Toward a Western Raga - II
Silence and Sounding, Emptiness and Fullness
Before we jump into the “thinginess” of a Western raga, we would do well to try to encounter the substance, the essence of Indian raga, what its suchness is. I say this because I believe that in the end an “Western raga” is going to be an American or Western flavored incarnation of “raga-ness”. And you'll note that I have shifted to the term "Western", instead of the more parochial "American", raga.
I titled this particular essay “silence and sounding” because as we become mindful of the world of Indian raga, we quickly notice that raga is always emerging from silence, but also that in the Indian view silence is not just emptiness or non-sounding but the universal matrix of creation, the result of the vast “OM” by which the universe has come to be and through which it continues to be sung into existence. The actual beginning of an Indian concert is: darkness in a space set aside for the concert, a spotlit central area, the smell of incense (universal expression of prayer), the gathering then stirring and gradual quietening of the “audience”, the artists’ “Namaste” (acknowledging the presence of God in everyone and everything present), fine-tuning the instruments, and then the drone of the tanbura. When did the concert begin? Perhaps when you first heard it was going to happen and started to anticipate going….
It is almost negligible, a thing easily overlooked, this mindful attention to setting. But its importance cannot be stressed too much. When the concert begins with the first “formless” improvisation without rhythmic pulse, the “ALAP”, it is clear that we are in new uncharted territory. I think many Westerners are initially uncomfortable with this great opening out into silence, with the long stretches of time as the musician begins to savor each not, every interval, and enters the unique psychic landscape of the RAGA. Where is this going? When will it start? Is he ever going to go on to the next note? Where is the tune?…. It is time to learn to savor the music, drink it deep, note by note, let it enter you as you enter it.
The silence is the setting for the notes; the notes are what the silence hoped for, conceived, gave birth to….
When poet Gary Snyder worked on ocean-going freighters, a fellow seaman once started bitching about the length of the trip. Snyder’s response was, “It’s not a long trip; you’ve just got a short mind.” The first lesson of the RAGA is that the journey contains the goal: it is the being here now, becoming totally involved with the RAGA in a relationship that is not “equivalent to” but in fact IS an actual relating to a living being. That’s right: Indian artists become so involved in the love relationship with the raga (each associated with particular gods, with certain emotions, with seasons and time of day) that in the words of one vocalist it “becomes everything; it is everywhere.” And this relationship arises as a new thing, therefore out of “darkness” and emerging from silence.
Since this is an encounter of living beings, it rests on the flow of breath. If I had to identify the single biggest failing or blind spot in the play of musicians generally, I would have to say that it is a lack of breathing and of space and silence. I often actually feel breathless when listening to some guitarists: there is no let up, no space to breathe, no time to ponder or appreciate. Also, this has nothing to do with the sheer number of notes per second, but everything to do with being open to the depths of the mystery of being. Anyone who meditates quickly learns that thoughts need not disturb the silent communion one is engaged in. Living beings are breathing beings: breathe in, breathe out. The rhythm of nature. Play a note, listen to the note. The silence around the note allows its mystery to expand and be perceived; paying attention to that silence will guide you to where that note wants to go, to what its partner is, to what the responses to it may be called forth from one’s own depths….
Silence and emptiness in music may be like the dark matter that constitutes the majority of the matter in the universe. Both Jung and the Hindu saint Ramakrishna compared consciousness itself to the lotus that arises out of the dark muck of the deep of the lake floor, which travels then up through the sea of the unconscious, and which then emerges on the surface: our conscious experience like a Zen cork bobbing on the swells of the deep ocean.
My first classical guitar instructor, Fred Gibson, had a saying that became an anthem for me, representing the true path of the guitarist: “You can play as well as you can hear.” Everything depends on listening, and if you want to hear truly deeply, you must hear with your entire being. When I first heard a raga performed by Ali Akbar Khan, it felt like the voice of the sarod was emerging up out of my own vocal chords, so intimate and true as the experience.
Earlier I said that silence is not a question of the number of notes being played or not.
There is silence and breath that can be found in drone notes.
There can be relaxation and open space in the midst of a run of notes as well as in the temporary surcease of notes.
There is a silence and space for breathing and recollection of a kind found in repetition.
There is a sense of silence and space the musician can create through dynamics: “filler notes” and “inside voices” can be played softly. There is a noticeable lack of dynamics in the playing of many acoustic steel string guitarists today, and it’s unfortunate.
Here is a great quote from the book “Brush Mind” by Kazuaki Tanahashi:
“A painting without negative space is like music without silence. For music to have intensity, the silent part must be done well: a still moment can be the highlight of a performance.”
This is a quality of breathing that is difficult to put into words but which we can immediately recognize when we pay attention.
“We cannot create space. When we try to make it, it is dead. But without our effort it does not appear. When we let it come, it is alive.”
For the guitarist, breathing is something that has to be consciously incorporated into your playing. Performance anxiety has two very destructive side effects: unconsciously speeding up and the tendency to hold one’s breath. There are very concrete things you can do (in addition to just “remembering to breathe” as my classical instructor would admonish) to increase this quality.
One is simply to sing everything you play, even (maybe especially) the short technical exercises. Do this until you feel that your fingers are literally expressing your own voice.
The rhythm of Call- and- Response is one that builds space into music, as it resonates with the rhythms of breathing.
Another excellent practice I recommend derives from the jazz practice of “trading eights” (or “fours” or “twos”). This is when two musicians jam and alternate, each playing eight measures (or four or two) and then laying off while the other responds with his/her own eight.
If you are practicing with small motifs (I will speak of this in another essay), observe this rhythm of trading off: for example, a two-bar phrase followed by a two-bar silence (keeping the drone going).
These and other practices will not only restore breath and space to your music, but will also begin to bring shape and interest to your explorations, a living breathing shape that keys into your listeners’ own living rhythms.
There is also a very fertile ground of silence and space found in rhythm itself. As a soloist, I am often performing without the benefit of an accompanying percussionist. To remedy this, one has the audience’s own participation of active listening to rely on. After establishing a clear and strong rhythm, one starts leaving out notes and begins to syncopate against the beats that would be played by the drummer. This is a very satisfying practice for both performer and listener, as it heightens the sense of participation and the sheer joy of the rhythm.
If you have not gathered by now, I think of silence and space and breathing as the darkness out of which life emerges, and the true way of the guitarist is the “no way” of letting the silence sing. The darkness is the true source of fullness and energy and life. Darkness symbolizes the end of “minding”, replacing it with mindfulness: our light is darkness to God, and vice versa. Welcome the silence and enter its home.
As Tanahashi says, “Let the brush see it.”
For the guitarist, “Let your fingers sing it.”