“Mindfulness and Music”

Homily by Guy Urban for Music Sunday at FPW   May 7, 2017

A year and a half ago, I got hearing aids.  My audiologist told me that I was border-line — my perception of higher frequencies was declining, as expected at my age, but probably not enough to require hearing aids quite yet.  But I decided to try them out.

The main reason was my classroom teaching.  My mild hearing loss mostly affected initial consonants in people’s speech.  Usually this is not much of a problem:  if you say “Zhee wiz, that was great!”  or “I’ll zhee you tomorrow”, I have no trouble understanding, even though both of them sound like “zhee”.  But I teach music theory.  When I ask a student, “What note is this?” or what key, or what chord, and they say “zhee major”, I can’t tell if they’re saying B, C, D, E, or G.  In the bland uniformity of the musical alphabet, lack of context is my downfall.

I went to the clinic expecting the hearing aids to sound hissy and metallic.  They didn’t.  In fact, it was like suddenly being transported to a new reality.  The technician suggested I go out to the waiting room and see what it felt like.  It felt like I was dropped into a great river of human conversation, moving air currents, shoes brushing against carpet.  It felt like I had had a jolt of electricity shot through me; it’s not just that the world around me felt different; I felt different.  I walked back into the technician’s office with a smile of beatific, wide-eyed ecstasy, and started to tell her the big surprise…  but she had been doing this a long time, and, like Timothy Leary in the early days of psychedelic drugs, she gently urged me to get used to them gradually, and not turn them up too loud too soon.  I guess she had seen it all before.

My ability to discern my student’s answers in class was not suddenly perfect (freshmen, especially, often mumble or speak meekly when called on in class); but there was a definite transformation in my everyday connection to my environment.  My most vivid experience was walking down a sidewalk around my home in Watertown.  The sonic environment was like a physical texture, a rich dough of sound with many individual particles of reality, and yet also like a single, organic, almost tangible ether surrounding me.  I heard the leaves rustling in the wind (who would have thought that such a sentimental poetic cliché could actually be experienced!)  I heard dogs barking, and people talking, somewhere far away; the slightest ripples on the cloud of sound, but definitely there!  I heard birds, insects, and a kind of universal breathing; the breath of the world around me.  A reservoir of memories flooded my emotions.  I suddenly remembered lying in my back yard as a kid, with my eyes closed, and “hearing / feeling” this breathing of the universe.  I remembered feeling that my own identity seemed both diminished and enlarged, as I merged with the world around me.  I hadn’t remembered, or thought about, this kind of experience in decades; I had forgotten that it existed until this moment.

I want to stress that, what I was experiencing was not coming out of my imagination, or my thoughts, or from philosophical musings.  It was coming from the physical sound I was hearing, the sound of the world around me.  It was probably the most concrete phenomenon I’ve experienced in years.  I was not thinking about it, conceptualizing about it, responding to it, extrapolating from it.  Most certainly I was not “losing myself” in it.  I was just experiencing it, and it bowled me over.

I’ve read, talked and thought a lot about mindfulness, about “being here now”.  I think I understand the concept.  But I had forgotten how concrete and physical “now” really is.  I had thought (probably like most people) that being “in the moment” mostly meant shutting out distractions, making myself stop thinking about what I had to do later, turning off the “inner monologue” that is always piddling away in the background of my consciousness as I go through daily life.  But these are all negatives:  don’t do this, don’t do that.  What I had forgotten—in the comfortable routines of what I charitably think of as “late middle-age”—was that the world right now is a real, physical thing; not a quiet time-out, but a sharp slap in the face.  It’s not zoning out, it’s waking up!  The closer I am to the physical reality of the world around me, as experienced through my senses, and not filtered through conceptions and assumptions, the more energetically alive I feel.

Although my experience outside with the hearing aids woke up something in me that had been lying dormant for quite a while, there was one part of my life in which I retained this connection to the physical senses: music.  Although I love talking, theorizing and B.S.ing about music, ultimately the experience for me lies in the actual experience of musical sound in the moment.  It’s not the ideas, judgments, or even emotions inspired by music that mean the most to me, but rather the mindful experience of the musical sound.  Yes, there are many emotions that come along with the music, but these are a result, or product of the sensual experience; they come after the fact.  The electric jolt of the actual sensation of hearing music is the fount from which flows everything else.

The musician who probably has delved more deeply than anyone else into “music as experience of the world”, is the composer John Cage.  He was born in 1912 and died in 1992.  He is famous for being in the avant-garde of 20th century modern art, and for the invention of mixed-media “happenings” — but I mention him here because he was also one of the most publicly conspicuous American apostles of Zen Buddhism during his lifetime.  He studied with the Japanese scholar and author D. T. Suzuki, and applied Zen Buddhist principles to his musical composition, and to his life.  And, he was the source of a lot of great sayings and aphorisms that vividly capture the mindful experience of music.

Cage believed that our conventional definition of music was much too narrow.  “Every thing we do is music”, he said.  Music, for him, meant mindfully experiencing sound in all its forms:  natural, human, intentional and unintentional (although he considered “unintentional” music as less limited by human expectations.)

“Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and desires out of its way and lets it act of it’s own accord.”

His compositional process often utilized what he called “chance” or “indeterminacy”.  He used musical forms generated by the I Ching, or by the pattern of textures in the paper he was writing on—not as a joke, but as a way to create music that transcended the composer’s intentions, and thus freed the listener to create any kind of meaning she wanted to.  It’s like when I heard the sounds around me after getting the hearing aids: my reaction was not based on any large “meanings” or intentions, but on the tangible experience of sound in its immediacy.

Perhaps Cage’s most famous composition was 4’33” from 1952, in which the performer sits silently for 4’33”, then leaves.  The “idea” of this piece is so fantastical and weird that we forget that this is not “conceptual art”—where we read about it, and think about how clever (or possibly stupid) it is—but rather a real concrete musical experience, in some ways more vivid and engaging than a more traditional, “normal” performance.  When we hear a pianist play a more conventional piece of music (especially one with which we are familiar), many things may go through our minds: did the player make any mistakes?  is the piece “pretty”, or is it abstract?  when it will end?  is the player nervous?  should I applaud now?  should I go to the grocery store later?

Whenever I actually listen to 4’33” (as I do every time I teach my 20th Century Music course), thoughts such as these disappear; my consciousness engages with the sound of air circulating in the classroom, of distant police sirens, of traffic outside the window, of students breathing and shifting in their chairs.  These “meaningless” sounds become meaningful because Cage’s piece has framed them and allowed us to experience them mindfully, not as background to something else, but as direct experience of and engagement with the world around us.

I don’t actually listen to Cage’s music very often, but his attitude towards musical experience very much defines music in my life.  My goal, every time I perform for anyone, is to create a frame in which a listener can join me in living mindfully in the musical moment.  In this way, I feel less distinction between performer and audience; —we are both sharing a moment’s experience that is unique, and not easily defined by words or “ideas”.  Likewise for the notions of “active” or “passive” musical experience:  my favorite moments as a performer are when I do not feel like I am “making” music happen, but rather experiencing it as listeners do.  And I hope that listeners are not passively letting my performance “flow over them”, but are rather actively engaging with each moment of musical sound as it happens; not with a predetermined “correct” response, but with whatever unique configuration of meaning emerges from the moment.  As John Cage also said, “The act of listening is in fact an act of composing.

I want to end by sharing with you a piano piece by John Cage.  Unlike 4’33”, it does consist of actual notes.  It is an early piece (composed in 1947), called Music for Marcel Duchamp.  It has an unusual sonority, because the piano strings are “prepared”, meaning that the typical piano “sound” is altered by means of physical objects placed between the strings.

It also has an unusual form, because its phrases and larger layout were determined by throwing the I Ching.  I believe that the novelty of these differences do not draw attention to themselves, but rather help you to avoid preconceptions and assumptions about what a piano piece should sound like, and allow you, the listener, to engage with it simply as it is, without comparison to other musical experiences.

So as not to encourage the inner question: “is it ending now?”, I would like to leave you with one last quote from John Cage:

“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all, but actually very interesting.”

(play Music for Marcel Duchamp…)