There are good reasons why critics generally avoid the topic of transcendental experience. I think most of us have had experiences with music, or with other art works, in which we felt we had gained access to some higher truth or beauty, but these moments are very private. They occur with different people in different contexts, and they can be very difficult, even embarrassing, to talk about. Neither aestheticians nor psychologists nor religious scholars are able to really define such experiences or explain what makes them happen. Are transcendental musical experiences all essentially the same or are there several basic types? Is there a clear line between those that are transcendental and those that are not, or is it a matter of degree? I am not convinced that there are definitive answers to such questions. Nor am I convinced that the ability of a work to stimulate a transcendental experience has much to do with its craftsmanship or quality. I can recall an evening many years ago when I was carried away by my first hearing of Ravel’s ‘Bolero,’ a piece that I now regard as second-rate. On the other hand, I have often gleaned profound enjoyment from Mozart’s ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik,’ even though it has never actually carried me off to the Elysian fields, or wherever it is that people go when music carries them away. Despite all this, it seems essential, at least once in a while, to admit that works of art can provoke otherworldly experiences, and that this is probably the main reason why many people listen to music. And since I recently had two musical experiences on two consecutive nights in which I felt transported, this seems like a good time to broach the topic.
First experience: It is May 29 and I have entered Phill Niblock’s loft where Takehisa Kosugi is presenting a concert in the Experimental Intermedia series. The performance area is dark except for two spotlights, which are focused tightly on small electric fans that swing back and forth very slowly at two corners of the room. The image is curious, and I engage in some preconcert punning with a friend sitting nearby. ‘Look, some new music fans.’ ‘Maybe they’re Japanese fans.’ ‘Let’s hope Kosugi doesn’t fan out.’ It seems improbable that the artist had any such thoughts in mind. It is a warm night, after all, and he no doubt set up the fans simply to keep the air circulating. But why put spotlights on them if the point is to cool off the room? And isn’t it true that objects necessarily take on the connotations of the words that represent them? Or maybe the composer was interested in the extremely faint humming of the little motors. But wait. The fans are placed near loudspeakers. Is it possible that the movement of the air is causing slight acoustical alterations in the signals coming over the sound system? At the moment the loudspeakers are emitting a very soft irregular clicking, and the fans don’t seem to have any effect. As I listen, though, I find that the clicking is as difficult to interpret as the fans. Is it ordered or random? Prerecorded or automatic? Does it suggest sounds of wood, mere electronic sputtering, or some bizarre species of insect? Everything tonight seems to mean something, but I find it quite impossible to assign definite meanings, and as the live performance begins the situation grows increasingly paradoxical.
The composer enters very slowly, holding a small object tightly against his ear. He seems to be listening very intently as he inches along, taking perhaps four or five seconds for each step. When he arrives at his electronic equipment at the center of the space, he turns on a cassette and begins mixing in other electronic sounds, but I find that I am not paying much attention. I am disoriented by the darkness, the fans, the contradictions, the questions. Later Kosugi takes out his violin and improvises against the electronic sounds, but his back is to the audience, and he is playing softly, and I can’t focus my attention on that very well either. The concert creeps along as the composer mixes the electronics again, walks again, and plays the violin again, and as we move into the second hour it seems clear that there will be no intermission and that the event will continue for some time. Eventually I become completely exhausted from attempting to find meanings and resolve contradictions, and rather bored with the whole thing. About this time I find my attention suddenly riveted on Kosugi. He is walking again and listening to that object he holds in his hand. But it is not him any more, and I am in some other place far away, and for a moment everything seems completely clear. It is as if I have finally pieced through my intellectual and verbal obstacles and understood, at least briefly, the meaning of a difficult musical koan.
Second experience: It is May 30 and Pauline Oliveros has just stepped up to the microphone to begin her concert at the Kitchen. She is wearing tails but has bare feet. She begins with a few jokes about how she is wearing the tails in order to demonstrate that Californians do dress up sometimes, and how the tails had been borrowed from avant-garde oboeist Joseph Celli, who had them left over from his earlier career as a symphony musician. She adds that the coat also allows her to live out her fantasy of wanting to be an animal with a tail, and she continues to receive warm chuckles from the audience. She is playing the emcee, a role I have never seen her play, and I am pleased to see the serious composer so relaxed. Everyone seems to be glad they came. Gradually Oliveros begins to explain that the concert is to consist of ‘sonic meditations and other entertainments’ and that the first one will be ‘MMM (Lullaby for Daisy Pauline, born Sept. 19, 1979).’ We are asked to think of our own favorite infants, or recall images from our own infancy if we can, and to sing ‘mmm’ if we feel like it. As a background she plays the sounds of crickets and cicadas, recorded near Houston, just after a violent storm.
As the gorgeous insect calls begin to fill the room at a soft volume, I find myself wanting to hum along, partly because I know how beautiful Oliveros’s group choral music can be and want this performance to work too, and mostly because it seems more interesting to become involved rather than just to observe. I hum softly, so softly that even the people right 1980/new-music-america-takes-over-a-town to me would barely be able to hear me, and I feel quite content. Perhaps four or five minutes into the piece I begin to realize that a number of others in the audience are humming equally softly. A massive chord is beginning to rise in the room and I am part of it. I try to listen to it as if it were a piece of music, but after a while, all attempts to regard the shimmering chord as music, as something outside myself, as other, begin to fail. I become completely lost in the sound and its immense tenderness, and my humming begins to be automatic, almost unconscious. For a few seconds, or perhaps for a few minutes, I lose all sense of time.
We still have no real definition of transcendental musical experience, no evidence that anyone else in these two audiences was experiencing anything similar, and no proof that either Kosugi or Oliveros were directly responsible for what happened in my own psyche. I would even hesitate to say that my experience means I was hearing beautiful music. In the West beauty is generally determined by criteria more appropriate to philosophical dialogue and language. Still, it seemed worthwhile to attempt a personal testimony. I suspect that many readers will be able to identify with these experiences.