Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Singing Dead

In most musical instruments the resonator is made of wood while the actual sound generator is of animal origin. In cultures where music is still used as a magical force, the making of an instrument always involves the sacrifice of a living being. That being's soul then becomes part of the instrument and in the tones that come forth, the "singing dead," who are ever present with us, make themselves heard.
—Jocelyn Godwin, Harmonies of Heaven and Earth

If we extend to the Earth the feeling that it's a living being, then even the metals we take, refine, and use in making musical instruments still give us that sense of the animal's soul being in the instrument. So Indonesian metallophones and gongs in the gamelan are still the voices of the singing dead. There is a reverence for gamelan instruments in Indonesia: one treats them like living beings; one does not step over them; one does not show them the soles of one's feet, which is considered rude as the bottoms of one's feet are usually dirty; one offers incense and food to the large gong, to feed the instrument that is considered the keeper of the soul of the entire ensemble. The large gong is played once at the end of every long cycle of a piece of music; gamelan music is structured cyclically rather than linearly; and the most important instrument in the ensemble, the largest gong, is played least often. It's not the front-row soloist instrument: it's the heart and root and center that we return at the end of every cycle, and the end of all music itself.

we are the stars which sing
we sing with our light

we are the birds of fire
we fly over the sky

our light is a voice

we make a road for the spirit to pass over

—Algonquian Indian chant

So many cultures have called the arm of our Milky Way galaxy, which can be seen in our night skies, the Bridge of Heaven, or the River of Souls. The pathway of the dead to the afterlife, or the next life. So many cultures have looked up at night and seen the stars look back at them, very much alive and watching. So many people have felt that the stars, apparently unchanging and eternal, have been the one thing that never changes, never lets them down. Sometimes they don't appear, when the Earth is in upheaval, or enraged; but they return when things quiet down again, still there, still lighting the night sky and the dim roads we walk in our dreams.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

    "Look," whispered Chuck, and George lifted his eyes to heaven. (There is always a last time for everything.)
    Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.
- Arthur C Clarke, ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’

I have to say I’d never thought about the ways in which animals contribute to music instruments apart for the bows used by the string section but it’s an interesting point.

4:06 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

What a great and memorable Clarke story; one I've always liked. And how very contrary, in a good way, to remind us that even the stars can go out.

11:53 AM  
Blogger Elisabeth said...

This is such a beautiful post, Art. The animal's soul in the music, the stars and now Jim's quote by Arthur C Clarke. It's just a joy to read.

I heard a documentary about gongs on the radio a while back. I was fascinated. I had no idea on the significance of this music. The way it affects our bodies and our earth.
Thank you.

11:41 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks in return. Those are good thoughts to add to the topic.

12:02 AM  

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