POSTCARD#59: Chiang Mai: I’m awake before it’s light, start the computer and there’s a link to a music file of Gregorian Chant [Zen Flash/Gregorian Chant]. Click on that? Do I really need to have this kind of thing at 5 o’clock in the morning? Is it too early for the mystical voices and rustle of ecclesiastical robes of 10th Century Churchianity? Naw… go for it. The darkness of the rooms here and glow of the screen suit the dramatic nature of the performance – a world ‘created’ by God (the power of the church), manipulated, some would say, and thinking about it gives me the willies… but the breathlessness of the chant, itself, wow! The phenomenon of exhaled air pushing through partly closed vocal cords, opening for the next breath then closing, and it does it again and again. The absolute physiological miracle of it. Forget the applied ‘meaning’ of Christianity or Islam or Hindu – it’s just the ‘voice’ that’s in it. Tone quality created in volume of throat, in void of mouth, intricate cranial cavities generate high frequencies, and the whole head is resonating like a fantastical musical horn, or a trumpet-like whistling wind-instrument, or acoustic device fixed at the top of the vocalist’s body. The performing ‘harmonic’ of human voice (and gasp of inbreath that follows it), echoing in stone walls of old Europe and holy places a thousand years old – listening to it blows me away…
After a while, there’s some light in the sky and the birds have started their dawn chorus all around me here in tropical South East Asia, third floor, level with the treetops – open all the windows and let the sound in. Allow the intermingling Gregorian Chant to overlay on the flow of random exotic birdsong. An extraordinary mix. Birdsong is unstructured, uncreated, unmade – a song ‘unsung’ like the sound that water makes rushing over and through the pebbles in a stream, a myriad of small collisions, the incidental harmony of it. I have to go and hear this birdsong performance in natural surroundings. Get dressed, out the door, along to the elevator and down three floors to street level. There’s an old tree with large root formation not far away. Streets are quiet, I get there quickly, take a photo as the sun peeps through the buildings [see image above]. Then stand under the tree and listen.
Birdsong is on-going. It is as it is, and stops when we forget about it. Same every day, a story told in a multitude of voices about something that’s always there; an event presented for its own sake. The sky is full of it, an abundance floods everything, devastates the scarcity of small mindedness. There is one bird nearby, it pauses to take a bird-size breath of air… a small interval of silence, then it continues. The regular pace of all these incidental pauses sprinkled through the pattern of groupings of sound, forms an almost discernible construct but not really a melody. There’s no beginning or middle, and no end. It’s more like a huge chord played on an instrument with a great number of strings. An event that’s there all the time, as the planet spins towards the sun, daylight invading national boundaries, mountains and lakes, the narrow line between night and day moves out of darkness into light, the constant herald of birdsong always and forever on the edge of global night.
Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu were crossing the Hao river by the dam. Chuang said: “See how free the fishes leap and dart: that is their happiness.” Hui replied: “Since you are not a fish, how do you know what makes fishes happy?” Chuang said: “Since you are not I, how can you possibly know that I do not know what makes fishes happy?” Hui argued: “If I, not being you, cannot know what you know, it follows that you, not being a fish, cannot know what they know.” Chuang said: “Wait a minute! Let us get back to the original question. What you asked me was ‘How do you know what makes fishes happy?’ from the terms of your question you evidently know I know what makes fishes happy. “I know the joy of fishes in the river through my own joy as I go walking along the same river.” [xvii. 13] [The Way of Chuang Tzu, page 97, ‘The Joy of Fishes’, Thomas Merton]
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Includes excerpts from an older post: Listening 1