Ted Gioia writes on music, literature, and contemporary culture. He is the author of nine books, including The History of Jazz and Delta Blues, both selected as notable books of the year by the New York Times. His most recent book is Love Songs: The Hidden History, which completes Gioia's trilogy on music as a source of enchantment in day-to-day life. The two previous books in this series, Work Songs and Healing Songs, were both honored with the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award. Gioia holds degrees from Stanford, Oxford, and Stanford's Graduate School of Business.
Artur Rosman: What are the religious roots of what has become popular music?
Ted Gioia: The religious roots of popular music run very deep. Anyone who digs into the history of this music learns this, but other narratives are much more fashionable. I'm working on an essay right now with the provocative title: "Jazz Wasn't Invented in a Whorehouse!" The evidence on this matter is very clear-cut. Early jazz musicians got more inspiration in church than at the brothel, but the connection to sex is more sensationalistic and a better fit with prevailing narratives. One of the cable networks is currently working on a TV series about the birth of jazz in the New Orleans red-light district. Try suggesting to the cable bosses that they do a show about jazz musicians going to church, and see how much interest that generates.
And look at other styles of music. Soul music wouldn't exist without the sanctified church—religion is where the concept of 'soul' comes from. That's stating the obvious, but sometimes the obvious needs to be stated. I heard ministers during my childhood days, long before the rise of hip-hop, who were preaching with vocal cadences that nowadays would be called rapping. Blues music, of course, is packed to the brim with religious references.
In my recent book on the history of the love song, I trace this connection all the way back to the beginning. Go back a thousand years and you find troubadours combining spirituality and religion with their love songs. At the juncture, the love song is a type of devotional lyric, with comparisons to religious devotion always lurking behind the scenes. Go back another fifteen hundred years, and Sappho was creating the first Greek love lyrics—but they were embedded in a worldview that gave primacy to worship and ritual observances. Go back another fifteen hundred years and you find love songs flourishing as part of Mesopotamian fertility rituals, and these too always come with invocations to divine forces.
If you remove the spiritual and metaphysical aspects from the history of song, there isn't much left. But this aspect of the history of music is rarely told.
What accounts for the close ties between Divinity and song? Or, as Heidegger put it, why is a God you can sing and dance to more divine than the God of the philosophers?
Music has always possessed a force of enchantment. It has always been a pathway to the divine. We have mostly forgotten that in the present day, when music is perceived merely as a source of diversion and entertainment. But the ancients had a much deeper concept of the power of song.
Just look at how many creation myths involve music. We encounter this in Hindu culture. We find it in almost every Native American tribe. We discover it in the Aboriginal stories about animals, plants, and rocks getting sung into existence. The Pyramid Texts of ancient Egypt achieved potency only when sung or chanted. In Christian scripture the Word exists at the beginning and the Word is God. Even modern science has come to grasp the power of sound. Medical professionals rely on sound-waves to break up kidney stones and remove cataracts—essentially the doctors are operating musical instruments to cure the sick, although they would never use that term.
Music has power. And its greatest power is to create a pathway between the human and the divine. Shamans in every part of the world knew that long ago. And every form of worship has tried to draw on this power. Only in the modern world, with our fixation on music as entertainment, have we forgotten this basic fact.
Heidegger understood that. He was deeply schooled in the thinking of the pre-Socratics. He would have known that Pythagoras once picked up a rock, held it in front of his students, and then explained to them: "This is frozen music."
If music-as-entertainment necessarily forgets, obscures, or even severs its ties with transcendence, then can we say this equally of both B.B. King and Justin Bieber? Or, does the memory of God doggedly persist even in extreme instances of music-as-entertainment?
There's plenty of secular music out there. Pop megastars such as Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus make a good living by peddling escapist music that is little more than light entertainment. They have every right to do this. My point is merely that music has more to offer us than just diversion. It can be more than a soundtrack to a teenager's private twerking fantasies.
I am a pluralist. I want to see all kinds of music flourish. My gripe with the music industry is that it marginalizes anything that doesn't fit into the most narrow commercial formulas. Much of the focus of my research over the last two decades has been on the ways that music transforms and enchants our everyday lives. I've probed deeply into the role of music in work, healing, worship, ritual, community-building and other vital areas of our lives. This kind of music resists Bieber-ization. It doesn't make a lot of money for the leading entertainment multinationals. It can't be turned into a consumer product. So don't expect to read about these types of musical experiences in Rolling Stone or Vanity Fair. Yet these kinds of music define what it means to be human. We should make a space for these musical experiences in our society.
What is your sense of what has happened with Catholic liturgical music since Vatican II? Is there a pluralization? If so, is it good? If not, is there hope for the future? What might such a future look like?
Some of my favorite composers wrote liturgical music for Catholic services—Byrd, Tallis, Palestrina, Victoria, Ockeghem, Josquin, and many others. But I almost never encounter this music in a Catholic church. Why would the Church ignore such a rich musical legacy? In addition, many fine pre-conciliar hymns have been banished from the mass. All this was done with the expectation that new songs would lead to what they call, in the music industry, 'audience expansion.' Has that worked? Probably not. But all this was done with the best intentions. Of course, that reminds me of a famous proverb about good intentions.
If the best religious music is not to be found in the churches then where is it to be found?
There are many composers of spiritually inspired music who are flourishing in the current day. Some have found fairly large audiences, such as Eric Whitacre or Morten Lauridsen or Arvo Pärt. And I sense a level of spiritual intensity in many secular composers, for example in John Luther Adams's nature-inspired works or the more mystical compositions of Terry Riley. But I've never heard the music of any of these composers performed in a church. I'm sure it happens, but this is the exception. Most ritual music in the present day sounds like a simulacrum of popular or folk music
Here's the strange thing about all this. The situation in the Catholic Church is no different than what is happening in the music industry. Power brokers are seeking a "crossover audience" and this leads them to simple musical fare that is suitable for the mass market. I'm not surprised when a multinational entertainment corporation makes this choice, but it's bizarre to see the Vatican do the same thing, no?
Yes! This is the case in my own experience. The centrality of good liturgy is the reason why I attend one Dominican parish in Seattle no matter how far I happen live from it (I move a lot). But beyond that, with apologies to Chernyshevsky, what is to be done? What thinkers have you found especially helpful in both identifying and thinking beyond this impasse?
The solution for liturgical music is no different than the solution for secular music. Instead of mindlessly chasing the whims of the 'mass market' we should encourage pluralism and diverse forms of musical expression. Most people's musical lives are far too narrow, and this is driven by outside interests that want to constrain choice. It's much easier and more profitable to standardize, to give everyone the same lousy Happy Meal—and that's true in music just as much as in food. Let's step away from standardization. Instead, creative new approaches should be tried, and time-tested traditions should be nurtured. We should encourage musical talent when we find it, and not be so quick to sacrifice it for gimmicks and symbolic gestures.
Above all, the organizations and institutions that control our access to music should stop acting in such a manipulative manner. People aren't fools. They can tell when ritual music is a shallow facsimile of commercial fare, a contrived work made to formula. They can also tell when music arises from genuine spirituality and deep personal commitment. In other words, my approach would be the same whether I ran a record label or a church choir: I'd support talent, creativity, diversity, and authenticity. I'd give up trend-chasing, stunts and ruses, symbolic gestures, contrivances, and musical presentations that look slick but don't sound good.
That would shake things up. And disrupt a lot of vested interests. But what a breath of fresh air!
I don’t know if I can answer your question about the leading thinkers I consult on these matters. My thinking about music has been shaped by hundreds of sources, and many of them are outside the field of music. My worldview is probably shaped as much by Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard as it is by music writers.
Are there other specific books outside the field of music that have influenced your writing?
I think your readers might be very interested in George Steiner's book Real Presences, which presents a powerful critique of the current state of culture drawing on a metaphysics that is very congruent with Thomistic ontology. Steiner is not a Catholic, but Catholics concerned about aesthetics should pay close attention to this work. Jose Ortega y Gasset has exerted a strong influence on my thinking, notably in his works The Dehumanization of Art and The Revolt of the Masses—he probably predicted the current state of culture better than any other thinker of the early twentieth century. I also need to acknowledge my admiration for Isaiah Berlin, Susan Sontag, Lionel Trilling, Johan Huizinga, Elias Canetti, Arnold Hauser—at some point his work The Social History of Art will come back into fashion—and Mircea Eliade. I gave up on the structuralists and deconstructionists a long time ago, but I must admit that Foucault still influences how I write about the history of music. I disagree with his worldview, but I embrace his methodology. More recently I've studied with great interest Harvard professor Michael Witzel's 2012 book The Origins of the World's Mythologies, a breakthrough work that has tremendous implications for music historians, although they seem blissfully unaware of it. None of the authors mentioned here specialize in music, but I've learned from all of them.
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