Professor discusses power, message of music

Story by Hannah Keisker

Professor Jonathan Bellman from Northern Colorado University shared his ideas on the unspoken and unexplainable power of music on Thursday at 7 p.m. at St. Catherine of Siena Church and Student Center.

Professor Bellman teaches music history and literature and is the area head of academic studies in music. His lecture dealt with the ineffability in music: that which cannot be expressed or described in words.

“The experience or the germ that makes the human think of ineffability results from the need for something greater than oneself, and so when one hears it in music or in poetry or in anything, it’s as if that tickles the cortex,” Bellman said.

His visit was sponsored by the Comparison Project, an annual series of lectures and dialogues to raise awareness on the religious diversity in Des Moines.

Drake associate professor of philosophy Tim Knepper is the director of the Comparison Project.

“I loved it. I really, really enjoy these lectures that explore the topic outside of religious traditions,” Knepper said.

Knepper said he experienced the ineffability in music after listening to Mozart’s “Requiem” under the stars in western Massachusetts.

Bellman received piano performance degrees from the University of California-Santa Barbara and the University of Illinois, and a doctor of musical arts in piano performance practices at Stanford University.

“I thought it went well. I thought, actually, that I was putting people to sleep. But then the questions got very interesting afterwards,” Bellman said. “It’s hard to know because in a sense you’re performing when you give a lecture.”

The lecture was followed by a response from Eric Saylor, an associate professor of music history at Drake. A question after the lecture dealt with music losing its ability to evoke the ineffable.

Saylor explained that he can see this idea of the ineffable when his 5- and 8-year-old children listen to certain music. He said he can see when they are being transported beyond anywhere he knows.

“I don’t think humans will ever lose their need to have music communicate the ineffable to them and therefore, music will always produce that response,” Bellman said.

Mallory Rasky, a junior music and environmental science double major, attended the lecture after Professor Saylor told her class about it. Rasky said music can be explained and analyzed.

“I think music provokes a feeling. I think it provokes a message. I don’t think you need to know what it is at all times, but if you listen to music or even if you don’t, it’s kind of a subconscious thing, you’re going to feel something,” Rasky said.

Bellman explains his own experience with the ineffability of music when his family lived in England for a year while he was in college.

“I remember sitting one afternoon in the spring very homesick. It was very warm where we were, and listening to a record I had and just thinking, ‘I absolutely have to do this with my life. I am not going to do anything else. It has to be this, because nothing else makes me feel like this,’” Bellman said. “It was an obscure, progressive rock record, it wasn’t a great symphony or anything like that, electric guitars and so on.”

Saylor assured the audience that the ineffable power of music is in good hands.

“It takes you somewhere or creates a vision or imbues an experience that is beyond the everyday, beyond what you can say to someone and feel comfortable talking to them about because it’s too intimate, it’s too close,it’s too personal … it touches the soul,” Saylor said.

The Comparison Project will continue to host lectures and dialogues on the ineffable through the semester.

The next lecture, “Names Are the Guest of Reality,” will take place in the Cowles Library Reading Room on March 6 at 7:30 p.m.

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