In modern secular society, the concert func-tions as a religious ritual designed to con-nect the listener with the profoundly abstract. These rituals can vary in style, just as religious services can vary from the uptight Presbyterians to the ecstatic Baptists and Sufis. The more puritanical concert devotees insist on strict silence, with performers in tuxedos and evening gowns. Other more expressive devotees encourage dancing in the aisles, and shouts of “Vah!” or “Play that thing!” But we musicians and critics—the priests and acolytes of the concert ritual—will always resist any attempt to question one fundamental article of faith. The music itself is the object of devotion, and should be subordinated to no other value.
Perhaps this is why many religious leaders have considered the worship of music to be a heretical rival to religion itself. St. Augustine told worshipers it was a sin to pay too much attention to religious music and not enough to the holy words being sung. And some Muslim extremists consider music to be haram (forbidden), because of a questionable interpretation of a passage in the Hadith. (There is no condemnation of music in the Koran.) Many musicians, however, consider their music to be first and foremost a form of worship—which is why they don’t feel the need of a priest or minister to sanctify their creations. They may, however, feel a tension similar to the one described by St. Augustine—between technique, which makes the music admirable for its own sake, and that indescribable element (“heart” or “feeling”) that makes music point beyond itself to something higher. Being able to balance these two elements is the greatest challenge any musician faces, and most have to content themselves with music, and personalities, which are lopsided one way or the other. As John Barth put it, “Heartfelt ineptitude has its charms, and so does heartless skill. But the goal is passionate virtuosity.”
Even the best world fusion music often puts more emphasis on technique than heart. It usually begins with an idea (“Let’s put a slide guitar, an erhu, and a sarod in the same room, and see what happens.”), which doesn’t always give birth to a reality that actually works. Jai Uttal’s Pagan Love Orchestra albums, however, have always balanced these two elements perfectly. His imaginative and complex orchestrations always rested on a firm foundation of ecstatic spirituality expressed in Uttal’s heartfelt vocals. When he combines wildly disparate elements, such as banjo and sarod, it is because he senses a hidden affinity that the rest of us can hear only after he has done it. We critics have devoted most of our attention to Uttal’s abilities as a composer and arranger. But many of the people dancing in the aisles at his concerts heard only the ecstatic musical sadhu. Soon he was being asked to sing kirtan (hymns in praise of the Hindu gods) in temples and yoga centers, often accompanied only by harmonium and tablas. The energy generated by these intimate performances reawakened his appreciation of the transformative power of simplicity, and created a whole new fan base for him. These new fans will especially appreciate his two new albums on the Sounds True label, in which his music is presented not as concert performances, but as aids to spiritual development.
Music is only one of over a dozen categories of recording featured on the Sounds True label; the others include Buddhism, Myth and Meaning, Death and Dying, and Right Livelihood. Under Yoga and Spirituality in Motion we find Music for Yoga and other Joys, created by Uttal and his longtime producer Ben Leinbach. If you treat this album as a piece of concert music, your reaction might be: “this sounds like a Pagan Love Orchestra album, only with a lot less going on.” Uttal and Leinbach play essentially all of the instruments (the notable exception being Manose Singh’s dazzling bansuri playing), and the variations unfold slowly and deliberately. There is, however, an artful balance between electronic and truly unique acoustic sounds, which is peaceful without being simple-minded. I played it while doing yoga, and found myself moving smoothly into a state of physical and mental relaxation which truly helped my practice. And my yoga class gave it a unanimous thumbs-up. “The vocals at the end made me want to sing along, they way I do with Jai’s Kirtan album,” said one student.
Which brings us to Uttal and Leinbach’s second Sounds True album, devoted to “the art and practice of ecstatic chant.” It has imagination and technical polish, but enough simplicity and space to encourage the listener to join the chanting. At first, it seemed unlikely to me that anyone could reproduce the experience of live kirtan chanting on a recording. But this album includes a talk by Uttal about the practice of chanting the names of God, encouraging even those who feel they can’t sing to see this as a form of worship. After listening to this talk, I realized I wouldn’t appreciate this album unless I stopped treating it like concert music. So I put it on while doing the dishes, started singing along, and gosh darn it, it felt good. How many times have you sung along with the radio while stuck in traffic? Do you stop when you think someone might be staring at you and assume that if the artist were there, he would say, “Shut up, I’m trying to do a concert!” Here was a beautifully produced album that left spaces for you to sing along and offered the possibility of spiritual growth if you did it. Praise be to Rama, who could ask for anything more?
Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.