Thursday, October 30, 2008

What is music for? What does it mean to listen?

In defense of the feeling listener:
“Art is a hammer to shatter the frozen sea within us” Franz Kafka

What does it mean to really listen? To listen means to take sound into both your body and your mind. To internalize the shapes, the motion, the feeling, communication, and the intention carried with it. Music is so much more than a mere entertainment—even when it is supremely entertaining. It is almost as if we are caging it, restraining it, hiding it under frivolous uses to see it as mere entertainment.

I’m only interested in music that reaches for something, in which the effort to bridge the gap between humans, between pain and understanding is made audible. I want to take that effort, all the ache and feel of it into my body and learn it, let it ring, let it purify me and teach me to release. Our lives are an urgent matter here on this earth–I’m told that some Buddhist temples in Korea have large clock faces on the walls as a reminder of how fast and continuous is the flight of time. (be wise in time, eternity is near!)

Music that is not trying to break through into something emotionally true is useless to me. I cannot waste time on music that is self-aggrandizing, ego-driven, vapid, creepy, or bland. I need the messages from wisdom that we all have in us. I need to hear the voice of wisdom channeled through sound. I want to hear 2 seconds of the music and know (and I mean know) that the composer or the singer or the musicians have sat long and quietly, have stilled themselves and listened for the knowledge of the world to speak to them through their bodies about what is urgent, what is essential, what is in the interests of our very best selves. I want to know that having done so, they have then labored selflessly to realize their moment of clarity, however small or large, that they have struggled to make a poem of it, distilled and concentrated it down to pill form (or exploded it out to journey form) so that I can take it into my spiritual DNA and be transformed. It absolutely MUST have some urgent message other than “dig me!” It must not be ingratiating, slimy, manipulative, or pushy. It must not be merely artful—that will not suffice. The music has to find a way to edge into the cracks of my emotional life and break its way in, past the usual, constructed, defended consciousness that wants to be safe, to be closed off from feeling, separate.

There is an urgent need (on my part, and for our society at large, I believe) to get into those cracks we all have in everyday consciousness and to force them wider apart. As Leonard Cohen's song famously points out: “There’s a crack in everything/that’s where the light gets in.” We all need the light to get into our small, constricted selves, and open us up to the big mind, the shattered world in which we are as wide as the sea, and everything flows. The crust on us modern folks is something to behold, I tell you. Our culture has made a life’s work out of cultivating the frozen sea Kafka was so desperate to shatter, and you can bet it will be a life’s work for any single one of us to undo that making. We are all living with an unprecedented storehouse of unprocessed feeling these days, a direct result of the vast array of numbing strategies that have come to obscure the real work and presence of a human life. I’m not big on idealizing traditional societies, but we have at least come to understand that all those scruffy rituals came about in a search for efficacy, transformation, and as a way to deal with the terrible and joyous things that arise as a result of an human consciousness strapped to an animal corporeality. The extent to which we look away from the facts of those myriad arisings is the extent to which we are in denial, suffering from restriction, walled off from the true energies of our lives. If we ignore our feelings, they will surely kill us.

So the practice of sympathetic listening is one of feeling with. If we can attune our responses to the music, if we can internalize its state, and feel its movement, its tensions and releases, we are building the capacity for compassion. I believe in music that invites us to feel with it. Anything in our feeling lives that does not increase compassion is killing us a little bit. Anything that seals us up in our comfortable expectations and rewards us for being what we already are in isolation helps to close us off from others, from love, from the true nature of our interconnectedness and interdependence. In the end, this move even isolates us from ourselves, in that it helps us to keep walled off whole areas of our own denied emotional experience.

If art encourages us to rest in complacency by being itself so slick and polished as to be a product, if it organizes itself toward merely presenting attractive surfaces in order to manipulate us into an economic transaction, if it exists primarily as an egotistical foisting of Self onto the world, then it harms us, it isolates us, turns us into consumers, it shuts us down when we desperately need to be opened up. Art should open doors to understanding of the non-verbal ground of our existence, to the natural world, the big “what-is.” It's not sufficient for our art merely to open the door to the gift shop or the record store. Listen to the music and ask yourself: what door is this person trying to open? Like as not you’ll find it is usually the door to fame and fortune, to approval, to some sentimentalized posture, or the pose of profundity. All too often what we hear in the depths of our musical art is the sound of the desire for personal gain on the part of the composer. This idea of gaining will kill us. Let us substitute the idea of opening: to wisdom, to joy, to compassion, to peace, to free feeling, to release.

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