In my days as a college radio DJ at WCWM-FM I hosted a world music show called “Move Over Francis Bacon.” Not that I knew much about music of different countries and cultures (how I would love to have had the internet back then), but I did enjoy digging through the WCWM record collection and making new discoveries. One of my favorites for their unique sound are the Gyuto Monks. Practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism and now in exile in northern India, the monks of the Gyuto Tantric University perform a unique multiphonic chanting in which each monk sings not a single not but an entire chord.
Western musicians such as Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead became aware of the Gyoto Monks and over the past couple of decades the monks have made several tours of the United States. This of course raises questions about why music intended for religious ritual is performed on stage. The Dalai Lama has a good response to that which is printed in the program:
“Some people may ask ‘Why are they performing publicly what should be esoteric rites?’ Perhaps these people feel that secret teachings should not be turned into a theatrical spectacle. But they need not be concerned. The secret interior path and its processes are things which the ordinary eye cannot perceive.”
I would add that you’re not likely to hear any complaints of a performance of say a Christian oratorio by Handel at Symphony Hall.
Last night I had the opportunity to hear the chants of the Gyuto Monks for the first time at their performance at Harvard’s Sanders Theater courtesy of World Music/Crash Arts, one of the best concert series in the Boston area. The monks took the stage quietly and sat in a v-formation before a picture of the Dalai Lama and other liturgical arts. They wore their simple saffron robes but for the various tantric practices they put on cloaks and hats with beautiful patterns, all with deliberate mindfullness.
One of my first realizations is the preconceptions I have of Buddhist monks are a bit off. I figured them to be masters of discipline, unaffected by the discomforts of life. Yet I noticed several monks shifting in their seats, scratching their noses, and adjusting their tassles as they chanted. One monk on the end of the row who appeared to be the youngest had a lot of difficulty with keeping his cloaks from slipping off his shoulders. This was all rather comforting to me although I still expect it would be difficult to be a monk with restless legs syndrome.
In the first half of the program the monks chanted their deep, long notes. At several moments they picked up and cradled bells in their hands, but did not ring them. When they finally did ring their bells it created a dramatic moment from a simple action. In the second half of the program, the monks brought several instruments on stage with them including cymbals, drums, and short and long horns. The special assistant monk who sat outside the V-formation (whom Susan called the Sacristan) always made sure to step around the long horns and not over them when he came forward to make offerings.
Now I do confess that this performance may have been a bit much for me and it was so soothing I nodded off a couple of times. Still it was a remarkable experience and one I’m glad to be priveliged to enjoy. At the end of the show the vice-abbot answered questions with the help of a younger monk who knows some English. I was particularly touched by the vice-abbot noticing the love that Americans offer to their pets and asking that we extend this love to all human beings as well. A point well made and for that he got a round of applause (although it did feel odd, almost disrespectful to applaud at this performance).