The brutal winter we’ve been having has brought some unanticipated blessings. I made a couple of discoveries – one about exercise, the other about music

Because the never ending snow and the bitter cold made bike riding impossible, I took up Tai Chi. For health reasons, I needed exercise other than shoveling snow, which, at my age, borders on life-threatening exertion and was, in any case, pointless in view of the enormous amounts of snow that kept coming down. One of our cars has remained buried in snow since late January – close to sixty days. Every time I had it half-way cleared, new snow reburied it. To make a long story short, I started going to a Tai Chi class provided by the local Council on Aging at $5 per session.

The class was physically demanding. Because I didn’t have the routines down, the exercises felt too fast and arduous. After an hour, every muscle in my body would hurt. At the same time, however, I noticed that once the pain subsided, I invariably came away from the experience with a feeling of well-being that lasted all day. For some reason, it was more mental than physical, as well as more durable than the physical glow that typically follows upon a hard bike ride. I enjoyed it immensely and consequently decided to become better acquainted with Tai Chi. I found a book on the subject that was highly recommended and started teaching myself the complicated physical choreography of the thing. It took weeks and I am still not done. But as I have made progress, the pain has diminished. The overall feeling of well-being has increased.

I paid little attention to what I thought of as the conceptual mumbo-jumbo with which the book’s author accompanied his instructions. His talk about energy meridians, yin-yang, the mind moving the Chi and the Chi the body, and so on, was not entirely incomprehensible. At least the yin-yang part of it made sense to me. All the same, it struck me as dispensable in the pursuit of the effects I was interested in. Doing Tai Chi installed a pleasant calm in me, irrespective of my exercising myself mentally about yin and yang, or of trying to be conscious of what I did physically under descriptions in which those principles played a prominent part. But the disconnect bothered me some.

It occurred to me one day that instead of supplementing my Tai Chi exercises with esoteric philosophy, I might do better by adding a little music to them. Because Tai Chi is supposed to be “meditation in motion”, I bought some meditation music — the usual stuff: nature water sounds punctuated by Tibetan gongs, gentle piano pieces combined with the sound of sea waves, or of birds chirping, etc. It made for easy listening, but it did nothing for my experience with Tai Chi. On the contrary, it interfered with my concentration. I found myself either listening to the music or attending to my exercises. I couldn’t do both at the same time.

Purely by accident, however, one of the collections of music that I had bought included a Japanese piece for the Shakuhachi, apparently a bamboo flute of some kind that I had never heard, nor heard of. The music was hypnotic. When I initially tried to do Tai Chi with it playing, it stood out as unignorable. Listening to it, I would forget all about Tai Chi. So now, I do the Tai Chi without any music playing, but I also listen at other times to the Shakuhachi. I have since acquired a number of other recordings of works for that instrument.

Listening to that flute playing has been a disconcerting experience. In the slowness and meticulousness of the sound produced, it is unlike any other music I have ever heard. Perhaps the closest thing to it are parts of Beethoven’s 32nd Piano Sonata, Opus 111, that a friend of mine once called “metaphysical music”. I think he may have meant “transcendental” in Kant’s version of the word. But while Beethoven’s sonata is arguably music about music, and in that sense more intellectual than musical, the sounds of the Shakuhachi flute that I have been listening to engages the ear directly. Its effect on me requires neither thought nor understanding. And somewhat like Tai Chi, that effect prominently includes a lasting feeling of well-being, a sort of quiet exhilaration that continues into the day, long after the music stops.

Like many other people, I love Mozart, but I can’t say the same thing about his music. Depending on the piece, the pleasure it gives reverberates in my mind for maybe twenty minutes after the music stops. But then it stops. I come away from the experience unchanged. Once my awareness of the day takes over, the music is gone without a trace. I have been trying to understand what makes this Shakuhachi flute music different.

I have not been getting terribly far in that effort. For what it is worth, here is what happens.

Because the flute playing is slow and punctuated by relatively long silences, listening to it I can’t help becoming aware of the sound of those silences. They are all different. Each is shaped by the flute sound that precedes it and that reverberates through it after it has stopped. It is shaped again, retrospectively, so to speak, by the flute sound resuming. The mingling forward and backward colorations endow each silence with a distinct character. It is as though silence, too, has an infinitely variable sound, as opposed to its being an all encompassing emptiness intermittently populated by the sounds of the flute.

Once I hear that, I start hearing that the same is true of the differences between the flute sounds themselves. Each carries the weight both of the sound that precedes and the one that follows it. Every sound is irreducibly unique, and yet each is what it is in relation to all the others.

It is one thing to know this in the abstract and quite another to hear it, and to hear it, moreover, without effort. As a painter, I know the same thing about colors and shapes. The character of each depends on what it is next to, and vice-versa. But in order to see it I have to work at it. And I only work at it either when I am trying to paint or seeking to understand what goes in some other person’s painting that I happen to be looking at.

What puzzles me at the moment is why this immediate awareness makes me feel quietly happy in a way that reverberates though the day. Although a distinct experience in the here and now, it seems to cast a light on all my experience, not so much intellectually as emotionally. It is as though I knew that if I focussed on any part of it, I would encounter the same transparency.

Sure enough, sometimes I do. As I look out my window at the landscape where until now, unless I was trying to paint it, I only saw pines and oaks, and perhaps the warmth or coolness of the light, I now see an intricate tapestry of which so-called negative spaces are as integral a part as any particular color, object, or positive shape. Space is not an all-encompassing emptiness populated by objects. Individual spaces are themselves objects, each unique in its character and each dependent on everything around it.

But why should seeing that make me happy? Why does all that snow out there, the sight of which normally depresses me no end, come across to me as exhilarating as I become aware of the role it plays in the sight of the whole? Even a gray morning like today has its charms once you let it be, as opposed to seeing it only as the pretty day that it isn’t.

I feel like a person who is learning to read, becoming acquainted with an alphabet that renders my world more transparent. Instead of seeing meaningless signs on a page, I am becoming aware of their meaning. And perhaps that music affects me as it does because it is slow and relatively uncomplicated. It speaks to me as one does to a child, in simple sentences that I can understand, but in which I discern the promise that no structure will henceforth elude the language I am learning, not even the immensely complicated living structure that I myself am.

I may sound to some of you as though I am talking in a riddling sort of way about Buddhism or Taoism, or some thing in that neighborhood. I am not. In fact I am averse to dressing my thoughts in the garb of a tradition that is not mine and the concepts of which generally elude me. I am just talking about how a piece of music that lasts three minutes and fifty-six seconds, that was composed I know not when, nor by whom, can transform a grotesque winter into a boon akin to Springtime.

©Serge Kappler 2015

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