Music and Magic


at gangajiIt was in India we first realized when music loses its magic, it becomes merely an imitation of itself.

This was back in the mid ‘90’s, we were immersed in the Varanasi classical Indian Music scene, a scene which though not the biggest in the country (that honor probably belonged to Calcutta), had a reputation for old fashioned integrity.

Still we left every concert feeling something had been missing.  Unlike the brilliant works which first attracted us to Indian Music, what we’d just heard had failed to open a door to an enchanted world.  It had lacked the power of the early Ravi Shankar, of Alla Rakha, Ali Akbar Khan, Bismillah Kahn, and Pannalal Ghosh.

Of course like the other expat music lovers, we looked for excuses.  We told ourselves the problem was too many foreigners in the scene, or that live performances couldn’t match the perfection of studio recordings, or that since Varanasi wasn’t such an important venue the performers weren’t giving it their all, or that we ourselves had gotten a little blasé… but as we heard one disappointing performance after another, eventually we had no choice but admit something very serious had gone wrong.

We could no longer deny it, Indian classical music had lost its magic.

What seemed to be going on was the Indian musicians were themselves no longer living creatively within the deepest and most interesting parts of their own tradition.

In the good old days their music had been devotional, that is musicians, or at least those who really got it, viewed their art as spiritual exercise in which “they” were not producing the music.  Rather it flowed from the gods, and they were merely serving as conduits, acting as instruments.

From this came their emphasis on relaxation, on tonal subtlety, on starting slow and soft.

But by the time we left Varanasi precious few Indian musicians seemed to see what they were doing as worship.  Most were more interested in putting on a good show than getting lost in the magic of sound.

So naturally they no longer had time for the slow warm-ups which lead to magic.  No audience would listen to that sort of stuff and no one would pay them for doing it.

While during their performances they were more concerned with creating the illusion of being proficient in the various wonders of their art, than in actually doing them.  It was more important to successfully act “musician” than to play magic music.

It was big sad, but at least once we started thinking this way we understood all those tingle free disappointing concerts.  What we’d heard just hadn’t been the real thing, it had been stagecraft savvy performers pretending to play Indian classical music.

Why of course there’d been no magic!  How could there have been?

What We Mean by Magic

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Here we should make clear that when we use the word “magic”, we don’t mean “magic” like that of a stage magician pulling rabbits out of his hat, nor do we quite mean magic like flying through the air or conjuring daemons.

What we mean is the magic involved when music touches a listener’s heart, when the air gets electric, when telepathy knits the players into a single ecstatic singing being, when one can almost feel the hovering angels.

It’s the magic we heard in the broken voice and rough bowed notes of a Varanasi street singer who passed through our neighborhood just once, a seemingly young man whose uncanny simple music instantly brought tears to every eye, and whom we still believe to have been a celestial musician.

It’s the magic all of you have felt those times when music altered the flow of your thoughts and pushed your everyday concerns into the background.

It’s the magic pulsing through our music.

And it’s the magic whose absence makes virtually all of what one now hears more commercial product than real music.

Of course since even the most skillfully produced of this commercial product is only a polished imitation of music previously created by more magically inspired artists, by definition there’s nothing new in it.

So once slick performers cranking out commercial product displace real musicians brave enough to channel divine fire, once inspired artists have become an endangered species, then not only has a musical tradition lost its magic, it’s also lost its future and started to die, it’s started to become a flavorless imitation of itself.

Which is precisely what we saw happening to classical Indian Music….

One (Brave New) India

Overemphasis on performance and loss of contact with its own rich roots were not all that squeezed the magic out of Indian classical music.

As destructive was the way affordable recorded music and the ubiquitous presence of All India Radio together spread a single city-bred style of music across the entire subcontinent.  Now musically there’s just one (brave new) India, now everywhere its music has become more or less the same.

gai butt galieUntil recently it wasn’t like that.  Indian villages, or even old neighborhoods deep in the twisting pedestrian-only alleys of our beloved Varanasi, weren’t much closer to Calcutta than to the moon.

Back then when you heard music it had to be live.  Every community had its own group of musicians who played at devotional services, public concerts, in the homes of wealthy patrons, and for their own pleasure.  And since only occasionally did these musicians hear performers from far away, they naturally developed their own distinctly different styles.

But by the end of our life in India most everyone listened only to the radio or recorded music.  The local styles were evaporating in front of our eyes, and as this creatively precious variability vanished, we sensed Indian classical music moving closer to a living death, closer to becoming a fossilized imitation of its previous magic self.

To say this in the language of ecology, Indian classical music had become a monoculture, and in biology it’s a truism that especially when the environment is changing rapidly (as it is in India and the rest of the modern world) monocultures are apt to become extinct.

One more time a technical advance which originally carried the promise of greater cultural richness, in the end failed to come through… (It’s difficult to believe, but TV was supposed to better educate the masses.)

Still as recently as when we left our holy city, magic sound still floated on its other worldly air, it’s just none of it was at concerts, and none seemed likely to help the Indian classical tradition survive.

Mornings there were temple bells, soft chanting, and the sound of pilgrims’ shuffling feet as they headed down to bathe in the sacred Ganges river.  By the stone steps leading into the water, circles of muffled women still squatted singing traditional religious songs.

Afternoons at the ostentatious university temple, a blind devotional singer still teased exquisite melodies from the finger worn keys of his old harmonium.

Even the stoned music sessions of our fellow expats sometimes generated real heat, at least before they all got too serious about imitating Indian classical music.

And then there was that street singer….

The Emperor Has No Clothes

In 1998 we returned to the States disillusioned with what Indian classical music had become.

It had taken a decade, but as the years in Varanasi rolled by it became clearer and clearer our beloved Indian Music had lost its magic.  We could no longer deny few if any of its current crop of musicians could actually do what they were claiming to do, that almost none still had the chops required by the tonal subtlety and rhythmic complexity of their music.

So when we saw signs of decay in our own musical tradition, we recognized them for what they were.  (Even as after one’s lived through the collapse of a few communities, it’s easy to spot signs of disintegration in a new one to which one’s just moved.)

And as soon as we got back such signs were everywhere, starting in the pop bombarding us from car radios, shopping malls, and boom boxes.  It was weird so much of it was from forever ago, was music which if pop were still alive and growing should have been retired decades ago.

But what spooked us more was the way our old favorites no longer sounded so good.  And here we’re talking about stuff we used to love, music so important to us we’d lugged cassettes of it to India.  It was downright disorienting.  The same music now struck us as lame, whiny, and devoid of real energy and magic.

Worse yet, the problem obviously went way beyond pop.

The jazz we heard all sounded like 60’s stuff warmed over, and when we went back and again listened to the originals we no longer heard much of that mysterious spark which once so impressed us.

Even most “great” classical music, to our newly disillusioned ears felt sadly magic free.

How could we have been so naïve, how could we have fooled ourselves so thoroughly?  All our lives we’d worshipped Western Music, now suddenly it was looking a lot like that sad sad being, an emperor with no clothes.

In the face of this terrible new understanding we realized there were only two possible ways to behave.

Either like so many others we could close our eyes and pretend everything was better than ever with Western Music, we could ignore its having become a magic free zone.  Or we could follow the example of the honest little boy who shouted out the emperor was wearing only his own skin.

But we’re too Neo-Confucian to be good at fooling ourselves.  So where he urged everyone to use their own eyes, we’re now begging you to use your own ears.

Because unless enough people face up to what Western Music has become, it’s finished.

Our aim is to goad you into taking a new and more dispassionate listen to your own list of personal favorites, to jolt you into trying to hear them as though for the very first time…. which you’ll find is far from easy.  Forming fresh impressions is more work than hanging on to past judgments.  The pull’s always towards just hearing your old favorites through memories of how good you once thought they were.

Still with luck that quiet little inner voice will sneak past the censor, the voice whispering “not so good… not so very good… not so good as I remember…”

Magic music still exists in the West, but as in India, not much of it is done by “professionals”.

There are guitar, mandolin, and banjo players who regularly jam over a few beers.

There are small church choirs.

There are virtuoso whistlers who automatically accompany everything they hear on the radio.

Occasionally even performers forget themselves and almost by accident weave a powerful enchanting spell.

But though this music is precious, none of it offers much hope for the future of Western Music.

Notation, Composers, and Standardized Instruments

It’s no accident magic music has become as rare in the West as we saw it to be in Varanasi.

For starters it’s been prey to the very same disorders which sucked the magic out of the Indian tradition.

Even as there’s now just “one India”, today we live in a single unified (mediocre small-minded modern) world.

And though optimistic futurists long preached this welding into “one world” to be essential for world peace and universal prosperity, realization of their noble sounding dream turns out to be a nightmare, and for much more than music.

It used to be when some civilization lost its edge and slipped into decadence, guys swinging sharp swords rode in on shaggy ponies and gave its culture a shot of barbarian vigor, gave it a chance to reinvent itself.

Now the great grand kids of the shaggy pony dudes wear blue jeans and carry cell phones.

In the West too performance has become more important than actually playing spell weaving magic music.

In the West too a small number of superstars dominate the scene and establish the styles every other performer tries to follow.

But for most Western Music, that’s for all of it which involves coordinating the sounds of many players (classical music, opera, big bands, marching bands, show music, arranged pop….), since before the Renaissance three additional interrelated developments have sped the rush towards magic free music….

  • The Invention of Modern Musical Notation:
    The new Western notation for the first time made feasible writing down music note by note, creating scores which performers can read even as one reads a page of prose.
  • The Birth of the Composer as a New Type of Musician:
    This new precise notation gave birth to the “composer”, a never before seen species of musician who used the new system to create long works of unprecedented complexity.
  • The Standardization of Instruments:
    This was an absolute necessity if the scores created by the new composers were to have any practical importance.  For that their written notes had to sound the same when played on any instrument (except for differences in color, texture, etc.)

We understand it may sound odd to describe as “problems” these innovations which seem so obviously to be “advances”.  Certainly more often they’ve been viewed as developments which set Western Music on a course towards ever greater brilliance, which opened the door for a new type of creativity.

It’s easy to forget only for a fraction of the time that human culture has existed on this planet, has music meant anything like what in the West is now called “music”.  No other culture on its own ever developed a musical notation based on standardized scales and rigidly timed and unchanging counted rhythms.  No other culture ever turned the creation of its music over to a caste of “composers” who write rather than play their music.  And no other culture ever successfully standardized its instruments or gave them standardized tunings.

It’s easy to forget that only for an eye blink has this uniquely Western system been so overwhelmingly dominant.

And there’s no doubt that taken together they did set the stage for the explosive growth of new types of structured sound.

However half a millennium later it’s clear these initially impressive new musical possibilities were actually quite limited, and that by committing itself to a quasi-scientific way of doing music the Western tradition had set itself squarely on course to its current dead end….

…. A dead end defined by the total absence of newness, by a progressively more devestating loss of magic, and by a flood of tingle free “music” which can overwhelm but not enchant.

Which is not to say that innovation and magic disappeared overnight.

For centuries inspired composers enthralled listeners by discovering fresh possibilities in the 12 tones and 4-5 different note lengths of the new notation.  For centuries performers found their way to magic by playing free and loose with their written scores, by being flexible about rhythms, by being willing to stretch, to hang, to twist, and to slide between the official notes.

But now the well has run dry.

Because at bottom the modern Western way of doing music is just not intended to produce magic, rather it’s designed to create teachable repeatable structures.

To say this a bit differently, in Western as in Indian Music there’s been a shift from inspiration to technique.

So we have classical performers whose tempo is so perfect and rigidly unchanging all emotion is squeezed out of their music.  We have “jazz” musicians who can play Coltrane note for note, and who learned to do it in conservatory classes.  We have pop musicians who are still rehashing rock and roll.  We have Blues singers who’ve never been broke.

We have legions of well trained technicians who don’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of finding their way to magic.

Anyway, by now you’ve probably noticed we’ve been making some sweeping seemingly implausible statements about Western Music.

We’ve actually dared claim in the West invention of a precise notational system, emergence of the composer as the supreme musician, and perfection of standardized instruments, three developments more commonly seen as the distinguishing crown jewels of the West’s way of doing music, have to the contrary contributed to draining the remaining magic from the tradition.

Well, now it’s time to back this up with more detailed looks at the negative effects of each of these developments….

The Invention of Modern Musical Notation

babylonian-notationWritten music is damn near as old as writing.  The Sumerians already could record rough instructions for performing specific pieces of music.

But not until the early fourteenth century in Europe did notations appear indicating the pitch, duration, and timing of all the notes in piece in a way which allowed suitably trained musicians to accurately perform it.

And that’s when things began to get sticky…….

Because this new type of notation which had started as a written description designed to aid memory, quickly morphed into a definition of the reality it claimed to describe, a definition which severely restricted what musicians were allowed to play in their search for magic.

The problem was the new system painted only a very approximate picture of what musicians had always and everywhere actually done.  It was a gross oversimplification that missed more than a little of their subtlety.

And unfortunately this dismissed subtlety is exactly where the magic of music lives.

It seldom shows its face in clean combinations of the shiny “new” 14th century precisely defined notes, magic is no friend of early modern science.  It’s far more likely to be found between the official notes, in twisting sliding tones and strange fuzzy blends of harmonics.  That’s where things get weird, where the music’s born that sets one’s skin to shivering.

Before music became something that was written down, performers sang or played whatever sounded good to them, their audiences, and their fellow musicians.  Nothing was specified in terms of exact unchanging frequencies.

In Indian classical music the soloist still determines the pitch of his “Sa”, which would be like a Western musician picking the pitch of “C”.  While in a raga the musically important microtones are understood to be only roughly halfway between the half tones, and so are poetically not analytically described as different “flavors” of the notes.  In the same spirit, the “quartertones” of our quartertone kalimbas are only approximately midway between their halftones.

Until very recently, no one had an electronic tuner.

Similarly magic is more likely off the beat than right on the thump of a regular counted rhythm, more likely in intuitively felt syncopations, hesitations, and accelerations.

But after the new notation took over, once performers started at a particular pace they had to rigidly maintain that rhythm right to the bitter end, or at least to the point where their scores indicated a change….

…. putting Western Music into a rhythmic straightjacket which only added to the already terrible tonal restraints imposed by outlawing all but the official notes.  Both steered Western Music in a scientific mechanical direction totally opposed to the spirit of magic.

Adding insult to injury, the new notation brainwashed musicians into believing two simultaneous sounds blend and create a perceived-as-sweet unity only when their fundamental frequencies are related by a simple mathematical ratio.

This dumbed down and severely limiting mathematical theory of consonance bears very much the same relationship to the actual experience of perceived musical sweetness as the dumbed down idea of absolutely regular counted rhythm bears to “groove”.  And of course it set still further limits on what a Western musician was allowed to do in his search for thought stopping inspired music.

We have to suspect, though admittedly we don’t quite have historical evidence to back this up, that these changes were part of the general closing of the late medieval mind.  After all they happened right about the time the church was formalizing and standardizing its ritual, when previously tolerated differences of opinion became heresies which could get you burned.

That the earliest modern notational systems came into being largely to simplify the task of training church choirs, makes it even more plausible to see the restrictive new notation as part of this same authoritarian trend.  It was a way of making sure everyone in a large choir was singing the same thing, was being well behaved and doing what they were supposed to do.

But perhaps the most spectacular negative effect of the new notational system was to separate the creation of musical ideas from the act of playing them.  This made possible emergence of a totally new type of musician, the composer, who quickly won acclaim as the supreme musician, the practitioner of the art in its “purest” form….

Birth of the Composer

Still one must pity the poor composer.

For one thing his palette is so limited, just 12 tones and half a dozen note lengths.  But that’s all he gets because his very existence is tied to his notation, for him musical ideas it can’t write are strictly off limits.

To get around this, frustrated composers devise new notations which do things like dividing up the octave differently.  But however they wiggle, it all boils down to not much more than a change of masters, in the end they’re still slaves to their new systems.

The problem goes deeper, in music it’s system itself which is the enemy of magic.  If one wants to build a bridge, well the scientific world view is spot on, but when the technical way of doing things pushes itself forward as the proper way to create beauty, in the end it always stifles creativity.

As if this weren’t enough handicap, while a composer is actually creating his music, it exists only in his brain.  The poor dude can’t even hear his work until later when it’s played for him!

mozartTo be sure he can try out ideas on a keyboard.  But say he’s writing something for a violin, an instrument with a continuous ever changing sound profoundly different from that of any keyboard.  Well then prior to its performance, it’s still true the most he can do is imagine how it will sound.  Even if he has an electronic keyboard loaded with sampled violin sound, the sampled sound is only vaguely like the real thing.

As problematical, since the composer only thinks his music he must do without the precious feedback he would get if he actually played the instruments.  He never feels the sound coming out from under his fingers or forming from his breath.

It’s difficult to understand what a big deal this is since in the Western tradition only singer songwriters and a few jazzmen still play their own work.  But before the composers took over, that’s what every music creator did.  Even now it’s still the case in many non-western traditions.  When an Indian plays a raga he’s creating it on the fly, though of course if it’s a raga he’s played many times, chunks are from memory.  Still there’s always a bit of improvisation.

Certainly feedback from our instruments has been incredibly valuable for our own music.  We’re always alert for musical ideas suggested by unintended fingerings, buzzes and squeaks.  We listen for and learn to use sounds our instruments want to sing, even as we learn to avoid those we must drag from them by force.

We feel we‘ve discovered not invented our music, very much like Michelangelo felt he was uncovering the statue hidden in his block of stone.

Giving us yet another reason to feel sorry for the poor composer.

Players too had their experience impoverished when inventing musical ideas was split off from actually producing musical sound.

By delegating the joy and responsibility of such creation to composers, they were reduced to doing something very much like painting a picture by the numbers, very much like filling in the colors on a previously prepared canvass, even as the poor composers miss out on the joy and magic of actually playing music.

So neither performers nor composers get to enjoy being truly complete musicians.  It’s an after-the-fall sort of situation in which both are less likely to be fully satisfied or richly inspired.

Once more the overspecialization rampant in our modern world, in the name of greater power and efficiency ended up making life less rich.

It would be bad enough if this lack of feedback and his limited palette were the only handicaps facing the composer.

But they’re not.

The composer is also tempted by delusions of grandeur.

It’s all too easy for him to write music for a large group of many musicians.  When he’s penned a part for one violin, if they’re on the same line of the same page of his score, five or even a hundred violins can play it simultaneously.

But a hundred violins playing together put out only a kind of averaged sound.  The sensitive little individual expressive touches which add character and magic to music disappear into a kind of mush.

That’s why one’s more likely to be taken to another world by a string quartet than a symphony for strings.  As Japanese tea masters know, a single bloom in a simple vase can have more magic than a whole field of huge showy flowers.

The ability to write music for masses of performers must have fit nicely with the competitive materialism of Renaissance patrons eager to show they were rich enough to support a large ensemble.

To be sure a huge orchestra can with brute force volume blast listeners into a different state of consciousness.  But that’s a very crude form of magic akin to the thrill one gets by being part of a mob.  It’s the magic involved with mass human sacrifices and the outsized public events favored by dictators.  It’s the magic worked by over amplified modern pop music with its hoards of seductive backup dancers.  It’s a kind of black magic catering to the lowest and most dangerous aspects of human nature.

As people who have always loved music, we can not help but find this deeply disturbing.

But back to our argument….

Writing for too many musicians who then produce too much sound is just one of the materialistic temptations facing the composer.

That he doesn’t have to play his own compositions also tempts him to write pointlessly fast music, music playable only by overspecialized performers who’ve had their creativity beaten out of them by years of excessive practice.  And even for such technical virtuosos just getting out the speeding notes takes all of their attention, so not much is left for subtlety.

Very fast music can have a consciousness changing effect, but it’s the same sort of crude brute force magic about which we’ve ranted in connection with the consciousness changing effect of volume.

For the same reason the composer is often seduced into writing excessively complicated music that by its very nature appeals more to the brain than to the soul, music which drives the performer’s CPU usage up to 100% and again leaves him without the headroom necessary to do magic.

So you see there really are reasons to pity the poor composer, or at least to be a bit understanding when he fails to produce much thought stopping music.

Doing magic is dauntingly difficult even when the force is with you, but if at the same time you’re fighting a whole flock of interlocking limitations and temptations such as beset the composer, it’s almost impossible.

Standardized Instruments

medieval-instrumentsWithout instruments engineered to produce the standard notes of its scales, the Western system of notation wouldn’t be much use.  Unless when played the written notes always sound the same, composers could never create their uniquely complicated works.

Fortunately for them many Western instruments were soon turned into tuned standardized machines reasonably good at reliably putting out the fundamental frequencies of the official notes.

It would be an oversimplification to blame the reduced variety of Western instruments solely on the demands of its notation.

Many “old fashioned” instruments became extinct even though they already worked quite nicely with the notation.  (The seventh chapter of Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus lovingly describes some of these elegant now vanished wonders.)

But doing this meant taming, limiting, and disciplining the rich stew of harmonics which gave earlier instruments their warm mysterious voices.

Sure their engineered replacements do in some sense put out “cleaner” sound, but it’s smooth, regular, dry, flavorless sound ill suited for creating magic music.

Also to insure closely spaced notes penned by speed intoxicated composers are heard as separate, to prevent them from blurring together, the new standardized instruments must produce tones with very little ring, tones as “crisp” as they are “clean”.

But ringless tones are inherently less transporting and magical.  They’re the opposite of the resonant mysterious choir and organ sounds which take worshippers to other worlds in the cool dim depths of an old stone church.

That the new standardized instruments sound best when played loudly makes the situation still worse, since instruments played loudly are predisposed to put out this type of anti-magical “clean and crisp” sound.

For string instruments high tension steel replaced gut.  For wind instruments metal in general replaced wood.  Huge pianos with hit strings replaced delicate harpsichords with plucked strings….

If when bowing one really leans on a high tension steel string, it gives out only the note you’re after.  Then you’ve successfully dominated and controlled the string, made sure it does what it’s supposed to do.

But when one softly bows a loose gut string, interesting unexpected things happen, the sound is more likely to be warm, complicated, weird, and magical.  (Like the bowed sound of that Indian street singer who could pull tears from 100% of his listeners.)

Blowing hard into a metal Boehm flute produces a “clean” well behaved tone.

Blowing softly into a bamboo flute leads to whisper tones and unexpected harmonics, to a celestial not a shiny, mechanical, “clean, and crisp” sound.

It’s tempting to see this preference for well behaved tones as part of the modern control fetish.  Not only all of us humans, but even all of our instruments are supposed to do what they’re supposed to do….

According to this view clear tones and clear thinking are where it’s at….

But if all one does is think clearly, one can kiss goodbye to magic.

Without Magic,
We Have No Music

Our instruments do such a terrible job with the official notes, they’re useless for conventional music.

Yet when we’re on, when magic flows through our fingers, what we play holds together, makes its own kind of sense.

Obsessive running thoughts fade, calm, excited, a door opens to an unseen world.

Clumsy words for a gift from elsewhere, a mysterious something you have to be there to really understand.

When it doesn’t happen, when for whatever reason magic stays away, helpless we drift in a sea of clunky souless sound.  No guidance from theory, no key rhythm or score, without magic our fingers are lost, don’t know what to do.  We try, we go through the motions, but what we play is no longer music.

That’s what happenned after recording Work in Progress.  For 7 grim years our instruments were little more than painful reminders of what we’d lost.

Still behind the screen things were happening.  Yes we weren’t playing music, but the grooves in our brains were wearing thin, suffering enduring learning, the stage was being set for newness.

Incubation over, in 2020 our music roared back to life.

Now aged 78 and 63 it’s reaching a weird maturity far beyond our wildest dreams.

Such turning back the clock, this growing when we should be shrinking, that’s magic.

The Indian Music Scene
The Emperor Has No Clothes
The Street Singer
Our Instruments**Unspecialized
Doing Music Differently