Monday, February 6, 2012

Simple physics

David Hykes is one of the world's masters in the art of harmonic or overtone singing. He has trained his voice in such a way that his chanting breaks the spectrum of sound apart into its component colors, much as a prism explodes white light into rainbows.

The sound is very very strange and it scares me, because it's a sound that really doesn't exist. It should be contained, one tone inside the other, like Russian dolls, but somehow through a trick of the human voice the individual sounds have popped out. To call the sounds eerie is an understatement. Not whistling; not humming; a little like a theramin, and yet not; and most definitely, not of this world.

Overtones are everywhere: most singers produce them once in a while, so that you  suddenly hear a silky trilling an octave higher that seems to burnish the phrase. Just as you focus on it, it melts away. I once heard them on a bus. The hummy roar of the engine kept producing a much higher, parallel sound, eeming up into the stratosphere in that same eerie way.

Did we invent music, or only discover it? I think it's the latter. There are laws of music, just as there are laws of physics. Our Western scale has seven notes, corresponding to the seven colors of the rainbow. (Middle-Eastern scales have quarter- and half-steps that we can't manage: I tried to play a computerized piano on this setting and my, did it sound strange, all flattened. I couldn't get a song out of it at all.)

Humans seem hard-wired to interpret musical sounds in certain ways: we often hear music in a minor key as "sad". It's hard not to immediately recognize celebratory music, military marches or music expressing passionate love.

Anyway, this brings me around to why this music scares me. I can't locate in my mind another sound like this: it's not beautiful in the normal sense, and when it hits that extreme shattered-crystal high, it's almost ear-splitting. It has a consciousness that is separate from the vocalizing that is producing it. It's saying, look, here is the physics of music, and isn't it strange? Do you want to hear any more?

I am fascinated, yet want to turn away, to stop listening. From what I have heard, when someone is chanting in a big resonant space, the overtones dwell way out somewhere in a little spinning vortex of their own. There's a sort of blank indifference to the notes. Simple physics. Why does this disturb me? Because I now believe that this is the true nature of God.

God is indifferent, doesn't love or care, just goes on producing life, masses of it. If there is to be love, we must produce it, must care for each other. There is no freestanding love, no Love, except perhaps as a principle. Where all this life came from, why it came, is a deep mystery that will never be solved by the likes of us. Why we were allowed to come this far is a mystery too, for we hold within our hands the power to destroy the entire thing.

There was a time, a very long time, when I believed in a benevolence, a personal God that loved each of us individually, had in fact loved us into being. I can't sustain it any more: I had a massive, shattering experience, an experience in fact in which I believed I actually stood before God.  And God was not Love. God just "was".

I stood before a dazzling indifference.

That ended it, ended my Christianity and all that went with it. This music is disturbing because there is no emotion in it whatsoever. It's like a machine. It's like something turned inside-out that shouldn't be. We don't want to know that the Universe is indifferent. We want to be loved. We don't want to know that we are responsible for the whole damned thing.

It's not even music, it's just a sound. Simple physics.