Monday, June 18, 2012

The Art of Listening (conclusion)

In the first post of this series I mentioned the exercise of listening for the quietest sound in the environment as a way to stretch the hearing.  It can apply to music by listening for the quietest instrument or sound in the mix with the effect of getting drawn into the soundscape.  A further extension of this exercise is to listen for the silence between the sounds.  When you listen for silence, you hear everything else.  I'll try to explain.

The subject of this post is SILENCE in a variety of forms.  A classic book on avant garde music is by John Cage called SILENCE.  It consists of a collection of lectures and writings.  One of my favorites is the LECTURE ON NOTHING.  I'll quote some of it to either help explain or further obscure the sound/silence dichotomy.  It's graphic layout appears quite unique, I won't attempt to fully recreate it here, it's not necessary for the point, but I will give the introduction to demonstrate the musical intent behind the writing.  The Lecture On Nothing from Silence starts on page 109 of the hardcover edition I have.  Coincidentally, 109 corresponds to both "Quiet" and "Music" in Crowley's Qabalah dictionary.

This lecture was printed in Incontri Musicali, August, 1959.   There are four measures in each line and twelve lines in each unit of the rhythmic structure.  There are forty-eight such units, each having forty-eight measures.  The whole is divided in five large parts, in the proportion 7, 6, 14, 14, 7.  The forty-eight measures of each unit are likewise so divided.  The text is printed in four columns to facilitate a rhythmic reading.  Each line is to be read across the page from left to right, not down the columns in sequence.  This should not be done in an artificial manner ( which might result from an attempt to be too strictly faithful to the position of the words upon the page), but with the rubato which one uses in everyday speech.


I am here, and there is nothing to say
If among you are, 
those who wish to get somewhere, let them leave at
any moment.  What we re-quire is
silence; but what silence requires
is that I go on talking.
Give any one thought
a push: it falls down easily;
but the pusher and the pushed pro-duce that enter-
tainment called a dis-cussion.
Shall we have one later?

Or, we could simply de-cide not to have a dis-
cussion.  What ever you like.  But
now ............. there are silences ................. and the
words.................. make................ help make....................the 

I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is
poetry........................... as I need it.
This space of time is organized.
We need not fear these silences, --
we may love them.

It goes on for quite awhile combining metaphysical insights with common experiences as for instance:

Each moment is absolute, alive and significant. Blackbirds rise from a field making a sound delicious beyond compare. I heard them because I accepted the limitations of an arts conference in a Virginia girls finishing school which limitations allowed me quite by accident to hear the blackbirds as they flew up overhead. There was a sociaol calendar and hours for breakfast, but one day I saw a cardinal, and the same day heard a woodpecker. I also met America's youngest college president. However she has resigned, and people say she is going into politics. Let her. Why shouldn't she? etc. etc.

The afternote is quite interesting also:

In keeping with the thought expressed above that a discussion is nothing more than an entertainment, I prepared six answers for the six first questions asked, regardless of what they were.  In 1949 or '50, when the lecture was first delivered there were six questions.  In 1960, however when the speech was delivered for the second time, the audience got the point after two questions and, not wishing to be entertained, refrained from asking anything more.

The answers are:

1. That is a very good question.  I should not spoil it with an answer.

2. My head wants to ache.

3.  Had you heard Marya Freund last April singing Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, I doubt whether you would ask that question.

4. According to the Farmer's Almanac this is False Spring.

5.  Please repeat the question. . .
And again . . .
And again . . .

6.  I have no more answers.

Yes, there is a point to this and it does have to do with listening.  When speaking of silence I refer to two distinct aspects: silence that is the absence of sound, and that inner silence when the headbrain chatter fades into the background.  Cage's piece addresses both.  The absurdity of preparing answers no matter what the question seems meant to jolt the listener out of their thinking apparatus, the relentless dialogue inside our minds.  The intended effect of this makes the listener fully present: " I am here and there is nothing to say."
Obviously, you are going to hear more if you are fully present and not thinking about what you're going to have for dinner, or having an imaginary argument with someone, or any number of other thoughts, worries, and concerns that steal the attention away from the here and now.  This is not so easy.

Lecture on Nothing from Silence was also the third in a series of art shows I helped curate in 1992 in New York.  This one was a collaboration between Cage and E.J. Gold and featured artwork inspired by the poetry.  It was held in the H. Heather Edelmann gallery in the Soho area of New York.  I was very excited when I first heard plans of the show for the opportunity to work with John Cage, a profound inspiration for me.  However, he chose to shuffle off of his mortal coil a couple of months before the opening, and I didn't get a chance to meet him.  The artwork was all monumental sized ( 72"x36") abstract portraits of hands and heads in different colors on black gessoed canvases.  I guess there were about 20 - 30 pieces in the fairly compact gallery.  It's hard to describe their effect, they simply radiated presence; you felt much more awake just entering the space... and they felt alive!  Menlo Macfarlane and I performed the Lecture on Nothing one afternoon to a receptive audience.   He read the text and I provided audio manipulations and sound effects with a Roland 201 Space Echo.

Silence seems a key point in many systems of  spiritual development, alchemy, magick, etc. whatever you want to call it.  For instance the four virtues in Magick, also known as the four powers of the Sphinx are:

To know,
To will,
To dare,
To keep silence

One of the primary basic foundational exercises in Thelemic magick is the Star Ruby which was Aleister Crowley's modification of the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram he learned as as student in the Golden Dawn.  One of Crowley's additions to the exercise was the assumption of the godform of Harpocrates, the ancient Greek god of silence, after manifesting a pentagram in each of the four quarters.   The posture of this godform is the one we all know that indicates silence -  the right forefinger pressed against the lips.  This posture also begins and concludes the ritual.  The student breaths in deeply holding this posture then strikes the right hand down with the forefinger extended exclaiming the ancient Greek words Apo Pantos Kakodaimonos which means literally  "all evil demons" with the gesture indicating a banishing ie "go away." These demons or spirits being sent on their way seem nothing more than the chattering thoughts or inner dialogue found in the common state of mind.  In bio-feedback technology these are known as beta waves and have been measured to occur at a rate of 12-40 Hz in the brain.

Harpocrates, the posture of inner silence, is also said to be a god of defence.  My interpretation of this relates to the viewpoint that I see magick as representing a special case of bardo training ie learning how to survive death.  It is said that "in the bardo you have no enemies, you have yourself."  This silence as defence protects you from yourself in at least two ways - from saying or doing stupid things, and from having anxiety-ridden or other kinds of destructive thoughts that can have a debilitating effect on the health of the nervous system.

Crowley seems to have felt this posture so important that he put it in the design of his Tarot in the card The Aeon, Atu XX which graphically displays his cosmology more than any of the other cards.

In The Book of Wisdom and Folly Crowley associates this Silence with The Way of the Tao, the Chinese philosophy he regarded highly.  He writes, rather poetically in the chapter Prolegomena concerning Silence:

This Silence is the Dragon of thine Unconcious Nature, not only the Ecstasy or Death of thine Ego in the Operation of its Organ, but also, in its Unity with thy Lion, the Truth of thy Self.  Thus is thy Silence the Way of the Tao ...

The Lion is his poetic way of describing our animal nature.  He appears to be saying that our true nature emerges when the animal is silent.  The animal will likely object but this is a whole other issue.

This emphasis on silence dates back to ancient times.  One of the spells from the Papyrus of Ani, the Egyptian Book of the Dead adapted for use by the Golden Dawn has the line:

Therefore do Thou come forth unto Me from thine abode in the Silence ...

Before doing any readings from the American Book of the Dead this kind of Silence is invoked in the Obligatory Readers Invocation  meant to precede all bardo readings:

To the divine silence of unreachable endlessness;
To the divine silence of perfected knowledge.
To the divine silence of the soundless voice;
To the divine silence of the Heart of the Labyrinth;
To the divine silence of the ancient mind;
To the divine silence of the unborn guide 
To the divine silence of the unseen guide
                    protector of all sentient life;
To the divine silence of those of perfected knowledge;
To the divine silence of human primate incarnation;
To the divine silence of the labyrinth guides 
                     who sacrifice their liberation for those
                     who have not yet awakened to the truth; 
To the divine silence of the Lord of Death
                     the eternal unborn resident of the labyrinth
                     who has sacrificed his own redemption
                     for the redemption of all voyagers everywhere;
To the divine silence of the primordial being;
To the divine silence of the great sacrifice;
We offer homage, love and hope;
But above all, we give our gratitude.

It seems that as we can stretch our hearing by listening for the silence underneath music, we can also stretch the morphology of our being, our Deep Self, by reaching for the silence within thereby allowing for contact and communication with the Deep Self of our fellow voyagers. But don't take my word for it.


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