Thursday, September 03, 2015

We just need to change the way audiences listen

That photo was taken at the recent Sufi Way summer gathering in Katwijk aan Zee, Holland. In the background is the Sufi Temple Universal Murad Hassil where the gathering was held, and in the foreground is my tent. The sun is shining in the photo, but erecting that tent in the dark a few days previously with a gale blowing torrential rain off the North Sea was certainly character building. The Sufi Way is a branch of the syncretic Sufi school that was brought to Europe by the Indian master musician and Sufi teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan. Under the leadership of Inayat Khan's grandson Fazal Inayat Khan, the Sufi way developed in the 1970s and 1980s into an idiosyncratic fusion of mystical traditions and contemporary transpersonal psychology. One of the character building practices introduced by Fazal Inayat Khan and still used in the Sufi Way is the chillah. In traditional Sufism a chilla is the forty date ascetic retreat undertaken by adepts. However, in the Sufi Way a chillah has become a physical equivalent to the extreme cerebral challenge in the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism known as a koan.

Like koans, chillahs take practitioners out of their comfort zone in order to push them over a personal tipping point. Under Fazal Inayat Khan chillahs varied from finding a rock among the Katwijk dunes and carving a self-portrait on it with hammer and chisel, to spending three nights outdoors with no shelter or money. Or even - and this actually happened - sending a single parent overland from Europe to India in a Citro├źn 2CV with only her two young children for company. Both Fazal Inayat Khan and his grandfather were accomplished musicians, and the teachings of Hazrat Inayat Khan have featured here in discussions about changing the way we listen. Chillahs are extreme tasks which encourage unlearning, and Hazrat Inayat Khan believed that the practice of unlearning - contradicting one's own ideas - is an essential part of inward growth. It is my proposition that this teaching is very relevant to the challenge of encouraging classical audiences to accept unfamiliar music both from within the Western tradition - Bax, Hartmann, Pijper etc - and from beyond.

In his seminal book The Mysticism of Sound and Music Hazrat Inayat Khan describes vocal music as the supreme art, writing that: "The effect produced by an instrument , which is merely a machine, cannot be compared with that of the human voice". In India vocal music is considered to be the apogee of art music. But, as Peter Lavazzoli points out in his invaluable study, The Dawn of Indian Music in the West, the position is reversed in the West; with Indian instrumental music performed on the sitar and tabla achieving widespread popularity, while vocal ragas and bhajan remain almost unknown. He concludes that the preeminence of Indian instrumental music in the West is due to a combination of factors. An important one is that the instrumental genre had powerful early champions such as Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan; but the language barrier, spiritual roots, and alien Indian vocal sound with its open-throated projection and nasal tone are also contributory factors in the West's reluctance to embrace the vocal raga.

Peter Lavazzoli then goes on to make the very important point that: "Nevertheless, once Westerners train themselves to listen through the language barrier, stylistic differences, and religious connotations of the lyrics, few art forms are as intoxicating as Indian vocal music". That ability to listen through, rather than listening to music is an essential part of the lost art of listening, whether the music is Western or Indian. Listening to invites a superficial judgement that all too often results in the unknown being rejected and the listener staying safely in their personal comfort zone. Listening through is the key unlearning process that unlocks the door to new musical experiences, both within and beyond the Western classical tradition. To break out of the current Mahler, Shostakovich and Sibelius straightjacket, we just need to change the way audiences listen. As a reader commented here last vear: " Listening to music, and I mean listening hard, alters the music, and preparing to listen makes it twice as strange. And wonderful".

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