Fortunately, a listener needn’t be a mystic to appreciate his music, which possesses a Coltrane-like expansiveness. - JAZZIZ
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A U T H O R   &   E D U C A T O R


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Phil Schurger: On Presence

Music as a conduit for mysticism

“Music in all ages has given man a sense of mystical but immediate kinship with the transcendent and the universal.” 
—J.H. Masserman

Early in my music career I came to realize that music can be a conduit for profound, mystical experiences. Many of the musicians I gravitated toward seemed to have the ability to focus the awareness of “the collective ear” and captivate everyone present, holding them spellbound. Through this collective experience, the consciousness of both the performer and listener expands; both are given an opportunity to encounter something beyond their immediate selves. They begin to experience human consciousness as it exists collectively, beyond our day-to-day thinking. Music opens intuitive pathways into abstract realms that flow beyond the limitations of the linear, concrete mind; the listener begins to experience the transcendent.

Music is an act of aligning a pulse with the “abstract mind” of a collective. We all have intuitive knowledge that has very little to do with intellect and much to do with an experience of the larger collective consciousness. Abstract understanding allows a bridge to be built between intellect and intuition within the dialectic of performer and audience.  This bridge allows the experience to transcend being simply musical.  

Music is an intention. It is thought directed toward manifesting the essence of an experience. Meditating upon music is like meditating on a symbol: it can often inspire other forms to arise in the mind and dip into a wealth of information associated with that symbol. I think a symbol retains something of its source, and that information is accessible to all who engage the symbol—the collective unconscious. Think of a symbol such as “AUM” from the Hindu tradition. How many individuals have meditated upon this symbol for lifetimes? Music is a living process available for interpretation that provides an open-ended experience.

Many cultures have long understood this, and this is why music has been so integral to ritual. In the Yorubantradition each Orisha—a spirit representing God—has a different rhythm that is used in its invocation. One could consider the rhythm itself an avatar of the Orisha, conflating the message and the medium. The Mahakala ritual in the Tibetan culture has a definite form and intention. The same could be said for the specificity of ragas in Indian music. There is a time of day that each raga is played because the music resonates with that particular time and is evocative of the essence of that time. These musics consciously take into account how the body’s rhythms play into the musical experience. They are composed with the understanding that these rhythms change with the time of day and year.

Different types of experience can be facilitated only at certain tempos. For instance, I have had a vision of a vast desert landscape under a moonless, starry sky while playing the E Mixolydian scale at a tempo of half-notes at 60 beats per minute in 4/4 time with an implied 12/8 (much simpler to feel than to say). It wasn’t a planned or a willed experience. Once I experienced it, I regularly went to this place when playing the same tune. I would explore this mental landscape more deeply as I played. The deeper I took the experience, the more charged the air would become in the room and the crowd reacted in kind. I tried to get to this same space on another tune that had an improvisation in E Mixolydian with a tempo of one-half note at 149 bpm. The experience was entirely different; the desert was not a possibility. Tempo matters.

The musician does not dictate another’s experience, but rather, provides a space for intuitive discovery to occur. This space can be enhanced if the audience engages in the process as well. The music then becomes a collective action that is facilitated by the musician and propelled by the audience. (Consider the difference in intensity of any given performance on a CD as compared to that performance live.) There is no substitute for human interaction, for it is through that interaction that we may delve into the depths of what our collective consciousness is. The experiential synergy of the act of music, and the collective experience of listening with other individuals is, and always has been, of prime importance to all cultures.

“Our tradition teaches us that sound is Nada Brahma. That is, musical sound and the musical experience are steps to the realization of the self. We view music as a kind of spiritual discipline that raises one’s inner being to divine peacefulness and bliss. We are taught that one of the fundamental goals a Hindu works towards in his lifetime is a knowledge of the true meaning of the universe – its unchanging, eternal essence – and this is realized first by a complete knowledge of one’s self and one’s own nature. The highest aim of our music is to reveal the essence of the universe it reflects, and the ragas are among the means by which this essence can be apprehended.”
— Ravi Shankar