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Thursday, July 26, 2018

What Is Radical?

Throughout the history of Western classical music there has been an inexorable drive towards expansion and complexity. The modernism of the last century saw a dramatic acceleration of this tendency. It is as if some utopian goal was being raced towards, some hoped-for if vague transcendence, through an increasing radicalizaion of ways and means. An example would be the pursuit of "extended techniques" in acoustic instrumental performance practice. This often amounted to demands on the the instruments that were never intended by their original creators, with diminishing returns as the resulting distortion violated the very nature of the insturments. It would seem to point a problem with the notion of what might be called "transcendence by ordeal." We get the ordeal but not the transcendecne. From my perspective, true transcendence is not the result of generating more and extreme content of a materialistic nature, but to reveal and illuminate the "container" in which such phenomona arise. We are venturing into metaphisical waters here. That container or context has been called by many names: consciousness, pure awareness, satchitananda, Buddha Mind, Big Mind, etc., as well as the familiar names for the deity in monotheistic religions, at least in their mystical manifestations. In Buddhism, the Heart Sutra states that "emptiness is form, form is emptiness." We could think of form as the material content of music, and emptiness as that ineffable essence of many names that I feel form must point towards and embody. But in the radical new music of this and the last century there seems to have been an overemphasis on form as readicalized content. With the labyrinthmusic I am concerned with restoring the balance of musical content and formless essence. So rather than pursue extreme novelty at any cost, we might consider using more accessible means explicitly directed towards a higher end. That to me would be a new kind of "radical," one whose time has surely come.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

What I Am Doing And What I Am Doing It For

The musical language of the repertoire I have created for the labyrinth has salient features that distinguish it from conventional concert music. These characteristics are the result of pragmatic considerations that are not generally part of the accepted ethos of contemporary concert music.

What I have tried to do is to be clear as possible about the effect that I wish the music to have on the listener, and then to work backwards to devise the most effective means of carrying that through. Although I am committed to creating an optimal aesthetic experience for the listener, as all musicians are, I wish to go further and take responsibility for the spiritual, energetic and psychological effects on the listener, which may or may not be a function of the aesthetic dimension at all.

The tonal language of the repertoire displays what is known in music theory as pandiatonicism. This results in a generally consonant effect, but on a pregressive spectrum from very consonant, to relatively consonant, back to very consonant. This consonant nature fo the material is solely a practical consideration of making the music accessible to a generaly audience, rather than any ideological stance regarding modernist dissononance and its discontents. Similarly, the rhythmic language tends towards a repertitive, reductive profile, not out of any ideological adherence to that ethos, but as a practical means of inducing a certain effect of trance. The classical minimalism of Reich and Glass has been loosely dubbed "trance music," based on it unrelenting repetition. Yet this "trance" is an effect, an artefact, an epiphenomenon without psychospiritual intention or telos. My music, on the other hand, is an implement for functionally inducing a trance state for the purpose of rendering the psyche more porous to insight and transformation, as is the case with shamanic drumming and the traditional music of animist cultures, such as gamelan and African drumming. The transformation in question is based on the aspiration that the constant recycling of the circular journey embedded in the music will, subliminally and by osmosis, entrain an analogous journey in the listener's psyche.

So given its prescriptive orientation, the labyrinthmusic is to be assessed on its pyschospiritual merits, rather than on any criteria based on historical-ideological exigencies. In fact it lies outside the realm of what can be critiqued in terms of conventional aesthetic phenomenology, in the same way that shamanic drumming lies outside the orbit of what in the West would be considered "percussion music." This changes everything: it eliminates fractious "new music" polemics that are theory driven, and effectively shuts down the role of the critic. Most importantly, it realigns - rectifies - the role of the composer and the musicians who play his or her music. The latter are now no longer cogs in a musical machine, but active facilitators of the collective human process unfolding on the labyrinth itself. They in effect become sound healers, healing others as they heal themselves, by entraining their own process with that of the labyrinth pilgrims in what is neither concert not ritual, but a third thing, greater than the sum of its parts. Crucially, the music they are playing must uniquely embody an authentic presence and intention for the alchemy to happen. Thus the role of the labyrinthmusic, which aspires to the role of the shaman - the wounded healer - in indigenous cultures.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Insights From Rupert Spira On Non-Duality And Art

If we look deeply into the causes of isolation, fear, despair, misery, their cause can be traced back to the belief and feeling that consciousness is personal and limited. When consciousness is for a moment relieved of this self-imposed limitation, it experiences its own unlimited nature; and beauty, love and intelligence are expressions of this experience. It is from such an experience, therefore, that the root cause of suffering is undermined. For this reason I would say that beauty is not only relevant in our culture, but that it is essential. In fact I would go further and say that the more injustice, inequality and suffering in a culture, the more need there is for truly creative artists, for people who are sensitive to the universality of consciousness and who are able to express something of its majesty in form. Ultimately no words can describe this because all words are conceptual, and we are talking about direct experience. That is why it is so important to make beautiful things. In fact, the more conceptual and abstract a culture’s notion of reality, the more important it becomes to have good artists.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

New Horizons

I am very taken with Paul Hedderman's view of Mind and realization. At some point I hope to work with him in forging a functional link between the non-duality he is sharing and art music as it may now begin to manifest in the West. The catalyst and the catalyzed . . . without a catalyzer. Which for me, in my non-non-humble non-opinion, is where the whole thing has effectively been taking us, by way of the long march of classical music in its thousand-year journey. Classical music, the sadhana of the West: esoteric music as the handmaid of and antidote to exoteric religion.

It is time for art music to move from time to the timeless. From theistic to non-theistic energy. In the wake of the Twilight of the Idols, how else can it be? After the great inconoclastic eruptions and the ensuing dark nights of the past century, is this not the moment? What more need be said? What more need be seen through? What more need be done? It is already here. Music's destiny is to sing - and to be - the victory song of that consummate non-dual freedom. 

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Illusory Guest

In the beginning of ritual, ego is host. At the end of a primordial ritual, ego is seen to be the illusory guest, subsumed to the celestial realities. In this lies the difference between modern – especially behavioral – psychologies, and traditional magic and alchemy. For in nearly all modern psychological models, the ego is given a preeminent place – the goal is not transcendence, but merely establishing a kind of balance in which ego is always host.

- Arthur Versluis

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Walking In Circles

Being in India provided ample opportunities to literally walk a sacred path. I've written elsewhere about the various counterparts to walking the labyrinth, in particular the Hindu and Buddhist ritual practice of circumambulating temples, shrines, stupas and natural formations. The Sanskrit name for this is Pradakshina. The letter ‘Pra’ stands for removal of all kinds of sins, ‘da’ stands for fulfilling the desires, ‘kshi’ stands for freedom from future births, ‘na’ stands for giving deliverance through Jnana. Giri Pradashina refers to circumambulating a hill, which is the central devotional focus in Tiruvannamalai, where on the full moon of every month pilgrims from far and wide come together to walk the 14 km. clockwise path around mount Arunachala, which is considered the embodiment of Shiva.

Arunachala is virtually synonymous with the great sage Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi, whose ashram is close by. One devotee of Ramana describes his experience this way:

Such, however, was my indolence and also perhaps to some extent my supercilious sense of superior wisdom which counts mental worship enough without such physical austerities as walking about eight miles barefoot, that even after coming to live in the Asrham as a permanent inmate, I did not go round the hill as most others did. Nevertheless, from all I had seen and heard, I felt there must be something really significant in this Pradakshina. So I often plied Bhagavan with questions as to whether it is important to take this trouble. The following is the gist of what I was told as the result of my conversation with Bhagavan on this subject.

'For everybody it is good to make circuit of the hill. It does not even matter whether one has faith in this Pradakshina or not, just as fire will burn all who touch it whether they believe it will or not, so the hill will do good to all those who go round it.' Once he said to me : 'Why are you so concerned with all these questions about the efficacy of going round the hill? Whatever else you may or may not get, you will at least have the benefit of the physical exercise.'

Bhagavan thought this at least would be clear to my dull intellect. On another occasion he said to me: “Go round the hill once. You will see that it will attract you. I had also seen that whoever came and told Bhagavan he was starting on Pradakshina, however old or infirm he might be, Bhagavan never even in a single case discouraged the idea, but at the most remarked : 'You can go slowly.'

I am now as confirmed a believer in Giri Pradakashina as any other devotee of Bhagavan, though I regulate the frequency of my circumambulations with due regard to my age, health and strength and the strain to which they can reasonably be put.

I had the good fortune while in north India to be able to visit the sacred Buddhist sites of Bodhgaya, Sarnath and Nalanda. Pradakshina was performed by pilgrims from all Buddhist sects and nations around the Mahabodhi Temple, 

which is the site of the famed Bodhi Tree, under which Lord Buddha attained enlightenment. 

At Sarnath, where the first sermon was preached, Buddhists from around the world gather to circumambulate the enormous Dharma Chakra Stupa.

After attaining enlightenment at Bodhgaya, the Buddha went to Sarnath; and it was here that he preached his first discourse in the deer park to set in motion the 'Wheel of the Dharma.' It is one of the most holy sites as in this place the stream of the Buddha's teaching first flowed. 

At this place, the Buddha encountered the five men who had been his companions of earlier austerities. On meeting the enlightened one, all they saw was an ordinary man; they mocked his well-nourished appearance. 'Here comes the mendicant Gautama,' they said, 'who has turned away from asceticism. He is certainly not worth of our respect.' When they reminded him of his former vows, the Buddha replied, 'Austerities only confuse the mind. In the exhaustion and mental stupor to which they lead, one can no longer understand the ordinary things of life, still less the truth that lies beyond the senses. I have given up extreme of either luxury or asceticism. I have discovered the Middle Way.' Hearing this the five ascetics became the Buddha's first disciples. 
‘moving around a sacred object for a good cause’.
‘moving around a sacred object for a good cause’.
‘moving around a sacred object for a good cause’.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Letter From Chennai

A fabulous experience of Carnatic music in Chennai last December and January at the Madras Music Season. What impressed in particular was the seriousness with which this traditional music is taken in south India. It truly is a living art, in a way that, at least in North America, Western classical music struggles with. In the Maris Hotel where I stayed, across from the Madras Academy of Music, there was even an in-house one-day music festival on Christmas.

It featured seasoned veterans, as well as young players who were most impressive, some of whom were representatives from the Indian diaspora in North America, Australia and elsewhere. There seemed to be an endless supply of highly accomplished performers on tap for an intensive festival of some six weeks. Is every second person in Chennai a musician? The Music Academy was the focus of much of the activity, but there was also a wealth of performances at sabdas elsewhere in the city, which offered a synesthetic blend of music and  exquisite south Indian cuisine. A feast for the senses and the spirit.

What struck me after experiencing many hours of live performance was the effect the music had on the psyche. Even though Carnatic music is focused on the human voice in an improvisational context, there is no implicit self-aggrandizement in the music making. It seemed the performers were tapping into something prior to all that, something ancient and primordial, something imbued with the spirit and wisdom of the Vedas. Truly devotional music, and not simply because Krishna and Shiva were being invoked. In the West, liturgical music's embrace of secular operatic conventions beginning with Bach, Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart and on into the 19th century, aroused considerable concern from ecclesiastical authority. In the Catholic Church the denouement came with the 1903 Motu Proprio of Pope Pius X on Sacred Music, a line in the sand in the face of perceived breaches of protocol. Yet typically, Bach above all mysteriously transcends and transmutes any such caveats.

The East/West divide is evident in the technical aspects of each tradition's music as well. To wax metaphysical for a moment, the drones in Indian music represent for me Brahman, pure awareness, Big Mind, that which is immutable and timeless. Within this formlessness the forms of the various ragas and talas appear and then disappear, the way ephemeral thoughts, feelings and sense perceptions do within immutable consciousness. Impermanence. There is not a sense of trying to 'get somewhere' other than where we are in the moment. In contrast, the Western ethos is all about forceful strategies for the attainment of some teleological omega point somewhere in the future. Indian music adorns the moment; Western music tends to weaponize it and use it as a means to an end. Yet, in tacit recognition of the glorious futility of such a trajectory, common practice classical music does at least begin and end in the same key and customarily on the same chord. Going nowhere, ultimately, but faster, louder, and more strenuously. Sojourning further from home through incrementally remote modulations and dissonances. Evidently the archetypal prodigal son project  Western music needed. But having taken the arduous journey and returned home, we are commensurately changed. Changed in the recognition that the journey was not from 'there' to 'here,' but from here to here. The West's yang and the East's yin. Coming to the same place. In the third millennium, perhaps the implications of that are about to be understood.