A Mind of Its Own
Written by Serubiri Moses
One night I awoke from a dream in which I heard a string quartet playing. I had been so peaceful while listening to the song in my sleep that waking up seemed very ironic. The music was almost bewitching as it continued to echo in my mind as I pondered what the dream had meant.
It was an arrangement of Johannes Brahms’ ‘Intermezzo’ in A Major, Op. 118 for piano. The particular recording of the San Francisco based Alexander String Quartet had been arranged for the group by Zakarias Grafilo, their first violinist.
In the dream, the song confirmed an instinct of surrender. Surrender to the eternal. Even though my experience of this eternal that I speak of has been limited, it is in such moments that occur “deep within the musical mind” where the memory of sound has pointed towards—what pianist-composer Alice Coltrane has called—Divine Love or Prema in Sanskrit.
Prema is also the title of a song composed by Alice Coltrane and performed on her 70s live album ‘Transfiguration’. The review of that album by the BBC says that the song “approaches the universal spirituality that Coltrane seeks to convey”.
The song structure alludes to a number of clearly spiritual references. Its use of the same melodic refrain over and over reminds one of the gospel spirituals that Alice grew up playing as an organist in the church. And her overdubbing of a nine-piece string section draws influences from Stravinsky’s ballet ‘Firebird’, based on a children’s poem by Yakov Polonsky that depicts a dream in which “Firebirds sing by night / And peck at golden fruit”.
I waded into the audience one evening at Poetry in Session and played the melody from ‘Intermezzo’ from memory while returning to the melody again and again as though it were a gospel spiritual. I am sure any classical purist would have been horrified to hear what I had done to Brahms’ “nostalgic, gentle, almost tragic” short piano piece. The song seemed to rise up into the air, as the audience fell silent.
When I had finished, they gave loud applause.
First Violin, then Jazz
The first time I held a violin was in a shop in the middle of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I cannot remember the day or month, but the year was 2008. The shop was called Rhapsody Valley. It was a store right next to an Apple shop, which I often walked past but never went inside, at Mid-Valley Mall. The attendant, a Malay rastafarian, pulled the shiny violin out of the glass window display. I held it in my hands, taken aback by its shape, color and size.
Why a violin, you may ask?
Even though I do not have a straightforward answer to that question, I know that I wanted to buy a cello. I had grown accustomed to the contralto voice of classical guitar, and I thought the transition from guitar to cello would be easy since they were in the same musical range. But when I thought about the costs of transporting a cello from Malaysia back to Uganda, I quickly settled on the violin. It would be easier to carry back home.
The Asian Rastafarian prepared the instrument for me and I then strapped the light violin case onto my back. Over the next few days, I would spend much time photographing it instead of actually playing it.
I thought that everybody would be as enthusiastic as I was at playing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, but in truth they were trying to figure out what I was doing with this foreign-looking instrument that made such a strange squeaky sound. I became accustomed to playing for people who were too stunned, confused or bluntly irritated by what I was “scratching”—a term used by Luganda speaking students at the Kampala Music School where I would seek refuge in the rehearsal rooms. Scratching was used intermittently to mean both bowing the violin and the sound of scrubbing bathtubs floors with a hard bristle brush.
Much as this viewpoint was the norm, fate would change after I joined the jazz group at the music school led by jazz bassist Chris Weigers. The group embraced a wide range of unusual sounds—even those that were not in the musical scale. Growls, squeaks, honks and all sorts.
From jazz pianist Thelonious Monk I learnt to express that which is not on the musical scale; to explore regions which are uniquely different; and how to choose chords that tell your story. His insistent use of the second and sixth chords earned him attention from critics. Scholar Ingrid Monson gives a clear description of how the musician was perceived in her article ‘Monk Meets SNCC’, published in the Black Music Research Journal.
“Thelonious Monk—the enigma, the man who could compose with the radio blaring, wore unusual hats, danced around onstage, had periods of acute disconnectedness, and showed particular gifts in mathematics as a high school student—has long been a potent symbol of the jazz musician as artist.
Monk’s reluctance to verbalize—to interviewers, musicians seeking instruction, and even friends and family members—provides further evidence that music was his true language. Monk spoke the unspeakable through music and took the listener to “another level” through his utterly original compositions and improvisations.”
These thoughts are summarized by a protégé of Monk, Randy Weston, in the NPR Jazz Profile on the musician where he says, “I’ve heard Monk take one note and create unbelievable freedom. One note can be a whole composition…”
This sense of freedom is something which has propelled me as a musician, a violinist and as an improviser. As a result of such jazz influence, my violin playing has become continually stronger, tougher and at times even startling. I no longer carry around the burdens that involve “playing correct notes” or sounding like a classically-trained violinist. I am much more concerned now with extending an inner dialogue between myself and another dimension of awareness.
I’ve also taken a lot from Monk’s words to singer Abbey Lincoln on hearing her lyrics to his composition ‘Blue Monk’. He told her, “Don’t be so perfect”.
An Act of Rebellion
It is an act of rebellion, though subtle one may discover it to be. Music is a series of vibrations that are transmitted through thin air. It affects the entire body, not just the ears. The various frequencies of music are both audible and inaudible; both discernible and indiscernible to human ears, and not only human beings are capable of making music. The spectrum of organized sonic frequencies that can be traced into a pattern of music can be found in creatures as vast as whales and those as small as weaver birds.
But what really makes this music a capable tool for rebellion, is the fact that in those transmitted sonic frequencies are secret codes that can only be understood in states of elevated emotional and spiritual awareness; moments that can be experienced in deep sleep, for example, as in the dream that I began with.
How can something so tender, gentle and subtle be a force of rebellion, subversion or resistance? To imagine that within it is some kind of potency for restoration, resolution or redemption, is something far beyond human understanding.
In Franz Schubert’s Cello Quintet, the strings quiet into a hollow shimmering silence as the first violin sings a piercing melody. It would seem that in those few moments of the adagio, the man was peering into heaven. Having been fatally ill, Schubert’s physical strength steadily declined in his final year, aged 31. Yet, in the wake of physical illness Schubert produced his most serene and thoughtful pieces.
Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim further elaborates this phenomenon referring to a contemporary of Schubert’s in his article ‘Beethoven and the Quality of Courage’, published in the New York Review of Books:
“In Beethoven’s case, one mustn’t forget that in 1802, the year he was contemplating suicide—as he wrote in an unsent letter to his brothers that came to be known as the ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’—he also composed the Second Symphony, one of his works that was most positive in spirit […]”
An Awareness of Your Own Existence
Chinese Nobel Laureate Gao Xinjian writing on his own experience of surviving the cultural revolution reflects on the despair that plagued Russian musician Alfred Schnittke. In Chapter 61 of his novel, Y? gè rén de Shèngj?ng or One Man’s Bible, he speaks of a particular kind of “consciousness of your self … this awareness of your own existence”.
In echoing the resolute unmeasurable power of music, he writes that this awareness is the vehicle through which he was redeemed from his predicament and suffering, referring to how the red guards tortured him for writing works that were outside the philosophy of Chairman Mao.
These thoughts come to life when he writes a poignant description of Schnittke.
“A person cannot be crushed if he refuses to be crushed. Others may oppress him, and defile him but, as long as he has not stopped breathing, he will still have the chance to raise his head. It is a matter of being able to preserve this last breath, to hold onto this last breath, so that one does not suffocate in the pile of shit.
A person can be raped, woman or man, physically or by political force, but a person cannot be totally possessed: one’s spirit remains one’s own, and it is this that is preserved in the mind. Schnittke was uncertain with his music, and he was groping in the dark; seeking a way out was like searching for light, but he relied solely on that small point of dim light in his heart, and it was this feeling that was indestructible.”
Inhabiting Other Worlds
When my life was sucked into a severe rut in 2006, music began trickling through me. I sketchily began to find ways of expressing it, as I realized it was the one way a life was trying to stay moving within me. And music was the language through whose secret code I could understand what this inner voice was communicating. It became a way in which my life was affirmed.
I learned that music was a conversation that people understood, that God understood. I would stay up deep into the night playing what I then only understood as ‘hymns’ or prayers. Other times I meditated on the religious poems of John Donne and George Herbert, from which I subconsciously composed songs. Some of these have been written down; most of them are now lost.
These drops of sound that seeped through the quiet hush of still night became a normal, even vital, part of my life for those two years. Quietly renewing my mind, my will and strength even when I didn’t know why I stayed up so late. Solitude was at times quiet, other times pondering in hushed laughter to a soft keyboard, humming or reciting poetry along.
In a few years, I would encounter all sorts of hatred for my playing the violin, especially from the viewpoint that I would never succeed at playing classical music. I was combated with demotivating and often times racist slogans that deemed Africans unable to play classical instruments, or even be capable of the grace of performing classical music. Even with such bitter and hateful words, the Spirit was still moving and speaking inside me.
This is written of in Romans 8:26 of the Holy Bible, where man’s lack of awareness or consciousness of grave danger is shielded by the Spirit when “we know not what we should pray for”. Instead we’re told that “the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered”.
It is such unutterable groanings that manifest as music, as song, as lyric, as poetry. If these experiences seem otherworldly, it is only because this is what I find to be the experience of really playing music.
When I have been surrounded by gracious courteous musicians, the stage has always been a space of incredible intimacy. Those times when I have played in the orchestra have once or twice felt as though I was being swept up by a thunderstorm. You watch the notes lift off the page as you play them; suddenly the world disappears around you.
You inhabit another world. It is as if your musical mind opens up, releasing a world of its own. You become another kind of being. It is a feeling much closer to transcending the human body—like viewing your body from the outside, watching every last action, nerve or heartbeat.
You can feel everything, including your mind. You can see each note distinctly as an entity of its own and how it all fits together. Usually when this happens, I close my eyes.
Serubiri Moses has been published in The New Vision reviewing live music. As a poet, he is featured on the pan African website, Badilisha Poetry Exchange.
For Issue 034 Jul ’13 of Startjournal.org, Editor Thomas Bjørnskau invited eight Ugandan artists from different art fields to write an essay about the essence of art, all responding to the same kind of question: to sing/write/paint/write plays etc — what is it really about? This is one of the essays. You can read the other essays here.