13 July 2022

SLIGHTLY OUT OF TUNE

Melvyn J Willin. Music and the Paranormal; an Encyclopedic Dictionary. McFarland, 2022.


Music probably developed in human culture via the paranormal, with its origins in religious rituals and as a way of entering alternate states of consciousness. From ritual chants and rhythmic drumming to tuneful hymns or Baroque masses, most religious observation has been accompanied by music.
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Modern composers such as Scriabin and Holst have written music which has explored philosophical and mystical themes, the operas of Wagner have encompassed an entire mythology. There is hardly a composer who at some time has not written a piece with an overtly religious or mystical inspiration. So there is plenty of material for a book exploring these links.

Unfortunately, this one is not it. Its 'encyclopedic dictionary' format hampers it. Most of the 'encyclopedic' entries are too short, and many of the 'dictionary' entries are unnecessary. Cyril Scott, for instance, a composer who was deeply involved in theosophy, which is reflected in his music, and who himself wrote a book on music and its mystical influences, is treated in just one page. Shamanism, with its incantations and ritual music barely two pages.

Most composers are given a brief entry with the barest details of their life and links to the paranormal in their works. Edmund Gurney, a composer who was actually one of the founders of the Society for Psychical research is dismissed in a paragraph, whereas the medium Rosemary Brown is given five pages. I am not saying she does not deserve this attention, but the treatment seems odd when compared to other figures described in the book.

I am also not convinced that listing every 'haunted house' where at some point a musical instrument was heard is a good use of space, especially such entries as a ruined castle in Scotland with reports of the sound of bagpipes, but “this has not been verified”.

I think the main problem is simply the format of the book, which does not allow any in-depth discussion of specific topics, and in trying to be an encyclopedia spreads itself too widely, although the entries do give often quite comprehensive bibliographical references for further study.

There is actually a great deal of interesting information in this book, and 'dipping in' to it can be rewarding, but as a scholarly reference work, which is what I think it is meant to be, it cannot be said to be of great value, despite McFarland's ambitious 'scholarly' pricing.
  • Richard Samuels

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