"228. Against mediators. - Those who want to mediate between two resolute thinkers show that they are mediocre; they lack eyes for seeing what is unique. Seeing things as similar and making things the same is the sign of weak eyes." Friedrich Nietzche, The Gay Science.
Alice Coltrane had weak eyes. Her 1972 album Lord of Lords was her third and final album for the Impulse! label. The music on the album was made to match her New Age spirituality - a spirituality which sought the universal, which was "...determined to deny that which opposes the sannyasi to the Roman prelate, or the Sufi to the Kierkegaardian pastor..." (Bataille). The insipid mediocrity of her beliefs carried over into her music, which attempted to mediate Jazz, Western Classical music, Indian Classical Music, Delta Blues, Gospel. The result can be heard as a synthesis which is so sentimental and saccharine, that it positively cloys.
Alice Coltrane had weak eyes. She did not see that her New Age spirituality was servile. Her search for deliverance, salvation, and possession of the 'supreme goal of life', expressed the will to straitjacket herself within an authoritarian religious ideal. At the time of the making of 'Lord of Lords' the religious authority was that of Swami Satchidananda; and after that Swami's death, the religious authority was that of the controversial South Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba. Called 'a divine being and a sacred embodiment' on the website of Alice Coltrane's own Vedantic temple, this guru deified himself in order to sexually abuse young followers. The authoritarian aspect of Alice Coltrane's spirituality also carried over into her musical praxis. The title of the album itself refers to authority. Furthermore, I see her work as the continuation of nineteenth-century Western Classical Music, in which the composer was viewed as an artist-prophet, as a spiritual authority, while the orchestra musician was passive, a servile follower of the dictates of composer. With the central track titled 'Excerpts from The Firebird', Alice Coltrane places 'Lord of Lords' squarely in this Western Classical Music tradition. On the album as a whole, improvisation is at a minimum; Alice Coltrane leads a 16-piece string orchestra as an artist-prophet, with only herself, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Ben Riley being allowed some improvisatory freedom.
Alice Coltrane may have had weak eyes - but what if we listen to her music with sharp ears?
Listening to the album with sharp ears, we can hear the music in many different ways.
We can attempt to discern the various musical strata of 'Lord of Lords', we can try to differentiate between Jazz, Western Classical music, Indian Classical Music, Delta Blues and Gospel, we can seek multiplicity in the synthesis, we can try to find forms in the universal. Here, we break down the unified into a plethora of significant unities. We hear many unique things, and marvel at the luminescent abysses that divide and connect them. Listening with sharp ears, we make things different again.
We can employ another listening technique and desublimate the universal into formlessness. When we listen this way, the corniness of her spirituality becomes a pleasurable infraction of the laws of good taste. The celestial character of the harps and violins only serves to underscore the feverish lowness of the drones. Instead of ascending to the heavens, we descend into compository chaos. The Firebird falls into the Icarian Sea. Free Jazz, Western Classical music, Indian Classical Music, Delta Blues and Gospel all collapse. Drones drown compositions. The saccharine melts and becomes syrupy. 'Lord of Lords' turns out to be fascinating; something that cannot be tamed by any concept. Listening with sharp ears, we hear the measureless and incomparable.
Those who hear only the universal in Alice Coltrane's music show that they are mediocre; they lack eyes for seeing what is heterogeneous in her work. Hearing her music as a synthesis and reducing her music to universal nature is the sign of weak ears.