Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Sacred Music



This image means a great deal to me. It's from the 1920s or 30s. (I don't have a full attribution for it.) It's an image of the great three-faced image of Shiva from the caves on the island of Elephanta, in India. Seated at the base of the sculpture is a sarod player, a young master musician, who no doubt went on to have a full career as performer, teacher, musician. I found this image in a book about Elephanta, and when I turned the page and saw this photo, it stopped me cold. It says everything I want to say about music, my relationship to the numinous, the Divine, and how these are essentially One.

I've said it before, but let me say it again, because it's true, and because I really mean it:

Music is sacred to me.

Of all the arts I practice, and there are several, music is the most central to the core of my being. It's the one that means the most. It's the art that is a sacred art, one could even call it a religious art. Although I am in no sense traditionally religious, music is what links me to the religious sensibility, the religious aesthetic. It's in music that I share common ground, along with many other musicians, to the numinous, the liminal.

Bach wrote at the end of each completed score of music, Deo Gratias, "To the glory of God." I understand the impulse to say that, I understand the feeling behind it. It's not language I would use, but it's language I can feel, and support.

Visual art is something I really love doing, but I'm always pushing at it. It doesn't always satisfy me on a deep level. Sometimes it feels disconnected, the imagery too mental, too imaginary. It can be virtual, rather than fully sensual. That's partly because our entire culture is dominated by a bias towards the visual—over the other senses, and also as a learning channel—and so visual art is both accepted and easy. People accept my photography and digital art more readily than any other work I do. We have a visual vocabulary, a very rich and complex one—and it contains things we can't always put into words, symbols that resonate on a deeper level. At its best, for me, my own visual art activates the archetypes, and creates resonances beyond the purely visual. There is a hum of the Divine in its presence, when it takes on its archetypal aspects. The best visual art is shamanic—not necessarily in terms of imagery, but because it seems to open into worlds that are visionary, transcendent, and full of emotional and spiritual resonance.

In my visual art, in those pieces that mean the most to me personally, there is often something mysterious, inexplicable, archetypal to be sure, but not always obviously so in terms of imagery or style. I find myself drawn again and again to certain images that for me are very alive, very powerful, that seem to evoke the Mystery, and the gods. This photograph of Shiva with a musician at his knee is one of these images. I've made more than one photograph I've made of statues of Shiva dancing into an archetypal icon of my own.

In my written arts, in poetry, in essays, in writing in general, I have often admitted that words fail me when it comes to trying to describe the numinous. The closest I can get to evoking—not simply describing or reporting, but evoking—the Divine as I have experienced it is in visionary poetry. I've written more than one poem that is a record of a visionary experience, a waking dream, a moment of gnosis—whatever arbitrary label we want to use, that allows us to box the Mystery into a convenient and unthreatening categorization—and while such poems are records of experiences, the use of poetry as the language of recording seems essential, since poetry itself is heightened language, more than ordinary words or talk-talk. Poetry can raise language to the sublime.

Nonetheless, words often fail. They just can't contain everything we want to contain in them. In the end, words even betray us, by making something ineffable seem ordinary, in the inadequacy of telling about it. Our culture is dominated, in the linguistic domain, by a bias towards linear narrative, towards straightforward storytelling—and against the sideways or nonlinear pull that poetry can bring into consciousness. This is one reason, obviously, why prose narrative is far more popular than most poetry, which even in linear narrative forms tends to be incapable of being fully tamed. Poetry is always a bit wild, even when we try to domesticate it. It keeps seeping out around the edges, keeps flickering in and out of the light and going to hide in the shadows.

My own poetry, at its best, is not at all tamed. I don't want it to be tamed. I want it to remain wild and unpredictable, even to me. Some of my own favorite poems surprised me: I had no idea where they came from, and what they said was so unexpected that it was a new idea, even to me. Far too many readers of poetry, and even poets themselves, try to pretend that poetry is predictable, and manageable; formalist poets in particular carry around the totally-unsubstantiated idea that all poems are planned, intended, intentional, and created at the will of the poet. Wiser poets, based on the reading that I have done in poets' essays and memoirs about their art, seem willing to acknowledge that they don't always know what's going on, that they cannot always manage their poems, as though they were tidy little boxes that could be stacked and sorted in the warehouse of memory.

My own favorite poems that I have written—although, to be blunt, it often feels as if some part of the Self was in charge of the writing that is not the "I" of the ego-personality—or that have emerged from my pen, are those poems that take my out of myself, and into something greater. In ancient Greece, poets and dramatists and other artists spoke of being possessed by their daimon, their dark spirit, or of being possessed by their god, and speaking truly, as an oracle, for that moment of creation. That's an experience I've felt, being taken over by something greater than myself. I marvel at some of the writings that have emerged at white heat, when I've felt taken over, or as though I was merely a little hollow bone for Spirit to blow through. I marvel at those writings in part because they don't seem like they're mine—rather, that "I" cannot claim ownership of them without sounding arrogant and egotistical to myself—and in part because things were said that in some cases were brand new to me, as well. Writing like this is not purely self-expression, nor is it a deliberate attempt at expressing an existing thought or opinion. Some writers have said that they don't know what they themselves are thinking about a topic until they write about it—I can relate to that, although what I'm discussing here goes deeper. I'm trying to avoid collapsing into the usual clichés about writing, while at the same time trying to discuss what is numinous and liminal about the experience of having written something that surprised even yourself. There is indeed something special, something spectacular, about witnessing even your own writing, when it gets to that numinous level. When you're in the flow, in the groove, writing at white heat, feeling inspired—whatever label we want to give the process to try to box it into some unthreatening categorization—it's an amazing feeling. It's beyond rewarding: it's what we live for, as artists.

(Language capable of supporting discussions of the numinous and liminal does exist, but it's more likely to be found in the literature of mythological and anthropological studies, and in the literature of psychology, than it is to be found in the literature of either literary criticism or poetry criticism. The literature of literary criticism has become particularly anemic about discussions of the soul in art. Lit crit has turned largely towards the head, and away from the heart, and lost all sense of enchantment.)

Having said all that, I must return to the essential: For me, whatever numinous experience I might attain from writing, or making visual art, music is even more so. Multiply everything I've said so far about writing, about art-making, and for me, music is even more so.

I'm lucky in one sense about my music: I've made my living from it occasionally, but haven't really had to compromise much to do that. I've made much more of my living doing visual art, doing commercial illustration and design—as a result that's both why I can be egoless about it, when a client asks for a change in an illustration or design, and why I sometimes feel like my visual art isn't as meaningful, is more detached somehow. When I'm doing commercial art or design, I long since got over any pretensions that it was anything more than art made to spec, for clients or art directors, and not fundamentally mine. At the same time I was doing commercial art, I was doing my own fine art, on the side as it were. Occasionally there was overlap, but mostly those domains stayed separated.

I've noticed a tendency among young graduates from design school, who are full of great ideas but don't much real-world experience yet, to believe that what they're doing as commercial artists has a higher Purpose, is in fact Art. But it's not. I read, in the literature that designers write about what they do, many of these same pretensions: that what they're doing has some higher purpose, that great design can change the world. Mostly it doesn't. Mostly it's commercial work for clients. Mostly it doesn't have the opportunity to Change The World. (Occasionally it does, but only rarely.) Designers have the chance, every so often, to create an idea or iconic image or logo that permeates the public consciousness, that is "viral" in the sense that it spreads and self-replicates and keeps popping up in places beyond its original purpose or intent.

But remember that most such viral ideas had a single purpose at their inception: to exercise the imagination in order to get you to buy something. Even Andy Warhol's Campbell's soup cans, as abstracted and iconic as they are, contained an inherent, unavoidable commentary about consumerism—precisely because the image evoked the commercial product. That was deliberate—and subversive, when it was first done. now, post-Warhol, when you see this maneuver done in postmodern art, do you think more about the art, or the product?

I'm lucky in one sense, therefore, that my music has rarely been dominated by commerce. Not that I never got paid for my music—I've sold my share of CDs—but that I wasn't required to modify my music to suit the tastes of the buyer. I've had the artistic luxury, with my music, most of the time, of not having to give a damn what anybody thought about it, and could just do what I wanted to do.

(This may be about to change in the near future. More on that later. And it's why I'm thinking about this today.)

I've heard a dance master, a man who is both accomplished dancer and choreographer, opine that you can't hide in dance. It's too revealing of the self. You can try to act, but in the end, you're always naked. I think the same is true of music. In poetry, and perhaps even more in prose, you can hide: you can present characters who are not you, who are nothing like you at all, yet who are real people to those who encounter them. Dance is done with the self. It leaves you very vulnerable and exposed. Music is the same. When you are on stage, performing music, or performing music you have written, or improvising on the spot, you are incredibly vulnerable, incredibly open, incredibly naked to the world, to the environment, to the feelings of those around you. That is music's (and dance's) great joy: that living connection with others, in the moment, in live performance.

It's also music's great challenge, and great obstacle. Some very private people have been master musicians. In some cases they have talked about how painful it is for them to perform, how they felt too naked on stage, too vulnerable. More than one biography of pianist Glenn Gould has suggested this was one reason he quit performing concerts at the peak of his career. Gould's technique as a pianist, and his radical ideas as a composer and radiobroadcast producer, were stellar, probably even on the level of true genius. But he had many personality quirks and eccentricities; he fought with feelings of isolation, with depression, with disconnection. His musical work was magnificent; I think his radio work for the CBC was equally brilliant with whatever he did at the piano. Nonetheless, he himself said in an interview that playing music onstage was sometimes too painful to endure. He was, I believe, torn between his need to express himself musically, and his strong tendencies towards being an eccentric hermit, a complete isolate.

I don't suffer from Gould's distaste for the audience. When I'm performing music before an audience, I love the connection that happens on the best occasions, when it feels not as if they were passive receivers of your music, but as if all of us were taking a journey together. Taking a journey—together. I might be driving the train, but no one is left behind who wants to come along. That's a kind of performance "natural high" I enjoy every time it happens. When I've given improvised music concerts, I've been known to explicitly thank the audience for taking the journey with us, the musicians.

When you are immersed in making music, you are very naked.

And that is what makes music a sacred act. It is not merely that you are naked and exposed, in yourself and to yourself, or to a living audience. It is also that you are naked to that Immanence that lives in everything, that in sacred space you can see lurking in the backs of the eyes of everyone you have ever loved. You can see the Divine very close to the surface, then, very close to breaking through all the masks and filters, to make direct contact. That Immanence, or Mystery, which I have no good label for—but for which the word "God" is inadequate and misleading, not least because there is so much cultural baggage around the word that isn't what I'm talking about here—sings back at you, when you are singing. It becomes a duet. I've experienced this numinous duet many times in concert.

(I know plenty of writers who would deny this happens, or is even possible: but most writers don't ever directly engage with an audience. Writing itself is a solitary act, in a way that music never is. Most poetry readings seem structured to avoid performance natural highs, and so rarely approach the level of musical performance. People stay in their heads, mostly. It's interesting what writers try to avoid, ennit?)

Music, because it is made up of organized sounds in time, is an environmental medium. It is not safely removed, it is not easy to keep your distance from it. It can never be only purely mental, because sound itself is an immersive medium. We live within a planetary atmosphere, a dynamic fluid medium through which sound-waves propagate in all directions. A sound produced moves outward spherically. Sound is also non-linear; it reflects back on itself, and affects itself depending on its environment. Acoustical physics must account for sound reflections in the spherical domain of resonance and reflection, not only those sounds that come directly from the source. Music is environmental, and immersive. We experience music in our bodies, not just with our ears. Some sound frequencies are more felt than heard, while others can be heard via transmission of vibration through our physical bodies, not just directly into our ears. We feel sound in our bones, in our blood. Big bass booms from a stack of huge speakers at a rock concert shake the air and liquid in our lungs, in our guts. We feel music, we don't just listen to it.

There are those who try to avoid knowing this, of course. They prefer music that stays in the head, and doesn't affect the lungs, or heart, or bone marrow. Of course, music that shakes the lungs has a profound emotional force—and many are those who are afraid of powerful emotions, of whatever type. Ecstasy, to them, is as suspicious as anger, as grief. There are those—many writers I know fall into this group—who would prefer it if life were not so messy, so chaotic, so immersive, so very visceral. They do their best to keep life at a distance, to keep it from affecting them on any deep emotional levels. They want to stay in control—of themselves, of their feelings, or whatever—and will go out of their way to avoid the personal letting-go that is ecstasy, that is dancing, that is a loud music concert. Apollo wants to avoid Dionysus—although both need each other in order to be whole.

But music, like dance, makes you naked. And music is sacred. Not because I say that music is sacred, but because every culture has always said so, everywhere in the world, since the beginning of human time. The greatest, most sublime sculptures of Shiva, carved from the living rock of a cave on an island in the Indian Ocean, sculptures in which the god smiles serenely in perfect tranquility, perfect equanimity, perfect enlightenment, showing us the way—these same sculptures also show us Shiva as dancing, as being in continuous motion. The musician down in the corner of the photograph is playing for the god, to be sure, but also as the god, as an Immanent aspect and mask of the god he is seated beside, as another face of music, which is sounds dancing in the air. The musician is playing for himself, for us, but also for and as Shiva, as the voice and face of the god. Every time he plays his sarod, he is evoking the god seated next to him, behind him, within him, the god who never ceased dancing, who never ceases playing. Each act of making music is a sacred act, both an evocation and reflection of the Divine.

I have always known this to be true. It's just that in some venues you can't talk about it. People don't want to hear it. Talking about it is always a risk, not only of being misunderstood but of being hated for speaking the truth. But in my own music, I am always aware of it. It's always present: music is a sacred act.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I said before, somewhat flippantly, that I don’t have a spiritual bone in my body and I still maintain that to be the case. When I read these posts of yours that try and communicate your own spiritual experiences I find I cannot find anything in them that I can relate to. Yes, I accept that there are physical elements to music – I particularly enjoyed the physicality of playing – but my appreciation of that music still falls into two camps, emotional and intellectual. I don’t get what you’re on about in most of this post. I get the words but I get them like I get the word ‘Africa’, a place I have only read about and seen on TV. I don’t get Africa. I have never experienced Africa. I don’t have a personal definition of it.

Music on the other hand is something I have been connected to for forty years. I can’t say longer because it wasn’t until I was about twelve that I actually started listening to music properly; before that it was just around, behind the action in films and promoting goods in ads. I had never considered it as an end in itself. I’ve spent time away from it but in all seriousness I would add it in to my personal Hierarchy of Needs. I’ve spent all day listening to Rodrigo’s concertos and it’s been a real pleasure – a crying shame that his Concerto de Aranjuez is the only one that most people know although it was how I came to know him through a single released by Manuel and his Music of the Mountains would you believe?

Music lifts my spirits but that’s with a small s. Part of me gets a bit irritated when I listen to you go on because you’re clearly getting more out of music that I am but we each work within our limits and I’m satisfied by what music does for me. I don’t know any better. I can’t conceive any better.

12:41 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

No worries.

I don't expect anyone to experience anything like I do, or agree with me, or in some cases even believe me. I can only speak my own truth, regardless of whether anyone likes it, believes it, or anything else.

As long as you get something out of music, which I know you do, that's good enough for me. :)

2:38 PM  
Blogger Daniel said...

I totally agree. Music is something of really sacred. There's nothing in my life which has got its power to make spirit fly. I believe the music market is putting in danger this sacred value of music.. selling it as it was a product as the others.. this is not good.
Thank you for your great dealings.
have e great New Year
Daniel

5:19 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Daniel, and thanks for your comment.

I agree that the consumer aspects of the music "industry" can be a real problem. It does make a lot of people care more about commerce than spirit, and thus a lot of pop music is manufactured rather than coming from the heart. Which is crazy!

BTW, I went over and scanned your blog. My Italian is limited, but I enjoyed what I could puzzle out. :) Thanks again.

10:07 AM  

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