I am so enjoying Barry Jones’ memoir, A Thinking Reed.
Right now I am in the chapter where he reflects on the development of his mind. In part at least, he undertakes this task as a process of self-discovery. He is able to name important influences, but also uses the writing process to identify for himself things which have perhaps not previously been named.
This chapter is rich in quotations and references to music, poetry and art, much of which I have not known, yet Jones does all this with a lightness that does not make the reader feel a complete Philistine.
He begins with the delightful quotation from Montaigne, ‘I quote others to express myself better’.
But it is what he has to say about music and his own visceral response to music which I find so insightful.
Speaking of music as ‘my most profound and consistent intellectual and emotional experience,’ Jones goes on to speak of art in general. He quotes Walter Pater, ‘All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.’
Of all the arts, Jones say, ‘music is the most powerful, dangerous, challenging and exposing. It would be painful to live without it because it is my window into the mysteries of time, existence and experience. But it leaves me vulnerable as often as it elevates me to heights of emotion and understanding. I choose to live with the risk.’
What a fabulous statement, and a superb insight into spirituality. The linkage between art and spirituality could not be more clearly articulated. Even this: ‘Ability to access performances of outstanding quality on demand through the CD player is a daily miracle. It makes me eager to share the experience …’
Some of the other statements in this section, filled with references to specific composers, performers and musical works, tell of Jones’ own immediate experience of these works.
He quotes J M Coatzee, who ‘recalls, as a 15-year-old boy in Cape Town in 1955, hearing from the house next door a recording of a harpsichord playing Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, although he did not then know what it was. "As long as the music lasted, I was frozen, I dared not breathe. I was being spoken to by the music as music had never spoken to me before. … Everything changed … in a moment of revelation … of the greatest significance in my life." I know that feeling well.’
Jones tells of a number of occasions when music evokes this physical as well as emotional and intellectual response. Here there is something holistic, something more than the mind or the emotions. Here, we are one with the music.
‘Music expands and deepens my emotional range. Some music makes me cry, but often I cannot explain why Piece X has a greater impact than Piece Y. A combination of the composer’s depth and the performer’s virtuosity breaks down my repressions.’
He goes on to illustrate with some lines from Ravel’s work Sheherazade (1903), a setting of three poems. Though the poetry speaks of sentiments Jones says he cannot identify with, he experiences a tingling in the spine and invariably bursts into tears ‘when the soloist hits a high b flat on the word ‘haine’ (hate). It is a reaction, both psychological and physiological, partly cognitive, partly biochemical, to the skill of orchestration, the brilliance of the playing and the quality of the singing. It is ironic that the word ‘hate’ unleashes such emotion.’
I have found myself deeply, and physically, moved by these paragraphs.
Here is such vulnerable humanity, such deep fellow-feeling and human wisdom.
It is wonderful, that is, wonder-filled. This is spirituality, and it shows how crucial it is that we make ourselves available, with our whole humanity, physical, emotional, intellectual, for all of reality, in the breadth of emotions and experiences and insights.
How shallow and impoverished is so much of our ‘religion’, in the face of such integrity.
How foolish it is to imagine that God is with us only in the language of ‘the Word’, and even more so if we think that ‘the Word’ comes to us only as words.
But how exciting it is to imagine that all of this life and all of these experiences can be engaged with as mediums of the Word and the Spirit, to bring us to know ourselves, and each other, and the fullness and depth of life, and to rejoice, even as we weep, or struggle, or hope, and pray.