In the beginning was noise

The conventional wisdom maintains that fifteen or twenty billion years ago the blank page of the universe explode and our story began. We call this fortunate event the big bang, which is a bit misleading as a name since the conditions for sound didn't arise until almost a billion years later, and the conditions for ears some time after that.

A better way of beginning might be to say that fifteen or twenty billion years ago the blank page of the universe exploded and the beat began, since what emerged from that thick soup of neutrinos and photons were rhythmic pulses vibrating through empty space, keying the formation of galaxies, solar systems, planets, us.

It is possible, however, that in the metaphorical and mathematical concept of the big bang we are unwittingly brushing against a larger truth. Hindus believe there is a seed sound at the heart of creation, the Nada; a passage in the Tibetan Book of the Dead describes the essence of reality as "reverberating like a thousand distant thunders".

In the beginning was noise. And noise begat rhythm. And rhythm begat everything else.
That is the opening of Mickey Hart's Drumming at the Edge of Magic. Although best known for his exploit with the Grateful Dead, Mickey Hart has made a considerable contribution to musicology with his explorations of the ethnography of percussion. Among these contributions is his work with the Nubian musician Hamza El Din, including the album Eclipse below which was produced by the Grateful Dead drummer. Animistic and shamanistic elements mix with Islam in the Nubian religion, and in their paper titled The Role of Music in Healing with Hallucinogens: Tribal and Western Studies the anthropologists Marlene Dobkin de Rios and Fred Katz describe how in shamanistic rituals, music provides "pathways and bannisters" between the familiar form of everyday waking consciousness and the formless mystery of higher levels of consciousness. Among Mickey Hart's current projects is a research collaboration with a leading neuroscientist exploring the beneficial effects of rhythm on Alzheimer's sufferers.

In his sleeve essay for Brian Jones' pioneering 1971 recording of Morocco's Master Musicians of Jajouka William Burroughs wrote "Listen to this music, the primordial sounds of a 4000 year old rock 'n roll band... listen with your whole body, let the music penetrate and move you, and you will connect with the oldest music on earth". The album was titled 'Brian Jones presents the Pan Pipes of [mis-transliterated] Joujouka' and the Pan Pipes that give the Master Musician's their distinctive sound are the double reed rhaitas from the oboe family. Whether the oldest music on earth is the sub-Saharan drumming championed by Mickey Hart or the rhaitas of the north African Rif Mountains is irrelevant. They are both, together with many other ancient musics, part of what composer John Tavener described as music's mighty and single cosmic rhythm, the seed sound at the heart of creation, Vedanta's Nada.

My recent close encounters with India highlighted how that mighty and single seed sound transcends all cultural boundaries. The double reed nadaswaram from South India is a cousin of the Moroccan rhaita. Like the rhaitas of Jajouka its penetrating sound lends it to al fresco sacred music. Among the Shiva worshipers of Shiva in Tamil Nadu, the sacred Periya melam ensemble of nadaswaram, tavil (drums) and talam (castanets) is considered to be the voice of the gods, corresponding to Mickey Hart's reverberations of a thousand distant thunders, and William Burroughs' 4000 year old rock 'n roll band. In the CD seen below the voice of the gods is captured in a field recording on Radio France's Ocora label from the Temple of Chidambaram (dedicated to Siva but also to Vishnu) in Tamil Nadu.

Indian music is not an art, but life itself. This means the boundaries between sacred and secular music are blurred, and the Indian classical music heard in concert performances is rooted in the subcontinent's great sacred pantheon. The nadaswaram has a smaller and less strident brother played in the classical tradition, the North Indian shehnai. Like the sarangi, the shehnai's failure to conform to the Western stereotype of mellifluous Indian music epitomised by the sitar may account for its relative obscurity. On the CD below from the small independent London based Navras label specialising in Indian music, a concert performance at the Barbican in 1994 by the late and great shehnai master Ustad Bismillah Khan is captured. If the Master Musicians of Jajouka are a 4000 year old rock 'n roll band, the musicians at that Barbican gig were a 4000 year old jazz band. Contributing to this music of the gods is Ustad Vilayat Khan, the sitar master whose reputation is undeservedly overshadowed in the West by that of Ravi Shankar.

Mickey Hart is currently exploring the use of music therapy with Alzheimer's sufferers. In the beginning was noise, and sound therapist Lyz Cooper has described music as organised sound. To the casual listener contemporary music such as Hilda Paredes' Señales - Homenaje a Jonathan Harvey which featured in a recent post, and Jonathan Harvey's Fourth Quartet which Señales quotes from, may seem more like sound than music. But, if we believe Mickey Hart's thesis, the closer we are to pure sound, the closer we are to the seed sound at the heart of creation.

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