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What's art, good music, beauty? Oy. Engage such questions to land in hot water pronto. As I expect anyone reading this site does, I too nurse certain confused notions on these matters. Fundamentally I think that music speaks to different centers of our perception. Be it tribal trance rhythms, high-octane dance music, lullabies, Blues, love songs, religious hymns, opera, modern movie scores, Brazilian samba, ambient techno, abstract Jazz, Bruckner or J.S. Bach, these and other idioms certainly don't address the same parts of our psyche. They don't hit the same buttons. Neither were they conceived from the same place. I think that deeper/higher forms of music manage to aim past the individual, nation, race, culture even time. They reach for the more universal, even cosmic beyond the stars. Take India's Taj Mahal on the Yamuna river. Despite its Mughal stylings, it remains one of mankind's most revered architectural sites regardless of religious allegiances. It captures something undeniably grand and noble as though it weren't part of this troubled world but aloof to reach beyond; or transmit downward something from the heavens. Whatever words we might choose to frame the effect, there's little arguing its reality. It's how the universal appeal of this enormous mausoleum perpetuates to this day and speaks to anyone who visits, even just sees photos. It transcends the ordinary.
Contrast this to a generic Pop song. All too often its lyrics are about base ambitions, anger, depression, desire, grief, jealousy, melancholia, money, loneliness, possessiveness, romance, sadness, sex. As emotions or worries all are real enough. But do I really want to join total strangers in their private therapy sessions to face their personal demons? Not. It explains my strange predilection of not listening to songs whose lyrics I understand. Rather than strip me of a deeper layer of meaning—which occasionally it might—I view it as more shielding me from what mostly are ultra-mundane concerns. I don't wish to wade through them in my quiet respite time. For me, purely instrumental music doesn't have the same issue.
Take this number from Syrian clarinet player Serkan Hakki. It's dedicated to the 50'000+ victims of the massive 2023 earthquake in Turkey and Syria. Even were we not to know this, he has clearly encoded very deep emotions. Yet it's not about the little personal ego with its self-referential sentimentality. It's something far more profound. Now I don't feel exposed to icky therapy of one individual working out their problems in public in the name of art and entertainment. Speaking or singing one's truth is undeniably empowering. Mostly I'm just not the right audience for it.
That said, I don't at all feel that more 'introspective' music must only speak to the higher mind like we might perhaps say about a baroque masterpiece.
Music reaching beyond spaces filled by our small personality can still be tinged by very human melancholia. It simply won't devolve into narcissist wallowing. Here I prefer it wordless like this haunting tune by Ghassan Abu Haltam who solos beyond his usual companions of The Rouh Trio.
For an example of what I hear as one type of 'cosmic' music from a higher plane, there's this alap from L. Subramaniam, the maestro of the amplified Karnatic violin. Disregard the visuals which otherwise tether the sounds to India. While that's perfectly fitting, this music can still acquire more depth beyond the confines of just one culture, time or place like here the city of Varanasi with its burning ghats on the river Ganges.
Here's Belgian oudist Karim Baggili backed by Le Trio Joubran with a tune that demonstrates how a lot of 'deep' music is structurally simple, says more with less and lets the silences between the notes speak for themselves.
But emotional depth can also be found in unexpected otherwise very sunny places.
If we ask which if any of these tunes might remain relevant and beloved by so many across the future like the white-marbled Taj Mahal; which would you nominate? Asking that strips off superficialities and sugar to aim for sober timelessness instead. Timelessness would be a pretty good indicator for something that has a chance at universality.
Examples thereof can be found across all musical repertoires and styles. Here I simply picked some that speak to me and my mood of the day. Hopefully one or the other also captured your ear. What's art, good music, beauty? Surely you have your very own thoughts or instincts about all of it. One thing we can't ever subtract from any such assessment is our upbringing and life exposure. Someone with a very different path may have been shaped to love or dislike things wildly dissimilar from us. Still, the Taj Mahal cuts right through any such provisos. If we found just the right music, might it do a similar thing?
This is Sezen Aksu's famous pop song "Sharp knife" which has since become a standard or classic enthusiastically sung by others, even turned into instrumental covers. "I came not quite whole and stayed this way. How quickly my soul postponed from this life only to love half of a love. If not today then whole will it be tomorrow. I am a refugee from myself, my solace is the sharpest edge. Where is that spark of love, that desire which can fend off this agony like a knife?" These lyrics look beyond a single life, acknowledge the karma one comes in with and how it might lead us to not participate fully to miss totality. Such lyrics go far beyond "vamos a la playa".
Quoting melodic snippets from a popular tune can come off well in an ultra-contemporary groove/DJ environment by setting up a floating introspective ambiance to sink into and start traveling internally.
Some lounge tunes like this aptly titled "Happy mood" can be deceptively simplistic yet such insidious earworms that they stick with us and trigger the intended smile. Here is another of my musical happy pills with no pretense at any further depth than a quick vitamin C hit. Finding good stuff needn't be any highbrow affair; at all.
In this duet between the sufi ney flute and Turkish clarinet, I find it easy to envision whirling dervishes floating off into an altered state.
My no-English-lyrics rule makes exceptions of course – like for this when it's time to get down and shake some limbs.
Regardless of your personal affinity with these tunes, you should agree that they indeed hit different centers of perception; tickle different buttons.
Enough for today!
PS: With a minor clarinet leit motif threading itself through the above selection, here are its representatives in sequence of appearance mostly on the Turkish G version: Ismail Lumanovski, Serkan Hakki, Ghassan Abu Haltam, Hüsnü Senlendirici, Bülent Altinbas, Thomas Friedli (piccolo D).
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