Ken Myers wrote after reading my God and Geometry post the other day, and cited the part in which I said:

Still, might we be able to feel the presence of divine order, even if we don’t really know what we’re looking at? That was absolutely my experience of the Chartres cathedral when I was 17 years old. I walked out of there knowing that, in Walker Percy’s phrase, that I was onto something.

Ken wrote in response:

…for millennia, music, more than architecture or visual arts, was regarded as the felt conduit of that presence. And geometry was involved (hence the linking of music with geometry and astronomy in the classical quadrivium). But we no longer know how to hear the code, partly because we regard music more as a stimulant for booty-shaking than for contemplation.

He also attached a lecture he’d recently given on the topic. I quote from it below with his permission:

In his wonderful book, Who Needs Classical Music? Julian Johnson discusses how this arrogant assumption that we have nothing to receive from others shapes the conventional view of aesthetic judgment. It is generally assumed in the West today, especially in America, that “in matters of musical judgment, the individual can be the only authority.”

Johnson points out that

“This is in sharp contrast to the relatively minor status of individual ‘taste’ in Western musical practice and aesthetics from the ancient Greeks until the late eighteenth century. To an earlier age, our contemporary idea of a complete relativism in musical judgment would have seemed nonsensical. One could no more make valid individual judgments about music than about science. Music was no more ‘a matter of taste’ than was the orbit of the planets or the physiology of the human body. From Plato to Helmholtz, music was understood to be based on natural laws, and its value was derived from its capacity to frame and elaborate these laws in musical form. Its success was no more a matter of subjective judgment than the laws themselves.”

Johnson notes that there is almost no significant public discourse about the qualities of music, in large measure because it is assumed to be only a matter of taste, that is, purely subjective. “To suggest otherwise today, to press for the validity of a musical judgment beyond personal preference is not only indecorous but somehow ‘politically incorrect’—it smacks of coercion and a kind of cultural high-handedness or elitism. But political correctness has little to do with a genuine political democracy that depends on the very kind of debate that is lacking here. It is, rather, the pseudo-democracy of a commercial culture that accords equal validity and equal status to all of its products. In the marketplace, all music becomes functionally equivalent, a fact elegantly realized in the uniformity [the packaging and marketing] of recorded music.”

Johnson observes out that “the claim that individual taste is the sole criterion for musical judgment” is curiously in tune with the logic of the marketplace. Commodity capitalism has become the paradigm for our thinking about many things, including aesthetic judgment.

Johnson is wise to observe that the democratizing of taste has metaphysical consequences. Throughout that long period that began no later than Pythagoras and ended sometime near the beginning of the nineteenth century, that is for most of Western history, it was assumed that “the power and significance that music holds for us derive from its relation to an order of things larger than ourselves. Today we might argue about whether that order is one ‘of nature’ or whether it is not rather one ‘of society,’ of purely human making. But in both cases it concerns an order that confronts us, as individuals, as a reality over and against ourselves. The importance we accord to music is, in some way, derived from its ability to mediate our individual experience of that objective whole, whether it is conceived of as cosmic nature or human society. This is why music is irreducibly highly personal and subjective but also more than that—related to something that confronts us objectively, as the totality in which we live.”

Johnson concludes that “If we no longer take music seriously as a way of defining our relation to the external world, perhaps we have become not more sophisticated but simply more self-absorbed.”

For the ego-centric consumer worldview, art is (at best) a way of using the world to serve our own ends. For those who recognize that the world is more than just raw material to be used, that creation is a gift and an epiphany, art is a way of creatively receiving the world, of perceiving, honoring, and engaging its order. the posture of regarding the world as merely something to be used, only as a “resource,” has been a feature of American culture since the beginning of our history.

(Did you like that? Then you really, really need to subscribe to the Mars Hill Audio Journal. )

Anyway, I told Ken in response that on Sunday at the Divine Liturgy, my mind was scattered, and I struggled to order my own thoughts to the reality that was happening around me as the priest consecrated the bread and the wine. Then the choir sang a pre-communion hymn that I had not heard before. I can’t be sure, but I think it was something by Rachmaninoff. It was stunningly beautiful and otherworldly. And suddenly,  I knew where I was, and what was happening around me. That is, I didn’t have to think: the beauty of that hymn brought me back to the reality of God and His presence among us.

This morning, driving into Baton Rouge with my son Matthew, for his classical tutorial, we talked about “Universe of Stone,” Philip Ball’s wonderful book about the birth of the Chartres cathedral, and the worldview that inspired Gothic architecture. He’s about a third of the way through it, and we discussed how the pre-Moderns believed that God and God’s laws could be revealed in Nature, and in art and architecture. For the medieval pilgrim, the Chartres cathedral was not merely a beautiful place to pray; it was a statement about reality, and a catechism in truth. Matt and I are going to work towards being able to “read the code” of Gothic cathedrals before we go see Notre Dame de Chartres, and Notre Dame de Paris, on our trip to France in October.

I wish, though, I could learn to read the code of music…

UPDATE: Turns out that the hymn I heard at church on Sunday was by Pavel Chesnokov. Here’s a link to that hymn sung in Slavonic (ours was in English). Here’s the Wikipedia entry on this 1912 communion hymn, which consists of a single line: “Salvation is made in the midst of the earth, O God. Alleluia.”