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Ur Sound: Instruments, Physics, Philosophy and the Future of the Universe

30 August 2019


My life has mostly been a search for transcendence— trying to intuit, to imagine, to realise – reach for that half-heard, enchanting mystery—what the poet Wordsworth called ‘intimations of immortality’. I didn’t know what I was doing most of the time, only that I had a soft sense of something just beyond reach, just behind the horizon, so enchanting, so wonderful and so exciting that I couldn’t help but give all I had in following it. 

My path has taken me from China to Bali, the frozen north of the Americas to Egypt, India to Russia to Africa. Accompanying me always on that path is what in Zen would be called my ‘practice’—music. Travelling resulted in an extensive and in-depth engagement with instruments. Cobbled together, concocted out of wood, wire and skin, they are so delicate, so easily broken, so difficult to preserve. But when they sound, our desires, our intentions shudder through them and find fulfilment. We pick up an instrument and, if playing goes well, create something peri-transcendent—profundity floating, flashing and then fading through the air. Instruments are an interface between dirt, dust and the ‘something else’. One thing that very quickly struck me is that the sounds of most of the instruments I experienced across the planet fit into quite a small number of groups: plucked and bowed strings, end and cross blown tubes, reed instruments, things to hit and a few others. We often use many different technologies to arrive at similar sounds— pan flute, hole flute, bone flute, water flute, or bullroarer, bronze age horn and didgeridoo, or erhu, cello, crwth, gusle, morin khuur. There are wonderful and exciting exceptions, and even occasionally something almost unique (and where in the world better than PGVIM to experience that?). 

Mostly, however, we use quite similar sounds. Why is this? For many years I believed it was because of our limited and similar access to materials and the limits of our imagination. Recently, I was sitting on top of a mountain on a dark day thinking about sound and about something Schopenhauer said. He thinks music is not like other arts. Most art, he says, describe, mirror, critique and comment on existence. Music instead embodies it—embodies the generative ‘Will’ that is behind all the things we see and experience. Music is an aspect of the force, the ‘thing’, the unimaginable that sits behind, around and within, and results in the universe we experience. If we take that seriously for a moment, what can it mean for us? What is the arcane and mysterious link between music and the deepest universe that he is suggesting? Can this tell us, perhaps, why instruments are so similar? 

We will listen to the sound of many instruments, weave these together in works drawing as closely as they can to the transcendent, and then through String Theory, the future of the Universe, Steven Hawking, more from Schopenhauer and just a little Zukerkandl, see how music draws on the very essence of all things to challenge, lift and inspire. Finally, we’ll consider the search for ‘Ur’ sound in the making of instruments.

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