Listening to the rhythm of the world...

This afternoon our "quartet" met again - two ministers and two rabbis - but one rabbi was missing en route to be at his brother's wedding. (I know this sounds like some cheesy religious joke but it is a wonderful gathering that I have come to cherish!)  We gather every six weeks or so to check in, talk about our way of doing God's work with an ear for listening to what we share and what is very different in our work and traditions.  It has been invigorating, challenging and very helpful since we started about 8 months ago.
So, having just come back from Istanbul, they wanted to know what I had experienced.  And I blathered on about theology, multi-culturalism, politics and all the stuff I've been writing about since our return when the rabbi said, "So what about the music?"  Indeed, what about the music?!?  "Well, one of the things that was most fascinating," I said, "was that on the traditional saz - the stringed instrument of Turkish folk music - there are movable frets.  And, if that isn't wild enough, there are four clearly different tones between our traditional notes.  Like they have four distinct notes in between G and G#."

+ That stopped us in our tracks:  incredible!  How completely different and mind-blowing and wild.  A conversation about how that can even be ensued as well as some talk about how the traditional Jewish liturgy is filled with Arabic sounds and poetry.

+ Then the conversation jumped to how certain sounds - and tone clusters - have been banned and/or denigrated by the Christian Church.  What came to be know as "diabolus in musica" - the devil in music - is what we would call a "flatted 5th" - something that sounds dissonant to Western music but very much a part of Hebraic, Arabic, Jazz and Blues.  My rabbi buddy said, "I've thought about this for a long time... and the fact that because we ache for resolution - and this flatted 5th is NOT resolved - but could be by moving equally in either direction is the REAL challenge."  Right?  Going up or down from the flatted 5th resolves the dissonant tension - both are equally correct - but how can that be in a worldview with only right and wrong answers?  Isn't that too ambiguous? Mysterious?  (see

Darbuka from Tessa Kelly on Vimeo.
+ And then there is the whole encounter with different rhythms that are totally natural to some and totally bizarre and challenging to others.  As we were talking, the choir master at the Christian church began to play a chorale - very ordered and dignified and beautiful - filled with harmonies and nuance.  Put this next to one of the Turkish hand drummers, however, and the contrast is mind-blowing!

Dave Brubeck worked hard at bringing the complex Turkish rhythms into his American jazz as "Blue Rondo a la Turk" shows (a playful nod to Mozart's "rondo alla turc.") And Mickey Hart, once and always drummer for the Grateful Dead, has shared and explored the "drumming at the edge of magic" in his written work as well as his "Planet Drum" recordings. Same with Yo yo Ma and his "Silk Road" project.

So many metaphors and images and insights in these musical encounters, yes? The pulse of creation is so varied - and connected - and challenging all at the same time.  One culture is enriched and deepened by embracing some of the energy, sounds and pulses of another but must simultaneously be en guard against stealing, ripping off as original or watering down the uniqueness of that which is mysterious, too.  Mickey Hart puts it like this:

A better way of speaking about the beginning might be to say that fifteen or twenty billion years ago the blank page of the universe exploded and the beat began - since what emerged from that thick soup of neutrinos and photons were rhythmic pulses vibrating through empty space, keying the formation of galaxies, solar systems, planets and us.

John Bird notes in his Spirituality of MusicAbout 17,000 years ago, on the limestone wall of a cave in southwestern France, someone painted the image of a dancing figure dressed in the skin of an animal and playing an early form of a drum.  Popularly known as The Dancing Sorcerer, the pictograph is one of our earliest records of the the human commitment to music and dance. Dance has been with us for a long, long time... we have to dance; it's in our very guts - and in our spirits. It is sacred - so dance we do: every culture, every race, every age has danced... and does dance... and will dance.

Funny how some of the most popular songs we played in Turkey - and the most well received, too - were things like my version of James Brown's "I Feel Good" or Benny's "Superstition."  They loved our jazz, to be sure, but they shook their booties and DANCED to "Shake, Rattle and Roll."  My rabbi friend said that it grabbed them with beauty and awe in a mysterious way just like their rhythms grabbed me. 

Ludwig Van got it right:  music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life!  And what a blessed and veried life it is, too!
Superstition in Sultanahmet from Tessa Kelly on Vimeo.


Black Pete said…
When Joyce and I were courting, then newly married, we bought some albums of medieval music--sackbuts and serpents and shawms, you name it. And what leaped out me was how Arabic and Middle Eastern medieval music sounds! How did we lose that?

If memory serves. Debussy used the flatted 5th through La Mer--it is supposed to sound weird to us in Western music, but the person telling me about this explained that if it is throughout a piece, you actually get used to it and the regular 5th sounds weird.
RJ said…
I think that is true - it is what Monk used a lot, too - and it weirded people out at first but then they came to see he wanted to play it. I have to go back and listen to some of that early music, Peter, to remind myself of this but I am sure it is true. And I don't know when it time it was called "music of the devil" but that had a role to play. Fascinating, yes?

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