Photo courtesy agsandrew / Canva
Healing Epiphanies of Harmony
From harmony, from heavenly harmony
This universal frame began.
When nature, underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay,
And could not heave her head.
The tuneful Voice, was heard from high,
'Arise, ye more than dead!'
Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry,
In order to their stations leap,
And music's power obey.
Spiritual teachers have said that if you learn enough about any field of knowledge with sufficient complexity, sublime mystical experiences can be invited to enter the soul. For those with a gift for receptiveness, the invitation is more easily accepted. Abilities, life experiences, and the worldviews they construct will expand or contract the possibilities.
I'm a generalist. Sometimes I feel like my understanding of the world is twenty miles wide and an eighth-of-an-inch deep. For me, music was the light that opened sufficient windows of perception to lure me onto a healing path that led to mystical consciousness. This is my story — the story of a fool.
As any Tarot reader knows, the fool is an archetypal identity with a long lineage, stretching back to indigenous stories of animal-world tricksters like coyote and raven; evolving into mythologies of Hermes, divination gods, and court jesters; only to appear in the modern world in guises like Picasso, John Cage, Allen Ginsberg, and The Firesign Theatre. As a community intern with The Faithful Fools Street Ministry in San Francisco, and later as a co-founder of Fools Mission, I cultivated my own inner fool by speaking truth to power as best I could, and channeling the power of art to shift culture and consciousness.
Like many troubadours and jesters through the years, I'm a singer. In Whiteheadian terms, every musical experience I had was a prehension of healing, and I needed a ton of lessons about healing. Adolescence in my Boston Irish-Catholic family of origin brought torrents of invalidating, insulting, often screaming messages from my parents about the rack and ruin in store for a worthless kid like me. Neurodiversity was an unknown back then. Other kids got a lot worse, and that's the truth. Watch the film Spotlight with Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, and Mark Ruffalo for a close-up view of the people who raised and educated me.
Yet my parents were also musical, and I learned my first song at my mother's knee as she accompanied on piano. My parents sang duets together on local radio before I was born. Singing around the piano was a regular family practice growing up, and my father was a member of the local chapter of what is now The Barbershop Harmony Society. I was probably harmonizing with my dad's quartet in the womb.
A month after graduating from high school, I sang in a quartet with three other young men at the International Barbershop Quartet Competition in St. Louis. At the age of 17, I was the youngest lead singer in the contest. It was a traumatic experience, as my vulnerable nervous system collapsed into abject fear before an audience of 6,000 and a panel of judges. My struggles with stage fright, though later softened by training, practice, and performance experience, remain with me to this day.
The same musical experiences that brought me trauma were also an initiation into higher frequencies of resonance. Before telling that story, please indulge a brief digression into the math and science.
Through a process lens, any musical note you hear isn't a single note at all — it's a cluster of tones, or a set of relationships. To produce the characteristic “ringing” sound of a barbershop group or string quartet, musicians use just intonation to fortify and expand the sound. Most music theorists agree that the physical properties of vibrating strings or columns of air generate sound that's pleasing to the ear because the peaks and crests of waves reinforce and align with one another. Optimized sound fortification occurs when the intervals correspond to the harmonic series rather than the compromise equal temperament of a piano.
Pythagoras is often credited with discovering the physics, demonstrated in the illustration below. The six waveforms on the right do not represent separate strings, but a single plucked string. First the string rocks once along its full length, generating what musicians call the fundamental tone — in this case, C. Then it rocks again along two half lengths, generating the C an octave above. As it rocks again along 3, 4, 5, and 6 lengths, it produces the higher notes G, C, E, and G. What most people hear as a single note is actually reverberated relationships:
The series extends beyond the sixth harmonic, generating higher frequencies until inaudible to the human ear. If you want to hear the difference in the sound when just intonation is used instead of equal temperament, this four-minute YouTube video can help you feel the difference in your bones.
As relativity and quantum physics have revealed, the vibration patterns of waveforms are fundamental structures of the physical world and (from a process perspective) the co-evolution of matter and consciousness. The cloud of possibility surrounding the nucleus of an atom consists of relationships that don't actually “exist” in the physical world of “stuff” until an observer takes a measurement. That relational interaction collapses the waveform into an electron. Only then does a vast matrix of possibility manifest itself in time and space as a particle with a particular momentum and position. Uncertainty rules when I speak out of my depth like this, but I think the quantum story is true, and the power of consciousness massively underestimated in our culture.
The primal power of vibration and music eventually helped me to better understand the link between the thousands of hours I've spent singing and my eventual healing initiation into mysticism. Singing with impromptu and organized quartets infused my body with healing energies that strengthened me. My barbershop mentor offered me financial support to move to Canada if I was unlucky in the draft lottery. Voice lessons and performances built coordination and confidence. Music history classes and opera workshops taught me about Western culture and mythology.
Church choirs from many faith traditions traded my services as a tenor soloist and section leader for a graduate-level education in middle-class culture. Barbershop groups invited me to be their musical director and coach. Musical theatre lured me into the company of opera singers and celebrities, and once made me an uncomfortable guest in the home of the Attorney General of the United States. Pretensions to culture can attract a multitude of personalities, however edifying or terrifying.
In my late twenties, life experiences combined into a potent stew that robbed me of my sanity. The daily dose of invalidation that neurodiversity is heir to, adolescent abuse and its lingering trauma responses, marital and financial stress, and a hallucinogenic “bad trip” eventually found concrescence in two psychotic breaks. In recovery, I devoted ten years to singing eight to ten concerts a week for institutionalized elderly on behalf of a Boston non-profit. Musical training had co-created a safe space for healing.
The healing process turned out to be reciprocal. I saw aphasic patients sing along with old favorites, because musical functions of the brain apparently follow different pathways than those devoted to speech. Singing at the bedside of a comatose patient, she flickered into consciousness just long enough to shock her daughter, who later invited me to sing There Is a Balm in Gilead once again at her mother's gravesite.
In my 40s, I'd healed enough to re-enter the workplace, and an unremarkable career in electronic publishing, publication management, and technical writing afforded the soft landing of retirement. My therapist told me that most people with stories like mine were either dead, in prison, or in a mental hospital for life. Could music have had something to do with that resilience?
In my 50s, I moved to California, met my wife Debbie, and began working for global software companies. Along the way, I served as an Assistant Director for a barbershop chorus and sang with a couple of quartets. For the first time in my life, I could afford to attend concerts, plays, and jazz festivals on a regular basis. Supportive companionship fed my healing process in new ways. My street-level education with The Faithful Fools and Fools Mission brought the healing properties of music, art, and community to social activism. When Rev. Kay Jorgensen, Co-Founder of the Faithful Fools, transitioned to the next realm in 2018, I was invited to sing her favorite song at the annual Feast of Fools in memoriam.
Blissfully, my service to the world-destroying machine ended in 2014 — and for the time being, I still sing in a church choir with good friends. I'm now 72 years old, and music is still a wellspring of motivation for me. Age and experience have brought a fascination with process thinking, along with personal experiences of a living, conscious universe that has intelligence, memory, and purpose of its own. Synchronicities show up with accelerating frequency as I read and reflect on the great spiritual teachers. Live music in the distance melds with symphonic scores in my earbuds, as the music of the spheres creates inexplicable convergences of melody and harmony on the fly.
I've set myself to write a play that follows the co-evolution of four characters — “angels-in-training,” actually — through multiple incarnations across three thousand years. Unsurprisingly, they become an a cappella quartet in the twentieth century, as an example story of how humans can learn to agree on a great many things. In many ways, the play is writing me. As I research a historical period, relevant sources — in the form of books, articles, new relationships and chance encounters — land in my lap without effort. As Charles Eisenstein once observed, “There is a matrix of causality that does not operate by force.”
And now Cobb Institute is proposing a new learning cohort in Process & Music. I feel the lure, and want to be part of it. May Cecelia — the patron saint of music — light the way, much as George Friderik Handel did when he composed Ode for St. Cecelia's Day, combining his music with John Dryden's poem in a magnificent alchemy:
Orpheus could lead the savage race;
And trees unrooted left their place,
Sequacious of the lyre;
But bright Cecilia rais’d the wonder higher:
When to her organ vocal breath was given,
An angel heard, and straight appear’d
Mistaking Earth For Heaven
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