I Take Up Writing Music
In the summer of 1964 I spent a week vacationing at Yosemite National Park, in California. Yosemite must surely be one of the most beautiful places on earth. By an interesting coincidence, it was here I wrote Part One of the present book, during the summer of 1996. My first visit may have been the one I made in 1964, though it’s possible I’d been there once with my parents. I was deeply inspired by the solitude there, surrounded by towering peaks, majestic waterfalls, tall trees, and tranquillity-all of which I sensed in spite of surrounding throngs of tourists.
“By all means!” they replied-relieved, I suspected, to be temporarily unburdened of the need for carrying a tune! I had a very limited repertoire, however. I knew Yogananda’s chants, and several Indian bhajans (devotional songs). I also knew a number of classical songs by such composers as Mozart, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, and Grieg. None of these seemed right for that setting, or for that audience. I therefore sang an old American favorite: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” (the only one I could think of besides “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad,” which somehow didn’t fit the occasion).
“Wow!” they cried. “You’ve got to come sing for a party we’re having tonight. Will you, please?”
I agreed. Instead of the usual cocktail party scene, with people standing about politely, these people were lying about in assorted vacationing poses on a sandy beach. My young friends introduced me, and everyone sat up to listen. I sang-well, what else? – “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” They begged me to sing another. I demurred, not wanting to admit how very limited my repertoire was.
The next day, as I was driving out of Yosemite Valley, the thought came to me, “What a wonderful way of sharing with others!” What a pity, I thought, that there weren’t more songs I could sing from my heart. None, it seemed to me, expressed teachings that had any particularly meaningful message. Even classical songs described mostly the same old sentiments: disappointed love, jealousy, or hope, none of which were particularly exalted themes. “O cessate di piagarmi! O lasciate mi morir!” wailed-was it Scarlatti? (“Oh, stop wounding me! Oh, let me die!”) Was this the sort of thing I wanted to share with others? The only possible motive for singing such nonsense would be to show off my own voice, and what good would that do? In fact, that was why I seldom sang classical songs, even though I enjoyed many of them as music. In public I’d sung a few Indian bhajans, and some of Master’s chants. I felt, however, that it would be betraying what he had given me if I sang songs with no meaningful message.
In fact this was why, as a young man in college, I’d ignored the suggestions of many that I become a professional singer. My singing teacher in Philadelphia, an elderly woman and a true artist, had said to me, “I’m living for only one thing now: to see you become a great singer!” In reaction, I’d stopped studying altogether. I didn’t want to disappoint her, nor the many others who predicted a singing career for me, but my heart was bent on seeking truth. It would have seemed to me worse than hypocritical to pretend sentiments that no sane person, in my opinion, could possibly feel. (I remember a famous French baritone kneeling on the platform and clasping his hands fervently while singing the Marseillaise. A rousing national anthem, no doubt, but, apart from being thoroughly bloodthirsty, it offended all my aspirations toward world harmony and peace.)
Still, I visualized myself while driving: going about the country, singing songs with lyrics that were meaningful. Would any lyrics, however, express the universal truths Master had taught? None that I knew of, unfortunately.
I was about to give up the idea as a fantasy when a thought popped into my mind: “I wonder if I could write my own songs?”
The moment the thought came, a melody popped into my mind, complete with lyrics. All my life, melodies had drifted into my mind and out of it again. Many of them had been beautiful. This one, too, inspired me. I stopped at a milk shake stand and wrote the song out on a paper napkin. I had played the piano for years as a boy, and was familiar with music notation. All I needed to do now was draw two sets of five lines each on the napkin, then pencil in the notes and put the words under them. What came out was thrilling. Another amazing thing was the ease with which it came, as if it had written itself. I was obliged to rein in my inspiration to get it all down.
I was on my way to my parents’ home. On arrival there, I found that my brother Dick had left a Martin guitar there. He had no immediate use for it, and later gave it to me. I bought Pete Seeger’s Guitar Player’s Guide at a music store, and began earnestly studying the guitar. Songs kept coming to me, each with a meaningful and uplifting message and a beautiful melody. Like the first, they came almost effortlessly.
I sang one or two of these new songs at the ashram during the Sunday service, to enhance my message. Before I knew it, another invitation came from the Dutton Club at the Unitarian Church, asking if I wouldn’t give a concert. A concert? I’d been playing the guitar only one month! It would be the sheerest madness to accept. This was a challenge, however, and I was, as they say, “up for” challenges just then. I accepted. In justification I thought, “At least this will force me to practice!”
Practice I certainly did! Unremittingly, for a whole week. Two more songs came to me within that time, which I wrote out and learned for the concert. One of them may be worth including here. It was for the Unitarian church members themselves, many of whom were, I’d heard, atheists.
Or does love whisper in the flowers?
Surely we, children of this world,
Could not love by our own powers.
What is joy? Is it just a dream?
Or does joy laugh in every stream?
Are the clouds mindless after all?
Or is joy all Nature’s theme?
“God is dead”-so men say:
Can’t they see all life’s His play?
Not a church binds Him as its own;
Not a creed makes Him fully known.
Foolish we, if we limit Him:
Every atom is His throne!
The “big evening” arrived. Fortunately, I wasn’t nervous: I never have been in public. My view is that if I’m a fool, what harm is there in people knowing it? Meanwhile, I do my best to share what I can. I must say, however, this particular evening presented even more obstacles than I’d expected. The worst of them was that, in order to create “atmosphere,” all the lights had been turned off and only a candle shone “mystically” on the mantelpiece-behind me! If there was one thing I desperately needed it was enough light to enable me to see the guitar strings.
The room was packed with 200 people, all of them eagerly expectant. I must admit that their expectancy, while gratifying, didn’t lessen my concern. This was hardly what the new composer hopes for from his “world premiere”! I knew my voice could lift me part of the way out of the pit of disaster. And I had hope for the bhajans and a few chants I planned to include along with interesting and uplifting stories. My own songs? Well, perhaps the voice and the lyrics would make up for any lapse in the accompaniment.
As it turned out, the concert was a success. A young man came up to me afterwards and said, “I’m a major in music at San Francisco State. I liked your songs, but some of your chords surprised me.” He reflected a moment, then added, “Hmmm, unusual!” (Yes, I thought-very unusual! in fact, unintentional and undoubtedly quite wrong.) Still, my “career” as a composer had been launched, in a sense.
More and more demands began coming for my songs. To try to “tune in” to the folk-style in music, which seemed well adapted to the guitar, I joined a folk music group on Stanyan Street. Faith Petric, the leader of the group, was an enthusiast for that genre, and liked my own songs. I asked her if she knew anyone who might teach me to play the guitar. “The man you need,” she replied, “is Larry Hanks, if you can find him. He’s the perfect teacher for you.”
One evening at Christmas time, 1964, I went to Berkeley to join a group who planned to sing Christmas music informally together. I saw someone sitting alone. Suddenly the thought came to me, “That’s Larry Hanks!” I went over and asked his name. “Larry Hanks,” he replied.
“I’m supposed to study with you,” I said. Astonished, he agreed to take me as a student.
During one of our lessons he remarked, “I like your songs, but they lack realism. They’re too happy. Life isn’t like that. There’s suffering everywhere in the world, and injustice. Your songs ought to take those darker realities into account.”
I went home and gave the matter some thought, then decided for Larry’s sake to write a blues. What came out, however, wasn’t exactly what he’d had in mind. In fact, I called it, “The Non-Blues.” At my next session with him we both had a good chuckle over it.
On another occasion, after a concert, a woman came up to me and said, “Well, you can write happy songs. You’ve never suffered!”
I replied, “That isn’t true. It’s because I have suffered that I’ve won the right to compose happy songs. What I’ve written isn’t sweet sentiment: It’s victory!”
The evening after I met Larry Hanks, I was driving back to San Francisco over the Oakland Bay Bridge when two Christmas songs appeared, full-blown, in my mind: “The Christmas Mystery,” and “That Night When Christ Was Born.” Late that night I stayed up, writing them down. These two, and especially the first, have long been among people’s favorites. (So also, I should add, has “The Non-Blues.”)
It has long puzzled me why music should come to me so easily. I’m told that song-writers and composers often “sweat blood” getting their music right. For a long time I thought I must not be much of a musician, because, for me, it seemed almost like play. In fact, I understood why people say they “play” music! I deferred to anyone who told me he or she was a musician, and tried to learn everything I could from them. Even today, there are millions of people in the world who know far more about music than I do. The only explanation I can offer for my music is that it isn’t mine. I simply listen, hear it in my mind, and write it down.
The truth is, I never studied composition, though I did once take a course in composition at college, studying hardly at all and rarely going to class. It offended me to see those wonderful notes and chords reduced to mechanisms. “Here is the first inversion of this chord. Here is the second.” I just couldn’t think of music in that way. I would have done so, I imagine, had I known I’d someday be writing music. All I learned from that course was two rules: that parallel fifths should be avoided (in one of my songs, however, they work perfectly), and that the bass line ought, when possible, to move in opposite directions to the melody. I didn’t know chords. I didn’t know progressions. All I had was an ear for music. That is to say, I knew what worked, and what didn’t.
As it turned out, my ignorance was fortunate. Not knowing the rules, I was forced to discover them for myself. I soon realized that the rules are all there, waiting to be found; none of them is arbitrary. Music is a language. Every melody, every chord, every rhythm has its own meaning. Not knowing the rules, I had to learn for myself not only what worked musically, but what, specifically, would say what I wanted to say. Not thinking of myself as a musician made it easier to keep myself out of the picture, and to let the music express itself to me. Every piece of music I wrote was something I’d first “heard.” Sometimes it was there when I awoke in the morning. I found, in time, that I could even tune in to different cultures, periods of history, and states of consciousness, and receive music that was appropriate to each of them.
One morning I woke up with a melody for Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, for which Yogananda had written a commentary. Years later I sang this melody to a man from Iran. “Why,” he exclaimed in astonishment, “that’s Persian!” I knew nothing of Persian music.
Once I became frustrated with the comparative difficulty of writing lyrics, what with rhymes and the need for squeezing meaning into as few words as possible while still making it clear, and without slipping into poetic deception by writing something incomprehensible concealed behind obscure, but supposedly deep, imagery. Clarity was my primary aim, whether in teaching or in writing. On the day of my frustration (it was with the difficulty of writing meaningful but enjoyable lyrics) I thought, “I think I’ll write melodies for Shakespeare’s lyrics. Let him do the hard work!” In three days I put eighteen of his lyrics to music. They’ve remained popular favorites with many people.
Once I was invited to speak and sing for Crystal Springs, a girls’ school on the Peninsula south of San Francisco. Nancy Ponch, who had invited me in some official capacity and had driven me down, ended up becoming my csoach in lyric writing. She herself wrote songs-bad ones, I’m afraid, though I could never bring myself to say so. But she was good at coaching.
“Shakespeare did this sort of thing,” I’d complain, “and he got away with it!” She’d offered criticism on one of my lines.
“That’s fine,” she replied, “but you aren’t Shakespeare. Besides, there’s nothing we can do about him now. He’s dead, whereas you are very much alive-still. You shouldn’t let yourself get away with this sort of thing. A strained rhyme may look all right on paper, but it won’t work when sung. Marlowe rhymed ‘love’ with ‘prove,’ sure. And there aren’t many rhymes for ‘love.’ Still, you can always ‘shove’ a word like that into the middle of a line if it’s difficult to rhyme, then put something more rhymable at the end.”
A trick I’d learned in my teens had been that when you have a weak rhyme, don’t put it second: Put it first. Then people won’t know you’ve chosen that word only because you couldn’t find one that rhymed well.
Gradually, from songs that expressed meaning, I went on to writing music without lyrics while in itself expressing meaning, and the spirit of Yogananda’s teachings.
To leap ahead many years, Derek Bell, the famous Irish harpist for The Chieftains, recorded two albums of my music. Cuts from these albums, as well as from others of my music, have been played by several airlines on their international flights. A group from Ananda sang at the Vatican for the Pope. And in May, 2000, a choir of more than fifty Ananda members flew to Italy and sang, in six cities, an Oratorio of mine called “Christ Lives.” Everywhere they performed, they received standing ovations. One man came up to me after the concert in Assisi with tears in his eyes, and said to me in French, “I don’t know a word of English or Italian. [The concert was all in English.] I’m only a visitor here. But I want you to know, I understood every word!”
Music, about which for years I used to ask myself, “Is this really a service to Master?” has become one of Ananda’s most important assets. I’ve composed over 300 musical works, including piano and string pieces, choral music, and songs. For me, it has been one of the great joys in my life. Often, tears of joy have flowed down my cheeks as a melody or a sequence of beautiful harmonies poured through me like a mountain stream, effortlessly. How different, in this respect, has music been from writing books, which often demand great effort to make a single, subtle point clear.