In the course of some years of retreat and recovery, yoga and music have been the focal points of my life. Both of these spheres afford borderless challenges, and, moreover, in each the reification of theory and the absence of practice is arguably understood as a deficiency – or even a perversion of basic purpose.
Participation in a 200 hour yoga teacher training programme and consistent application in musical performance have influenced my understanding of both theory and fieldwork in the borderlands of theology and religious studies. This experience has also had implications for how I understand the much contested notion of ‘religious studies’. As a survivor of the original cohort to pass through Religious Studies at Lancaster University, I am not a neutral observer of the prolonged deconstruction of what was conceived as a liberal project in the humanities with benign societal implications.
Immersion as a practitioner and performer in a range of contrasting contexts in yoga and music has sharpened and made immediate many reflexive questions pertaining to cultural translation, embodiment, the psychosomatic impact of movement, posture and sound, and as to how control and hierarchy are reworked in a fraught modernity. The latter I characterise as ‘managerial modernity’, a globalised ‘normalisation’ that imposes heavy identity demands upon any individual tempted to deviate from mandatory submission as a commodified human resource. As the erosion of the separation of powers and the dissolution of residual public/private distinctions proceed, so full-spectrum surrender of the managed subject to the Performative Absolute becomes the price of organisational survival. In existential terms we encounter the empowered Empty Centre in the face of which agency is relinquished.
If for present purposes we leave westernised yoga to one side and focus upon the structure of hegemony and the regulation of charisma within the performance of the religious music of Western and Eastern traditions, it becomes apparent that within each practice locale imposed resolutions of complex tensions take place. Traditions, lineages and sound generation are confronted by the demands, however well or inadequately expressed, placed upon the lives and identities of both performers and audiences (and congregations) as they are all impacted by the social construction of managerial modernity.
At the outset of my immersion in the life-worlds of a Royal School of Church Music (RSCM) elite choir, an audition chamber choir, a church choir in an ancient Scottish burgh church, and a group that specialises in Russian Orthodox a cappella performance these all appeared to be havens of traditionalism in which atomised and often marginalised, but musically competent individuals seek solace.
However, it became apparent that these marginal life-worlds may seethe with unexpressed tensions as ‘reconciliation’ is sought in the altered state of consciousness induced by the performance of highly regulated sacred sound. This, however, takes place in concert with the conscious repression of ‘truth’. There is, in effect, an inversion of the restorative logic of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission in which truth-seeking precedes any resolution. The search for solace apart from, and on the basis of the repression of the recognition of trauma creates acute difficulties. Such self-alienated practice can be the elaborate pursuit of forms of ‘false consciousness’.
As a performer with some leadership responsibility, my puzzlement was intensified by an ever more psychologically burdensome awareness of the tensions between the unexpressed and unacknowledged, but real needs of those seeking refuge and solace – and the ritualised deferrals of performance. Each visit to, as it were, the musical Pool of Siloam plunged the sick soul in the water from which it later re-emerged temporarily cleansed, but seemingly unhealed, not least by reason of a systemic refusal to recognise the presence and consequences of trauma in the first place.
How, then, might some kind of bridge be built between the psycho-spiritual stimulus and frustrations of choral sacred solace and the matrix of theology and religious studies in which the present writer had spent a career? As an adjunct to the study of music theory and composition I began to explore recent musicology. At this juncture a set of affinities began to emerge between the theoretical arguments and resources exploited in the contested multi-disciplinary fields of religious studies and theology, and those drawn upon in recent debates on ‘historic performance’ and ‘authenticity’ in the contemporary performance of religious music in settings remote from their original contexts. Evident in each context is an acute need to provide viable hermeneutical resolutions of the relevant historical and semantic hiatus.
Rather like the formidable ‘early’ Karl Barth who wrestled with the gulf between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries in the Prefaces to his successive editions of the Römerbriefe (1919-1922), leading musicologists and performers like John Butt and John Eliot Gardner strive with the interpretation and performance of the early modern cantatas and the Passions of J. S. Bach in modernity. A notable commonality between these fields rests in a mutual dependence upon debates in modern/postmodern theory.
My recent participant observational fieldwork thus presents me with the following challenge: is T.W. Adorno’s depiction of the performance of music with sacral pretensions in late modernity as aestheticized alienation all too true – or might there be other viable ways of construing this activity? Might it be possible to regain authenticity in the face of the insatiable global demand for expressive release and consolation, be this in religious and spiritual practices or musical performance grounded in cognitively dissonant traditions?
Is the slide into the problematic solace of ‘false reconciliation’ (falsche Versöhnung) ineluctable, or could human needs for healing and transformation be more fully met in musical performance and sacred sound? The task thus presented is to explore ways in which this complex situation might be decoded so that performers and audiences alike could perform more fully in truth and authenticity. As regards ‘critical religion’, is such committed inquiry legitimate or should it be regarded as a naïve sui generis betrayal of the analytical reduction of the pseudo-category of ‘religion’ to its real status as a residual socio-political pathology?