Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Lost In the Music

I was once again watching Alanis Morissette's Feast on Scraps concert DVD, and as usual I was struck by how the band gets lost in the music and seems to go into a collective trance state while they play. Alanis herself often whirls like a Mevlevi dervish and vocalizes not unlike a Pentecostal speaking in tongues. Guitarist Jason Orm especially, of all the backing musicians, seems to go into a trance, closing his eyes and tilting his head back and just letting his fingers do what they know to do. It's a moving experience to watch them perform.

Music has the ability to move us to a different place than the one our bodies are inhabiting. Music, especially heavily rhythmic music, creates an ecstatic trance state and is often used by religious mystics to achieve "union" with their divinity. It loosens inhibition, and dancing to this kind of musc often becomes quite erotic. And it's this ability to create ecstasy, this ability to move a human being beyond the bonds and inhibitions of the body, that frightens fundamentalist or totalitarian religious/political hierarchies to ban it. What was the first thing the Ayatollah Khomeini's regime did on taking over Iran? They banned popular and Sufi music. Ditto the Taliban in Afghanistan. Pakistan's world-famous qawwal singers (qawwal is another Sufi-inspired trance music, but based on Indian musical styles and techniques) are banned by the Taliban in the Northwest Provinces and whenever there's a hard-line Islamic government in control in the rest of the country. The Nazi regime in Germany in the 1930s banned American Jazz and various modern composers (Hitler especially despised the woks of Igor Stravinsky, most notably his Rite of Spring), as did the Soviet and Maoist communist regimes, for the same reasons.

In America, various conservative and fundamentalist Protestant churches preach against the Blues, Jazz, R&B, and Rock & Roll, for the very same reasons - the release of inhibition scares the willies out of them. American popular music was often the target of hellfire-and-brimstone sermons in the revival tents of the early 20th Century, and even now the so-called "Religious right" considers much of American popular music to be degrading and a sign that Satan rules triumphant in the US.

There are American Christians who let loose under the influence of music. They're Pentecostals, especially the African-American Pentecostal churches, who believe that the Holy Spirit comes down and moves them, often in scenes like this, a praise break led by preacher Richard Smallwood:

Whew! I'm all worked up just watching that! Those folks got the Spirit for sure! But most white evangelical and fundamentalist churches, and even some African-American churches, condemn this as secular exhibitionism if not outright demon possession, rather than as possession by the Holy Spirit. They point at it's descent from African dance (which is both secular and religious) and the dedication of that dance to African deities they consider demons. Of course they're right about it having descended from African dance, as this video clip from a dance party in Guinea, West Africa demonstrates when compared to the dancing in the praise break video:

You know, I feel really sorry for the people who just can't let go and let the moment take over, and who feel it their duty to condemn those who can. They inhabit a narrow, bleak, colorless, stark, and claustrophobic universe of their own invention, a prison they themselves have created, and ruled over by a god, also of their own invention, who is as narrow and colorless as they are. How can they live like that? And can how they live really be considered living?

Meanwhile, those of us who inhabit the real universe listen and dance to music that lifts us up and transports us. And I'll continue to watch Alanis and the gang as the awen descends and moves "Sympathetic Character" above mere music and takes it into the realm of transcendence.

Artwork & text © 2010 by A. Roy Hilbinger


  1. So many things we do take for granted; you're spot on here, Roy. And pretty cool new avatar!

  2. We saw Tinariwen at the Cambridge Folk festival about four years ago. Now there was a loosened up audience!

  3. I sing far more than dance, but I do know about getting lost in the music.

  4. I was raised in an ultra fundamentalist religion. Thank God I inhabit the real universe now.

    That top self portrait is way cool, Roy!

  5. well said!!!

    I have long felt that getting lost in music is definitely one the best ways to alter one's consciousness and expand one's awareness and connect.... of course that is what makes it so threatening to the likes of people (and systems) that want complete domination.

    interesting how you liken it to inhabiting the real universe..... what exactly is real anyway? ha ha!

  6. I love it when a band finds a groove, which among western musicians is in my experience a uniquely American phenomena. It necessarily involves some risk taking, but the potential payoff is huge.

    A few years back, I saw Dr John. For the first couple of numbers, the band was capable but stiff. Then he started singing "Blue Skies," and found a connection with his guitar player. The rest of the show, the band was like a flying carpet: lighter than air, swooping and diving, and majestically above we mere mortals.

    I have never heard anything like that from a Brit or Euro band. They have their strengths, but improvising isn't one of them.

  7. this was really great and you one of the things that I really hate most about whacking the head? The loss of music...too much stimulation which causes irritation and exhaustion. I am out of the loop, and unlike before when I was surrounded by music I now very rarely will turn it on.

    So watch out and protect the brain everybody!