A Documentary film presented entirely without words, Baraka was directed by Ron Fricke and produced by Mark Magidson, in 1992. The lack of narrative in itself is likely something that would turn many people away from wanting to watch the film in its entirety, as they may pre-conceive that it would not hold their attention at all. On the contrary, the film is spellbinding and delivers a very clear message. The Trailer is preceded only by the words, "A challenge, a gift, a warning, a blessing".
Shot entirely on 70mm film, this in itself is unusual, in that 1992 was well past the decline in the use of this media. The production has become so important, that Fricke's work is mentioned in the Wikipedia definition of 70mm film. The subsequent film Samsara, by Fricke and Magidson was also filmed using 70mm. This aspect of the production, along with no narrative, the stunning visual footage, and the music it is paired with, have made the films a topic of philosophical discussion for many years since.
Much of the music is composed by Michael Stearns, with other contributions from Inkuyo Ensemble, the band 'Dead Can Dance', an alternative music group from Australia, composer David Hykes, a pioneer of overtone singing, and Dr. Lakshminamayana Subramanian, whose album Global Fusion brought widespread critical acclaim.
While some may argue about what the message actually is, it is immediately transparent in that it is meant to be contemplative, covering the innocence of our world, its orient beauty and the desire of mankind for peace and harmony, then delivering stark contrasts that awaken us to the horrors of mechanization, commercialization and consumerism, pollution, and the ultimate disregard that humans have for mother earth, and for each other, in conveying the atrocities of war to our eyes and hearts.
What soul could not be moved by this combination of music and images? Clearly it would be one who does not have sympathy, empathy, or any sense of compassion. Perhaps it is one who can listen, but does not hear, or who can see, yet chooses not to. Are we indeed awakened? It seems that the ratio of those who are awakened versus those who are oblivious would result in very polar numbers.
The film begins with the meditative music of the flute and drums, primeval sounds from some of the earliest known instruments. The haunting qualities of these sounds are paired with images of jagged mountain peaks, massive and cold, evoking both feelings of incredible isolation and yet awe for the huge creations that the earth herself has heaved up. A monastery sits precariously on the side of a cliff, and the viewer knows that its position in the world is purposefully there, in order for the monks to find peace, unity with the earth, and closeness to (their) God.
The overall effect is to make one feel quite small and insignificant, even as we are a part of nature itself, we are here for a mere microsecond of time, compared to these monoliths that have already been in existence for an eternity, and will last eternities more. The speck that we are on this blue planet, and the increment of time in which we will exist, could likely be compounded millions of times before we can comprehend our place in the Universe, if envisioned similarly to the repeating patterns of nature found in fractals, as they divide and replicate. We are chaos and we are order, and we know not why, but it must be this way.
The musical drone makes us want to close our eyes, to fully explore the continuity of the sound equating to the constance of life, but we cannot, because we want to see the next image, and watch the unspoken story unfold. The drone, or an Om hum, has been a foundational aspect to human expression since the earliest vocal sounds were made, and became more prevalent with the advent of Gregorian Chanting. It seems to reflect the underlying vibration of the world and of the mind, using the tonic of the scale that is being used, (in some cultures, the scales can have more than just 12 pitches, so this becomes more interesting to listen to and perhaps adds more mystery.) and it can evoke a feeling of being grounded or connected to one another, and to the earth.
Our desire for peace has been in existence since the dawn of time. Even animals desire peace and harmony, and most certainly they are examples of the duality of beauty and ferocity that nature can create. This was evident in the footage of the Japanese Snow Monkeys, soaking in the hot springs. They know that this is a soothing, peaceful, and relaxing environment, and they gravitate to it, quietly sitting and enjoying the heat and healing qualities of the water. There is more than a glimmer of intelligence in those eyes. In this place, they do not need to compete for the attraction of the opposite sex, or vie for dominance in their tribe.
For a moment we are shown the stars spinning in the cosmos, a reminder of the passage of time and again of our size. Taken back to the Snow Monkey, we are reminded that stillness, and even nothingness is something to strive for, because we have surely forgotten how to do this.
We are taken from the isolated peaks to the essence of today's civilization, busy streets humming with activity, and then through an array of rituals, seemingly performed by every Eastern and Mystic Religion. The visual spectacle of the rituals is rich with vibrant colours, textures, and rhythm, beating out our hearts' desires, pulsing and gyrating, swirling, swaying, and staring, expressionless and unblinking, suspending heartbeats in a meditative state. Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, the Sufi Order of Islam, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodoxy, Hasidic Jews, and more, all seeking the same thing, Nirvana, peace, truth, love, serenity, and awakening. The rituals are brought to life even today, with some of the most basic forms of music and chanting.
As the music intensifies with a more pulsing rhythm, the viewer is transported through rice paddies, past ancient ruins and intricate buildings and monuments. A tribal chanting interrupts this, with video of waving arms, undulating fingers, all in perfect unison, an organized pattern that has been passed down for aeons. Are they warding off evil spirits, or possibly inviting a good spirit to bestow her blessings upon them, or are they praying for food, or good weather? Western eyes would view these rituals as pagan or heathen, regarding their manner of dress and body art to be primitive, and then judging them as to have little intelligence, when in fact the opposite is more likely true ~ they have a greater gift than we do, because they have found how to live in harmony and to work together to create their own 'world', full of love and compassion, and they do so without the benefits of technology and modern medicine. We should be envious.
Intermixed with images of volcanos erupting, the grandeur of the world's deserts and rock formations, clouds moving by in time lapse, and a full solar eclipse, murmurations of birds, and thundering waterfalls, we are again reminded of the vastness and ferocity of our planet, the untamed and even the uncharted; the symphonic chords take us again to creatures basking in the sun, and they look seemingly wiser than any of us. The Director uses both slow motion and fast motion film to stir our emotions or to lull us into dreamy surroundings.
Suddenly, our reverie is broken, by a chainsaw, followed by a massive tree falling, and taking others with it in the process. Mines are blown open with explosives, the raw earth torn apart. Our eyes next must endure flooded plains and devastation caused by man, and then, extreme poverty, dwellings cobbled together out of any available materials, built on top of one another; panning past huge apartment complexes that are all slums, and we see quiet expressions, the blank, hungry eyes of those who don't know that they will never know anything else, other than this. Yet it is evident that in even the poorest of circumstances, the human spirit is such that it can derive happiness still.
The music becomes repetitive and more disturbing at this point, building in its intensity. Fricke's selection of imagery drives home the condition that our greed has created, laying bare the sweat shops and automation; the sexing and rough treatment of tiny, helpless chickens is painful to watch even for a meat-eater, and must be even more so for a vegetarian or vegan. New York whizzes by, chaos on the streets and yet somehow there is an inherent hierarchy. We go back to an assembly line, watching the workers repeat their tasks endlessly. They do it because they MUST, because it is all that is available to them, and we know that they are being used, and taken advantage of, and not paid a fair living wage, and we are still ungrateful for the things that we have, because of their labour. Most white collar viewers must ask themselves at this point, “How can they do this work? Where is the gratification in it?” We forget that they do not have a choice, it is for their survival, and it is all because of the lot they were cast ~ where they were born, and to whom, what Caste, what village, what country.
At some point in this frenzy, the music becomes unbearable. It is still music, but more akin to 'noise' in that its repetition and pitch, and choice of instruments make it unpleasant to hear. One must contemplate now, that perhaps without seeing the distressing images at the same time, we could tolerate this music, but paired together, our hearts and minds are churning in response. The artist is pointing out how blind we really are, en masse; how entitled we have become, how avaricious.
After we are subjected to this onslaught as a reminder of the sad state of the world, we are then seized by images of military might and power, matched by ritual pipes and drums, the armies of the world, and we are made to view the atrocities that this world has endured, since the dawn of man. The barbarity of mankind existed long before mechanization; it was always there, since the time the first tribe crossed the mountain path and coveted what another tribe had, or decided that their religion or their God was superior and thereby tried to assimilate. The history of war cannot be shown in mere minutes of a film or described properly in one essay, but the author of this film deftly takes us into hell and again, reminds us that this is of all of our doing.
In watching this film a second time, I chose to watch it in its entirety and not take notes at the same time. The first time I wanted to capture detail and make observations. The second time, I wanted to be fully absorbed in the experience. I listened more to the sounds and the music this second time, paying closer attention to some of the rhythms I was hearing ~ feeling them and trying to imitate them. I listened for the silences. I allowed the sounds to wash over me and to feel the vibrations and I was again reminded of the resilience of the human spirit. I was reminded though, that in our world we desire balance, and in this film the stark contrasts between the ‘haves and have-nots’ struck a different chord with me on the second viewing. It’s not balanced, our world, in fact, it is very highly imbalanced. There is more chaos, more pain, and more suffering, more poverty, than there is order, joyfulness, peace, or wealth in our world. I did not need to look up any statistics to know inherently that this is the message that the film wants to state.
While I am still enthralled by the film’s conveyance of the beauty of our world, I remain horrified by what we have done with it, and with ourselves. It is disturbing and eye opening all at once, even to those of us who have traveled, and seen Third World Countries, seen the slums. I am grateful though, that in addition to having seen and experienced these things first hand, I have also been fortunate to breathe in the astounding beauty of many of the world’s wonders, to step into Cathedrals, ancient Temples and Markets, and Monasteries high atop the rocks in Meteora. I believe that travel is a way to enlightenment, and even though I write a decent Blog and take some nice photos, I could not have captured my travels in the same way that Fricke and his team have done. The film’s direct effect on me was to cause deep reflection on the pain and suffering in the world and to wonder what I can do about it. I know that music is a uniting force, and I am so glad that I have chosen it to be a vehicle in which I can express myself; perhaps I can help in a small way.
We are a dichotomy in ourselves. We want peace, yet we are constantly at war. Most viewers would likely prefer to return to the beginning of the film, to experience the peace, the beauty, singularity of the sounds, than to be reminded of what we have become. Fricke's film serves to humble our arrogant 21st Century selves, without even uttering a word.
Photo taken in 2005 ~ a trip to India in which I was able to capture a lovely snapshot of this woman with her child, not far from one of the shantytowns. They had nothing with them, save the tin jug, and carpet , yet I saw this beautiful interaction between mother & child, under a make-shift canopy, in 104 degree heat…with garbage flying by.
“In which Pooh and Piglet discover that there are more time signatures than just Simple Duple, Simple Triple, and Simple Quadruple time.”
Compound Time! Divisive Rhythms! Palindromes! And more!
Now, in Compound time, the two numbers that we have always known will tell us the number of beats in the bar, and which note gets a beat, don’t mean anything! No, that’s not exactly true. Here’s a little breakdown of what I understand Compound Time really is, and how it works.
First of all, Simple Time Signatures have a top number that is either equal to 3 or can be divided by 2. By contrast, Compound Time is when the top number is greater than 3 and can be divided by 3. That is very helpful! Secondly, the beat is usually denoted with a dotted quarter note. I then found myself asking what the bottom number meant… it now really refers to the Pulses you’ll feel. When it’s an 8 for instance, this makes sense, because if we are feeling the rhythm in 3’s, there are three 8th notes in a dotted quarter!
I love it when the little light comes on. So, Divisive Rhythms are Simple and Compound in nature ~ they can be ‘DIVIDED’ by a certain methodology. I know now, that in identifying Compound Time and working with it, we will most often find rhythms and notes appearing in groups of 3.
Here’s a great little rundown that explains everything very clearly:
Last week I mentioned Compound Time and how much more fun it seems to be. The fun doesn’t stop there!
In addition to exploring Compound Time very thoroughly over our next few Theory Classes, Musicianship Workshops, and listening to examples in our Music and Cultures class, we are also learning about Palindromes, which are patterns in music that mirror themselves ~ they are the same rhythm going forward as it is going backwards. I get this ~ it’s like an Autocad image that we mirror! Or, like the word RADAR, which is also called a Palindrome. [And you thought music was just a bunch of random notes put together that sound pretty.] There are actually some very famous compositions that base themselves on the Palindrome idea. A ‘Crab Canon’ is one type of Palindrome, wherein the music is reversed and also transposed. A Retrograde is when the music is simply reversed, without being transposed. Have a listen to a tutorial on Bach’s ‘Musical Offering’ to hear what a Crab Canon sounds like. Now listen to the actual piece, performed with Baroque instruments. How delightful!
Rhythm, again to state the obvious, is the essence of life. As soon as a heart cell first divides, it has a pulse, and each divided cell after that follows this pulse, and it ultimately grows into a heart, our basal rhythm. We want rhythm in our world, we are drawn to it, it makes us feel alive. I was overjoyed in a Musicianship class last week that has us beating out patterns written by fellow students, using a Kete Bell and drums…when I got the rhythm and it took hold, I did not want to stop, and the grin on my face was the biggest ever! We each got a turn to present our work to the class and put it all together.
The Kete Bell or Gankoqui bells are of African descent, and are interesting because they provide two sounds, which are used at different intervals, to identify a strong and a weak pulse.
In examining the roots of Rhythm, West Africa has all the answers. Quite often, bell patterns are divisive rhythms, however, they are also sometimes felt in an ADDITIVE rhythmic form. This means that another beat pattern is added to the original one, you get a more complex rhythm. We experimented in class by speaking them out loud in two groups, with a Ta Ka Di Mi approach and ended up with a 7 beat rhythm on top, with an implied beat of 5 under it. The ‘Takadimi’ method helps us to find the pulse because of its pronunciation and it is easy to find where the stress is. Here is the 7 over 5 Rhythm.
Ta Ka Ta Ta Ka Di Mi Ta Ka Ta Ta Ka Di Mi Ta Ka Ta Ta Ka Di Mi..
Ta Ka Ta Ka Ta Ta Ka Ta Ka Ta Ta Ka Ta Ka Ta Ta Ka Ta Ka Ta..
From African rhythms we ventured NorthEast and to the rhythms of South India, where we learned of a new term, Solkattu, and linked to this is the term Adi Tala. Solkattu refers to
a drumming language, an ‘onomatopoeic’ drum syllable (the Konokol language, an art unto itself) which corresponds to a hand gesture system, and Adi Tala (part of the Tala System) means ‘primary clap’ or ‘primary rhythm’.
Tala literally means to clap or tap. We never think of clapping any differently than the way that we know how, to show appreciation and yes, to keep a beat, however, in this system, we learned that the clapping involves both using palms together, and also,
the back of one hand onto the palm, which creates a lighter sound, and therefore allows variation to be heard within the clapping rhythm. More rhythmic sounds are added with the voice, or with cymbals and bells, and of course, the drum.
Tala and Raga together are the two foundational elements in Indian music.
Here is an example of how the Solkattu rhythmic ‘language’ is derived. It begins with a phrase and a syllable is removed with each iteration. In other examples, syllables are added
back in. Joined with the clapping, it can create some very interesting and complex rhythms:
Ta di toom kitataka terekita toom
di toom kitataka terekita toom
toom kitataka terekita toom
kitataka terekita toom
tataka terekita toom
taka terekita toom
ka terekita toom
We also touched on Chakradhar, which is a concept in Hindi relating to a wheel within a wheel, and also a Hindi musical term, literally meaning “one which lends itself to repetition.” A Chakradhar beat must be 3 or more cycles long. It invariably speeds up as the 3’s become tighter and tighter.
I’m not going to lie, I find this type of beat to be extremely difficult to analyze and confusing to follow, but deeply satisfying.
Here is a link to a YouTube Video where you can hear an example of Chakradhar beat. Perhaps it would be good to get in touch with my own deep rhythms.
We have shifted our focus in our Lectures now, to the next segment, which is Rhythm. I am excited by this and afraid, all at once! I can count the music that I work within, at a pretty good level, but have now been fully pulled out of my comfort zone! To date, my greatest challenge has been to count and properly execute a Hemiola when the piano is doing one thing and the singer must do the other...the old "2 against 3" gets me every time... it wasn't until I figured out that the 2 part must be 'square', that I could actually separate what I was feeling in the rhythm of the piano, from what I must do with my voice. I do remember a particularly difficult entrance in Puccini's 'Gianni Schicchi' wherein the time signature changed 3 times within a four bar span... There is that old brain/music connection again!
I understand simple meters and definitely grasp the time signature standard, in that the top number denotes how many beats to a bar, and the bottom number tells us which note to give the value of 1 beat to. Okay, that sounds pretty easy! I even understand, (and love!) compound meters, what fun! Having recently sung Handel's "Rejoice Greatly" in 12/8 time was a joy ~ it is much more like a dance, almost a jig and quite a lot more fun than the one we hear all the time in 4/4 meter. I get this, I love it, I can do it.
Now, put me into a class where I am suddenly listening to all natures of World Music and ask me to find the meter of a snippet of music that has a complex beat such as a count of 7 or 10...well I can feel the jive and follow along with it but it will take some doing to train my ear to find the actual time signature. Thankfully, there are oodles of practise clips on the moodle for us to test ourselves with.
There are a lot of tips and tricks that we'll learn, I'm sure, as our Professor and TA's will take us through some exercises. I know also, that in order to decipher the meter, it's best to employ a broken down process of finding the slower beat or base beat and clapping to this for a few bars. Next, listen for the drums or percussion, which are a wonderful guide to help us find the stresses, and which are most likely at the beginning of each bar. Finally, the patterns in the melody are helpful too. In fact, once our beat is established, the melody might very well be what solidifies the entire thing. I promise to work at this!
Now the learning curve for me will be much steeper. In under 5 weeks, we are past the Rudiments of Music and beginning to look much more deeply into the complexity of music.
The Prof suggested that we listen to Wagner's Prelude to Tristan und Isolde, which has a lot of tempi or beat changes within in, in terms of the freedom of the meter. Even the points in which it seems to stop can very much change the feeling of the beat. This opera is notable for Wagner's unprecedented use of chromaticism, tonal ambiguity, orchestral colour and harmony suspension. Well, since the only Wagner Opera I've ever sat through was Parsifal, I shall have to tune into this one now. Goodness, where I will find time to listen to a 5 hour opera? I shall have to satisfy myself with the Prelude.
Speaking of Preludes, and why this was mentioned, is that we began our plunge into rhythm by discussing the origins of the Prelude itself. A Prelude is a musical composition that is usually brief, and is played as an introduction to a larger piece. The roots of the Prelude can likely be traced back to musicians who were warming up prior to a performance. The warmup became part of what the audience would obviously hear, so they began to have rhythm and tonality to them as well, so that the audience would have something pleasing to listen to, instead of meaningless noises. Arpeggios are often something that is used during a warmup. The Baroque (1600-1750) and Classical/Romantic (1750-1800) eras were the ones wherein a Prelude became a formal part of a collection of musical numbers.
A pulse or beat is the mainstay of any music, even the music that seems to feel like it has no beat...does surely have a beat. It's really the essence of life itself, found in our heartbeats, our breathing patterns, our walking rhythms. The pulse can be explicit and very obvious, but it can also be 'implied', within the texture of the music. It really is the foundation on which we measure our music. (Hence, our music is divided, mathematically, into bars, also called measures.) The rate at which the pulse moves is the tempo. Andiamo!
Om – We’ve all heard this word and many know exactly what it is, and what its purpose is. Om is a sacred sound, and a spiritual icon in the Hindu religion. It is really only a syllable, but is identified as a mystic syllable, connected to the female divine energy. Our Western World has only recently become interested in what this is all about, and I would say that most are still oblivious to it. (Did you know that we can thank the Beatles for bringing awareness of this to the Western world?) I believe this obliviousness is because we have not made the time to explore it, and what it can do for us. It is said to be the primordial sound associated with the creation of the universe from nothing.
In many Yoga practises, it is used as an utterance at the beginning of a mantra. For those who meditate, Om is hummed and held until the breath is gone, and then hummed again and again, repeated until the individual falls into a meditative state, or trance. The vibration of the humming sound is connected to our own individual human physicality and spirituality ~ we would typically choose an Om pitch to work with just arbitrarily, but it would likely turn out to be close to a perfect 4th above the lowest note we can comfortably sing.
In the Hindi belief system, Om is described as ‘the highest song’ where speech and breath combine and produce music. Wikipedia defines it here:
- Rik (ऋच्, Ṛc) is speech, states the text, and Sāman (सामन्) is breath; they are pairs, and because they have love and desire for each other, speech and breath find themselves together and mate to produce song. The highest song is Om, asserts section 1.1 of Chandogya Upanishad. It is the symbol of awe, of reverence, of threefold knowledge because Adhvaryu invokes it, the Hotr recites it, and Udgatr sings it.
How can a sound take us away, into nothingness, or a state of suspension? What is our brain doing in order for this to happen? Through practise, we can train ourselves to focus, and this is related to our brainwaves and what frequency they are operating on. Meditation allows us to move between frequencies, which activate different centres of the brain. A slower wavelength means that there is more time between thoughts. Eventually, through repeating Om, we can clear our minds of the invasive clutter of our daily word, and focus on the frequency of the sound we are making, and the vibration in our body and soul becomes in tune with it. Ultimately, the creation of the Om sound starts with breath, as opposed to simply humming, we must focus on our breath in order to create and support the sound. This is the basis of how to sing fully and freely, when we are ‘connected with our breath’ and ‘delivering our air’ freely, we are able to produce supported and clear sounds; a true mind/body connection that is the ongoing pursuit to achieve, for all singers. When we become stressed, a method of calming our anxiety is to recognize that we must slow our breathing down, even just to the point of noticing our own breath and its pattern, helps us to relax. A slower breath pattern is innately connected to brain wavelengths slowing down.
Finding our Om is akin to connecting to our own musical aura, another level of the colour that radiates around our souls. After all, colour is a vibration too. Have you heard of Synesthesia? Here is a fascinating article on the subject. It is a rare neurological phenomenon (I’d call it a gift) that allows people to translate what they hear, into colours. Click here to read the article on artist Melissa McCracken.
In our lectures surrounding ‘The Big Picture’ we return often to the question of when language and music became separate. Since Hinduism is considered to be one of the oldest religions in the world, it makes sense that the definition of Om connects the speech and breath and says that combining it produces the ‘highest song’. Now that we can study our brain activity, we are aware that music is processed in one hemisphere of our brain, and speech is processed in another, even while they have many things in common. It makes sense that they also work together and that we can benefit by drawing from both areas of our brain for each function.
In many languages, the tone of what is being said can completely change the meaning of the same word. This is most prevalent in languages such as Mandarin, a very tonal language. Examining further, we know that the stresses in our language can be easily connected to a musical beat. The ‘arcuate fasciculus’ area of our brains is the one that is responsible for language, and how we process sound. Some studies have shown that in 9 out of 10 people who are tone deaf, the arcuate fasciculus could not be found!
I can easily connect the importance of the relationship between words and music. It is the essence of what we are trying to deliver as a singer. Above all of the other efforts, from breath support, to pitch, duration, voice quality, dynamics and more, the way in which we communicate the meaning of the words through our song is of utmost importance. This was driven home to me again just yesterday in my weekly coaching session! (‘You’re doing it, but you can deliver MORE’, was the comment I got from my beloved coach.)
It is of particular importance, then, for a singer who is working in a language that is not their own, for them to understand the words and to convey them as strongly as one would in our own native tongue.
How exciting, to learn other languages, and take them apart, and put them back together again, striving to bring passion to something new to us! Singers must learn the meaning, the phonetic pronunciation and enunciation, and then COLOUR it in.
If you’re not familiar with what a Recitative is, here’s the definition:
1. musical declamation of the kind usual in the narrative and dialogue parts of opera and oratorio, sung in the rhythm of ordinary speech with many words on the same note.
"singing in recitative"
Some singers (myself included) can struggle with this part of the music because it is not as melodic…but the trick to learning a Recitative passage is to first fully translate it, and then SPEAK the words over and over again until you recognize that the stresses in the words are directly related to the stresses in the music. It then flows out of us, a sung speech that delivers a point home, proclaims something new, or brings the audience into our inner thoughts, as an aside or soliloquy might do in theatre. It’s not easy, but once you figure it out, it can be the most exciting part of the piece! Here is one of my favourite Recitatives.
[For my non-singing friends, see if you can tell the difference between the Recitative and the Aria!]
We really are told over and over again that before we sing, we must speak the words, and that singing itself, especially in Italian, must sound as though we are speaking it through our song.
So, the relationship between speech/language and sound/music is kind of like a chicken and egg scenario isn’t it? They are so connected, it is hard to separate them. When we break language down into many parts of a structure, the relationship to sound is apparent in every area. The way we learn speech is by collecting sounds, (assimilating) putting them together, (generating) and then through a mentor, creating our grammar. The Phonetic Alphabet is an alphabet of sounds. The most prevalent way in which we recognize vibrations is through sound, and vibrations are the common thread between sound, colour, and light.
Yet again, we are reminded that after we learn to make a sound, form the word, and find the meaning, that COLOUR is the essence of what must be delivered.
Visit Roel Hollander’s site to explore the relationship of colour and sound, a bit further!
And now I'm off to go meditate. Maybe it will help me figure out how to prioritize my homework!
The first thing out of our Professor’s mouth in lecture this week was that we should write down our dreams. I have tried to do this in the past, as I’ve found them to be complicated, inexplicable, bizarre. I have just now awakened from a nap, squeezed in at the end of my third full week at school… and I awoke after recognizing an REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement) in which I realized that I was seeing music floating past my eyes. I saw perfectly written clefs and notes, sharps and flats.... and the pieces were moving both forward and backward, almost as if they were dancing for me. Sitting up, I also realized with shock, that this is the second time this week that I have had this exact ‘dream’. Now, I’ve looked over a lot of music in my life, but these last three weeks have been an onslaught of seeing it, tapping it out, filling in the blanks, writing painstakingly perfectly on the staff, (my mother, once a music copyist and always a brilliant musician, taught me well without me even knowing it ~ somehow the perfectionism gene has been passed down), and singing beautiful master works with our Baroque choir. The dream must have meant that I needed to get up and do some more homework.
Building more on the theme of the Big Picture, this week’s discussion tread first in the direction of following the ‘bard’ through its evolutionary path, beginning with Shamanism. A Shaman is a powerful community leader that the people would go to with their ailments ~ a healer. They had the ability to enter an otherworldly state, or become entranced, either through intense meditation or perhaps with the use of hallucinogenic drugs, and also with the help of music. A steady drum beat, a humming or chanting would work them into an altered state of consciousness. It was in these trances that they would be enabled to have a vision and somehow derive the answer to a needy person’s question, or find the cure to their condition and then pass it along. Often, before finding a cure, the Shaman him/herself would have to experience all of the symptoms of the illness. The experience can be equated to an almost religious ecstasy. They are not Mythological, but very human, professing to be able to disassociate themselves with the here and now, and even to be able to ‘become’ another creature, by being called by their dreams, into action.
Eventually, Shamanism saw a decline, when Priests became leaders of more communities, and the larger socio-economic needs of these communities demanded better organization and leadership; the belief systems were continually shifting. Many Shamans found themselves without a job…and took to the only thing they knew best, the role of the bard. Storytelling and music making was still a great skill that they had, and that still served to connect the community. Much of their music began with imitating the sounds of nature, another part of our discussion later in the class. Shamanism still exists today, and in many ways it is practised in an effort to reconnect with the earth and our surroundings in a natural way, and to find a spiritual peace in an ever-changing, frantic world. A return to the mystic can bring us to a different place in our minds and spirit.
The Bardic tradition obviously evolved further, and we are more familiar with the traveling minstrel, a circus act, a joker or a jester, a poet or a playwright. Who is the most famous bard? Why, Shakespeare, of course.
Going back to the tendency to imitate nature to create human sounds, our class discussion turned toward birdsong and we listened to several examples of thrushes singing. How intriguing, to slow the sounds down and hear them on a different frequency! How delightful, to hear a gibbon monkey ‘singing’! They sure can nail those whistle tones that every soprano dreams of achieving. The sound of a crane can be duplicated very closely with a Shakuhachi flute. It is said that the sound of a dove’s song heard by Pope Gregory inspired the first Gregorian Chants.
The music of nature has purpose on many levels ~ to contact another for mating or courting, sound an alarm, mark territory, and also for the sake of chatter and song. It only makes sense that the communication of nature inspired humans to do the same, but we don’t know how music and language really started and when they became separated into different sounds.
Where is all of this heading? The connection between mind and music is an astonishing one, and we are constantly uncovering more and more information about this. What makes a composer want to write down their music? Where is it, that they must have traveled in their minds, to come up with chords and progressions that all work together to bring us a symphonic masterpiece? Why and how does music have the ability to transport us, to heal us, to give us goosebumps?
Music is now teaching us a lot more about how our brains work, our neurology or ‘wiring’. We are integrating music into therapy in many areas, such as guided imagery which can help certain muscles to relax, active improvisation, motor skill improvement. In listening to certain frequencies or vibrations, we can heal or soothe our minds, even repair our DNA, or kill parasites. The photo above, illustrating which note or frequency relates to which area of the body, can be found at the website Altered States.
In more recent exploration of the use of music as therapy, the science of Thanatology has been augmented by uniting music and medicine in ‘end of life’ care. This prescriptive music can lower a heart rate, take the fear away and bring calmness, and help to release our tormented souls and allow us to leave this earth without a struggle. I for one would love to be led toward the light while hearing the ethereal sounds of the harp. Here is a short video to give you an idea of what this 'musical passage' can do.
In 2015, Dr. Linda Ippolito, a Family Lawyer and Concert Pianist, presented her dissertation on music therapy for conflict resolution, entitled, “Changing our Tune: A Music-Based Approach to Teaching, Learning, and Resolving Conflict”, in which she states that “sound and music would seem to be particularly potent in the field of dispute resolution if music offers a way to realign with a sense of inherent harmony”. Perhaps if we cannot find the words to explain how we feel to our estranged spouse, music could open this door.
Dr. Ippolito’s dissertation can be found here.
The area of Music Therapy that I find most fascinating though, is how music can have a profound effect on people who are suffering from Alzheimers disease. The way in which a familiar song can bring the light of recognition back into their eyes is incredible. While music is being used in this type of Therapy more often now, I still marvel at how in many Seniors’ homes today, the piped in music of choice is still the current top 20 pop songs; rather than a mix of songs that would ‘speak’ to the patients, it seems the music is chosen to cater to the staff who work there instead. If I could influence this area, I would certainly recommend trying to do something more along the lines of a playlist that includes songs from the era of their youth ~ more classical music, big band, 1940’s war tunes, 1950’s show tunes. I recall singing in many a Seniors’ home when the Irving Berlin pieces brought tears, maybe some sadness, maybe some joy, but definitely a recollection of another time and place.
To delve deeper into the area of how music affects our minds, I have chosen a book to read and to write a mini report on, entitled “Music, Mind and Brain”, edited by Manfred Clynes. I believe I may have found my Research Paper topic now.