Choir and computer disc

Duration: 10 min.

When I was living in Bali and studying the famous gamelan music of that culture, one of my most memorable musical experiences was not of that tradition. It happened at an oton, a ritual that is performed 210 days after the birth of a child when the baby's feet touch the earth for the first time. Before that time she is considered still too close to the realm of the gods to be allowed to touch the ground. The only music at this ceremony came from the chanting of the officiating priest and the small bell whose sounds he wafted to the fascinated baby's ears.

Those chants, or mantra, are essential in Hindu worship not just as carriers of ritual text, but as a way of tuning oneself to the vibrations of the universe. These are in a very real sense the sounds of the transition from the celestial to the terrestrial world, a transition also symbolized by the screen of the Balinese shadow puppet play, the wayang kulit. In this revered form of drama, puppets, whose shadows flicker evanescently on the screen, act out mytho-religious epics accompanied by the bell-like tones of the gamelan, but through the screen we can only glimpse these ghostly echos of the world of gods and demons.

In some Hindu traditions, the sounds of mantra represent "music of the spheres" (to use the term from the ancient West) made audible, and as with ancient Greeks such as Pythagoras, there is a fascination with the literal connection of sacred number and sound, as represented in vibration ratios and the tones of the syllables (such as the trinity represented in the three sounds of the sacred syllable "aum," sometimes transliterated as "om"). In these traditions, the music of this transition from the celestial to the world of heard vibrations is known as "luminescent sound."

Witnessing the entry of my own children into this uncertain and violent world of today, I decided to set a Sanskrit text that expresses the Hindu ideal of ahimsa, or non-violence. I have set it in pitches derived entirely by ratios of 3 and 7, pitches which therefore depart considerably from the twelve-tone equal temperament standard of modern Western music. The choir sings together with these tones played by the computer-generated accompaniment on CD, recapitulating the transitions of luminescence, of children still too close to the divine to set their feet on earth.