Friday, October 22, 2010

The Transcendent Function

Carl Jung termed "the transcendent function" the attempt to bridge the span between the conscious and unconscious realms. The Jungian analyst and author James Hollis describes this function as "the meeting point of inner and outer worlds."

Hollis is persuasive in his advocacy for the psychologically fertile life of the soul and decries the loss of "essential mystery" in the modern age. He says "being psychological means that one will need to find the new, the personal myth from within."

I couldn't agree more and am ever so grateful to have a vocation (a literal "calling") that is primarily concerned with the "transcendent function" of music as a medium through which meaning is created and experienced.

My notes in the post below discuss the program of music of the Baroque era and the subsequent three centuries with which the Chorale opens its 27th season tonight.

With every season, my passion for music and my desire to communicate its transcendent function(s) deepens. My teachers who predicted I'd outgrow my idealism are mistaken. That idealism has been challenged and remains in tension with the realities of life in our materialist, consumerist, escapist and sensationalist age. That tension underscores my sense of vocation in presenting programs of music that transcend mere "entertainment."

If the life of the soul was given more primacy in our culture, such statements would be rendered obsolete. It would be unnecessary to differentiate between sensory appealing "entertainment" and soul-stirring "art" if the latter was as much a staple in the collective life of the present age.

Instead we have put "art" up on a pedestal and appeal with moral arguments about its value while simultaneously apologizing for elevating it in the first place ("Beethoven for Dummies" anyone?).

William Blake opens his aphoristic poem, Auguries of Innocence with this quatrain:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Hollis calls this chain of images a vision "to glimpse the movement of deeper currents."

Music is full of entire worlds glimpsed from within a single grain. Near the close of the first half of tonight's concert we will juxtapose a Gabrieli Sanctus for 16 voices (3 four-part choirs and brass quartet) with a radiant 4-voice setting of the Sanctus by the contemporary Swedish composer, Jan Sandström.

Today's Virginian-Pilot featured a front page article about the Chrysler Museum and the imminent opening of its new glass studio. The story featured a photo of a beautiful vase by the Italian glass sculptor Lino Tagliapietra, just one treasure in a collection which is one of the finest in the world.

The Gabrieli Sanctus is a musical gem from the "Star of the Sea," AKA Venice, a city as beloved for its glass work as its splendid music. Sandström's Sanctus is like a a piece of finely wrought crystal, shimmering with brilliance, its simplicity an inseparable aspect of its elegance.

The text of the Sanctus (from the Communion rite in the Christian tradition) consists of one line of poetry from one of the prophet Isaiah's dreams. The fantastic vision described by the prophet featured the six-winged celestial creatures known as seraphim who call to one another with one of the most famous doxologies in the western world:

"Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God of Hosts;
Heaven and Earth are full of his glory."

One of the functions of so much of the music the Chorale sings (which may or may not be transcendent) is a mediating one. Choral music is one of the best ways humankind has found to mediate between the sacred and secular realms. And through this music, those two opposed worlds are not mutually exclusive.

Through Jung, Hollis demonstrates how symbol and metaphor are primary means of engendering meaning. They carry the energy that enlivens the image or representation; in them lies the power behind our myths, stories and religious traditions.

Walter Benjamin wrote of the power of words themselves when considered on their own as symbols. The "word as Idea" thus demonstrates how language itself is a medium for meaning (beyond the aspects of communication which convey our surface meanings in daily conversation).

Benjamin cites Adam as the first harbinger of the transcendent function of language by the power invested in the first human being in naming his fellow creatures.

This is a discursive way of suggesting the aesthetic qualities inherent in sacred traditions often go unnoticed. Appreciating these qualities for their intrinsic value is essential--from the philosophical & artistic position of Adam as creative being to the imaginative visions of the prophets to the poetry contained in the sacred books of the great traditions.

Put another way, religions' tendencies to absolutize their traditions are impediments to appreciating their concordant aesthetic virtues. It is not irreverent to read the Psalms as literature and appreciate them as poetry; it is essential. And it is this approach (intimated above via the references from Glass art to dreams) that offers points of entry for those outside a tradition.

While the Sanctus settings cited above will resonate with a practicing Catholic in concrete ways, membership in that church is not required for access to the felicities of both (widely differentiated) settings of Isaiah's vision.

And if I may be so bold to say, felicities abound in this program. The Gabrieli and Sandström form the heart of the concert's first half. The program is bookended by entertaining "bon-bons" in the form of new arrangements for voices and brass of some of Handel's most famous instrumental tunes. Benjamin described the Baroque as "an age possessed of an unremitting artistic will." That "unremitting will" is focused on the sheer joy of production in our Handel arrangements.

Speaking of "artistic will," one of J. S. Bach's great motets opens the second half. Its polyphonic texture is an exercise in musical dialogue and offers the audience the opportunity to improve their listening skills. Daniel Barenboim has drawn an apt analogy between the process of listening to music--hearing, discerning and following more than one voice at a time--and creating the conditions for fostering productive dialogue between diverse people(s) and nations.

The music of James MacMillan is rich with the influence of divergent voices, and the two motets we sing span the gamut from the mystical and contemplative to the ecstatic and visionary. The Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque traditions meet Scottish bagpipes and Islamic muezzin in an evocative sound world resonant with meanings.

Benjamin describes the "feeling of dizziness induced by the spectacle of the [spiritual] contradictions" inherent in any attempt at analysis or criticism. His lyrical and philosophical prose is engaging as it is challenging and he argues against deductive reasoning that eschews divergent extremes and smooths out variations. Our tendency to overgeneralize and oversimplify risks missing the vertiginous thrills towards which the numinous beckons.

Kile Smith's 16-voice version of a 16th century Lutheran Hymn gets my--and the Chorale's--vote for the dizzying thrill of live encounters with the numinous. Hearing a four-voice hymn open into a splendid blossom of 16 individual, interconnected parts is an experience unto itself, a metaphor perfumed with resonances, vibrating with meaning.

Hollis challenges his readers to "risk attending to this liberating principle of resonance." I think this music is one of the best means we have to do just that.

And if any of my examples above fail to strike the proverbial chord within, just listen to the music. It knows more than I ever will.

[quotations from: Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, James Hollis. Gotham, 2006. The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Walter Benjamin. Verso, 1998).

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