Sunday, August 28, 2016

Were there no sound, how could there be silence?

Conceptually, we think that sound is sound and silence is silence. The two seem neatly separated and distinct - in fact opposite of each other. But this is only how we think, how we conceptualize. This is not how Reality is perceived, before we put everything into neat, nicely labeled (but deceptive) little packages.
We think there only has to be sound for there to be sound. We overlook that there must also be silence for there to be sound. And because of sound, there is silence. Were there no sound, how could there be silence?
Before you strike a bell, sound is already here. After you strike the bell, the sound is here. When the sound fades and dies away, the sound is still here. The sound is not just the sound but the silence, too. And the sound is the sound. This is what is actually perceived before we parse everything out into this and that, into "myself" and "what I hear".
The sound of the bell is inseparable from everything that came before and that will come after, as well as from everything that appears now. This includes your eardrum, which vibrates in response to it. It includes the air, which pulses with varying waves of pressure in response to it. It includes the stick that strikes the bell. It includes the metallurgists, past and present, and those who learned to extract metal from ore and those who fashioned the bell. And it includes that ancient furnace, that supernova obliterated long ago in which this metal formed. Remove any of these - indeed, remove anything at all - and there can be no sound of the bell. The sound of the bell is thus not "the sound of the bell." It is the entire Universe.
That passage from 'Buddhism is not what you think' by Steve Hagen is a pithy exposition of the essence of Zen. It also explores the indivisibility of sound and silence, a concept that Zen practitioner John Cage famously explored. Moreover it touches on the principle of oneness of being that informs the waḥdat al-wujūd teachings of the twelfth-century Sufi mystic, poet, and philosopher Ibn 'Arabi and the canonical texts of Advaita Vedānta. Which leads on to the centrality of vibrations, and ever onwards to how subatomic physics explains that one object can affect another irrespective of temporal and spatial distance between them.

Parallels have been drawn between James Joyce's non-linear stream of consciousness prose and the core Zen practice of mindfulness, which involves observing and noting one’s thoughts and emotions exactly as they arise. Toru Takemitsu - yet another seriously underrated composer - was influenced both by Zen and James Joyce's novels. Takemitsu's 'A Way A Lone' for string quartet takes its title and inspiration from the enigmatic ending of Joyce's 'Finnegans Wake' - "The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the". Recordings of 'A Way A Lone' are as elusive as the meaning of Zen. The one above, which is now deleted, by the Tokyo String Quartet couples the Takemitsu with a rare performance of Samuel Barber's String Quartet, Op. 11 from which the celebrated Adagio for Strings is taken, and Britten's String Quartet No. 2.

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1 comment:

Unknown said...

The start of my comment (above), appears to have been cut off, plus I didn't intend to leave it anonymously, so here goes again!

I have this CD, and it opened up worlds for me. I initially bought it because I had already heard and enjoyed some of Takemitsu's music, and was curious about Britten.
In particular, it gave me a lasting love of Britten's music, which in turn lead to me attending the Aldeburgh festival (and even having some of my photos used in their 2001 brochure - forgive the self-promotion) and discovering more wonderful music and places as a consequence.
It is exactly this kind of curiosity, this following of new threads and paths (overgrown though they may sometimes be!), that the dumbed-down/suburbanised/celebrity model of music works against. 'Give them what they already want' actually gives audiences nothing. We need more 'if you like that, try this', and this CD is a great example.
On a slight tangent, I now tell anyone who will listen that if they really want to hear Barber's Adagio for Strings, they should listen to it in the original context of his quartet. If feel that the smaller forces, and consequently more astringent sound, plus its framing in the outer movements, take away all the slushiness, stripping it back to reveal music of power and subtlety.

Paul Morris.