My secret is not different than my lament: Engaging with the ineffable through music

Plan Author

  • Michael Harrist, 2010

Fields of Concentration

Sample Courses

  • Tutorial: The Transcendental in Early 20th Century Music
  • Tutorial: Individual Bass Performance Study
  • Tutorial: Islam and the Sufi Music Tradition

Project Description

An examination of music and spirituality, with an emphasis on the how certain musics’ supposed abstract and expressive nature may make it possible for the practitioner to engage with the ineffable.

Faculty Sponsors

Outside Evaluator

  • Etan Nasreddin-Longo, independent scholar


Music, for as long as it has existed, has been considered by many to be sacred. From shamans using drums to induce trance states to contemporary bands playing in modern megachurches, music has played an important role in nearly every religion in history. But how, exactly, does music engender these profound connections to the ineffable? This Plan examines that question using two different sources – the practices and writings of Muslim mystics and the works of the early 20th century composer Alexander Scriabin.

Muslim mystics, including the famous poet and theologian Jalal ad-Dīn Muhammad Rumi, think of existence as a constant process of remembering one’s connection with God. Because God is ineffable, one has to achieve this remembrance (or zhikr) by recognizing God in his earthly manifestations. Like prayer or literature, music is a path by which one can remember their connection to the ineffable. To experience zhikr rituals firsthand, the Plan’s author travelled to Turkey with a Marlboro professor on a grant from the college.

Alexander Scriabin, drawing on the popular theosophist views of his time, believed that he could compose music that would fundamentally reshape humanity’s relationship with the ineffable. His unfinished masterwork, Mysterium, was designed to initiate a spiritual unveiling that would cause the rebirth of the human race.


“Rather than viewing Scriabin as the delusional megalomaniac many critics and music historians have written him off as, I would argue that he was one the few individuals who had the chutzpa to take the utopian and transcendental ideologies of his time to their logical extremes.”

“Historically, music has been seen as walking the divide between the terrestrial and celestial, reason and ecstasy, form and formlessness… Perhaps the power of music lies not in the resolution of these paradoxes, but in the suspension of them.”

“Music and zhikr, as Razi and Chittick point out, are tied to ecstatic states; through zhikr and music, we are transported beyond ourselves and into the transcendent reality that is God. Indeed, music is none other than zhikr.”


Like most people’s experience of their Plan work, I found it difficult and deeply rewarding. My studies within academia have transferred seamlessly into the “real world.” Though it is a struggle to turn my work into a sustainable lifestyle, I remain inspired and driven by the examples and lessons of my teachers at Marlboro. Music and the contemplative aspects of religion are to be practiced, performed, and experienced within the context of our daily lives and struggles. I thank my teachers for guiding me to the tools that have helped me to navigate the life of a working, conscious musician in today’s world.