Monday, April 20, 2015

The Lord of the Rings, the Power of Music, and the Stories that Really Matter

(video link).

I'm taking a brief intermission from the "ecstasy every day" mini-series to report on an unforgettable experience I had the opportunity to be part of this weekend with my extended family, at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts where the Symphony Silicon Valley along with the Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale, the Ragazzi Boy's Choir and the Cantabile Youth Singers performed the entire musical score of the Lord of the Rings live, as the movies themselves played on an enormous big-screen overhead (with the original soundtrack from which the musical score had been removed in order to allow the artists to perform it live).

Since there are literally millions of fans of these amazing films around the world (probably tens of millions, and perhaps even hundreds of millions), but only a relatively very few who could attend this amazing musical event (which I believe was only available in the San Francisco Bay Area and in the New York City area), I will try to share some of the impressions that I personally will take with me from that this event.

Naturally, the comments below will focus mostly on some of the concepts and themes that I find most interesting which the films themselves and this event in particular seem to illustrate particularly well. Everyone has their own personal relationship with art, whether that is literature or music or film, and so of course my impressions will be different from those of everyone else, but since there are some ways in which The Lord of the Rings provides some wonderful perspectives on the themes of ancient myth and ancient wisdom and can perhaps provide some helpful insights, I will focus most on those -- there is much more that could be said on a variety of other pathways of discussion that Tolkien's work and this particular film adaptation (and its incredible musical score) can lead us down, but I will leave those for now to other writers or for another day.

The power of music
Most obvious, perhaps, of the thoughts one would have after such an experience is an appreciation for the unparalleled power of music on us as human beings. The music created by composer Howard Shore for The Lord of the Rings project of director Peter Jackson can safely be called a masterpiece, and adds a dimension to Tolkien's creation that now feels like an essential part of the very atmosphere of all the different places and peoples of Middle Earth.  One can hardly imagine the Shire without its evocative leitmotif, and one can hardly not imagine the Shire upon hearing it (anywhere) -- and the same holds true for all the other themes and elements in Howard Shore's brilliant musical interpretation of that magical world. 

The drama of the action in the films, of course, is powerfully amplified by the music -- and while we all know this to be true in general, seeing these films again but this time with a live symphony performing the music and live singers performing the choral music brings that power home in an entirely new way and on an entirely different level.

Below is a video clip from a rehearsal of the music which accompanies one of the most dramatic moments in the entire film trilogy: the Lighting of the Beacons of Gondor. The power of the scenes themselves is immeasurably magnified by the music that accompanies the action:

That's conductor Shih-Hung Young leading the rehearsal, a graduate of the Julliard School and a member of its faculty since 1995, who did a masterful job of bringing out all the dimensions of the assembled artists and the larger whole they created together, and whose energy and palpable good humor and warmth came through the entire performance.

The power of resonating musical instruments:
In addition to the power of the music itself, it bears noting a point which has been made by many before, which is the fact that no matter how far technology has advanced, nothing can actually imitate  or even capture the effect of music which is being produced right there by living men and women using real musical instruments, most of those instruments made of real wood or real brass and vibrating real strings and real columns of air to produce their tones. 

The power of vibrating waves cannot really be doubted, since in a very real sense we ourselves and everything we see around us are actually made up of waves and vibrations. Quantum physics has taught us that even molecules and atoms and subatomic "particles" which we think of as particles rather than waves actually possess the nearly unfathomable quality of existing in "waveform" and exhibiting "wave-like" properties depending upon whether or not they are being observed. Even without delving into the mysteries of quantum physics, we can think of music as a very clear example of the invisible world entering into and interacting with the physical world -- mathematics taking on form and sound, thoughts and feelings traveling through the air and calling forth a response in the listener. 

Music can undoubtedly be said to "put us in touch with" the invisible and spiritual aspect of our dual physical-spiritual nature in this dual physical-spiritual universe in which we find ourselves, and to "bring forward" or "raise up" something inside of us which is invisible and intangible but vital and real. The vibrations of music that are being created right there in your own personal vicinity, through the vibrations of finely-crafted instruments in the hands of master musicians, have an entirely different impact than the recordings of instruments played back through speakers, as wonderful as musical recording technology and musical sound-system technology is. That's why we should all try to experience live music every chance we get, if we are able to do so.

The power of the human voice and the music men and women can produce with the human voice:
As human beings, of course, we ourselves can vibrate with music and produce our own music with the human voice. The power and vital importance of doing so has been explored in previous posts such as "Your song" and "How much time do you spend chanting praises?" and "A brief examination of the importance of chakras and singing praises" (among others).

The beautiful music of The Lord of the Rings trilogy contains many moving choral elements which add immeasurably to the power of the drama in the films. No one watching the live performances this weekend could say that they did not experience a thrill of anticipation when they saw the choir stand up as they prepared to deliver the other-worldly choir music that forms such an integral part of The Lord of the Rings experience. There is a reason that choirs are associated with the music of angelic hosts, and that the whirling celestial bodies are said to sing together the "music of the spheres."

Of course, it must be said that part of the power of choral music in the particular form that it appears in these films and their scores comes from the fact that it has centuries of history of use as "sacred music," associated with worship in formal churches in the literal-historical Christian tradition. This fact opens up a whole series of profitable lines of discussion and reflection, but without pursuing those too far at this particular point, it can perhaps be considered that it is very possible that one need not accept a literal-historical interpretation of any particular body of scripture in order to appreciate the power of such singing and to accept the premise that such singing may have real beneficial and spiritual effects.

It is also possible to contemplate the possibility that such music could have been conceived and offered and loved and preserved as part of spiritual practice down through the millennia, even if the entire literal-historical interpretation had not been promoted in western Europe from the third and fourth centuries AD (not just promoted, but alternative interpretations vigorously suppressed and persecuted). There is, I believe, abundant evidence that the literalistic interpretation was not the interpretation that was intended for these scriptures, and I have written about that evidence in many previous posts (see for instance here and here), but leaving that entire discussion aside, we can probably all agree that the choral music in the score of The Lord of the Rings films is unworldly and extremely moving.

In addition to the choral music in the movies, of course, there are also haunting voice solos, some in English and others in the tongue of the Elves, and these were delivered by virtuoso Clara Sanabras. Everything said about the power of the music of the human voice above in regard to the music of a choir applies again, "and then some," for her incredible solo performances in the score.

Here is a video of Clara Sanabras singing "Gollum's Song" with her own accompaniment on an accordion-instrument (this instrument was not used in the performance this weekend as there was a full symphony there) -- this song of course was sung in its entirety during the credits at the end of The Two Towers, the second film in the trilogy:

The evocation of a lost age:
One of the most powerful aspects of Tolkien's entire magnum opus is his brilliant evocation of the feeling of a lost age, an age that was already going down into the mists of time long before the beginning of the actual events portrayed in his books -- the age of the High Elves and of wisdom that has now been lost or that is only dimly remembered.

Is it possible that this resonates so strongly with us because he is capturing the feeling of something that we can ourselves feel may have actually taken place?

There is abundant evidence on our planet's surface of the existence of someone long before anything known to our written history, who knew things we cannot explain and who could build things we still find impossible to explain or to duplicate (including the Great Pyramid of Giza or the blasted ruins of Puma Punku, for instance). They appear to somehow be connected to the incredible wisdom preserved in the ancient sacred texts and traditions bequeathed to humanity, texts which themselves contain evidence of almost superhuman sophistication and understanding and wisdom.

Tolkien, of course, grew up and lived in England (although he was born in South Africa and lived there until the age of three), a land which is strongly permeated by very ancient monuments whose origins, purpose, and meaning remain disputed to this day. These include of course Stonehenge (see previous posts here, here and here for more discussion), Silbury Hill, Avebury Henge, the famous Ley Lines, and many others -- all of which cannot fail to convey a particularly strong impression that there is something more to the ancient history of our planet than our conventional histories admit.

The very thin fabric which separates the visible world from the invisible world:
The world of Middle Earth is filled with episodes which vividly convey the impression of an invisible world which is always present and contiguous to the visible world, even if all the characters are not equally attuned to it or aware of it at all times. Frodo sees into it when he puts on the Ring (and enters into it himself every time he does so); some of the Elves and especially Elrond and Galadriel can see with a kind of "Second Sight," and know things about the future or at least about the world of "potentiality" which cannot be known through ordinary means; wizards such as Gandalf can and do enter into a kind of shamanic state in order to heal others or to obtain information or effect change which could not otherwise be accomplished; and in several occasions dream-states are a means by which information arrives through "non-ordinary reality."

Below is a link to the episode in The Two Towers in which Aragorn has what we could call a "lucid dream" -- in which he perceives that he is in fact actually dreaming, as evidenced by the first words he speaks when he sees Arwen: "This is a dream" (to which she of course replies, "Then it is a good dream").

While these scenes are of course part of a fictional work, there is plenty of evidence from cultures around the globe (and indeed from modern science as well, although not often admitted) that our world does in fact operate in just this way -- that the visible or material realm of "ordinary reality" is at all times and at all points in contact with, and interpenetrated by, and in fact even projected from the realm of invisible, spiritual, pure potentiality. The realm that the Australian Aborigines call The Dreamtime.

It may well be that this Invisible Realm is "the real world that is behind this one," in the words of the Lakota holy man Black Elk. The way that the entire Lord of the Rings world portrays the invisible world as being present at all times, in contact with and with powerful effects on the visible world, may be yet another reason why it resonates so strongly with so many people.

The many characters who actually embody aspects of our soul's experience in this material life:
As has been discussed in countless previous posts, the great myths and sacred stories which form an important part of the precious inheritance left to the entire human race can actually be seen as profound esoteric allegories which embody in story-form the experience of each and every human soul, in its plunging down into incarnate form, forgetting its real origin and divine nature, and then eventually recovering its identity and increasing in consciousness of the true nature of the universe and of its own spiritual power.

In a quotation that has been cited in several previous posts (see especially this one and this one), Alvin Boyd Kuhn has said that the world's ancient myths (in this case, talking specifically to the collection of ancient myth that we call the Bible):
are a record, under pictorial forms, of that which is ever occurring as a reality of the present in all lives. [. . .] The actors are not old kings, priests and warriors; the one actor in every portrayal, in every scene, is the human soul. The Bible is the drama of our history here and now; and it is not apprehended in its full force and applicability until every reader discerns himself [or herself] to be the central figure in it!
Obviously, Tolkien's story is not an actual ancient myth -- but J.R.R. Tolkien himself was an accomplished scholar with an emphasis on mythology and on language (language itself being one of the purest forms of metaphor or allegory or symbol). The characters he created in The Lord of the Rings often embody the very story which Alvin Boyd Kuhn believed was at the heart of nearly all the ancient myths: the stupefaction of the soul as it "falls into" incarnation and forgets its divine spiritual nature, and the eventual remembrance of its true nature and the "raising back up" of the spiritual force, and all that that entails.

In particular, Aragorn can be seen to embody this cycle -- the king who is lost, the king who has in fact hidden himself for so long that he has forgotten in some ways who he really is, who is wracked by deep self-doubt about his own real identity, and who must slowly "grow into" his true role again.

For more on this theme as it is found at the heart of many of the world's sacred mythologies, see "Amen and Amenta" and "Namaste and Amen," for example, which have to do with the "hidden god" or spark of divinity within each and every man and woman, and see also the many discussions of the "casting down" and "raising up" of the "Djed column" in ancient Egyptian symbology, which takes on different forms in other myths from other cultures around the world, discussed (with a video at the bottom) in this previous post, which also contains links to many others dealing with "Djed-column" themes.

Within the "larger cycle" of Aragorn's return, we can also see the same cycle of the "king who has forgotten" and who needs to be "reminded" in the dramatic recovery of Theoden from the stupefaction that has been foisted upon him by the evil offices of Saruman and by Saruman's agent, Wormtongue. The restoration of Theoden (along with the accompanying music) actually moved the audience to extended applause during the symphony event.

The same cycle can be seen operating within each of the hobbits themselves, who come from the most ordinary and unassuming of all the places in Middle Earth, and who are constantly reminded that they are not heroes or kings or great warriors . . . but who each find within themselves at some point during their adventures something so extraordinary that they accomplish what no one else in Middle Earth can accomplish, and that makes those around them realize that "sleeping within" their unassuming exteriors there is some spark deep inside which is cause for awe and which is capable of moving the world.

And, the same theme of plunging down, being for a time "lost," and then being restored can be seen in the fall and return of Gandalf, who describes his journey in mythical and allegorical language (and which also invokes the concept of reincarnation which can be seen to run through most if not all of the ancient myths as well):
Aragorn: You fell!
Gandalf: Through fire, and water. From the lowest dungeon to the highest peak, I fought with the Balrog of Morgoth. Until at last, I threw down my enemy and smote his ruin upon the mountain-side. Darkness took me -- and I strayed out of thought and time. The stars wheeled overhead, and every day was as long as a life-age of the earth. But it was not the end. I felt life in me again. I've been sent back, until my task is done.
Note the express use of the phrase "fire and water," which has great worldwide mythical significance, discussed in this previous post.

The power of these stories is undeniable, in whatever form they have taken around the world and over the centuries. This is dramatically expressed by Sam in a moving scene at the end of The Two Towers, when he and Frodo are released by Faramir of Gondor, and Sam wonders if their adventures will ever find their way into the stories, the stories that Sam has just evoked while trying to encourage Frodo not to give up hope, in the speech that appears to finally convince Faramir to let the hobbits go to continue their mission.

Frodo has exclaimed, "I can't do this, Sam," and Sam agrees, but then finds strength as he reflects: "It's like in the great stories: the ones that really mattered." Later, they wonder aloud if they will ever be in any stories, which is ironic because of course the audience knows that Frodo and Sam will be the "great stories, the ones that really matter" because the audience is watching one right there.

And this of course proves the assertion cited earlier -- that the ancient myths of the human race are not really about ancient figures who lived long ago: they are about "our history here and now," and they are not fully grasped until each and every reader, or listener (or hobbit) discerns himself or herself to be the central figure in them!


Many thanks to all the 250+ artists who worked so hard to create the incredible musical event of The Lord of the Rings and to convey these beautiful truths as part of the Symphony Silicon Valley event this past week and week-end.

I know that for me those films will never be the same -- they will forever be fuller and richer my for having had that experience.

Below is my first personal encounter with an Uruk-Hai, from 2009: