Friday, September 12, 2014

Nada Brahma - Sound is God

It may be my age, but those moments when a piece of music really hits me in the solar plexus seem to get rarer and rarer. But during my recent extended travels in India I was metaphorically punched time and time again when listening to ECM's Codona recordings on headphones. Recent posts have touched on the potential of virtual concert halls and the fact that no one mixes for speakers these days , and the Manfred Eicher produced Codona sessions from between 1978 and 1982 really demonstrate the impact of the up close and personal sound of headphones. The line up for Codona was African-American trumpeter Don Cherry, Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos, and Colin Walcott on sitar, tabla, hammered dulcimer, sanza, timpani, and voice. The band took its name from a circus trapeze act of the early 20th century called the Flying Codonas, and the three albums packaged by ECM for CD as The Codona Trilogy capture the peerless musicians-beyond-frontiers performing their creative high-wire act without a safety net in sight*.

Following John Coltrane's death in 1967, Don Cherry became the leading advocate of transcultural jazz, and in the process laid the foundations for world music. In the late 1960s and early 1970s he made a series of pioneering recordings in Germany working with producer Joachim-Ernst Berendt**. Don Cherry was increasingly influenced by the music of India; he studied with the Indian singing master Pandit Pran Nath - who also taught Terry Riley and La Monte Young - and for a period was a Tantric Buddhist practitioner who went into deep meditation before performing. In 1983 Joachim-Ernst Berendt wrote The World is Sound: Nada Brahma, a book exploring music and the landscape of consciousness. Nada Brahma is a Sanskrit expression with roots in Indian Vedic spirituality. It is most commonly translated as 'sound is God', but it also has the wider meanings of 'sound is the world', 'sound is joy', the Cageian 'sound is emptiness', and the ultimate 'sound is the central concept'.

In our doggedly digital age the idea that 'sound is God' is easily dismissed as spooky physics. But sound is vibration, and all matter is composed of vibrating energy. A belief in the centrality of vibration can be traced from the teachings of Hazrat Inayat Khan - "Spirit descends into matter by the law of vibrations" - through the spectralism of Jonathan Harvey - "It’s all vibrations, I mean music and the world, everything is oscillation" - to the marginally less spooky science of quantum entanglement. Digital is not not God, streaming is not God, CDs are not God, celebrity conductors are not God, teenage pianists are not God, and audience numbers are not God. Sound is God, and that mantra should be recited daily by everyone in the classical music industry.

* More on Condona in my 2009 post Every recession has a silver lining.

** Jazz meets India was another product of the late 1960s transcultural jazz movement in Germany; more on that legendary disc in These musicians play their very own music.

Apologies to any practitioners who find the image of the Buddha heretical. But it was not staged for the post, but was photographed by a family member at a third party event recently. No review samples used in this post. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.


Philip Amos said...

If I may, Bob, just a personal reflection I'm moved to write after seeing the description of recent posts as "twaddle". If to that person these posts do seem twaddle, I can offer an easy explanation for that impression: Not everything is easy.

I have had to struggle mightily with the very technical matters broached of late, for I am pretty well a technotwit. But struggle I did, certainly learnt something for my effort, and in the current post, the last paragraph thereof, I see my efforts well-rewarded and justified.

I have of late been doing battle with the best works I can lay hands on in re Cosmology and Quantum Physics. I'm an Arts and Humanities man, so this was not easy either, but there are eminent practitioners in these fields who have the rare knack of writing for the general reader but without -- very important -- writing down. They encourage us, in fact, for more than one has written most frankly that often he and his colleagues arrive at the end of an equation and find themselves staring in disbelief. Very, very hard to get the noggin around, but I have persevered.

Now, I did have one advantage in this. I have for many years had a great interest in Buddhism, in its texts, and in exegeses thereof. That too can test the little grey cells, but if one wants to learn, one perseveres with the difficult rather than being satisfied with the simple. The appearance of things tests us not. But the transcendental reality -- that does test us, and that is the stuff of Physics, of Buddhism, and of the relations among spirit, matter, vibrations, sound, energy, quantum entanglement. That is, the very things your last paragraph brings together, furnishing for those who prefer to struggle with the difficult than settle for the simple most ample reward. And for your part in this, Bob, much thanks.

Michael Strickland said...

Let me add to the Bravo's for the last two sentences. Sound is God and Science and Philosophy combined, though sometimes it requires a bit of theatricality to communicate that to the congregants, whether it be operatic staging, Teenage Pianists, or Celebrity Conductors.