Since the fall of 2003 I have been working on a project in which I rethink the relationship between music and spirituality. Or, to be more precise, it has been my aim to redefine the concept ‘spirituality’ in connection with music and through music. My point of departure was a current movement within contemporary classical music known as New Spiritual Music. The main representatives of this movement are the Estonian Arvo Pärt, Britisher John Tavener, and Georgian Giya Kancheli. In almost all respects, the musical principles of the new spiritual music seem to be diametrically opposed to those of modernism: repetition and rest versus development and progress, tradition and familiarity versus innovation and experiment, communication versus individualism and conceptualism, tonality versus atonality, intuitive simplicity versus academic complexity, spiritual narrations versus rational abstractions. As such, this movement is often considered as part of the much larger complex called postmodernism.
By elaborating upon the concepts ‘spirituality’ and ‘postmodernism’ (in combination with the adjective ‘new’ and the frame set by the term ‘movement’), the classifying of the ‘spiritual dimensions’ of music as described above are ‘deconstructed’. In this way, I propose and develop an idea of spirituality in and through music which counters strategies of exclusion and mastering of alterity. I join in with ideas on spirituality as presented by Michel de Certeau in his book The Mystic Fable and Mark C. Taylor’s notion of ‘a/theology’, connecting spirituality to wandering, erring, and roving. Using the (poststructuralist) philosophy of Martin Heidegger, Georges Bataille, Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, and others and analyzing the music of John Coltrane, the mythical Sirens, Arvo Pärt, and The Eagles (to mention a few), I present spirituality as a (non)concept that escapes categorization, classification, and linguistic descriptions. Spirituality is a-topological, non-discursive and a manifestation of ‘otherness’. And it is precisely music (or better: listening to music) that brings me to these thoughts: carefully (re)reading, analyzing, and evaluating certain examples from classical, jazz, pop and world music make it possible to detach spirituality from concepts of otherworldliness and transcendentalism. I thus open a space in which I can connect spirituality to music that is not commonly considered in this light, thereby enriching the ways of approaching and talking about (that) music as well as disclosing a possible relationship of spirituality to music, a relationship that has been concealed or obstructed until now. In order to achieve this, it is necessary to show that spirituality is not an attribute of music, not a simple adjective providing extra information about or used to categorize certain types of music. Instead, I present the spiritual as a listening attitude, a more or less personalized relationship with music. This relationship might be characterized as susceptible instead of controlling, open instead of excluding, groping instead of rigid.
The results of the project are published in the book Thresholds. Rethinking Spirituality Through Music (Ashgate, 2008), an extensive essay on George Crumb’s string quartet Black Angels and its relation with spirituality published in CR: The Centennial Review, 7/1 (2007), a contribution to the book De grote stilte (Damon, 2007) and an essay in the German musicological magazine Die Tonkunst (2012).