Popular Music at Ananda
August 20th, 2013
With few exceptions, only Swami’s music is played at our Sunday services, The Expanding Light, Crystal Hermitage and Master’s Market. Though, in fact, other music does sometimes rear its head, the typical Ananda visitor comes and goes hearing little of it.
“What’s the deal?” many have wondered. “Is other music banned?”
Well, yes and no.
For the record, I greatly appreciate what Swamiji has done for Ananda with the volumes of music he’s channeled for every occasion. To the outside world, it’s given us a brand of our own — a joyful, meaningful one. For those of us living in community, it’s woven reinforcement for our chosen life into the fabric of everyday affairs. I was here before we had most of it, and I can’t imagine where Ananda would be today without it.
You’ve no doubt heard how Swami started composing. Someone, in the early ‘60s, invited him to sing at a party, and the only song he knew that people might like (or so he thought) was “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” It reminds me of why I learned “Maple Leaf Rag” as a freshman in college. I hated rock, but to be into “Hello Dolly!” when The Rolling Stones ruled was just too embarrassing. Ragtime bridged the gap.
Folk music, also the rage, eluded me as well, but Swami saw it could be used to lure a new generation to Master’s ranks, if only someone would write for it. Thus “Songs of Divine Joy” were born, an album or so of deceptively simple, guitar-based melodies that very much fit the time. Along with a group of Shakespeare songs, they were Ananda’s music when I arrived in ‘79, and like everything Swamiji has done, I value them more with age.
Classical music was Swami’s true métier, something the two of us share. I was therefore thrilled when Swami got up at my first Spiritual Renewal Week and performed his piano sonata, “The Divine Romance,” one of my all-time favorite pieces, and one that’s played an important part in my spiritual development. (Read and enjoy my article of the same name.)
In those days, Swami’s music had no choice but to peacefully co-exist with other genres. There just wasn’t enough of it. And, for the most part, no one complained.
Gary Goldschneider was a dynamic local pianist, drawing crowds at the Victorian Museum with his Herculean cycle of Beethoven sonatas. Swami packed “the dome” with him multiple times — and suggested I study with him. Gary, in time, got me my own concert at the Victorian Museum, broadcast live on KVMR, leading, in turn, to my playing “Rhapsody in Blue” the following year with a local orchestra.
The Andrew Sisters were famous in the ‘40s for their kitschy arrangements of “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy,” “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” and others. The Anandrew Sisters were our version: Jeannie and Lori Gishler with Uma MacFarlane on vocals (done up in ‘40s finery), me on piano and Lewis Howard on drums. Yes, drums. An actual drum set — with cymbals — in the E.L. temple!
Swami got up with us one night, believe it or not, and to great amusement, sang the Ira Gershwin ballad, “I Can’t Get Started”:
“I’ve flown around the world on a plane — I’ve settled revolutions in Spain – The North Pole I have charted – Still I can’t get started with you…”
We were dumbstruck, but very much appreciated it.
Buckminster Fuller, the architect who devised the geodesic dome, once observed, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” So Swami set out to do, or at least the end result was the same, and it coincided with my coming.
The exact sequence of early ‘80s events has grown dim, but let me paint the general scene: Swami took up photography, and embarked on a series of pilgrimages: Italy, Romania – this month, Egypt; Hawaii, the next. From these came slide shows. Each needed music. I was there, and with a small group of others recorded soundtracks. On returning from Jerusalem, “The Oratorio” was born, and Swamiji’s effort to create a musical culture for Ananda achieved critical mass.
An unfortunate side effect was that some who had their own direction with music felt forced out.
“They want to do their own thing,” I heard Swami say, and the implication was not good.
This bothered me, because just whose thing am I supposed to do if not my own? Has anyone found God doing someone else’s thing? Perhaps, but for a creative person, sitting on a volcano (as Swami once characterized himself), stifling the flow of inspiration could be a potentially fatal flaw.
“You must not let your life run in the ordinary way,” Master famously said. “Do something that nobody else has done, something that will dazzle the world. Show that God’s creative principle works in you.”
“Dare to dream greatness,” Swamiji adds in Do It Now. “Without courage, the doors of scientific discovery would have remained locked; the wilderness would have continued to seem hostile; and the poet would never have left his rustic village.”
“Be guided from within,” he continues, in Living Wisely, Living Well. “My own family did their best to make me forsake my spiritual calling. I am glad to say I adamantly rejected their pleas. I had my own star to follow. It has led me into the inner temple of peace. Following their wishes would have brought me lasting sorrow, frustration, and disappointment. Therefore I say, ‘Follow your own star!’”
Easier said than done, especially when one wants, at the same time, to be a good disciple. How to lead, and yet still follow! That is the tightrope every devotee walks. Always must we be on red alert for the slightest sign of self-deception in the matter of Our Will vs. God’s — and maintain a willingness to adjust our courses accordingly.
Thus I understand now that Swami’s disparaging remark was not the hypocrisy it seemed, nor did it have anything to do with music: purely was it a matter of those people being headed for greater ego involvement, not less.
I, for some reason, was spared. I continued to entertain Ananda with my inimitable blend of ragtime, popular and classical music, while adding Swami’s compositions to the mix. And Swami encouraged me. After one such recital, he said:
“You could almost be on a concert level, if you applied yourself.”
Did he have to say “almost?”
“What’s the purpose of this trip?” I asked Swami in essence, on leaving Ananda in 1986 to study the Suzuki Method of music teaching in Japan.
“Maybe it will give you a mission,” he replied.
Certainly it gave me a career. After being declared a “Suzuki Piano Teacher” by Shinichi Suzuki himself in 1992, I accepted a two-year position at a Wisconsin university, before opening my own school and teaching hundreds of young and old alike. When my partner, Ken, died, I became free to think about coming home to Ananda Village at last.
In 2001, while living in Wisconsin, I recorded a doomed album of Swami’s music, which he reviewed with me in person before a small crowd. (See “The Divine Romance,” for details.) Afterward, I happened to ask what sort of work he thought I might pursue. Now, we’re yogis! We know it doesn’t really matter what we do; if God wants us to pick up leaves, that’s equal to other people being bankers or pharmacists.
“You could get a job playing the piano on a cruise ship,” Swami said, not skipping a beat. “You like that kind of light music, and you could slip some of my songs in every now and then.” He added he’d just come back from a Hawaiian cruise, and the lady playing the piano had “made his trip.”
Must I leave home to fulfill such dharma? Perhaps, but I don’t think being away from Ananda for any length of time at this point would be good for me. Swami welcomed me with open arms when I returned in 2004. By then, his compositions had grown to 400, and Ananda culture was thriving.
You may wonder why I persist in playing anything other than Swami’s music when clearly Ananda is my path. Very simply, the particular blend I’ve nurtured over a lifetime brings out a deep joy in me like no other — and it adds to what Swami has created. It’s my unique contribution to the whole, and the whole is enlivened by it, I believe.
Frankly, so much of Swami’s music is written in minor keys, it comes off sounding sad to me.
“Dear Jack,” Swami explained, “it’s true that, in a sense, there’s a ‘sad’ side to yearning, but not in the way we normally think of sadness. That’s why I wrote of ‘sweet songs of sadness, of quenchless yearning.’ Yearning for God, though it expresses discontent at separation from Him, also expresses one’s great joy in the process of seeking Him. It might help you to listen to some of the tapes of Master as he prayed to Divine Mother. His voice and words are full of yearning, with a vibration definitely ‘minor’ in key – but also vibrant with joy.
“I don’t know why this is such an important point that it warrants all this discussion, but since you asked, I thought I’d give it one more try!”
On Master’s birthday, 2012, I took life vows in the Ananda Sevaka Order. The process involved reviewing a booklet Swamiji first wrote in 1986, now called “Guidelines for Conduct of Members.” Draconian as that may sound to some, and despite its specificity, it’s actually not. For we don’t like hard and fast rules here; too many of them “destroy the spirit,” as Master used to say, and for every one of them, there’s bound to be an exception. Yet, over decades, an Ananda way of life has emerged and refined itself, while continuing to evolve. “Guidelines” seeks to draw a clear portrait of who we are without being too restrictive.
Of interest to me was Article 8, “Work Is Service”:
“All Ananda members should view whatever gainful employment they seek as a service, never merely as work. [It] should be in keeping with Ananda’s ideals. Ananda members are free both to create their own businesses and to import businesses from outside the community. They are free, as well, to pursue their own personal careers. No gainful activity should be admitted into Ananda, however, without the approval of the appropriate community leaders.
“The main focus of such approval should be on the compatibility of the proposed activity with Ananda’s ideals. The emphasis in this case should be positive; in other words, in the spirit of openness, almost any new activity should be accepted, provided the activity doesn’t contradict Ananda’s ideals. For in truth, virtually any business can have a spiritual influence, if the people who serve in it do so in the consciousness of God.”
As Jesus said, “Those who aren’t against us are with us.”
“Doing your own thing” at Ananda means spiritualizing whatever that happens to be — in my case, popular music – and adapting it to the needs of the community.
Swami argues convincingly, in Meaning in the Arts, that the art world is ill equipped to render judgment on what intrinsic meaning any work may have — yet meaning there cannot but be! Whether a piece has lyrics or not, music — like art or dance — is a language unto itself, with no need of words to make its point.
Some genres, like rap and heavy metal, are clearly demonic. Everything about them, from their lack of melody, rhythm and grace to the look and feel of the artists involved bespeaks decline. Most genres are amoral, meaning their music can go from inspired to not. Much classical music is rife with pitchforks and horns — wolves in sheep’s clothing, crowned by the musical establishment, as it is, in a tainted respectability. It looks down on popular music, but, in fact, is not necessarily any more spiritual.
The classical world is only slightly more interested in God than the man on the street. InConcert Sierra, one of our area’s leading arts organizations, has for its motto: “Classical Music to Rock Your World!” While many involved are my friends, that suggests to me more of a wish to be impressed than uplifted.
Popular songs may wax nostalgic on how you done me wrong, and how I’ll feel when you get yours, but hidden amongst that trash are odes to love so sweet they can be sung directly to Mother Divine:
“Night and day, you are the one! Only you beneath the moon and under the sun! Whether near to me or far, it’s no matter, darling, where you are, I think of you night and day!”
“Day by day, I’m falling more in love with you, and day by day, my love seems to grow. There isn’t any end to my devotion. It’s deeper dear, by far, than any ocean!”
“If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why, oh why, can’t I!”
Swamiji said several times over the years that popular songs often have aspirations so sincere — and melodies so pure – they exceed most classical fare in their spirituality.
Lest, in my defense of music I loved before meeting Master, you find me clinging to an “abandoned time frame” (Living Wisely), let me disavow any connection with that Jack.
That Jack thought being “A-Number-One, Top-of-the-Heap” (“New York, New York”) might not be such a bad idea.
He used to sing “T’ain’t Nobody’s Bizness,” a snappy tune about where you can go if you don’t like it.
He discovered style without substance is no way to live. Whatever he does now has to resonate with something deeper — or be in good fun – as Swamiji had with The Anandrew Sisters, or when he introduced us to P.G. Wodehouse.
For the last couple years, Panduranga, Nalini and I have chaired the entertainment committee for “Harvest Day,” an open-air festival held on the market lawn, to which the general public is invited.
“Do we play just Swami’s music?” Nalini asked at our first meeting.
“No,” Panduranga said. “Oh, we’ll have some. The Joy Singers might sing. But mostly no, we want to keep it light and fun, nothing too preachy.”
“Where do we draw the line?”
“That’s easy,” I said. “Nothing heavy. It can have a beat, but it can’t be relentless or oppressive. Lyrics cannot glorify being a victim. Obviously, nothing about revenge. Nothing, in other words, that contradicts our teachings. That means the people playing must examine everything they do and make conscious decisions with that in mind.”
That can be difficult. So many songs have great music and horrible lyrics; others the opposite. Some do fine on both fronts only to have a single word or phrase disqualify them. Here’s an interesting distinction I settled upon: just because an otherwise wonderful song has a drink, cigarette or piece of meat in someone’s hand, it’s not automatically out — P. G. Wodehouse, to wit. We’re not prudes, and perfect pieces are hard to find. When a work glorifies such behavior, though, it’s gone.
Master’s Market sits at the heart of Ananda Village. It’s always had trouble competing with town, given the high quality of its goods, and the cost of getting them. Friday night pizza’s a hit; also the deli. A café expansion was recently completed, and manager Cate’s been thinking about how to use it.
“We floated the idea of karaoke, but that got shot down pretty quick,” she said.
I admit it would be impractical. Someone would have to screen every song along the lines I’ve described, eliminating most, I’m sorry to say. You couldn’t just a buy a machine and plug it in.
That’s not to say the only acceptable music at Ananda should be Swami’s — however easy of a rule that would be to make. Nor should P.G. Wodehouse be the only entertainment we support.
Entertainment, really, is what we’re talking about. For a devotee, it has to be of a particular sort, but Ananda definitely has a need for it, and, for some of us, it’s a job. The average visitor may not partake of it, but have it we do. And while I would like, at times, to hear in the Expanding Light kitchen something other than Swami’s music, I understand why we have the rules we do: to offer our guests, more than anyone, an undiluted Ananda experience, something they can get only here.
The unanswered question in all of this has nothing whatsoever to do with music.
Why me? Why did Swami encourage me, in an area he discouraged so many others?
In the summer of 1980, with less than a year at Ananda under my belt, I was practicing the piano a lot, and getting nowhere fast. Hour after hour of scales and exercises. Finally, I concluded the best thing would be to stop completely for a while and steep myself in the teachings. It was the right decision, I knew.
Spiritual Renewal Week came, and found Swamiji giving morning class in the Temple of Leaves. He was talking about how knowing you’re good at something is not to be egocentric.
“You have to know you’re good! And if you’re not good, you better keep working at it until you are good! That thing, whatever it is, if you turn it toward God, can be your greatest blessing! But here’s what happens: People come on the path. They don’t want to get involved in ego, so they put aside the very thing they’ve gotten good at and start doing something completely different. They–”
Suddenly he stopped.
“Jack, I’m not talking about you,” he said to me directly. “What you’re doing is fine! Stop the piano for a while. Get into the practices. Deepen your meditation. Then come back to it.”
“So, you see,” Swami resumed, “these things must be applied individually.”
My first album, “My Romance,” was a mix of popular songs and classical music.
“I enjoyed your CD,” Swami wrote, “particularly the Chopin and Beethoven. You showed a real understanding of phrasing, I felt; it was very well done. And I liked the other pieces, as well.”
Thinking that performing live might serve to strengthen my ego, I wrote back to say I was planning an album of his music and wanted to focus in future on recording.
“I am happy to hear you are working on the music,” Swamiji replied. “The more we can get out the better. I would love to see more live concerts as well. Of course recordings are wonderful, but there is something unique about hearing it played in person. Maybe in time this will become more practical.”
My particular challenges in overcoming ego, it appears, need to be worked out in front of people.
Our Vedic astrologer, Drupada, confirmed this in a reading.
“Ketu is a planet revealing karmic tendencies from past lives. You have Ketu in the first house, the house of self, and Rahu in the seventh house, the house of relationships. That means focusing on yourself will stagnate you. If you went into seclusion with a goal of having bliss for yourself, it would be a dead end. But if you were to say, ‘I want bliss, which I will then spread around as a channel of God and Guru,’ that’s different.
“If you, the performer, want to do music for you, it’s going to be a block. If, however, you say, ‘I want to bring some happiness to life – I want to get out of myself and share,’ that’s totally different!
“Sharing, learning compassion, being a good listener, a good friend – that’s where your growth lies. Eventually you become like Swami, who may lecture before thousands, but with absolutely no thought of himself.”
Witness the change already. You may not, in this first photo, be able to see the smugness on my face, but what I felt at the time was, essentially, pride:
Contrast that with my joy in sharing, a few weeks back:
Ultimately it’s not about genres or music at all, but having the right vibration, and the sincere desire to share.