Religiosity, like political leanings, is a trait that seems to be at least partially hardwired.
I suspect I’m a mere gene away from being a believer. Or maybe I got the gene but being rational stymied its development. I don’t claim to be perfectly rational, but I see it as a worthy aspiration.
Except where music is concerned. And then it’s not that I become irrational, only that I don’t want to touch this one sector of my life with rationality. Music has the ability to affect me so strongly that, even as a musician, I mostly choose not to listen to it. But every now and then, perhaps listening to a great jazz solo, or to classical music, I get completely overtaken by a sensation that has no word in English but which the Arabs describe as ‘tarab’ – ecstasy experienced through music.
Part of the feeling is caused by contemplation of the mind that created this – a mind infinitely greater than my own, working at the very limits of human endeavour. In the case of the pianist Keith Jarrett, sometimes a few feet beyond these limits. And the closest English word for the feeling is AWE, writ large enough to set off the lachrymal glands in venues as inappropriate as the treadmill at my gym, where I recently copped a dose of tarab listening to a Joey Defrancesco organ solo on headphones.
The feeling starts in my chest and expands outwards in pleasurable waves until my hands, knees, jaw and feet are tingling. I feel light-headed and my eyes fill with tears. Brimful of joy, I none-the-less consider death in these moments, wanting to die in the grip of this overwhelming feeling, yet I also feel immortal, or a sense of immortality. Normally I’m pretty sober on these topics.
The feeling is of a gateway or portal to something greater opening around me. I’ve done my share of recreational drugs, including LSD, and I’ve known that glorious revelation of another reality behind this one. It’s a phenomenon of cognition meets pharmacology, but it’s no wonder LSD casualties have a tendency to posit supernatural explanations for their experiences. The alarming part is that you don’t need drugs to achieve this. It can happen spontaneously. And even as a non-believer, I can feel a tug on the god-spot I didn’t know I had.
This transcendental state is virtually a taboo subject for many atheists. It’s elusive and squirmy and smacks of madness or histrionics. But it’s a real phenomenon, and it’s quite possible that most people experience it in one way or another, at some stage in their lives. It’s the feeling that Carl Sagan described in defending his right to call himself ‘spiritual’. A fellow atheist, he felt affronted when people told him ‘you’re not spiritual’. He wondered what gave them the right to use this lofty term yet exclude him. He got this feeling in spades from contemplating the night sky, full of the distant stars whose material made us. Here’s what he said:
“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature…”
My friend John interprets it differently. He unashamedly posits God. I don’t judge him. I’m possibly just that one gene away…
Thanks to the ingenuity and generosity of Craig O’Shannessey, you can now stream some of my recent radio interviews from here
Well – on the back of Monsoon Rain, here’s Tar Baby. A very different animal. Anyone interested in collaborating on a filmclip – contact me!
First – go here:
My song Monsoon Rain is now available on itunes. It’s been receiving a lot of hits on my myspace page since it was used for the credits on a recent episode of Australian Story. The episode focussed on my friend Tara Winkler and her orphanage in Cambodia and has apparently provoked the biggest response of all time for the program. The song Monsoon Rain was inspired by my first visit to the orphanage in April, 2009. You can watch the Australian Story episode for free here: http://www.abc.net.au/iview/#/view/543352
Thanks to Richard Saunders for the concept. I just remade it with colour-coding (important)
Frank Zappa’s 1982 hit song ‘Valley Girl’ lampooned the bovine vacuousness of young, over-privileged airheads around LA’s San Fernando Valley. At the time we all got the joke. It was musical satire – a form of music with a long and respectable history. Anyone listening to the song could tell it was making fun of spoilt, shallow, uptight, apolitical girls whose aims and ambitions in life, being wholly self-serving, fell appallingly short of those of their predecessors in the 60s and 70s.
If that song was released today, would anyone get the joke? For a gig last weekend I had to learn a handful of DJ-produced Dance/House songs with comparable lyrical content. ONLY THIS TIME IT WASN’T SATIRE. The styles of music I like to listen to, and there are many, are unified in being vehicles for self-expression of some kind.
If this is self-expression, here, finally, is a real case for stifling it.
I know much has been written on the elevation of the assinine which defines modern culture for young people. And written well. By puffy old wowsers. So I’ll stop here.
We apologize for the inconvenience, but Windows did not start successfully. A recent hardware or software change might have caused this…
“Ah, Cyrillic!”, you’re thinking. Nope. My computer decided to try its hand at cryptography. I managed to take the photo before the fleeting image you see captured above was swiftly replaced by the blue screen of death.
In the white area, the text suggests: Cdabd Gindogc Nobmalli. Start(ing) Windows Normally would have been a pleasure, but my hard drive wasn’t quite up to the task on the day.
I bet you didn’t know that you could boot up in Cafe Mode? Mmmmmmm Cafe Mode.
Andrew Worboys singing his composition ‘It’s That Groove Thang’, written and arranged for a five-piece horn section solely for this gig, with Temple of Groove at Sydney’s The Basement.
Temple of Groove is an eleven-piece band playing mostly Tower of Power covers. I’m barely visible on the Hammond organ and Electric piano. Dave Hatch is barely visible on drums.
From a distance, once the initial shock wears off, Uluru looks like a sensuous top lip. The lower lip is somewhere below ground.
Closer up, she’s a different animal – all things from all sides. The familiar view of the rock is from the north-west, and after a lifetime of seeing it photographed from this angle it’s hard to believe the monolith is three-dimensional, and more of a shapeless, roughly triangular, sprawl. One way to see her from all sides is by foot. It’s a nine kilometre flat walk around the base, and despite what anyone might tell you, it’s doable, by unfit urban types, in less than two hours.
Up close and personal there are caves, inlets where the scrub grows lush, and at one spot, a shimmering waterhole. Every new angle brings a new story, told with a palette of red. From one angle, the rock is as smooth and bony as the roots of an old Moreton Bay fig. From another, she’s so pitted it’s hard to believe she wasn’t the victim of a catastrophic meteorite shower. Some of the pockmarks are small, some are large and gaping, with more intricate patterns worn into the cavity inside, like some alien calligraphy. The writing’s on the wall. It says Uluru is dumbfoundingly old.
From one viewpoint I see a gargantuan head of flowing wet hair, as seen from behind. At another point I see a face – a long serious nose, and above it, an eye with a cold stone pupil. From the west I spot a slicing cut, made by an axe-wielding giant, south of that, a giant Australopithecus skull has been whimsically mounted into the foot of the rock.
But my imaginings are lame echoes of the real stories. The best way to see Uluru is with a local. The traditional owners of the area are the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people, collectively the Anangu, and they’ve had tens of millennia of rock gazing to inspire them. No mark is uncharted, and the key creation stories are alive in every ripple, wave, stain and crevasse on the rock.
Wally Jacobs, a Pitjantjatjara man, pointed to a series of round pockmarks. ‘That one there, that’s the left knee of the Kuniya Python woman,’ he said, through the remarkable translation efforts of Darrin, a white Australian. ‘And that’s where her right knee was.’ We gaze up at the dizzying, almost vertical wall where this ancestral being once knelt without falling off. She did better than the one hapless human each year who exits the human gene pool while climbing Uluru (against the express wishes of the local people) by plunging to their death.
‘And in between – that perfect round hole, that’s where she stuck in her digging stick. And that mark below, that’s her right hand, where she leant, because she was sitting like this…’ Looking at the marks, it’s all perfectly clear. What’s harder for a European to grasp is how the ancestors could change from beast to human in a matter of inches – knee holes here, undulating snake-tracks there. In paintings of the Kuniya legend, snake tracks become footprints, melt back into snake tracks. For a local, this paradox is unremarkable – the ancestral beings were at once both animal and human.
Cave paintings below reveal more of the story. Swirling ochre patterns tell of waterholes and other important sites nearby. The Kuniya Python Woman is here too. This wall is Wally’s family heirloom. His ancestors woz ‘ere. This is where elders brought the kids to learn about their history and culture, and still do today, despite myriad rising challenges.
Nobody with an imagination and a blood cell in their heart leaves this area unaffected. Uluru and nearby Kata Tjuta (‘The Olgas’) are so stark against the blue sky. Their enormity is accentuated by the scrub, flat as piss on a plate, that stretches to the horizon around them. Here is a tricolour world– blue sky, red earth, and the pale spiny green of spinifex and desert oak. But it’s the cultural landscape that carves the deepest mark.
We have a living anthropological miracle in our midst. It’s a privilege to witness it first hand. Being in Australia and needing a translator to talk to an Australian is a salutary experience every non-aboriginal Australian should have. Read the rest of this entry »