What Comes from Nothing: Encountering Emptiness in Music.

The concept of Shunya or ‘emptiness’ has kept on popping its evanescent head into my practices recently. I recognise my natural inclination towards the nirguna path: that is, understanding the ultimate reality, or the sacred, as beyond form, beyond grasp, beyond the beyond, ever slipping away to nyaara, the utterly other. There are also silhouettes of Zen Buddhism here, which made an early influence on my spiritual enquiries. We have an innate sense of the beyond, I find. I connect with it particulary through the breath, the way that each inhalation is a pause, a gap in the singing, drawing from something beyond the self, outside of ones own body, and drawing it in, the universal becoming the personal. There is something about the breath which draws us back to our quiet origins. Looking at breath without the lenses of conditioning, it becomes obvious how the substance of  mind is borrowed from the universal, entering in the magical pause of the inhalation.

To feel, in singing, the fluidity between what is other, external, and what is self, internal, can also make the normally perceived boundaries between things seem less solid. And when I sing, I am resonating both the space within me, or my body, and also the space around me. Where is that voice coming from? To produce it I just have to clear the space for it to come. And where does its energy come from: that piece of the Universal called the in-breath. Looking into breath and mind in this way one may catch glimpses of the Shunya inherent in all things. And I become aware of  that space which Reinhard Flatischler would call the ‘inaudible’ level of the music, the inner ripple which dialogs with the audible, an idea which could have been inspired by the ancient Indian concept of the anahata naada, the ‘unstruck sound’. This comes back to the feeling of listening into the silences.

I was inspired by something I read in a wonderful little book by Sheila Dhar, called ‘The Cooking of Music’, where she narrates many of her experiences in the by-gone days of Indian Classical music (ICM), when the musicians were often much less worldly than their modern counterparts. She mentions how the founders of her own linage (the Kirana gharana) based their formal approach upon “drawing deeply from the silence” (!). In fact, I noticed long ago that many of the oldest recordings of ICM reveal longer and more poignant use of silences between phrases, and this imparts the music with a more numinous quality than one will hear today. More space = more spirit? In the music of Kumar Gandharva you can hear these spaces take on a being of their own, charged and drawing you towards the anahata Naada, towards the ineffable origin. Not surprising that Kumar was also passionate about Nirguna bhakti , suggested by his extraordinary compositions of the poetry of Kabir.

I am reading a beautiful and insightful book on  Kumar and Kabir, by Linda Hess, called ‘Singing Emptiness’. In it she suggests that the Indian concept of swara differs from the occidental conception of ‘a note’, in being not just a fixed point to hit or line to hold , “but a deep space to which one gains access through an opening of the self.” She quotes from Raghava Menon (“The Musical journey of Kumar Gandharva”):

 One who doesn’t know the nature of silence, he quotes Kumarji as saying, can neither speak nor sing. Singing is ‘built on the substance of silence…at the very centre of every swara there is hidden a vast…silence’ ( Hess, quoting from Menon).


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