Thursday, February 23, 2017

Art As A Spiritual Practice

If there's one thing long time readers should pick up from following my blogs, it's that I see my art as a spiritual practice.
A spiritual practice or spiritual discipline (often including spiritual exercises) is the regular or full-time performance of actions and activities undertaken for the purpose of inducing spiritual experiences and cultivating spiritual development. - Wikipedia

In it's purest sense, spirituality has very little to do with organized religion. In fact, rather than being a group exercise, it is a very personal experience. Throughout history, artists have often been the keepers of a sense of spirituality in our various cultures. 

I look at my own path, one of being raised Catholic, then delving into mysticism (such as Rosicrucianism), and finally ending up where I exist today, extremely interested in Buddhist thought and practice, yet not belonging to any group experience or practice. 

John Cage at Ryoanji

Experience As Meditation

Like many before me, I have long realized that my art—encompassing music, writing, photography, design, etc.—is a spiritual path. When I play music, or even write these blogs, it is in essence a way for me to seek understanding and experience as a spiritual practice. All that I do is a form of meditation, and as such, has become a necessary part of my existence. 

While some artists seek fame and/or fortune, I suspect that most are driven by an internal need to create. This creation is both an expression of who/what/where a person is, and a seeking of understanding of what the whole experience, both inner and outer, of life is. For me, I create and express myself through my art because I must. It is as necessary as breathing. To not create is to deny a very part of my reason to exist.

Meditation as a physical act

Meditation As Experience

The act of performing, writing, creating, is in itself an act of meditation, as I am both transformed from who I am, and transcended to another realm. In the act, I often become unaware of the world around me, instead becoming completely focused on an inner world, on the act of creating itself. And like traditional meditation, I am open to the experience and what it offers.

While I enjoy silent meditation, for me, I prefer active meditation, where I am connecting to the world on a physical lever, all the while experiencing the Universe on an inner, spiritual level. This combination satisfies the dual nature of 

inner/outer
physical/mental
sound/silence
heaven/earth

For me, this is a regular series of activities (performing, writing, etc.) that fit along other daily practices, like yoga.

How do you view your art?
How do you view your spiritual practice?
Are they one in the same?

~ MB

Chop Wood / Carry Water / Play Gongs™ / Seek Peace




Tuesday, February 14, 2017

From this week's mail box, a question about fingerprints on your Gongs:


I was wondering what your opinion is on the accutonics position to never touch your gong because the oils from your fingers will destroy the purity of the vibration from the instrument. For those of us that do a lot of performances and have a lot of moving to do it seems rather difficult even if it were true. 



Have you seen this anywhere?

Ah, the dreaded fingerprints! Please realize that there are 2 very different sides to this story and that neither one is wrong. 

One side is the people who always wear gloves when handling and setting up their Gongs. They also tend to wipe them off often and even do a lot of cleaning to keep them looking brand new.

The other side, which I belong too, takes great care of their Gongs, realizing that they are very fine musical instruments. But we also realize that they are tools of the trade as it were. I have some Gongs that I've had for over 40 years. Some of them look as new as the day I bought, others look well worn and well used. So much depends on the type of Gong and how it's finished. The Paiste/Meinl nickel-silver Gongs all have a very smooth and shiny surface. The one problem with this type of surface is that it easily shows any and every mark put on it! That includes fingerprints, scratches, water spots, corrosion/tarnish, etc. And the brilliant finished Gongs seem to get marked up just by looking at them.


 Tarnish and water spots in the protective coating
A world of fingerprints

Asian Bronze Gongs are a different story. While the surface may be smooth, it rarely is as polished and reflective as their nickel-silver counterparts. Various markings just don't show up as easily. This is especially true of the darker brown and black Gongs. I have some 40 year old Thai Gongs that have been everywhere with me and still look like when I bought them, even though I don't clean them. The same can be said for some older Chau and Wind Gongs.

So what's a percussionist to do:

  • Wear those white cotton gloves every time you handle your Gongs to keep finger oil from touching the surface.
  • Wipe your Gongs off regularly, or after each performance, with a soft cloth/towel.
  • Regularly use dish soap (DAWN blue works well) and water to wash your Gongs, then dry with a soft cloth/towel.
  • Don't worry so much, just keep your hands clean so fingerprints and dirt are kept at a minimum.
  • Take care of them, but realize that if you travel and perform regularly, your Gongs will acquire marks and scratches from being used.

Even if you don't want to do the white glove thing, remember that the best thing to do is to buy and use a quality bag or case to store and transport your Gongs in. I'm always surprised by how many people I see with expensive Gongs, just wrapping them in a blanket and putting them in their car when they travel. Or even worse, just putting them in their car with no protection at all!

Unless you regularly clean your Gongs with a strong metal polish, to keep that shiny, new look, all Gongs will tarnish with age. Paiste's tend to turn a nice shade of brown on the unpolished edges. Bronze Gongs will develop a nice, dark patina. I have some old UFIP Gongs that have a beautiful, dark patina that I would NEVER clean off. The same goes for my Singing Bowls and Bells. I let them age gracefully, darkening over the years. 

And now on to that question about how the oils from your fingers will destroy the purity of the vibration. If you have a Gong for 20, 30, or more years and a heavy layer of tarnish/dirt/etc accumulates on the metal, it will tend to dampen and darken the sound some. But the important word here is some. Unless you have an actual crust or a very thick coating of dirt/grime, the sound will not be affected that much. In fact, most people won't notice it. Some people might actually prefer the aged, darker tone. 

In the end, I'd keep my Gongs clean, but have not become so fanatical about it that it takes away from creating and enjoying the music they make.

~ MB

Chop Wood / Carry Water / Play Gongs™





Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Art of Nothingness

Continuing from the last post, once you strip your music down to its essence, what next?

You keep stripping things away until you are left with nothing. Nothing but your own essence, your heart, your soul.


“There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.” ― John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings 

But as Cage reminds us, there is no such thing as nothing. Even if I strip away all the music and sit silently, there is still my breathing, my heart beating, and in true Cagean fashion, the ambient sounds of the world around me. And in my case, there is always my tinnitus, ringing away in my head. So matter how hard I try, even in an isolation chamber, there is still that ringing.

But I have learned to embrace this almost silence. I have also learned to make peace with the sounds I cannot take away. It used to be when I was playing a meditation session, I would be thrown off by the sounds of loud trucks, trains, muffled sounds through the wall from next door, and other distractions. But once again, I took a cue from Cage:
“I love sounds. Just as they are. And I have no need for them to be anything more than what they are.”
So I have no need for sounds to be anything more than what they are, and so too for silence. Silence is whatever it is, whatever it allows itself to be. And as I said, in my case, it's never really there at all. But I can still embrace a lack of sound.


The Japanese symbol for nothingness (MU)

But without this silence, or at least near silence, there is no understanding of sound. So embracing the silence allows us to go deeper into the sound. 

Exercise:

  • Sit in silence until you feel yourself squirming, then keep sitting. Keep at it until you are on the verge of it becoming too much. Then notice that you reach a point where you cross over into the silence, and it suddenly becomes your world. Then you no longer feel the urge to move, to speak/yell, to break it. Hold this a while longer, then play 1 note. Notice how this 1 note breaks the silence and becomes all encompassing. You have crossed the threshold back into sound.

Practice this over time, and notice how you can move deeper into both the silence and the sound. You will find that the sounds you make become richer, fuller, and have more meaning.

Within silence you have all the sound you need…

~ MB

Chop Wood / Carry water / Play Gongs™







Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Art of Subtraction

Like most people, when you are young, you tend to want to overdo everything. That's especially true if you are a musician. Many young male musicians seem to be fueled equally by a desire to create music and testosterone. This mix can often produce a steady wall of sound, whether it's in a rock band, jazz band, or even playing Gongs. Intensity has a great effect, but like construction noise outside of your window, after a while it gets ignored.

I'm all for intensity, but after a while, I got tired of it. I used to often play a solid wall of sound for an hour or more. It was big, intense, glorious; but so much the same thing. Over time I got tired of it. I also found it less than interesting because it was so one dimensional.

Over the years, I've steadily subtracted notes, all the while adding more sounds to my set up. I've also learned to appreciate and use space more. Space is as important, if not more important than the notes we play. Space allows the notes to be heard. Without it, the notes are just one big wash of indeterminate sound. This is fine in short bursts, but after a while we want to have a sense of clarity, a sense of differentiation. 
Space is the place. - Sun Ra
A big part of this whole process is maturity, both as a person, and as a musician. This maturity looks at the music differently, seeking to refine it to its essence: clearing out all un-needed sounds in order to make the ones heard more prominent. It's also a process of learning to breathe the music. Just as our breath goes in and out, so too should the music. 

Exercises to try:
  • Follow your breathing, making the music flow with it.
  • When you are ready to make another sound, DON'T! Wait. Wait a few more seconds/minutes before you make that next sound.
  • Listen to the space between the sounds. Find the beauty in that.
  • Learn to trust the space as much as you do the sounds.


The Master, Frank Perry, demonstrating the Art of Space


Embrace the space.


~ MB


Chop Wood / Carry water / Play Gongs™ / Make Space







Tuesday, January 10, 2017

How to Listen, How to Play

People come to study with me at my home studio. We get together from 2 to 8 hours at a time, going over all manner of ideas and techniques about Gongs, Bowls, and Bells. It can be rigorous. It can be insightful. It can give you enough to work on for weeks, months, years. It can set your head spinning in multiple directions.




But here's the thing, I can teach you mechanics: how to hold a mallet, how to wield it, how to strike the instrument to obtain the desired sound. I can also inform you all about the instruments themselves: where they come from. How they're made. How they're different from, or similar to, each other. We can spend all day working and going over the finer points of everything, but there's one thing I can't teach you:


I can't teach you what to play.

I can't teach you what sounds to create, what order to create them in, whether they should be loud or quiet, high or low. I can't tell you any of that. You have to learn that on your own.

Art is a sort of experimental station in which one tries out living.
John Cage

You have to listen to the wind, listen to the trees rustling, listen to the water running in the creek, listen to the traffic out your window, or the baby crying next door. You have to listen to the world around you to gain the experience that you can use to determine how you will produce a sound. 

~ MB


Chop Wood / Carry Water / Play Gongs™



Monday, January 2, 2017

Looking for that Repeat Experience

From the mail box today, a question…

I may have told you that I had some amazing experiences with sound; gong, and shruti box in the past and I was able to get to a pure kundalini/shakti state from this work from a teacher in the past but I cannot seem to get there since (which was a few years back).”

I think we’ve all had peak experiences that are difficult to recreate or repeat. I know that I have. Two things come to mind here:

1) While experiences like these are amazing, they can’t be repeated, at least not exactly. A big thing is to allow each experience be its own experience.

2) Being relaxed and open is important. And again, being open to whatever experience happens, rather than ‘hoping for’ a repeat of a past experience. One doesn’t want to repeat the experience as much as to be able to repeat the conditions that allowed the experience to happen. A big part of my human side longs to repeat many of the great experiences of my past, but I have found each one to be unique, especially when playing the Gongs. I know that if I expect things, or try to make things happen, that they don’t. 


The more things stay the same, the more they change

This is one reason each of my sessions is different. I don’t follow a script because I have found that doesn’t work. Rather, I have learned over time to trust myself (to make the right ‘sound’ choices), trust the Gongs/Bowls/Bells (to make the right sounds), and trust the people attending to create the right conditions to allow a unique experience. 

This is all similar to what athletes work at, to be able to recreate the mind set/openness that lead to a peak performance. There are many good books out there on “Flow” and “Peak Experiences.” 







Zen in the Art of Archery




When you are focused on winning (or some other desired outcome), you have already lost. Focus instead on the act itself, rather than the desired outcome. Focusing on the act frees you from desire, frees you from letting that desire get in the way of just being and acting. This is not to say that you shouldn't want to have similar experiences as you have had in the past, just realize that they may happen and be different in many ways. We all need to learn to let each experience be its own and, to value each one because it is unique.

In the end, it becomes a situation of working hard at not working hard—one of life’s conundrums.

~ MB


Chop Wood / Carry water /Play Gongs™




Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Importance of Ritual

ritual
noun rit·u·al

  1. 1 :  the established form for a ceremony; specifically :  the order of words prescribed for a religious ceremony

  2. 2 a :  ritual observance; specifically :  a system of rites 
    b :  a ceremonial act or action 
    c :  an act or series of acts regularly repeated in a set precise manner

    (from Merriam-Webster)


Ritual. We see them all around us, some conspicuous, some slightly obscured. We see them in our religions, in our businesses, in our clubs and sports. Some of us may even have rituals that we do. 

A good example of a ritual is in sports. A lot of athletes go through some sort of pre-game ritual. Maybe they listen to their favorite inspiring music, or meditate, or have talisman/lucky charms with them. They may get dressed in exactly the same way each time, for example, always put the left sock on first, keeping things in the same order.

We may look at these rituals as outsiders and think they are silly or meaningless. We might also snarkly refer to them as voodoo or superstition, but this shows a complete lack of understanding. 


A ritual is a symbolic set of thought/motions/procedures designed to create a certain mindset. 


The art of the Mandala

In the case of an athlete, it's designed to put them in the frame of mind of peak performance. Think back to any group you may have joined, like a fraternity/sorority, or a business group, or even the military. There may have been some sort of initiation ceremony that you went through. This ceremony was more than just a show for people to see. The idea of ceremonies like this is to create a certain atmosphere that creates a certain mind set. And in this capacity, it's very important. Buy going through the ritual/ceremony, you enter into the group mind, you become a part of something greater.

Think about your own practice. Do you go through some sort of ritual before each session, or do you just show up and get started, jumping right in? 


Take the time to think about if ritual is a part of your practice.


Smudging

If you don't currently have a ritual, you might want to think about developing one. Look at what you do that helps set the mood, getting you into a positive frame of mind. It might be as simple as listening to some inspiring music, or reading your favorite poem. You might use scents, like burning incense or sage, or using essential oils. 

For me, I like to set everything up and then check it all to make sure everything is tight, with no squeaks or rattles from a loose wing nut. Then I like to either read or listen to some music, also doing some Mudras (hand gestures), using sacred oils, and evoking various spirits, among other things. I often bring various talismans, that I have collected over the years, that mean something to me. These are things that I've collected in my travels presenting sessions and concerts all over. This is all done in order to get me focused on playing my Gongs/Bowls/Bells. I really like to have a clear head that is open to the vibrations. And this can be 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 30 minutes—all depending on how much time I have after setting up.

What rituals do you go through?

~ MB


Chop Wood / Carry Water / Play Gongs™