[Our Story So Far: Stuff about playing the viola and its clef. Above.]
Sound can be louder than the voice, but sound cannot be more living than the voice.
Knowing this the Hindus of ancient times said that singing is the first art, playing the second art, and dancing the third art which make music. The Hindus who have found that by these three different aspects of music one attains to spirituality much sooner than by any other way, have discovered that the shortest way to attain spiritual heights is by singing.
Now, old Hazrat said something that stuck with me for a long time that didn’t quite compute. The exact quote eludes me, but it was something on the order of there is a difference between real music, and technically accomplished noise. Children and animals can tell what it is but very few human adults can. Here’s a parallel quote:
Music has an effect upon animals. I have made experiments with cows and found that they very much liked to listen to music. There was an old ox in particular which, when it heard an instrument played, would leave its fodder and come to listen.
Birds are very fond of music. I have seen a peacock which, when I played the vina before it, would listen and spread out its wings and begin to dance. Then it would follow me and each day it would come a little nearer. It took such a delight in music that it danced and quite forgot everything else. When I stopped playing, it would come and tap the vina with its beak to get me to come back and play again.
And then I met a cockatiel named “Merlin.”
I suppose you would classify him a pet, but I am one of those who don’t believe that you can actually “own” an animal the way you own a coffee cup. This is a minority view, I have learned.
Merlin the Cockatiel — sometimes called “Merlie-Bird” — vaguely tolerated our rock and roll vinyl collection, but on one song in particular, he was VERY impressed. To him THAT was music. And, after awhile, I would notice that he would dance and even sing along if he thought it was music. In fact, if he really liked it, he would jam along with it, and I believe that if he were recycled as a human, he’d be one AMAZiNG sax player.
Merlin’s first pick as “music”? The guitar solo on the Rolling Stone’s studio version of “Sympathy for the Devil.” Not the sort of Mozartian thing you’d expect from a bird, but he used to solo on TOP of that solo, bobbing and dancing, and it was invariably an incredible, nuanced performance.
Now, understand, it never occurred to me to turn it into a “trick” and offer sunflower seeds as an inducement. He sang and danced as pleased him. He was a friend and an honored guest; not a circus performer to amuse our friends.
But you could tell that, as a bird, he was sort of amused by our presumption as humans that we knew ANYTHING about music. Birds are far more musical than we, as silent study in the forest will show after a time. He rather tolerated our music, but would occasionally converse with birds outside the window. I’m pretty sure they were talking about US. And, whatever birds use as laughter was prominent in those conversations.
The problem, of course, is listening.
Finally, there is an old Theosophical Society aphorism, “Listen to the music of life.” Merlin taught me that it is to be taken literally and not merely as another New Age bumper sticker. I used his ears and paid attention to what he thought was “music” and what merely bored him. A few things actively upset him, and I noted them too, as a sort of “anti-music.”*
(* No, we’re not talking about karaoke. That comes later.)
Over time, I could distinguish between music and artfully produced noise, and there is a distinct, if subtle difference. They say, in the martial arts schools, that if you want to learn grace, raise a cat and learn from it. If you want to learn music, raise a musical bird and learn from it. The song of the crow is never to be preferred over the meadowlark. Get a MUSICAL bird.
Merlie-Bird taught me music, and he was a patient tutor. He opened an entire world of sound to me.
I began to learn to hear the sound of the intake of a singer’s breath — which we all hear but filter out. I started to hear the faint whisper of a guitarist’s fingers on the strings, the almost silent turning of a page and other extraneous sounds that were present, but which I, like everybody else, filter out through that amazing capacity of the mind to ignore whole streams of data. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based his character Sherlock Holmes on the practice of actually paying attention and observing.
Listening is a conscious practice, not merely something that you were born with. My Aikido instructor once admonished us: What did you learn about walking today?
We were nonplussed. Huh? What the hell was he talking about?
You walk every day, he said. You ought to be learning new things about walking, if you are paying any attention. The same holds true with listening. The young writer is always admonished to develop “the writer’s eye,” and, in the pre-tape-recorder era, to develop the “writer’s ear.” Writers from Twain to Hemingway attuned their listening to catch the cadences and rhythms of speech.
Luckily, we now have machines to listen for us, so we don’t hear; and we have devices to capture our vacation visually — both still and moving — for us, so we don’t really see.
Like projectionists’ marks on old chemical emulsion film movies. (Also known as “cue marks.”) If y0u’ve been shown them, you always see them. But if you haven’t, you probably ever won’t.
We have lost our sense of music, I think — at least we don’t truly listen. We each move to the bebop of our own invisible drummer and, if enough of us do, then TIME Magazine writes about the phenomenon. You know, like the Macarena, the Twist, the Polka or “American Idol.”
Apart from singing, even in speaking, among one hundred persons you will find one who speaks in his natural voice, and ninety-nine who imitate. They imitate someone else; they do not know it. The same thing that you find in grown-up people you will find in little children. The tendency in a little child is to change and to imitate. Every five or ten days, every month a child changes his way of speaking; his voice, his words, many things he changes. And where does he learn it? From the children in school. He sees a child walking in some way, or making gestures, or frowning, or he hears it speaking in a certain way. He does not realize it, but he has heard it and he does the same thing; so he goes on changing.
In the same way every person – also without knowing it changes his voice, and so the natural voice is lost. To retain one’s natural voice is a great power in itself, but one cannot always retain it.
We humans are exceptional imitators, but rarely innovators, rarely artists, and true music is less ubiquitous than you might think. Loads and lots of mimicking felines, however.
Have you ever noticed the ongoing evolution of the pole vault? For a long time, a certain height will be impossible, especially at artificial numbers: Fifteen Feet. Eighteen Feet. Nobody can vault it. But, a week after one vaulter clears it, and shatters the old world record, three other guys can do it, and ten to twenty years later, HIGH SCHOOL kids are doing it.
The same holds true of music. An Eddie Van Halen creates a new technique of pinging the harmonics on the fretboard and within a year, a thousand non-musical guitarists can replicate the trick. Within five years it is a standard technique taught by guitar teachers at community colleges. Somewhere between music and karaoke, the technicians hold their sacred spots as job security, but most of it isn’t music.
It isn’t their fault, of course. We, a mechanized society have required a mechanized music, and a standardized time signature for everyone to keep in oom-pah-pah lockstep. Until the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s ‘Take Five’ busted open the 4/4 and 3/4 time signatures that virtually all Western classical, popular and jazz were boxed in. (Country music remains incarcerated behind the waltz and 4/4 curtain to this very day.)
That changed in 1959, with the 5/4 “Take Five.” From the “Take Five” liner notes:
For a number of years, the [Dave Brubeck] Quartet frequently used a polyrhythmic approach within improvised solos. In 1958, we shared the experience of traveling in the Middle East and India and playing with musicians from those countries, where folk music was not limited to 4/4. [Drummer Joe] Morello astonished Indian drummers by his ability to answer their tabla rhythms precisely within the raga; and I felt immediately intrigued by the 9/8 rhythm I heard on the streets of Istanbul. Combining the Turkish 9/8 pattern with the classical rondo form and the blues resulted in “Blue Rondo A La Turk,” the flip side of “Take Five.” …
– Dave Brubeck, November, 1996
Western music chose harmony, retaining melody, but losing rhythm, which was elaborated and embellished everywhere else in the world, but in Western music, which remained determinedly Oom-Pah-Pah until 1959. But we had fashioned a system in which musicians were interchangable parts, and black spots were a unversal language. It was a marvel, but incredibly rigid. And easy to create NOT music in.
Music is the expression of that time, that moment, and we all have our secret music, the song that instantly transports us to the seat of a Chevy Apache pickup truck, practicing the Skirmishes of Venus. And no one but us (and that other skirmisher) know that secret music. It is the music that weds us to time, and I have always wondered why we don’t play the music of their eras in old folks’ homes, so that they could have the comfort of their secret musics.
As powerfully as Proust noted smell was, music can take us hypnogogically back to the very presence of that moment. Sometimes, out of the blue, a song will play that we haven’t heard for years, and we will be instantaneously returned to a specific place in time.
For instance, “Marrakesh Express” by Crosby Stills and Nash instantly transports me to a boulder in the center of Libby Creek, in the mountains above Centennial, Wyoming on a summer afternoon without mosquitoes, with the warm sun on my back, watching the white water as the creek dashed down the boulder-strewn streambed to meet the Little Laramie River. I can hear the water’s rush with an inner ear that is separate from the distinct sound of the song. I had a transistor radio, with the one ear plug, and it was on an old top 40 AM radio. There was static because of the mountains. There was, in a small eddy behind a boulder, a swirl of mysterious foam, gray and soapy. I could just make out my silhouette on the roiling water.
Libby Creek, Wyoming
That’s our secret music. But that music is what we usually hear. We don’t actually LISTEN to it. We seem to have lost that. And after the Second World War, for the first time in our history, perhaps, we stopped singing together. We started singing to the radio in our cars.
And we have lost something that we used to know not to lose. As in the tale, via Wikipedia:
“The Nightingale” (Danish: “Nattergalen”) is a literary fairy tale by Danish poet and author Hans Christian Andersen (1805 – 1875). The story is about an emperor who prefers the tinkling of a bejeweled mechanical bird to the song of a real nightingale. When the Emperor is near death, the nightingale’s song restores his health.
And that’s almost what brings us to our coda.
Not everybody who can sound like Joe Cocker is Joe Cocker. And, while thousands of musicians have ‘covered’ “With a Little Help from my Friends” Joe Cocker’s cover has become mythic. Why is that, do you suppose?
Karaoke was launched (some would say imposed or foisted) on the world by the Japanese. The word is a combination of the Japanese words for “empty” and “orchestra.” It caught on in Japan in the 1970s and spread around the world. By the 1990s, it had become a cheap way for American bars and nightclubs (and elsewhere) to offer cheap, reliable “musical entertainment” with karaoke nights. There are several locally. I often see signs for karaoke nights when I’m on the road.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.
– Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad
… a form of interactive entertainment or video game in which amateur singers sing along with recorded music (and/or a music video) using a microphone and public address system. The music is typically a well-known pop song minus the lead vocal. Lyrics are usually displayed on a video screen, along with a moving symbol or changing color and/or music video images, to guide the singer. In some countries, a karaoke box is called a KTV. Due to its English pronunciation, it is sometimes incorrectly spelled “kareoke”. It is also a term used by recording engineers translated as “empty track” meaning there is no vocal track.
current karaoke contest poster
Basically, it is a party game wherein various parties take the stage and sing along to the canned music. A sort of creepy Japanese trick: letting “normal” people pretend to be celebrity pop stars. It caught on in Asia, and then the USA, which, in its hyperthyroid steroid-fueled hypercompetitiveness turned it into a competition and then a blood sport, as it has filtered through popular culture into ubiquity. If you really hate music, there is no better place than a karaoke bar to really appreciate just how much you hate it. And, of course, you’re virtually guaranteed that you’ll never HEAR any actual music, which makes it a refuge as well.
And then came the perfect vehicle to tap in to the fever to “be famous” and “be a star” — the successor to Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour, and StarSearch, The Gong Show and a gazillion other talent shows — the latest iteration of the “talent search” show, groomed and manicured to tap into that karaoke mania, ‘American Idol.’
It is cunningly devised:
American Idol is a reality television competition to find new solo singing talent. Part of the Idol franchise, it was created by Simon Fuller as a spin-off from the British show Pop Idol, of which two series were broadcast between 2001 and 2003. Debuting on June 11, 2002, as American Idol: The Search for a Superstar on the Fox network, the show has since become one of the most popular in the history of American television. It is currently the #1 program in the Nielsen ratings and is one of only three that have been #1 for five consecutive seasons, along with All in the Family and The Cosby Show.
The program aims to discover the best singer in the country through a series of nationwide auditions in which viewer voting determines the winner.
One of Wednesday’s moments of unintentional comedy was the billing of Mr. Cowell, in a clip shown from an early episode of “Idol,” as “U.K. Record Executive.” Addressing a room of hopefuls, he said, “One of you here today is going to be the most famous person in America, the American Idol.”
At the time it seemed like lunacy but now seems prescient, thanks in large part to Mr. Cowell, who is not only the “king maker” Ricky Gervais described him as in a video tribute, but also an astute marketer and molder of image. His pathological truth-telling proved to be addictive — great television, if not always a guarantee of recording career success for the show’s winners.
But, finally, it was less about ‘music’ and more a Roman Coliseum version of “dance, monkey dance” for the “emperor” of the popular vote:
The finals are broadcast live in prime time from CBS Television City in Los Angeles, in front of a live studio audience. The finals lasted for eight weeks in season one and eleven weeks in subsequent seasons. Each finalist performs a song or songs selected from a weekly theme. During the first few weeks, contestants sing one song each. The top four and five contestants must sing two songs apiece. The top three perform three songs apiece.
Themes are based on a musical genre, songs recorded by particular artists, or more generic themes such Billboard #1 hits, or songs from each contestant’s year of birth. In the past, themes have included Motown, disco, and big band music, as well as music by such artists as Michael Jackson, The Beatles, Queen, Billy Joel, Bee Gees, Gloria Estefan, Elton John, Mariah Carey, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Dolly Parton, and Elvis Presley. Contestants usually work with a celebrity mentor during each week.
Right. Can we merely spell “karaoke”? Sure, it’s glitzed and gussied up. Sure there are 65 million Americans voting for their “American Idol,” but it’s a marketing machine. To think that from the entire rebellion and epiphany of rock and roll, that we have come from Buddy Holly to the Beatles to U2 in a musical renaissance that spread over the entire planet to arrive at a tightly-controlled and choreographed mega-media karaoke contest, the musical equivalent of ”Rollerball,” is perhaps too depressing to contemplate.
And perhaps a bazillion singers can sound like Joe Cocker doing “With a Little Help from my Friends.” But why have they never been heard beyond their local clubs? His version is authentic. Theirs are mere copies. His voice has a special power, quite apart from pitch. Part of it is identity: he is authentically his musical self. Theirs is mechanical replication: a human mimicking a phonograph; a mechanical nightingale singing for a sick king.
I’ve heard Judy Collins’ astonishing, crystalline voice fill an opera hall with a living, ineffable presence. But it wasn’t the “sound.” It was something else.
And, to perfect their karaoke music marketing machine, ‘American Idol’ brings in actual musicians like Joe Cocker to do duets with their karaoke finalists, thus seamlessly interweaving real music with Xerox copy music. Were the producers/music agents/marketers of ‘American Idol’ Pavlov, and we were dogs, we would drool at their bell.
Hell, we already do.
New ‘American Idol’ logo
The show and its producers have been criticized for what some claim to be total control of the careers of the winners of the contest. Guest judge Elton John called the show ‘incredibly racist’ in a press conference after African American contestants Jennifer Hudson, LaToya London and Fantasia Barrino received the 3 lowest numbers of votes resulting in the elimination of Hudson. Others pointed to vote splitting as the more likely cause. Since the 2004 season, the vote has been manipulated to some degree by online community services such as DialIdol.com, Worldsentiment.com, and VotefortheWorst.com.
But who cares? The free publicity of cheating only pushes the numbers up.
And, of course, don’t forget the hellish selection and audition process.
If you win the “American Idol” spinoff at Disneyland, you get ‘cuts’ in line — that most American form of cheating:
The last show of each operating day will feature the winners of that day’s preliminary shows. Again, the live audience votes for the performer they like the best. During the show, the audience is prompted to encourage the contestants and heckle the judges. Each day’s final winner will receive a “Dream Ticket” that will allow him or her to bypass the queue at one of the regional American Idol auditions for the television show …
It’s the Willy Wonka of the Wecuding Industwy.
Make ‘em famous. Sell their albums. Send ‘em on tour. Grab all the cash possible, and then spit them back out. An assembly line approach to music that Henry Ford might have appreciated.
Now, it may be possible for an actual musician to slip through. But that’s not what it’s about: what ‘American Idol’ guarantees is a Roman Spectacle of product placement and high-powered marketing masking a blood sport karaoke contest:
American Idol is often noted for advertising its sponsors during the show’s runtime. Idol showed 4,151 product placements in its first 38 episodes during season 7, according to Nielsen Media Research. As the top-rated television show in the United States, Idol earns an average of $623,000 for a 30-second commercial.
Coca-Cola is a major sponsor in the U.S., and all the judges, hosts, and contestants are seen consuming beverages out of cups bearing the Coca-Cola logo although video evidence suggests there is no liquid in the cups.
Deception and trickery. Fakery and jim-crackery. Good for selling kitsch to the couch potatoes, but not exactly conducive to music. No: it’s gladiatorial combat. Blood sport as the acid-tongued Simon slays the dreams of karaoke singers to the delight of millions, as the gladiators drink invisible fluid from Coca-Cola cups. And the breathless media industry covering the media industry reports, and even sober newspapers like the New York Times decides that the flavor of the moment is “news” and dutifully reports the box scores of each episode. You can’t entirely ignore it; I have tried, and it is not possible.
But I love music, and I have nothing positive to say about watching the lampreys of the entertainment industry feed on their live prey — under the aegis, appropriately, of Rupert Murdoch.
Either lampreys or music agents (note teeth)
Joe Cocker appeared on the finale. Mike Finnegan was there, backing him on keyboards. Other musicians were in attendance, for, as musicians have known for 7,000 years: a gig is a gig, and you travel where the money is. But mere presence of actual musicians does not, in fact, relieve the odoriferous presence of the blight of karaoke:
… And tragically, this year’s most memorable and lasting performance may have been the novelty song “Pants on the Ground,” performed by Larry Platt in an audition. He appeared on Wednesday’s finale, naturally, alongside another one of the show’s great oddities, the tuneless William Hung.
It was no stranger a duet pairing than many of the night’s other performances, which matched this season’s contestants with the favorite musicians of their parents’ generation. The male pop stars brought out for these duets — Joe Cocker, Alice Cooper, the Bee Gees and more — had an average age of about 60. The women — Christina Aguilera, Janet Jackson, Alanis Morissette — skewed younger, but, apart from Ms. Aguilera, were not current pop threats.
With that Amazing TeeVee viewership, ‘American Idol’ is, of course, a phenomenon. As Jimmy Fallon noted last night in his monologue: naming the winner he added “or, as he’ll be known next year, ‘Who’s He?’”
Closing the book
What matters is that the marketing machine rolls on. Karaoke Kompetition to the masses. Anybody can be a superstar. Out there are the stars of the future. Of course, if you BECOME a star, we own the marketing rights, and control your career. We cash in on your exposure. With the 65 million viewers, one million in record sales only requires a 1.5% response. That’s good odds for advertising response:
the D[irect] M[arketing] A[ssociation] analyzed 1,122 industry-specific campaigns and determined that the average response rate for direct mail was 2.61%.
So, nine persons have had their “fairy tale” come true, only to find themselves owned by their promoters. Hundreds of millions have voted, only to be endlessly bombarded with product placement and ads, ads, ads; Rupert Murdoch has laughed all the way to the bank and a thousand cheapjack “entertainment” journos have written ten thousand monkeys’ worth of breathless coverage of Ultimate Karaoke, and that’s the end of the story, right?
And here is a story told by Hazrat Inayat Khan:
Image of Tansen, Indian National Museum, New Delhi
Tansen, the Court Musician of Akbar
There is an old story of Tansen, the great musician at the court of Akbar. The Emperor once asked him, “Tell me, O great musician, who was your teacher?” He replied, “Your Majesty, my teacher is a very great musician, but more than that; I cannot call him Musician, I must call him Music.” The Emperor asked, “Can I hear him sing?” Tansen answered, “Perhaps, I may try. But you can not think of calling him here to the court.” The Emperor said, “Can I go where he is?” The musician said, “His pride may revolt even there, thinking he is to sing before a king.”
Akbar said, “Shall I go as your servent?” Tansen answered, “Yes, there is hope then.” So both of them went up into the Himalayas, into the high mountains, where the sage had his temple of music in a cave, living with nature, in tune with the infinite.
When they arrived, the musician was on horseback, and Akbar walking. The sage saw that the Emperor had humbled himself to come and hear his music, and he was willing to sing for him; and when he felt in the mood for singing, he sang. And his singing was great; it was a psychic phenomenon like nothing else. It seemed as if all the trees and plants of the forest were vibrating; it was the song of the universe.
The deep impression made upon both Akbar and Tansen was more than they could stand; they went into a state of trance, of rest, and of peace. And while they were in that state, the master left the cave. When they opened their eyes he was not there. The Emperor said, “O, what strange phenomenon! But where has the Master gone?” Tansen said, “You will never see him in this cave again, for once a man has got a taste of this, he will pursue it, even if it costs him his life. It is greater than anything in life.”
When they went home again the Emperor asked the musician one day, “Tell me what raga, what mode did your master sing?” Tansen told him the name of the raga, and then sang it for him, but the Emperor was not content, saying, “Yes, it is the same music, but it is not the same spirit. Why is this?” The musician replied, “The reason is this, that while I sing before you, the Emperor of my country, my Master sang before God . . . and that is the difference.”
Here’s an alternative ending:
Then Tan Sen practized a little trick and himself sang a piece before his old master, making a slight mistake in doing so. The master at once called his attention to it and showed him how to sing it properly, and then went on in a wonderful burst of song, while the Emperor listened enraptured. Afterwards, as they were going back to the palace, the Emperor said to Tan Sen, “Why cannot you sing like that?” “I have to sing whenever my Emperor commands.” said Tan Sen, “but he only sings in obedience to the inner voice.”
– Arthur Whitten, Music of the Ancients p. 21
I read the story. I enjoyed the story, and thought that I knew what it meant.
But I didn’t.
Now, during those eight years of leading the mantrums at group meditation, something happened. Then it happened again, as though I needed a repeat, just to be sure that I wasn’t hallucinating it.
One night, a group of amateur musicians all breathed in (on my cue) and began their mantrum, a long, single note.
And something happened. The sound of those voices perfectly meshed and blended, and just for a long, timeless moment you could literally hear choirs of angels. The cosmic “middle C” where the music of the spheres and the human voices were equally and intrinsically present.
And it wasn’t just me. Everyone had heard it, as we found out talking after the meditation, in the tea room. It had been an “objective” experience.
A short time later, it happened again.
It was an indescribable sound, in many ways. Like trying to explain color to a blind man, or, perhaps, sex to a virgin. You’ve either experienced it or you haven’t. Real knowledge is that way. You truly know a thing when you’ve experienced a thing. It’s not the same as reading it in a book, or watching it on a screen of whatever dimension. You’ve either climbed a sheer cliff or you haven’t.
And that was when I understood what the story of the musician and the emperor was about.
Which is why I refuse to watch ‘American Idol.’
There exists in the East a legend which relates that God made a statue of clay in His own image, and asked the soul to enter into it. But the soul refused to enter into this prison, for its nature is to fly about freely, and not be limited and bound to any sort of captivity. The soul did not wish in the least to enter this prison. Then God asked the angels to play their music and, as the angels played, the soul was moved to ecstasy. Through that ecstasy – in order to make this music more clear to itself- it entered this body.
NOTE: I am not a follower of Hazrat Khan, nor am I a Sufi. I chose a single text to keep things simple. These views on music are widespread in the East, as the alternate ending to the story of Tansen the Musician implies.