The Shrine Thief - W. A. Mathieu

“In these pages, one of the best-loved and thoughtful musicians of our era recounts stories of family, friends, colleagues, lovers and mentors. From Stan Kenton to Pandit Pran Nath, the fast-paced stories keep coming. He shares what it feels like to pass forward his hard won discoveries made in part through the powerful geometries of music. Written in soul lifting prose The Shrine Thief is a thrilling memoir of a master musician’s adventures in music and life.”
Terry Riley, Composer

“A new book by William Allaudin Mathieu is always a cause for rejoicing.”
Coleman Barks, Poet, Translator of The Soul of Rumi

“With extraordinary sensitivity and understanding, Mathieu transforms the intimate details of his richly lived and deeply felt life into compelling insights about how wisdom is recognized and passed on. This profound, illuminating and beautifully written book’s every page sings with warmth, humor and love.”
Noam Lemish, Department of Music, York University

“W.A. Mathieu’s dynamic memoir is packed with an astonishing range of stories about his family, his years with music’s stars, his decades with the Sufis, and — my favorite part — a romp or two with Coleman Barks among poetic roots and consequences! The Shrine Thief — with its stolen stone — offers a blessed terrain of “wonderstanding.”
Tamam Kahn, poet and author: Across the Difficult with Rabia of Basra and Others.

“Through The Shrine Thief, Allaudin Mathieu gives us a profound wisdom of a life well lived. For fifty years he has shared with us his mastery of music; now he brings that music into the written word for the ears of our Heart. Bravissimo!”
Pir Shabda Kahn, Spiritual Lineage Holder of the Sufi Ruhaniat International, co- author of Physicians of the Heart

“From master of music W. A. Mathieu comes a memoir written with verve and humor invigorated by thematic flourishes, unexpected crescendos, and moving moments of resolution. The Shrine Thief unfolds a pragmatic wisdom that can benefit anyone who aims to realize a harmonious life.”
Neil Douglas-Klotz, author of The Sufi Book of Life and Revelations of the Aramaic Jesus

The Shrine Thief: Finding Wisdom in a Life of Music

For my dear friends, old and new,
Writing a memoir is a risky business. You pack your life into a neat bundle of pages. As your life condenses, it clarifies. Then you Hail Mary your book into the big world. Startled, you find yourself standing in the caboose end of a train leaving the station. As it gathers speed you watch the tracks grow smaller and smaller, the old station house becomes a speck. As you round a bend you suddenly understand where you’ve been and why you went there. You walk back to your seat and watch the scenery slip by.

My memoir, The Shrine Thief: Finding Wisdom in a Life of Music, has been five years in the writing, the first two spent rereading every word I ever wrote including volumes of journals and a file cabinet full of letters to and from. Then came the years of writing and revising, editing, designing, and selecting seventy photographs. Writing can be a powerful zone (as you know) but I am a musician by trade and temperament. Musical tones don’t mean anything outside of themselves as words do. “The sky” points us to an experience; a musical tone is pure experience itself, and it is enough for me. Language can be a burden. Unsurprisingly, writing books renders me insane. In order to remain human during those writing years, I became an ever more prolific composer, page after page of music streaming through.

Yesterday there appeared on my porch (airmail from Estonia where the book was designed and printed) a box of my life-bundles, richly bound and beautiful to the eye.

First, genuine relief: the baby was healthy and the mama/papa hadn’t died. Then the thrilling discovery of the first typo (page 164). Then the dawning: I have no idea where this train I’m on, with its nonchalant scenery sliding by, is headed. But I know I’ve learned something useful enough to tell about it.

The Shrine Thief is in four sections. The first travels from my early family life (Dad was a publisher/writer, Mom was an herbalist/writer), my training in classical and jazz, and up through college. The second section chronicles my early professional life with big jazz bands (Stan Kenton, Duke Ellington, Maynard Ferguson), and my blessed years as a musician for improvisational theaters (Chicago’s Second City and San Francisco’s Committee Theater).

By the third section I am 30 and primed to meet a sequence of powerful spiritual teachers including Sufi Murshid Samuel Lewis (my main man), North Indian raga master Pandit Pran Nath (my other main man), Rabbi Zalman Schacter, Nubian oudist Hamza El Din, including a long immersion in Buddhist dharma teachings and many other guides along the way. Central throughout are experiences of unexpected, extraordinary union with the phenomenal world and the worlds beyond. The many stories are searches, treasure hunts for the jewel of wisdom teaching in each one.

The fourth section devotes itself to teaching, writing, and music making over the past seventy years. I speak of the present, these golden years of harvest, of authenticity, transparency, the blessed partnership with wife Devi, and of the way wisdom seeps into you if you let it. I love my students and the mutuality of our times together. In my ninth decade I’m composing music like a man possessed because I am that. And I’m thankful to be a ticketholder on the mystery train wondering if there might be a bargain at the next station. I’m writing this letter to everyone I can find whom I’ve known and cherished, as well as to those who might chance to read it. I want you to find something you can discover in the chronicle of a seeker’s life fiercely lived to guide you on.

The publisher of The Shrine Thief is Terra Nova Press, which has a website of its beautifully made books, but can afford little publicity. A very small press in a huge, ruthless market, Terra Nova Press is an imprint of MIT Press, which includes small catalogues of imprints into its vast one, but does nothing to publicize such releases. The thought of a book tour gives me hives. So that leaves you, Gentle Reader, and your generosity, and your word of mouth to spread the news.

Thank you my friends, my big family, Namaste.

Bridge of Waves: What Music Is and How Listening to It Changes the World (2010)

From the introduction: Neither heaven nor earth, music is the middle way, a wave bridge between nameable and nameless, between relative and absolute, thinking and feeling, the grammar of language and the cadences of the sea. It weaves the world together in an energetic web. I describe how this bridge made of waves behaves, where it goes, and how to use it to get where you’re going.

Mathieu has found the words to tell the power of music.  —  Pete Seeger
Who coaches Minerva’s owl to hoot in tune? Why, it’s none other than W. A. Mathieu. Music is the heart of a culture, and the philosophy of music is where we see the deepest values exposed. The deepest philosopher of music working today is W. A. Mathieu. This work describes music not as an isolated, abstracted system, but as a way of looking at the whole of reality and of being conscious of reality.  —  Jaron Lanier, author of  ‘You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto’
Intrinsically Lyrical: The author  —  a composer, pianist, and teacher  —  says this book is “primarily about open, intentional listening, how to practice it and what to expect from it.” This is true and yet it barely taps the fecundity this book delivers. Bridge of Waves expresses an entire philosophy that perceives music as intrinsic to being human–and being human as intrinsic to listening.
Beginning with “music as body”  —  the musical effects of gravity on the muscles  —  Mathieu gives a lyrical stream of commentary about music as mind, heart, feelings, life, story, culture, cosmos, enlightenment, and even consciousness. Speaking primarily about wordless music he summarizes, “music is our creation story and we never stop telling it because we always have more to tell.”
Writing has its own rhythm and practiced writers know well the inner feeling that signals their words being in sync (or not). The words in this book compose a brilliant and elegant symphonic arrangement that is innately recognized as the pulse of being-ness itself. A joy to read, Bridge of Waves will transform not only the way you “listen” to music, but what you know and appreciate about being human. Highly recommended.  —  Julie Clayton, 5-star customer review on

The Musical Life: Reflections on What It Is and How to Live It (1994)

From the preface: Being musical does not necessarily mean being a musician; it doesn’t mean playing the piano at parties or composing songs for lovers. It is a way of being awake, an angle of perception, a tilt of the ear. The musical ear knows it is innately in tune with the universe. A person can talk or move musically, or simply be harmonious without being a fine violinist. You do not need a musician’s craft to know that both you and music are made from the same design.

Everyone, according to W. A. Mathieu, is musical by nature  —  it goes right along with being human. And if you don’t believe it, this book is all you’ll need to be convinced. Mathieu takes us on a journey through everyday experiences to open our ears to the rich variety of music that surrounds us but that we are trained to ignore-such as the variety of pitches produced by different objects, like dishes, furniture, drums, dogs-anything you can tap; or sounds that hover on the borders of music, like laughter, the clinking of glasses in a toast, or the unintentional falsetto produced by yawning. Along the way he teaches aspects of music theory that nonmusicians might ordinarily shy away from. Mathieu reveals how sensitivity to the music that surrounds us can deepen our appreciation for all of life and become a profoundly spiritual path — one that is everyone’s birthright.

The Listening Book: Discovering Your Own Music (1991)

The Listening Book is about rediscovering the power of listening as an instrument of self-discovery and personal transformation. By exploring our capacity for listening to sound and for making music, we can awaken and release our full creative powers. Mathieu offers suggestions and encouragement on many aspects of music-making, and provides playful exercises to help readers appreciate the connection between sound, music, and everyday life.

A true gift for music-makers of any stripe. It offers us not only the insights of a master teacher and the instincts of a great musician, but it radiates with that wonderful quality of a man who wears his soul on his sleeve.  —  Paul Winter, Composer and musician

From the introduction: Listening is receptive. You allow something outside your body to come inside, into your deep brain, into your private of privates. To listen is to be vulnerable. To be open and impressionable, to hear everything, is dangerous…. This book teaches you how to listen safely and openly to the world around you. It shows you how listening can be a way of life, and how life can become musical to the awakened ear. If you want it to, this book will guide you to your own music.

Harmonic Experience: Tonal Harmony From Its Natural Origins to Its Modern Expression (1997) (1991)

An exploration of musical harmony from its ancient fundamentals to its most complex modern progressions, addressing how and why it resonates emotionally and spiritually in the individual. W.A. Mathieu, an accomplished author and recording artist, presents a way of learning music that reconnects modern-day musicians with the source from which music was originally generated. As the author states, “The rules of music—including counterpoint and harmony — were not formed in our brains but in the resonance chambers of our bodies.” His theory of music reconciles the ancient harmonic system of just intonation with the modern system of twelve-tone temperament. Saying that the way we think music is far from the way we do music, Mathieu explains why certain combinations of sounds are experienced by the listener as harmonious. His prose often resembles the rhythms and cadences of music itself, and his many musical examples allow readers to discover their own musical responses.

Please try to buy a new copy of Harmonic Experience, for the reasons stated below.

If you’re looking for a used copy, please do not purchase any of the first four printings, which you can identify by looking at the printer’s number line (near the bottom of the copyright page); the lowest number in that line is the printing number of the book in your hand.

The first printing of Harmonic Experience contained quite a few errors, for which errata are available. The third and fourth printings, in particular, contain truly egregious errors.

Instead, please look for a copy that is at least the fifth printing. As of August 2019, the eighth printing is the most recent.

Audio Books

Audio books by W. A. Mathieu

The Listening Book and The Musical Life

W. A. Mathieu reads excerpts from his books The Listening Book and The Musical Life, sometimes accompanying himself on piano as he reads. You can read more about both books above. You’ll find exercises to help you explore and expand your capacity for listening; appreciate the connection between sound, music, and everyday life; and discover the creative possibilities of music-making.