<em>Thresholds: Rethinking Spirituality Through Music</em>, by Marcel Cobussen. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2008. [171 pp. ISBN: 978-0-7546-6482-6, $39.95 paperback.] Review by Mark van Tongeren. Leiden University

{1} Thresholds brings together three disciplines that are difficult enough to tackle separately: music, philosophy and spirituality. Historically these disciplines have always been intricately entangled, and elucidated from a great variety of perspectives, usually by authors who specialize in one of the three ‘disciplines.’ What can one add to these insights? Thresholds takes an original approach, by focusing on questions of liminality that may be found in music, philosophy and spirituality. Through a close examination of border areas in human (musical) practices, (philosophical) thinking and (spiritual) experiences, the author attempts to bring the three elements together. He explores their non-space (Foucault’s a-topos) to stretch his and our conception of the spiritual in music. As such, Thresholds itself can be firmly situated in postmodern and deconstructivist modes of thinking.

{2} The first two short Thresholds (chapters) define some limits regarding the answers to be expected: writing and language already disrupt the unique order of music. Thinking and reflection are part and parcel of musical culture, but can never adequately represent the direct experience of music. “[The] secret of all music perhaps,” writes Cobussen, “is to make you believe that it possesses some sayable secret” (4). The case for spirituality is comparable, so that neither music nor spirituality “can be fully covered by discursivity. Language can never master them, never possess them” (11). The author prefers to let his questions “haunt” us rather than formulating “clear answers” (9). Despite a convincing argument for imposing these limits, there is an apologetic tone in Threshold 2: the author warns us again and again that his book will never get to where it wants to go.

{3} The apologetic tone is transformed in Threshold 3 (“Stories”) through four personal experiences, which motivate the book. One story (from the Bible) addresses ambiguous feelings about Cobussen’s strict religious upbringing; another (a novel about music) brought consolation and revived his love for music after finishing his training as a jazz pianist at the conservatory in a state of disappointment; a third is drawn from a film and concerns the communication between Mongolian herdsmen and their camels. Surprisingly, we find only one personal, direct experience as an insight into the author’s private musical world – a case I shall discuss later. Cobussen thus emphasizes narratives about music, and not authentic musical experiences (as for example composer Jonathan Harvey did in In Quest of Spirit).

{4} “New Spiritual Music” (Threshold 4) addresses the new genre based on tonality, triads and repetition, created by Arvo Pärt, John Tavener and their likes. Cobussen draws parallels between this recent musical movement and postmodernism and shows that the epithets ‘new’ and ‘spiritual’ are created to break with modernity in music, while in fact the whole movement – just like postmodern thinking – may well be understood as a part of modernism. “Between Heaven and Earth” (Threshold 5) turns to dichotomies like mind-body and subject-object in order to explore the question of where music and spirituality meet. The author’s reluctance to accept or reject any of the choices offered brings him to Foucault’s a-topia and Bataille’s poetic mysticism. Thresholds 6 and 7 delve deeper into existing and possible definitions of spirituality, and further demonstrate the author’s thorough reading of a wide variety of sources.

{5} So far, most of the discussion is abstract, in the sense that actual musical works are not presented (nor sounds discussed) to support the author’s theses. The musical sources are literary (Odysseus’ “Sirens,” Threshold 6) or text-based, and the re-thinking is built on philosophical discourses. In subsequent chapters, Cobussen turns to actual musical compositions while still using postmodern thought to guide his narrative. With a jazz arrangement of a Schubert piece as a backdrop, “Wanderings” discusses writings by Michel De Certeau, Deleuze/Gattari, and concepts like erring and nomadism. “The Abyss” is an intriguing chapter that explores John Coltrane’s obsessive (and corporeal) search for music and spirituality. As a counterpoint to the affirmations of the spiritual by New Spiritual Music composers, Coltrane’s music is “relentlessly questing, not easy or comfortable by any means” (99); he “cannot reach the spiritual, … cannot reach the music. The result: hating music” (97).  In the descriptions and analyses of the musical matter itself, these two thresholds show traces of the author’s musical background as a professional jazz pianist, before he received a PhD in philosophy.1 He gives fascinating accounts of the interactions between musicians that reveal an insider’s understanding, which the average philosopher would not be able to give.

{6} The final paragraphs of “The Abyss” are devoted to listening and an attitude of receiving. These themes are explored in more detail in Threshold 10 (“Silence”) on Pärt, Lyotard, musical silence and philosophies based on silence, and return once more in the next Threshold, “Listening to Music” (11). Threshold 12, “Paraspirituality,” links alternative readings of the Bible (with a main role for Mary Magdalene) with alternative definitions of spirituality. Cobussen then perceives, or constructs, the paraspiritual as a special case within the larger concept of spirituality, which he exemplifies and concludes in the final Threshold, “The Bridge and the Laugh” (13).

{7} Any book that seeks to treat the subject matter of spirituality with some gravity is likely to demand much of the reader. When music and postmodernist philosophy are added to the basket, the intensity of that demand is (at least) doubled or tripled. Thresholds is likely to confront any reader with viewpoints and choices that conflict with his or her own, or that are simply unfamiliar. It is also likely to leave out considerations that the reader believes essential. But this book deserves praise exactly for the position the author is taking, which is both vulnerable and courageous. After taking to heart Cobussen’s advice to ‘travel through’ the thinking, as he himself does, thus confronting and removing obstacles to then seek new ones, I found Thresholds a challenging collection of essays. It offers a wealth of intelligent reflections about spirituality, and focuses – as good philosophy does – on questions rather than answers.

{8} Thresholds objectifies its subject matter: the author speaks mainly through the voices of other authors, and does not build his arguments based on personal experience of music. The more immediate forms of communication afforded by music and spirituality are therefore hidden behind the veil of cutting-edge philosophy. As the book title indicates, the rethinking comes first, it goes through music and the author’s spiritual experiences are last in line. In a way, then, the rethinking obscures the most difficult of the themes, instead of bringing them to the surface. I feel the author sometimes seeks to find too many words to get close to his subject,2 effectively exchanging the spell of strong (musical) experiences for the weaker spell of (discursive) language. His avoidance of a more systematic treatment of some key issues of spirituality puts more demands on the reader, and makes the examination of some of his more novel ideas difficult. The overall structure is also marred by many lengthy footnotes, which sometimes contain valuable, even essential insights that should have been put into the main text.3

{9} A point that merits special attention is Cobussen’s treatment of spirituality, since it remains such a controversial subject in many discourses. As I see it, the author does not develop this theme as an independent field of human (or inhuman, to speak with Lyotard) life in its own right, on a par with philosophy and music. Spirituality’s claim to exist (or to happen) fundamentally on thresholds may be the stronger one, phenomenologically speaking, but neither Cobussen’s spirituality nor that of someone else gets the in-depth treatment it needs.  Cobussen builds up an impressive array of approaches and definitions by many authors and philosophers. But as definitions pile up, it is not always made clear what (aspects of these) definitions he approves or disapproves of, leaving me with the impression that they are insufficient. Thus it happens that we first read that the spiritual is indefinable (11), and that spirituality is a floating concept (24); then that ‘concept’ may not be the right term (71);  but ‘concept’ returns several times afterwards in relation to spirituality (99, 144), while also again being discarded (123). Another example: even after bringing up profound descriptions of the spiritual by authors like Marc Taylor, Geraldine Finn and Michel De Certeau, and carefully presenting reflections by the heavyweights of recent philosophy (from Heidegger to Sloterdijk, but with a main role for French thinkers), Cobussen keeps groping and asking, as if no progress was made. Elsewhere he makes the suggestion that the spiritual particularly belongs to art (10, 79). The question returns in a footnote on Kandinsky’s famous book About the Spiritual in Art (143), but never receives a conclusive statement of the author’s viewpoint.

{10} Language itself becomes an obstacle in a similar way. Already in Chapters One and Two, and in many subsequent chapters, language is indeed recognised as problematic to either perceive or discuss spirituality. Yet on page 145 it is – once again – identified as problematic. Many of these issues revolve around paradox and ambiguity, a fact that Cobussen recognises but does not seem to fully accept, as for example a philosopher like Maurice Merleau-Ponty does.4 Could the embodied knowledge of music itself perhaps be the only way out of this dilemma?

{11} In the background of the text lurks another wandering, an implicit quest, which brings us to the author’s own spiritual path. Cobussen explains that the book is partly an answer to a struggle with his religious upbringing, in which church and music were strongly tied to one another (23). This probably explains the curious fact that, with one exception, we do not read anywhere of Cobussen’s subjective experiences of his own musicianship. The only spiritual experience of music as an auditory phenomenon (not a narrative) is commented upon in passing, and written in brackets, in the Threshold “Stories.”5 He further explores his own struggle with religion, writing “Especially the chaplet, with its constantly recurring Hail Maries, often let me to a state of perpetuation in which the words lost all their meaning in favor of some rhythmic pattern closely resembling the drone of certain minimal music” (24). However, his questioning whether “the daily repetition of saying prayers has a musical component” (23-24), seems out of context in a book that convincingly locates spiritual music in places (mindsets and musics) where most people do not expect to find it (after all, prayers obviously have trance-like musical components). Are the heightened speech, the words that lose their meaning and the trance effects expelled as serious, subjective sources for Cobussen’s book because they are associated with an institute–the church–which he left behind long ago? And yet, these experiences seem to contain on a very fundamental level what the author is trying hard to regain: a spiritual path through music. Thus Thresholds can also be read as the author’s attempt to retrace his path to early spiritual-musical experiences, culminating in his own concept: paraspirituality. This conceptualised approach to spirituality, as opposed to a subjective-experiential approach, takes away the promise of Thresholds to speak equally on the three levels of spirit, sound and reason.

{12} None of these critical remarks are necessarily in conflict with the purpose of the book. The author is consistent in his positioning on a threshold at all times, as some sort of tightrope walker. Despite my different orientation towards some central problems of this book, I found the idea of using thresholds as a tool for drawing comparisons ingenious and stimulating, and worthy of further exploration. As a philosophical enquiry into the vast and complex field of contemporary occidental music cum spirituality, Thresholds offers a challenging starting point.


  1. The PhD thesis Deconstruction in Music is published (and was presented) as a website, and can be found at www.cobussen.com.
  2. For example, when summing up all combinations of the words rethinking, spirituality and music (page 9); when listing a thesaurus of word variations to describe a single idea, as for the word prelude (page 10); or in its often repeated literary form of giving the exact opposite of an idea.
  3. The guiding questions for the Threshold Silence can be found in its first footnote, instead of the main text (page 109). In footnote 11, page 114, Cobussen writes, “in the process of writing this book I became less sure whether music can posses a ‘spiritual nature.’” See also footnote 9, page 32 and footnote 5, page 145.
  4. Phénoménologie de la Perception, Paris: 1945, Gallimard.
  5. In footnote 21 on the same page the author mentions he has been part of a New Age group involving music and dance. This is another direct experience he mentions without making any reference to the effect these practices had on him.