So the next day was a day for being tourists. As Remo put it, they built two days into the schedule for “Christmas shopping.” I didn’t think it would actually take me two days to do my shopping, so Martin and a couple of the other people from our entourage got together with Rocky to go to a famous temple.
I’m glad we had Rocky leading us because we took the subway, which could be confusing at the best of times, and then the temple itself, despite being a major tourist attraction judging from the number of people there, was kind of hidden in a crowded but intriguing neighborhood of shops and restaurants and such. The temple grounds were very beautiful, and there were moments when you could lose sight of the crowd, and get caught up in looking at a tree or a bell or a statue in a nook that looked like something out of a painting. Rocky explained a little bit about Shinto, from which I gathered everything could be a god of some kind. As he put it, if you want good weather, you pray to the god of sunny days. This would be different from the god of catching fish or good transit connections. I told him in Boston we have a goddess of good parking spaces and he agreed wholeheartedly with the concept.
I didn’t feel comfortable faking my way through any of the devotions but under Rocky’s urging Martin did wave incense on himself from a big communal brazier, and clap his hands and put some money in a box. Many locals seemed to be doing the same and there was something a bit comical about a tall, wild-haired white man standing among them, his eyes closed in prayer.
Martin and I broke off from the group after we were done seeing the temple itself, and got happily lost in the side streets around it. Once we ventured off the main tourist drag the shops became more interesting, and the prices better, which is how those things work in every city I’ve ever been to. We didn’t get much actual shopping done, except I bought some games for Christian that I was fairly sure he couldn’t get in the States.
And then we came to another temple. Rocky had called it the temple district but I thought he had meant because of the one big one. But I guess if you have a religion that has an infinite number of gods, you could have an infinite number of temples. This one was much quieter and smaller than the big one, and was mostly just one archaic-looking building with a courtyard. We were just entering the courtyard when I heard something like an according playing, and then a pair of voices singing a long note in unison, like a warmup note. I think it was. We found a group of five musicians sitting on a blanket in one corner. A woman was playing a kind of accordion-organ (I’d later learn it was the harmonium–even I don’t know every instrument invented) and singing, and there were two other singers and two percussionists, one with a pair of tabla drums and the other with a long, narrow drum with heads on either end.
Well, Martin being Martin sat right down in front of them and I somewhat more slowly sat down next to him, and not long after that we had about twenty five people in the audience, as the song got going from the warmup stage into the actual thing. The musicians appeared to all be Japanese, but I knew the tabla were Indian, and they were wearing clothes that looked more Indian than Japanese, but after a while I stopped thinking about that and let my mind be taken up by the spiraling upward of the music and chanting. And suddenly I recognized two of the words in what they were saying–“hare krishna”– and it clicked. I used to go to the hare krishna “feast” once in a while in Providence because, hey, free food, and there would usually be this kind of singing, sometimes with ecstatic dancing.
I hadn’t thought about that in a long, long time. I used to go because I was hungry and broke and too proud to make Bart feed me, even though he would have if I’d asked. (This was the same pride that made me too proud to ask him about moving in together and I ended up with Roger and yeah well never mind about that.)
I’d completely forgotten this music. Far as I could tell it was completely improvised and yet somehow the musicians all knew when it came to a peak. Not knowing what their signals were or their expectations made it thrilling to listen to, like watching acrobats on a trapeze and not knowing if there’s a net or not. Martin clapped his hands and one of the drummers, whose eyes were open, unlike the woman leading them, smiled at him and nodded approvingly. The leader, the woman, would somehow kick them into a higher gear and they would all speed up at once, and then she would do it again. The music got faster and more ecstatic.
I felt too much like the polite Japanese sitting around me, though, like I should be quiet and respectful. I think if I hadn’t been so rooted to the spot, Martin would have gotten up and danecd. The whole performance was basically one song (I’m not even sure song is the right word) that went on for half an hour and ended in a big flourish, and then a slow reprise of the chant again. Then a monk came out, made a brief speech in Japanese, and passed the hat. Okay, it wasn’t a hat, it was an ornate box with a slot for money, but same concept. We had no qualms about sticking a bunch of yen into the slot.
I followed Martin around for the rest of the afternoon feeling like I had been hypnotized and hadn’t really snapped out of it.
On the train on the way back to the hotel even the wheels of the train sounded like music to me, screeching and wailing in a turn then becoming rhythmic as the train picked up speed in a straight tunnel. I was having thoughts like this: Is all music a way to turn the sounds of the world, the sounds of life, into art? Wait, of course it is, of course that’s what it is.
I wondered, on the whole, how much of the world’s music was improvised, like the hare krishna chanting and blues and jazz, and how much was set in advance, the way Western classical music and most pop music were. In the West we take for granted that composition and songwriting are the highest forms. The symphony. But the writing of the symphony and the performance of it are two different things. I remembered a class on Mozart I took at RIMCon. One little fact I had tucked away in my head and forgotten until then was that some of the arias and solos we have written out today were actually improvised by the performers. Mozart wrote parts for his friends, wife, and family members to perform. Over the course of the performances, they would eventually settle on a best version, I guess, and then write that down for posterity. So even within what we think of as the strict Western classical composition tradition, there is still room for that element, that discovery.
Martin must’ve been thinking along similar lines, or he was reading my mind, because he said at one point, “Have you ever seen Ravi Shankar in concert?”
“You should. If you think a couple of hare krishnas in a park is mind-blowing, go see some actual Indian classical music.”
“There were a couple of concerts when I was in school but I never got around to them.” Too often I was working nights trying to make ends meet.
“It’s really cool. The orchestra has the percussion on one side and the melody instruments on the other side. And the melody guys decide what raga they’re going to do, while the drummers decide what rhythmic pattern they’re going to do. And so it never really comes out the same twice, even though it’s really rigidly defined.”
“Really? Do they tell each other what they’re going to do?”
“I don’t think so. I think that’s part of the fun. And it scales up and down. You can have a concert that’s just one drummer and one instrument. The cool thing is the raga will be a certain length, and the rhythm pattern will be a certain length, but they’re not the same, so it’s only every so often that the end of both coincides, and it’s like… amazing. We’re probably in the wrong country to find a classical concert to go to tonight, though.”
“How do you know so much about Indian classical music?”
“Had a fling with a sitar player in Berkeley.” He shrugged. “I never got any good at the tabla, though. Those are some tricky drums. Takes a lot of finesse to make them sound right. Hey, I think this is our stop coming up.”
He was right. We came out into the station, which was massive, and eventually got aboveground, and it took us a few blocks to make sure we were going the right direction. We ran into Flip in the lobby and convinced him to come out to dinner with us, and we got in a cab and let the cab driver pick where we were going, which was a bit of a trick since the cab driver didn’t really speak English. As Rocky explained it, “If they could speak English they would have a better job than cab driver.” Flip just kept saying “sushi” over and over to the driver until he finally said “Okay” and drove.
He left us off at a place that looked traditional–or at least looked tradition to white folks like us–with the little curtains in the doorway and rice paper windows. I proceeded to talk Flip’s ear off through the entire meal about what percentage of human musical performance was improvised and the place of art in the human condition, et cetera.
Flip was always receptive to that sort of stuff and basically added fuel to my fire. Martin cheerfully went along with whatever we decided about the grand state of musical endeavors.
And we ate a lot of fish.
And after two bottles of sake (each) my head suddenly went something like this: Hare-Krishnas-tabla-Indian-drums-India-hey-wait-Ziggy-went-to-India.
So, India. Hm. India.