Thirteen reasons why listening to live music is better than meditation

“… poets aren’t afraid to exchange visions. And music can blur the boundary between the real and the imaginary. It can get you to an exalted place. That’s what draws me to it.”   Iarla Ó Lionáird

Let me begin with an example.

I am at a performance by the Irish band The Gloaming at a glitzy university arts center, a cello-shaped confection of wood, metal, and glass.  The concert hall is packed, the lights dim, the five musicians seated on stools in a crescent arrangement, two with rather unassuming fiddles, another with an acoustic guitar, another (the vocalist) at some sort of wooden apparatus, and the last behind a grand piano.  My eye is drawn to the two fiddlers, one of them, the bespectacled Martin Hayes, with a high forehead and an impressive shock of curls; the other, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, a relatively young man who gave me the impression of being dressed in a woolen suit.  That is, I know it was a suit, but his “Irishness” lingers in my memory as woolen. I’m pretty sure he was clean-shaven, but memory bequeaths him a beard, too.

I want to make the vocalist, Iarla Ó Lionáird (whose work with Peter Gabriel has brought me much delight), the focus.  I want to force the pianist and the guitarist into the center, too.  Gradually, though, I listen to the two fiddles.  They enter into subtle and surprising conversations with one another, finishing each other’s thoughts, as it were, while the piano and guitar (on the outer ends) punctuate that conversation with rhythmic under-murmurs and unexpected ideas.  At times, Iarla Ó Leonard stands up and sings clear, melancholy gaelic melodies. He visits the music, enters it, takes it into new dimensions, but refrains from placing himself at the lyric center.

The audience is deeply silent.  As I sit and listen, I sense the way these five musicians are in time with one another, how their bodies are more than just performing what they have practiced.  All the practice, far from making them mechanical, seems to have set them free.  It must have taken decades for each musician to train his body to perform this way, growing the necessary neural connections and spontaneous reflexes, but what I sense most is how profoundly they are listening to one another.

This music is a forgetting of person in patternless pattern.  We call this patternless pattern “culture” or “tradition” – we turn the bristling manifold into an abstract shape or discrete object – but its intelligence exceeds our “instrumentalist” preconceptions. Its essence is listening.  As the sound as a whole streams together, perhaps we gain an inkling of David Bohm’s “implicate order,” the way the world is folded in intelligence.

What gives the audience such a deep experience is that the musicians themselves are involved, absorbed, in this stream: no body, no instrument, only attention.  That sounds romantic, but these guys are minimalists who resist the lyric pull.  At times, the two fiddles enter a dialogue so prolonged, articulate, and unexpected, with an occasional grounding note from the guitar, that one is startled into a sense of participatory listening.  At other times, the lead fiddle plunges, for what feels like ten minutes or more, into a wildly intricate and repetitive reel, which grows ever more intense.

On the surface, one may be captivated by how Martin Hayes moves the bow with such nuance and speed without making a mistake.  That minor mystery challenges one to listen more attentively.  Is he making mistakes?  Why repeat the same pattern?  What does this make us feel?  At some point, it becomes crystal clear that the musician isn’t simply repeating the same pattern over an over.  He’s listening with great intensity.  The sound from a micromolecular millisecond earlier is already burned away by the intensity of that listening.

There is no repetition, only attention, cognition, ever more single-pointedly absorbed in timeless heterogeneity.  The musician’s brain is passionately awake and alive to reality (not, in Henri Bergson’s terms, to “the actual” but to “the virtual,” or to what Deleuze – in Difference and Repetition – calls intensivity, “a life,” immanence) with a quality of attention inseparable from the silence in the room.  That primordial silence, that yogic sound of voidness, grows into a shared experience with every mind-body present.  This traditional Irish music group is playing the most contemporary trance music imaginable.  Fifteen hundred years ago, the musicians who first played these reels, in tavern or hall, were also listening to it: that suchness.

This is an aesthetic experience, but it’s clearly not limited to “art.”  It’s a cognitive attunement that works across bodies and brains.  If one wishes to be conservative, one can argue that this an attunement of the brain to its own capacity for intense attention.  From this point of view, the experience of heightened reality has to do with aesthetic energies within the brain, a marvelously orchestrated processing of information that somehow adds up to affective human experience.

Less conservatively, one can argue that this an attunement to an aesthetic quality of non-humanly-circumscribed experience itself.  Put differently, with heightened attention comes a different or more subtle experience of reality. Today, the intellectual scene remains divided on this point. For some, it is only valid to speak of the former: the experience of experience.  For others, it is also valid to speak of the latter: the experience of reality.

At any rate, the state of attention, as an aesthetic experience, appears to be shareable. Art, in the sense of technique and composition, does seem to facilitate this experience of attention.  Indeed, as I have been suggesting the listening, or the attention, is the crux of musical experience, both for the musician and the auditor.  However, what’s aesthetic here is not the art, per se.  Rather, it is an experience of sentient attention which involves many concurrent qualities:

(1) the quieting of mental chatter or of discursive processes

(2) the phenomenological experience of ‘silence’

(3) enhanced sensitivity to sensory experience

(4) neurophenomenological experience of lucid alertness

(5) a reduction of self-referential thinking

(6) a sense of bodily calm and interconnectedness

(7) an increased sense of physical and emotional well-being

(8) a sense of expansive possibility, release from limitation

(9) a relaxation of ontological anxiety into trust

(10) a sense of experiential meaning

(11) a relaxation of the line between matter, energy, and mind

(12) a sense of something active, unconstructed, unfabricated

(13) a sense of active non-personal non-identificatory intelligence

Almost needless to say, these are qualities of meditative experience.  In poetics, this quality is sometimes associated with poiesis, or with an un-weaving faculty of creative semiosis that tends to decodify or dereify rather than reinforce conceptions, bringing us closer to heterogeneous processual experience.  Poiesis, in this sense, stands in contrast to logos; poetry stands in contrast to prose (e.g., the various social and hard sciences).  One might describe poetry as zoo-centric rather than logocentric, in that it unbinds our discursive identifications, our anthropocentric foreclosures, bringing us closer to the threshold of active “nonhuman” life.

Art heightens our experience of the world not by lifting us ‘higher’ or adding a transcendent metaphysical quality but by subtracting the circumference.  The circle or membrane (that maintains our sense of “I”) winks out.