Thursday, September 24, 2020

Passion and Etymology

Have you ever come across a common word that suddenly seemed peculiar, in that it's actually two words put together or a word within a word that you never noticed or paid attention to before? Like “before”, as in "be" and “fore"? That happened one day I as I looked at the word resist and wondered, OK, I understand the prefix “re” but re-what? What is “sist"? In looking it up it turns out that “sist” is actually a word. It comes from Latin and means “remain, stand or stay”. There are a good many words that contain the word “sist”; Absist, Assist, Consist, Desist, Exist, Insist, Intersist, Obsist, Persist, Resist and Subsist. Being an etymologist might be fun but at the same time there seem to be too many potential rabbit holes to chase down. You might think there is some hidden meaning to be found just because a word was once used a certain way or that two words seem related when they are not. It's often hugely complex but it's still sometimes compelling to wonder.

For example, the word compassion. It contains the word passion.

Because they have such different meanings and connotations it got me to thinking (and googling) and I was surprised at what I found. Passion comes from the Latin word “patior” which means “suffer”. Compassion uses the prefix “com” meaning “with”, as in “to suffer with”.

This being a blog about music, how does making music relate to passion and compassion? I’ve said before that music is a compassionate act. But what does that actually mean? Saxophonist John Coltrane titled the second movement in his Meditations suite “Compassion”. There is very much a spiritual dimension to the suite, as was the case with his previous recording “A Love Supreme”. While there is precedent in considering the relationship between music and compassion it’s not often discussed overtly in musical circles. I guess because it’s not an overtly musically associative word. Or maybe because nobody wants to sound preachy.

As for passion, that seems easier. A passion for music is what drives us. It’s a good thing and we don’t think of it as suffering. We do sacrifice along the way, it’s not a particularly easy path in life even as it is deeply rewarding. So in considering what we are willing to endure in order to attain our goals perhaps suffering is not so far off the mark. It would seem to be a balancing act but what makes this work? It’s not as if anyone expects to one day wake up and realize that they are completely satisfied with their work, have done it all perfectly and that there are no longer any problems. No, the drive is insatiable and there is always something to be improved upon, something new to be discovered. In this way passion can also be understood as desire, which is a double edged sword. It's a great thing when it takes you out of yourself and into something bigger. It's not such a great thing when applied solely towards self satisfaction. We suffer when we don’t get what we want (it's not enough) and we also suffer when we do get what we want (it's never enough). At the same time, if you are unwilling to be dissatisfied you will likely not achieve very much in the way of true satisfaction in life or music. It would seem we have to be willing to suffer.

That may sound depressing, except for the other word, compassion. Trouble is, it's kind of a big fluffy word as it stands there all alone. In order for it to do it's thing, it needs to be precise, according to real events, real people and real suffering. To “suffer with” is an act of compassion, not an idea about compassion. And so again, in keeping with the fact that this is a blog about music, what does this mean?

Music critic Alex Ross wrote an article for the New Yorker recently which ended with the statement:

“The ultimate mistake is to look to music—or to any art form—as a zone of moral improvement, a refuge of sweetness and light.”

Taken out of context it’s an odd thing to say, perhaps. It sounds amoral. His article was addressing racism as exists in the classical music world, particularly in the United States. I think he was saying that it is the nature of music to contain all aspects of human nature and that any notion of transcendence or transformation needs to accommodate what happens when a modern and diverse group of musicians takes on a musical canon, the historical roots of which contain troubling aspects. At least that was my take on it. But in looking at it as a standalone quote I think there is something worth considering in that it seems to acknowledge that we need to feel our pain, individually and collectively, in order to heal and move forward.

Another way of saying it is that a true morality must be whole. It can’t exclude the parts we don’t want. If we exclude them they can never be transformed. Yet another way of saying it might be, let it be true first and foremost. We may not know what that truth is until it's revealed in a process, an act of compassion. It may require letting go of every idea we have about it going in, which may seem frightening until we realize that there is also a responsibility that follows from that. It implies that the big picture and the facts on the ground are never at odds with one another. What if we took the attitude that we are never at odds with one another? It’s hard to share someone’s suffering by being opposed to them. Disagreement is one thing, opposition is quite another.

Having mentioned John Coltrane in this context I can’t help but also think of Albert Ayler. Both deeply spiritual people, my sense is that they did not ignore events nor were they limited by events. As intense as the times and conditions were they seemed to put everything into music. Mutawaf A. Shaheed was a cellist with Albert Ayler. He stopped playing in 1970 and these days is an imam at a Cleveland mosque. He was interviewed by The Wire about his time with Albert Ayler and said:

Albert is his music. His music is everywhere, touches everything.

My feeling is that’s because he was relating to everything, he didn’t leave anything out. Whatever his powers as a musician were, they also are everywhere. For a human being, in allowing those powers to flow, it’s limitless. In trying to hold on to them it’s destructive.

I don't want to paint a dark picture with all of this, it's just that the etymology of those words invite a different, potentially helpful way to look at music and at difficult situations. I don't think it would be worth talking about suffering in this way if it did not point to joy.

I would also like to point out that there are many musicians and many musics in this worldwide tapestry. Not everything need be seen through the lens of this music nor any of this terminology. As much as I increasingly speak about these things I’m averse to moralizing.

About ten years ago, in an interview, I responded to the question “what is spiritual” by saying “I don’t know, I don’t have a clue.”

That sounds dismissive, probably it was. My reasons for saying that at the time had to do with frustration around compartmentalizing or conceptualizing the experience of music and not knowing how to move forward except to reject the question outright. Since that time I’ve become much less phobic about the word and yet I might still give the same answer although for a different reason. That being, I think it is a mistake to take an idea of what is spiritual, moral or compassionate and make it into a prescriptive act in music and art as opposed to a receptive one.

We can and do move forward. It's not for me to tell anyone else anything about that, really. So in your own way, in whatever form it takes, I hope you will follow and share your passion.

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