Not something that happens
But the way something happens
-- Charles Ives,
Essays Before a Sonata

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Why do nonbelievers enjoy choral music from the Christian liturgies?

By chance I encountered a book of essays, The Woods Hole Cantata: Essays on Science and Society (1985) by the medical doctor Gerald Weissmann. The book is a contribution to medical humanities, and it contains a fascinating account of the role that choral music plays in the community of scientists that gathers to study at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod in the summer.

This essay makes explicit something that I have often noticed among choral singers: quite a few singers make their careers in the natural sciences. Yet the compositions chosen by the ensemble at Woods Hole, like those programmed by most choral societies, originate not from the context of science, but rather from Christian liturgies. Weissmann sets the scene of a performance of Vivaldi's well-known Gloria:
The "Gloria" is Catholic liturgy, the church Episcopalian. The composer was a priest, the majority of performers are probably freethinkers. Vivaldi is Art, the audience lives Science. Under the roof of one church sit Moslem [sic] with Jew, Indian with Pakistani, Harvard with Yale: a truce is obtained, the conditions for which seem to have eluded a good bit of mankind.
Weissmann continues,
Nowhere have I seen it recorded ... that late August evenings in the Hamptons, in Big Sur, or Woodstock are devoted to responsive readings from Darwin's Origin of the Species or Watson's Molecular Biology of the Gene. Nor, to return to clerical considerations, have I heard that religious enthusiasts have sat in rapt attention as, in joyous phalanx, they chant sections of Diderot's Rameau's Nephew, H. L. Mencken's essays, or Jacques Loeb's The Mechanistic Conception of Life.
The last name, Jacques Loeb, is not a famous one today, but at the turn of the 20th century he was a well-known popularizer of the idea that, in Weissmann's words, "the sum of all life phenomena can be unequivocally explained in physico-chemical terms." As Weissmann reminds the reader, Loeb is actually buried in the very Woods Hole churchyard where a future generation of scientists is singing and listening to Vivaldi.

Ethnomusicologists often use the term "homology" to describe a fit between music and life: a situation where musical structure and cultural structure complement each other.
  • To take a well-known example, John Miller Chernoff's African Rhythm and African Sensibility discusses West African musical traditions as not merely a collection of styles and techniques, but a fundamental way of experiencing the world, inseparable from dance and from community life.
  • Or, to take an example closer to my own experience, participants in shape-note singing conventions often describe the performance ritual (the inward-facing square of singers, with singers taking turns leading songs from the center) as homologous with an idealized America of participatory democracy and small-town virtue.
The performance of choral music at Woods Hole resists such interpretation as homology. On first glance, the musical performance seems to be discordant with its cultural setting. But perhaps the cultural purpose of music is sometimes not to affirm its cultural setting. Perhaps music sometimes serves to compensate for the shortcomings of a culture, rather than to reinforce its strengths. In the same way that a summer on Cape Cod compensates for the limitations of a life in a large East Coast city, perhaps Vivaldi's Gloria compensates for the limitations of the scientific career.

Weissmann offers commentary along these lines, making reference to the fact/value distinction that is so central to humanists' conceptions of themselves:

While mechanistic philosophy may describe adequately how science works, it does not offer consolation for the world it produces: Vivaldi may be more appropriate for that task. Nevertheless, whether we like it or not, all experimental scientists are mechanists now. Ravished by Art in this church tonight, we will wake in the morning to work in the mills of Fact, the construction of which we owe to the mechanistic conception of life.


Reading this saddens me a bit. It is a shame that a scientist must learn to compartmentalize his career and to only assign value to mechanistic explanations. And yet, the very fact that Weissmann took the time to write The Woods Hole Cantata suggests that this separation of what he (tendentiously, in my view) calls Art and Fact can never quite be achieved.

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