Sunday, January 29, 2012

Proclamation: Vocalization, Presence and Place

Friday, I was able to have a chat with a dear friend I had not seen for some time. She is a well-known singer in the Bay Area, she teaches voice at a university in the North Bay and at ACT, and is studying sound healing. Inadvertently, while we started out catching up on personal matters, we ended up talking quite a lot about sound, singing, healing and place! Quite frankly, we could have talked for days about it, but here are the things I remember from our conversation.

My friend works with teens, as well as adults. She mentioned that she found it was easier to connect with younger people—graduate students, she said, seem to be all about “how will this help me pay off my enormous education debt?”

While this was just a passing comment that we laughed over, it made me think that singing is much more about heart than art, and that if there is no heart in singing, then the point is rather missed. I suggested to my friend that youth, perhaps, are more open to possibility, and once a rapport is established with a good teacher, there may be greater opportunity for the student to blossom through expressive singing.

There can be no more palpable truth than that singing is an extremely emotional activity. As we were talking, I was remembering my own experience as a student; during weekly vocal workshops, there was always a likelihood of personal meltdowns and tears from among the students. I don’t know anything really about the psycho/neurological indications to describe this, but from experience, I know that when we commit to singing a song or chanting or speaking, even yelling, we are opening ourselves up to the universe in a very pointed way. The commitment to expression is a solitary and vulnerable act; we lay ourselves open to anything from ridicule and rejection to resounding silence or mob response, as everything around us responds to our expression. That can be overwhelming, even frightening.

I brought up the fact that current technology has people staring at little rectangular objects, spending much of their "free time" expressing one-liners through flat and un-nuanced text or playing games or even talking to a computer entity. This sort of activity, I said, while billed as being “social” is really “antisocial” to a great extent. Why, for example would anyone want to have a conversation with a computer over a conversation with a real person, face to face? My friend’s immediate response was the single word: accountability. I had to agree. How often have we seen anonymous rage expressed in a public online forum? The societal implications of this are not good; there are a lot of unconnected and angry people out there who don’t want to be accountable for their rage. This cannot be healthy for individuals or for society.

As for the conversation I was having with my friend, I suggested that the work with youth is important work for young people who are growing up in a world where there seems to be little awareness of the greater world, awareness of such being eschewed for the much more narrow vision afforded by small, rectangular pieces of handheld technology. My friend hadn’t really thought of her work from that perspective, and she welcomed the opportunity to talk about these challenges. We talked about that for a while—about finding the vastness of possibility in a world where vision is made smaller and evermore distracting.

This discussion brought to mind a number of associations to previous thinking and reading, as well as to things I had heard others speak about. Eventually, our conversation turned toward talking about the therapeutic value of singing in specific, of expression in general.

I said that one of the “knowings” I had gained over my years of singing is that vocalization is our primary tool of healing, helping to connected us to our environment and to soothe us and people around us in times of stress.

Not long ago, I read a wonderful book positing a relationship between Navajo and Tibetan spiritual culture and understanding. I had long suspected a relationship due to such shared things as the symbolism of turquoise and coral as elements of the earth. I had never seen any literature to substantiate my suspicion until I walked in on a conversation already in progress between a few other colleagues, sometime in early Fall. One of the ladies had heard a talk on just this topic, and the speaker had published a book about it. She had the book, and loaned it to me.

Fascinating reading, this book made the connection—and, yes, this is a simplification for the purpose of my discussion here—between the medicinal sand painting traditions shared by these cultures. The sand paintings depict geographies of the spiritual realms that coincide with the geographies of the known region of the people, and they are intended to connect the individual to an understanding of place and connection to place.

As I spoke of this with my friend over coffee, I conveyed my notion that the voice is a human mechanism of personal connection to place, to being in the world—whether on the mundane or the spiritual plain. Once the human species developed a voice box, we had the ability to proclaim a presence and commitment to place (which is, on one level, basic territorialism). The ability to verbally communicate is the individual’s primary, basic, on-board coping mechanism, self-healing medicine and creative/co-creative tool. Voice establishes our presence here (wherever that is), our commitment to place, as well as our aspirations toward future action (from within the realm of possible choices) into the reality of place.

I will venture to say that we have arrived at a time, in our greater Western societies, where humans feel less connection to place, less willingness to commit to action and to act or be accountable for action. We are less, rather than more, connected to our reality, complacent to the status quo as represented by the role we cast for technology rather than for ourselves, and more willing to be led.

I put it to you that when we limit our world vision to small rectangles we hold in our hands, we limit the possibilities for more integral and cooperative, not to mention sustainable, existence.

Words and music are powerful tools—the Ancient Greeks and previous civilizations knew this and developed sciences around the patterns of poetry and tone scales; this is why words became chants and songs in the context of incantations and prayers. Words are the essential building blocks of creative process that leads to commitment and future action.

When we allow others to proclaim things in our names, we ultimately abdicate and diminish our personal presence in the world. If we think that we are not accountable for any lack of verbal commitment to future action, we are wrong. When we are not fully engaged in what is going on in a place called Here at a time called Now, we all suffer.


What far off song do I hear?
Winging birds and dappled brooks
draw me closer,

Wizened oaks draw attention
to clothed-in-lichen,
sun-baked rocks—

where people
throughout time
have gathered
to celebrate
the vastness of the sky
the beauty of the earth
the community of humanity
in death and in life.

Blessed the song,
and the Being.

© 2009 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen

Note: This poem is one of those set to music by Michael Kaulkin in his piece entitled “Waiting…”, to be premiered on February 4, 2012.

"All New - All Local"
Saturday, February 4, 2012 at 8:00pm
San Francisco Conservatory Recital Hall
50 Oak St., San Francisco

Tickets are available at the Sanford Dole Ensemble web site and also at the door.

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