Music & evocation

Music is the art of collecting narrative sounds to achieve a desired sensibility. Music has a primordial function because sound precedes other human senses. We are blind before birth and require adjustment of sight even in the hours and days after birth. We cannot comprehend what we touch if our eyes are closed but merely guess at texture. Smell is significantly reduced in human beings compared to most animals. But sound, even when not revealing its source, seems to persuade attention, so that even in the womb, sound has an effect on human development.

Identifying why certain sounds are soothing or relaxing plunges us into an anthropology. For example, waves on a beach may echo the regularity of a mother’s heartbeat in the womb and the regularity of swishing fluids in that primordial chamber of safety. The sound of birdsong signals the absence of predators, and , therefore, sources of stress. We are startled by sudden loud sounds like thunder, gunshot, explosions: these are echoes of predators in the underbrush or unsafe perches in branches or rocks.

Music has attempted to create atmospheres of serenity but the imitation of nature is always short of the real thing. The urgency to relieve stress is itself a revelation of the psychological unsustainability of crowded places. The sound of vehicles and rush of noises disturbs our primordial ability to find a refuge of naturalness. The ultimate failure of music to achieve this alternative vision led John Cage to embrace the noise as itself modern music — an unsatisfactory intellectualization. New Age music comes close to consciously trying to reproduce a human project of serenity. To be creative, however, music must embrace as well a philosophical point of view that is compatible with our deepest sensibilities.

The real challenge is to create music (or sound) that, as Schopenhauer would put it, can exist even if there were no world, no one listening to it. That is, if no one heard it, could it still be an echo of reality? This question initially suggests Cage’s direction for a solution but goes beyond, positing a universe without human intervention and taking the sounds of the universe as music. Recordings of radio waves from the stars are usually rather dull listening, but that is because the sounds have no will, no intentionality. What the artist does is find a way of adding intentionality, or rather, ambiance, that will make the music resonate with a human sensibility.

Ambient and space music would approximate this method, except that the sensible component is usually interpreted and rectifies the course of bare sounds. Dark sounds conjure fear; cloud sounds suggest optimism. The composer is still manipulating the listener, or seeking out those who agree.

Music-making cannot be disengaged from human will, but can be used to present philosophies of life projecting from the emotions stirred by music. The idea would be not to try to baldly reproduce nature sounds but to stimulate emotions which in turn would give the listener a non-intellectualized basis for a philosophy of life. Successful music (in the ear of the beholder) would be that music that best satisfies the given philosophy of life.

A good example, perhaps, might be music that evokes sadness, grief, or melancholy. Five classical pieces come to mind:

  • Albinioni: Adagio
  • Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6, 4th movement
  • Mahler: Symphony No. 5, 4th movement
  • Barber: Adagio for Strings
  • Khachaturian: Gayne Ballet Suite, no. 4

Bach showed early in the history of classical music that a work’s foundation in certain mathematical patterns could evoke particular emotions. While the above classical works are famous for evoking certain emotions, the subtleties of works such as Bach’s “Art of Fugue” show that an awareness of complexities can draw out a more sustainable work of art. The five pieces above are usually isolated from the composer’s whole work in order to deliberately provoke rather than provide — provoke a linear emotion rather than provide a context for reflection on life. But that is not the fault of the composers, only of modern audiences too busy to hear out the entire works.

The most representative shakuhachi music of Japan is truly philosophical music in that it assembles sounds to evoke nature and to express a philosophical mood without targeting a linear or single emotion. The mathematical line is as simple as Bach, but its philosophical rooting in Zen clears away extraneous cultural and musical accretions. At the same time, a deepening experience of the music — as with meditation practice — deepens the philosophical suggestibility of the music. This does not mean that the listener must be a philosopher. Successful music will allow the emotional ambiance to percolate through the mind that is already disposed to constructing a philosophy, or at least intuiting one.

Thus, as a counterpart to the Western works that evoke sadness, grief, or melancholy may be placed the famous “Kyorei” (“Empty Bell”). Casual listeners will identify it with melancholy. But this famous work does not so much evoke emotion as evoke an ambiance in which to reflect on the nature of things. In this sense, Schopenhauer’s concept of music as a kind of echo of Ideas when all else is gone is well achieved in “Kyorei.”


In 17th century Japan, a middling middle-aged poet and scholar moved to a hermit hut. Matsuo Kinsaku had disciples, hangers-on who aspired to fame for his own sake. They bought him a banana-tree for his new quarters.

A banana tree in Japan is an anomaly, having been imported from south China or other warmer climates. The banana tree dies with freezes. In warm months it splays out large leaves with a great green sheen. The poet came to like its great leaves, vulnerable to tearing in the wind but wonderful to listen to the sounds of rain falling on those same leaves.

A banana plant in autumn winds —
I listen to the drops of rain
Fall into a basin at night.

Usually the banana of any variety requires a year of stable temperatures in order to fruit, but in Japan the banana would have died every winter, even late autumn.

When the banana suffers freezing temperatures, its leaves turn brown like overdone leafy vegetables, and at night its leaves curl up like a dead spider. Then the leaves turn black, and its watery trunk can be knocked over with a common garden tool, and that is the end of it. On the surface. But like a flower bulb, the roots will generate a new plant in spring, and by summer, the great splay of leaves can be enjoyed again.

The poet was so enamored of the symbolism and the appearance and the sound that he called himself after the banana, which in Japanese is basho. The poet, of course, was Basho, and his hermit hut was basho-an, the “banana hermitage.” There would be successive huts, as Basho’s poetic skills improved and he took to wandering Japan and seeking out shrines and colorful temples, plodding in the footsteps of the 12th-century poet Saigyo.

Fittingly, a famous portrait of Basho includes a picture of a banana tree.

Giving and getting

Harvest festivals are universal cultural phenomena and to a great degree spontaneous and egalitarian.

But in the United States, observance of a day of thanksgiving separated itself from nature and served a political end. Thanksgiving Day was promulgated by President Lincoln in 1863, in the midst of a civil war the outcome of which was not clear. Lincoln’s proclamation aimed at “healing the wounds of the nation” and restoring it to “God’s purpose,” intending to galvanize the nation into reflecting on an inheritance that might be lost. The character of the holiday was further fortified in another era of war and economic distress in 1941, when President Roosevelt and the Congress fixed the date of Thanksgiving, which was crucial to businesses, which urged an earlier date than the last Thursday of November because Christmas shopping would otherwise be curtailed a week.

The notion of pilgrims and turkeys never entered into the equations of calendars and national unity. And while these mood-setters justify the consumption of myth and meat, the focus has always been on launching the shopping season, a secular Advent running up to the night of gold. The day after, now dubbed Black Friday because the amount of spending puts businesses back into the black, is the official beginning of the month of consumption.

Advice to moderation, and schemes like “Buy Nothing Day” for the day after Thanksgiving, are largely useless when the counterpart to giving (as in “thanks giving”) is getting. The harvest is quickly squandered for getting things, the true confirmation that thanks are warranted to fate or credit-lenders, or to corporations all too happy to service greed and fuel the consumption of items manufactured around the world where there is very little to give or to get. Why should anyone postpone consumption for one day, or exercise moderation, when consumption is not an indulgence or excess but a life-style and moral proof of material ascendancy and cultural superiority? What else can promote the modern life-style except more consumption, gotten from more markets around the world, for more innovations, gadgets, appliances, and collectibles?

Simplicity is not a moderation of greed or even a buy-nothing day. Simplicity is crafting a life around those few material objects that enhance the spirit and promote bodily health, precisely that which traditional harvest festivals celebrated. To give thanks for sufficient clean and healthy food, accouterments, and social conviviality, was the object of such historical fests. But such economies produced only exactly what was needed, and only exactly what uplifted the spirit. That which was gaudy, decadent, or superfluous, was easily identified. Escess and consumption was the providence of the wealthy. Undoubtedly, more modest folk might look upon such excess with envy, but historically it looked upon it as bad. Only today do the modest look upon the wealthy with envy not criticism. Everyone admires them and wants to be like them. Who wants to be simple (it will be argued) when they are too simple as it is? And so the powerful have everyone where they want them.

For the solitary and the spiritually-minded, a constant monitoring of possessions and utilities is an on-going exercise in consciousness. It requires no special day, less an attitude of consumption as a patriotic and mercantile duty to transfer resources from the poor to the rich. That such a duty is prescribed today as economic patriotism, it is because few of us labor at what is important. For that which we need as a minimum for daily life is what we should labor to produce, nothing more. No wonder there arises an alienation assuaged only by consumption.

We should measure our lives by what we can live without, as the Zen saying runs. Modern economics, especially topped by the wealthiest barons of out-sourced industry, offers the opposite dictum. We cannot live contentedly, we will be told, without that vast array of things produced by them. Appealing to the animal instinct for gorging on discovered food, most people are happily led to consume without guilt or reflection, as a new entitlement — manipulated by advertising, media, and corporations. To fill the gaping hole that yawns from the impoverished spirit, we seek to fill it with consuming things, like a starved body willing to take any food or liquid to assuage its pangs of hunger.

In order to get past “getting,” however, one must get past “giving.” Everything is as it is. Our “thanks” for a blue sky or a flower or the patter of rain are nothing more than a projection of our minds outward to embrace that which reflects the moment, reflects a beautiful aspect of existence. Our thanks are irrelevant. Our thanks signify that we are separate from them, that we are in a category that condescends and bestows approval. This giving is a kind of getting in that we are getting pleasure and demanding aesthetic compensation for our gaze, our temperament, our fleeting whim. Hence we get back that satisfaction of a sense of proprietorship, our sense of being both different and better than nature and existence because we have consciousness and can “do” this thanking.

We have set ourselves for the next stage: getting. No wonder Buson, the haiku poet, was even reluctant to cut a flower:

Before the white chrysanthemum
my scissors hesitate
a moment.

If we can question everthing that constitutes “getting,” then we are strengthened to reject the plaudits of consumption, to embrace a simplicity rooted in nature. We cast off the whole cycle of giving and getting, of good and evil, and simply live in harmony with existence as much as possible.