Sitting at the piano, fingers move, sounds emerge and disappear - what more is there to say?
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” as Thelonious Monk said. But we still try and do it, even though it’s as ridiculous as talking about enlightenment: words don’t quite manage to convey the experience.
I studied classical music at college in the seventies, but I found that Bach, Mahler, Stravinsky et al were not enough to hang a life on (to borrow a phrase from last month’s Culture Vulture). I needed some other context for my life, which I eventually found in the Dharma. As a teenager, the emotional turbulence I experienced was echoed in the symphonies of Mahler - one moment tranquil, then ecstatic, then chaotic and despairing. My life at that time lacked the expansive awareness necessary to deal with whatever arose in my experience. Despair - or at least, disillusion - took over and I dropped out of college not long before the end of the course, and I completely abandoned music for a few years. Then in my early twenties I discovered Buddhism and meditation, and threw myself into the structures that our movement offered - community, right livelihood, centre. But after three years or so something big was nagging at me: I had to get back into music. Previously, when still at college, music wasn’t enough, and now it seemed that Buddhism wasn’t enough! Of course, Buddhist practice had a huge effect on me, but I needed some kind of cultural expression, or cultural connection. Something which the myth of music did for my soul, some hidden structure which seemed to hold my life together, some kind of cultural patterning which came from my roots. Earlier I had uprooted my deep musical connections, but fortunately the music hadn’t died - just needed replanting in the fertile soil of the Dharma.
One of my first attempts at reconnecting with music was playing keyboards in a rock show based on William Blake’s poetry, and then I began to discover jazz and improvisation. A whole new approach to music - I thought it was freedom! Well it did free me up a lot, but I quickly realised that freedom didn’t just happen all by itself, I had to put in lots of effort learning structures, techniques, communicating with others in a playing situation, learning new ways of making music - big challenges after my classical background. People often mistakenly think that jazz is just a matter of doing your own thing, but actually most jazz musicians study and practice and learn the language, so that eventually freedom comes out of the form. Sounds like Buddhist practice to me - we spend years studying, working with meditation forms, practising precepts and eventually we learn freedom, but it takes time!