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Stephen Olsson

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Global Spirit: Music, Sound and the Sacred

Posted: 07/21/2012 8:04 am

I have come to realize that I probably make films because I'm not a musician. I've always had a special admiration, perhaps it's a sweet envy, for the musically talented. Thankfully, music forms the emotional basis of most, if not all, filmmaking. And so to create a Global Spirit program focused on sacred music was a special pleasure. In this TV/web series we try to bring together guests from different cultural and spiritual traditions that have never before met. We also try to create an "experiential" component to each program, using highly visual film segments that punctuate and enhance the discussions.

I remember during our first preproduction meeting, sitting around our studio discussing what types of music we might feature, we came up with the somewhat provocative concept of "Indigenous meets Liturgical." To confess, my own experiential relationship with "sacred music" started with my short career as an altar boy, serving the "high mass," as a 10-year-old, in Latin. I remember the goose bumps and delightful thrills I would get as that huge, European organ and the full choir both rose together, seemingly touching the very doors of paradise. This early love of ritual, incense and "sacred music" remained somewhere in my spiritual DNA.

By my early 20s, I found myself in pursuit of different types of cross-cultural goose bumps: chanting La ilaha illallah ("There is No God But God") with Sufi groups in Turkey and Afghanistan, and sitting above the cremation grounds and burning ghats along the Ganges, in Varanasi, surrounded by local rishis and sadhus, singing: Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram ("May the Light in my heart overcome all obstacles") -- a chant that has been sung on that spot for more than 4,000 years, music that carried untold hundreds of millions of human beings well beyond goose bumps and into some heightened state of divine consciousness or awareness. Aside from the scent of burning flesh, I know that the music was "instrumental" to the out-of-body experience I had that night.

Some time later, as our Global Spirit team gathered on a conference call to discuss possible film segments to use for the program, I recalled a film sequence which still haunted me from a 1979 film by Peter Brook about the life of the author/teacher Gurdjieff called "Meetings With Remarkable Men." This unusual film was shot in pre-war Afghanistan, and used non-actors and local musicians in a contest to see which musician could produce the musical tone that would make the Hindu Kush mountains rumble. With each contestant, one gets to listen, together with the Tadjik, Hazara, Kirghiz and Aimaq tribesmen and women, into the deep silence of the rugged Afghan mountains and valleys. From these valleys in the Hindu Kush, the program transitions to the Global Spirit studio and one of our selected studio guests, the Rev. Alan Jones, former dean and musical director at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, who bravely describes the metaphysical relationship between sound and silence:

Yes, there is something "other" going on, other than our effort, other than our manipulating things. There is an "otherness" out there that seeks to be in communion with us. And this communion requires if I am going to be in communion with you that means I paradoxically have to be separate from you and have respect for your otherness, while at the same time staying open to being together. So that sound and silence go together right a bit like that I think. In that in order for you and me to be One, I have to recognize our separateness.

While Rev. Jones' union/separation image certainly spoke to my Abrahamic upbringing, our team knew and had decided that this conversation could be greatly enriched by a "native perspective" on the universality of sacred music. So, we invited our host Phil Cousineau's friend, Grammy-award-winning singer/songwriter Joanne Shenendoah, a member of the wolf clan of the Oneida Nation to be our second guest. Before she sings, Joannne tells Phil and Alan:
Music to us is a life celebration. We have songs for everything, from birth to death. We have songs just for the plants, for the medicines. Every single ceremony begins and ends with music because music is a healing force, it is what allows us to grow and open ourselves as human beings. It is the essence of who we are as native people. So when I create music I'm coming from a place that is purely a vessel to the next world and to the creator. I've asked for it and I'm there. It just is, the way it is.

Joanne and her daughter Leah then invite us aboard their indigenous vessel to the next world. Once again, the transcendent fuel is music.

In the final moments of "Music, Sound And The Sacred," our presenting host -- actor, comedian John Cleese -- emerges to say: "In these programs, we are trying to convey an E-x-p-e-r-i-e-n-c-e, a sense of 'feeling it,' rather than just talking about it." And with his unique, hyper-Anglo-Saxon deadpan, Cleese reminds us to approach Global Spirit with some caution: "Warning, this series may change your life." And while this is quite true, in my case Cleese might well say: "Warning, this series may give you goose bumps."

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  • The Global Spirit studio, with Host Phil Cousineau, Joanne Shenendoah and Rev. Alan Jones. (Photo credit: Stephen Olsson)

  • (Photo credit: Stephen Olsson)

  • Scene from "Meetings With Remarkable Men," directed by Peter Brook. (Photo credit: Stephen Olsson)

  • The Reverend Alan Jones. (Photo credit: Stephen Olsson)

"MUSIC, SOUND AND THE SACRED" will be showing on many Public Television Stations this Sunday and on other dates (check local broadcast schedules at www.GlobalSpirit.tv).

 
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