Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Ambience of Mind: Music and Meditation

Tony Scott's Music for Zen Meditation. (Verve Records, 1964)


“We ought to listen to music or sit and practice breathing at the beginning of every meeting or discussion.” – Thich Nhat Hanh,Vietnamese Zen Master and music lover (Plum Village Records).

What kind of music, if any at all, serves the environmental purpose of establishing the equilibrium sought after by all meditators? Some teachers would suggest that music is in itself a distraction, and perhaps it is, but it’s one which I’ve always felt formed a core place in my own longtime practice. Mine is a kind of beat hybrid of Zen and Dzogchen, and I’ve long used sound as an ideal accompaniment to concentration on the breath, which is in itself a kind of reverberating music created by our own lungs. Putting on a piece of music in order to facilitate meditation also provides me with a set formality and a ritual pattern, within which one can briefly forget all limits.

Rather than calling it meditation music, however, composed or performed to aid in meditation or prayer in a literal religious or spiritual sense, I prefer calling it meditative music, almost as if it’s the music itself which is doing the meditating, through us. The approach of certain modern composers using meditational techniques in their creative practice, with or without application to or focus upon specific religious content, has long been recognized. Many notable examples have also combined concepts, meditation and music in their artistic work. 

Among the best-known of such practitioners might be John Cage, also a Zen adept, as well as Stuart Dempster, Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, R. Murray Schafer and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Cage, in fact, has even described his works themselves as meditations that measure the passing of time, and Stockhausen has employed the attractive term intuitive music to characterize his orchestral direction that performers only play notes when they are not thinking about their playing.

Some music, such as that produced by American jazz clarinetist Tony Scott, an innovative meditator whose breath created a groundbreaking 1964 record album called Music for Zen Meditation (considered by many to be the very first new age recording), take a powerfully intercultural approach to finding a sonic balance between East and West. His album featured his own improvisations on clarinet in conversation with master koto and shakuhachi musicians from Japan. The results were just as liberating as they were imaginative, and they still feel surprisingly fresh today, since they do indeed eliminate multiple limits, inside and out.

Brian Eno's Discreet Music. (EG Records, 1975)

But it was the initial solo excursions of British composer Brian Eno eleven years later in his release of Discreet Music that opened the door to a unique realm officially known as ambient music, a designation that for me best captures the essence of what meditative music might actually be and mean. Ironically, this territory was also explored even earlier by the French iconoclast Erik Satie during the last years of the 19th century, with his majestically simple pieces that he termed furniture music, a stylistic device which suggests music that is simply part of the room in which it is being played, just like a chair or a table.

Oddly enough, Eno’s concept of discreet sounds came about as a result of an accident, when he was recuperating in a hospital from an injury and a friend brought in a turntable to play music in his room but then left the musician in bed without realizing that the volume was turned down remarkably low. Eno had something of a transformative experience when he continued listening to Pachelbel’s Canon at a barely audible level, which also permitted him to absorb all of the other ambient sounds in his room and on the street outside, in what I’m daring to call a moment of sonic satori.

Three years later he more consciously and intentionally explored the same ethereal realm he had stumbled into with his groundbreaking meditative composition entitled Ambient 1: Music For Airports, a gentle bath of soft and drifting sounds which appears to loop and overlap back and forth into and out of itself in a most mesmerizing manner. I can certainly personally testify that meditating (not to it or with it, but in it) provides access to a breathtaking (pun intended) zone of cognitive freedom which one can only characterize as dreaming with our eyes open.

A recent CD release of largely solo piano music struck me as being sonically pristine in exactly the same way, albeit from an entirely different angle of approach, and its own merger between East and West immediately offered a reflective entrance into that familiar yet foreign place for me. Not so much music for meditation as it is music as meditation, it affords a complex contemplative experience in a hauntingly simple setting: a woman sitting at a piano, whose breath seemingly comes in and out of her agile fingertips. Those of us who embrace the meditative qualities inherent in all the finest music can all celebrate this new double-CD release from Kairos with Japanese pianist Yoshiko Shimizu playing George Crumb’s Makrokosmos, Volume I, Volume II and Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III) accompanied by Austrian percussionist Rupert Struber.

Kairos Records, 2018.

Crumb’s Makrokosmos sequence is filled with references to the religious history of humankind: archetypal myths, Gnostic Christianity, Buddhist dharma, nature-based paganism and even a subtle occultism all find a sheltered home in his shimmering compositions. What Bartók was to European music, a recapitulation of classical values in the context of a modernist ethos, so too Crumb is a re-ordering of modernist myths within a stringently archaic drama. Like that other serious Buddhist musical modernist, his contemporary and peer John Cage (though without Cage’s formal avowal of Zen), Crumb also takes silence as the origin and starting point for all sound.

From the moment one places the Crumb CD in its chamber and hits play, it strikes me there is very little else to do but to meditate, in whatever shape or form you might choose to define it. His music takes over the space and time in which you hear it in a manner that Satie would have adored: it’s there but then again it isn’t. It’s everywhere. And Yoshiko Shimizu manages to extract a here-and-now-ness, the wow of a very long now, from the cadence and cascade the Crumb invites us to experience. Indeed, it is a meditative musical now, one that measures, as Cage put it, the passing of time.

More recently, the encouraging intersections among the pop music, electronic, synth and world music categories have produced a new wave of meditative music which further eliminates boundaries between discernible and limiting genres. Among this fresh crop of experimenters with the edges of awareness, those who literally embody a kind of stylistic transcendence, have been artists as diverse as Robert Fripp and Harold Budd (both early collaborators with Brian Eno), with Budd’s shimmering sounds found on After the Night Falls (2007) with Robin Guthrie; as well as Fripp’s excursions with fellow ambient master Theo Travis on their perfectly titled The Silence Beneath (2008).

Many readers and listeners may recall the haunting reverberation in The Cocteau Twins, a band which founder Simon Raymonde followed up with his own independent echo trances paired with Stephanie Dosen in their Snowbird outings in 2014. For me, one of the most gifted sonic meditators over the years has been the post-pop incarnations of David Sylvian, ex-Japan alumnus, and his magical partnerships with Holger Czukay and others, such as the excellent environments he created with Franz Wright and Christian Fennesz on their exquisite album There’s a Light That Enters Houses with No Other Houses in Sight. Equally rewarding was the remarkably ethereal duo-band Dead Can Dance, who reformed to release Anastasis (2012) and Dionysus (2018).

Winter & Winter, 2020.

Thus the historic experimentation with hybrid styles and inspiring ethos which commenced so long ago with Tony Scott continues unabated today and it promises to provide ample opportunities for meditators to turn off their minds, relax and float downstream in the future. A new album I recently had the pleasure of receiving from the Winter & Winter label is another prime example of contemplative spaces, occurring in the realm of time, which arrests the flow of thoughts long enough to witness the gaps in between them, which is, of course, the whole objective of meditation in the first place. Masako Ohta’s recording called My Japanese Heart offers a fine menu of mental vacations which take up residence in the sublime durations composed by such masters as Toshio Hosokawa, Toru Takemistsu, Michio Miyagi, Kengyo Yoshizawa, Kiyoshige Koyama and Fumio Koyama. Her deft touch in gently delivering these evocative sound poems permits an open space to expand before us in a vast vista which is only limited by our own thought processes.

On another wavelength entirely, but in a temporal zone of similar vibrations, is the recent release by the Lynn Cassiers Band, which may provide some surprises for those meditators who have fixed views about either silence or sedation in their soundscapes.  Entitled YUN, a Mandarin word meaning “cloud,” it is an extended experiment in experimenting with a hybrid mix of East and West which reminds us that in dreams there is no such thing as a map. The geography of the imagination which the Belgian-based vocalist travels with her gifted band of electro-acoustic jazz players is a re-examination of the outer horizons of what the word “jazz” can mean. In that sense, she comes full circle from the American jazz sax player Tony Scott’s first mid-60’s venture into gently erasing the lines between Eastern and Western harmonies and rhythms.

It is precisely as a movie soundtrack of the inner cosmos that the effective use of music as a contemplative tool allows us to view with our ears. This is meditational equipose requiring of both its performer and listener the utmost attention to attention, which is surely the whole objective of our meditation practice. I would affirm that all music, and especially the kind as conducive to meditation as the recent music of Crumb recorded by Shimizu, of Takemitsu recorded by Ohta, and most especially surprisingly, the reincarnated jazz standards newly embodied by Cassiers, is actually a kind of frozen time anyway, one which melts in our minds. This is music that detaches us from over-thinking, yet also reconnects us to our lived-in haptic life itself, which can be so similar to a musical instrument when handled properly.

As that great accidental Buddhist Albert Einstein put it so succinctly and so well: “Life is like a piano, what you get out of it depends on how you play it.” Those of us  in dire need of a rest from our trying times need only to dim the lights, then pick up and play these new CD’s by Shimizu, Ohta and Cassiers in order to get a real sense of just what Uncle Albert was getting at.

 Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book is Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. His new book, Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, is forthcoming from Backbeat Books in 2020.

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