Ghost Story

Shortly after he lost his father, my father had a dream. He was in bed in his childhood home, listening to the ringing of a telephone. “Why doesn’t he answer that?”, he thought of my grandfather, on whose nightstand the phone continued to ring. My dad got up, walked the suddenly impossibly long, dark hallway to the room where my grandfather lay naked and asleep atop the covers, and picked up the handset. As he did so my grandfather sat up in bed, rubbing his eyes, while at the same time his voice came through the receiver in my dad’s hand, a series of urgent, guttural moans in a desperate attempt at speech. Dad woke up, haunted and rattled.

Though my parents had at this point begun their long, inexorable drift toward separation and divorce, they were still communicating effectively enough for my dad, the gentle, straight-laced Methodist minister of music, to want to tell my mom, the restless firebrand, just starting her lifelong (and ultimately tragic) journey into millennial spirituality and occultism, of his dream. She suggested that he lie down, meditate on the dream, and allow it to resurface such that he could reenter it and see it through. This he did, on the couch in our house next to the tiny room he used as a study. He found himself dreaming once again, in his old bedroom, and when the phone at my granddad’s bedside began to ring, he was startled to realize that this time the ringing he heard was next to him, in the study. He got up, shook off the dream, and answered the phone. I know, because he told me, that he was shocked, electrified at this moment, but was he really surprised when the voice at the other end of the line turned out to be Granddad’s, in the same croaking, plaintive attempt to reach across the veil that he’d heard the night before while dreaming? This I’ll never know, but my hunch is that he wasn’t. When the line went to dial-tone he hung up, walked slowly to the kitchen where my mother was sitting and looked to the wall phone that hung there. “Why didn’t you answer the phone?” he asked. She looked up, confused. “It didn’t ring.” It never rang again. When, five years later, we moved from the house and the Ma Bell guy came to collect the equipment he said the ringer looked cooked, like it had been fried by a sudden blast of current. Since old phones only carried a max of 90 volts while ringing, this seemed unlikely. But there it was, blackened and soundless.

Growing up I heard this story most often from my mom, whose own fierce need to believe in the uncanny was both unshakable and insatiable, and so over time I came to doubt it. But when, decades later, I asked my dad about it he confirmed it, word for word. This was striking: as a liberal but still deeply devout, old-school protestant Christian neither his theology nor his cosmology allowed for communing with the dead. The barrier between this world and the next was inviolate, and only a trip to the witch of Endor could render it porous. And yet this thing had happened, had moved him profoundly, was as vivid for him thirty-five years later as it had been the day he’d picked up that phone.

Assuming the story is objectively true, that it represents a genuine encounter across the great divide, I’ve often wondered what it was that led Granddad to make this clearly Herculean effort to reach my dad. The answer lies, I’m certain, with the state of the two men’s relationship at the time of Granddad’s sudden death at 61 (the age that I realize I have just passed). Sometime farmer, autodidact, history buff and lifelong alcoholic, my dad’s dad was both absence and powerful presence in the lives of his children, a black hole at the center of the family galaxy exerting an enormous psychic pull: fall in and you’d never come out. He shared with my dad his love of history, as well as a fascination with trains, literature, and – though he was baffled by its mysterious complexity – music. But the codes of masculinity in rural depression-era America and the lure of the bottle kept him apart, aloof, mute and invisible. Was his phone call as simple as a last I love you, son, a chance to say in death what he’d withheld while living?

Or was it my dad who hung on, holding his father in the Bardo and forcing the voiced expression of love he’d longed for his entire life? Was he the real initiator of the call? This seems probable, and opens up the possibility that the whole exchange was, as Oliver Sacks would no doubt see it, a complex and extended hallucination. Grief is known to work in just this way, producing visions of both terror and consolation. Perhaps a combination of grief and rage, joined with an active, eager unconscious, brought my dad, like Orpheus and Odysseus before him, to the edge of the underworld. It’s as good an explanation as any, but it doesn’t account for the ruined phone. More importantly, it doesn’t account for the numinous force of the experience itself; it explains but cannot contain it.

Though my father generally had no truck with ghosts, everything he did was geistlich. Convicted in his mandate to provide his flock with experiences of genuine transcendence, he worked tirelessly to craft a musical liturgy marked first and foremost by immanence, what George Steiner has called a real presence: the indwelling presence of god. I’ve been going through the record of his life’s work recently, his sermon notes, his organ music, his hymnal, and reconnecting with the music he loved most: the hymns, anthems and cantatas he led on a weekly basis, the works he commissioned, and the body of sacred touchstones he was determined to conduct. All of it was immanent, as much for me as for him. This is the music I heard him practicing as I lay on the chancel next to the organ, during the summers when I came up from New Orleans to Minneapolis to be with him. That music is in me, has dug itself deep into my soul. Though I’ve written little for organ, Messiaen’s Apparition de l’église éternelle is the most fearsome of the subterranean rivers on which all the music I’ve composed has been carried into my consciousness.

I recently wrote a string quartet in Dad’s memory, both as requiem and meeting-ground, a space where I’d hoped the two of us would find each other. Of course Dad as he is now (if he is now…) isn’t there. The phantom I keep bumping into is me, past and present, while my dad is there in memory. I think of the piece as a kind of psychic parkland, a backcountry where memories combine and re-combine in constantly shifting relationship to each other, a place where the ghosts of our cumulative experience are free to remake themselves anew with each hearing. There’s immanence in this, too. The musical indwelling of spirit is impervious to the stated intention of individual composers or their works, sacred or secular. The phone rings whether we want it to or not.

That said, it’s clear from the massive shift toward magic in late 20th-century Western music, regardless of genre, that indwelling is what we seek, with Sonata, Symphony, and Construction X giving way to Ancient Voices of Children; Sirius; Mystère de l’instant; Visions of the Emerald Beyond; The Father, Son & Holy Ghost; Le Grand Macabre. While George Crumb would seem to be the most obvious standard-bearer of this new aesthetic of the supernatural (the haunts he conjures in works as varied as Black Angels, Apparition and Star Child are genuinely ghostly), Ligeti might be a more instructive example here. Resolutely non-religious, he set in motion autonomous musical processes that yield textures of surprising affective power, that seem to have agency, an inner compulsion, that seem, in other words, weirdly spiritual. Ligeti’s impetus was usually nature itself, and one can be forgiven for experiencing Désordre or Clocks and Clouds as evincing a reverence for natural process bordering on the pantheistic. Even in the snarky, postmodern ending of Le Grand Macabre, the fact that the foretold apocalypse fails to materialize remains uncanny. There is no pulling back of the curtain to reveal a fraud. The world should have ended, it just doesn’t. The work is allegorical and has a lot on its mind, but exactly what is far from clear. In spite of its sarcasm, its outsized sexuality, its lampooning of human folly, it is hermetic and shot through with mysticism.

This sense of immanence is not new, of course, not unique to music that seems intent on casting a spell. We find it wherever we are moved by form, changed by beauty, transubstantiated by the unity of thought and feeling; in other words, wherever it speaks to us most clearly, which means it may exist for me in the 2nd movement of the Bach Double, but for you only in the B Minor Mass. It’s as specific to the experience of music as it is to its construction. What’s different starting in the 60’s is that the same cultural shift that sees people who self-identify as “spiritual” leave established religions in droves (they’re still leaving; mega-churches notwithstanding identification with specific faith traditions is at a historic low), sees a corresponding explosion of non-sectarian musical spiritualism. So-called “absolute” music was suddenly explicitly concerned with raising the hackles of the listener, of giving the tangible impression that one was in the presence of the numen. Crumb spoke of the “sense of doom” in the temple blocks; Dutilleux spoke of form as dream, as enchantment; Stockhausen, of course, elucidated his grandiose and often bizarre cosmology (there’s a peculiar fascination to watching him in action, and the question arises: is he more uniquely himself expounding on the mythology of Sirius, his home planet, or when postulating that human beings are gradually being transformed into chickens as a result of the amount of poultry they consume? This all becomes less amusing in the context of his comments about 9/11, of course); John Adams plumbed the collective unconscious in Harmonium and Harmonielehre; John Luther Adams offered us sonic annihilation in the world-spirit; and Pauline Oliveros facilitated intense moments of transformation through meditative but sharply focused environmental listening. In each case what was clear, what remains clear, is that the music is not intended as parodic set-piece, but rather as the sonic gateway to a different level of consciousness. That the whole project was sometimes faddish and musically naïve doesn’t change the fact that it was welcomed by a culture clearly desperate for the access to real presence it seemed to offer.

Concurrent with all of this was a brief but palpable resurgence of sacred music, with the Requiem and Lux Aeterna of Ligeti; the St. Luke Passion of Penderecki; The Flight Into Egypt and Samuel Chapter of John Harbison, to name just a few powerful examples. Cut from an entirely different cloth but representative of the same cultural welling-up of spiritual need was the ubiquity from the 80’s through the aughts of sacred minimalism, with Part, Tavener and Gorecki showing up everywhere from churches and recital programs to public radio pledge drives and movie soundtracks (Gorecki beautifully, indelibly marks both Peter Weir’s Fearless and Bertrand Blier’s spectacularly unpleasant Mon homme; Part makes a similar appearance in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut).

In spite of this surge of heterodox mysticism, what Charles Taylor in A Secular Age? would have described as the unconscious, collective drive toward belief, many educated musicians, especially those of us in academic circles, view the identification of sound and spirit with a range of responses from quiet embarrassment to open contempt. I find it deeply ironic that, in our valiant attempt to rid our musical thinking of the ethnocentricism that has for so long defined and poisoned it, we have deprived ourselves of one of the principal values that we admire in so much of the world’s music: the primacy of affect as spiritual condition. In coming to view style, expression, and emotional signification in music as purely the result of cultural construction we consign ourselves to the position of perpetual onlookers, outsiders to the human family, still stuck in the same smart-aleck Western position as always, wondering what it would be like truly to belong, to know what our music is telling us on a soul level. Of course we do know it, understand it, when we’re in the act of either performing or listening (though the knowledge is pre-verbal and thus inexpressible), but once we step out of the magic circle and back into the analytical position we habitually occupy we retreat into a neutered metalanguage incapable of affective amplification. Never trusting the purity of our lived experience, we speak of music’s expressive potential as mimetic rather than immanent, a matter of codes over archetypes, though while in the grip of Op. 132, or Bitches Brew, or Anna Weesner’s The 8 Lost Songs of Orlando Underground we’re goddamned if we can tell the difference.

I’m speaking of myself here, of course; I haven’t yet found a way miraculously to square this circle. When I was a kid I believed firmly in ghosts. There were too many at the foot of my bed and in the rafters above my head to be denied. An abusive stepdad and an early obsession with The Exorcist did nothing to quiet them or make them less obnoxious. I lived in a haunted landscape, every day waiting for things to burst into psychic mayhem. With time, however, they faded from view, their exact nature and meaning for me repeatedly shape-shifting so as to become unrecognizable. These days I no longer believe, not exactly. The whole notion of a prolonged individual intelligence seems to me wish fulfillment of the first order, an infantile ego-projection ad infinitum. There’s also the problem of the mechanism, the means by which this persistence of self would be accomplished; it simply beggars imagination (trust me, I’ve tried to work it through; it never adds up). Then there’s the nagging question of what one does in the afterlife, though I suppose that’s like a New Yorker trying to imagine what one does in Iowa. You won’t know until you get there.

Nonetheless I’m not ruling anything out, either. I’m fascinated by our language around meaning, and by our ineluctable need to place ourselves next to some unseen reality when trying to sort things out. Even in the most militantly decentralized models of consciousness, where the illusion of the self is understood to arise from the interaction of the brain with the external environment, the sum-total, our subjective experience, is mediated by some as-yet unnamed process that yields the ego-position necessary to articulate the whole construct in the first place. The ghost in the machine has been fired but has been replaced by temp workers with no fixed address. Roger Penrose speaks of information crossing the boundary between universes, and while he is most emphatically not referring to ego-driven consciousness his use of “information” suggests a record inscribed in matter, a trace, persisting through the death of one universe into and through the birth of another, to be read, decoded, by some distant future civilization. Or simply by the universe itself. We are, after all, we humans along with our fellow animals across the web of life, matter made conscious, the universe trying to make sense of itself. We’re beguiled by strange attractors; by the identity of weather patterns and market fluctuations; by the double slit experiment; by Special Relativity; by the tracing of light back to the dawn of time. In a universe lit up by strings, branes and quantum entanglement, belief in ghosts seems weirdly comprehensible, if still utterly unprovable. But if unprovable, they retain the power to incapacitate us with fear.

My dad was profoundly shaken and his sense of reality called into question by his father’s voice on the phone. The experience stayed with him, altering the inner template he used in constructing his worship, in giving voice to what was for him the abiding presence of god. I wanted that template for myself, but I was born without Dad’s faith, and his singular commitment to liturgy. Though I loved his ministry, both for its beauty and its fierce integrity, I knew that my glossolalia would take other forms, that composing, improvising, and teaching would give me the experience of immanence I was looking for. You see, I want in music to be seized; terrified; bathed in immersive beauty; dismembered and reborn; I want to be forcibly plunged into its political, social, and sensual dimensions; I want my relationships to memory, the passing of time, and my own mortality laid bare; I want to be in the presence of the other. This, for me is real presence. This is my call from across the Styx.

Our completion as human beings, our access to the expansion of soul that music makes possible, demands this encounter with its otherness. This is true whether we are doubters, atheists, or are unshakable in our faith. The experience need not extend out there, running up the overtone series and into the music of the spheres, but simply illuminate the unseen yet essential dimensions of the here and now. In mapping the soul, not necessarily as disembodied intelligence, but instead as the miraculous byproduct of a physical-limbic-unconscious process common to all and yet unique to each, it renders the distinction between within and without meaningless. The feeling of pentecost, of possession by god, is the same.

Granddad may have phoned my dad. But whether it was truly him or a vivid projection, the call was wondrous. Music is tangibly, demonstrably spiritual. Even if its ground-of-being extends no further than our collective psyche, it is also wondrous. Made by us, it remakes us in return.

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