I was surprised once, when my wife asked me how I choose the first number I’m going to play in a concert. I looked at her, dumbfounded, “I don’t,” I said.
“I get up there, sit, make myself more or less comfortable, and then, when it feels right, I start. Sometimes it’s something I know, something I’ve played before or an echo of something someone else has done, and others times not. Just sort of brand new.”
Of course I’m limited by my technique, by what I know and don’t know how to do, and possibly even more so by habit, by having my fingers follow patterns they’ve found before, by wanting, even if only vaguely, to play in some genre. But, sometimes I really do step beyond all that and play what is waiting there to be unfolded. I don’t know how. I regard it as prayer, as offering.
Music is a wondrous art. Before you play a note it’s not there at all, and after it fades or gets followed by another it’s not there either, is it? So of course we might imagine that there’s something there in some kind of present between past and future, but there isn’t, it utterly depends on that past and that future for it to have any meaning at all.
Music is like weaving beauty out of silence, out of space, out of nowhere, dragon-dancing the ever-shifting instant into swirls and shapes of surprise.
Sometimes I’m lucky and words pour out too, but that’s rarer now I’ve lived in France more than half my life. Songs used to come to me quite naturally once, but trying to share the beauty of poetry with someone who doesn’t know or really appreciate the nuances of your barbarian tongue has proved too hard for the most part. These days I reserve what I consider poetry for written forms, poems as such and my work as translator, and my music has become more and more just music, just melody, just wisps of sound that vibrate for a instant on the air.
What’s interesting about all the above, though, is not me, thank the gods, but how music itself is so closely related to the teachings on the nature of mind, how a thought or perception will arise out of nowhere, persist for a greater or lesser period of time as a modifying feature of nowhere and then dissolve back into that same nowhere without so much as a trace left behind except a possible lingering fragrance of memory which itself also dissolves. Music, of course, and sound in general arises out of silence, manifests as a fleeting modification of silence and disappears back into silence. Awareness-emptiness, appearance-emptiness, bliss-emptiness, everything that arises is the emptiness itself, manifesting as this or that dragon-dance of space dancing space into space and yet all of that, except, perhaps, at the quantum level, within an apparently strict logic of cause, condition and effect.
There are no sounds, or images, or smells, tastes or sensations of touch, in the brain, just fleeting patterns ofelectro-chemical signals of less than a yoctosecond, 10-24, long.
Our awareness catches up with these at somewhere between about a pico, 10-12, and a femtosecond, 10-9, as a kind of Aha! I sensed something, which doesn’t yet know what it’s sensed and this is the basic pigment with which a musician, wittingly or unwittingly, paints everything from Baa-baa Black Sheep to the 52 shrutis of an Indian octave, the adolescent blaring of a military or hard rock band or the exquisite crystalline brilliance of a partita by Bach or the silence of a piece by Arvo Pärt, weaving, as it were, momentary ropes of space into beauty or cacophony depending upon the ear that hears. So, what I think I’m trying to say is something like, although music, and even the tiniest elements of which it is made up, cannot be said to exist or even not exist as such, it is out of a continuity of these virtually non-existent instants that a melody appears, and, because there is no fundamental instant, no fundamental phrase or note that is actually music per se, any form can arise. And it’s the same with mind. As the saying goes: There is no mind in mind. What is called ‘mind’ is actually just luminous clarity, a luminous clarity.
The nothingness of it, the infinite open-endedness and potential of it, is its plenum, its absolute nature, the becomingness of it, the vivid and luminous intelligence of its assumption of form and forms is its inherent brilliance, and its form, apparently fixed yet still in fact infinitely fleeting, is its all-encompassing compassionate energy, manifesting out of nowhere for the simple purpose of adorning with meaning, appearing nowhere and into no time as meaningfulness and as beauty, and then dissolving back into primordial silence.
An ever-flowing fountain in a sweet-smelling garden of roses, all this and that arises and passes away in infinite display. And, though, at any instant, we are mere fleeting droplets too, we, or what we take from moment to moment to be we, are the Musician. We can create whatever we choose: harmony or cacophony, beauty or ugliness. The choice is always ours.
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