Like a god

Like a god

In the East the highest kind of music is that which sends the listener into samadhi. The silence which follows is an essential part of the music. The audience should be in the state of people who are watching the sun setting into the sea – they forget the circumstances which brought them there, they forget words like ‘sun’ and ‘sea’, they forget their own names and individualities. After the sun has gone, for a time there is no impulse to move – certainly not to clap or applaud.

A Far Eastern tradition says that Indian music derives from that played by the gods in the Lumbini Grove at the time of the birth of Buddha.

The ancient Chinese chin – a sort of horizontal harp with seven strings – is audible to only a very short range round the player. The chin has nacre studs set at intervals along the body, and the purpose is to enable it to be played in the moonlight, without any other illumination. The moonbeams make the studs faintly luminous so that the player knows where his fingers are.

Among the instructions to the player of the chin (which was one of the accomplishments of the cultured man) there is one which directs him not to become too interested in technical skill; he should avoid technically difficult pieces which partly aim at showing off dexterity. From the Far Eastern point of view there is a certain vulgarity in the emphasis on technical dexterity in much of Western music; in particular the device of the cadenza, which is often little more than an athletic performance without musical value or even relevance to the concerto in which it appears. The correlation of excellence with technical demands is a barrier to the ordinary amateur; it is unfortunate that in Western music as a whole, the best pieces so often contain passages beyond the range of the ordinary amateur. Sometimes these passages are few, but they still bar him from playing the piece as a whole.

A new flute was devised in China, and a Japanese master flautist learned it while he was visiting the mainland. He brought back a number of the new flutes and the method of making them. He lived in the capital, but undertook performances in various parts of the country to spread the knowledge of the new instrument.

At one musical centre a long way from the capital, this master was introduced as the last item in the annual concert which the guild of musicians used to give. The master sat in the centre of a great gathering of musicians and music lovers, and played one melody on the new flute. When he finished he sat quite still, and the whole assembly remained motionless. After some time, an old musician said, ‘Like a god!’

The next day, before the master left, the guild of musicians asked him whether he would take a pupil from among their ranks. They would together subscribe the sum needed for the training. How long would it be, in the case of one already expert on the flute? ‘About three years.’ It was agreed that they should choose one man to learn the new flute, so that he could come back and teach it to the others.

They selected a young man, a brilliant musician, and he set off for the master’s house with the money entrusted to him, part the honorarium for the master, and part for his own living expenses. He made over the first on his arrival, and then set to work. The master gave him only one piece; he practised it all day and played it to the master in the evening. At first he was given considerable technical instruction, but after a few months the master made no comment except ‘Something lacking’. The young man re-doubled his efforts, but the comment was still the same. He knew he was technically perfect, but he could not return without the certificate of mastery sealed by the teacher. He was in agony, alternately elated by the hope of success, and then tense at the thought of the disgrace if he failed. He asked that the tune be changed, but the master refused to do it. After a long time the pupil gave up in despair. One night he slipped away from the house.

He could not face the guild without the teacher’s certificate, and he took lodgings in the town. He tried practising other tunes on the new flute, but he felt himself that there was something still lacking, though he could not find what it was. He began to drink heavily and finally came to the end of his money.

He drifted back, as a semi-beggar, to his own part of the country, but was too ashamed to show himself to the musicians. They made no attempt to get in touch with him. He lived in a little hut well away from the towns; some neighbouring farmers who had heard his flute sent their children to him to take beginners’ lessons. He still occasionally played on the new flute, but without being able to find any new inspiration in it.

Early one morning two messengers, came to him from the guild of musicians. One was the oldest past-master, and the other the youngest apprentice musician. ‘Today we are holding our annual assembly, and we beg you, every one of us, to take part. The past has never been; there is only today. We ask you today to join us – we are all resolved that we will not hold our assembly without you.’

They overcame his feelings of shame, and in a dream he picked up his flute and went with them.

When they arrived he sat fearfully in the shadow of a pillar.  No-one broke in on his thoughts. As the last item of the concert, the announcer called his name, and in his tattered clothes he went out to the centre. He found that the instrument he had picked up was the new flute. Now he had nothing to gain and nothing to lose. He played the piece which he had played so many times to his teacher in the capital. When he finished there was dead silence. No one moved for a little time, and then the voice of the old past-master was heard in the still air, ‘Like a god!’


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