While I’m listing things for which I need to thank my mother, I should add to that list my vocabulary. Both of my parents, neither of whom had any education past completing high school, were obsessed with vocabulary. From the earliest time I can remember, if I asked them the meaning of a word I encountered in a book or elsewhere, I was sent to the dictionary to look it up. We then sat around the breakfast or dinner table and I was drilled to use the word successfully in 10 sentences. Needless to say, to this very day, I like new words and when I encounter them I strive to make them my own.
And so, today’s word, SYNAESTHESIS. I stumbled across this new word while reading Music and Theology by Don E. Saliers in preparation for my upcoming class at Wesley Seminary, “Music and Social Justice.” Having consulted Webster’s, however, I like Mr. Saliers definition better, since it is a lot less biological and more faith-based. His use of “synaesthetic” refers to “the simultaneous blending or convergence of two or more senses, hence a condition of heightened perception.” The most often cited secular use for the word implies that is an abnormal condition: SYNAESTHESIA, the neurological condition that causes someone to see colors when they hear sound. Critics and those who describe musical events as writers often use a SYNAESTHETIC literary device, saying a sound is more red than purple, or talking about the bright light of a sound. But there are those who actually see blue when they hear some sounds and green when they hear others — those people have, what the dictionary implies is, the abnormal condition of synaesthesia. And that includes famous musicians, such as the composer Amy Beach (1867-1944), an American pianist and composer, and a true synesthete. It turns out that Beach had both perfect pitch and a set of colors for musical keys.
Now that I have pleased my mother and used the word and its derivatives as many times as I possibly can, let me tell you why the word interests me theologically. Those of us who express mostly through musical language live in a constant state of tension, the dichotomy in the human arena between the “rationality” of the words that form the text and the wordless “sensuality” of the music itself. This is not a tension that is confined only to the realm of the sacred — Richard Strauss wrote an entire opera (Capriccio) that is little more than a dialogue about what is more important, the words or the music. Needless to say, this tension is heightened in the world of sacred music, with its theological divide between things of the flesh and things of the spirit, things tied to this world and things that are a part of the next.
This state of tension is as old as music and worship itself. Augustine of Hippo, in his Confessions, wrote about both sides of that tension. First, of the role of music in his conversion: “The tears flowed from me when I heard your hymns and canticles, for the sweet singing of your Church moved me deeply. The music surged in my ears, truth seeped into my heart, and my feelings of devotion overflowed… (Confessions, IX, 6). At the same time, he was afraid of the music and its affects: “…Yet when it happens that I am more moved by the singing than by what is sung, I confess myself to have sinned wickedly, and then I would rather not have heard the singing. See now what a condition I am in! Weep with me, and weep for me, those of you who can so control your inward feelings that good results always come forth…(Confessions, X.33)”
Music is, after all, a scary thing. While it is created using a rational, mathematical system of pitch and rhythm, the result for the performer and the listener is hardly ever rational. And, as Dr. Saliers so succinctly states: “Music intimately related to the narrative quality of human experience, presenting our temporality in symbolic form, but always bodily perceived through the senses. ” Lots of things in music to be scared of: music reminds us of the temporary state that is our huanity, since it functions in time; it reminds of us of our human form, because it is produced with our bodies and evokes physical response in the listener; and it reminds us of the mysteries which are beyond our human understanding. For years, I have known that for me, a performer of music in both the sacred and secular worlds, that this tension represented a false dichotomy, that where most people see two forces at opposition with one another, I know that there is a state of synthesis which also includes another unnamed dimension. While those who analyze music or worry about music’s role in worship or even worry about whether or not a person of faith can participate in music making embrace these seeming contraditions, those of us who make music know differently. Because when you are really making music, the dichotomy becomes unity, music and words become one in an act of faith and worship, in a feeling and expression that for some of us is equalled by no other. Music, at its best, whether secular or sacred, brings together in a single moment, my body, my mind, my spirit, and my relationship to the Divine.
I could feel it, but I never had a word to explain it. And now, thanks to Dr. Saliers, I do. SYNAESTHESIS.