I found my way via a footnote in the Jan. 9, 2014, issue of “The New York Review of Books” to an essay by jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, “Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Beethoven and God.” With a title like that, how could I not read it?
The essay, which first appeared in the August 2010 issue of “The Scope Magazine,” is every bit as challenging and provocative as its title; for Mehldau has taken upon himself the difficult task of exploring the complex interrelationship between art – in particular music – and religion. He begins by suggesting that music and religious experience are, at their most authentic, infused with a sense of the sublime.
Describing his first exposure to Coltrane and Hendrix as a preteen at a music camp not far from Tanglewood, Mehldau writes: “It was destabilizing. It felt like there was something dangerous about their music. … This was the confrontation with the sublime. … You confront something that is greater than you and greater than what has until that point been safely contained in your worldview. This new greatness is unfamiliar, and your initial reaction is fear – fear of what is unknown, and also fear of something that is bigger and more powerful than you, something that could crush you. … That suggests a religious feeling. When the writers of the bible [sic] wrote about ‘fear of God,’ I think they were trying to sketch out the nature of this confrontation with the sublime.”
Although both music and religion are – or at least can be – infused with a sense of the sublime, Mehldau is careful to point out a major distinction between music and religion: “Religion implies a moral direction,” whereas there is “the vague and … ambivalent relationship between art and morality that is part and parcel with modernity.” That is to say, art – especially music – is morally neutral; it can be either a force for good or a force for evil, pushing us to follow our own inclinations – “more towards peace and love, more towards death and destruction,” as Mehldau puts it, “more towards rational thought and orderly behavior, more towards lustful urges and bacchanalian fests.”
When artists plunge into the dimension of the sublime, perhaps the greatest threat to their emotional stability and their moral compass is the ever so seductive temptation to play God; for just as God can be viewed as the Creator with a capital C, every artist must come to terms with the power, the glory and the human – all too human – limitations of what it means to be a creator with a small c.
Towards the end of his essay, Mehldau warns his readers, and especially his fellows musicians, of the need to maintain perspective on one’s God-given creative gifts: “The relationship between any creative mind and the citadels of religious devotion is fraught, and this troubled mix of [expletive deleted] swagger and piety is the history of modern music – it’s Beethoven, it’s Coltrane, it’s Hendrix, it’s everything you want to hear. The composer, the improviser, the singer, the guitar player – they all say, ‘Look at me. …’ And at the very same time, they say, ‘I am in the service of something higher and greater than myself, it is not corporeal, and I am humbly transmitting that to you.’”
I take Mehlbau’s words on an intimately personal level. To begin with, for almost my entire adult life, I have struggled to make peace between the artist and the religious person within me. In addition, over the past several decades, in different but interrelated ways, John Coltrane (1926-1967), Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970), Beethoven (1770-1827) and God have all played major melodies in the music of my life, defining in large part who I am today. I began listening to John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix back in the 1960s. I took to Coltrane immediately – intoxicated by the fierce imperatives, the audacious artistry of his saxophone riffs, his soaring prayers without words – what cultural critic Nat Hentoff called “a brave new universe of sound and feeling.”
It was not until the early 90s that my teenage children taught me to appreciate Jimi Hendrix, whose music has outlived him, Hendrix having died tragically at an early age. When I listen to a Hendrix recording, I am renewed by his energy, his intensity, his technical mastery and musical inventiveness on the electric guitar.
Beethoven, of course, has been a different story. Along with “First Lessons in Bach,” Beethoven’s “Für Elise” and, somewhat later, the first relatively easy movement of the “Moonlight Sonata” were among the first of “serious” pieces of music that I learned to play as a grade school pianist. As I have matured, I have come to drink from the depths of Beethoven’s symphonies – especially his Fifth and his Ninth; at times, I find myself lost in the infinity of his artistic genius.
John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Beethoven: as all true artists, they never stopped surprising themselves. In the sublime ways in which God has played hide-and-seek within the measures of their melodies – and within the ever-expanding symphony of sound which defines our universe – God has never stopped surprising me.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG (firstname.lastname@example.org) is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington.