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Unity: The Transcendental Experience of Music-Making

Art & CommunityPosted by Makram Aboul Hosn Sat, November 05, 2016 10:24:02

I recently joined the Lebanese National Philharmonic Orchestra (LNPO) after being encouraged to do so by my long-time friend and teacher Khachatur Sevzyan, who also happens to be the orchestra’s principal double bass player. The reasons why I joined were that I felt I could learn a lot by playing with people like Khachatur; I could become a better sight-reader by being exposed to very well-written and expansive material, and I would be practicing my bow technique intensively which is something I don’t do much if I’m not engaging in classical music learning/performance. These reasons, along with the idea of securing a steady income (something not very easy to do as a musician), were what served as my motivation. Three weeks in, I see that there are so many more things waiting for me that can help me grow immensely.

My second program with the orchestra was far from easy. It was Johannes Brahms’ “Symphony No.1” and Richard Strauss’ “Death and Transfiguration”. The conductor of the week was Jordi Mora, a man of incredible musical and philosophical depth, and a demanding leader. In the middle of rehearsal week, Maestro Mora gave a lecture in the conservatory under the title “Basics of Articulation”. I should add that Jordi Mora holds a degree in Philosophy, which explains why his lecture went much further and deeper than the mere technical aspects of playing notes. The main theme that I would like to address was this:

‘In life, the highest emotional experience is “unity”; the experience of oneness with the self and others. It is this experience that a serious piece of music attempts to convey.’

I remember during my first year in Holland, I asked my composition teacher, Michael Moore (a great composer, improviser and human being) why he composes music. The reason I asked was because I was looking for a purpose to begin composing myself; it’s just my nature, I do things much better when I understand the reason behind them, and the context in which I am doing them. I was worried he would give me some lofty response which would not serve as an answer as much as an aesthetically pleasing I really don’t know. But, he said without much thought and with a smile on his face, “Because it’s one of last communal things we still do”.

I have to admit, I didn’t fully understand what he meant but I stored the idea, and here it is, back after a year and a half, from a small conversation in a Dutch conservatory’s canteen. In my research, I found that during all my years of practice, almost all of my attention was turned toward myself—my Ego. Perhaps as every musician often does, I attached my value as a human being to my ability to play music, and so I took great care of protecting my self-image by practicing very long hours in order to avoid mistakes on stage, at all costs. I had no interest in the transcendental experience of music making yet. Needless to say, I wasn’t enjoying playing as much as I (and everyone else) thought I should.

I’ve found that this transcendental experience comes only when I shift attention away from myself, and unto the other musicians sharing the stage with me, or unto audiences attending the show. For me, that is how individualistic music-making began to transform into communal music-making. Whether I’m improvising or playing written music, it is only when I hear what others are doing, and subsequently notice how it fits with what I am doing, that I am able to experience a peak of emotions: the experience of unity.

I feel it is true that in our times, separateness prevails. It exists in different forms, through individualism, capitalism and specialization to name a few. The combination of capitalism and specialization in particular has created very specific tasks for people to perform without really seeing how they fit into the larger picture. This is why Eastern philosophy/religion has been so attractive to our recent generations, with its clear insistence on unity, oneness and compassion; those things that we feel are lost in modern times. Whether you’ve heard it from your grandparents of from a Taxi driver in Beirut, the nostalgic notion that the world was a better place in the past should serve as insight into our modern human condition.

I can safely assume that all cultures have used art to help themselves get away from separateness. Interestingly enough, in order to experience oneness with one’s community (notice there is ‘unity’ in ‘community’) the individual needs to abandon, even if partially, their sense of self. Any domination of individualistic motives will interrupt this transcendental experience and possibly turn into a bitter one. Serious music, whether labeled Jazz, Classical, Folklore or Pop, comes back to remind us of what is common to all of us. The musicians themselves serve as the symbolism of how several people focusing their energy on one task, that requires them to do different yet complimentary actions, can create something as awe-inspiring and magical as music.

Now back to our conductor, Jordi Mora. During our rehearsals he would ask us to focus on someone else’s part whilst playing our own. Most often, it was the woodwinds, because they can easily get drowned out, preventing any of their important parts from coming out as they should, unless the entire orchestra can hear them. I cannot count the amount of times he would shout, “Listen to the woodwinds!” With remarks like that one, he reminded me of what Jazz pianist and veteran educator Hal Galper once told me: “In group situations, you should hear yourself last”. It is no wonder then, that our performance of the Strauss tone poem on the Friday concert, left me in a euphoric state. That was the transcendental experience for me. I was participating in something much bigger than myself, rather than simply playing my part.

It is my true belief that whether or not the audience leaves the concert hall (or any music venue) inspired and changed, all depends on whether the performing musicians are in that state of synchronicity and self-abandonment. All people can sense this, even if they do not have the ability to make technical observations on harmony, melody, balance and improvisation. I think that to miss this point would be to miss what is at the core of music-making. It is a communal participatory act which involves both the musicians and audience, in an attempt at achieving unity, even if for a brief period of time.

Edited by: Sima Itayim

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