AMS 2019, MPSG Panel on Mysticism


Chair, Delia Casadei (University of California, Berkeley)

Edwin Li (Harvard University), “Mysticism as Philosophical (Non-)Foundation: Reconstructing a Daoist Critique of Confucian Discourse of Music in Early China”

Karen Leistra-Jones (Franklin and Marshall College), “Summoning Beethoven: Spiritualism and the Act of Performance”

Martin Scherzinger (New York University), “Music’s Xenogenesis (The African Mbira)”

Phil Ford (Indiana University), “Diviner’s Time”


Presenter 1: Edwin Li (Harvard University), “Mysticism as Philosophical (Non-) Foundation: Reconstructing a Daoist Critique of Confucian Discourse of Music in Early China”

Confucian discourse of music in early China has been unambiguously characterized as that which is bound up with the construction of the hierarchy of sound (sheng), tone (yin), and music/joy (yue/le). This unanimous voice can be attributed to the “Book of Music” (Yueji), which has, at its outset, provides readers with a clear definition of the three sonic categories. The Daoist critique of the Confucian musical discourse, however, has engendered incompatible interpretations. Scholars have characterized Daoist musical thought as “nihilistic,” (Yang Yinliu) the opposition of “all kinds of man-made music” (Cai Zhongde), and recently, a questioning of “how to eventually reach musical Dao” (Park So Jeong). In this paper, I attempt to reconstruct a Daoist critique of the Confucian discourse of music, which centers on a philosophical foundation these scholars have neglected: mysticism (xuan). Drawing on Laozi’s Daodejing and the Zhuangzi (especially on the under-appreciated chapters), I argue that mysticism is the form and formlessness of Dao (a state of mind in which one does not assert, and forgets oneself), a philosophical foundation for music when it is not—a philosophical (non)foundation. Laozi expresses this by claiming that the Dao cannot be named, and is the shape that has no shape. In other words, to “reach musical Dao” is not to declare reaching musical Dao. Mysticism thus grounds “music” in groundlessness. I conclude by relating Daoist mysticism to the present, arguing that such an ontological blackhole invites an empathetic understanding of musical experiences beyond humans.

Presenter 2: Karen Leistra-Jones (Franklin and Marshall College), “Summoning Beethoven: Spiritualism and the Act of Performance”

In 1893, a “consecration ceremony” celebrated the opening of a museum in Beethoven’s birth house. The ceremony occurred in the room of Beethoven’s birth and included a performance of the Cavatina from the String Quartet op. 130 by the Joseph Joachim Quartet, playing on instruments once owned by the composer. As numerous contemporary accounts noted, the quasi-religious function of this event and its proximity to Beethovenian relics combined with spoken texts before and after the Cavatina and aspects of the performance itself to create a séance-like experience: the Kölnische Zeitung reported that the audience “believed… that through the eloquent tones [of the Cavatina] his transfigured spirit appeared to proclaim itself in the present.”

The notion of performance as communion with a dead composer is a familiar trope in music criticism. Yet its particular foregrounding in these sources invites a consideration of such rhetoric as more than mere metaphor. In Germany in the 1890s there was widespread interest in mysticism and the occult, including spiritualist séances. While these movements are often described as a counter-cultural reaction to modernity’s rationalizing tendencies, recent scholarship has emphasized their interrelationship with contemporaneous developments in science and philosophy and the serious consideration they were given within establishment circles. Mystical claims such as those surrounding this ceremony often implied that music’s vibrational disruptions of matter were what allowed a spiritual dimension to make contact with the phenomenal world; ultimately, they suggest a view of performance that merged Romantic metaphysics with seemingly incompatible materialist concepts.

Presenter 3: Martin Scherzinger (New York University), “Music’s Xenogenesis (The African Mbira)”

Forward Kwenda, an acclaimed mbira player from Zimbabwe claims that the power of the mbira’s sound transports performers and listeners out of the commonplace, into a realm “much greater than a human being can understand” (Kwenda 1997). For the traditionalist Tute Chigamba, the religious and introspective attitude demanded by mbira music renders it unsuitable as an instrument of mere entertainment (personal communication, 1999). Echoing this sentiment, Hakurotwi Mude asserts, “The mbira dza vadzimu is not played for pleasure” (Mude, in Berliner, 1991, 134). Far from providing sensuous experiences alone, mbira music, especially for the traditionalists, is central to the spiritual cosmology of the Shona. It mystically “speaks back” to performers (Chigamba, 1999). Andrew Tracey reports that the idea that one mbira sounds like more than itself is still more pronounced with other lamellaphone-types, like matepe, njari, and nyonganyonga (personal communication). Matepe players actually boast of it. The perplexing ability of the music to elicit audile condundra, issue forth asynchronous sounds, materialize phantom melodies and rhythms, and recoup similitude in contexts of metamorphosis facilitates listening experiences that grow beyond the dimensions of the tactile performance alone, touching instead upon something unguessed-at. These are the ventriloquizing musical lines emerging as if of unknown origin. This is a music of xenogenesis, explicitly designed to invoke the powers of ancestral spirits in contexts of social crisis and upheaval. Set adrift of the generalized project of disenchantment in music studies, this paper aims to re-enchant the material force of xenogenetic sound in the mbira scenario.

Presenter 4: Codee Ann Spinner (University of Pittsburgh), “Spiritualist Hymnals and Parlor Songs for the Dead”

Like their Christian neighbors, Spiritualists in North America have frequently incorporated hymnals into their worship and rituals. Spiritualist hymns often share language, imagery, and entire hymns and texts with mainstream Protestant denominations. I argue that despite these similarities, hymns and singing take on new significance in Spiritualist practice. Analyzing the melodies and texts of Spiritualist hymns, specifically The Spiritual Harp (1868) and Longley’s Choice Collection of Beautiful Songs (1899), I compare song collections to a wider body of religious hymnody in North America—specifically in the Northeastern region of the United States. These comparisons demonstrate the ways in which Spiritualist acoustemologies—understanding mundane sounds in terms of spiritual sources—arose through music. Whereas a Protestant congregation might use a hymn for a metaphorical communication with an almighty power, Spiritualists used hymn—occasionally even the same hymns—to directly speak to and with the dead.

My argument is based on research conducted in a small Spiritualist community, Lily Dale, NY. Founded in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Lily Dale is home to a collection of historic hymnals and songbooks donated by former residents. Though the books themselves are informative for understanding what was important to the community members who used them, they are particularly valuable for the autographs, handwritten notes, and supplemental materials placed there by their former owners. These material publications—combined with the hymns, their music and texts—are vital for understanding Spiritualists’ conceptions of interactions between the living and the dead. 

Presenter 5: Phil Ford (Indiana University), “Diviner’s Time”

Mysticism resists assimilation to scholarly understanding, not because the latter is rational and the former irrational, but because each is defined by its own order of knowledge. Mystical knowledge is gnosis — initiatory knowledge, revealed in experience, that changes the knower. This paper concerns an object of gnosis it designates diviner’s time. In considering the Azande concept of the “second spear,” Joshua Ramey’s essay “Contingency Without Unreason” adds a fifth cause, the divining cause, to Aristotle’s canonical four. The divining cause “is linked … to the singularity of an event”: it accounts not only for what things happen but when, and for the significance of their timing. The diviner’s cause registers on the human organism much as musical time does; indeed, it might be that the temporality of divination makes of human life a kind of music. 

Thus this paper coins the term diviner’s time_ to describe a temporality whereby the sign, charged with emotion, announces itself in experience. Divinatory signs manifest in a paradoxical interdependence of difference and repetition. The sign repeats not in the manner of two identical words on a page, but like a resonance between sounding bodies. The resonance (literal and figurative) of bells arrange a symmetry between the first and third acts of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal, in which the repetition-in-difference of diviner’s time registers as gnosis. In the uncanny repetition of diviner’s time, we might feel not only that we are listening to music, but as if we are living in music, or are ourselves music.

By admin

Sign up for periodic announcements via our Newsletter!