Artist in the Dzogchen Community – Harvey Kaiser

Harvey Kaiser

Harvey Kaiser

October 6, 2014

The Mirror: So Harvey, you are a musician and you have been so since when?

Harvey Kaiser: Since I was about 18 years old I have been playing music for people’s listening and dancing pleasure and my sound journey has brought me to the Dzogchen Community.

M: So can you talk a little about your sound journey and your relationship to the Dzogchen Community?

HK: Well I started noticing that music really has an impact on people’s behavior, feelings and attitudes, on how they function, whether they are listening to the radio or a video, a soundtrack or dancing and as a maker of music I have an acute viewpoint and notice how the quality, the style and intensity of music, the volume, the source, how all of that affects people in different ways.

I guess the first real breakthrough for me was in the early 70’s when I became acquainted with a master Indian singer called Pandit Pranath, and among his disciples were Lamont Young, and Terry Reilly, and a school of New York minimalist composers. Lamont Young was an electronic musician at that time, and he was using the Vedic model, 5000 years old, of the drone and the drone, of course, is common to all Indian music, north and south, and is usually made by a tambura. The idea of acoustic sound and electronic sound raises some significant issues for me and maybe for the purpose of this discussion. So anyway, Lamont discovered that every pitch has a separate receptor on the brain, so if you tune the tambura in a perfect 5th, there are certain frequencies being generated, and people often say, “When we listen to Indian music its like real meditation”, etc.

My personal involvement was with American jazz music. Someone who explored this in a significant way was John Coltrane. He traveled to India and he listened and experienced Indian music. There was a big movement in the 60’s of Westerners trying to integrate Eastern music into their art form. We don’t have really great documentation of this, but in 1886 at the Paris Exposition, Claude Debussy and Erik Satie and perhaps a host of others, heard Balinisian gamalen orchestras for the first time. That blew everybody away. And many of these composers, consciously and unconsciously, incorporated this aesthetic into their orchestral music – people talk about the beautiful, calming, peaceful aspect of Debussy’s music. Well, American jazz musicians were also influenced by this French orchestral music, so everything is connected; we’re on the planet, we’re on this world global mandala, and it’s larger than us individually and when artists seem to think they have to come up with something new and original, to make their mark on history, this is a delusion because there is nothing really new, there is just discovering what is already here. Everybody has to do that in their own process and time, and someone like Charlie Parker* who only lived to be 35 years old, made his discoveries very early in life and then he was done.

I am still working at my process, I had my 68th birthday, and the Song of the Vajra has been the next significant piece in my process because in the same way that the drone and tambura in the orchestral music of east and west induces a certain state of mind, the Song of the Vajra, which is more or less unique. I have done Vajrayana practice for a number of decades and there was nothing in that body of knowledge that I was aware of, that had the same impact as Rinpoche’s teaching of the Song of Vajra. It’s kind of an extension of this tambura idea, because there are a number of different pitches, and a number of different mantra-yanic syllables, that are stimulating a number of different receptors in our internal mandala, as well as in the head, heart and throat chakra.

For me, playing jazz music, which is what I still do and people tell me that even if I am playing the old tunes, my energy is different. They say that when I come up on the bandstand and join a very good group of proficient musicians, I bring something different and it informs the whole group dynamic. Music is a collaboration, unless you are playing solo piano style, so the quality of the collaboration, because everyone is sensitive to each other, is really about listening. The best music, jazz or otherwise, is when you get out of your own way and the ego takes a back seat and you become a channel for the sound of universe; the source of all sound. It’s kind of hard to work in that way if you’re showboating, if you’re in the spotlight, if you’re the big star, which is so prevalent here in America with the music industry. So that is really a different story. That’s an external story and we’re talking about more of an internal event, which then can be shared, if everyone is doing the same thing.

M: Do you think the nature of jazz is a more internal experience?

HK: Oh I think that’s been my inner truth. I think that is one of the reasons jazz is not awfully popular anymore because as a listener you have to pay attention, you have to focus and dedicate time, and in fact, a dear friend of mine Burl Crone, made many jazz films on Public Television in the 70’s and 80’s and PBS said to him, we are really sorry but we’re not going to be able to show your movies anymore, because the American audience doesn’t have the attention span to listen to a jazz solo, so it is no longer prime time material. So what does one attribute this to as an artist and a musician? Well the 21st century has many distractions in the electronic field, which interrupts our mind-stream. So this is an issue for practitioners and meditators, because it is very easy to get seduced by technology and it is an important tool that we all use but it can also become an entrapment. I think it is a subtle energy source, and music is a subtle energy source, so there is a conflict of interest on a certain level.

M: Do you want to say a little about how you came into the Community?

HK: Interestingly, I came to the Community through music. One of my old colleagues, Chuck Stein, who was for many years a fine woodwind player and saxophonist. I met Chuck at Bard College when I was doing my MFA [Masters of Fine Arts]. So Chuck Stein asked me to give him a ride to Conway. When we arrived Rinpoche was finishing a week of a Goma Devi Retreat. This was May 2005. I had also met Barbara Leon [another practitioner from the Barrytown area] prior to this. Her husband was a supervisor in the BOCES school where I was working and he had a brunch and invited me over, he had had some contact with Mahayana Buddhism, and when I went over there Barbara asked, “Is this the Buddhist guy you told me about?” And he nodded yes and she grabbed me and spirited me up the side of the mountain to her mandala. She has had a mandala for many years and she is a wonderful dancer, and then I subsequently helped her repaint this mandala, and I didn’t really know the dance, I watched her do the dance by herself, but I never saw a full mandala of dancers. So I had a clue, so to speak, and this is before I met Rinpoche.

M: You had been a practitioner of Vajrayana for many years, right?

HK: Yes and that is where I met Jim Valby in 1973 and 74.

M: So you went to the retreat and met Rinpoche?

HK: Yes and I got the transmission of the short Goma Devi practice; it was Sunday, the last day of the retreat. And when I was driving Chuck back, he said, “Gee, I wonder where Jim Valby was today..” and I said, “Jim Valby?!” and Chuck said, “Yea he is a translator for the Community and he makes books”, and I said, “Jim Valby, the graduate of Professor Herbert Guenther’s program?” and he said, “Yes” and I said, “Well I know Jim Valby.” We had not seen each other for 35 years. So all of these mandala threads came together for us. And I am really happy to have been in the Community now for nine years. And I am getting ready to go back to Italy to do another concert cycle with another Vajra brother from the Akashmani Orchestra of Adriano Clemente, Ramano Consoli, another great saxophone player and I have been a guest on their new CD, which we are going to present.

M: Can you talk a little about how the Dzogchen teachings have impacted your music?

HK: The teachings have absolutely impacted my music. People have different notions of what jazz is. Its been academized in the last 20 years and there is a process of teaching jazz which has become far removed from the oral tradition of what jazz really is and in that regard makes it very similar to East Indian music. There is a lineage of master to disciple, where you have to sing before you play the instrument. And in the study and practice of American jazz music, you have to sing what you want to play before you can play it. If you can’t hear it in your mind, if you don’t have the inner space, which is not cluttered with a lot of static and interruption, you don’t have the presence of mind to have this inner experience of hearing the music that you are attempting to express through your instrument. So there is a vocalization, an internal psychological process, and then what happens as a result is that you begin to play that on your instrument. So as the mind becomes more fertile in this regard of having the capacity to do this, which is kind of like a practitioner; it’s very similar, we talk about being distracted, we talk about emptiness, we talk about being able to do a Vajrayana style practice, you need to have a certain calm state. So playing improvised music is very much like this.

And that is what jazz really is about. Just memorizing a lot of phrases and becoming fluent at regurgitating, some people think that that’s jazz, but that is really lacking soul; the heart, the open heart, the heart energy which informs the technique of the music. It has to be imbued with this subjective power and as a practitioner I think working with the practices and the Guruyoga especially, has sort of facilitated this capacity for me. For some it happens later and for some it happens early on, bright flames sometimes burn out really soon. I am really content to be sort of a slow boat to China, and really enjoy the fruit of my years. I guess I am an old timer at 68 in the world of jazz, if you check the biographies. There’s no fast rule about how long a musician is going to endure. But I am grateful in this regard, to discover what is working as I go along.

M: You’ve also been involved a lot in the musical renditions of the Song of Vajra, like the beautiful video they did in Tenerife with the choir and musicians, and also related to Rinpoche’s wish to have live music performed when people are dancing. Can you talk a little about that?

HK: Costantino Albini first shared this with us when he came to Conway to lead a Chöd retreat some years ago. The Vajra Hall was a pile of sand and girders before other things started to manifest, and we did a first Ganapuja to be done in the Vajra Hall with the beginnings of a live orchestra; there were just 3 of us. Costantino shared that it was Chögyal Namkhai Norbu’s intention and vision in terms of his own terma experience, that there were to be live singers and musicians sitting around the edge of the mandala. So that was the beginning of the idea that we had to have the Vajra Orchestra and not just use CD’s. The CD’s are practical of course when we are learning to do the dance, but when there are auspicious occasions, when the Master is visiting, when you are doing something on a larger scale, to have such an orchestra. The second opportunity was an invitation to visit Tenerife at the inception of Dzamling Gar and this took place at a local hotel up at the end of the highway in Playa Paraiso. We had a great filmmaker Hans Hansen and a gathering of international singers and players and we rehearsed in the hall and on the roof of the hall, where all the filming took place. We rehearsed the singing first, you see that was Costantino’s prime objective to get us all to sing the Song of the Six Spaces, in tune and with inflection and intonation. So we would spend the morning singing and after we had gotten connected through the voice, and then we began to play our instruments.

If you don’t mind, I would like to relay a small story that recently happened related to the topic of this interview. I played at a wedding this past Saturday and it was a unique opportunity to regroup the old band and play for the wedding for a young woman who used to hear the band when she was a teenager years ago. So there we were under a tent in upstate NY in the rain, playing this wonderful old acoustic jazz. The band was made up of real top shelf guys who came up from NYC, and we brought our collaborative expertise to this occasion. The people really enjoyed the music, there were young people who were accustomed to DJs etc, in fact the groom is a professional DJ, but he acceded to his bride’s wish to have us at their wedding. So two-thirds of the way into the reception one of the guests had a cardiac event, and, of course, a pall descended on the whole wedding party. So 100 people are left in shock and how do you get a party going when you have another hour left to play; they are all worried about what is going to happen to their friend and relative. So we looked at each other and said wow what do we open with now? So the piece that I chose was the very wonderful and gentle Mood Indigo of Duke Ellington, it is a trio, very soft and very gentle; the sounds of these horns and the instrumental brought people up a notch and before 15 minutes went by, they were up and dancing in a way that they hadn’t been dancing. Everybody was relieved and happy and the band was really vibrating beautifully and then, I have to say, when we finished then came the DJ. The music was at a decibel level that was beyond conversation.

Our bodies are 80% water and water is very much affected by sound vibrations, if we change the sound of the universe that we are channeling, if you want to talk about dharmakaya, the sound of A, manifestation of sound light and rays, if you technologically tweak this, sure it’s a part of it, everything is an extension of the original sound, but in terms of what our experience is as a human being body, the goal posts are being changed a bit. And the effect that it had on me and my colleagues as we were packing up is that we became agitated, we became hurried, we were trying to escape from this onslaught on our senses, and the whole energy of how we felt was quite different from an hour before when we were bringing these people back from this tragic occurrence. So here was a very concrete example of stuff that we talk about, that we want to think we know something about, that you asked me to talk about and three days ago I can say with certainty that yes it is true, sound, light and rays, that’s what’s happening and if we want to evolve in a positive and harmonious way, we cannot deny this and many of the things that have been offered to us, sold to us, insisted to upon us, if that means anything, are not really that helpful in many cases. That’s all for today.