By Abhaill, DD Seminar, July 2008
As a musician, Celtic scholar, naturalist, poet, teacher, and spiritual practitioner, the web of my life is built of many strands. I can travel along its perimeter, pausing to consider each strand as I cross it, weighing its importance to the integrity of the whole. But I find that when I spiral in towards the centre of the web, and sit at the hub of the wheel of my existence, I can seize the opportunity to feel the whole.
This seminar could have acknowledged many things; musical technique, sources of inspiration, traditional and historical influences. But all of these worthy forays are beyond the scope of this work. I wanted to talk about an aspect of the process of composition that few people rarely discuss, but to me seems fundamental, and that is how to develop a personal relationship with the natural world that enables true musical communion.
Almost all the music I have ever written has come from some other place. It didn’t start with me or end with me, at times it may not even have been filled with me at all. I see myself mainly as a translator. I translate the rhythms, vibrations, harmonics, pulses, resonances, and tempos of the universe into something I can play or sing, to point those who hear me back toward the true source of the music.
The first step in becoming a ‘conduit of song’ is to willingly let go of the belief (should you hold it) that you cannot compose or that you are not musical or that you have no talent! None of these beliefs are true in reality. Can you hear the whispers of the leaves in the wind? Can you feel the vibration of a footstep with your hands on the ground? Can you see the ripples the raindrops draw on the surface of the water? Can you breathe deeply and smell the sweet damp scent of the moss at the roots of a tree? Can you taste the sunlight in the fruit you pluck from the branch?
If your senses are awakened you are already listening to the music of the world. Music is not only about notes and notation, melodies and phrases, harmony and dissonance. Music is about translation; from the source, the muse, the inspiration, through you, to others. You are the conduit of song inasmuch as the robin, the wolf, the aspen, the wave, the thunder, the star and the stone.
We each sing the songs we hear in the way we choose to sing them. You are doing a disservice to yourself and to those who have sung since the dawning of time to close your mouth and turn your back on the chorus of the Universe. Believe in the beauty of your own contribution, and sing out! For as the bards wisely tell us:
We shall be notes in that great symphony
Whose cadence circles through the rhythmic spheres,
And all the live World’s throbbing heart shall be one with our heart
~ from Oscar Wilde’s Panthea
If life’s a symphony, sing along, sing along.
Each note a harmony in our song, in our song.
~ from Damh the Bard’s Imramma (A Soul Quest)
I’ve divided the following into 9 steps, from attunement to resonance. Look at them as a web of teachings, placing number one in the north, continuing in a clockwise circle to number eight in the northwest, and number nine in the center where a line drawn from each number meets the others.
These steps are intended as a guide to bring you through the stages of the process of channelling the music of the natural world, so take them one at a time and once you feel you have a grasp on one move on to the next. Then you may approach the centre from which you may travel along any thread you choose as you feel the need. I hope you enjoy the journey!
1. Attuning : Finding Stillness
Stillness is difficult to obtain and is almost never stumbled upon. It is most important to make the time to seek it out. And for our purposes here it is imperative that the stillness you seek be outdoors. Don’t necessarily look for stillness around you, but rather look for it within you.
It may even be helpful to find a busy natural setting full of natural sounds, like a rushing river or a thunderstorm, or seat yourself beside a chattering hedgeful of birds, in order to take the pressure off yourself. I often find that if I am near to someone or something chaotic I am capable of absolute calm by comparison, possibly because it’s easy to play the mirror, or perhaps because I can siphon off my own chaos or set it to one side in that situation to be left with peacefulness in its place.
Stillness can be found within once you have quieted your own inner dialogue and learned to set it aside, divorcing yourself temporarily from your own ego, needs and reflections, stopped telling yourself your stories, accepted the value of the process, and changed the flow outward to one that flows inward.
2. Listening : Opening Awareness
Once you have found stillness you can begin to open your awareness, using your senses and your perceptions of the world you inhabit. Become a hollow reed and let the wind blow through you like a flute. Become a stone and let the beetles crawl across your skin. Become a leaf and drink the sunlight for nourishment. Become a drop in a sunshower and help to make a rainbow.
Become anything you can see and imagine how it feels to pulse with the life of its existence. Feel the things around you, the temperature, the climate, the weather, the mood, the flavour. Explore the nuances. If you want to translate the languages being spoken around you and through you and past you and within you, you must first be able to hear them being spoken.
3. Mimicking : Creating Sound
Sit in a natural setting and listen to the sounds around you. Consider how you might best blend into these sounds as imperceptibly as possible. Will you use your voice or another instrument? An easy way to start is to create sound with pieces of the landscape within which you find yourself. Choose one or several of the following examples or adapt or create your own:
- Locate two stones of a large enough size that you can hold one comfortably in each hand and tap them together. Stones struck together cause a very distinctive ringing, and different densities will create slightly different sounds.
Gather long, wild grasses and dry them. Once dry, tie them together in bunches and swish them through the air to make a rustling, windy rush of sound.
Take a long dry stick and snap it into pieces, concentrating on the sharp snap of sound you hear with each cracking.
Select a wide piece of grass and place it between your thumbs. Blowing the grass in just the right way will produce a high, whirring, insect-like buzzing sound.
Construct a rattle from a dried gourd, or sew together fresh birch bark, filling it with small rounded pebbles or sand. Shake it rapidly or slowly tilt it one way and then another.
Make a wind chime from slender pieces of driftwood, and listen to the dampened, hollow tapping they make in the breeze as they knock against one another.
Drop a large rounded stone into a deep pool of water and listen carefully to the weighted, cradled kerplunk it makes as it carves a path through the liquid toward the bed below.
4. Understanding : Comprehending Language
As you spend time with someone you get to know them better, and the same can be said of the animals, the minerals, the plants and the elements. If you take the time to listen, eventually you will learn how to speak, how to converse, to share, to communicate.
Ask questions and listen for the answers not only by listening in the way that you have learned but also by attempting to put into thought and eventually word the answers you receive via your senses. Don’t expect to learn a language overnight! Some will come more easily than others depending on your own personality, preferences, and the work and time you pour into the process.
Anyone who has ever devoted themselves to a study of bird calls will know how complex and rewarding the field is, especially when you realize you can understand what a bird is saying by recognizing its call. If you have the ability to respond in kind by imitating the call you hear or eliciting a new one by calling another, you have learned to sing with the birds. Moreover, you will have the potential to communicate by initiating one call in order to obtain a response, rather than simply imitating those you hear around you.
5. Conversing : Holding a Dialogue
Some dialogues will be more accessible than others, and may not be as audible as the call of a bird or any other animal. This is where the process can get deliciously complex as you open yourself up to conversations you can hear and those you can only feel.
For example, apple-tree (my namesake, abhaill) speaks in a language I have readily understood most of my life. I grew up with an apple orchard in my backyard, climbing those trees, watching the birds nest within their branches, feeling the breeze blow around me as I stood meters off the ground, my face dappled by the shadows the sunshine made of the blossoms and leaves, watching the cycle of tent caterpillar nests ebb and flow from year to year, daring to eat the tart green apples that never ripened.
Our years together ingrained in me the smell of the pink-and-yellow wood freshly pruned, the exact pink-blushed white of the blossoms, the vibrant green of the thick waxy leaves. I have learned the nuances of apple-tree and can draw upon my experiences for inspiration and meditation, even when not physically next to one.
When I finally bought and planted my own sapling I practically worshiped it, I loved it so much. I was terrified of hurting it and created a sacred wheel around its trunk where I poured all of my libations. I left honey offerings to the bees when I needed their help in pollinating the blossoms, and prayed for protection from tent worms and other pests.
But when the time came for my first pruning of the apple tree I could barely bring myself to do it, however I had clearly heard the tree tell me to cut off its lower branches and I felt compelled to listen. It was only later I discovered that this is a common practice to ensure the health of the rest of the tree and encourage fruit production each year.
My experiences with apple-tree throughout my life coupled with my connection to my own specific tree gave me the ears to hear it speak to me. The deeper the connection you develop with the waves or the coyote or the iron ore, the more complex your conversation has the potential to become.
6. Participating : Joining the Chorus
Once you feel you can have a simple conversation with an aspect of the natural world it is time to start filling in the gaps in your vocabulary.
Listen to a rainstorm, and note not just the sounds the drops of water make as they splatter the pavement, bounce off the leaves, slide down the window, gush down the drainpipe, pound the rooftop, tinkle the metal of an empty pail, but also to the variations in volume you hear from crash to patter to trickle. Hear the tempo speed up with the ferocity of the storm and slow with the lull of it.
Notice the punctuations of other ambient sounds contributing to the storm, like the distant rolling of thunder over the hills or the pregnant silent pause triggered by the flash of lightning. Observe the measurable relationship between that pause separating lightning from thunder and the proximity of the storm to your location. Experience the chaotic, cleansing power of the storm above your head, when lightning and thunder draw your eyes and ears together, and the soft, soothing denouement of the retreating nimbus clouds and lingering wash of rain.
When you learn to pay attention to the other voices in the chorus, such as the birds before a storm, you will gain valuable insight. If it seems unnaturally silent outdoors to you, for example, that may be an indication that the weather is about to change for the worse.
Each landscape holds a different chorus and each is unique to that landscape. Develop a relationship with the place and eventually you will meet all the players. The longer you remain in a place the more you become a part of it, with just as much right to contribute your own voice to the song it sings as any other resident.
7. Composing : Manifesting Imagination
Now that you are familiar with the vocabulary, the grammar and the chorus members, you can begin to create some words and phrases of your own. Develop your own method of self-expression.
Find an instrument that really works for you, and by that I mean one that helps you to compose. This relationship may take some time to develop in itself, but keep at it! I recommend learning by ear as much as possible. Allow yourself to pluck whatever strings elicit the desired effect regardless of how they may appear on paper. Experiment freely with combinations of sound, whether they be from the same instrument or several.
The easiest for you to employ may be your own voice because it is the most accessible and readily available. And don’t negate the validity of your contribution by denigrating the quality of your voice. The cicada whirs above the chorus of the summer meadow proclaiming its presence for all to hear, yet few would call it melodious. Should it clamp closed its wings and live its life in shadow as a result? I think the answer is clear!
As with any course of study, there will be an increase in fluidity, confidence, ability and adaptability as you continue to practice and work with your instrument. We are not all equipped with the raw talent of Mozart, nor should we expect to be, however the depths of our own potential are rarely plumbed, and although we may manifest our creative instincts differently we are each a valued member of the Universal chorus.
It is important to be able to memorize some of what you have composed, if not all of it. Think about recording your work, if you have the means, not only as a means of preservation but also as an aid to memorization or to spark ideas for further layers to the composition you may want to add, and so that you might share it with others.
Here you can really begin to think about purpose: why are you composing? If you feel blocked when faced with the idea, find a theme, person or deity who speaks to you. Don’t worry about composing a masterpiece. Go back to the first step, attuning, and travel around the web’s perimeter remembering everything you’ve already learned.
The process of manifesting your imagination in this way should feel free and flowing not demanding and constrictive. Build on the structure of the natural vocabulary of that which you hope to express. Let the tempo and colour, volume and tone, scent and light of the meadow or the beach or the valley fill your senses. Let those voices inspire you as you create.
8. Conducting : Weaving the Tapestry
You don’t have to be a musician to make music. If you’ve spent any time outdoors cataloguing the various sounds you hear at any given time, you will know that most of what we hear on a daily basis constitutes a seemingly chaotic dissonance. However, the longer and deeper you listen to it, the more you can hear patterns begin to emerge within the noise.
References on this subject are slim, but one fantastic example of this intrinsic understanding can be found in the movie, August Rush. If you have never seen or heard of this film, you are missing out on a real gem. If this seminar’s topic speaks to you at all, please go and watch this film as it is the only example of its kind of which I am aware that takes on board the magical potential of music, and the ways in which its web unites the hearts and minds of kindred spirits. It is truly unique.
I’d like to give three examples from this film to be found on YouTube, which are three scenes / pieces of music being conducted by the main character. They occur in very different settings under very different circumstances and thereby provide striking illustrations for our present purpose. I highly recommend watching and listening to the videos the first time through, but closing your eyes and just listening the second time.
- Opening Titles “Listen. Can you hear it? The music. I can hear it everywhere. In the wind, in the air, in the light. It’s all around us. All you have to do is open yourself up. All you have to do is listen.”
August’s Rhapsody If you plan on seeing this movie and don’t want to spoil the ending then go to this link but close your eyes. This piece incorporates elements of both the previous pieces. See if you can spot them! “The music is all around us. All you have to do is listen.”
One conversation in the film goes like this:
“You know what’s out there? A series of higher tones, arranged by nature, governed by the laws of physics, the whole universe. It’s an overtone, it’s an energy, it’s a wavelength. And if you’re not riding it, you’ll never hear it.”
“Where do you think it comes from, what I hear?”
“I think it comes from all around you really, I mean it’s… It comes through us, some of us. It’s invisible, but you feel it.”
“So only some of us can hear it.”
“Only some of us are listening.”
Once you can hear the voices in the chorus, once you begin to compose your own songs, once you have become an integral part of the whole, you gain a new perspective and begin to disentangle yourself in a way. You become more objective, distanced, centred. You can manifest your own imaginings, but can you bend and shape and mould those of others? Can you become the weaver, the alchemist, the magician?
This step requires you to take what you hear, what you’ve made, what you imagine, and combine them in such a way that they become something new. If you can speak their languages the players will listen. If you sing out, you will be accompanied. If you channel the music of the natural world, it will transform you and those who hear it flow through you.
9. Resonating : Becoming the World
Again, I will draw on a few personal experiences as we enter the centre of the circle to truly become a part of the musical world. Have you ever visited a cave, perhaps on a tour with others or – if you are lucky – all on your own? I have had fantastic experiences in caves! On a trip to Ireland a couple of years ago I visited several caves, wherein I heard many songs.
On tours they generally turn off the lights at one point so you can feel what it is to be deep in the darkness. This unnerves many people but it liberated me. When this happened at Ailwee Cave in the Burren, Ireland, I began to feel a hummed note in my very skin, reverberating around my skull, resonating through me until I began to hum the note too. It was like a key to unlock the power of the place and it was all I could do to keep from seating myself on the ground and singing in the darkness with the cave.
In Oweynagat, in Gaelic Uaigh / Uaimh na gCat 'Grave / Cave of the cat,' the Morrigan’s cave near Cruachan, in Co. Roscommon, Ireland, I had the privilege of entering alone with my husband. We sat in the mud in the blackness of that place and listened to the drip, drip, dripping of the water from the walls leaving transparent layers of calcite behind. My body hummed there, too, but not with a tune or a melody or even a note. It resonated with the place. My molecules weren’t just a part of my body, they became in those sweet moments also a part of the cave in which I squatted in the mud. I was the cave inasmuch as I was anything else.
In the Marble Arch caves in Co. Fermanagh, Ireland, there is a river that flows through the depths. When the levels are right you can take a boat trip through the bowels of the caves, but at the time of our visit the rains had been heavy and the river level too high. There is one place, however, where a pathway has been built through the river, to enable tourists to see a fantastic display of rock formations we would otherwise never see.
When I walked into that river, down below its surface and back up again, I felt as though I was cloaked in its waters. I asked the river’s name and I clearly heard, so audibly I was sure everyone else could hear it too, the river whisper-sing ahhhhh-weeeeen, or abhainn, the Irish word for river.
I have also heard music within stone circles, inside tumuli, and in the ruins of stone cathedrals. Stone sings! Fire and rain, wind and bough, each has a voice. Add their songs to your repertoire. If you have access to sacred places, ancient places, and have the opportunity to sing or play there, take advantage of your good fortune. Take care, however, as certain types of music awaken certain types of energies.
Always be mindful and respectful when visiting and listen to your instincts. If you feel someone ask you to stop or change your tune, treat that presence with grace and courtesy. If you are joined by other ‘singers’ or even an audience, consider these as omens. Remember you are a part of your surroundings and your presence makes an impact. Bear in mind that impact when deciding upon a location.
All in All
Each of us is a conduit of song, inasmuch as we translate thought into sound. We are already translators, interpreting the nuances of the spirit’s perceptions into emotion into thought into word into poetry or into music. Sound travels in waves, and if you can learn how to ride those waves you can become a part of them, slow them down or speed them up, harness them, even change their directions.
Why, in the end, would we put ourselves through such a rigorous course of study? What will be gained by engaging in this process? How will our understanding of the natural world evolve? For each person these answers will be different, and you will have to find them yourselves. It is a process without end, for the world is constantly changing. The chorus has many members, but some can no longer sing for themselves, they are only a memory, and others sing quietly while still others sing as loudly as they are able.
Choose your voice.
Choose the way in which you will be heard.
Choose your audience, your inspiration, your purpose.
But choose to sing!