Exploring the subtleties of Sri Chinmoy’s music with a delightful mix including flute, esraj, singing, and piano, plus detailed notes
BETA VERSION. A very happy birthday to Sri Chinmoy, who would have been 88 today, August 27th, 2019! In the music world, when we hear the number 88 immediately we think of the piano, which has 88 keys. And indeed, the piano is an instrument for which Sri Chinmoy showed tremendous fondness. He played many instruments, and imparted to each a particular quality or manner of expression. Taken together, these begin to comprise his musical oeuvre.
Sri Chinmoy was a man of action, not a dry theoretician, or a composer removed from the performance of his works. He wrote countless spiritual songs, and was very active in singing, playing, and teaching them. But though his songs represent a significant corpus, he was also known for his striking improvisations on piano and pipe organ. Often times, at the close of a concert of one or two hours in which he played his songs on a variety of instruments, he would end with an avant-garde piano improvisation.
His flute melodies are extremely pleasing to the ear — the essence of zenlike simplicity. When he played the Indian esraj (a bowed instrument similar to the better-known sarangi), this imparted a haunting, ancient quality. His singing was all heart and soul, seeming to embody the seeker’s plaintive cry to know the Divine, and to be freed from the shackles of ignorance. He himself was ever-free, but identified with the pangs of seekers.
When he sang in concert, it was as if he were bundling up the collective longing for God of his audience, and directing it as a single prayer upward to the Divine. Something more: As a spiritual Master, he was able to fulfill that prayer, to bring it to fruition. So inwardly, in the course of a concert he would play the role of both a seeker and a Liberator, carrying the collective longings of his audience Heavenward, and showering them with inner blessings from the Highest Height of meditation — throwing them into the Universal Consciousness (as he would put it). The closing moments of his meditations and concerts were indeed special for this reason. They are coloured deep blue in my memory.
He approached each of the instruments he played with a sense of discovery, spontaneity, and childlike enthusiasm, bringing out the unique qualities of each. He was fearless in the manner of David Amram, always ready to grab a new instrument and start jamming. (A photo from Amram’s first autobiography Vibrations shows him wigging out at the Fillmore East with violin and kazoo.) Like this, if someone gave Sri Chinmoy a Hawaiian slide guitar, he would not hesitate!
He was also like a quick-change artist or showman. There was always something more about him than met the eye (or ear). He was a perfect example of the artist as shaman, creating art not simply for art’s sake, but also as a means of inner awakening for both the individual and the assembled collective, the gathering tribes.
As listeners, it is always our challenge to remain attentive. There is a regrettable human tendency to replace the actual experience of art with our mental attitudes toward it. The liner notes (or our knowledge of the musical devices employed) become a substitute for hearing the music itself.
Listening to Sri Chinmoy’s flute music, we could easily be lulled into thinking that his entire message is one of peace. But he knew how to guard against complacency on the part of listeners. Just when you thought you had him pegged as a purveyor of serene flute melodies, he would rotate the circular table on which a host of exotic instruments were assembled, and choose one with a striking and unusual sound, like the African wind spinner. Or he might rise and walk over to a different part of the stage where his cello was waiting for him, and proceed to sing and play in unison, perhaps “Ore Mor Kheya”:
Ore Mor Kheya (English translation)
O my Boat, O my Boatman,
O message of Transcendental Delight,
Carry me. My heart is thirsty and hungry,
And it is fast asleep at the same time.
Carry my heart to the other shore.
The dance of death I see all around.
The thunder of destruction indomitable I hear.
O my Inner Pilot, You are mine,
You are the Ocean of Compassion infinite.
In You I lose myself,
My all in You I lose.
– Sri Chinmoy, from The Garden of Love-Light, Part 1 , 1974
Here then is a specially selected mix of Sri Chinmoy’s music as performed by the Maestro himself, and by his students. Not every track has piano, but that instrument is well-represented, including one of Sri Chinmoy’s immortal piano improvisations. Taken together with his other music, we can see how in the course of an evening he could easily span the distance from ancient to modern. He expressed not only deep peace, but also dynamism, vastness, and infinitude.
(place main music video here)
For now, you can access this mp3 audio file containing all the referenced music.
Because the individual and the collective go together, I find it especially meaningful to hear the same song performed by Sri Chinmoy and by his students. There’s completion of a circle in that. The whole of his music consists not only of what he sent out, but of what was received, embraced, and understood by others. The same is true of his teachings.
Sri Chinmoy’s voice is not prettified in the manner of an opera singer or pop star, but is the true voice of a shaman — one who through spiritual knowledge is qualified to conduct the sacred ceremonies. His performance is always the most austere, but the most true. And where there is abundant truth, is that not also beauty? The spiritual truth is most beautiful in itself, without any artificial sweeteners.
Sri Chinmoy blended the boundaries between purely sacred or ceremonial music, and music which could be enjoyed simply for its aesthetic beauty. His flute music is pleasing to everyone, and his Bengali songs are arranged most beautifully by his students. But as with much music with sacred origins, the more you know, the richer your experience. His music is an invitation or portal to the consciousness which inspired it. When he sang a bhajan which called upon the Divine to bless and illumine each soul present, the Divine answered! No matter if Sri Chinmoy missed a note or two.
How do you listen to music? I know I always ask myself “What is the musician getting at? What is he or she trying to say?” In the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth we hear a tremendous striving to communicate something which is beyond words, employing every possible device, but always going beyond, beyond, beyond. Like this, in his meditation, music, and poetry, Sri Chinmoy is constantly going beyond. The lyrics to his English song “There Was A Time” say:
There was a time when I stumbled and stumbled,
But now I only climb and climb beyond
And far beyond my Goal’s endless Beyond,
And yet my Captain commands: “Go on, go on!”
– Sri Chinmoy, from My Flute, Agni Press, 1972
In his philosophy, Sri Chinmoy suggests that there is a subtle distinction between the words “God” and “Supreme.” When we think of God, we may think of Him as a great but finite being; but when we think of the Supreme, we become more conscious of His “infinite beyond” aspect.
These are ideas about the beyond, but in his piano improvisations Sri Chinmoy often seems to be dealing with the infinite in a manner far beyond words and ideas, as infinite energy, or as an endless sea with no shores. His piano improvisations can be highly gestural, with no discernible melody or harmony, but a maelstrom of notes that strives to communicate something about the vast and eternal.
Sri Chinmoy traveled widely, holding free concerts and meditations in major cities around the world. He would often write a song honouring the city or landmark he was visiting (which for some reason is making me cry remembering it). We hear a medley of five such songs: “Monticello,” “Philadelphia,” “Moskva” (Moscow), “Eternal Peace Flame” (Oslo, Norway), and “Borobudurer Bhiti Stapan” (Borobudur Buddhist Temple in Java). The contrast between “Monticello” and “Philadelphia” is striking because the first arrangement uses all acoustic instruments like harmonium, recorder, and tabla, while the second makes extensive use of synthesizers. (Gotta love that classic DX7 tubular bell patch!) “Philadelphia” sounds Philip Glasslike in spots, and the revered minimalist spoke highly of the Master:
The passing of Sri Chinmoy represents the loss of one of the last of the great spiritual teachers who brought the tradition of Indian spirituality to the West.
He had a very special connection to music. In his performances, with clarity, simplicity and directness, he was able to move his listeners in a very immediate and deeply emotional way.
In his lifetime he brought tremendous joy to the people who were with him. For me, his life was a special and personal inspiration.
Though at this moment we may feel great sadness, he will always be in our hearts.
— Philip Glass
After his passing, his music has continued to live on in many, many forms, including the Songs of the Soul concerts presented worldwide by his students, where Philip Glass has been a beloved guest artist.
Returning to our mix: “Borobudurer Bhiti Stapan” (here performed by the groups Mountain-Silence and Akasha) has a somewhat different character than the other city or landmark songs: first, because its subject is an ancient holy site extremely significant in Buddhism; second, because it is in Bengali, which language is (obviously) far closer to ancient Pali and Sanskrit than is English. The compact nature of Bengali lends itself especially well to spiritual poetry, as Vidagdha Meredith Bennett hints at in her doctoral thesis Simplicity and Power: The Poetry of Sri Chinmoy, 1971-1981 (footnotes omitted):
It is possible that Sri Chinmoy’s use of the compound noun has its origin in an attempt to find in English the natural analogue of the Sanskrit and Bengali forms of comparison. Gerow notes that translations from Sanskrit into English “tend to be flabby and prolix precisely where the original displays a tense compactness and is most striking in its beauty.”
In the case of Sri Chinmoy’s own mother tongue, Bengali, this compactness is inherent in the language. The formation of compounds is frequent and, in fact, the grammar of compounds cannot be distinguished from that of phrases. The words “swapan sathi,” to take an example, may be translated in an interpretive way as “companion of my dream.” Literally, however, the words read as “dream-companion,” with the two words closely intersecting. In so far as a direct English equivalent may be found for the Bengali words, Sri Chinmoy most commonly elects to keep the true form of his source language. As a result, he is able to use the compound noun to establish a greater cohesion within the English language itself. The life-principle of poetry, he would seem to affirm, does not lie in any of the norms of grammar and logic but in the interactions of words within the language.
See the song “Dhire Ati Dhire Man Jangal” (discussed further down), which includes the compound nouns “mind-jungle,” “Forgiveness-Eye,” and “World-Lord.”
Because Sri Chinmoy is a gifted poet in both Bengali and English, his best translations of his most significant poems are absolutely outstanding! Why? Because he does not merely translate. Rather, he re-imagines the Bengali poem in English, so that it becomes a significant poem in its own right. (See “Ore Mor Kheya” above.) His groundbreaking 1972 volume My Flute includes many such translations.
Another example of things coming full circle manifested in 2016, when a bilingual edition of The Garden of Love-Light was published, including (for the first time) the Bengali script. (See this article in The Indian Panorama.)
Without diving too deep into the ethnomusicology weeds, we can note that like fellow Bengali Rabindranath Tagore (whose songs the Master greatly admired), Sri Chinmoy employs lines of different metric lengths. So while much of “Philadelphia” is in 4/4 time, the words “Liberty Bell” bring in two bars of 5/4. “Karuna Mayer Jyotir Dulal” (arranged and performed by Temple-Song-Hearts) is a striking example of this phenomenon. The piano introduction alone tells us we’re in for a bumpy ride, mapping out as:
4/4 + 4/4 + 5/8 + 7/4 + 7/4 + 7/8 + 3/4 + 7/8 + 3/4
Others might count it differently, but still: Not even the Mahavishnu Orchestra in its heyday adopted a metric cycle this ambitious! (In songbooks, Sri Chinmoy’s songs are usually notated without barlines, but when groups arrange them, barlines become more of a practical necessity.)
Sri Chinmoy’s music is like a garden which we can enjoy for its simplicity and beauty, or if we are so inclined we can learn the names of all the different flowers and analyze how they are arranged. Retaining our simplicity, we can yet begin to recognize certain key Bengali words which recur: karuna is compassion, shanti is peace, ananda delight. (The Bengali language has different classes of words, some of which are Tatsami, meaning roughly “same as in Sanskrit.” See also this brief comment from Sri Chinmoy himself.)
The music of India is rich in scales (or more properly ragas) which can sound exotic to Western ears. Statistically, Sri Chinmoy does not make much use of the more exotic flavours, but since he wrote thousands of songs, we can discover notable exceptions. One such is “Chinta Amar Amai Kare,” again arranged and performed by Temple-Song-Hearts. In Western music theory, the melody might described as alternating between the Double Harmonic and Major scales.
Another class of songs worthy of mention is the bilingual songs. Sri Chinmoy’s bilingual fluency dates back to his ashram days, when he became close personal assistant to noted Indian savant Nolini Kanta Gupta, translating many of the latter’s articles from Bengali to English for publication in the English-language journal Mother India.
Years later, Sri Chinmoy would provide beautiful English translations of his own works. But there is a special class of songs (usually short) where he weaves Bengali and English together in the same song. These possess a unique charm all their own, as we can see from “Pit Pit Mit Mit Sanjher Tara” (sung delightfully in rounds), the cheery “Gan Likhi Ami,” “Dhire Ati Dhire Man Jangal” (offered in two contrasting versions), and the soaring “Everest-Aspiration,” whose melody literally peaks!
Pit Pit Mit Mit Sanjher Tara
Pit pit mit mit sanjher tara sanjher tara
Atmahara heri tomar sudha dhara
Twinkling, twinkling evening star, evening star!
Watching the flow of your nectar-delight,
Myself I completely lose.
* * *
Gan Likhi Ami
Gan likhi ami gan geye jai
Nidra dekha nai
Ganer majhare parama shanti
Charama tripti pai
Songs I write
I keep singing
Sleep remains unseen.
From my songs, I receive peace sublime
And satisfaction deep.
* * *
Dhire Ati Dhire Man Jangal
Dhire ati dhire man jangal
Bishwa prabhu khamar nayane hase
Slowly, very slowly in my mind-jungle,
The Forgiveness-Eye of the World-Lord
* * *
Gauri shankara dan
Open my heart’s silver door
Dao more aji amarar bhor.
O highest mountain peak!
Janame marane karo nirvik.
* * *
In some cases, the Bengali and English may not have been composed in the same instant, but appear close together in the same songbook, and are combined by the performers. For example, “Pit Pit Mit Mit Sanjher Tara” and “Twinkling, Twinkling Evening Star” appear nearby in the collection Your Face Is My Dream. But in “Everest-Aspiration,” we see the two languages tightly interwoven. After each English line, Sri Chinmoy pens a rhyming Bengali line.
A solo sitar medley by master of the instrument Adesh Widmer rounds out this section of the mix, underscoring the melodic interest inherent in the songs.
Sri Chinmoy’s music-world is rich in beauty, and there is always more to discover. I hope these notes, written in haste, will help you in your journey of discovery. (I hope to fill in more details later.)
I began this article feeling tired and thinking that I could find no good words to say. I am grateful that some words did come, and that listening to Sri Chinmoy’s music inspired and uplifted me. May it do the same for you, dear Reader!
The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.
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