Bach and Indian music

“The Hindu musician does not read set notes; he clothes anew at each playing the bare skeleton of the raga, often confining himself to a single melodic sequence, stressing by repetition all its subtle microtonal and rhythmic variations. Bach, among Western composers, had an understanding of the charm and power of repetitious sound slightly differentiated in a hundred complex ways.” (From the Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramahansa Yogananda, 1946, ch. 15, p. 115).

This was the passage that my mother pointed out to me, when she gave me Yogananda’s book. I read the page and then went to the beginning and devoured the whole book. I was fourteen at the time, and reading that book opened a path for me that led to a monastic vocation among the Camaldolese Benedictines at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, and later to many sojourns in India.

Yesterday (Jan. 24, 2016) I attended a complete performance of Bach’s final work, The Art of the Fugue, by the Moderna Duo, pianists Jerry Kuderna and Monica Chew. Bach wrote the work in “open score”, that is, without any indication of what instruments were to play the four voices. In the nineteenth century many understood The Art of the Fugue as a thought experiment, rather like those employed by Galileo and his successors in order to test scientific hypotheses. All the recordings I have listened to — orchestral or organ transcriptions — did not convey the deep emotions of the dying maestro, emotions I knew must be there.

The opening bars of the first fugue drew tears from my eyes and convinced me that only now, in the twenty-first century, after the musical revolutions of the twentieth, can we embrace this final opus of Bach with its full meaning, not only for western music but above all for life itself. I also realized that my efforts to express emotions and life experience through composition point back to Bach and his contrapuntal vision of life, Christianity, and the whole universe. I have more to say about this, and perhaps now this blog will take on new life.

About ashramdiary

Thomas Matus, who blogs this Ashram Diary, was born 1940 in Hollywood, California. Academics: A.B. in music from Occidental College (Los Angeles); S.T.L. in ecumenical theology from Athenaeum Anselmianum (Rome, Italy); Ph.D. in comparative mysticism from Fordham University (New York). Initiated into Kriya Yoga (by direct disciples of Paramahansa Yogananda) in 1958. Became a Catholic in 1960 and entered New Camaldoli Hermitage (Big Sur, California) as a novice monk in 1962. Lived for more than 30 years at the Monastery of Camaldoli in Italy. Traveled to India some 20 times; made frequent retreats at Saccidananda Ashram (Shantivanam) in southern India. Was in Brazil, off and on, from 1999 to 2006. Now back in California, he lives at the Hermitage in Big Sur and Incarnation Monastery in Berkeley, California. See:
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