Let nothing distress thee.
— Johannes Brahms
Johannes Brahms selected a version of J. Krishnamurti’s “I don’t mind what’s happening,” as a title for one of his sacred songs. As long as we don’t identify with and react to that which is ephemeral, we won’t find life stressful.
Peter Gelb, the guiding light of the Metropolitan Opera, tells an anecdote that points to the pleasure energy center of the false-self survival strategy, or in other words our tendency to self-medicate. “I sat next to Richard Wagner’s 67-year-old great-grand daughter, Eva Wagner-Pasquier. Safe to say, we never did get to discuss a Marxist critique I stumbled across that described opera institutions as ‘bastions of premodern decadence edifying contemporary capitalists with apolitical spectacles of archaic escapism.’”[i] That about sums it up for the role of opera, at least at one level. If the Marxist could have added the word melodrama or soap opera, it would have increased the richness and accuracy of the description.
“What?” you exclaim in disbelief. It may appear as if I’ve gone completely off the rails by making comments such as those above, but please read on a bit further. Remember we are looking for truth at a deeper level than you may have gone before.
This introduction is not meant to denigrate either music in general or opera specifically, but rather to focus on an art form that can be both sublime (as are many operas) or used as an opiate that dulls human suffering. Our behavior, whether it is a response or a reaction, determines whether our experience is life-affirming and joyful or self-destructive and dissatisfying. “Plato believed that children should be taught music before anything else; in learning to pay attention to graceful rhythms and harmonies their whole consciousness would become ordered.”[ii]
How much healing power can music have? Let’s hear from Sir Elton John: “When I was doing a lot of drugs, I would hate what I was doing. I would be on my own doing coke and just hating myself. Then I’d be listening to Kate Bush and it would make me cry. Peter Gabriel would make me cry. I knew that one day I would get well, but if I hadn’t had the music with me during that period, I would probably not be here. I would listen to Nico—she was the most depressing person to listen to with the most wonderful voice. I would listen to her and I’d think, ‘I’ll get well one day, I’ll get well one day.’ That’s what music does to you.”[iii]
The problem that Elton John had was one that we all have today—that of identity—he thought of himself as a drug user. His solution, albeit a relative or incomplete remedy, was a change of identity. “In 2017, identity is the topic at the absolute center of the conversation about music. There may be times when this fact grates at us, when it feels as though there must be other dimensions of the world to attend to.”[iv] Nitsuh Abebe has sensed that humankind has not come to the end of our search for a new identity.
“Artists have to figure out whom they’re speaking to [True self or false self] and where they’re speaking from [P-A or P-B]. The rest of us do the same. For better or worse, it’s all identity now.”[v] The universal human quest will always ultimately return to The Three Great Questions: Where am I? Who am I? and Why am I here?
Marsha Sinetar discovered the profound relationship between art and the process of awakening. “All art shares common elements. The first is this: every artist’s process requires that he or she discover metaphysical themes. These are overarching, inspirational interior aims from which external life takes shape. These inner images or mystic ambitions are a must. We can’t stay our life’s course without these intimate friends. Like breath itself, they sustain us, giving strength to make a lifelong effort on behalf of our most lofty goals.”[vi] Simple Reality, of course, provides such a companion.
[i] Brown, Chip. “The Operatic Reign of Peter Gelb.” The New York Times Magazine. March 24, 2013, page 29.
[ii] Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály. Flow. New York: Harper Collins. 1990, page 111.
[iii] “Arena.” The New York Times. October 23, 2016, page 3.
[iv] Abebe, Nitsuh. “The Music Issue.” The New York Times Magazine. March 12, 2017, page 14.
[vi] Sinetar, Marsha. Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics. New York: Paulist Press. 1986, page 20.
Music Table of Contents
- The Blessing of Suffering
- The Pleasure of Suffering
- Quantum Leap
- Feel the Music
- Have Nothing
- Amadeus, You Da Man
- “Games People Play”
- Contrapuntal Tapestry
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.