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.