Why I Play You Music (A Letter To My Students)

The chanson “Belle, bonne, sage” by Baude Cordier

Pay attention. This is, above all else, what I want you to learn to do. Pay attention to your experiences, which are fierce with richness you have not begun to understand.

A Jesuit named Bernard Lonergan taught me this, though I have not taught you about him. There is much that I intend for you in hidden ways, and much that I never intend to teach you at all. You will never know everything, and I will never be able to give you everything. We both need to get used to that.

So pay attention. It will teach you more than any book, course, or professor can.

Music teaches us many things about paying attention. Any song, any song at all, will entice us into attention we tend not to offer to the world: all music immerses us in the secret elements of sound and silence. Especially good music.

Yes, there is good music. And bad.

But I’ll not push that point too hard. We are, all of us, rather afraid of acknowledging universal values – especially when it comes to what is beautiful. So let us leave that thought where it is, ghosting the periphery from what is really the heart.

Music is beautiful (kalon). This means it calls (kalein) us to itself with the gentle force of which only the beautiful is capable: only beauty attracts us in ways we follow willingly. Like a soft sound that turns our heads. Like a beautiful face that halts us in our steps. Like sudden sunlight through a window. We experience the intrusion of beauty without any violence: we welcome its call to move out of ourselves (ekstasis, ecstasy).

Here, students, I have all at once gestured toward Greek philosophy, Christian mysticism, and theological aesthetics. Entire worlds of thought and experience for which we do not have the time. There are many doors to many worlds. I hope that you find all of them.

We have a natural sympathy for music. We love it without questioning our love for it, and this is rare in our age. Hold on to music, then, and listen to its hold on you: the grip of felt chords, the unbidden press of memories, the touch of layered notes. Only music is able to bear more than one sound at once; only music can mimic speech without words; only music can withstand multiple measured times. And these are multiplicities that you are able to hear and know without acknowledging any of it. These are experiences you know how to make sense of without being taught.

Music is only heard in its playing. Even to remember it is not really to experience it. Unlike almost any form, music reaches us from a place of irreducible freedom: we cannot control it, though we might try to delude ourselves, because it only comes to us when it is offered and never otherwise. A painting can be examined for a small eternity, and long after its artist has died. So also with poems, books, plays. But a song will remain notes on a page, or dormant patterns of grooves, or programmed digital silence until it is played. (Perhaps dance is this way, too, but dance relies on music – even if that music rests only in the unspoken metric space of the dancers.)

What music teaches us about our attention is that our capacity is always receptive to more than one reality even if that reality appears single and entire. It teaches us that we are not the architects of most, if not all, of our reality. That this lack of control is not a threat, that we love this lack and yearn for more of it. That we can share the same experience – as when we all listen to the same song – and that it comes to us differently while remaining the same.

This bears repeating: we can receive the same thing differently, and it remains both the same and different.

We can share – identically and uniquely – at the same time.

This is fundamental to our existence, and for the most part goes on unnoticed. But I want you to notice it. Pay attention to it: the coexistence of the unrepeatable and the repeatable. The communicated and the incommunicable.

We have been talking about God together. About the Christian God, the one who – it is believed – became one of us. This is several kinds of impossible, this claim. Unless we learn from music.

The absolutely unique God became just like us. We have studied how Christians believe this accomplishes two things all at once: it affects absolutely all of us through what is never to be repeated again, and it achieves what we could not by embracing what we can. This strange coincidence of total uniqueness with comprehensive effectiveness is peculiar to Christianity, and to Christianity alone. It makes sense or nonsense of the whole religion.

How does this one man change the fate of every human being? How does his singular experience of history shift all of history? And how does his unique command of our destiny resist collapsing the rest of us into itself? We have to, somehow, be really capable of receiving what is singular without the destruction of ourselves, and we have to be really capable of receiving that unique singular without a change to it. Jesus must be the same for all, reaching all, so that God is “all in all” (1Cor 15:28), and he must be always himself while we are always ourselves.

It is music, you see. Divine freedom reaches us like music: singular and complete. Coming to us differently while remaining the same, through the capacities we already possess in order to speak words we do not know. Our very flesh becomes the instrument by which God welcomes us to what we are not: Himself.

It is simple and not at all simple. All I want you to learn, to really learn, is how to pay attention. Attend without guessing what will arrive to you. Attend without insisting what should. Attend without thinking you understand. There is music we have not heard, hidden everywhere in what we hear already.


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