The Muse in Sacred Places
How many times have we looked at pictures of the Great Pyramid, Stonehenge, the Taj Mahal or Teotihuacán and marveled at the architecture and the ingenious design of these timeless places? Wondering just who built them and how; amazed at their longevity and the sacredness of their shapes. As I was recently reading geologist Robert Schoch’s 2005 book, Pyramid Quest (Robert M. Schoch, Ph.D., Tarcher/Penguin, 2005), especially the chapter, “The Shape of the Sacred”, I kept thinking about music. Certainly there must have been music associated with these places.
Rereading American flute player Paul Horn’s insightful book Inside Paul Horn (Paul Horn w/ Lee Underwood, Harper/Collins, 1990), a book in part about playing music inside the Great Pyramid and the Taj Mahal, got me to thinking about music not only inside sacred places but also music from that place and even about that place. Does this music have a certain tone or vibe about it? As I found out after listening again to some very extraordinary music, the answer was yes. There is a certain feeling to music about sacred places. There is a feeling of reflection and introspection for sure. But more importantly there is a profound sense of deep mystery.
The recordings of Paul Horn are especially insightful as they were actually recorded inside two very special places, The Great Pyramid and the Taj Mahal. Just getting to and then inside of these structures was an adventure in and of itself, let alone actually setting up, playing and recording music inside them. I also became fascinated again with the recordings of reed player Rusty Crutcher whose recordings from The Sacred Sites Series includes music recorded at Serpent Mound, Ohio; Chaco Canyon, New Mexico; Machu Picchu, Bolivia; Baja, Mexico; the Amazon Basin in Peru and Baja, Mexico. And then, I thought long and hard about the role of water and rivers in sacred mythology and theology and ended up back at the Nile. The recordings of The Musicians of the Nile stand out as unique recordings of music from a special place. And finally, perhaps befitting our contemporary times, we end up in a house of worhsip. Houses of worship are obviously considered sacred places and music has been an integral part of their function for eons but the manner in which sax player Barbara Thompson recorded traditional church and folk songs in the Abbey du Thoronet in Provence, France in 1990 remains for me both mirthful and mythical.
Just what is a sacred place? Do they have to be ancient, like the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World? And how do they differ from common places that might also be special? Simply put, the profane or common place is created for some expressly functional reason. While the sacred place might also have a utilitarian purpose, its primary intention is its relation to the sacredness of the cosmos, a momentary but also eternal cognizant glimpse into the unknown.
The famous Taj Mahal, located in Agra, India, offers the uniqueness of being both profane and sacred. Commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1632 as a mausoleum for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, stands as a testament to the splendor of Mughal architecture. It was completed in 1648 and combines elements of Persian, Turkish, Indian and Islamic design styles and detail. This striking architectural accomplishment is profane in that it was the final resting place of a supposedly beautiful woman but sacred in that it also established a special relationship to that mysterious aspect of the cosmos called love.
New York-born musician Paul Horn began his career as a classical musician, took a turn as a bourgeoning jazz player in the 50s and 60s, most notably with the Chico Hamilton group. He won two Grammy awards for his “Jazz Suite on the Mass Texts” in 1965 but it was his journey to India in 1967 that led him down the path of performing music in special environments. This spiritual journey was in part engendered by his study of Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi but also by his love of the sound of the flute embellished and sanctified by the celestial sound properties of sacred places. At last, on April 25, 1968 he had the opportunity to record solo Inside The Taj Mahal (Epic BXN-26466/1969). He sums up the cosmic experience of the merging of place and sound in his personal liner notes: “The majesty of the place staggers the imagination and the hushed atmosphere throughout the grounds makes the soul begin to glow deep within”.
The first Paul Horn recording inside the Taj Mahal was fairly serendipitous and included several vocal pieces sung by the Taj Mahal guard and a singer friend. To almost everyone’s surprise, the recording was commercially successful and a seminal recording in the emerging New Age genre. In fact, it was the beginning of the most important part of Paul Horn’s career as an “environmental” musician and later earned him the title, among many music critics, as the founder of New Age music, a moniker that he did not set out to earn.
The impromptu nature of the first recording was mostly Horn’s learning about the sound properties and qualities of one of the planet’s most intricate and beautifully designed structures. It was a learning experience with echo and resonance and vibration. But it was the second Inside II recording in 1972 (Epic WKE-31600/1972) that taught him how to play with the unique design details of the Taj Mahal and you begin, as a listener, to not only hear but see through sounds, the domes, kiosks, minarets and golden spires. It is that ability to see and hear these symmetrical motifs and floral designs that makes these recordings so amazing and timely and earned Paul Horn a very special place among contemporary musicians.
But he was just warming up. The best was yet to come. Paul Horn was about to go Inside the Great Pyramid (Mushroom MRS-5507). The Great Pyramid of Khufu is the extant edifice of the Eight Great Wonders of the Ancient World and without a doubt the most awe-inspiring and mysterious structure on the planet. The idea for playing inside the Great Pyramid was planted in Horn’s musical head in 1975 by the same friend who had helped him make a success of Inside the Taj Mahal but the path to get there was no mean feat. Political tensions in the Middle East and the security that surrounded the monuments on the Giza plateau took him almost two years before he was able to realize this dream.
The Great Pyramid of Khufu is perhaps the most complicated enigma on earth. How would one go about reconciling contemporary music with such an ancient puzzle? Schoch suggests that there are basically two takes on the Great Pyramid. The standard “Egyptologist” point of view is that it was built by Pharaoh Khufu as his tomb. The “other” take is that it was something else, still universally undecided to this day, a
mystery of truly immense proportions. Maybe it was the Ark of the Covenant or maybe it was pi. Whatever it was, it is hard to hear associated musical forms although Schoch writes briefly about the possibility of the Great Pyramid as having been a “resonating device” or musical instrument....a voice of the higher spirits. This same idea has also
been attributed to the conical tower in the Temple of the ruins of Great Zimbabwe.
None of this went unnoticed to Paul Horn from the first moment he learned that Lord Krishna was portrayed as a flute player. Flute players as the “voice” of the sacred appear in legend and lore throughout the world. And so Paul Horn ventured into the greatest musical instrument in the world and created yet another inside/out masterpiece.
Listening to this recording again after several years seemed different than earlier listens. The alto flute, “C” flute and piccolo sing more as adepts than instruments. Because of the resonance qualities of the various chambers in the pyramid, the sounds echo more as confinement than longevity. The sacredness of the music is always magically thrust back into the heart from which it came. Inside the Great Pyramid, Horn was able to create a sweetness of sacred, lilting, sanguine notes, at once both universal and contemplative; notes that find a melting point somewhere between the diaphragm and the third eye. You know you have arrived somewhere special, a world balanced between creation and chaos... maybe the true function of the Great Pyramid.
Paul Horn went on to other inside jobs recording in China, Findhorn, Russia and even in the Palm Beach Casino in Cannes. A decade later another young jazz player followed in his musical footsteps. Rusty Crutcher achieved early success as a jazz and r&b studio musician in LA. But it was when he arrived in Santa Fe in the mid-80s and steeped his soul in that inspiring landscape, just as the so-called New Age music movement was reaching an initial peak, that he found his true path as a player.
Like Horn, Crutcher realized that there were unique musical possibilities that awaited him at various sacred sites around the world and he launched The Sacred Sites Series in
1986. What is most significant about the first recording in this series, Machu Picchu Impressions (Emerald Green Sound Productions), is that it was digitally recorded during the Harmonic Convergence, August 16-17, 1987 at Machu Picchu. He recorded this masterpiece with a group of Quechua Indian flute players and it stands out as a tribute to both the reverence and reverberance of a special place and time.
Crutcher’s second recording in this series was Chaco Canyon (Emerald Green Sound Productions), a musical homage to the traditional and ancient home of the legendary New Mexico Anasazi and the only mid-day solstice marker in North America. I described this recording at that time in the Santa Fe Reporter as follows: “Chaco Canyon is a musically engaging recollection, a thought provoking poke at the back of the historic mind, an ambient nudge along the path of the future, all moving in the company of animal friends and natural elements. Initial recording sessions were done primarily on solstices and equinoxes. At a time when new ideas, or more correctly, rediscovered ideas, in music have become trendy and ephemeral, it is important that real new era musing be conceived and integrated in proper perspective. Rusty Crutcher does this without pretension.”
My personal favorite in the series though is Serpent Mound (Emerald Green Sound Productions EG 8500.2). Serpent Mound, located in Adams County in southern Ohio, is one of the great sacred treasures of North America. Having grown up in southern Ohio, I visited Serpent Mound many times and was always most surprised by the fact that, despite its size (1330 feet long and 3 feet high, making it the largest effigy mound in the world), you don’t notice it until you are literally right on it. No one is sure why, or for that matter when, it was constructed, although scientific research dates it to approximately 1070 A.D. But it seems to convey a message that sometimes we don’t know what the mystery is all about until we become a part of it. Or as Crutcher states in
the liner notes that we need “to reconsider our own relationship to the planet we live on”. A 1330 foot long snake in the grass down in Ohio has a way of doing that and Crutcher catches the aural significance of this sacred serpent with ambient recorded sounds wrapped around flute, vocalizations and melodic piano phrasings.
Just as animals, both real and mythical, have etched their markings on the sacred landscapes of the planet, so have natural features like rivers, lakes, valley and mountains.
Of all the great rivers in the world, none conjures up the majesty and antiquity that the Nile River does. Flowing from the very soul of antiquity to the steps of modernity, the Nile inspires images of pyramids, oases, floods and romance. The Musicians of the Nile are essentially a trio of formidable players of traditional Arabic instruments from the Mataqil clan of Upper Egypt first discovered at the Festival of Chateaufallon in 1975. A number of the performances of that event are captured on the CD Egypte: Les Musiciens du Nil (OcoraC559006). They have several Peter Gabriel recordings as part of the Realworld Womad series that propelled their music into international prominence (Luxor to Isna/Realworld 91316-2 and Charcoal Gypsies/Realworld Carol 2366-2) Both raw and sophisticated, The Musicians of the Nile journey us though the mundane and glorious opportunities of this immense river. From the columns of Luxor, past a palm tree oasis, through the mysteries and pleasures of dancing and into the heart of romance, these splendid musicians and their virtuoso playing of ancient instruments guide us from an antiquity that we barely remember into a future built from this forgetfulness based on the hope that our knowledge of the past can be rekindled.
And we close our sojourn into sacred places with British saxophonist Barbara Thompson’s exquisite rendering of a collection of international folk songs recorded in the Abbey du Thoronet in Provence, France in 1990 appropriately entitled Songs from the Center of the Earth. Built in Medieval times, the ancient Abbey, part of a monastery for Cistercian monks, proves to be a formidable setting for songs that as she says “lie dormant at the center of us until recognition is triggered by experience”. Folk songs, while often profane in their delivery, frequently hide some other yearning or aspiration within their context. Thompson’s interpretation of the Bahamanian spiritual of African origin, “I Can’t Stay in Egypt Lan’”, aided by the alcove bendings of her saxophone notes, conveys both protest and yearning for another time when freedom was sacred and clearly in the air.
So the next time you head for that place sacred to your own heart and soul, don’t forget your flute or harmonica or simply your voice. Someone may well hear you and your moment in antiquity, millennia from now.
Jack Kolkmeyer is an urban/regional planner, teacher, writer and broadcaster living in