[Back to writing after a daddy hiatus due to my 3 month old daughter!]
Brad Mehldau has always been not only a favorite jazz pianist/composer for me, but also a great writer on what he does. His liner notes on each of his records can be very illuminating, not only with regards to his process but with regards to the way jazz musicians draw on the tradition of music that stretches back before 1900 (read: Classical music). He has an great article on his site called "Coltrane, Beethoven, Jimi Hendrix, and God." It first appeared in the August 2010 issue of Scope magazine. I am not going to debate religion here, and Mehldau does a great job sidestepping the issue in his article. Instead, he distinguishes between religion and spirituality, with special focus on music.
First, let's briefly discuss how he separates religion and spirituality.
The term “spiritual” in this context, though, perfectly expresses the vague, and I think, ambivalent relationship between art and morality that is part and parcel with modernity – let’s say, roughly, from the Renaissance onward, from the time that music starts becoming more about the individual composer and less an anonymous tribute to the Godhead.
I agree with Mehldau here - spirituality is a good concept to represent the link between art and morality. A religious experience might be as he describes here:
Religion, though, implies a moral directive. And here is the rub – the evidence of something fear-inspiring and larger than myself that I found in Coltrane’s music was not morally applicable to anything. It was not fear of retribution that I was feeling; it was not a negatively felt fear.
For most of the religions of the world, religion is not necessarily a set of moral guidelines, but rather a way of defining morality, often strictly and narrowly. The entire point of the article is to make the case that a spiritual experience is not necessarily inclusive of a religious experience. Something that seems paramount in making the move from good to great is to "abandon oneself to the music" or to "turn inward." I think that when people speak in vagaries like that they really mean one needs to develop a relationship with how music can be spiritual, or how art can create links with morality that do not necessarily outline a moral code.
This gets to my belief that art is a way for humanity to explore humanity through a venue that resides outside humanity. Before creation, a great work of art exists within humanity, in the creator's mind. Once created, it lies separate from humanity, out in nature, whether that be in a wooden frame, on manuscript paper, as a series of moments in time (musical performance), etc. By creating artistic objects that lie outside the human mind, we are able to not only communicate a personal viewpoint, but we are able to create a viewing port into humanity.
I believe that musicians need to have a spiritual experience on some level to communicate that spirituality with listeners. In fact, I think that the communication, or unveiling, of spirituality is one of the most important facets of artistic creation. I would imagine that most people who reside in cultures that celebrate music can point to one or more times in their lives in which the experience of listening to music has enveloped them. Most of the time that experience involves emotion and knowledge coming together at a time ripe for that; a non-religious spiritual experience. It could happen in a religious setting, but I argue that even then it is a separate process. That experience is really the act of coming to terms with humanity through the guise of music. Hence I can still have that experience listening to Ornette Coleman's Shape of Jazz to Come, even though sometimes the music is not presented in a way that is traditional. I don't want to wade too far into aesthetics or the definition of beauty, but something doesn't have to be beautiful to make us understand humanity a bit better. The "vague and ambivalent relationship between art and morality" is a good thing, as it leaves things open to interpretation, and change.