He found himself in a landscape that was on one hand the loneliest and most isolated, and on the other, the most profoundly inclusive environment, he had ever known. The South Siberian Steppe. The land was the frozen motion of the planet’s most subtle tremors blanketed with treeless grasslands extending to the edges of the sky in all directions. The sky so vast the land seemed hardly real beneath it, and how easily the vastness of emptiness, with the slightest descent, could swallow the ground that held him.
Though the land was barren, with the tallest vegetation being the waving grasses gone to seed, the wind sounded a continuous and strangely human-sounding “aahhh”. Perhaps the ethereal vowel sound on the wind was a result of the air’s passing over the hole of his ear, but it must have blown through or around something to produce almost clarion resonance. In that moment, no effort he needed for contentment. No need to pose himself before others so as not to harm or be harmed. And the everyday judgment he habitually passed and received was away on the wind.
He returned the sound, gently as though letting breath surrender into sound, and from that effortlessly sounding intonation of “aahhh” he heard the music of sound, the inherent harmonics of a vibrating body.
With the little ego self away, the big self into sound. Before this moment in nature, the putting of the self into sound was merely theory, not direct experience. It was a theory his Hindustani Music Teacher had imparted to him. Guruji declared, “During the Brahmacharya stage of development, you must discover the self by holding each note for a very long time, and maybe for even hours a day if your dedication is complete. So long the swara must be held that there is nothing left of you and only the swara remains.”
In the Hindustani system of classical raga singing, the term swara had once meant more than “note” or “pitch”, as it has come to mean in the modern age. The ancient meaning, however, is there to be found in the word itself. By simply taking an etymological view of the prefix and suffix, one can know that the Sanskrit swa meant “of self” and ra meant “bestow.” Then to sing a single note, the swara, is to bestow the self in sound, and one found the self in the sound by uttering it and listening to the vast harmonic content of a single, sustained vocal tone. However, the singularity of this tone is illusory.
To sustain any one single note vocally is impossible, as the oral cavity, by default, forms the raw buzzing of the vocal folds into vowels. Though the speech centers of the brain are programmed to perceive vowel sounds as parts of signifying words, the vowel sounds are horizontal combinations of overtones (“chords” if you will, but more specifically, “formant regions”). Differing combinations of overtones distinguish one phonetic vowel from another. Our speech is replete with the music of vocal sound.
He was also bestowed with the knowledge that in the classical Hindustani singing tradition the vowel “ah” is preferred for singing, as this is the vowel sound of the heart, an expression of supreme adoration.
And is it merely coincidence that many of these vowels sounds, when used as raw expressions, heard alone and unaccompanied by contrasting consonants, have culturally specific meanings associated with them? For example, take “ah” as an expression of adoration in the Hindustani system. To a westerner, does it not have a similar meaning?
What is your emotionally driven vowel response to the following stimuli and scenarios?
1) An adorable kitten with a red bow in its fur approaches you; it purrs, meows, and rubs against your leg.
2) Unprepared for your seminar presentation about wool slacks of the Elizabethan theatre, you improvise, thus faking it, and you use this commonly heard “mantra” of ponderous uncertainty heard all too often in public presentations and everyday conversation.
3) To your shock, the kitten from before is, in truth, a rare breed of dwarfed tomcat and it is in heat. It sprays your leg with its putrid pheromones.
4) On your lunch break, you spill an entire plate of Spaghettio’s on your temperamental boss’s white, silk blouse just five minutes before her meeting with the board of directors.
5) Angrily tearing up yet another piece of junk-mail from your cable provider, you feel the firm cardboard slice open the sensitive flesh between your fingers, which for whatever reason, was wet with lemon juice.
6) Having pondered at length on the reason for your rapidly shrinking gums, in a “Eureka” moment, you suddenly know that your toothpaste has been taken and replaced with a tube of Preparation H.
How have these expressions found their way into the lexicon of human communication? Perhaps they are there for the same reason we moan when in pain or pleasure, or scream in terror or excitement, or laugh in response to either humor or impending mental meltdown: emotional response is biologically linked with the breath and any breathing that excites the vocal folds into vibration will consequently produce a vowel sound. There is something universal in the body, its feelings, and its means of expressing them.
Interesting to ponder, but like most idle contemplations, they serve to fascinate far more than they serve to offer any answers or evidence.
So he sings alone and there is no one to hear. There was no one there, not even him, and perhaps that is why there was no need to be known, for there was no one to know. He felt such relief in losing the little self, craving the recognition it needs to sustain it.
Nature is a place without names. Giving names to the phenomena of nature is to give it identity, and the bestowal of identity is the imposition of limitation. And with these names, to us the beings who give meaning to almost everything, the animate and inanimate myriad things of nature were reduced to their little selves.
He lost his little self on the wind in sound. “None of these forces shall sway me,” he declares to the past and future. The declaration dislodged the self-destructive tendency of his subconscious mind, and dissolved the deeply imbedded impetus to obscure the big self.
Perceiving the apparent singularity of the tone as illusory was the first step in the separation from the world of little things, ego things.
Dissolve the self, bestow the self, and listen.