Listening Deep

Today at the harp I’m doing easy single-finger and unplaced scales – a slow, delicious warm-up. With each plucked string my breathing deepens, my shoulder blades relax down my back, my spine lengthens and my heart lifts until I am sitting effortlessly erect, bathed in the vibration of a C major scale, in the harp bench equivalent of Lotus pose. I’m listening to the sound of each string grow fainter as it speeds from my harp strings across the room, through the window, past the garden and the owls’ cedar tree, across the road, the city, the state – traveling ever outward until it circles the earth with vibration. I’m reading Bridge of Waves: What Music is and How Listening to It Changes the World by W. A. Mathieu (Boston: Shambhala, 2010) and he’s totally changing my concepts of listening.

I follow the book’s suggestion and play the C major scale tones against a lower C drone. Mathieu tells me, “I’m saying (and I know it can’t be said) that there is a mandala of feeling for you to discover in the harmonies of a scale, and that its power is innately yours in your wiring and in your nature [p. 66.]” Eyes closed, listening to each sound as it drops away below audibility, feeling each scale tone’s vibration against the drone, the only feeling word I can speak is wonder. There is a kinesthetic response to each plucked string. Some tones resonate inside me, their internal echoing scribing the shape of my chest cavity. Other tones bounce off my sternum at oblique angles and then surround my head and shoulders in an audible aura of sound. The 7th scale tone shoots through me and careens around the room, bouncing off walls and ceiling before settling with the drone in an evaporating puddle of sound at the base of the harp.

My newly attentive ears wonder what sound might be born by sounding two C strings together. I pluck the two C’s below middle C, and wait. Soon the higher C strings resonate, adding their vibrations. The stave back of my harp feeds this vibration to my heart. Just before the sound fades away, I again pluck both C strings together, then alternate plucking the lower and the higher C, creating a wave of sound that dances between lower and higher registers. My fingers want to add an E, and then an A, to ride the top of this wave, and so a new rhythm of scale tones now lies atop what has become a bass ostinato of the two C strings.

I am improvising, according to any music textbook. But what I am really doing is waiting for the vibrating strings to speak their desire, their longing, for the next scale tone in this dance of sound and fingers. I am swimming in the sound ocean, rising and falling on this wave, no thinking, no choosing, just listening, and allowing my fingers to respond to the pull of this tide as it aches for the next tone.

The bass pattern slows of its own accord. The last of the scale tones drift into the atoms of the room, and there remains the last vibrations of the lowest C string becoming a whisper, becoming smoke, becoming an emptiness that shimmers silver in the aftermath.

Was this music from my core? Or was this sound erupting from the very core of music, responding to the invitation of my open and willing ears? Are these two places one and the same, two vibrating hearts, infinitely resonating one with the other? Call it improvisation, or call it a song from God – it doesn’t matter, once the listening begins.

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11 thoughts on “Listening Deep

  1. Nice to see that you’ve also discovered the joy of improvising!
    Sometimes, feelings can’t be expressed in words, sometimes your fingers just need to free the melodies from your mind. It’s really liberating, being free from constraints of written music, as you are free to play whatever sounds just right… For me, that’s part of what continues to draw me back to the harp.
    And yet, apparently, there are people who can’t improvise! I can hardly imagine that – after all, it’s just sitting down, playing and then eventually, something happens, something that transcends conscious thought and then I’m completely in the moment with the music. (for the record: I’m usually a very down to earth person, but the harp is an exception :)). But I guess, you need to allow that something to happen…

    Thanks for sharing!

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    1. I love your what you said – “sometimes your fingers just need to free the melodies from your mind.” All my arrangements of traditional tunes, and all the tunes I’ve composed have started out with fooling around on the harp, allowing my fingers to pluck the strings they want to, and listening. Like you, that is a big part of what I love about the harp. I think you are right – you need to create time and space for it to happen, and then allow yourself to step off into an unknown realm of sound. But that’s when the mind and the heart reveals the melodies hidden there.

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  2. Beautiful, Janet.

    As I read this, I found myself wondering what kind of harp you were playing when you did this experiment. In my experience, not all harps resonate with all harpists. I’ve played harps that sounded gorgeous but failed to touch my core in the way you’ve just described. It sounds like your harp suits you well!

    My two lever harps have very different resonant qualities. Depending on the day and how I feel, I’ll gravitate toward one harp or the other … the one that speaks to me in the moment. They both have a way of getting inside me and talking back to me, which is magical. I know just how you feel about yours. 🙂

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  3. There is a poet in your heart, Janet. I do not play a musical instrument (unless the Bodhran counts) but you took me with you, and I listened deeply. A wonderful way to begin this day. Thank you.

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    1. Thank you, Cheryl. That’s a great compliment. And of course the bodhran counts!!!! Rhythm is the essential ground of music. I started my path back to music with playing djembe in an African drum ensemble. Never could have imagined it would lead to harp and recorder and blog, but it did. Janet

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  4. you’ve done it again Janet…such evocative writing. I was swimming in the tones being created. By the way, sometimes after I play my harp, I use my pendulum to check my chakras and they are always opened wide. Musical vibrations do indeed change us.

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    1. Thank you, Nanci! The book I mention in this post delves deep into how music vibrations change us on physical, emotional and spiritual levels. I think you would find it fascinating and inspirational. Janet

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