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Got Soul?

I went to a talk today at the Lincoln Center called Soul Music – a discussion on the nature of the soul, and how it relates to the experience of music. What makes music soulful, and what transforms an ‘ordinary’ musical experience into something transcendent?

The panelists were mostly unknown to me – a well known archaeologist -Alison Brooks, and a philosopher – David Chalmers. The one I did know was Philip Glass, whose career as a composer has been quite prolific and varied.

The talk began with a performance of shape note singing by a group called Sacred Harp. I had never heard of it before, and was surprised twice – when my first reaction to the sound was not so positive – there was an earthiness, a very human imperfection in their harmonies and exuberance which felt somehow jarring for a moment. Then all of a sudden the sound hit my heart and tears sprang to my eyes. It was quite powerfully beautiful. The songs they sang were composed in the 17th and 18th centuries by American Christian settlers and were designed to be sung by everyone in a congregation, whether musically literate or not – hence the term ‘shape note’ – the notation was written in shapes like squares and triangles instead of in the more traditional way,to make it all the more easy for anyone to read the music by sight. Listening, I suddenly got goosebumps all over – there was such joy and devotion in their song, and their harmonies were unusual and almost otherwordly. Here’s an example.

There is just something so deeply moving about unaccompanied voices. In that moment the body is used an instrument, literally and figuratively, and when done in community, I think it has the power to change the world, from the inside, out. I could see this yesterday during the monthly 6 hour kirtan at the Bhakti Center. Such a diversity of people came – it was incredible. At one point I was dancing and noticed a young woman who had just come in mouth incredulously to her friend, ‘Everyone looks so happy!’ She nodded, amazed. It’s true, we were. Though we all have a myriad of trialling circumstances to return to when it’s all over, kirtan, sacred call and response singing, connects us deeply with one another and with a timeless divinity that brings a feeling of profound happiness. The leader of the Sacred Harp group today said something beautiful about the spirituality of their music, that the singing is ‘communal property – people are drawn to it because the sound of these voices together is not ours, just as our soul is not ours.’

So it was quite interesting to hear the panelists grappling with the deeper philosophy behind why we feel this way. Of course for me, coming from a spiritual tradition that can totally explain the nature of the soul and the context that it sits within, it is always fascinating to hear others working over the discussion. Each of them stated that they had little insight into it, but attempted to examine it from different angles. Philip Glass talked about his experience of composing, being totally mysterious. He said that he can never actually remember composing anything, and feels the sense of ‘a witness’ who watches and remembers what he does, who takes over in those moments, leaving him unable to explain why he created in the way he did. It sounds to me like ‘Paramatma’ the divine within who witnesses our every moment, but of course it can be justified in many ways.

So much to write about on this topic – so much to explore! For now, here’s a logo I’ve been designing for the newly founded Call and Response Foundation – set up to bring kirtan and creative communal experiences into schools, prisons, hospitals and more. It’s a work in progress.

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