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Musical therapy

David Byrne on music, ecstasy and catharsis

I’m researching the history of ecstasy and ecstatic experiences in modern western culture, how spiritual ecstasy got pathologised from the Enlightenment to the present day, and how people found new ways to get out of their heads.

An important part of that story is rock & roll and other forms of pop and dance music, which became in the 20th century a sort of substitute religion and means to ekstasis for the masses. Thanks to rock & roll, white agnostic kids got a way to access the release of ecstatic religion, without any of the ethical or metaphysical dogma.

Someone who has thought about that deeply is David Byrne, the artist, musician, and former lead-singer of Talking Heads. In his music, art and documentaries, he’s explored the different ways humans get out of their heads and into their bodies, or the group, or the unconscious, or the spirit world. He’s also explored the relationship between popular music and various forms of ecstatic religion, from charismatic Christianity to Yoruba and Candomble.

What’s unusual about both him and occasional collaborator Brian Eno, among rockers, is that they combine a critical, intellectual and academic rigour (they once gave journalists a reading list of anthroplogy and cybernetics to try and improve their interviews) with a willingness for personal and group exploration of ecstatic states. That tension between the self-conscious / intellectual / critical / ironic and the ecstatic is one of the things that makes both their work so interesting – because we’re all longing for ecstasy, but we’re also struggling with our irony, our detachment, our rational skepticism and our emotional inhibition.

Anyway, I was lucky enough to get an email interview with him. Here it is.

To what extent would you say that African American-inspired pop music got Western culture out of a ‘dead end’ and gave it a way to find ecstatic release from the iron cage of rationalization?

Wow…that’s some heavy lifting for pop music! But yes, though there were always ecstatic cults in Europe and North America, it would seem the African influence – whether Latin music, Yoruba-inspired spirituality that seeped into world culture, jazz, funk, dancing from the waist down…the renewed appreciation of rhythm and repetition…changed not just Western culture but the whole world’s culture. And I don’t just mean the music.

To be convinced and seduced by ecstasy is to be won over to a new way of looking at the world and oneself. The groove, which in the last 200 years, since slavery, ultimately derives in this form at least, from Africa, is found almost everywhere around the globe now – it’s a species of globalization, but one of joy and integration of body and spirit….

The musical meme is carried by deep and profound work but just as often by hackney’d and cliched pop songs. Any carrier will do, there’s no discrimination.

Here’s Born Under Punches, the first song from the Eno-produced 1980 album Remain In Light, which was one of the first white rock albums to consciously draw on Afro-beat influences. I love the groove of it, the rhythmic guitar, the layers of chanting and Byrne’s nonsensical yelps over the top. Plus the incredibly weird guitar solo.

You’ve written that performing brings catharsis for you and the audience too. I’m fascinated by the idea of what classicists call the ‘Dionysiac cure’ and how everyone from Aristotle to Nietzsche say it brings healing. How is music cathartic for you?

As ER Dodds pointed out in The Greeks and the Irrational, ecstatic cults (with drumming!) were always around…but when did they lose acceptance? With the triumph of the Enlightenment? Perhaps it was during the Renaissance that the view of the workings of the universe changed – from a universe that obeyed and was structured according to musical harmony – to one in which music was a subset of other, possibly more inclusive physical laws. The universe as a song is more poetic, but science has its glories and beauty too…And maybe not surprisingly, those cosmic harmonies, or at least the idea behind them, might be re-emerging in crazy entangled sub atomic physics and in the cosmos.

How is music cathartic for me? In so many ways, and often simultaneously. Psychologically, physically…music engages so many parts of the brain (and body) all at once that no one part is central- which is a key to it’s power I suppose. It integrates. It may be a spandrel, or mental cheesecake as Steven Pinker says, but it’s pretty potent.

For the listener that catharsis has always been there – everyone has heard the “music saved my life” story or “music got me through high school” and it’s true…and that’s just listening, not even making it!

When I was younger and more socially uncomfortable music was my outlet- my way of communicating and announcing my existence. It was cathartic, therapeutic, but hardly ecstatic. It was even painful at times- but completely necessary.

Later, and little by little, something in me began to change, and I began to sense that rhythmic and repetitive music could do something more that just be an outlet for my unspoken unheard self- it could gradually change that self….and it seemed to be most effective in music rooted in a something that had been repressed or cast aside by western culture….

I found myself more open to trance-rooted music – whether via dance or funk grooves (which I always loved) to the Pentecostal church, voudun, gamelan, salsa, samba etc etc…and the music I and others were making began to partake of some weird white-man version of all that African-rooted culture.

I sensed that as opposed to much of what I had done before – which amplified the individual or one’s persona – this swallowed the individual whole. And it was in that loss of identity that the ecstasy lay. In some ways this seemed counter intuitive….wasn’t the individual what we and our culture are about? Why would we ever want to let go of that?

Surely most of us have a some point, in sports, music or some other group activity, found ourselves lost, subsumed in the group, in the team or larger community – and we have experienced how wonderful that can be. Well, some kinds of music are a machine for making that happen- and happen reliably.

One senses a commonality with a lot of religious and spiritual practices – the surrender to something greater than oneself…and how good that feels. One realizes that the pleasure one derives and the seductiveness of the communal feeling can be manipulated to all sorts of ends. It can be directed towards Jesus or Jihad, whatever. So one has to be careful. I attribute this phenomena to innate human/social/neurological tendencies and structures- not to an outside agency like God or something like that….

Here’s a clip from the 1982 Channel 4 documentary The Name of This Programme is Talking Heads, which combined concert footage with interviews and anthropological clips of ecstatic religions – which Byrne helped to select.

Being a little analytical I also noticed that this music that induced trances and ecstatic states was made up of simple modular parts…and these parts are useless alone, they don’t work, without all or most of the others. No one instrument or beat in this world carries the entire groove/texture (unlike much western music where the melody played by the loudest instrument is king).

Each module here has its role to play, and only when all do their discrete parts does the emergent thing come into being and the floor drops away. It is, in this way, a model of a new, more perfectly functioning society one might say – where all are essential, all are needed and there is a great reward when all work together. A glimpse of utopia, for an instant- and a glimpse that is felt – felt unconsciously. There is a reason the feeling happens, but the impact does not come from reason.

Byrne has written of how the Stop Making Sense tour gave Talking Heads a sense of ‘mystical communion’ , ego release, and even a glimpse of a new utopian community. You can see some of  the sheer infectious fun of playing in a group in their performance of ecstatic anthem Burning Down The House:

Your work can be critically detached / ironic / conceptual and also ecstatic / surrendering. Do you find a creative tension between those two urges – wanting to surrender but also analyzing, detaching, thinking?

They’re not mutually exclusive- but they don’t happen simultaneously! One can have a completely immersive transporting experience and then later ask why did that happen. Knowing, or trying to know, why a thing works does not stop it from working or diminish the experience in any way- if anything it makes it even more marvelous.

When you have drawn on Christian evangelical ecstasy in your work (like in the song Once In A Lifetime and the video of it) it tends to be somewhat ironic and detached. But when you have explored Brazilian or African animist religion you seem to leave the irony and go with it. Why is that? Is it something about leaving the iron cage of the west and feeling one can finally ‘let go’ in other cultures? Is it harder for us to do that in Christian culture?

You hit the nail on the head there- one has to leave one’s home to be able to turn around and see it and appreciate it for the first time. (that’s a paraphrase of whom?) [TS Eliot]

Here’s a performance of Once In A Lifetime, in which Byrne performs an ironic version of an evangelical preacher, cut with anthropological footage of charismatic Christians (from the Channel 4 documentary):

If pop music became a kind of surrogate religion for many people (including me) – what would an ethnographer from Mars make of it? How successful a surrogate religion was / is it?

What religions do is codify and formalize existing experiences – they provide a safe context and support system for what could be frightening or uncontrolled experiences and thoughts, but at the same time they impose their own narratives and values onto what is a naturally occurring social/ neurological/physical phenomena. They tell a story about it, but it came before the story. The formalization can help it occur regularly, on demand, but the formalization doesn’t create it – or does it?

Now I’m wondering if at some level it’s like DNA-maybe the form, the structure, IS the thing itself. If the form and structure are present, then the phenomena has to happen? Certain musical structures reliably generate specific emotions. Now we’re back to the universe being musical – as harmonic (in the cosmic sense) structures come into being what follows is inevitable. The God behind the universe, in this view, is a song.

The ‘priests’ of pop music tended to be people in their teens or early 20s who were often quite unprepared for the mass Dionysiac adulation that gets projected onto them (as well as the commercial opportunism). in that sense, was it quite a dangerous sort of cult (for the priests and the followers?)

One is somewhat vulnerable in these states- as you mention, there is an opportunity for all sorts of exploitation. Commercial, religious, political.

I’m fascinated by how the sacred and secular have fed off each other in 20th century music – it’s been two way traffic. But a priest might say that rock and roll gave agnostic and atheist white kids a ‘taste’ of religious surrender but with none of the ethical or metaphysical commitments (including the belief in the afterlife and soul which has been a crucial part of ecstasy in most cultures). In that sense, is rock and roll selling ecstatic surrender on the cheap, as it were – as a no-strings weekend experience rather than a lifetime ethical commitment?

I don’t know about the afterlife or the soul- but this experience does give a sense that one can inhabit a larger body- the social body, something greater than oneself as an individual in a way that is visceral, not intellectual- – the Cartesian split heals and it’s wonderful.

Is there then an obligation to make ethical and metaphysical commitments? That sounds as if, after such pleasure, one is made to feel guilty and obliged to “pay” for one’s pleasure. I think, OK maybe in an ideal world, the social and moral inferences, at least some of then, happen organically- without need of an organization. I’m being very optimistic here, obviously a formal structure helps guide a realization. But maybe, just maybe, once one loses oneself, one is in some way forever bonded to that group. To everyone that was at a rave, or experiences the same thing in the same place. A tiny brotherhood emerges- unfortunately it isn’t made of all humanity, just the others in the room.

Do you think there is a ‘formula’ for ecstasy in musical performance? (I guess musicians are always searching for it, like alchemists.) Or does it depend on shifting cultural expectations and technological innovations?

Yeah, there are techniques – just like the Swedes know how to construct a pop song – but once you’ve seen the DJ drop the bass over and over it gets pretty tired – the effect doesn’t work any more. But it will work in the next town maybe.

You’ve spoken of how rock can become an mass ecstatic surrender to the band or the charismatic guru (or even Fuhrer!) of the front-man. That’s something some artists have explored and played with – David Bowie, for example, or Kanye West today. What do you think of that sort of exploration of the rockstar-cult? Is it a dangerous game?

I think it is a little dangerous- performers who play these roles often seem to forget that it’s an act- they loose themselves alright, but in an unfortunate way – the character they are playing swallows them. Rather than loosing oneself in a communal moment, it is an enlargement of an individual.- and a made up one at that! One becomes the mask.

One way that rock and roll is different from traditional religion is that, like modernism, it’s obsessed with the new, so there’s a pressure for endless new styles and innovations – ever louder bass lines and drops. And music is also everywhere now, as background music and on our iPhones. Are we becoming numbed to it, and thereby slowly reducing its magical power over our bodies and souls?

Biologically it can never lose that power. Do we get over-saturated? Maybe. But I still hear from folks how some music they heard recently affected them deeply, so it can happen- but yes, a lot of music is wallpaper now. But occasionally something cuts through.

One final bonus question- I think my favourite Talking Heads lyric is ‘there’s a city in my mind, come along and take a ride…they can tell you what to do but they’ll make a fool of you’ – you sound like a utopian preacher who is very unsure of mass movements! Where does the beautiful image of ‘city in my mind’ come from?

That’s straight out of preaching…. The City on the Hill from the Sermon on the Mount. It’s been overused, but its familiarity also makes it a potent image and phrase.

Here’s Byrne performing Road to Nowhere with St Vincent in 2013. It’s a typically ambiguous song – it sounds uplifting and hopeful, yet the words suggest they are going ‘nowhere’ . Is nowhere somewhere good, a utopia (which literally means ‘no place’ in Greek), somewhere beyond our present imagining? Or is he leading them straight off a cliff?  It’s that kind of tension between ecstatic hope and ironic ambiguity that is typical of Byrne’s work, and which makes it different to more corny rock ecstasy.

If you want to read more on this topic, here’s an interview I did with Brian Eno, who’s often worked with Byrne, about music, ecstasy and surrender. And Byrne is curating the Meltdown festival in London in August, which will no doubt feature some ecstatic moments!

What can we learn from Benedictine monks about sticking to New Year’s resolutions

FullSizeRenderIt’s that time of year again, when people all over Britain go off for the traditional New Year’s Vipassana retreat. But not me – this year, I decided to keep it old school. I went on a Benedictine retreat.

Last Sunday, I traveled down to the Isle of Wight, to stay at Quarr Abbey (it’s pronounced Kor). It was set up as a Carthusian monastery in 1132, before being dissolved by Henry VIII. Then, in the late 19th century, the aggressively secular French government started attacking religious orders, so the abbot of the Benedictine monastery at Solesmes sent a small group of monks to set up a religious house on the Isle of Wight.

They established a house at what remained of Quarr Abbey, and built a beautiful abbey there, designed by one of the monks and finished in 1912. It’s still a working Benedictine monastery, and any man or woman can go and stay there, and eat there, for free (or for a voluntary donation). This hospitality is inspired by Jesus’ command in the Gospel of Matthew, to see God in the stranger: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.’

I arrived after two weeks of over-eating, over-drinking, over-smoking, over-everything. It was a sharp change of gear. When I got to the Abbey, it was locked, so I waited in the cold chapel for a while, where a small mechanical Joseph and Mary bent eerily over a plastic crib. Finally one of the guests appeared, let me in, and introduced me to the guestmaster, Father Nicholas, who I’d emailed to arrange my stay the previous week.

He showed me to my room, where a laminated handout explained the set-up. The monastery follows the Rule of St Benedict, the father of western monasticism. Benedict (480 – 543) was a young Roman ascetic who wanted to emulate the spiritual exercises and communal living of the Egyptian Desert Fathers and Mothers of the third century. To that end, he created a ‘little rule’ – a handbook for monks to follow, with 73 brief chapters outlining the basics of the monastic life.

With that little book, he laid the foundation for one of the oldest and most successful organizations in human history, which inspired later monastic orders such as the Carthusians, Dominicans, Carmelites and Franciscans, as well as lay orders like the Brethren of the Common Life.

Monks take a vow of obedience, stability and communal living to a particular abbey, where they spend the rest of their life. The monks make a vow to obey their abbott, yet they also elect the abbott from among themselves, who then serves for eight years. The abbott reports to a ‘general chapter’ of the Order every four years, and the Order itself is under the authority of the Vatican.

St BenedictThe rhythm of the day is marked out by the ‘Liturgy of the Hours’ – Matins (at midnight), Lauds or Dawn Prayer at 3am, Prime at 6am, Terce at 9am, Sext at 12, None at 3pm, Vespers at 6 and Compline at 9. All the services are voluntary for guests. The main activity in the services is Gregorian chanting of the Psalms – the monks sing all 150 psalms every week.

The rest of the day is taken up by two hours work in the morning, two hours work in the afternoon, one hour communal conversation (the day is mainly spent in silence), and meals, eaten in silence with someone reading a text. At Quarr, where the meals were delicious by the way, dinner was eaten in silence, while at lunch a monk read a chapter of the Rule of St Benedict and then turned on an audio-book – while I was there it was a novel about Octavius Caesar. Apparently the week before it was a history of MI6.

How can you transcend without 3G?

And that’s it. No mantras. No yoga postures. No diamond sutras. You’re pretty much left to your own devices. You can chat to other guests in the common room. There were only three other guests when I arrived: a French teenager sent there to learn English (who sends their son to a monastery to learn English?), and two middle-aged Northern men, who got into a long conversation about which bus company was better, National Express or Megabus. So I went to my room.

The room itself was bare and a bit draughty. I sat in bed, reading the Bible, disliking it. I felt my mind craving some stimulation or sedation, missing the distraction of the internet. I tried desperately to get 3G but it wouldn’t work. The old man in the room next to me could get it, though. Every time he got an email his computer would ping really annoyingly. Eventually I said loudly ‘would you please switch your computer onto silent?’ in my most peevish voice. That showed him.

I lay in bed, fuming. I imagined the guests at Alain de Botton’s Hotel for the Soul. They were all well-dressed, successful, amusing. It was probably cocktail hour. I wished I was there.

I woke up at 7am, hearing the bell for the morning service, and stayed in bed. We ate breakfast in silence. I retreated back to my room, and tried to write some of my book on transcendence. But there was no 3G, just the purgatorial GPRS. How can you transcend without 3G? I went to the morning service. I didn’t like the reading from the Letter of St John – if a spirit doesn’t lead you to Jesus, it’s a demonic spirit…what paranoid nonsense! Afterwards, I went back to my room. What else was there to do?

The main meditative practice in Benedict’s Rule is reading, or lectio divina. Whenever Benedict talks of ‘meditation’, it’s in connection with reading. It’s a spiritual activity, a slow absorption of the words, a reflection on the various levels of meaning and connection to your life, and ultimately a move into wordless contemplation of God. In theory. But I spend my whole life reading already. I sat in bed, speed-reading St Teresa’s Interior Castle. Each page she got higher and higher, more and more lost in ‘divine favours’. Bully for her.

I decided to leave, packed my bag, and began to walk downstairs. Then I thought, this is pathetic, I must be able to stay at least a few nights. So I went back to my room. I decided to interview Father Nicholas, to at least get some good material for a blog post. ‘Can I interview you?’ I asked bluntly. ‘Er…we can talk’, he said.

side-image_3He’d become a monk at the Abbey 22 years ago. Back then, there were 21 monks and 10 novices. Now there are 6 monks, no novices and a prior leant from another monastery. If they didn’t find some new novices, the monastery would eventually close. It’s not easy attracting new novices: ‘No one in our society is into lifelong commitments these days’, said Father Nicholas. ‘And no one wants to stay in one place.’ Monasteries all over Europe are facing closure, while yoga and mindfulness drop-in centres proliferate, like grey squirrels or Canada geese. This is spiritual Darwinism.

My fourth day, I decided, would be my last.  The evening before, I told Father Nicholas. He seemed rather surprised (I’d arranged to stay a week), but I explained there was something in London I just had to get back to (Wi-Fi).

A new guest arrived on the third day, called Matthew. I got into conversation with him. It turned out he had escaped from the local high-security prison, Parkhurst, exactly 20 years ago, and gone on the run for five days with two other prisoners. They’d made a key and a 30 foot ladder in the prison metal-work room (‘why are you making a 30ft ladder, Williams?’ ‘It’s…er…conceptual art, sir’. They escaped, took a taxi to a nearby airport and tried to steal a plane, but they couldn’t start it, so they hid in someone’s shed for five nights. It sounded far-fetched, but it turned out to be true.

He was wearing the very clothes he’d escaped in, and was following in his own footsteps – a sort of personal pilgrimage. It was clearly the high-point of his life. ‘I felt such a rush of freedom and power’, he said, ‘like my life had opened up again.‘ The prison service didn’t forgive him for escaping, and made sure he served 22 years of his sentence. ‘You’re at their mercy – and they don’t have any’, he says. ‘It’s been really hard since I got out, like being let out into a different planet.’

It was an unusual coincidence to meet Matthew, as I’m hoping, this year, to get funding to make a guidebook for prison inmates, to help them cope with life inside. So it was fascinating and serendipitous to talk to him. Then Father Nicholas said the prior, Father Xavier, would like to have a chat before I left.

A Rule to live by

After dinner, I followed Father Xavier into his quarters. He’s maybe 40, and has been a monk since he was 22. What wisdom, I asked him, could a busy skeptic like me take from the Benedictine Order? He thought for a bit. ‘Well…the importance of a daily rhythm of practice, of a rule of life, of habits.’

Yes, I thought. My life has become irregular. I need to make a Rule of Jules, to follow every day for the rest of the year. Just like Gerhard Groote, the founder of the Brethren of the Common Life. He’d make a list of resolutions, and spend a moment each day going over them. Yes! What else? What, I asked, were the most difficult things about being a monk?

‘Of course, the vow of obedience can be hard. The vow of chastity. And faith. One can have moments where one thinks, ‘what am I doing in this church every day?’ And getting on with your brothers can be very hard. We can have enemies. I remember there was one novice who I really detested. I really hoped he would not join the order, but he did. And we get on fine. There was another novice, and I thought we would become great friends, and in fact we had a lot of trouble. We need enemies, because they remind us we are not perfect and lovable saints.’

I imagined the enmities that could fester in a monastery, and briefly imagined one monk murdering another because he always sang flat in church (such things are not unheard of). I also thought of the old man in the room next to me, his noisy internet, his burps and farts. I realized I actually detested this man. And that the reason I was rushing away was not silence or God or anything like that. It was the inescapable proximity of other people. I find community really, really difficult. I dislike all my neighbours, but at least in London I can ignore them.

‘St Bernard called monasteries ‘schools of love’’, said Father Xavier. We learn that we are loved by God, and we learn to love one another. We learn mercy for each other’s weaknesses. Humans are so very weak, and needy. Me too. When I joined the monastery, I thought I was being very good. And then eventually, I realized it was untrue, I am just as needy and weak as everyone else. We have to show mercy to one another.’

The Rule is soaked in this attitude of mercy for human weakness. The first psalm of the day, Benedict writes, should be sung slowly, to give late-rising monks time to get to the chapel. ‘If a brother falls asleep during prayer’, writes one desert father, ‘ I cradle his head in my lap’. Another desert father left his monastery when it harshly reprimanded an errant monk, with the words ‘I too am a sinner’.

‘This can be the problem with Stoicism’, said Father Xavier. ‘You try to construct a castle of strength and power. But it will fall down, because your neediness and weakness will come out. We need to build bridges and doorways to other people.’  The Latin word for priest – pontifex – actually means ‘bridge-builder’. For some reason I remember hearing Alain de Botton once pejoratively describe someone as ‘needy’. But that’s not a put-down, that’s a fact of human existence. The fear of neediness is a greater error than neediness itself.

The next morning, I sat in the common room, and for the first time in four days, I felt at peace. I felt my consciousness begin to settle and expand. I am 38 this year. I wondered if this was the middle-point of my life, and what I should do with the rest of it. I remembered Xavier’s words: ‘I hope people will come away from the monastery with a sense of God’s love. It takes time to grow into an awareness of that love.’

He said: ‘Of course there are similarities between Buddhist and Christian contemplation. But also big differences. Christianity believes in revelation – in a God who loves you and wants to be known by you.’ Ultimately, I believe in that, even if I have major issues with 90% of the rest of Christianity. I believe the foundation of human existence is God’s love, and that we can discover that love.

I left my voluntary donation on my bedside table – £25 per night. Not bad for board, food and free spiritual guidance. Compare that to, say, the $1300 you have to spend for a week at Esalen, the New Age retreat in California.

My enduring memory will be my conversations with Father Nicholas and Father Xavier, how human, unsaintly, unrigid they are, like a sonnet where the formal rules actually enable the lyric to come alive. I will remember also the psalm-chanting, the slow absorption and emanation of these beautiful poems, round the clock, every day, for the last 1500 years:

‘You have searched me, Lord and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
You perceive my thoughts from afar
You discern my going out and my lying down…
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
If I settle on the far side of the sea,
Even there your hand will guide me,
Your right hand will hold me fast…’

I wish I had stayed longer, but I’d already said I was leaving. The night before I left, I read St Benedict warning of ‘gyrovagues’, ‘who spend their entire lives drifting from region to region,  staying as guests for three or four days in different monasteries.’ Yes, I am definitely a gryovague. I find it difficult to be close to others. I find it difficult to love and be loved. I find it difficult to stay in one place, one community, one relationship. But maybe I can learn it.