Sunday, April 3, 2016

Music and Intimations of Immortality

I was listening to an NPR reporter interview a preeminent Bach scholar who said that the great performers of Bach’s music -- atheists and materialists alike -- all felt as if they were communing with God when they played Bach. Hearing about what the music of Bach does to master musicians, I thought of something that Laura Dale, former editor of the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, once told me.  The man she loved in her youth was a musician who died before they married. It was clear that her hope of rejoining him after death was behind her passion for survival research.

There is one thing I clearly recall her saying.  What most deeply convinced her of life after death was no inference or pattern of evidence but listening to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.  The music convinced her in a way that went completely beyond linear reason.  It spoke directly to her soul of the reality of transcendence.  Apart from the experience, needless to say, strict rationalists are apt to see this as just an emotive outcry, a comforting illusion. 

Still, I’m sympathetic to Laura Dale’s offering a musical experience as the basis of her belief in the reality of a mind-mediated Otherworld.  I recall two similar experiences, which did something to me.  A teenager, I was listening to WQXR, which was the radio station for classical music in New York City.  The piece I heard was by the medieval composer, Johannes Ockeghem, and it had a memorable title, Credo Sine Nomine, “Belief Without a Name”.  I was so taken by this music – taken out of my normal sense of self – that I dashed off a letter to the radio station, describing (somewhat breathlessly) how the music affected me.  A few days later I turned on WQXR and, coincidentally, the classical “DJ” was reading my letter on air!

My second experience of transcendent music occurred years later when I was a student at City University of New York.   This time the composer was Claude Debussy.  I don’t remember which composition it was, but I do remember the absolutely distinct sensations and thought processes it it stirred up in me.  It put me into a singular state: I felt complete freedom from the fear of death, accompanied by the happy idea, “I can die now.”  The “proof” of immortality was the indescribable lightness of being I felt in response to certain passages of Debussy’s music.

All sorts of experiences may produce the conviction of having tasted immortality.  They’re complementary to the linear arguments from particular case histories that psychical researchers focus on.  In my view, research on life after death should include the whole range of experiences that carry the immediate, compelling sense of immortality.  Music, I’m sure, is not the only example. 

After all, what presumably does survive is us, the inner mental core of our being.  There might be interesting ways we can tease out that sense, that intrinsic quality of our immortal self-awareness.   

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