Sound Beyond All Concepts

By Igor Pireev

We all listen to the Guru’s voice time after time and draw inspiration from it. But there is another marvelous aspect – the sound of the melodies of his flute performance.  And while we understand that music, at times, can evoke incredibly profound images and experiences, what the sound of his flute carries with it has so far remained beyond the scrutiny of a wide audience. 

Some time ago, I created a musical video about South Kunsangar. After having seen some fragments of the video, Adriano Clemente suggested using music based on the “Gawala, How Happy” CD, in which Chögyal Namkhai Norbu performed some traditional  Tibetan melodies on the flute.  

At the time I did not know that this CD existed and what I heard was a discovery. At the same time, during my work, I found out that in one of the melodies, “Gyaling Chubur Mani”, there is a fragment in which the Teacher first performs the mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” on the flute, and then sings it.  We listened to this track many times, comparing the sound of the flute to his voice. But what was amazing was that the flute not only precisely matched the melody he sang, it also matched his voice and even his intonation. Moreover, its sound seemed to suggest that Rinpoche was expressing something else with the flute – something very deep and valuable in its own way. Something that perhaps somehow eluded us when we heard his ordinary speech. And perhaps by this device of singing, he was giving us a key to a common understanding.

All of these considerations led me to think that, in addition to its cultural and historical merits, perhaps this legacy of Chögyal Namkhai Norbu in the form of his flute performance had another important, but still hidden meaning. That it is one of the forms of the Guru’s transmission of some other aspects of Knowledge, the depth of which we have yet to realize. After all, we all know very well that the role of sound, and especially of music, in Tibetan spiritual traditions, is incredibly important and is thought of as the beginning of beginnings.

Chögyal Namkhai Norbu could practice silently, could talk about something or even chant with us, but he could also communicate through the melody of the flute, transmitting something else, using it as a kind of musical Morse code.  And perhaps this seemingly music of his heart was a completely different method of harmonizing the world around him – not only by combining melody, rhythm and emotional coloring, but also by resonating his energy with the millennia-old traditions and spiritual practices of his people. 

We know very well that Chögyal Namkhai Norbu loved the flute and that he was often given them as gifts – he had quite a large collection. Eyewitnesses tell us that when the Guru was given such a gift, he immediately tried it for sound. 

The sound in the flute occurs at the moment of resonance of the air exhaled by the performer within the walls of the flute, and material, length, diameter and so on all have an effect on the sound. There are modern flutes made of gold and platinum, priced like the most expensive Cadillac, but if you listen closely, a great deal on the Gawala CD is recorded on a single flute (and it is definitely not made of platinum). This means that Rinpoche, in selecting it from his rich collection, felt that in most of the tunes it should be the one to accurately convey the sounds in his heart.   

The material the flute is made of is an equally important aspect of interacting with space. Reed, bamboo, wood, bone, metal, fired clay – all these materials are used by different peoples in flute making, including for special ritual purposes. Let us remember the kangling – after all, it is also a flute made of bone, which predetermines its ritual purpose. Interestingly, in the case of the kangling, through his or her exhalation, the energy of a living person resonates with the inanimate matter from which the flute is made. The result is a sound, which at its core carries something that allows the flautist to interact simultaneously with both worlds. 

The conclusion that the flute in the hands of Chögyal Namkhai Norbu was there for a reason is self-evident.  This realization is strengthened if we take into account the entire history of Rinpoche’s life and the fact that the flute accompanied him throughout his travels. And when the performer is a teacher of such magnitude and he performs such an important and special mantra on it, then one cannot help but realize that every sound of the flute is imbued with very subtle components.

The pentatonic scale [ed. the base of traditional Tibetan music] is the most ancient, self-sufficient and complete five-step interval system of musical sounds. It is the basis of traditional music of China, Vietnam, Mongolia, and Turkic peoples. The music of Andean peoples is also based mainly on pentatonics. It is found in the musical folklore of Europe and, what is interesting, in the most ancient Russian calendar ritual songs. 

But pentatonic is, first of all, pentatonicity and we can see the correspondence – 5 Primary Elements, 5 colors, and so on. If we talk about the system of teaching in the monasteries of Tibet, it is clear that a lot of the transmission of knowledge is based on multiples of “5”.   At the same time, if musical sound is an absolutely organic and indispensable part of spiritual practices, it means that there should be unified and systematized training on ritual musical accompaniment.  And it can be based only on pentatonic, which is what Rinpoche demonstrates to us.

For explanations let us turn to the data of scientific history and Tibetology: 

“…If we arrange in chronological order the Tibetan musical-theoretical works and writings known to modern science, at the beginning of the list will be: “Treatise on Music” by Sakya Pandita Kung Gyeltsen (1182-1251) [Sa skya Pandita (Sakya Pandita) 1992: 159] and “Treatises on Vocal and Instrumental Music by Tsandragomi (Tsandrashri) Dawa Pelrin” (?1384/1375-?).  They contain quite complete information about Tibetan music of that period: the principles of melody construction and structure, compositional rules, performance norms, timbre features of the voice, teaching and learning.  [Gendui Peijie 2009: 84; Dge ‘dun ‘Phel rgyas (Gedun Pel- gye) 2011: 103; Egyed 2000: 87-88]….”

“…..The purpose of writing musical-theoretical works in the Buddhist religious tradition varied depending on the doctrinal attitude of the author: either he wrote a treatise from the perspective of Mahayana philosophy, according to which every practitioner must learn all the sciences and arts in order to achieve Awakening; or he took as a basis the teachings of Tantra, in which musical sounds and musical instruments were regarded as possessing special symbolic meaning and hidden power and were necessary for performing rituals and meditative practices;…..”. 

And especially important, in the context of our study, may be the paragraph that follows:

“… The peculiarity of the existence of Tibetan musical-theoretical compositions, as well as Tibetan religious texts in general, lies in the necessity of receiving accompanying oral instructions from the teacher, thanks to which the meaning of the composition becomes clear to the practitioner, as well as in the necessity of taking appropriate initiations….Without receiving initiations it was impossible to get access to Tantric compositions…” [Egyed 2000: 17; Gsang rnying rgyan … 1996:].”

It follows from the above excerpts that Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, in accordance with his originally known high spiritual purpose, not only had to be trained in a certain musical tradition with very clear canons, but also to receive the corresponding instructions, which later he followed and was able to also transmit to his disciples. It also becomes absolutely clear that the sounds of his flute, from the standpoint of knowledge, undoubtedly possess “deep symbolic meaning and hidden power”.

Few people know that playing the flute is an extremely individual performance. It is simply impossible for another person to repeat it. You will always recognize your mother’s voice no matter what phone she calls you from. The flute sounds the same way. Its sounds are considered the closest to the human voice and most accurately convey the nuances of not only the voice, but also the mental state.   This is because the sound is based, among other things, on the unique anatomy and physiology of a particular person and is a part of the performer’s breath and energy, which is determined by his inner emotional state.  There is only one fundamental difference from singing – the speech apparatus, which often distorts the internal sound. Instead, an accurate and pure sound is formed in the flute. 

Furthermore it is impossible to play the flute without a proper breathing technique, a relaxed state to a certain extent, a straight and tension-free back, calm deep breathing, and the same exhalation.  But what is fundamentally important is that flautists are told when learning that they should not blow air into the flute but exhale it, calmly and without the slightest tension, pronouncing pure sounds A, O, U, E , I. 

The most important question that remains to be answered is what essential context is embedded in the sound of his flute and what is being conveyed to us along with this Harmony? The best thing we can do in this regard is to listen to the melodies of Chögyal Namkhai Norbu and get in touch with what is beyond any concepts and inspires us immensely. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”  

Light, goodness and clarity to all! 

(Prepared for the birthday of Chögyal Namkhai Norbu)

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