research 3: The Glass Bead Game

Once again, I’m writing from the perspective of preparing for the 2016 ACDA Eastern Division Conference. We’re in the midst of evaluating interest session proposals. In that context, I’d like to talk about Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game as a transcendent (pun intended) example of our conference theme: Pushing Boundaries.

In all the ways and levels at which Hesse describes the origins of his fictitious game, he always begins with music. First, he describes the history of the game, beginning in a culture that was recovering from a period of unspecified brutal, anti-intellectual decadence. The game was a challenge for music students, a toy for coding music with glass beads, then became a mathematical game, then lots of disciplines picked it up and used it as a playful exploration of codes and connections. Eventually, after glass beads were no longer a literal part of the game, all these specialized disciplines began to seek a way to unify the game into a single whole that crossed disciplines (pushed  boundaries?); and it became the goal to discover connections and analogies between and among all the major disciplines. Gradually, this game of cleverness and wit grew to include meditation and contemplation, incorporating spiritual disciplines woven amid the academic ones.

The next time he describes the origins of the game, it is not the history of the game itself, but the game as experienced in the life of the protagonist, Joseph Knecht. When Joseph is a young boy, his first introduction to expanded consciousness of relationships and connections between and among parts and whole is through an experience making music with a master teacher. Knecht resists expanding his study beyond music, but is encouraged to expand his horizons to other fields. He resists the game itself, but gradually accepts it, and becomes a master of the game.

And in the final three chapters, which are supposed alternate biographies Joseph wrote when he was a student, imagining who he would have been in a different time, the first imagines himself in an early agricultural society learning to observe nature through the use of his senses, a gradually incorporating rhythmic drumming and chanting as a means of teaching, learning, and communicating. Stone age Knecht subconsciously longs for a means to thought that would capture the whole.

Hermann Hesse presents a utopian(ish) future where scholars come to understand a sense of the wholeness of the disparate parts of existence; and the foundation of that future is built on music (and/or musicology), which itself is a wholeness made of disparate parts. He emphasizes the importance of coming to understand the music on its own terms, though he seems cynical about  scholars’ tendency to forget the human circumstances that surround all creativity. The point is to examine the music itself, its context, and thus come to an understanding of the pieces relative to the whole. That comes through theoretical analysis as well as historical and social musicology; but to stop there would be to miss the larger-scale relationship of that whole to all other wholes. And that relationship gives us a glimpse of the ultimate whole.

The glass bead game, Hesse says, is the inevitable result of the human process of integration. We consume information and want to make connections, seek the wheels within wheels. One of the things we can learn from Hesse is the value of seeking not just the final result, but also the process of experience and knowledge that are parts of that whole, gradually to sense that the whole is itself just a part of another, larger whole — and that the boundaries are imaginary.

Of course we have to push boundaries. We, in an attempt to make the world feel less complicated, put those boundaries there ourselves! Foolish we. It’s comfortable to put things in boxes, but we are capable of unimagining the boxes, and getting comfortable with the tangled mess that is a more realistic understanding of how music works, how humanity relates to it, and how it connects us to each other.

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