Culture and Cosmos – I

Trends in Music and the Cosmic Harmony

      ‘We may speak of the Supreme as if He were a
mathematician working out a cosmic sum in
numbers or a thinker resolving by experiment
a problem in relations of principles and the
balance of forces; but also we should speak of
Him as if he were a lover, a musician of universal
and particular harmonies, a child, a poet. The
side of delight too must be entirely grasped;
Ideas, Forces, Existences, Principles are hollow
moulds unless they are filled with the breath of
God’s delight.’

                                                            Sri Aurobindo

                                                            ‘Thoughts & Glimpses’

                                                                        Delight of Being

A cacophony has no appreciable theme or melody we can follow. Notes fall into one another helplessly, they jostle with each other in what strikes our ear as a discordant chaos, a disturbing disorder. Our 20th Century civilisation seems to express this same condition: chaos, senseless, incoherent breakdown. Therefore, if we study the development of music in the world and its progression from a certain order towards a disorder of a sorts, perhaps we can find an illuminating pattern, and perhaps one that we can connect to a greater harmonic movement and purpose.

 

The ancients referred to the cosmology they formulated in those distant ages of history as the Harmony or the Music of the Spheres. In very remote times music was the means to convey a truth of the cosmos in sound. It was therefore sacred to the core. But today we have lost touch with that sacred element, though vestiges do remain of this superior perception and expression. They provide us with a clue to the ancient psyche and the spirit that then moved across the Earth.

In the development of music in the world – the western world primarily – we observe an unmistakable pattern. Over the centuries we see (or rather, we hear) a progression from simplicity (of theme, instrument and execution) to a greater and greater complexity; and then a collapse into the chaos of cacophony. We move from the cosmic order and the sacred to the mundane and the profane. It appears as if humankind, in losing connection with the harmony of the spheres, became a helpless victim to the narrow boundaries of a limited and disconnected experience of life. And as is true of all cultural development, this was reflected in the progression of music from the sacred to the profane and from simplicity and order to complexity and finally cacophony. Embellishment, ornamentation and mechanisation were the avenues for this process.

In the development of music in the world – the western world primarily – we observe an unmistakable pattern. Over the centuries we see (or rather, we hear) a progression from simplicity (of theme, instrument and execution) to a greater and greater complexity; and then a collapse into the chaos of cacophony. We move from the cosmic order and the sacred to the mundane and the profane. It appears as if humankind, in losing connection with the harmony of the spheres, became a helpless victim to the narrow boundaries of a limited and disconnected experience of life. And as is true of all cultural development, this was reflected in the progression of music from the sacred to the profane and from simplicity and order to complexity and finally cacophony. Embellishment, ornamentation and mechanisation were the avenues for this process.

Contemporary western classical music reflects the affliction of an increasing disorder. There is no longer that one theme, that appreciable melody; or at least it has become so effectively camouflaged that its detection is nearly impossible for the untrained ear. And this leaves the listener with a sense of insecurity. The loss of the theme or the element of a certain continuity in the contemporary composition creates a situation in the listener very similar to what the human being experiences in present-day society: one is lost in the unknown, boundaries and limits are being exceeded. In this transition, while the known and secure structures are crumbling, as yet the clear lines of the future ‘theme’ are not ‘audible’. And though we may wish to, we cannot turn back the musical clock. We must move ahead on time’s irreversible, forward-pointing arrow into a tomorrow which may disclose a new structure, a new musical expression.

Clearly this breakdown has for its purpose the establishment of an awareness and consequent cultural expression which is more global, which exceeds regional and continental divides, and which, though varied and rich in its diversity, will ultimately produce an orderly pattern wherein all the parts may join to give expression to a single Theme. It is even possible that this new expression though an important concern of many of the best creative spirits of this new Age, is being sought wrongly. That is, it may not be a question of ‘fusion’, as the blending of eastern and western music is called, but rather a flowering of a new apparatus of perception and appreciation; and this may have little to do with the actual composition and more with a heightened awareness and the ability to ‘hear with new ears’, whatever the piece and its ethnic idiosyncrasies.

To appreciate this we must observe the development of music in this millennium, and more especially in this century. For example, there was a simplicity in medieval musical expression. The theme was bare, sparsely embellished or adorned. The instruments used to convey this innocence of spirit were equally simple, rudimentary and unsophisticated. The executing bodies were small and the experience was intimate, while the melodies expressed the down-to-earth concerns of the population: a world of simple, basic values and clear, attainable goals.

In the domain of the sacred, as one example, there was the emergence of the compellingly virile Gregorian Chants in the 6th century, which rose to a peak in the 8th and 9th centuries, and then gave way to new vogues and the beginning of polyphonic music in the 11th and 12th centuries. In the realm of the profane, we see, or rather hear across the centuries, the rise of the wonderfully melodic and rich inspirations of the baroque masters. We associate ‘baroque’ with excessive embellishment, an elaboration carried to extremes, where essence is smothered in the folds of outer form and finish. In a sense this did take place; in 18th and 19th century music the theme was embellished to a higher degree of sophistication and elaboration than ever before. Music also moved farther and farther away from the sacred, for even though many compositions continued to centre on religious subjects, sponsoring was done by royalty and catered to the profane. Ultimately the tools and channels to express this greater elaboration were inadequate: new instruments had to be devised.

The western world then moved into the Industrial Revolution and power became the order of the day. Small ensembles and delicate instruments were unable to give faithful expression to the new spirit that was moving through Europe, and via Europe through the rest of the world. For example, we witness the invention of the piano to replace the subtle sounds of the harpsichord and spinet. Similarly, a number of new instruments were devised, each capable of increasing volume and the body of sound in order to project adequately the new spirit of expansion that Europe was experiencing in all aspects of life.

The fuller-bodied orchestra came into being, the number of instrumentalists increased, as if to reflect a mass-production consciousness. Even notation of musical scores became elaborate and detailed, as well as more codified and reflective of an increasing mechanisation. The interpreter was provided with stringent guidelines, a more standardised code which became necessary with the distance emerging between composer and interpreter; and finally the establishment of the commercial intermediary – the publisher. This heightened the necessity for a system which would secure a faithful reproduction by way of a symbolism and notation that could stand on its own and not demand the presence of the composer, with very little room left for free flights of the interpretive spirit, – unlike the scores of the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

There was a very great change overtaking the world. The Industrial Revolution had opened the way for vigorous collective efforts and a rising mass consciousness; at the same time, it opened the gates to POWER. The focus was no longer on the embellishment of the theme, as it was in the baroque [Baroque?] period. Rather, it was to find more and more powerful means to express and to convey the theme, and to expand the range of execution and audition to mirror the physical expansion of civilisation through colonial conquests which were engulfing the entire globe.

This development was very clear in the West: the limited range of the medieval group; the increased number of the Baroque ensemble; and finally the contemporary orchestra of over a hundred instrumentalists. At the same time, we note the predominant position grand opera began to occupy – grand indeed because it, more than any other 19 Century art form reflected this largeness and increased sense of power. Opera was also a means to express a spirit of unification which was then surfacing, especially in Italy, the land of its origin and most ardent exponent. Opera followed the same development from simplicity to heightened sophistication and expression of power. This was reflected in the early baroque operas of Giaccomo Rossini compared to his later masterpieces. The arc of his long life of genial contribution to the world of opera displays this development.

Grand opera was a musical expression in which a number of art forms could be accommodated. It gathered those forms around a single theme (the libretto), just as Italy itself was attempting a unification of its culturally diverse city-states. It was a popular art form, for plebeian tastes as well as for the more elitist. Attesting to this fact we have the charming anecdote of Giuseppe Verdi’s futile attempt to keep secret one of the main arias of his opera, ‘Rigoletto’, which was to premier in Venice. But the problem was where to rehearse the piece with the tenor so that none could overhear and diffuse the melody before the maiden performance. Verdi thought he had found the solution: he took his tenor for a gondola ride. Well away from curious ears and protected by the watery canals distancing them from the populace, he rehearsed the aria. The reward for his efforts came very soon thereafter: All of Venice was singing ‘La donna e mobile’… Verdi had not calculated the eavesdropping presence of the gondoliere, rowing the gondola, who easily memorised the catchy melody which then spread like wildfire through the ardent opera-loving populace.

As a mark of the spirit of unification which grand opera symbolised and the vibrant part it played in the movement, there is the fact that the famed chorus from Verdi’s opera, ‘Nabucco’, became virtually the hymn of national unification, on the lips of men, women and children, cutting across all classes.

The West more faithfully than the East provides a clear vision of the spirit then moving across the continents. The reason why this is so is reflected in the development itself – an increase in power and material strength which characterises the nature of occidental civilisation. It was a predominance of one aspect of collective consciousness isolated from the whole. This excess or imbalance finally produced the strange sounds of the contemporary composition: a disorder as a reaction to a smothering of the individual’s creative spirit, while being subjugated to the outer layers of being – the mental and the vital.

It is the story of our industrial/scientific/technological age. It is the story of the instrument or tool assuming an increasing importance until the point is reached where the tool predominates and imposes a top-heaviness, as it were, which eventually smothers the theme in an excess created by the preponderance of mechanical devices. Power overpowers; balance is lost; harmony eventually suffers and gives way to cacophony. Everything is broken down and none of the old structures remain. Even the system of notation proves inadequate and each contemporary musical score becomes a unique creation. Every composer must introduce innovations, new methods of notation because the former systems cannot express in symbol the new sounds he attempts to create. At this point the chaos is complete because when the composer cannot educate the interpreter directly, the latter has no examples to turn to and a musical anarchy threatens. The secure guidelines the instrumentalist had known for centuries are inadequate to provide a safe framework of interpretation. For the cry is FREEDOM – all the way down the line. But the response to this call is greater disorder when structures begin to crumble…

 

‘…The European mind gives the first place to the principle of growth by struggle; it is by struggle that it arrives at some kind of concert. But this concert is itself hardly more than an organisation for growth by competition, aggression and further battle. It is a peace that is constantly breaking, even within itself, into a fresh strife of principles, ideas, interests, races, classes. It is an organisation precarious at its base and in its centre because it is founded on half-truths that deteriorate into whole falsehoods; but it is still or has been till now vigorous in constant achievements and able to grow powerfully and to devour and assimilate…’

                                                            Sri Aurobindo

                                                            The Foundations of Indian Culture

                                                            CE, Volume 14, pages 17-38

                                                                        *

 

In the East, and particularly in India, the development of music has been quite different than in the West, though the effects of across-pollination and an infiltration via invasions and colonial conquests have also taken their toll. However, the structure of Indian classical music is rooted perceptibly and ever- lastingly in the cosmic harmony. This is the foundation of the Indian raga (pronounced raag), which are ‘scales’, 72 in number. In remote ages the musical genius of India drew its inspiration from the celestial harmonies. And, like all other areas of Indian cultural life, somehow this original inspiration has been kept alive in an unbroken tradition from then until now. Indeed, it was so formidable an inspiration, so permanently true, that it has survived the ravages of time admirably well.

The reason for this explains another difference between western and eastern approaches to art, and to life in general. The West founds its life and culture on a more external element. There the personality is developed to the utmost, rather than essence or the spirit. Witness, for example, the predominant schools of western psychology in contrast to Indian philosophical and yogic systems of self-development and discovery of a far greater inner depth. This trend displayed itself very vividly in the aforementioned increase in the externals of music: the instrument predominates until finally the movement blossoms into a highly sophisticated display of contemporary technology. Electronics invade a realm once thought to be the sacred and inviolable domain of the individual rather than the machine.

This trend has not been witnessed in India to any marked degree. The instruments remain largely what they were centuries ago; the size of the ensembles as well. The experience is still confined to a certain balance between instrumentalist and instrument in a natural equilibrium, a harmony of essence and form. The one does not overpower the other and artificial means are not utilised for this purpose.

But then there is that all-important, underlying premise of Indian music: the harmony of the spheres. Yet how does a cosmic reality express itself in music? We know for a fact that something of this nature lies at the basis of the Indian expression, insofar as the ragas are to be played only at certain times of the day and in certain seasons. But beyond this the layman knows nothing of the real import and connection. Let us therefore seek to unravel this cosmic puzzle at the basis of this exquisite, ancient and sacred musical experience.

 

In Indian music the very first sound one hears is the drone of the sruti; then the raga commences, the scale or mode or theme that is pure and sacred and permanent, but which permits an individualised expression, an improvisation which reflects a controlled freedom. There is the tala (pronounced taal) of the tabla or mridangam which is the motor of the raga, its pulse or heartbeat. All of this is combined to provide a structure which is a superb vehicle for rendering our solar system AUDIBLE to the human ear, for granting to the listener the purest and most profound experience of the cosmic harmony still available today.

Similar to the Sanatan Dharma – the ‘theme’ that runs through all of India’s spiritual and cultural expressions – her music also affords an ‘eternal truth’. And like all things in our age of transition and change, this too must be ‘made new’. Yet it cannot be done as a truly creative process unless the renewal takes place on the basis of a well-founded, direct knowledge of this inherent truth at the core of her musical experience…

‘Indian culture proceeded on the principle of a concert that strove to find its base in a unity and reached out again towards some greater oneness. Its aim was a lasting organisation that would minimise or even eliminate the principle of struggle. But it ended by achieving peace and stable arrangement through exclusion, fragmentation and immobility of status; it drew a magic circle of safety and shut itself up in it for good. In the end it lost its force of aggression, weakened its power of assimilation and decayed within its barriers. A static and limited concert, not always enlarging itself, not plastic becomes in our human state of imperfection a prison or a sleeping-chamber. Concert cannot be anything but imperfect and provisional in its form and can only preserve its vitality and fulfil its ultimate aim if it constantly adapts, expands, progresses. Its lesser unities must widen towards a broader and more comprehensive and above all a more real and spiritual oneness…’

Ibid, pg. 38

          A general malady of our times is a loss of this knowledge, precisely because in periods of transition the atmosphere becomes confused and the cacophony increases to the point where none can hear or remember or recognise the original theme and structure nor its purpose. To counteract the collapse rigid postures are assumed. The ‘purist’ emerges to preserve and perhaps fossilise the expression. Or else there is the attempt to modernise, to ‘change with the times’, to expand, to exceed. But more often than not these exercises result in degeneration and a loss of the original and eternal truth.

      A struggle between stability and change has been ensuing in the world of Indian music for at least a century, if not more. The original structure is being taxed to extremes by external influences from quarters which never had this cosmic experience as a solid foundation for the expression. Particularly in our times, when the boundaries between East and West are vanishing, there is an intermingling in another attempt to express the spirit of unity and oneness which seeks to take possession of the world. Occidental and oriental musicians interact, the disparate sounds and strange tunings of their culturally-diverse instruments intermingle in an effort to find an expression which will convey this blending of one world and another, one consciousness and another. But the purist is not satisfied – in fact, he is often horrified. Nor has there emerged any sample of such an intermingling which can pretend to compete with the eternal character of the purist’s simple raga executed according to the stringent commands of the Shastras, or scriptures.

Yet there is something at the basis of Indian musical expression that remains untouched by these experiments and stands unshaken. The reason is that the ancients heard the harmony of the spheres, and in an impeccable manner they translated that eternal reality into sound. Thus, for as long as the harmony of the spheres remains what it is, this structure of Indian classical music will persist. It is as eternal as that macrocosmic Harmony from which it has evolved. The impulse to change will never impinge upon that eternal Truth; while at the same time that stable foundation is the secure basis for all innovation and change, similar to the multiple variations open to the basic 72 ragas – a controlled freedom which, by the miracle of a balance between stability and change, escapes the process of simplicity leading to complexity and then to breakdown and cacophony…

 

     ‘The objection to any large change – for a large and bold change is needed and no peddling will serve our purpose – can be given a plausible turn only if we rest it on the contention that the forms of a culture are the right rhythm of its spirit and in breaking the rhythm we may expel the spirit and dissipate the harmony for ever. Yes, but though the Spirit is eternal in its essence and in the fundamental principles of its harmony immutable, the actual rhythm of its self-expression in form is ever mutable. Immutable in its being and in the powers of its being but richly mutable in life, that is the very nature of the spirit’s manifested existence. And we have to see too whether the actual rhythm of the moment is still a harmony or whether it has not become in the hands of an inferior and ignorant orchestra a discord and no longer expresses rightly or sufficiently the ancient spirit…’

Ibid, pages 21-20

 

We shall explore in greater depth this immutable cosmic foundation of Indian music, which will provide a certain guideline to the auditory experience so that the listener will henceforth hear this music not as just a pleasing string of notes or a display of virtuosity, but as if listening to ‘the sounds of the solar system’. To this end, some essential features of Indian music will be highlighted; in particular the most important element – the drone or the ‘stable constant’ of the sruti.

 

Before all else, it is necessary to analyse briefly the spiritual and mystical character of East and West, insofar as they provide a clue to the development we are observing, particularly a characteristic of the occidental religious experience which has permeated many other aspects of western life. It reflects a division, a split, if you will, which has become fully crystallised in present-day society in a spirit/matter divide. Yet, how does this simple statement become reflected in the musical expression of East and West, – the former having a basis of unity, ever and always, and therefore freed from a dualism which necessarily results in a fragmentation of values and beliefs?

This characteristic is reflected in the tala or metre of Indian music, a function allotted to the percussion instruments such as the tabla and the mridangam. There are percussion instruments in the West of course, but their vibrant participation is not allowed when a certain ‘class threshold’ is crossed. In popular western music the percussion instrument, or else the bass, is perhaps the most important element in a band, providing a hard beat that determines the category of music being played. In all areas of popular music the beat provided by the rhythm instruments is clear, vibrant, essential. But as we move up the music ladder, as we near the upper echelons at the threshold of the classical expression, the beat provided by the percussion instrument becomes less and less prominent. Finally, when we are fully in the domain of the classical, percussion is almost non-existent. Metre is of course preserved and plays its unavoidable role, but it is carried out in a subdued manner; the full beat or throb of the percussion instrument or the bass is gone and the split is complete: the music of the masses is one thing, that of the elite another…and the twain shall never meet.

In India, on the other hand, there is no such division. The hard, clear beat of the percussion instrument never leaves us, no matter how high up the elitist scale we move. Once in the realm of the classical, that vital beat or throb disappears in the West, while in India it remains but is simply more refined…

 

‘A true happiness in this world is the right terrestrial aim of man, and true happiness lies in the finding and maintenance of a natural harmony of spirit, mind and body. A culture is to be valued to the extent to which it has discovered the right key of this harmony and organised its expressive motives and movements. And a civilisation must be judged by the manner in which all its principles, ideas, forms, ways of living work to bring that harmony out, manage its rhythmic play and secure its continuance or the development of its motives…’

Ibid, p. 2

 

If we take music as a reflection of a society and civilisation and its individual components, the factor of the split described above becomes an important clue to the problems we face as we seek to evolve a more integral approach to life. The human being is composed of various ‘layers’ of consciousness-being. These can be roughly grouped into four: the physical, the vital-emotional, the mental, and the spiritual. These different parts find their correspondence in the various elements of a musical structure and the resultant compositions. Thus, the underlying foundation of Indian culture is a vision of oneness and unity, integrating these various layers, but within which we find an almost maddening diversity. Nonetheless, that underlying unity is everpresent. [ever present/ever-present?]

The tala or metre of the percussion instruments is thus representative of a certain vital-physical layer. It is like a great pumping heart. To eliminate this factor entirely, in terms of the audio experience, is akin to a major severance in consciousness. That urgent vital breath coursing through the ‘being’ becomes suppressed and ceases to play the prominent role it did in music farther down the scale. In popular music it is permitted its full play; in the classical it is held at bay and almost entirely subdued. This condition is observed even more clearly in schools such as Rudolf Steiner’s, in, for example, his Eurhythmic dance exercises. The idea is to let the body play the musical score, or visually draw the lines the various instruments weave. In observing these exercises one sees that the entire movement is confined to the upper half of the body, in particular the arms (in the cosmic harmony, ruled by Gemini, and hence connected to the mind); the lower section of the body is far more inert, a striking display of the division we are discussing.

Classical ballet is another example and provides as well a visual impact of a disconnection between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’. This has become greatly emphasised with the introduction in this century (from Italy) of ‘point’ or the toe posture, displaying an increasing tendency to rise, to go up and away from what has become equated with a lower hemisphere and a lesser expression.

Thus we have a lower and a higher expression, clearly demarcated. We have a higher consciousness and a greater refinement, and this expresses itself in the classical structure of western music (and dance). And we have the less refined. But the important point is that the rhythm instrument is not carried over into that higher world.

 

In India the situation is entirely different. The percussion instrument is always prominent; but as one rises in the scale its contribution simply becomes more and more refined; there is a greater sophistication but never is it entirely eliminated or is its rightful role denied: to pump that vital breath through the structure like a powerful heart beating out the various rhythms set by the cosmic mood.

The tala is unmistakable in all the gradations of music in India – in folk music, in the devotional ‘bhajans’ (in the West this would be unthinkable), in film songs and indigenous popular music of all sorts. In a word, in all the various expressions of the Indian musical psyche. In its classical expression (up the elitist scale) the tala or metre is equally clear and unmistakable via the same percussion instruments used in the lesser expression – but it is simply a question of a greater degree of sophistication. There is not the same clear-cut divide between plebeian and patrician tastes as in western music.

The Christian colonialists had difficulty with Indian devotional music, coming as they did from a culture which starkly divides its music into sacred and profane, and in the former all trace of rhythmic pulsation is absent. Not so in the Indian temple. There the beat is even more dynamic – as if worship arouses that flaming pulsation of energy. Gradations do exist, but all parts of the being are respected and given their due.

Of late in the West this necessity seems to have been understood; or perhaps it is a means to draw more worshipers into the fold, particularly the youth. Consequently, we witness churches hosting pop concerts or pop music used in ritual or as an accompaniment for devotional services. The point is missed however. While gradations exist, one type of music cannot express all moods or serve all purposes. Integration or involvement of the full being is indeed required, however, which has been absent in the West due to the split of matter and spirit.

The West makes a stark differentiation: ‘power’ is only expressed in the lesser forms of music, or else not at all. In the ‘higher’ this same ‘power’ or vital force (shakti) recedes into the background and becomes inaudible. That throbbing pulse, that vital heartbeat is covered over entirely, as if it were non-existent.

To express this power the percussion instrument in Indian music of whatever level remains largely the same and its function is always the same. In a word, the instrument does not become disconnected from the function it must express…

 

‘…If we define civilisation as a harmony of spirit, mind and body, where has that harmony been entire or altogether real? Where have there not been glaring deficiencies and painful discords? Where has the whole secret of the harmony been altogether grasped in all its parts or the complete music of life evolved into the triumphant ease of a satisfying, durable and steadily mounting concord?…’

Ibid, page 31

 

*

 

We cannot fail to see the split expressed in all aspects of life, in all areas of existence. It is a global condition, while the music of India stands as a reminder to us that there is another way, another integral and unified way of living and being. “Power’ is not the preserve of the ‘lesser’ evolved.

Can we see this also as an expression of political trends and the cry ‘power to the people’, a development which has set out civilisation apart from all others in this period of recorded history? But what are the symptoms in a society that expresses itself in this way (musically)? There is a division between ruler and ruled, and finally the two go off in tangents. The resultant condition of chaos and cacophony requires then highly destructive impacts to bridge the gap, to heal the schism. Revolutions are necessary and severe societal unrest is inevitable. To achieve an integration and to bridge the divide, tremendous periods of instability ensue. It is a civilisation characterised by periods of relative calm and progress, and periods of despairing breakdown, because the foundation is a dualism which results in tension, competition and struggle, and an overpowering of one part of the being – the mental or the vital – which has not been given its due in the fuller harmony.

Continuing to use trends in music for this overview, we observe that, as indicated by the essence and structure of her music, India can avoid a development of this nature, insofar as there is always a solid foundation carried forward into the present: it is an eternal foundation whose underlying theme is forever unity, rather than duality…

 

‘…There is this permanent spirit in things and there is this persistent…law of our nature; but there is too a less binding system of laws of successive formulations, – rhythms of the spirit, forms, turns, habits of the nature, and these endure the mutations of the ages… The race must obey this double principle of persistence and mutation or bear the penalty of a decay and deterioration that may taint even its living centre…’

Ibid, pages 32-33

 

*

 

The same element of change rooted in stability as an abiding characteristic of the Indian spirit, can be observed in other areas, in even the most commonplace expressions which we live with daily and take for granted without feeling the need to analyse for any deeper significance. For example, there is the question of attire. Over the centuries the increased complexity and embellishment witnessed in the development of music can also be observed in fashion trends. In fact, fashion as a vehicle for expressing the psyche of a society provides a very clear display of the differences between the western and Indian understanding of life. The guiding rule of western fashion is change for change’s sake. This too has become expressive of the chaos of our times.

But even in earlier ages when this chaos was not evident, fashion mirrored the same development we have observed in music. For example, the spirit infusing the Baroque period reflected an excessive ornamentation and clutter which leaves one wondering how the human body was expected to carry this excess. Court attire during the period of the baroque was exactly reflected in this preponderance of form and embellishment which increased with the passage of time until finally entirely new forms had to emerge to sustain this increase.

In terms of fashion, as in all other things, the West is externally poised, its consciousness is riveted in the periphery of being, or the dimension where CHANGE is the keyword. Hence change is also the keyword of western fashion, to the point where from one year to the next the ‘well-dressed’ woman is expected to renew her entire wardrobe.

Likewise, trends in popular western music cannot be analysed adequately unless they are taken in conjunction with the attire of the performers. Witness the revolution in dress (and music) of the 1960s. From the musical world this revolutionary form of dress was carried over into the rest of society through the youth. Music also became a more living, spontaneous act, with young people in western society unveiling remarkable musical talent and invention. The same ‘freedom’ expressed in music became the hallmark of fashion. But this initial liberation, if you will, pressed on until the momentum wore itself out and plunged into chaos. By the 1980s this chaos was complete with ‘punk’ fashion and the frightful get-ups of rock bands and their adoring fans.

In India the principle of unity is carried over into the domain of fashion – in the traditional sari, for example. This costume has survived the ravages of time and modernisation similar to the country’s music. And interestingly, it expresses the same truth of her destiny and being: unity in diversity – or a unified multiplicity. Thus, the FORM (the sari) is one and enduring, but within that form an infinite possibility of expression and variation exists.

To the westerner confinement to a single form of dress is unthinkable. It would seem appallingly boring and would be construed as an attempt to stifle the creativity of the individual, for which the selection of attire provides an important vehicle of expression. For the occidental, selection of attire is the avenue for a daily expression of one’s individuality and creativity. But in India the sari (and other traditional dresses, both for women and men) is not felt in any way as a constraint on that freedom and creative drive. It is simply, once again, a CONTROLLED freedom, a creativity maintained within certain limits or boundaries; yet within these boundaries freedom of expression is limitless.

 

This same situation prevails in Indian music. Again, it can be traced to the foundation of Indian cultural and spiritual-philosophical expression. The cosmos we inhabit, the solar system we are a part of, the ‘laws’ which bind our system to the harmony we can measure with the passage of time, are the very same which bind the executors of the Indian classical music to a certain ‘system’ wherein one may experience this ‘controlled freedom’.

In the classical composition this is expressed by the improvisations on the basic raga (and the consequent absence of the musical score). That raga in turn, expresses a ‘mood’, a ras (‘taste’, ‘essence’, ‘pleasure’) of being. These moods have a measure – 72, or 9 x 8; or 9 times the octave. They come into being by the ‘faces’ the Earth presents to the Sun – arising from her axial rotation – which she executes as she moves around the great luminary whom her ‘moods’ extol.

Thus, these ‘moods’ or interrelated positions of the planets vis-à-vis the Sun are the modes of expression of the universal Consciousness. They describe the multifarious essence of the cosmic manifestation. And because of the formula ‘as above, so below’, these modes are the vital-emotional state of the human being also, inhabitant of this planet Earth. Hence, each raga has a stricture: it can be played only in the morning, or noon, or at sunset or sunrise, and so on; or else, only in particular seasons.

One accepts this. The public accepts that at one time, in a distant past, the formulators or ‘hearers’ (of the sruti, the ‘inspired word’) of these ragas had the capacity to capture this essentiality and describe it musically; and that that essence did indeed correspond to an interplay of orbits and a scheme of cosmic harmonics. But we have lost touch with the consciousness that could perceive (visually and audibly) in such a manner. Thus, when we demand innovation, the incorporation of new ragas, the extension of the scales, the freedom to introduce new formulations expressing new moods and modes, we imply that the innovator lives in that same consciousness. That is, if he is to remain faithful to the original truth-essence of Indian music (and none seem ready to do away with it entirely), then any renovation must bear an intrinsic respect for the Laws of this system that are eternal. Implied in this is a profound knowledge by identity of that cosmic harmony. This describes the experience out of which the entire structure of Indian music arose, created by those venerable Seers who were able to ‘hear’ this grand music of the spheres.

We can safely assume that there is no musician today in a position to affirm that he or she lives in this state of consciousness. Herein lies the difficulty. If India had never experienced this Truth, then this constraint would not exist – as it does not exist for the West. She would be ‘free’ – free to invent unfettered by ‘laws’. At the same time, she would be subjected to that inevitable plunge into cacophonous chaos and imbalanced individualism. However, once having ‘seen’, once having ‘heard’ the sruti, or the inspired Tone or cosmic Note, there is only one course open to the innovator or renovator: he or she must move forward into the future in the discovery of the channels of innovation or renewal which that initial Seeing and Hearing themselves provide.

 

‘It may well be that both tendencies, the mental and the vital and physical stress of Europe and the spiritual and psychic impulse of India, are needed for the completeness of the human movement. But if the spiritual idea points the final way to a triumphant harmony of manifested life, then it is all-important for India not to lose hold of the truth, not to give up the highest she knows and barter it away for a perhaps more readily practicable but still lower ideal alien to her true and constant nature…’

Ibid, page 20

 

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To facilitate the development of the musical experience along the lines of a truth-essence, perhaps it would be helpful to listen to a raga, bearing in mind more carefully its true and deeper meaning, and the meaning and function of all the elements in the composition which afford us this exquisite experience of hearing ‘the sounds of the solar system’. We have a scientific basis for this explanation – since today certain aspects of this truth-essence are being ‘measured’. For example, we can now confirm scientifically that the Sun is similar to the heart in a human body, a truth ancient tradition has held since the beginning of time. The Sun does indeed have a measurable ‘pulse’: in our Earth-day of 24 hours the Sun pulses exactly once every 2 hours and 40 minutes, or nine time a day. This pulsation or heartbeat vibrates through the entire System (to the extent that it can even be measured here on Earth); and each planet responds to that great pulsation in an individualised way, a way which takes into consideration its own ‘pulsation’ and is a blending of the two. The Earth, for example, responds with her pulse. Thus, while in the mid 1970s the Sun’s pulse was discovered, in 1983 University of Rome physicists, while seeking to make a discovery regarding gravitation, stumbled upon something entirely unexpected: the Earth, they discovered, has a ‘pulse’ and it beats once every 12 hours (or every 11 hours, 57 minutes, and 57.3 seconds – or her sidereal day); an exact measurement just like the Sun’s exact 9 pulsations in 24 hours.

Thus the luminary registers a measure of 9. (This tallies perfectly with the cosmology of the New Way, wherein I have shown that the 0 and the 9 are equal, and the 0 is the numerical equivalent of the Sun.) In Indian music the number of talas or rhythmic patterns provided by the percussion instruments also numbers 9. We observe that this pattern is transferred to the scales or ragas which number 9 x 9 – thus, the 98 notes of the octave are multiplied by the pulsations of the Sun in 24 hours.

We begin to understand the connection. We ‘hear’ something different when the tabla sounds its first beats. It is as if that pulse were awakening, arousing, expanding in ripples and waves through the System, through this great Body of Sound…

But where is this System? In a structure merely of interacting and intermingling sounds, how can we recreate something so physical as the solar system and convey that experience to the listener? Above all, we expect the TRUTH of that system to be created, if at all it is to stand everlastingly and immortally. Yet this is precisely what the ancients did, and this is why Indian music is indestructible, just as the Sanatan Dharma is eternal and indestructible. They captured the truth-essence of the Sun, the planets, their positions or moods; and they conveyed that in sound.  They understood the FUNCTION of those bodies and their interrelation and captured that function in ‘laws’, in the structure of Indian classical music. They experience the Earth as a living being, as a goddess and felt her rhythm of 12, the division of her 24-hour day and the 12 months of the year which the seasons bring alive. Thus, the ragas are designed to convey these relationships and measures.

We all agree that the Sun is the supreme ‘heart’ of our System, the luminous body which gives us our life. Thus, the most important feature of a composition which seeks to recreate that cosmic truth must necessarily be the Sun.

In Indian classical music the Sun’s function is conveyed by the relentless drone, that one Tone of no beginning and no end. It is the support of the entire composition. It is the Stable Constant, the ever present Presence, upholder of the divine Play of the multiple. Above all, it is the Silence, eternal and infinite. The drone is the ‘sound of silence’. It is the foundation of unity which is the underlying Theme of the system. Unity does not cease when multiplicity comes into being – just as the drone of the sruti never ceases, regardless of the manifold diversity of the play it upholds. Similarly, silence ever IS, it does not cease with the emergence of sound. Rather, it upholds sound – or sound rises up from the Silence. Sound is simply the extension of Silence, the motion-play of that all-pervading Essence.

Thus, the composition begins with this ‘sun-tone’, this OM, or the cosmic note of no beginning and no end. In The Magical Carousel, which describes the cosmic truth in a similar fashion, using the vehicle of myth and fairy tale, we have the same solar essence conveyed and its connection to the primordial Sound. The main protagonists of the story set out for Saturn, but fate and circumstance intervene and they find their spacecraft heading for the Sun ‘like a moth drawn to light’. Once they are plunged into the Sun the first experience is silence, and then…

 

‘…the children find themselves immersed in the vibrations of a musical note of whose beginning and end they are unaware. It vibrates so strongly around and within them that they hold each other tightly and close their eyes so as not to see what happens.

‘The vibrations are shattering. They almost seem to explode the entire universe until finally there is silence again.’ (Page 4)

 

The raga begins. The theme commences to develop by which to construct the System and convey its ras and ananda, its delight of being. We hear the first notes of the shenai (truly this instrument is the voice of the Earth), or else the sarod, or the sitar, or the human voice, initially one with the Silent-Sound, as the raga begins to rise from the Silence, as it lifts up and out of this original Essence. Thus we have the sun-tone of the Sun-Core, and we have the first response of the Earth in the early notes of the raga, still plunged in the immobile Silence of the Sun, still at one with her Lord, intimate essence of her very own being. And gradually, as the System grows the ‘mood’ expresses itself: sound lifts up from the eternal Silence and the play begins, at first simple and pure – the plain theme or mood.

The early sounds are like tiny waves or ripples on the infinite bed of Silence. They increase until finally the mood is expressed in full, the essential raga is complete. But it never leaves the Silence, just as the Sun is always the centre of the system and its ever present source of light and life. Thus, the sruti  is relentless, impertinent in its all-pervasiveness, its inescapable IS-ness, like the Silence in the universe, the vault of an irresistible fullness.     This Silence is no void. It is the creative Womb and upholder of every conceivable Harmony.

Silence IS, the mood is set, and the raga develops. The theme rises and falls. It lifts up from the Silent-Sound and then dips into it again and again, like the rise and fall of a breath. From time to time it returns and rests itself in the Source it never really left, the Source-Tone that upholds the play, as if to replenish itself, as if to draw sustenance from this great womb of eternal Being. At first all is contained in the intimacy of this tender love play – for after all, what are the other meanings of the word? Raga also means love, passion, attachment, and thus clinging, as indeed the raga clings to that Silence as to a pillar around which to wrap its limbs consumed with an increasing desire.

Thus the creative urge swells and must extend the mode to the whole System…and the ‘pulsations’ of the Sun become faintly audible. The heartbeat, the throbbing desire begins to weave itself into and through the individualised pulsations of the bodies it upholds. The tala of this impulse is given through the percussion instrument, through the mridangam or the tabla. Power is injected and expands the first ripples into waves that move out from the Centre-Sun with spherical, mathematical precision, just as the physical Sun’s pulsation of 9 is the astonishingly precise miracle of the cosmic harmony.

The experience of Being and Becoming reaches new heights as the improvisation begins and gains increasing momentum and the creative process touches peaks of ecstasy. The embellishments on the original raga gain complexity and richness in seeking new modes to express the raga’s passionate desire to please the Sun-Lord, to give expression to the fullness of his Silence, to manifest, to materialise this IS-ness.

The raga is the means to materialise or give body to that eternal Silence which never ceases to BE and is impetuous in its insistency, in its inescapable eternity.

The power of the manifestation increases, the pulsations of the various bodies, taking their original beat from the Sun-Drone, display as well a multiple complexity of experience. The various patterns the tabla player executes are taken from the cosmic interplay of pulsations – the Suns’ pulse embracing the Earth’s, as one such rhythm, and the Earth’s coloured by her position in this orbital dance, in this miracle of interrelation and supreme Harmony.

 

The greatness of the Indian musical genius lies in the invention of the background drone of the sruti. For how else to convey the most essential feature of the cosmic truth? How else to convey the underlying premise of unity pervading all Indian philosophical thought and wisdom and consequent cultural expression? How else to convey the role of the Sun, the OM of our system, the Zero of number-power? How else to give sound-form to the Silence?

And, as could be expected, it is this relentless, impertinent, inescapable drone or the unceasing vibrations of the strings of the tamboura which most disturb the westerner as he listens to a performance of Indian music. It appears to be a senseless ‘noise’ and totally useless to the overall composition – as it the musicians required this note to tune their instruments at the beginning of the performance but then forgot to turn it off! Yet we must marvel at the audacity of those ancient sages in their total unconcern for the disapproval or lamentations of the uninitiated and their boldness in giving rise to the formidable edifice of the music of ancient Bharat on the foundations of the cosmic truth…

 

‘…India’s nature, her mission, the work that she has to do, her part in the Earth’s destiny, the peculiar power for which she stands is written there in her past history and is the secret purpose behind her present sufferings and ordeal. A reshaping of the forms of our spirit will have to take place; but it is the spirit itself behind past forms that we have to disengage and preserve and to give to it new and powerful thought-significances, culture values, a new instrumentation, greater figures. And so long as we recognise these essential things and are faithful to their spirit, it will not hurt us to make even the most drastic mental or physical adaptations and the most extreme cultural and social changes. But these changes themselves must be cast in the spirit and mould of India and not any other, not in the spirit of America or Europe, not in the mould of Japan or Russia. We must recognise the great gulf between what we are and what we may and ought to strive to be. But this we must do not in any spirit of discouragement or denial of ourselves and the truth of our spirit, but in order to measure the advance we have to make. For we have to find its true lines and to find in ourselves the aspiration and inspiration, the fire and the force to conceive them and to execute…’

‘The Foundations of Indian Culture’, CE, Volume 14, page 35

 

*

 

The point is this: We live in a time of compelling change. We are in a period of great transition. We are experiencing a formidable expansion in consciousness, similar to the newly-expanded vistas of our solar system. This enlargement MUST find its expression in all areas of our existence. Above all, in all our cultural manifestations.

India too must live this expansion and follow the thrust of the time-spirit, open herself to change and allow her creative genius to uncover these wider horizons. But unlike the West, India’s foundation is the eternal truth, the sanatan dharma. Drawing from that source she must experience increase, poised on that edifice of truth she must reach new plateaux.

If we take these comparative observations of western and eastern trends in music as indications of decay and decadence, or else stagnation and inertia, we are missing the point. What we are discussing is CHANGE and the possibility of an unshakable stability upholding change. This is the message India’s classical composition offers. Change and stability, waves of sound arising from an everpresent [ever-present?] Silence, facets of a simultaneous reality, the one not denying but rather enriching the other. And this is the cosmic Truth, the cosmic Harmony this musical genius creates with impeccable dedication and faithfulness. This creative thrust will uncover new dimensions of that Harmony which so profoundly inspired the sages of old who first formulated this extraordinary expression of objective art, perhaps the only such expression in music still securely and vibrantly preserved in the world today.

 

‘A fiery dancer awakens

to the beat of a rhythmic breath

heaving through density of matter.

In a frenzy to please

she writhes and twists around her lord,

enveloping him in the flames of love’s dance.

Sucked into the profundities of her secret self,

he plays his love song on a golden flute.

A breath in rise and fall kindles the flame,

and aflamed the torch reels

through Time’s endless vault.’

 

(PNB, Gstaad, August 197l)

 

 

 

 

 

Skambha,  August 1989

 

(to be continued)

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