Each Friday, we share three topical longreads in our Weekend Reader newsletter. This week, Lion’s Roar magazine’s associate art director Andrew Glencross looks at three bodhisattvas of the music world. Sign up here to receive the Weekend Reader in your inbox.
I happen to be a musician in my spare time, so take what I’m about to say with a grain of salt. But of all art forms, there’s something especially sacred — even Buddhist — to me about music.
It’s got something to do with the way music manipulates time, each note highlighting the present moment as it moves steadily through the environment of past and future. Electronic composer Éliane Radigue compares that environment to a river, through which her slowly evolving tones meander, always different, always the same.
Immersion in an awareness of that river can lead to a loss of ego, because ego is built on past and future narratives. Jazz legend John Coltrane believed that in seeing through those false narratives, musicians can give “the best of what we are.” On A Love Supreme, his watershed reimagining of modal jazz, he managed to achieve that aspiration for 33 minutes and 2 seconds.
A particular kind of music, often called “minimalism,” seeks to disrupt our normal way of listening, intentionally producing these transcendent moments. Though it’s debatable whether Coltrane could be lumped under that umbrella, Philip Glass is essentially a spokesperson for the genre. I remember being excited as a teenager by this sentence from his own liner notes to Music in 12 Parts:
“[W]hen it becomes apparent that nothing ‘happens’ in the usual sense… [listeners] can perhaps discover another mode of listening—one in which neither memory nor anticipation… have a place in sustaining the texture, quality, or reality of the musical experience.”
That sounds a lot like what Laurie Anderson has jokingly called “difficult listening.” And in fact, Glass admits that this kind of music can be more of a challenge to its audience than to its performers. But make no mistake, this music is made for an audience, as he himself argues.
All three of the musicians featured here consider(ed) themselves deliverers of liberation from ego, transmitting dharma/grace/awareness received directly, through their very performance, to any audience brave enough to listen. In that way, they are all bodhisattvas.
—Andrew Glencross, associate art director, Lion’s Roar magazine
Forty years ago, Éliane Radigue synthesized The Tibetan Book of the Dead into a sonic masterpiece.
Radigue says that while her music is always changing, that change is often almost imperceptible; for comparison she evokes a river, constantly shifting its quality of light and depth, while maintaining the appearance of a consistent substance. In a conversation with the Rubin Museum, she expressed hope that her work, with its gradual flows of sound, will lead listeners to a detachment of ego, and to an awakening to dharma.
Read more »
Zen teacher Sean Murphy looks back at the jazz icon and how meditation practice and a deep interest in Eastern traditions informed his monumental late-period work.
One predawn morning in 1964, the already-legendary saxophonist John Coltrane was sitting in meditation in his Long Island home when the structure and themes of his masterpiece, the album A Love Supreme, came to him in its entirety. “It was the first time I had it all,” he said.
A 1997 interview with composer and performer Philip Glass, conducted by Stephen Brooks.
Philip Glass: Let’s say I’m playing a melody and there are five notes in all, and I’ve played three notes and I’m about to play the fourth note.
Stephen Brooks: The question is: where does that fourth note come from?
Philip Glass: This is really a good question. It’s a funny question.
It seemed to me that I was hearing it. I could hear the note and then I was playing it. I’d hear the next note and I’d play it. In this case memory had to do with hearing. I had to hear something that was going to happen. This is the first of the “three times.” This is the future time. Right?
At the same time it’s an exquisite moment because I’m completely in the present. In fact, one of the functions of the audience for me is that it intensifies the feeling of being in the present.
Read more »