Spiritual Listening

By: Andrew Dell’Antonio (University of Texas, Austin) //

Listen to the reed and the tale it tells,

how it sings of separation …

Whoever has been parted from his source

longs to return to that state of union.

Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, The Song of the Reed, Chapter 1; trans. Kabir Helminski

Islamic Middle-Eastern Sufi practice has long established at its core the concept of attentive spiritual listening, or samāʿ, which involves training the mind to understand music and movement as manifestations of divine presence—and as paths to spiritual union with the divine Beloved. Indeed, people all over the world use organized sound to enhance and even transcend the possibilities of language. This maybe comes too close to the notion that music is a “universal language”—a well-rehearsed truism, one that rings hollow in the context of the wondrous diversity of human cultures. But just as language is a trait all humans share, the ability of sound to intensify and surpass words and reason is a powerful resource for people all over the world.

This ability, however, has long bedeviled would-be guardians of spiritual orthodoxy. Listening is deeply personal, its effects tied to the sensuous experience of the body. Many religions have contrasted the boundless possibilities of the divine to the impermanence of human sensation, to the detriment of the latter. The bodily pleasure created by sound has been either shunned or reimagined as a mere conduit to the understanding of “greater” pleasures.

Medieval European singers created glorious melismatic plainchant (listen especially to the passage between 1’ and 1’20” on the linked recording, where more than one note rides on a single syllable) to reflect on divine glory for the Christian ritual. As that single-voiced plainchant evolved into the multi-voiced resonance of polyphony, conservatives were shocked by the sensuous distraction that new and increasingly complicated sounds could wreak on the sacred meaning of the prayer. Words, not sounds, carried meaning to God, they argued, and sonic ear-candy would doubtless distract the faithful from scripture. But those who champion musical novelty have long replied that words fly to the heavens with greater power when carried by the complexity, beauty, and intensity of humanly organized sound.

Such debates have continued in the West as Christian traditions have split and reconfigured over the centuries, each time affirming the importance of musicking in worship but differing on the forms it should be allowed to take. John Calvin, for example, frowned on musical complexity, not only because of its sensual potential to distract from the Word of God, but also because the distinction between trained and untrained musicians would break the equality he sought for his “priesthood of all believers.” Yet the Calvinist church established the practice of singing together as a congregation as an essential tenet of worship, and—especially in the American colonies—musical literacy flourished specifically because of such commitments to the power of sound.

In response, the Catholic church rejected congregational sung-worship and reaffirmed its belief in the power of sound to enrapture the spirit—as well as its commitment to professional musicians who would specialize in embodying such power. Because of this, the Catholic tradition has given its listeners many complex sonic pathways to transcendence, quite different from the simple participatory power of Calvinist congregational song.

 Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s 1736 setting of the Stabat Mater, a Catholic prayer that describes Mary’s grief contemplating Christ on the cross, allows two skilled singers and a small orchestra to demonstrate their professional expertise in producing exquisite layers of sound.

The practice of “lining out,” in which a leader sings a line of hymn and each member of the congregation sings it back adding small personalized variants, was common from early Calvinist times and is still practiced in some Baptist communities in the United States, like this one in Kentucky. The result is not carefully coordinated “beautiful music”; each congregant is singing for God to hear rather than for a human audience.

German Lutherans managed to have it both ways, placing congregational hymn-singing at the core of their services but encouraging elaborate music-making as commentary to the simple hymn; the sacred music of Johann Sebastian Bach (whether vocal or instrumental) is a monument to this opportunity. Subsequent reformed movements, drawing on the Lutheran and Calvinist models as well as the more Catholic-inspired Anglican sacred musical approach, have likewise struggled with maintaining a balance: How often do we rely on musical simplicity, which is ideal for congregational participation and relies largely on known melodies? And how often do we opt for sonic intensity, which is perhaps more suited to a listener’s experience of the transcendent, and allows for greater compositional creativity? 

Like the above examples by J.S. Bach, much music we hear in concert settings—or broadcast through the television, radio, YouTube, Pandora, Spotify—was written specifically for a ritual purpose. But though concerts and recordings take place, in many cases, in churches or other consecrated spaces where communities still celebrate rituals, we are not necessarily hearing the music in a ritual context: its transcendent potential is free-floating. In other words, when we hear music of any kind outside of ritual, it’s more complicated to understand that music as having some kind of spiritual potential. Unlike the consistent membership of a mosque, convent, or synagogue, the community of listeners who attend concerts changes from event to event. A concert hall may not be consecrated, but it may be made sacred by our expectation of hushed silence and focused attention: the music remains connected to spiritual goals. We become responsible for what those sounds mean to us, both as individuals and as a community.

Saint Augustine was one of the earliest—and among the most articulate—to wrestle with musicking and spiritual power. Writing from a Christian perspective, he describes in Confessions the joy of musical experience and his attempts to understand its connection to the divine: “I fluctuate,” he tells us, “between peril of pleasure and approved wholesomeness. … [W]hen it befalls me to be more moved with the voice than the words sung, I confess to have sinned penally, and then had rather not hear music.”

Augustine was troubled by his acceptance of the Christian distinction between bodily pleasure and mental understanding, associating the former with sound and the latter with words of worship. His perspective resonates with the Sufi notion that the listener must be pure of heart to resist the potentially bodily/erotic (and therefore forbidden) connotations of music and dance during the experience of samāʿ. In fact, as the editors of the Brill Encyclopaedia of Islam suggest, “The very sense of the term samāʿ … suggests that it is actually listening which is spiritual, [and] can be applied to any sound, natural, artificial or artistic, as well as to the ‘subtle’ sounds of the hidden world or of the cosmos.” 

It is the intention and focus that an individual brings to a sonic experience that determines its “spiritual” nature. Again, Rumi: 

What is the deep listening? samāʿ is

A greeting from the secret ones inside

The heart, a letter. The branches of

Your intelligence grow new leaves in

The wind of this listening. The body

Reaches a peace. Rooster sound comes,

Reminding you of your love for dawn.

—Rumi, “Listening,” translated by Coleman Banks, The Glance: Songs of Soul-Meeting, 90 

Perhaps the Sufi concept of samāʿ can inform a contemporary avid listening experience. Reaching for the spark of the transcendent in the experience of sound, we may find our own connection to the divine even where orthodoxy of ritual has no place. And the beautiful diversity of sounds that may bring this about, as well as the wondrous multiplicity of samāʿāt in those who surround us, may well be a more meaningful shared experience than a purported “universal language of music.” 

For Discussion

What types of listening experiences have you had that resonate with these concepts of “spiritual listening”? In what ways were the specific kind of music you were hearing, the location, your frame of mind significant to the experience?

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