Monday, February 19, 2007

Song of the Whispering Reeds

by Rolf-Peter Wille

Would you prefer to be blind or deaf? Deaf, rather? The choice, for most of us, is not a difficult one; we are humans, visual beings. And as a musician? Would you still prefer to be deaf? Beethoven, after all, was deaf but he could hear the music in his mind. This is not unusual. Most composers compose the music in their mind without the help of a piano. Structure, harmony, rhythm, instrumentation, everything is conceived mentally and written down. In other words, deaf musicians are thinkable, blind painters not. And this, I believe, proves the spiritual character of music, the strong connection between sound and mind.

Behold the sound and touch the spirit. It is through sound that we can sense our creator. Hike through nature, listen to the birds and the leaves. They shall tell you some long forgotten stories. Listen to the song of the whispering reeds in the meadow. They might sing the songs of
Rumi, the great Persian poet. Or maybe you shall hear the saga of king Midas, my favorite story. But probably, knowing you, you will not have any spare time. You will have no time for hiking, no time for listening to the reeds and so I will act as a reed and tell you the story myself:

Have you seen pictures of the god
Pan, the ugly god of the fields? He looks like a happy devil and likes to blow rustic melodies—pop tunes, I suppose—on his pipe. And have you seen pictures of the handsome god Apollo looking like Alexander the Great, or vice versa? Apollo was a famous master of the classical lyre. These two godly musicians once joined an international competition, I forgot if it was Warsaw or Brussels, and king Midas, known for his golden touch, was a member of the jury panel. The jury voted unanimously in favor of Apollo with one exception: king Midas. Midas, I believe, must have been the first truly contemporary man because he preferred gold to spirit and pop to classical and he was just smitten with Pan. When Apollo learned of this he became very jealous. Greek gods could become even more jealous than… (I better hold my tongue). How could any mortal man prefer the lowly pipes of Pan to Apollo’s poetic, lyrical, spiritual music? Such a man must be an ass. And Apollo punished poor Midas by turning his ears into long donkey ears.

King Midas—he must have been a little vain—was mortified and hid his enormous ears not in a “Bian Mao” (
扁帽) but in an ample turban. He never took off this turban, went to bed with it. Except for a haircut. His hairdresser, naturally, was the only man to have seen those shameful ears and the king forbade him, on pain of death, to spill the secret.

Now, imagine you (yes: you!) are that hairdresser and king Midas would be, let us say, George W. Bush. Could you be silent? Are you sure, you would not, after two bottles of red wine, whisper this secret to your best friend, telling her never to tell it to anybody? Are you sure, you would not in an email, on your private blog, in the chat room, etc., etc. …? Well; knowing you, of course you would.

This hairdresser of Midas though, he was cleverer. Naturally, he could not keep the secret to himself. Yet he did not tell it to any human being. He went to a meadow instead, dug a hole into the ground and whispered the secret into it. Afterwards he covered the hole carefully and like a grave. Alack! Silent as the grave this hole remained not. A thick bed of reeds sprang up in that very meadow and, behold, when the wind blew over those reeds they began to whisper “king Midas has donkey ears, king Midas has donkey ears, king Midas has donkey ears, donkey ears, donkey ears…, …and please don’t tell anybody…” The reeds whispered it to Ovid and
Ovid whispered it into his Metamorphoses. And now you know that king Midas has donkey ears. And—please—don’t tell it to anybody!

This marvelous story, whispered by the ever poetic reeds in the meadow, teaches us to listen attentively with sensitive ears and bigger ones, preferably, than Midas’. Not to loud noises. Most of those are pretty meaningless. We have to hark to the lyrical sounds, the almost inaudible fluttering of a butterfly’s wings. As we know from the famous
butterfly effect those gentle vibrations might swell into a cataclysmic earthquake or typhoon and, as Kundera wrote in Slowness about the 18th century world of the novel, “everyone seems to live inside an enormous resonating seashell where every whispered word reverberates, swells into multiple and unending echoes.”

The story also teaches us the art of sotto voce, or how to whisper secrets into the wind. The resulting butterfly effect is eloquently described in Basilio’s famous “slander aria” from Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” (listen to the CD while reading this; I believe it is track 12): “Calumny is a little breeze, a gentle zephyr, which insensibly, subtly, lightly and sweetly, commences to whisper. Softly softly, here and there, sotto voce, sibilant, it goes gliding, it goes rambling. Into the ears of the people, it penetrates slyly and the heads and the brains it stuns and it swells. From the mouth re-emerging the noise grows crescendo, gathers force little by little, runs its course from place to place, seems the thunder of the tempest which from the depths of the forest comes whistling, muttering, freezing everyone in horror. Finally with crack and crash, it spreads afield, its force redoubled, and produces an explosion like the outburst of a cannon, an earthquake, a whirlwind, a general uproar, which makes the air resound. And the poor slandered wretch, vilified, trampled down, sunk beneath the public lash, by good fortune, falls to death.”