A Summit-Height Musical Experience at Interlaken

Dr. Vidagdha Bennett

The clock had not yet struck six. Suddenly, in a mountain village in Switzerland, a gong was struck. Through the darkened sky, across the emerald green waters of Lakes Thun and Brienz, and high into the unseen peaks beyond, the sound travelled. The concert of concerts had begun.

On a vast stage in the heart of Interlaken, a musician took his seat, surrounded by a forest of instruments. This was Sri Chinmoy. He had chosen the Swiss Alps to fulfill a soaring dream :to play 170 musical instruments in the course of a single, sustained performance. How long it would take, he did not know. Like a voyager of old setting his compass for faraway lands, he gathered the necessities of his journey about him and boldly prepared to put forth.

The audience, comprising seven hundred of Sri Chinmoy’s students from various countries, waited with bated breath. Which of the fascinating instruments arrayed on the stage would Sri Chinmoy select? What kind of thrilling notes would he produce? What images would he call forth in the minds of his listeners?

From a revolving table at his side, Sri Chinmoy picked up a large, white conch shell. Formed by a mollusc on the ocean bed, the conch has been used by mankind for centuries. In India, it is considered to be a most sacred and auspicious instrument to blow at the beginning of any holy festival. The conch shell, or sankha, is one of the main attributes of Lord Vishnu. The spiralling in the conch is held to be symbolic of infinite space, which constantly expands in a clockwise direction. Thousands of years ago, in the time of the Mahabharata, Lord Krishna blew his conch ("Panchajanya") to signify the start of the epic battle of Kurukshetra. Sri Chinmoy evoked all these images and more as he blew his conch three times with tremendous power and confidence.

The third instrument he chose was a small, blue ceramic ocarina in the shape of a dove. In stark contrast to the gong and the conch, the gentle, cooing notes of this instrument wound their way subtly around the large hail. In the pre-dawn mountain hush,~ the peaceful notes of the dove seemed to announce the awakening of the day. We were reminded that for aeons man has turned to Mother Nature for musical inspiration. We strive to imitate thunder, rain, the rustling of leaves and the lapping of waves, the calls of birds and the cries of animals. These sounds touch a deep chord in us. They are at once a source of inner harmony and immense solace.

Sri Chinmoy’s fourth selection was an elegant, long-necked, bowed instrument from Bengal. This was Sri Chinmoy’s cherished esraj, an instrument which he first began playing seriously in 1976. Although he was to play several kinds of esraj during the course of the programme, this particular one, made by two German students, is his favourite. Sri Chinmoy performed a long piece, comprising a seamless blend of his own compositions and improvisation. Under the sure sweeps of his bow, numerous sympathetic strings began to vibrate, creating a heavenly sound.

And so Sri Chinmoy established his pattern for the next seven and a half hours. It would be a spontaneous movement from one instrument to the next, a juxtaposition of loud and soft, blown, struck, plucked, bowed, strummed, picked and shaken. He was to explore every technique of producing music that mankind has conceived throughout the ages.

From the esraj, Sri Chinmoy proceeded to a Western flute in "C", an instrument that he first began playing in Melbourne, Australia, also in 1976. He then reached for one of his newest instruments: a beautiful lute with crescent moon openings in the large, oval face. It was a ruan which he had bought in China during his visit there over the Christmas/New Year period of 2004/2005. As Sri Chinmoy tenderly plucked this instrument, my gaze was captured by the vista from the large windows of the conference hail. Now visible in the lightening dawn, a steep, green slope just beyond gave hint of the Alpine peaks that enfold Interlaken. Tendrils of mist were creeping downwards, obscuring the uppermost reaches and bringing with them a light spray of rain. As Sri. Chinmoy continued to play the ruan, distilling its sublime essence, we might have been high in the Yellow Mountains in China, imbibing the fragrance and mystic atmosphere of that ancient culture.

Sri Chinmoy next moved to a series of instruments that included a Swedish brass glockenspiel, a Moroccan plucked instrument, a balaika from Russia, a native American triple flute and a snake charmer from India. His musical spirit was encircling the world. As he coaxed from each instrument its unique "voice", he seemed to summon the consciousness of each country into the auditorium. A rare and exotic sequence of notes on the snake charmer gave rise to images of a bustling Indian village, a darbouka drum from Egypt evoked life along the Nile, a Celtic lap harp called forth exquisite pastoral scenes.

At certain moments, Sri Chinmoy appeared to become so absorbed in a particular instrument that one wondered if he would remain in that world, lost in an ecstasy of self-forgetfulness and unmindful of the scores of instruments that yet awaited him. Eventually, with perhaps the faintest tinge of reluctance, he would lay the instrument aside and proceed to the next.

Sri Chinmoy appeared to follow no fixed order when choosing what instrument to play. He would walk the length of the stage and seat himself at a Chinese cello or stand behind a table on which were arrayed a set of djembe drums from Africa, kuin brass temple bowls from China and cow bells from India. When he had played all the instruments on stage, he would announce an intermission while his helpers carefully removed the instruments and brought forward a whole host of new ones.

There were three such intermissions — at 7:24, 9:30 and 11:34. They lasted 30 minutes, 45 minutes and 63 minutes respectively. Sri Chinmoy had originally thought of dividing his performance into seven sets. In a similar marathon performance, held on November 25th, 1995, Sri Chinmoy played 150 instruments.

This concert started at 9:05 a.m. and continued until 11:20 p.m. —representing a total elapsed time of 14 hours and 15 minutes. On that occasion, he divided his performance into six sets with a brief intermission between each one.

Some audience members had forecast that his Swiss performance could last as long as 17 hours, but Sri Chinmoy swept all such predictions aside when he completed his first 47 instruments in just 90 minutes. Playing with tremendous intensity, he concentrated his creative energy into just one or two minutes per instrument.

Although most of the instruments had been transported in crates and cases from New York, there lacked about thirty to make up the number. In addition, Sri Chinmoy had requested that up to 200 instruments be available on the day so that he could reject some if necessary, or extend his performance, according to his inspiration. These extra instruments were devotedly offered for the occasion by one of his students who owns music stores in Zurich and Salzburg. It was he who brought the large Chao gong which Sri Chinmoy struck to announce the commencement of the concert. He also supplied a number of most unusual instruments – among them, frosted crystal singing bowls, a 300-string rotating, conical barrel harp, a Japanese Daiko drum with a diameter of twelve feet and a Vietnamese skull phones set that looked like a gigantic, upturned insect. Sri Chinmoy remained undaunted by even the most unfamiliar and unusual ~musical challenges, extracting unique rhythms and sounds that left his listeners wonderstruck.

Some instruments brought forward a childlike aspect of the 74 year—old musician, most notably a wooden grandfather frog drum with a horned back over which Sri Chinmoy rolled a small log. A carved whistle in the shape of an elephant, a wooden ocarina shaped like an owl that produced hooting noises and a brightly painted conga drum also provided light and enchanting moments. Other instruments embodied a loftiness of their own, particularly Sri Chinmoy’s standard concert instruments — the esraj, cello, harmonium, Western flute and synthesizer.

In this age of specialisation, Sri Chinmoy revealed his tremendous versatility. Western society holds to the unspoken prmise that to become an expert in anything, one must study that subject exclusively. An athlete excels in one sport, a doctor in one part of the body or one disease, a scholar in one field of learning. The advent of someone like Leonardo da Vinci, who explored so many different fields and achieved miracles of perfection in each, is so rare as to be considered a phenomenon.

This trend towards an ever-narrowing scope runs counter to the great forces of the universe, to the very foundation of our life on earth. Energy expands and flows; rivers run towards the ocean; a tree bears many fruits; nature has provided countless species of animals, birds and plants. Why then should we be content to do only one thing well? Surely, as we become more in tune with the universal consciousness, we too should undergo an expansion, a kind of overflowing of inner wealth. This is what Sri Chinmoy manifests, not only in his musical performances, but also in his musical and literary compositions, his artworks, athletics and numerous other activities. For him, enthusiasm for the new and diversity of creative expression are synonymous with an ever-blossoming consciousness.

Thus it was that on this day Sri Chinmoy himself became the composer, the conductor and the orchestra at his world music concert in the Alps. Only a true musicologist could hope to identify all the instruments that he played and, even then, such an expert would, in all likelihood, be baffled by the many instruments designed and crafted for Sri Chinmoy by his students. Variants of traditional instruments with sympathetic strings added, customised mouthpieces, frets removed or new sounds added electronically made up a large proportion of the instrument total.

Again, such an expert might also be nonplussed by sounds and sequences that the Western mind cannot process in a recognised or formulaic way. Sri Chinmoy’s unorthodox fingering, his style of bowing, the use of his fists and the side of his hands on the keyboard, his love of improvisation in itself and his preference for the Indian scale and sequence of notes, force us to unlearn our established concepts of the ‘correct’ way to play music and yield to a wholly different experience.

And no matter what instrument Sri Chinmoy held in his hands, he maintained his silent, meditative consciousness. Palpable delight infused his performance, but it was held within his heart’s vast sea of poise.

This delight in music itself, the very breath of music, was perhaps the most compelling aspect of Sri Chinmoy’s performance. It made one dive deep within to find an answer to the fundamental questions: "What is music? What is that urge, inherent in man, to create waves of melody? Why do we feel ourselves to be complete when we are listening to a beautiful piece of music?"

Sri Chinmoy has written that "music is our soul’s home." He further adds, "When Light divinely manifests itself in the form of music, it is the music of the soul." If music is a pure expression of Light, which is God, then listening to such music can only bring us closer to God. Our individual natures are absorbed into God’s own Nature.

After his performance on 150 musical instruments in 1995, Sri Chinmoy wrote in one poem,

God the Supreme Musician
Came down
And left His Golden Footprints
For us to follow.

This was the experience that Sri Chinmoy opened for us in Interlaken. For seven and a half hours, we were literally bathed in the many-splendoured Light of the Divine. Instruments came and went, earthly time came and went, we scarcely knew how, for the music seemed to have wrapped our souls in itself.

Finally, Sri Chinmoy sat at his synthesizer, which we knew to be his final instrument. It has been combined with a Kurtzweil sound module to create clusters of unique percussive sounds. Sri Chinmoy concluded with magnificent organ-like chords which soared with a grandeur and majesty beyond description towards a thrilling finish. The concert was over. The time was 1:37 p.m.

Sri Chinmoy rested for a few minutes. and offered his boundless gratitude to his helpers and to the audience. Then he was requested to play one last instrument: the huge Japanese daiko drum that remained on stage. He at once stood up and approached the drum, using a large, muffled striker to produce deep, rumbling thunderclaps.

Even as the gong had been a symbolic start to the concert, so, too, this victory-drum was a deeply symbolic ending. Between the gong and the drum, so much had happened, inwardly and outwardly. A tiny mountain village in the Swiss Alps had encompassed the entire world and reached to the farthest Heavens beyond. Seven hundred ardent music-lovers had attained the summit-heights.