“…it is often the quietest person who achieves the highest degree of ecstasy.”

Reading one of Eric Edberg’s recent posts reminded me of the quote in the title of this blog post.  Oliver Leaman, in his book “Islamic Aesthetics”, describes the role of the audience of musical performances (in the context of a discussion of audience response to the great Egyptian vocalist Umm Khulthum) under a section titled “The role of the audience in music” (Leaman 2004, 107):

To a degree the audience reacts as it has seen Sufis react, and this is often in a rather wild and free way. Yet in many of the leading writings on the topic the Sufis stressed the significance of remaining quiet and contemplative when listening to music, and if the music and dance throws one into ecstasy then obviously we might act wildly, but when when that stage is over we should be quiet and still, physically and mentally. As al-Ghazali puts it, in the Iha’ ‘ulum al-din it is often the quietest person who achieves the highest degree of ecstasy (wajd).

“[I]t is often the quietest person who achieves the highest degree of ecstasy [sic].”

I like that.

Al-Ghazālī (1058-1111 AD) was a Persian Sufi. His work, Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn (a Sufi treatise translated as “Revival of Religious Sciences”), is regarded by some to be the greatest work of Muslim (Sunni) spirituality after the Qurʾān. Sure, most Westerners know about Sufism through a passing knowledge of that other Persian Sufi, Rūmī (1207-1273 AD), but as is often the case what becomes popular in the West isn’t necessarily a representative (or the representative) proponent of a cultural artifact from another country or time (e.g. Zen Buddhism; Tai Chi; Trancendental Yoga).

“It is often the quietest person who achieves the highest degree of ecstasy.”

There’s also that Indian saying that “music is meant to clear the mind to allow for divine influences.”

With the raging debate about Western Classical music not “connecting” with modern audience being one reason for its decline it just seems a bit disingenuous since there are plenty of contexts wherein a performance tradition can and will favor silent reception of performances. It’s disingenuous since it sets up a false dichotomy between “Stuffy Art Music” and “Engaging Popular Music” and the “Silent and Passive” reception of the former as opposed to the “Noisy and Active” engagement of the latter.

Not that Classical music concerts aren’t generally silent so much as silence doesn’t mean passive. Or rather, the two aren’t equivalent. And neither are folks who are being noisy necessarily actively engaged by or with the music.

Sometimes it is often the quietest audience members who achieve the highest degree of engaged ecstasy!

dhawq, or "courtesy" in music accompaniment

This section of Racy’s “Making Music in the Arab World” could be just as applicable to the non-Arab musician. In the chapter titled simply, Music, he begins the section titled “The art of accompanying” with

When called for, musical accompaniment plays a crucial role in the evocative process. Basically, an accompanying performer must be musically effective without being too prominent or obtrusive. Musicians usually describe good accompaniment as tawriq, a term that implies subtlety and evokes the image of filling spaces somewhat sparsely with ornamental leaf designs (as in the case of calligraphy), or covering something with a thin film of paper or plaster.

Most of the above is relatively straightforward and goes without saying. I cannot recall the number of times I’ve performed with accompaniment that is just too loud and “in-your-face” to even warrant being called accompaniment. If the accompanying music is more prominent than the main melodic line(s) then why bother with a melody, right?

Racy continues, giving one particular example of a qanun player

He must refrain from moving ahead of the singer by anticipating the higher tonal areas of the mode, or playing more loudly than the vocalist, or producing melodic lines that are technically more complex or more ornate tan those being accompanied. It is often stated that the accompanist must have dhawq, namely “taste” or “courtesy.”

“Courtesy”–I like that. I’ll have to look up the Arabic word, dhawq, to see if that is indeed a good translation of the term but it encompasses exactly what I would think is the sentiment of good accompaniment. Courtesy implies some acknowledgement of the other musician in this context–an acknowledgement that what is going on in the melody or melodic line is far more important than what is happening in the accompaniment.

Racy continues

Tarab musicians devote a great deal of attention to the dynamics of accompanying particularly by praising the discreet and supportive accompanists and finding fault with those whom they consider musically self-centered, aggressive, and intent on soliciting attention

“[I]ntent on soliciting attention”–we have a saying for that in the West–intent on “being a Rock Star.” Something that annoys me to no end! Racy then gives several examples of musicians that, while having great technical facility, nevertheless are being “disrespectful of the artist being featured” (i.e. the artist that has the actual solo line). Apparently the Arabs have a phrase for this with respects to a singer (the quintessential melodic solo instrumentalist):

biqul kathir ma’ al-mutrib

which literally means “he says too much with the singer.”

nothing can ruin a piece of music more than a musician that has too much to say.

on being a fannan asil…

I posted a bit about “authenticity” and the issues modernization and Westernization in indigenous Art Music traditions previously. Here’s a quote from Ali Jihad Racy’s article, “Musical Aesthetics in Present-Day Cairo,” that illustrates a broad pan-Arabic sense of some of the issues with descriptive phrases used in value judgments about musical activities:

Common in Cairo and neighboring Arab cities is the notion of asalah, which literally means “being genuine” or “being thoroughbred.” The term is both descriptive and judgmental. In a broad sense it means “having talent” or “having musicality.” fannan asil, “genuine artist,” must be well versed in usul al-fann, “the fundamentals of art,” which in part means being competent in the area of the maqamat or “melodic modes.” (Incidentally, the Arabic word usul, or “fundamentals,” shares the same root with the word asil, or “genuine.”) Accordingly, he must have an “Eastern spirit” and tarab in his music.

pg. 392