Friday, July 20, 2018

Music as a wave of probability

Within yourself, music plays without pause,
Vibrating strings are not the cause.

This music comes from the Word, says Kabir;
It pervades subtly for all to hear.

This sound divine makes the seeker free,
Then in maya's clasp he shall no more be.
That poem is a free rendering by the Himalayan Yogi Swami Rama of verse by the great Indian poet Kabir. The painting above portrays Kabir; it is by the contemporary Indian artist Arpana Caur; as are all the other graphics. If my overgrown paths are noted for anything it is for their abstruseness, and this long read takes that dubious distinctiveness to a new level, as it links a medieval mystic to an example of misunderstood 20th century Western classical music, and on through quantum physics to propose that there is no such thing as a music masterpiece

Little is known about Kabir's life: both the place and date of his birth are unverified, but it is generally thought he was born in AD 1398 in Varanasi. Kabir's poetry was championed by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and today the 14th century mystic is one of India's most widely read poets. Both Hindus and Muslims claim him as their own. Muslim scholarship positions him as a disciple of a Sufi master named Shaykh Taqqi; Hindus claim he was a disciple of the iconoclastic Swami Ramananda, with references in his poetry supporting the latter theory.

During Kabir's lifetime there was fierce rivalry between Hindus and Muslims, and his most celebrated legacy is his work to build bridges between the two diverse communities. His philosophy combined the Vedic traditions of self-discovery (Jnana) and devotion (Bhakti), while bitterly opposing the ritualistic practices of the Brahmins. These teachings reflect the assertion in the Upanishads that all creatures of the world are members of one family, and that there exists a single, nameless, formless, absolute reality. One important distinguishing feature of Kabir's metaphysics is his belief in nirgund bhakti - devotion without object or personification. This resonates in the 21st century when there is strong resistance to the image of God as a man wearing white robes living on a cloud. Although Kabir's Sufi provenance is disputed, his verse has many similarities to that of Rumi and other Sufi poets with its references to seeking ecstatic union with the ultimate reality. Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of Sikhism, so revered Kabir's poetry that the sacred Sikh scripture Adi Granth frequently quotes him.

In several of his poems Kabir refers to 'unstruck music', the sound existing before and beyond notated music. This proposition of 'unstruck music' was developed by, among others, the Sufi musician and master Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927) who taught that "Spirit descends into matter by the law of vibrations, and matter may also ascend toward the spirit", and by Jonathan Harvey (1929-2012) who explained that "The whole culture of music, probably from the very beginnings, has been founded on vibrating together, in a community, to a drum beat". All but one of the twelve movements of Jonathan's Bhakti for chamber ensemble and quadraphonic tape - complete video performance via this link - has a quotation from the Rigveda appended, and these quotations reflect Kabir's ecstatic belief in a single, formless, absolute, reality.

Kabir's verse was very popular with musicians of his time, and many bhajans - sacred Hindu songs - set his poems. But despite this, and despite Rabindranath Tagore's acclaimed translations into English, Kabir remains puzzlingly overlooked in the West, with few Western settings of his poetry. However there are two notable exceptions. One is the setting by Christopher Rouse (b.1949) Kabir Padavali (Kabir Songbook) which has, fortunately, been recorded by Naxos. The other is from a Western composer with very strong Indian connections John Foulds. The setting is in his 'A World Requiem' which was composed between 1919 and 1921. Foulds was entranced by Theosophy's "light from the East", and there is much common ground between Theosophy and Kabir's nirgund bhakti. This almost certainly led Foulds to set Kabir's poetry, and it is sad that his setting of this pioneer of syncreticism is dismissed in contemporary commentaries on the Requiem as the work of a 'Hindu poet'. In his definitive study John Foulds and His Music Malcolm MacDonald astutely describes 'A World Requiem' as "an extended sacred cantata of elegiac and benedictory tone, implicitly Christian, but supra-denominational in focus", and the work's theme reflects the vision in the Upanishads that all creatures of the world are members of one family. 'A World Requiem' has strongly divided critical opinion, which is a very good reason for revisiting it in the context of Kabir's 'unstruck music'.

When 'A World Requiem' was revived for a much-hyped Albert Hall performance in 2007 it received a critical mauling. Andrew Clements described it in the Guardian as "a disappointingly ordinary work", and another reviewer concluded that "overall 'A World Requiem' is by no means the towering masterpiece we’d perhaps been led to expect". So dualistic is our binary age that Foulds' Requiem has been written off as a non-masterpiece after that one revival, and accordingly has dropped off the classical music radar. But elsewhere AllMusic tells us that " would not be too much to say that John Foulds' A World Requiem is a masterpiece -- a long-lost masterpiece, but a masterpiece nevertheless", while a paper on the University of Manchester website confirms that the work is "now regarded as a masterpiece". Masterpiece or non-masterpiece? Which critic is right? Well, my somewhat surprising conclusion is that both camps are absolutely right. Let me explain...

Quantum physics has revealed that subatomic particles only exist until the act of observation as a wave of probabilities on a map of possible locations. It is only the act of observing that brings an electron into the realms of reality and out of probable existence. Physicists have concluded that the consciousness of the observer collapses the wave of probabilities. Which explains why the same music can strike the same listener in different ways on different hearings, as the act of hearing collapses the wave of probabilities in varying ways.

Kabir's vision of unstruck music within yourself is uncannily similar to the latest quantum physics as expressed in string theory. In his book Parallel Worlds the leading theoretical physicist Michio Kaku describes how "string theory explains the particles of the quantum theory as the musical notes of the universe". So just as subatomic particles of vibrating energy only exist as a wave of probabilities until the act of observation, so music, which is also vibrating energy, only exists within yourself as a wave of probabilities - masterpiece or disappointingly ordinary work - until the act of hearing. Moreover as the act of hearing will be different for every listener, so the judgement of the music will vary. In his new biography of Zubin Mehta its author Bakhtiar K. Dadabhoy defines a classic as "a piece of music that endures over time by revealing new and unexpected aspects in diverse contexts of interpretation and performance". In each of those diverse interpretation and performance the consciousness of the observers - both musicians and listeners - collapses the wave of probabilities in a different way. In the same way, depending where the observer is on the wave of probability, Kabir is perceived as Hindu, Muslim or supra-denominational visionary.

Despite the concept of music as a wave of probability having its roots in the latest empirical science, it is tempting to dismiss it as fuzzy science foolishness. But is it any more foolish than relying on Twitter trends and Facebook likes to determine what music is hot and what is not? Today's culture suffers from hypermediation, with layers of intermediaries sporting dubious credentials - the hive mind - telling us which music is good and which is bad. Such judgements are misleading and damaging. Music, like everything else, exists as a wave of probabilities until the act of observation. Categorising any music as masterpiece or otherwise is a futile attempt to set in stone what is fluid and always will remain fluid. That 2007 performance of 'A World Requiem' conducted by Leon Bernstein is captured on two Chandos CDs. In an earlier post I described the Requiem as a 'convoluted and flawed work'. But don't accept my opinion. Listen to it and every other piece of music without preconceptions: because quantum physics has given us permission to collapse the wave of probabilities and make our own judgement of masterpieces or not.

My copy of The Mystical Poems of Kabir by Swami Rama and Robert B. Regli was bought from the bibliophile's Alladin's Cave that is Kashi Annapurna Book House at Jain Ghat, Varanasi. This post was inspired by the most mystical of cities that was known as in Kabir's time as Kashi. Other sources include:
~ Kabir: The Weaver's Songs by Vinay Dharwadker
~ Parallel Worlds by Michio Kaku
~ Punk Science: Inside the Mind of God by Dr Manjir Samanta-Laughton
~ The Fakir by Ruzbeh N. Bharucha
~ Living with the Himalayan Masters by Swami Rama
~ John Foulds and His Music by Malcolm MacDonald

All graphics reproduced from the website of Arpana Caur. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar.

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