Forever Chasing the Magic of Music
It was a sudden realization, the feeling of loss simultaneously mixed with smugness. The smugness came from newly applied knowledge. I had begun to learn how to play the guitar and felt much more confident in my musical abilities. When listening to a song, I could now easily decipher and place my singular focus on the sounds produced by the bass guitar, the lead guitar and the drums. I could separate them out and this gave me a sense of power, accomplishment and pride. But in doing so, I began to realize how this changed my experience of listening to the songs.
The magic of the song was partly missing. Not because the songs were being played any differently but because I could see myself focusing on each instrument separately, rather than on just allowing myself to experience the complex, ‘unknown’ combinations of voices, instruments and poetry weaving together into an amalgam of magic. I was like a scientist dissecting and compartmentalizing the magic of an old growth forest. A forest that once gave me a sense of ‘awe’ due to the ‘unknown’ combinations of life unraveling before my eyes, now became ideologically ‘knowable’ by its parts (plants and fauna). But this smug ideological knowingness, the belief that I could now know all the parts, noticeably plagued my magical experience of listening to music.
“I think of my suffering, of the problem of my suffering. What am I suffering from? From knowledge — is it going to destroy me? What am I suffering from? From sexuality — is it going to destroy me? How I hate it, this knowledge which forces even art to join it! How I hate it, this sensuality, which claims everything fine and good is its consequence and effect. Alas, it is the poison that lurks in everything fine and good! — How am I to free myself of knowledge? By religion? How am I to free myself of sexuality? By eating rice?” – Thomas Mann
I specifically remember being saddened by this loss-of-magic feeling and wondered two things, 1) if it really was a good idea to have taken up guitar lessons? And 2) would it ever be possible to experience music in the same magical way again, now that I was focusing on the parts that made up the song rather than the whole that was enabled by the parts?
After many years of reflection I might answer #2 by simply saying simultaneously ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ I do experience magic through music but the experience is different than my experiences when I was younger. But with deeper reflection the truth is, these are impossible questions to answer (even though such reflections should not be ignored). That is, I could never go back in time and unlearn how to play the guitar. I could never erase my memories (they’ve already tried this in the 1950s with shock therapy, which turned out to be a total catastrophe). Instead, I could only continue to chase after that feeling, the magic experienced through music.
It wasn’t until college that my focus was drawn back to this ‘loss-of-magic feeling,’ but not by my own accord. I had been playing and singing a lot of music throughout high school and college. I was in musicals, a capella groups, choir and jam bands, but my favorite thing to do was improvisational jamming during live performances – e.g. jazz solo scatting. At one point I told my classically trained music friend, Chris Marianette, that I was ashamed I hadn’t really learned how to read music fully. But when I told him that I was going to begin learning, his reply shocked me. He said, “No! That’s a horrible idea.” He told me that he was frankly more impressed by the way that I sang because, unlike many of his classically trained friends, I wasn’t thinking about the notes, I was feeling the music. I sang what felt right in that specific moment.
This answer confused me. I knew that my ability to play music would be significantly hindered by not learning how to read music but Chris was telling me that, in doing so, I would lose part of my ‘magical touch.’ It seemed like a paradox.
What I’ve come to realize, after waaaay too much philosophy and theoretical reading, is that it is a paradox. The paradox of chasing after magic, analogous to scientific research, is something that we must all uncomfortably accept. The more we know, the more we realize how little we know.
Magic as a Process to be Lived
“The highest and most beautiful things in life are not to be heard about, nor read about, nor seen but, if one will, are to be lived.” -Soren Kierkegaard
In my humble opinion, to rekindle the magic (of music, scientific research, the generally ‘unknown,’ and the feeling of ‘awe’) we cannot ideologically assume magic is an ‘it,’ rather, a process; a journey to be lived. The process is derived by the combination of the living/moving parts that make up the whole and the whole that are made up by the parts. It’s like a continually moving, back-and-forth, Socratic dialogue between parts and wholes which, when understood as a process, are inseparable from one another.
Take a song for example. Good music, the kind of music that gives us goosebumps, is not only a utilization of separate parts or instruments that are played. If everybody in a band just played their separate instruments without listening to each other (the whole), the music would be stale and horrible sounding. It would carry no feeling if there wasn’t a group effort that was continually striving for group harmony; reaching collaboratively together for that unreachable star.
This harmony is, of course, always dynamically changing and never the same. Even though every musician may be playing the exact same notes, their feelings, the time of day, the weather, the audience who may (or may not) be listening, the culturally distinct epoch in history, are all woven into the music being played at that very moment. This makes the music always uniquely and contextually different from previous performances, every time.
Musicians have the simultaneous task of playing their separate parts while checking in, consistently, with the whole – do we sound good together? Am I playing too fast? How do I adjust to meld with everybody else? Over time, with group practice and collaborative effort, musicians no longer have to ask these sorts of questions. They simply live in the music. They live the magic.
Magic is then understood as a lived, experienced, collaborative process, never as a moment frozen in time. By living the magic, musicians are no longer chasing after it. By ideologically shifting from once striving to separate out the instruments to enabling harmony, the smugness evaporates. With smugness out of the way, the paradox becomes one woven singularity and the magic returns… All at once, that same feeling that I had while listening to songs before I learned how to play the guitar comes flooding back… the same feeling but different.