From Cage to Coltrane: (Un)popular Music as Contemplative Practice
For an upper-level Media Studies seminar, I developed two complimentary case studies that explore the relationship between music, identity, and contemplative practice. The first focuses on avant-garde composer John Cage, whose work incorporates ideas from Zen Buddhism, Indian philosophy, and the I Ching. The second focuses on jazz composer John Coltrane, whose “free jazz” approach harnesses the power of group improvisation as a technique for spiritual exploration. The juxtaposition of Cage and Coltrane’s work accomplishes a few important pedagogical tasks. First, it allows students to explore the ways in which the composition and performance of popular music serve as a form of contemplative practice. Second, it highlights the similarities and differences in various historical struggles for equality among sexual and racial minorities, and the role of contemplative practice in those struggles. (Cage was gay and Coltrane was African-American). Students are encouraged to draw connections to recent LGBTQ and racial justice activism. Third, it shows how the constraints of a consumer economy can enhance, but also hinder, the quest for spiritual meaning and authenticity. Such commercial pressures can impact the ongoing development of contemplative practices, shaping their long-term socio-cultural impact. If executed well, with proper contextualization, the lessons and in-class contemplative exercises described here may enhance students’ appreciation of music composition and performance as forms of contemplative practice with socially transformative potential.
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