Monthly Archives: June 2012

Creating thin places with music

Creating thin places with music

As a lifelong musician, music magic is particularly sacred to me. However I sometimes lose sight of the magic whilst I focus intently on some of it’s academic qualities, when I’m practising relentlessly to prepare for a concert, or when I pursue professional engagements for my livelihood. I’ve been searching for the meaning of magic in music, and I think I’ve missed a simple and beautiful truth that music is magic. It is unique among the arts for being the most abstract, I think of it as a particularly concrete form of magic. I’ve also realised during performances a very palpable sensation of the presence of spirits and the nearness of Annwyn, the otherworld.

One experience, for which I am eternally grateful to my gods, I get to have on a weekly basis. I could have this experience daily if I remind myself to let go and breath in the music whilst I practise. A perfect performance is one in which I step out of myself, out of this world, into a world in which the very landscape is formed of the tones from my instrument. In that place is perfect happiness, peace, and above all joy. Sometimes it’s a story of a man striking out over land and sea to find his love and return home, sometimes it’s a rendezvous in a forest during which a wild storm accompanies wild love-making. Sometimes it’s a great adventure to parts where there be dragons. When I play this music I go to these places, and it is among the greatest pleasures of life.
Often times I find myself growing tense as fear tries to break down the magic. Fear of missing a phrase, forgetting, judgment from others. It is all lies. “Let go, and exist in the music and walk in between the notes” is what I tell myself when I find myself struggling during a performance, and if I do it, the song turns around and may even become a great channel into Annwyn, the otherworld. It’s a way of being compassionate to oneself: To not berate oneself for a wrong note. The point is not to play ink on a page, although it’s good to be able to do that. The goal is to walk in Awen and allow its magic to flow into a world which needs it desperately. Sometimes the right music can thin the veil between the physical world and the otherworld. But what makes the music ‘right’?

Several years ago (okay, more like a decade) a book by John O’Donohue called ‘Anam Cara‘ introduced me to the idea of ‘thin places’. He describes them as locales and/or times wherein the veil which separates our physical world from the spiritual realms is thinner. These “spiritual realms” have many names in the religions and traditions of humankind, and I’ve taken to referring to it as ‘Annwyn‘ or the ‘Otherworld’ in Welsh mythology. In some places it seems so thin that it seems as if one could simply walk into Annwyn as through a wide open door. One goal of music magic is to create these ‘thin places’. The sacred symbol/syllable, AWEN, (or streched out as a chant: ah-oo-wen) is very important to this as well. Awen means “flowing spirit” and also describes the flow of inspiration and creativity of a bard, minstrel, or anyone who might use their creative gifts to open pathways for spirit(s) to flow. (Joanna Van Der Hoeven describes it HERE in detail.) The rays of Awen have been used for opening gateways to altered states of awareness, to begin ceremonies, and open doors to Annwyn, or possibly countless other otherworlds. Music has long been used to prepare the hearts of congregations for worshipping deity, and like the druid’s Awen, music prepares the way, not for the gods to enter our lives (they are already there), but for us to enter theirs and experience this communion — to briefly peak under the veil of our fleshy perception to experience a brighter, more real cosmos. So it is no great stretch of reason to see that music can be a catalyst for Awen to open that gate.

1My heart is steadfast, O God;
I will sing, I will sing praises, even with my soul.
 2Awake, harp and lyre;
I will awaken the dawn!” – Psalm 108 (NRSV)

(If you’re reading this and you’re caught off-guard by the reference to Judeo-Christian sacred texts because it’s not your religion, please stay with me. One doesn’t have to believe in the Hebrews’ idea of God to glean a little wisdom from these texts. A thing can be sacred and yet not be of one’s religion.)

The psalmist (traditionally David here) uses instruments and singing to consecrate day and dedicate it to the worship of his deity. In this, whether myth or real, God is not sitting behind the celestial curtain waiting to be invited in.

The ‘right music’ then does not refer to a genre, does not have to be a select set of tones (though certain tones put together can have what one might call an ethereal quality, and there have been written many treatises on the practical uses of music in ). Awen, the symbol, is comprised of a triad of rays coming from the sun. Awen is also the flow of inspiration and creativity – but I think there is a third part: Sharing or perhaps simply receiving. I’ve experienced the nearness of Annwyn occasionally whilst practising, but I feel it almost every time when I play and another person is there who receives the music as food for the soul. The times when I play the music and simply enjoy it as if I were a spectator are those sacred moments to me when I enter privately into the otherworld for a time. Inspiration is light from the gods. Creativity is light from the bard and minstrel. When another receives the musical offering in a way that illuminates one’s consciousness, then the three rays of Awen are complete and Annwyn seems so very near!

A traveller puts his head under the edge of the firmament in the original (1888) printing of the Flammarion engraving.
A traveller puts his head under the edge of the firmament in the original (1888) printing of the Flammarion engraving.

If I have written anything which is disagreeable, I ask forgiveness,
If ever I contribute to happiness and fulfillment, you deserved it,
May the music you make and the music you receive carry you to places your physical form cannot travel,
And may the magic of Awen fill your life and the lives of those around you.