Musicality Book Club, Week 7: Music and Dance as Social Ritual and Personal Meditation

bookLast week was very relaxed, with just a few thoughts on goodness and how we judge it, particularly in the context of dancing with a partner (see The Complexity of Goodness: Musicality Book Club, Week 6). This week I felt much more intellectually engaged with Bridge of Waves. Chapter 6, Music as Story, delves into music as both a social ritual and a personal meditation. Let’s jump right in.

Music and Dance as Social Ritual

In this chapter, Mathieu surveys the various symbolic meanings that can be found in music, including the obvious stories music tells or accompanies (in ballets, movies, and musicals, for example) as well as the more subtle ones that we ascribe to music, including moods, memories, and real or imagined dramas associated with the composition and/or composer. Another meaning comes from music as an event, which can be either participant- or performance-oriented. Mathieu gives a performance example here, but his words can just as easily apply to a participatory one, which is what our social dance events are.

It is instructive to attend a public concert – let’s say in this case a classical music concert featuring Beethoven’s Ninth – while observing, from the very beginning, the ritualistic behaviors so integrated with the particulars of our lives that to us they seem both natural and necessary. Take note of… the careful preparation (what should I wear? how to get there?), the precision of assembly (ushers, seating), followed by the ritual itself: hundreds of people quietly frozen in place, all going through inner experiences separately yet in resonance, a public sharing of the most private chambers of our minds and hearts. To honor the community of the space, decorum is uppermost. We hold our position and we hold our silence. Whispering is bad. Sniffling is bad. Yet there will come moments when everyone’s concentration is so single-pointed that the ritual bond becomes pristine: hundreds of bodies and souls entrained in a complex, transcendent vibratory state…

On one hand, you could play the recording at home alone. This is not the same as public ritual, but to the degree you become engaged there can be a private experience of communion… Is the ritual intrinsic to the creation of the piece? Of any concert piece? How much am I missing by listening alone at home?… I think the answers to these questions tend to evolve over time with your own experience. The questions themselves are stimulating. Posing them holds up for scrutiny the qualities of your listening. [pp. 150-151]

While reading that first paragraph, I found it easy to replace the details of the music concert with those of a social dance event. The codes we subconsciously and consciously abide by create such strong emotions and debates that it seems pretty obvious how much they affect and influence us. Though sometimes we may wish to “just show up and dance,” the truth is that ritual and code enable something, even if we can’t quite identify what that something is.

It reminds me of the function of rules in games and sports. During heated debates about how to interpret this rule or that, some throw up their hands in frustration and shout “let’s just play” while others maintain a sense of the rules being as important as the playing of the game or sport itself. Regardless of which camp you fall into (hopefully avoiding the extremes of both), there’s a certain edge to a competitive game or sport that would be lost were the rules unimportant and not taken seriously. Similarly, there is an edge to social events that etiquette creates. This edge is what makes dancing at a social event so much more satisfying (the majority of the time) than staying at home and dancing with a single partner.

I feel like there’s more to say about this edge, but I’m not sure I have a handle on it yet. How do others feel? What exactly would you miss by dancing at home? Is there something beyond just the organization, music selection, availability of various partners, etc. that would take away from the experience? If you are not dancing to be seen by other people, why the need to get on a dance floor with other couples?

Music and Dance as Personal Meditation

Mathieu describes a “continuum to listening” [p. 164] that travels from “music about something external to itself” (from internal moods and memories to external stories and musical history) to “music that is self-referential” (which social dance music typically is). He recommends observing the references and stories we naturally ascribe to music and then letting them fall away: “The journey along this continuum is experienced as a journey from outside the sound to inside the sound, and finally abides inside you, as you. The ‘purity’ in pure music is the purity of your listening. The abstraction in abstract music refers to the fact that you need nothing but the act of listening to appreciate it” [p. 165].

Here is Mathieu’s advice on how to move from an outside experience to an inside one:

It takes practice to gravitate toward the music-in-itself end of the continuum. But the great gift of music, the miraculous, sumptuous beneficence of it, is that musical sound is an agent of attractive energy… But the best strategy – as good social listeners, practiced therapists, healers of every stripe, and experienced meditators know – is to simply empty out. Stop. Don’t try to do anything. Don’t be following your thoughts, don’t feed them, they’re already plump enough. Wherever you look for meaning, that is where the music will become eclipsed. Like a hawk on a treetop, just wait, and listen with empty ears. Let your hunger for sound be your guide.

“Just listen” is like saying “Just be,” which is, of course, the most difficult road of all to travel, the non-object of objectless meditation. But unlike objectless meditation, music rescues you from the fear of nonbeing in a most splendidly specific form. In this respect it is indeed an object meditation, that is, a collector of consciousness around a single object. The “object” in this case is streaming sound, which we humans have mirrored from the cosmos and extruded, in our finest hours, as music…

I had to learn how thoughts can be deafening, how they mask the inner light of sound. If you want to truly hear a piece of music, then think, reminisce, analyze, or fantasize before or after you hear it. Deep listening takes every iota of your consciousness, and music needs only your full consciousness of its streaming for it to tell its story.

So it appears, Ever-So-Ready Listeners, as though you have to give up. Give up your purring body, your fine mind and all its ideas about what you may find, and listen to the sound of sound. It is hard work to be fully awake to something and at the same time be totally empty. When you do this work, all the rhythms, the harmonies, all the patterns and connections among patterns in the music will come to you of their own accord. They are self-arising, self-explaining, and self-illuminating. When you do the work of the listener, the music will work for you. Given half a chance, the medium does the work. But you can’t just dip a toe into this river. You must strip off everything, immerse fully, nothing dry, let everything be soaked with sound. [pp.165- 167]

What I like about Mathieu is that he doesn’t give in to the temptation of extremes. While he writes about technique, history, context, and other details and background dropping away during pure musical immersion, he seems to view these nuances as essential to getting there in the first place. Quite the paradox, which makes it another one of those yin-yang realities that are so fun to ponder. This brings us to…

A Final Question

Read the following quote before I ask my question:

Music does not give itself up easily. It doesn’t play hard-to-get, exactly, it’s just not a cheap date. If you want to get serious with it you have to pay a lot, and what you have to pay is attention. That means making a space, an inner accommodation in order for this quintessential, unique story to be understood. This is difficult because all the external stories that music can be heard as are most splendidly true, and they can sparkle. Yet they can be attractive distractions from a deeper truth. For me, knowing the story of a piece, it’s intention, it’s performance history, and appreciating the ritualistic aspects of its performance all help to draw me in to the bare sound of the music itself. The more I’m drawn in the more I hear, and the more the light dawns. Perhaps it is a paradox, but the more I know about the program, the more I can let these aspects go and appreciate the pure narrative of the sounds themselves. Context is homework. Having seen the context allows me (in most cases) to let it go and drop into the vortex of the music. [p. 162]

Here’s the question: Do you find this to be true with your musical experience? Does knowing the technical details and other contextual nuances help you to let go and connect deeper with the music? Or does it distract and hinder you?

Mathieu writes elsewhere in this chapter that “Listening to music unadulterated by thought, image, concept, or judgment is what musicians practice when they are practicing, and what they attempt when they perform. In the making of music, there is no room for anything except the sound of music. Although most people have had this experience from time to time, it is difficult to sustain even for those who train for it.” [p. 164]

What qualitative difference do you feel between experiences of pure sound (“inside the sound”) and experiences accompanied by thoughts, images, concepts, and judgments (“outside the sound”)? Are both equally valid, desirable, enjoyable? Is the experience of pure sound the ultimate in musical feeling and expression? What use are the externals if they are meant to fall away?

* * *

Here’s the next post in this series:
Musicality Book Club, Week 8: Feel Out, Feel In

2 comments on Musicality Book Club, Week 7: Music and Dance as Social Ritual and Personal Meditation

  1. LadyLeader
    April 14, 2011 at 7:42 pm (13 years ago)

    Interesting that one of your choises is the aspect of group activity in this chapter. I have been going around with milonga thoughts but I did not connect them to the book. Your thinking was more clear here!

    Do you think rituals could have same function in social life as mantra in spiritual life. A neutral / formal vehicle wich helps us to pass troubled periods in social life or in thoughts. If so rituals maybe help us develope ourselves and get in contact with deeper levels in our life / social life.

    I was more practical about this coming together:
    Pull reason – People like to come together and milonga is a nice ocasion for that! Even hackers, true individuals, have gatherings sitting behind their computers in huge hangars.

    Push reason – Not another evening at home, Need a break
    Many people in our community do not meet people at work or other places during the day .
    Some unprocessed thoughts:
    Sometimes it is easier to meet halfway at a milonga and then go home together or to a milonga you can go without appointments – easy, you do not need to organize your social life.

    I can not think to dance alone with someone unknown at home, it would be too intimate. The crowd and official place regulates the intimacy level.

    Other people doing same thing let/force my attention go inwards – at home all details around me are keeping me more on surfage.

    • Joy in Motion
      April 15, 2011 at 7:44 pm (13 years ago)

      Hi LadyLeader!

      Yes, I definitely think that rituals (can) allow us to reach deeper levels of connection with others, which is why I think they develop and stick around. I think the function of ritual in our social lives serves the same role as repetition/technique in our physical/mental lives. It allows us to get into a groove where we know what to expect in certain areas, freeing us up to pay attention to other areas. So instead of having to worry about setting up a new structure each time, we have one already established that provides a common focus on certain outcomes.

      Also, I think rituals guide people into a certain etiquette and consideration for others. It’s an easy (though not entirely foolproof) way to make sure that members of a social group are accepting the codes and thereby acknowledging that they want to 1) be part of the group and 2) contribute to the overall goal of the group. So of course the issue then becomes how we communicate what our goals are. Leaders in the community have a lot of influence because their actions becomes a guide to others and both consciously and subconsciously communicates what is valued and what is not valued: having fun, being skilled, getting attention, being kind to others, loving the music or loving moves, etc.


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