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A Story of Senses: Hearing

"Orpheus in Hades", Pierre Amédée Marcel-Béronneau (1869 – 1937), French

"Real music is not for wealth, not for the honours or even the joys of the mind... but as a path for realisation and salvation." - Ali Akbar Khan

If one's gaze moves eastwards, somewhere in the Balkans begin the musical traditions and philosophies that revolve not around performing a finished composition, but rather around improvisation. The Balkans, Near & Middle East use maqams, in Persian world, they are called dastagah, and the philosophy culminates in India and her rags. Such a philosophy allows a musician to take on a rag, and then to improvise, play, add and create his or her own story as long as the formula is there. Hence if one is to look for a song of Oum Kalthoum or a performance of Khayal or Qawwali maestro, one can find them last ten minutes or thirty, all depending on the mood and the nature of the interaction between the musician and the audience on that particular day. When such a musician, who is not just a performer of a composition, but also an active participant and creator of the music in the very moment, takes a note, a verse which often does not have any meaning beyond producing a sound, they will explore it, taste it in their mouth, repeat it as many times as possible until they eventually move to the next one. With eyes closed, and mind like an arrow sharp focused on the sound, the musician hears only their own voice. The audience slowly ceases to exist, and as musician's own voice hypnotises the musician, the analytic mind is made to disappear - if it were to interfere, it would likely have the musician make a mistake, and the sound would escape them. It is very difficult to return to music once one falls out of it. The musician who improvises must trust themselves to perfectly continue & finish the musical sentence, since a sentence is only that which has a complete meaning. With a mind empty, and with awareness far brighter than it is during daily activities, the musician becomes the music.


A Primordial Hypnosis

Goddess Saraswati Mural, Painting at Panimoola Temple, Kerala, India

It is said that the physical universe as we know it began with a bang - a sound. Some say that this sound was "Oum", others that the first creative sound was "Kun" or "Hum", others say that what was there in the beginning was the Word. If a sleeping god was awakened, he must have been awakened with this sound, inviting him to open his eyes & cast his gaze towards the emptiness.

To hear, we use our ears - ear is an organ that is fully receptive. We hear, we listen, and that which we hear makes its way directly into our minds and bodies. It is said babies in the womb recognise & respond to the rhythm of the mother's heart. When we are born, and as we grow and live, our mind, body and soul, as the receptive parts of us respond to sound, rhythm & frequency. It does not surprise then, that the Puritans of almost any religion and era, had their reservations about music, or at least warned against indiscriminate approach to it.

We are capable of hearing the world around us and music, but what makes hearing different, and more complex to other senses is that most of us, are also capable of producing sounds, and therefore capable of hearing our own selves. Even if we do not speak out loudly, we can still speak in our minds & hear our own voice. There is a bond between our hearing & speaking - we learn our first sounds and words through hearing and listening. The first sounds we produce are not words of complex phonetics, semantics or morphology, rather they are simple syllables like "ma", "ba", "ta", "da", "ama" or something similar. Even in adulthood, when we call our parents, we call them by these syllables, rather than using words such are "father" or "mother" to call them.

There are certain chapters in Qur'an that begin with letters, which in pronunciation can sound like syllables, and many have attempted to understand the mystery behind these letters. Similarly, many of the root mantras are simply syllables without a semantic or pragmatic meaning - indicating that the point of chanting them is not in the meaning but in the sound itself. The goal or purpose is not to engage one's analytic mind but to invoke something within by the use of sound. The analytic mind may not understand it, but something else will respond to it - it is an act of inviting a god to wake up in our own emptiness. The musician who hypnotises one's own self, through listening to one's own voice is not just performing the music, he or she is engaging in a spiritual practice. The hypnotic power of sound is terrifying to those who cling onto analytic mind & practical reason to guide them out of the world. The hypnotic power of sound is salvation to those who seek to abandon practical reason. Bismillah Khan, an Indian shehnai maestro who belongs to a lineage of Muslim musicians who perform in and around Hindu temples in the sacred Hindu town of Varanasi, according to one story, met one of the puritanical religious scholars who warned him about music, saying that to do music is to be a friend to blasphemy. Bismillah apparently told him to allow him to perform and then to decide whether what he did was blasphemy or not. The scholar was moved. Whether story is real or not, it is hard to tell, but it shows how where one finds God & salvation, the other finds terror & loss of God.


The Oldest Metaphor

"Orpheus, Striding with Harp", Jean Cocteau (5 July 1889 – 11 October 1963), French

In the West, many philosophers, from Plato to Schopenhauer, have given their time and thought to music. Western hermetic, esoteric, alchemical & occult traditions also gave their time to the Music of the Spheres and similar concepts. In the vastness of various ideas, music was, among others, given the role of moral education and was crowned the highest form of art. In more recent periods, there were those who claimed that the peak of Western musical tradition was reached with Brahms, whose music, with its mathematical precision and perfection, and yet deep feeling & sentiment, feels like liquid architecture. Brahms erects heavenly castles and has a listener gaze upwards. There are however, those who say that peak of Western music has been reached with Wagner and his music full of drama, power, passion, a music pregnant with the lore of Germanic folklore and mythology. His is the world of knights, Ludwig's fairy tale castles and swans.

The hearing of such music, in which the music is not a meditation, but rather an architecture and a city one is to explore, music becomes the abstraction that explains realities much better than any concrete, empirical description of the same realities. If we close our eyes, and walk into the world of Wagner's "Tannhäuser", we can hear the rage and curse of Venus. If we are to listen Rimsky Korsakov's "Scheherazade", and if we are to pay attention to the clarinets, oboes and flutes, we can feel Scheherazade's fear, and simultaneously, while still feeling her fear, also detect tender hope and faith that she will reach the truth and eternity through creating illusions. It is not that the hearing of such music creates an image in one's imagination, although we can certainly imagine the scene, it is that the music communicates to us the very event & the very feeling. We are not just imagining it as a third person, we are feeling it within ourselves, almost going through the same experiences our heroes & heroines go through. Music then, becomes a sentence full of meaning, making perfect sense, and yet, it is so abstract that if one is to explain why it makes sense and why does oboe make one tremble and hope at the same time, it would be difficult to tell. The experience of Western music is that it takes us both outside and inside ourselves - we feel stronger than normally, and yet we are slightly detached from our own individuality. Just like sight, this is the reason why hearing, especially in the Western world, is seen to carry more cognitive and abstract qualities than touch, taste or smell. Hearing directly stimulates our cognitive ability - we may admire technical quality of the musician or the perfection of a composition, but hearing also offers us pleasure of listening to a good piece of music, yet while doing so, our pleasure isn't in the sensation itself, rather in the mental or emotional experience the music gives to us.


To be a Listener

Esoteric teachings tell that the whole system of speech & hearing, that is our mouth, throat & ears, are dominated by the air element. It is also considered the most volatile element, and as a result, the one most difficult to control & master. It is airy and invisible so it easily escapes our perception.

Many of us hear, yet few of us are capable of listening, precisely because, as it is said in the beginning of this essay, to truly listen, one needs a heightened awareness and sharp focus. For most of us, music becomes a background noise to some work, in a car, or while we are having fun - very rarely do we listen to music for an hour or two without doing something else or looking at a phone. We are also assaulted by all kinds of unwanted noise and music that has no other purpose than to make silence disappear, which makes our minds overly stimulated and tired. Everyone is capable of hearing, but one consciously becomes a listener. Yet, the more one listens, the more one becomes sensitive & responsive to the subtle, and the subtle is a peak to that which behind the veil.


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