Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Some thoughts on song

I was walking home late a few nights ago, and, except for a few cars that whizzed past, everything was quiet and still. The moon was plump and radiant, and the chill in the upper stratosphere had dissolved all clouds. The night sky seemed vast, luminous, and resonant.

Moments like these make me sing. Solitude (and, in this case, the occasional car noise) takes away inhibitions, and I sing softly to myself, directing my voice into the rounded corners of space. On one trip to the Eastern Sierra several years ago, I found myself on the side of a mountain, scaling huge pale granite boulders on my way up. The careful and cautious placement of each step was paramount, so I focused most of my attention on my feet and my groping hands. Then, I turned my head a little to the side. I stopped dead in my tracks. Everything opened up. The small river down below glinted in the late-afternoon sun. An iridescent flash of indigo signaled a jay in flight. Groundsquirrels hurried to attend to whatever it is they do, pausing briefly to eye me with sideways glance and twitching tail. I inhaled the vanilla-like fragrance of Jeffrey pine and the crisp smell of cedars and distant glaciers. I could hear the low swishy rumbling that mountain ranges make, whatever it is (wind rushing through valleys? subterranean currents of water? the slow movements of earth and stone itself?).

As if by reflex, an old hymn from my childhood welled up in my throat.

O Lord my God! when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made,
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed;

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!

It was unconscious, instinctual. It was a visceral response to the sensory overload of that mountainside. I continued up, and couldn’t stop singing it.

I do a lot of walking. Often, when I walk, I sing. This is nice for a while, but I soon get caught up in the words. Either I find it frustrating when I can’t remember them, or I catch myself in a groove like a scratched record, feverishly repeating the same lines over and over. Or, when trying to create my own words, I get caught up and weighed down. So I end up slightly irritated and claustrophobic, with little of the joy that made me start singing in the first place.

But that night when the moon was full, I just broke free. I started singing an old Shaker song, a song that had no words: lo lo-dle lo, lo lo lo lo-dle lo… The Shakers had many such songs that straddled the lines between composed, improvised, and Spirit-led music. So, I began with one of the old songs. But soon, I was making up my own wordless songs, all on those nonsense syllables, letting the beauty of the night dictate the melodies. I was expressing the night and my walk in pure sound, without the hindrance of words and all their cumbersome semantics and poetics.

I have found that creating pure sound is a wonderful method of attunement. We know that God ‘sounded’ the universe into existence, so it’s no wonder that sound should be such a sublime way of experiencing and expressing it. When I come into a wonderful new space, and I can tell by my footsteps that the space is acoustically ripe, my first impulse is to sing. I usually suppress this impulse, of course, but when I’m alone I let ‘er rip. The sound of my voice caressing and reverberating from the space itself is my way of deeply experiencing it, because I believe that spaces, like instruments, are tuned. My medieval music group, Resonanda, always practices in my dining room. We never pitch ourselves or situate ourselves in a key from a piano; we just open our mouths and begin to sing. But for some reason, we always end up in the key of B flat. One of our singers supposed that B flat must be the pitch of the dining room. It must be the key of optimal resonance there in that space of old wood, secondhand plates, and well-loved cookbooks.

Quakers have traditionally eschewed song in worship. This is understandable; after all, the pre-written words, when everyone is compelled to voice them, can never be fresh and authentic expressions of the promptings of the Spirit. I think, especially, of those tired Victorian hymns and the trite new-fangled “praise songs” that characterize contemporary Protestant worship. Although there are other Christian songs that I do love singing, I can’t really say that anything about them except the pure act of singing itself—as well as the joy of singing with other people—truly allows me communion with God.

So, what if we began to look at sound, freed from words? What if we allowed for the fact that the Spirit may sometimes express itself in sound, in music? What if we also imagined that sound, just like it resonates in space, can allow us to harmonize (to tune) with the wider world? What if we also imagined that sound allows us to give harmony to the wider world? The wordless songs of Shaker tradition and the songs that spontaneously arose from my throat on that moonlit night seem to show me that song can go hand in hand with true worship. When I really still myself and listen in on the presence of God, sometimes what I hear is so beautiful that I just have to sing along. In meeting, I have not yet been led to offer up a song—wordless or not, improvised or not. I wonder what will happen if I ever am…

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