuition, close listening and response, joy in discovery, and commitment to living in the moment to guide their musical journey.


9. Coltrane’s Ascension (1965), his collective work for ten musicians, is on one level evocative of the wild abandon of New Orleans jas up to the 1920s, and in another way, the cacophony of parallel play and juxtaposition championed (completely independently?) by Ornette Coleman and John Cage. But for some, including me, it maybe be suggestive of Coltrane’s early experiences in ectastic charismatic churches. He was raised in the Black church, in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME Zion) tradition, in North Carolina. Imagine, literally or non-literally, the multiple horn textures during ensemble passages replicating people speaking in tongues, calling and responding with the preacher at will with multiple layers of “amens…?” What do you think?


10. “To be able to pray is to know how to stand still and to dwell upon a word. This is how some worshippers of the past would act: ‘They would repeat the same word many times, because they loved and cherished it as much that they could not part from it.’’”
– Abraham Joshua Heschel [Man’s Quest for God, available in many editions]

Coltrane made use of highly repetitive structures in his work during the 1960s. A phrase would be repeated, varied, turned upside down and sideways, again, again, and again. Is this a form of prayer as understood by Heschel?


11. I recall spending summers as a young child during the early 1960s, at a lake colony called “Golden’s  Bridge.”  This was a setting that was founded in thd 1950s by political activists. At times, freedom riders would begin their journey at that colony. We would gather and sing political folk songs, most often “Freedom Songs” of the Civil Rights movement, knowing that within a few days they would cross the Mason Dixon line and likely be brutally attacked. Collectively sung folk songs and spirituals played a key motivational role in that movement, as they have in the Black church. Hymns of praise and hope have from ancient times brought people together. Coltrane’s musical journey encompassed a panoply of the inspirational music of the gospel church, the traditionally secular expression of frustration and desperation found in the blues, the intense virtuosic of the bebop movement, the discipline of big bands, and the interpersonal interplay of Miles Davis’s first great Quintet of the mid-1950s, followed by the beginning of his quest to move beyond the constraints of conventional harmonic and rhythmic structures. This involved endless hours of private musical practice in which he explored all sorts of scales and patterns, in their infinite permutations and combinations. He had a tremendous reservoir to draw upon in strictly musical terms. All of it could be brought to bear in the service of deper personal expression, emotional and spiritual. Would the latter have been possible in a deep way without all that preceded?


12. The term “creative music” was championed by the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago in the mid-1960s. My understanding of the term is about the project to point musicians away from that which is repeatable, marketable and consumer driven to that which is that which is expressive of the moment. True, the AACM, at its core an organization dedicated to establishing new, sustainable means of and venues for music making  for Black musicians, placed a priority upon original musical composition (rather than improvisation as the primary value). On this point, read George Lewis’s magisterial history A Power Stronger than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press, 2008). Compositions by affiliated composers could often spur or structure within open improvisation. One challenge related to my larger present topic was how recordings of AACM works could be disceminated to reach a listening public in a musical world dominated by the corporate “music industry” Does music that is unique, unrepeatable and humanly focused change when it enters a system that is commodity and profit-driven?


13. The 1960s and 70s work of the AACM sparked musicians around the world, beginning with Black musicians, to explore musical collectively (as well as performances of original compositions). Sun Ra’s Arkestra played a parallel role, as did Charles Mingus’s Jazz Workshop, and the 1970s Creative Music Studios retreats in Woodstock, New York (Karl Berger, Anthony Braxton, Carla Bley and others). Of course these are just some of many important examples.

One aspect of 20th century Euro-American music, especially composers such as John Cage and the early minimalists (Frederick Rzewski’s “Le Mouton de Panurge and Terry Riley’s “In C” come to mind) is an impulse to recapture communal functions of music. Such works motivated collective improvisation, where the expression of the individual and the sound of the whole were inseparable. Some, like David Darling, Paul Winter, and Bobby McFerrin have sought to engage non-professional or “amateur” musicians in freely flowing collective music making.

How can the process of collective improvisation become a useful tool for non-musicians or those who are not professional musicians in their search for personal and collective expression and introspection?


14. “[God is] the sum of the animating, organizing forces and relationships which are forever making a cosmos out of chaos. This is what we understand by God as the creative life of the universe. Religion is the endeavor to invoke these animating and organizing forces and relationships and to get us to place ourselves in rapport with them.”

“To produce art is to be creative, to give new meaning to reality. Since the experience of value in life constitutes our knowledge of God, all sincere art is sacred.”

–  Mordecai M. Kaplan [The Meaning of God in Jewish Religion, New York: Reconstructionist Press, 1962].

Mordecai Kaplan, offering a non-supernaturalist, religious humanist theology, considered creativity and artistic expression to be central attributes of human existance. For Kaplan, the universe, as it were, is a place alive with creativity. By being creative, people imitate God, regardless of whether one conceptualizes God as a force, personality or indwelling. Can music be a secular manner of engaging the religious impulse and understanding suggested by Kaplan?


15. “Whoever says You (“Du”) does not have something; he (sic) has nothing. But he stands in relation.” –Martin Buber

The relationship between Art and commerce is complex and much discussed. Much contemporary music, film, and art is designed for popular consumption, as entertainment. I’ve alluded to the dilemma of non-commercial work entering the marketplace.

The internet age promised a more open society wherein everyone could disseminate their own work and everybody could access all forms of music. Yet things have not turned out in the manner musicians anticipated. Most music is either marketed via and/or for corporate interests, or for free, or both. Individual entrepreneurship has grown yet faces tremendous obstacles in a time of free downloads and internet subscription services that offer meager profits to musicians. The nexus between music and commerce is hardly new, but has the present situation changed the nature of music making? Does the advent of the individual track download turn all music into an object, a commodity? Has the result de-sacralized the process of musical engagement for depth inward expression? Is there an appropriate—or possible–role for Art as a healer in the breach between human values and objects for consumption?

To simply state that commerce de-sacralizes art would be overly simplistic. To suggest that art should belong in a pristine domain separate from the realities of the world is not only a high Modernist idea, but one that is reminiscent of the body-mind split of the Hellenistic-rooted West. In traditional and non-western cultures, there is no clear distinction between life (work, play, ritual, dance, celebration…) and what in the West is the creation and distinctly aesthetic contemplation of work called Art.

Commerce is so deeply imbedded in our culture for it to be possible for art–or anything else–to function totally independent of it. Artists need material sustenance and the fulfillment of desires to have their works viewed and heard by audiences. The AACM explored viable alternatives to move art outside of an exploitative economy; what are routes today towards a livable path for artists beyond holding jobs as educators or in the service industries? In an age of reduced public support for artists and the arts, this is a critical question.


16. A final issue far larger to address easily within the scope of this essay is this: the role of music as a revolutionary force in oppressive societies. The example of Dmitri Shostokovich as a supporter, yet at times persecuted, by Joseph Stalin has been discussed by Alex Ross in his 2009 book The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Shostokovich was expected to produce easily accessible works that celebrated the party line of Soviet national struggle and triumph. In contrast, in South Africa, popular and traditional songs inspired and sustained the overthrough of apartheid. The question I raise is this: if music can challenge an oppressive order, need it be populist and accessible to all? Is there a place for music that is more challenging and thus less easily accessible yet as a consequence, aesthetically disruptive? Frank Kofsky and Amiri Baraka (formerly Leroi Jones) each interpreted the later work of John Coltrane as a revolutionary force precisely due to the latter qualities. [Kofsky, Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music, 1970; Jones/Baraka, Black Music (1966), Da Capo Press 1998, excerpts are included in The Leroi Jones / Amiri Baraka Reader, Basic Books 1999]. What is a productive yet deeply expressive role of Art as an instrument of social awareness, critique and change?

~ by bobgluck on December 22, 2013.

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