Rod Paton
from: Rod Paton
Category: General Discussion

Orpheus, Music and Healing

In an age when music is packaged and consumed like fast food it is easy to forget that one of its primary functions is to connect us as human beings to our higher selves. Perhaps this property of music has never disappeared and that the vast hunger for the consumption of music which expresses itself through a vast range of media and through the exponential growth in the objects of consumption such as CDs, MP3s, DVDs and so on, runs parallel to the ecological and environmental dangers which threaten our survival. Is it possible that the more we consume, the more we fuel our need for the kind of healing which music provides? Yet, ironically, music itself, as consumerist object becomes caught up in the ever-spiralling networks of material consumption. This is as true for popular musical culture with its constant hunger for the new, the fresh, the young and the trendy as it is for the tottering edifice of the classical canon which only survives through state subsidies funded from the pockets of a public, most of whom never go near an opera house or concert hall. So is there another way to access music, not as consumers but as creators? Is it, will it be possible to reclaim the deep, esoteric functions of this strange, abstract art, recognising the transformational potential which lies hidden just beneath the surface? Is it possible to reconnect with those functions of music which lie beyond entertainment? Can we restore to music its healing and transformational power? If so, then this could have profound implications for the way we encounter the world, relate to others and treat with the environment.


In Greek legend, Orpheus, master of song and prototypical musician, through the sheer beauty of his singing, persuades Hades, lord of the underworld, to give up Eurydice, who had been bitten by a snake on her wedding day and whisked into the dark realm. The story is well known, especially for the tragic ending when Orpheus, instructed by Hades to walk ahead of his bride and not to look back, cannot resist a glance over his shoulder and thereby loses her for ever and is consigned to a lifetime of loneliness and longing.

The myth of Orpheus takes the forestage again in the early 17th century where it becomes the central narrative of early opera. In one way or another, most operatic themes since that time, including masterpieces such as The Magic Flute, Carmen and Tosca, have been centred on the death or abduction of their heroines. Moreover, the musical language which derives from these early 17th century beginnings, and which provides the basis for the western European classical tradition, also supports a narrative, albeit in abstract form, in which a hero sets out on a journey (away from the home key), overcomes a number of obstacles (the tensions which are set up through modulation and development etc.) to return triumphantly having defeated the forces of darkness and resolved all doubt (the final cadence). This kind of trajectory appears in virtually all of the music composed in the great tradition from around 1610 right up until 1900 and beyond, providing a clear alpha and omega for musical forms. We find it in the cantatas of Bach, the concertos of Mozart, the symphonic works of Beethoven and the symphonic poems of Liszt: in short, wherever serious music is being consciously created over a period of some three hundred years. We also find it in popular music, in the songs of Gershwin and in countless musicals. It becomes the central norm of musical form so that any music which departs in whatever way from these patterns or even this aesthetic is viewed as “other”. This would apply for example to nineteenth century national styles but especially to the emergence of twentieth century music such as blues, jazz and rock which polarises sharply with the classical norm.

When we consider the myth of Orpheus in greater depth and with some kind of post-modern distance, a number of interesting factors emerge. Firstly, Orpheus’ relationship to the women in the plot is by no means simple. To begin with, we might consider his affective, romantic attachment to Eurydice a little over the top, a factor which comes across brilliantly in Baz Luhrmann’s retelling of the story in the film Moulin Rouge. Orpheus is cast here as a typical Puer Aeternus going through his rite of passage. Then, significantly, it is not Hades but his wife, Persephone whose heart is won over by Orpheus’ singing and she in turn persuades Hades to relax a little and bend the rules. Then there is the sequel to the story when Orpheus, totally devastated by his loss and incapable of responding to the exhortations of the Maenads, the wild female followers of the Dionysion rites, is finally torn limb from limb, though his head continues to sing even as it floats downstream! And most importantly of all, it must be remembered that the myth is one of death and resurrection which kind of goes wrong – the banishing of Eurydice to the underworld (for ever) is not just about loss of soul, though that is serious enough, but also about a break in the natural cycle of life and death which would have seen Eurydice and Orpheus reunited and having babies. So what we find is a complex set of relationships to the feminine (to anima) in various forms and, finally a loss and rejection of the feminine principle altogether. Much of the story rests with Orpheus both as mortal and as musician coming into the realm of the gods. His encounter with the powers of the underworld is an encounter with a transpersonal entity, after which he is potentially transformed. Similarly, the brush with Dionysos is also the human in contact with a god and not just any god but one whose own powers of transformation were well known. Finally we can recall that Orpheus received his lyre in the first place from Apollo, the god of the upper world (sun, heavens, time and spirit) who is most connected with the arts of music dance and poetry.

What messages then does this myth hold for modern man? In the early 17th century the attraction of the plot for early and thence later, opera composers would seem to draw significance from how it all coincides neatly with the emergence of rationalism and the beginning of the enlightenment. In this context we might interpret Orpheus’ unwillingness to trust his ears, (his feelings, his anima) and the need to see in order to believe (his rational side, his animus) as a metaphor for empirical truth and the birth of science. His music would surely have sounded like the balanced and elegant Apollonian structures which appear in the 18th Century, fashioned around the rationalism of equal temperament and the drama of tonal narratives. Furthermore, the death of women, or at least the way in which the female principle is buried, relegated to an inferior position in culture and commerce, then becomes a familiar pattern in the evolution of western thought and habits. A cultural norm is established in which the male principle becomes dominant, underpinned by a religion based upon a male trinity expressed through music in which triads (three-note chords) arranged in strict hierarchical progressions, become the central organising principle. The loss of soul which Orpheus suffers is experienced in musical structure as the poignant “otherness” of the minor mode (as opposed to the major or dominant) or the “feminine” cadence, whilst the norm is undoubtedly represented through the march of triads which usually ends in a perfect  or “male” cadence, achieved only once the modal, natural (flattened) seventh has been cancelled out and replaced by the leading note. It is easy to hear this as a metaphor for the burial of the female principle. Thus, not merely the music itself, but the very language we employ to describe it, is permeated with clues as to the enculturated meanings we attach to the structure of the sounds.

Central to this interpretation of the myth are the twin notions of 1) sacrifice and, 2) the emergence of longing: the former might be expressed as ‘loss of soul’ and the latter as ‘feeling at a distance.’ In the modern (technological, material) world, soul (anima) is hidden, often to the point where the very word “soul” has become somewhat taboo. A good example of this is in modern medicine where the treatment of the soul is completely ignored or regarded as irrelevant or even heretical: the body is the focal point of treatment and any ghost which may be lurking in the machine is discounted. Like Orpheus, modern man ascends into the light needing to see things and valorise life through vision, through conscious rationality, not trusting merely to hear or to feel his way: we have literally lit up our world with electricity; we cannot move fast enough or often enough upwards, into the air, into the upper atmosphere and beyond, reaching ever upwards, beyond; we tend to think literally, leaving the imagination in the dark; if there is such a thing as a modern myth then this is being expressed through a belief in the desirability of continual growth and a constant striving for improvement expressed through ever- increasing literal physical consumption. Any reflective, soul-longing is psychologised as depression and stigmatised or medically treated. We worship the god of ‘growth’ and fear recession.

In the sense that this is an ascending curve, it has all the character of a spiritual journey, even though we consider it to be godless. Youth and youthfulness is prized whilst ageing is regarded as a necessary but inconvenient evil. In a very real sense, we seek to become gods and, if we cannot access this enlightened, heightened state of spiritual consciousness through prayer, reflection or meditation, we pour it literally down our throats as alcohol. It might also be possible to see in this culture of excess a need to compensate for the loss or suppression of feeling. Empathy, passion and emotion have become fixed within tradition as female attributes, polarised with the male “virtues” of industry, rationality and objectivity. In science and academia, it is these latter qualities which receive positive valorisation and which are rewarded with public recognition. The softer virtues, however valuable (e.g. child-rearing) are simply not valorised in the same way: they remain, like Eurydice, invisible.

So when Orpheus is forced to leave Eurydice in the dark, he comes to represent much of what modern man (in the developed world) experiences. The benefits we gain in a world based upon empirical truth and the emergence of science may appear all too obvious: sophisticated technology making life easier, a strong sense of control of our own destinies, the notion that science can solve everything; medicine to cure all ills including the extension of life itself beyond the allotted three score plus ten. Yet the penalty we pay for these benefits are also very obvious and stand in direct contradiction to the above: when the technology breaks down we suddenly find ourselves totally helpless and extremely vulnerable; far from being in control of our own destinies, as individuals we may feel like alienated victims of mechanisation and globalisation; science, far from solving everything creates ever new problems, ethical, ecological and spiritual, all of which seem to defy resolution;

It is surely not insignificant either, that it is Orpheus’ unwillingness to join the dance which causes his own death – his head continues singing after his dismemberment by the Erinyes, the wild female followers of the Dionysian cult. In the seventeenth century, people began to sit still to listen to music and the structures of classical music seem to become more and more rationalised, heady and less informed by bodily feeling. The concert hall becomes a place in which to contemplate but not participate in a performance. Music itself seems therefore to be subjugated to the cultural necessities of reason and clarity above ecstasy and trance.

In the discussion so far, I have concentrated on the sacrificial elements of the Orpheus myth, the hero himself eventually paying the ultimate sacrifice, and how this provides a metaphor for the dangers which beset the modern world. But it is also important to examine what Orpheus, and thus music, is altogether capable of – its esoteric power – since it is here that we find perhaps its capacity to heal and transform. We know, for a start, that his music was so extraordinary that it could move rocks and that trees would uproot themselves in order to follow his sonorities (“The hills are alive with the sound of music…etc.”). This surely relates to a property of music which goes to the heart of things, not just the human heart but to the inner workings of nature and the cosmos. We might look to the east and to the philosophy of Nada Brahma as well as to Schopenhauer or even quantum theory to find support for the theory that music, sound and vibration in a dance which is (as Hans Keller put it) “coherently unpredictable” and this improvisatory principle somehow inhabits, informs and regulates all of life. As Joachim Berendt puts it in his book Nada Brahma - The World is Sound, “before we make music, the music makes us”. We are not merely talking here of sound and vibration but of actual musical processes ´- imaginative, inventive, creative but above all transformational in matter, substance, culture and human feelings. Music is a language of emotion because it is also the language of motion, moving through time but also vibrating within space. The primary, vibrational qualities of music appear to inform the physical as well as the metaphysical qualities of living matter so that the process of creating and performing music derives its meanings from the simple fact that in doing so we are somehow attuning to the essential principles which maintain and perpetuate all life. In earlier times, particularly in the universities of the middle ages, music did indeed derive its special status from the belief that it had this cosmic function. Musica mundana was understood as the archetype of which music humana was an echo. (When Berendt broadcast a series of radio programmes in Germany in the 1980s which attempted to demonstrate this deep relationship between natural processes and composed or improvised music, audience figures went through the roof.)

So where is Orpheus today and what clues can we find within the musical myth which point towards healing and regeneration? Can music really heal the planet? Contradictions abound. On the one hand, there is no doubting the fact that music is an inflated currency and, as such, its value has dropped. Far from being viewed as vital to our well being as human beings it is relegated mainly to its function as entertainment. Classical music, especially the 19th century concert hall repertoire is maintained through public subsidy as a minority interest on the grounds that it is culturally valuable. Yet the majority of people do not listen to this repertoire even though access is so relatively open. And whilst we may agree that the great tradition, the classical canon is vital to our cultural health, we seem happy to allow it to be mediated in all sorts of seemingly inappropriate ways – it is quite possible for example to listen to works of profound import (the Bach Passions let us say) on the car stereo stuck in a traffic jam on the M25! This kind of phenomenon certainly represents devaluation, or at least relativisation in a postmodern sense. In addition, there are few if any taboos surrounding the performance of music attached to particular events. Even carols, which are designed to provide the particular and peculiar, sensate atmosphere of the winter solstice and the birth of the new year, are pumped out indiscriminately alongside and blended in with the whole consumerist stampede which begins in November. The point is that the music of the great tradition which represents rationality and reason also represents the dangers inherent in a cultural mode which suppresses not just the feminine principle but also the natural processes which maintain and nurture living process. Within the Orpheus myth, perhaps, we have both an explanation and a warning.

In seeking renewal, cultural, personal, global, it may then be essential to reacquaint ourselves with the deep narratives of music, the spirit of Orpheus and the essential power of music which can so easily evaporate in the clustered airwaves, endless technologies, sterile concert halls and pop idol reality television. If we really want to discover the X-factor, it may be necessary to listen to our own breathing, become aware of our own pulse, connect with others to make our own sounds audible, experience afresh Dodona’s vocal grove in order to create our own vocal grooves!

Towards the end of a workshop I was running recently (for members of the migrant working community), a participant suggested that we chant some long vocal tones to accompany some coloured images which she had on cards and which I recognised as chakra patterns. Now much as I respect the theories of energy centres in the body, I am very wary of too easily mapping these onto musical sounds, many of which seem too wishfully naive or unscientific to my mind. However, I am also happy to accept that any kind of metaphor can stimulate the imagination, tapping into archetypal patterns and accessing deeper levels of consciousness. And so it was on this occasion. The group began chanting with total spontaneity, holding onto some tones, letting go of others, experimenting with different vowels, rising and falling, attuning, naturally and effortlessly harmonising. It really felt as if Orpheus himself had entered the room. The session went on for a full 20 minutes longer than planned and in those 20 minutes something changed, some kind of transformation took place and people departed somehow more balanced and more bonded than when they had arrived. Now I imagine bringing this kind of music making into places where it is really needed – board rooms, banks, military academies, cabinet offices, centres of government and parliaments where all that talking desperately needs to be balanced by the kind of attunement which Orpheus brings into the human heart.

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