Ravi Shankar photo by Mark Goff
John Coltrane photo by Hugo van Gelderen / Anefo (Nationaal Archief NL)
By Lloyd Petersen
The vast complexity and depth of music is such that it is arguably the only common language that exists between all people and cultures, yet it may also be the only art form that has the ability to communicate spiritually. But what exactly is spirituality in music? The question may not be much different than, what is jazz? As soon as you identify a definition, you have placed shackles on the artistic and creative possibilities of your own experience.
There is an ancient African belief that music is the bridge between the physical world and the world of the spirits, a reality where music has the power to transcend us to a spiritual realm where it can reach the deepest part of our inner being.
In Sufism, there is a wisdom that all forms of nature; the creatures, plants and forests along with the planets and stars are all moving and breathing together in harmony. Even the inhaling and exhaling of breath is in rhythm, including the pulse of our hearts and the flow of the blood that pumps within us. All of life and nature moves and breathes together in harmony. And at the heart of this wisdom is the conviction that “music” connects all of life to creation.
The Sufi philosopher and musician Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927) once wrote: “Among all the different arts, the art of music has been especially considered divine, because it is the exact miniature of the law working through the whole universe. Music touches the deepest part of a person’s being. It reaches further than any other impression from the external world can reach. The beauty of music is that it is the source of creation and the means of absorbing it.”
After interviewing over 100 musicians, I have found that with those who create spiritually, there is an inherent passion to reach higher levels of truth and consciousness; a doorway that leads to the harmony of one’s soul transcending dimensions of time and space.
Many of these artists meditate in order to try and create from that place when we are first born, before we are filled with the pain and scars of life’s struggle. Think of a baby’s first smile, the sense of wonder in the eyes of everything it sees and discovers for the very first time; a place of purity, beauty and peace.
In my conversation with David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet, he explained that his most important music lesson was with the late Nadia Boulanger and this one lesson lasted for eight hours. However, the entire lesson was on just “one note.”
As Boulanger explains: “You must give each note life, your life. You must sacrifice; you must learn to give yourself to music. Then you will make it live. Then you will be able to make other people understand music.”
A note is born and begins to fight for its life, in the realm of silence…. its later life very much informed by the nurturing received earlier in life. It begins to age and soon fades into silence. But if sound is energy and energy has a spiritual existence, does that note ever die outside the limitations of the human ear?
Regardless, many concentrate on playing pieces of music but for a few… each note IS the piece of music.
Being able to play at this level is a journey of discovery that Boulanger refers to as being able to “feel from the brain and think from the heart.” It’s being able to find the right questions that lead to even deeper questions and realms of existence in which to create.
Moreover, these are also artists who waste very few notes and those they express are driven with courage, integrity and are brutally and intensely concise. There are no grey areas. But importantly, it is also the ability to express a much broader range of emotions. Many can express sadness and joy but the human experience cannot be defined through several emotions.
Likewise, creating at this level is also about listening. The mind will resist anything it is not familiar with, including music, so it requires a concerted effort with the same desire for learning and discovery. Thus, listening from your ears is not enough nor is listening from your heart; one must listen from every pore of your flesh, from your entire being in order to capture the true essence and wisdom of music.
In India, where music improvisation has a 2,000 year history, musicians seem to have greater wisdom of how to enter this spiritual realm and create from the energy flow of the universe. The late Ravi Shankar stated: “The highest form in music is spirituality….the effect it can have on our thoughts, our emotions, our subconscious, and even our physical well-being — can be quite profound.”
But what is it about music that allows it to touch the deepest part of our soul?
For John Coltrane, music was an offering to God but the power and spirituality of his music was such that it transcended any doctrine or religion. It was a complete portrayal of his wisdom and inner spirituality. And it’s certainly not a coincidence that he named his son after Ravi Shankar.
In a brief exchange with Karlheinz Stockhausen a month before he passed away, he stated that he could not understand why more were not studying the spiritual relationship that existed between the planets in our solar system. According to Stockhausen, many of his compositions were based upon this spiritual existence between the planets, which seemed so obvious to him.
In the end, spirituality in music is a journey of discovery and a very personal one that can inspire the deepest levels of love, beauty, and the divine nature of the human spirit. Every note that the artist gives life is a mirror into the human soul that creates a bridge to our artistic and spiritual realm of existence. It is crucial.