T he new recording of Gene Pritsker’s ‘William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience: A Chamber Opera’ is beautiful—musically and dramatically.
W illiam James was fascinated by what he termed our ‘selective interest’—our harmoniously adjusting ourselves to things seen and unseen. In the sea of evolving, conflicting stimuli in which we are immersed, we pay attention to a small subset of things... mostly things that match our predispositions and expectations: our interests and beliefs. A renowned psychologist and pragmatist and empiricist philosopher, James in the late 19th Century set about to assemble evidence that could reveal whether and how experiences that are gated by interests and beliefs in things unseen can catalyze positive changes in people—especially when people attach symbolic or emotional/spiritual importance to the experiences. “Explore the peculiarities of this attitude... All our attitudes... are due to the objects of our consciousness... the things we believe to exist. We feel a presence in the room... definitely localized... coming suddenly, and suddenly gone... I felt myself to be the less ‘real’ of the two...”
I n VRE (p. 55), James says “so far as religious conceptions are able to touch this reality-feeling [of objective presence of the Other] they would be believed in spite of criticism, even though they might be so vague and remote as to be almost unimaginable... even though they might be such non-entities in point of ‘whatness’...”
- Gene Pritsker, guitar
- Greg Baker, guitar
- Dan Barrett, cello
- Larry Goldman, contra bass
- Lynn Norris, soprano
- Chanda Rule, mezzo soprano
- Marc Molomot, tenor
- Charles Coleman, baritone
- Chester Layman, narrator
- Kim Pritsker, narrator
T he guitars-cello-bass instrumental ‘presence’ pervades the whole—this fact plus the fact that the voices in the foreground are so crisp and tangible make it seem as though the instrumental parts must collectively be ‘God’. But then the timbre of the voice changes, and I’m doubting that my sense of that was right. Maybe this is sonic evidence for some sort of pantheism? Everything is divine... everything that’s not being deceptive, anyway.
P ritsker’s ‘William James’s VRE’ is not a contemporary event-centric historical opera per se (not a “headline opera” about a famous historical figure and a famous moment in history, a la John Adams’s ‘Doctor Atomic’, on J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project to create the atomic bomb). Sometimes event-centric works feel too self-referential—‘program music’ or a suite of ad hoc ‘concept’ compositions that are too overtly seeking adherents.
T his chamber opera is not like that. It’s far too unpredictable! It does, though, share with historical operas an attractive ‘topicality’ in terms of (a) dramatizing interrelated subjects (spirituality; religion; multiculturalism; tolerance) that have plenty of currency these days and (b) grounding these in the life of one well-known historical protagonist.
I really admire the judicious excerpting of William James VRE texts for this libretto! Attention to the unbiddenness of how we recall things: verses, that bubble up in our minds, contrary to our ambitions or plans.
M any passages from James’s book (VRE) are dense and literary: the sentence structure was meant to be read by readers of 100+ years ago. When spoken aloud in this opera, these words engage our minds in provocative ways that highlight the finiteness of our attention as well as the alienness of the century-ago culture that produced the notions in VRE. Our relation to the music that is being performed while the voice-over narration is going on is altered, far more than happens in ‘conventional’ opera.
W hat’s more, some of the narrators/texts are more ‘reliable’ as narrators than others. Each is clearly earnest in his/her own way, and yet some of them make statements that are more accessible or less accessible to us, given our own beliefs and style and inclinations/disinclinations to share our feelings in ways that resemble what the narrator is doing. Listening to these different narrators/singers, we’re led to recognize more of what we ourselves are doing: selectively filtering, giving and getting, allowing and forbidding.
T he opera and the ‘arc’ of the 8 tracks of the recording ably convey dramatic tension of setting out on a journey to explore the diversity of spirituality; of encountering many instances and types of experience; of empirically assessing each of these; and finally integrating and summarizing what we’ve found out.
T he 43-min performance time is just sufficient to develop the ideas and the ambience and characterizations, and bring things in for a satisfying “landing”.
T he sound has warmth and intimacy throughout, perfectly matched to the subject and content. Beautiful performances by all, plus excellent engineering and production values on the recording.
I ’m uplifted by this new Pritsker CD—impressed by the authenticity of music that “had to come out”, had to be composed, had to exist. There is a wonderful ‘meta-meta’ aspect to the work as well. It is as though Pritsker has created a sonic picture of ‘William James’s Red Mood’ (see Arthur Danto’s famous book of 30 years ago, link below)—plus a further picture, an abstract minimalist exemplar of geometrical art which happens to be lush and sensuous and red and pulsating—plus yet a further picture, a metaphysical painting based on the fact that James knew the Nirvanic and Samsara orders are identical and that the Samsara world is fondly called the Red Dust by its deprecators.
J ames near the end of VRE says “Religious mysticism... is much less unanimous than I have allowed... It is dualistic in Sankhya and monistic in Vedanta” (VRE p. 336). He maintains that, rather than being adversarial or conflictual, the varieties of spiritual experience can in fact be harmonious with each other... there can be rapproachment between individuals and religions that hold what appear to be incompatible ‘over-beliefs’. James says that this can be done by looking to everyday feelings and to everyday acts—however unplanned and discordant with ambitions and ideologies as they may be—looking to these as comprising the essence of real religion (VRE p. 397).
T his opera by Gene Pritsker honors that Jamesian notion. The opera—and this recording—are a welcome invitation to self-discovery, to mutual respect and tolerance for the spirituality (or lack thereof) of others, and to joyous, mindful living in community. Look for the CD when it’s released in February. Very worth your listening!
- Gene Pritsker website
- Composers Concordance Records [Pritsker release on 28-FEB-2012]
- Danto A. Transfiguration of the Commonplace. Harvard Univ, 1983.
- Lamberth D. William James and the Metaphysics of Experience. Cambridge Univ, 2009.
- Proudfoot W, ed. William James and a Science of Religions: Reexperiencing ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’. Columbia Univ, 2004.
- Putnam R, ed. The Cambridge Companion to William James. Cambridge Univ, 1997.
- Taylor E. William James on Consciousness Beyond the Margin. Princeton, 1996.
- Blind Men & Elephant metaphor for epistemology, empirical relation to Truth
- Council on Spiritual Practices (CSP.org)