“Songbirds sing. That is fact, not metaphor. They sing, and in the forest every morning, when a dozen or a hundred or a thousand individuals of six or ten or twenty different species sing at once, that is polyphonic music.”
When I first read these words in Robert Bringhurst’s book, Everywhere Being is Dancing, it reminded me to pay more attention to sound. Not just the intentional listening one does in conversation or to a piece of music, but to the sounds of everyday life. I am finding that the best way to experience the polyphony of everyday life requires switching the senses away from intentionality and expanding awareness to what is present.
During this exercise, thoughts continue to distinguish, characterize and define the sounds. I suppose this is a response based on cumulative memory and habit. For as mortal beings with a sensitivity to all that threatens our peace and wellbeing, by necessity, we live in a stream of continued response to our senses.
“Music, dancing, storytelling, poetry are means by which we can and do embrace and participate in being, not tricks by which we prove our independence from or our superiority to it.”
So, if we can listen to polyphonic music, whether the source is human or not, can we also listen to image and symbol in our speech for their inherent multiple meanings? Is there then a polyphony of mind, heart or soul? Perhaps we can see too that a culture’s musical expression might also be a reflection of the heart and soul of a people. Bringhurst notes some of the differences in expression according to the voicing and texture of the music:
“In homophonic music, lovely though some of it is, and written by geniuses, as some of it certainly is, only the leader has any substantial freedom of action. Melodies may follow one another, but they cannot coexist. Where the leader’s voice leads, the accompanist’s must follow. The laws of harmony demand that every tone or note or thought or body have its own space or its own time or both. If two notes want the same space at the same time, the two must fuse and lose their independence, or one must move harmonically aside.”
Does not this form of music parallel the modern tendency towards authoritarianism, and the single-mindedness that goes along with it? Maybe with some practice, one can hear more than one thing at a time. Admittedly, an openness to listening may suffer in a world that does not cultivate a sense of beauty in everyday things. Although technology increasingly contributes to a loss of community, it’s understandable that some of us prefer to filter our public experience with the aid of i-pods and cell phones.
“We have, in fact, a lot of practice hearing polyphonic speech. It surrounds us in the woods, and it surrounds us in the street and the cafe. It’s what we hear wherever we can listen to the world. It’s also what we hear where people speak with neither fealty nor fear, and where their speech is not drowned out by their machines.”
“With neither fealty nor fear,” and I would add, with all that comes from both inside and outside. Finding one’s voice, of course, is not only finding what one can say, but also what one can think, write, draw, sing or express in whatever fashion one is inclined to. These practices that find us, while at first may take us beyond the mainstream of both the culture and the drudgery of day-to-day, after some time become incorporated as habits of body, mind and soul. It is then that the edges between “work” and “play” blur, or soften, as does one’s identity with its demand of pondering and working on one’s self or others. Not that You or I disappear, but the youthful question of “who am I” loses its claim on us.
We are capable of polyphonic thought and polyphonic speech, as polyphonic music proves. We are capable, that is, of multiplicity of mind in a healthy form. Why is it that the only multiplicity of mind in fashion now is a crippling disease? ease? Polyphony made audible is music. Schizophrenia made audible is noise.
Schizophrenia, as noise, because we haven’t listened hard, or deep enough. Or, perhaps because we believe too much in language and forget that, while beautiful and necessary, it sometimes charms us into mistaking it for a world which, in spite of all that is said, sung or done, will always remain bigger, truer and beyond the reach of language.
I’ll close with Bringhurst’s lovely quoting of the poet Don McKay:
“Poetry is language used with an awareness of the poverty of language…. gauge…. Poetry remembers that language is shaped air; it remembers ashes to ashes, dust to dust, wind to wind; it knows we don’t own what we know. It knows the world is, after all, unnameable, so it listens hard before it speaks, and wraps that listening into the linguistic act.’ “
Robert Bringhurst. Everywhere Being Is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of Thinking (Kindle Locations 322-324). Kindle Edition.
Finally, an explanation, along with some examples, of polyphonic singing:
All quotes from Robert Bringhurst except otherwise noted. Everywhere Being Is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of Thinking (Kindle Locations 275-276). Kindle Edition.