(Alice Coltrane, 1977)

Many of the celestial musical instruments can be played without the use of hands or any physical contact whatsoever. Your mind, your heart, is your only approach to them. Your thoughts open up the many avenues of sound and expression on these wonderful instruments.

Practically every night, I was permitted to play a “psaltery.” Unlike the ancient one, it had full orchestral range, and could be played at phenomenal rates of speed and volume—without awakening anyone—while the floor and walls vibrated from the force of it.

During that time, I had never seen the psaltery. The Lord said: “Only four souls in this creation have seen it. You will be the fifth one.” …When hearing the names, I found them all to be outstanding ones. They included two musicians and composers (Handel and Bach), Sri Aurobindo (an all-informing source of the universe), and the fourth name was found to be the most outstanding one of all; it is the name of the great prophet and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Born in 1937 in Detroit, Alice Coltrane was a pianist, harpist, and composer who helped usher in the radical transformation of post-bebop jazz. Along with figures such as Albert Ayler and Pharoah Sanders, in the late ’60s Coltrane synthesized African-American musical influences with Eastern (primarily Indian) instruments, ecstatic improvisation, and psychedelic-religious imagery to create a new genre known as “spiritual jazz.” (She was also the second wife of saxophonist and composer John Coltrane, whom she guided in spiritual musical exploration before his death in 1967.) Coltrane recorded a torrent of albums in this vein between 1968 and 1977 before withdrawing from public appearances to extend her spiritual journey. Her musical practices were thereafter devoted primarily to chant-based music in the Vedic tradition, augmented by her own original melodies and arrangements. She returned to public performance and recording in the late ‘90s and died in 2007.
The idea of an instrument played by the mind alone—what we might call a noophone—is a familiar theme in the domain of speculative organology. But Coltrane’s “celestial psaltery” (an ancient instrument similar to a harp or zither) is something yet more suggestive and ambiguous than a purely conceptual instrument. Perched tantalizingly on the threshold of the real, the psaltery is neither touched nor seen—Coltrane claims to have played it long before she was allowed to lay eyes on it—and yet, it could shake the room in which it sounded (without, however, awakening those who would be disturbed by it). Coltrane’s psaltery is no mere fantasy or figment, but neither is it entirely of the everyday world we collectively inhabit. Is it real only for the person who plays it? Or, like the elusive charms of music itself, does it manifest itself only to those attuned to its wavelength—those who have “ears to hear”?
Text: Alice Coltrane, Monument Eternal (1977)
Image: Back album cover, Ptah, the El Daoud (1970)
Special thanks to Aaron Pond for suggesting this entry