Where Music Meets Magic
For Chicago-based bassist and educator Karl E. H. Seigfried, the worlds of music and mythology meld quite comfortably
The religion department at Carthage College, an evangelical Lutheran school in Kenosha, Wisconsin, may seem an unlikely place to find a top jazz double bassist and scholar, especially one immersed in Norse mythology. But for Chicago-based Karl E. H. Seigfried—the recently named winner for Best Religion Blog in the 13th annual international Weblog Awards—the worlds of music and mythology meld quite comfortably.
“One of my musical mentors was Jimmy Cheatham, the great jazz artist and educator,” says Seigfried, who also serves as principal bassist of the Chicago Sinfonietta Chamber Ensemble. “Literally, from the first moment that I met him at the University of California, he talked to me about the creative spirit. I mean, in our very first conversation! At the time, I was really too young and inexperienced to understand what he was talking about, and I remember thinking he was some sort of jazz mystic. Twenty years later, I finally understand what he meant—that there is something about making music that is not reducible to a simple mathematical equation. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our science. To really understand our lives in a fundamentally meaningful way, we need mythology.”
And how does that connect with the Viking gods?
“The root of Odin’s name means ‘frenzy’ and ‘poetry.’ In the ancient mythology and religion, he brings creative frenzy to the poet—he is the god who inspires creativity,” explains Seigfried, adding that these concepts are not merely academic.
“For several years, I hosted the avant-garde jazz jam session in Chicago with saxophonist David Boykin and drummer Mike Reed. I vividly recall a time that we were performing a very fast, very intense improvised trio piece. I had my eyes closed while I was playing, and I remember this strange experience. Everything seemed to go red, and I felt like I was floating in an ocean of sound. I had no conscious control of my hands, but this wild music was happening on its own all around me.
“Do I think that a mystical Norse god appeared at Café Mestizo and took over my body? Of course not. I believe in science,” adds Seigfried, who is working on a biography of double bass pedagogue Bertram Turetzky.
“What this experience taught me, however, is how a concept of Odin as the god who possesses his followers could have developed. In the worldview of the ancient Germanic peoples, this out-of-body experience could easily have been explained as Odin ‘unbinding’ the mind of the creative artist—a power of his that is attested repeatedly in ancient poetry and mythology.
“The question for me as a modern artist is this: how do we understand these creative experiences? In other words: is it more deeply meaningful to read a scientific article explaining brain functions or to read poetry that describes the workings of Odin? I think that this gets to the heart of a great misunderstanding of religion in today’s world—the idea that, if you follow a certain faith tradition, you must literally believe in the ‘magic’ of that tradition, to the exclusion of science."