Value of Absence

(Warning: My posts are usually a bit dense and heavy, but this one takes the cake. There are multiple concepts at play here, each requiring study and contemplation on their own. I am trying to string them together under a single thought. I therefore suggest that one reads this post when there is plenty of free time or be prepared to read it a few times to really enjoy my musings)

Introduction:

In this post, I start with verse from Dakshinamoorthy stotram, and the influence it had in my understanding of John Cage’s 4.33, Fred Sandbacks string sculptures and how this in turn has lead to my germinating two creative ideas.

Absence of Words:

The very first verse of Dakshinamoorthy stotram (Composed by Adi Shankracharya) avers in a very profound manner that the ultimate reality (Brahman) is beyond words. Here is the verse in Sanskrit, followed by English along with the meaning and commentary.

मौनव्याख्या प्रकटित परब्रह्मतत्त्वं युवानं
वर्षिष्ठांते वसद् ऋषिगणौः आवृतं ब्रह्मनिष्ठैः ।
आचार्येन्द्रं करकलित चिन्मुद्रमानंदमूर्तिं
स्वात्मारामं मुदितवदनं दक्षिणामूर्तिमीडे ॥१॥

Mauna-Vyaakhyaa Prakattita Para-Brahma-Tattvam Yuvaanam
Varssisstthaam-Te Vasad Rssigannauh Aavrtam Brahma-Nisstthaih |
Aacaarye[a-I]ndram Kara-Kalita Cin-Mudram-Aananda-Muurtim
Sva-[A]atmaaraamam Mudita-Vadanam Dakssinnaamuurti-Miidde

Meaning:

1: (Salutations to Sri Dakshinamurthy) Whose Exposition through Profound Silence is Awakening the Knowledge of the Supreme Brahman in the Hearts of His Disciples; Who is Himself Youthful
2: … but is Sitting Surrounded by Old and Great Sages who are Devoted to Brahman,
3: The Hands of the Supreme Spiritual Teacher is Forming the Cin-Mudra (gesture of the Knowledge of Brahman) and Whose Appearance is Still and Blissful,
4: Who is Rejoicing in His Own Self which is reflected on His Blissful Face; Salutations to Sri Dakshinamurthy.

Commentary :

I am now quoting from a talk given on this Stotram by Swami Tadatmananda Saraswati :

Quote: The ultimate reality is revealed through a silent exposition. This is symbolic. What could silent teaching mean? Is it possible to express the reality of Brahman in one or two sentences?Is it possible to express the reality of Brahman in one or two books?Any amount of teachings is not adequate to define what is para Brahma.No number of words could ever define the reality; we call Ishvara. Whatever words we use, Brahman is more than that. We truly have to admit that the reality that is para Brahma is beyond words.There is a famous quotation from “Taittiriya Upanishad”. “The reality we seek is that from which words fall back, failing to grasp that reality”.This is very profound Vedantic teaching.An exposition of silence is a poetic way of saying that the TRUTH being conveyed is beyond words, beyond the reach of language. Unquote:

The concept of teaching in silence struck a chord with me and made me reflect on it several times in the recent times. There was something in that verse, that made me go back to it time and again and reflect over its beauty.

INTERMISSION

Absence of Sound:

Sometime last year, I was introduced to John Cage’s famous piece 4.33 by Dr Raja Angara, a renowned Sitar player from Hyderabad. Here is the video of a performance.

When I first heard ( or did not hear the piece), I was intrigued with the concept of a Western classical musician performing a silent piece, and researched further on the idea behind this performance. ( Acknowledged as a pathbreaking and seminal piece, there is plenty of information/commentary available on the net) .

The best comment on this I could find was by

Quote: Although often described as a silent piece, 4’33” isn’t silent at all. While the performer makes as little sound as possible, Cage breaks traditional boundaries by shifting attention from the stage to the audience and even beyond the concert hall. You soon become aware of a huge amount of sound, ranging from the mundane to the profound, from the expected to the surprising, from the intimate to the cosmic –shifting in seats, riffling programs to see what in the world is going on, breathing, the air conditioning, a creaking door, passing traffic, an airplane, ringing in your ears, a recaptured memory. This is a deeply personal music, which each witness creates to his/her own reactions to life. Concerts and records standardize our responses, but no two people will ever hear 4’33” the same way. It’s the ultimate sing-along: the audience (and the world) becomes the performer. Unquote:

I am taking a small detour from the main theme of my blog, to highlight the role of the possible role of vedanta behind this piece. I am quoting from one the statements made by John Cage:

Quote: And then
 in the nick of time, Gita Sarabhai came from India.
She was concerned about the influence Western music
was having on traditional Indian music, and she’d
decided to study Western music for six months with
several teachers and then return to India to do what
she could to preserve the Indian traditions. She 
studied contemporary music and counterpoint with
me. She said, “How much do you charge?” I said, 
“It’ll be free if you’ll also teach me about Indian 
music.” We were almost every day together. At the 
end of six months, just before she flew away,
she gave me the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna.
It took me a year to finish reading it.”

To quote another source

Quote “Everyone knows that Gita Sarabhai gave to John Cage the definition of the purpose of music that her teacher had given her: “to quiet the mind and render it susceptible to divine influences.” Unquote

(http://www.artsjournal.com/postclassic/2008/09/scholarly_confirmation_request.html)

Suffice it to say, the intention behind 4.33 was to quiten the mind and render it susceptible to normal sounds, which he felt could also be construed as music. 4.33 was composed by him in 1952.

Watch this video by him.

(Good old Wiki, with their bias, attributes the influence of Zen Budhism to this piece, which is a subject matter of another blog !)

Watching and reading about the piece, I felt connected with John Cage and admired him for his audacity and courage of his conviciton to not just ‘write’a piece like 4.33 but to actually ensure that it was peformed with such sincerity and integrity. Remember this was in 1952. I can understand the rebel 70’s to accept such kind of bold departure, but early 50s? How much time would he have had to spend convincing the producers about the uniqueness of such a silent piece, which when heard or not heard can potentially invoke riducle amongst a conservative audience?

INTERMISSION

Absence of Material:

Some time last fall, on my way back to the visit to Storm King, I visited Dia Beacon. For any contemporary art lover, Dia is a veritable treasure house of works by giants.

As I was walking through the gallery absorbing the pieces, I discovered the sculptures by Fred Sandback. Having visited a number of sculpture parks and shows around the world, I am used to experiencing the “aha” moment, but Sandback was, to use a corny phrase ‘the mother of all ‘aha’ moments!

Using something a material as simple as string, Sandback created sculptures that seem to envelope space, giving it a boundary, a border, while simultaneously leaving it open for us to imagine, what that enclosed space could contain. Or you could just see the whole gallery as a sculpture in which strings have been strung in a beautiful pattern, so in a sense the enclosure of the art ‘space” is the walls of the gallery inter spread with strings. So you could experience both the outside as well as the inside of a space.

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Here is a selected collection of statements by the artists on his works:

“The first sculpture I made with a piece of string and a little wire was the outline of a rectangular solid . . . lying on the floor. It was a casual act, but it seemed to open up a lot of possibilities for me,” Fred Sandback recalled of a seminal sculpture he executed in 1966. In wanting to create sculpture that did not have an inside, he found the means to “assert a certain place or volume in its full materiality without occupying and obscuring it.”

“Maybe some perverse intentions: I wanted to make something without an interior, at least in the sense of a conventional sculpture which has an interior, an invisible interior; I didn’t want a volume enclosed by a surface. I also wanted a wholeness that was, approximately, not reducible. A wisecrack by George Sugarman about “getting rid of everything” preceded the first piece—though there really wasn’t much connection. There were also endless conversations with the sculptors Dan Edge, Adrian Hall, and Charlie Wilson.”

“Well, the first construction was a depiction of the perimeter of an imaginary volume. It described the edges of a rectangular solid on the floor, two inches high by four inches wide by twenty feet long. A lot of the early pieces had the quality of being a boundary of an object, more or less. They still had a sense of containment that referred to the sculptural object.”

More information on his works can be found at http://fredsandbackarchive.org/exhibits.html and http://www.diabeacon.org/exhibitions/main/95

I initially reacted to each of his piece individually and kept imagining, what material, what object, what color, would do justice to the space being enclosed by the strings. It was an exercise in ‘collecting everything” and putting it back in the space, what the artist has so beautifully “gotten rid off’! I was trying to inject material into the space created by the artist, even though it was not the intent of the artist! It was in this process, I realized that the beauty in his sculptures was in the absence of the material. The simplicity with which the fragile strings convey this was deeply profound and had a lasting impact on me.

Dia has so many great artists works Serra, Judd, Kawara, Warhol to name a few. Its always difficult to judge one against the other, but Sandback’s work took on a spiritual dimension that resonated very strongly with me and my vedantic background.

 

INTERMISSION

My own creative and spiritual journey:

In all these months, I kept revisiting the first verse of the Dakshinamurthi stotram. There was something in “teaching through silence” that stayed with me and kept haunting me time and again.

There was some understanding, some insight that was waiting to be discovered.

I also kept thinking about Sandback’s works as well as John Cage’s 4.33. I could see there was some connection to be made between the three concepts that were periodically intriguing and engaging my mind.

Then the moment of epiphany happened. I realized that the common theme across all the three was the ‘absence’ of something. The absence of words to teach the truth, the absence of sound to highlight the music in the everyday sounds, the absence of material to highlight the beauty of space, (that we so seem to take for granted).

Parallely, my own inner struggle to express myself creatively began manifesting itself more intensely.I began exploring the concept of ‘absence’ a bit more deeply and tried to take it to other fields of art.

Here are two ideas that I came up with:

A movie without visuals:

Imagine going to a movie and not seeing anything? The whole story moves forward only through dialogues, sounds and background score. Two quick story lines could be:

a) Man is poisoned to be killed, but instead goes temporarily blind. He escapes from his killers and races against time to find an antidote else he will be permanently blinded and killed if the attackers find him. It’s a movie that is a race against time and narrative would be his inner dialogues’, his talking to strangers, familiar sounds and score. Whenever he is talking to strangers, there would be a brief visual of his current location to give a perspective to the audience on his whereabouts.

b) Set in Peru or Cambodia ( for the fans of Jolie) explorer falls into a maze of caves, which have been so structured in the ancient times that the sunlight is visible for five minutes every day when the sunlight passes a particular point. The rest of the day he lives in darkness and has to find himself out of the place.

( Take a small break here and visualise sitting in a theatre for 90 minutes with only 15 minutes of visuals)

The above are two simple ideas, but more ideas can be thought off along these lines. With absence of visuals, the movie will force you to visualize the story through sounds.

An art piece that uses no material:

Imagine a yoga studio. People lying in ‘savasana” or sitting in a meditative posture.

The instructor is seated facing the audience. The instructor in this case is not a yoga guru, but an artist.

For the next 30 minutes he will describe his art (painting or a sculpture or an installation).The level of description is completely left to him. He can be vivid and detailed or vague and cryptic. The methodology too would be unique to him following no set pattern or routine.Once he completes his description he can discuss his art with his audience or simply leave, leaving no trace of his art except in the memories of the audience.

No material used. No strings attached. (I mean to the ceiling or the floor :))

Just words describing his work.

The description by the artist and the visualization by the members in the audience will be unique to each one of them. No two members will have the same reaction or the same visualization to the description by the artist.

( Take a small break here and visualise listening to your favourite artist describing his work sitting in a meditative posture)

The above are two of my ideas that had their basis from my understanding of the value of absence. Each one of us can reflect on the value of absence and explore it further in our own unique way. To paraphrase Gita Sarabhai, absence helps you quieten your mind and open itself to creative influences, because for me in creativity there is divinity.

OM TAT SAT

5 thoughts on “Value of Absence

  1. Excellent post.

    You have captured the essence of mANDUkya and Gaudapada’s explication thereof which draw our attention to the inexpressible turIya in the seventh mantra of the upanishad by pointing out to the ineffable silence into which the turbulence of ‘a’, ‘u’, and ‘m’ states representing the jAgRit, dream and deep sleep finally dissolve.

    The silence in the first verse of dakshinAmUrti stotraM is the attenuation of all concepts (i.e. mentation) when the mind attains quietude; the silence of sound in Cage’s music is the very substratum which modulates itself into all sound forms; and the absence of physicality to the objects of Sandback’s art shows the background ‘Beingness’ from which the apparently solid objective world arises.

    One metaphor our ancients give is how the transparent and colorless exhaled breath itself modulates into all forms of speech and music. But the human mind gets carried away by the form of the sound and reacts to an assumed meaning assigned to the word or music and in that process totally loses sight of the actual substance making up the sounds.

    On a side note:

    1. Cage’s comments reminded me what redoubtable U. G. Krishnamurti said once: The Beethoven 9 symphony or pulling the chain in the WC sound the same to me!

    2. Your example of a Movie without visuals took me down the memory lane — to more than 60 or 65 years ago. Radio plays were very common in those days. It was left to the listener to imagine the actual scene.

    I was visiting our small village for summer holidays. All the villagers were attentively listening to a battery operated Murphy radio on which a drama was being broadcast. In one of the dialogues, a character said that the buffalo was eating away the bottle gourd creeper. One of the farmers immediately reacted saying that a buffalo never would eat that creeper and every one had a big laugh at the script!

    regards,

    • Thank you for your detailed and additive feedback. Its certainly added to my understanding. Thank you also for the radio example. I hope I can incorporate it in the script one day. Which will be a visual less story within a visual less story. 🙂 Will be very interesting.

  2. Astounding read. Very captivating.
    It took sometime to have a semblance of understanding. I don’t know if I understood fully. Truly this is heavy stuff.

    I admit that I now started to appreciate my empty brain as well. 🙂

    But keeping fun aside, I once read a play by Samuel Beckett and even saw the movie based on it.. “Waiting for Godot”. I found some analogy in both. And then I did a google search using the string: John Cage’s 4’33” Waiting for Godot.
    The results are here: http://goo.gl/vydpRS I will read the results some time later

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