Om, the gateway of sound… Singing the primary colours of the rainbow…. Rediscovering the sacred dimension of music… And awaiting a new music on earth that will reflect humankind’s evolution into a new, integral consciousness. Aurelio C. Hammer, founder of Svaram, Auroville, in conversation with Sridhar K Chari.
It is a musical universe. Bird song and dolphin sonar, the patter of rain or the deep rumbles of the earth, and even, human culture has posited, the roll and sweep of the planets in soundless space, have a deep and lovely music to them.
But it is a fact that humans make music in a distinctive way. Evolutionary biologists have attributed rather predictable elements to the role music might have played in evolution – mate finding, social bonding, status and hierarchy, may be some healing and therapy, and so on.
Others see a very close link to the development of human consciousness itself. And many think in terms of music’s essential sacredness, an idea that while universal to all cultures, is deeply integral to Carnatic music, with the Thiruvarur trinity’s work at the very heart of it.
It is this imperative of “rediscovering the sacred dimension of music,” that resounds the strongest, in a 90 minute long conversation with Aurelio C. Hammer, the founder and creative director of Svaram, at Auroville, Pondicherry.
Aurelio first came to India in 1985, at the age of 25. Then he began a journey into sound, both personal and institutional, that saw him found first, in 2002, a cultural centre called Mohanam, and in 2003, Svaram, a musical instruments manufacturing and research facility that grew out of a social development and vocational training project.
Svaram’s musical instrument offerings, both standard and highly innovative, have fascinated sound lovers for two decades now – a visit is nothing less than a sonic journey into melody and harmony both strange and familiar, into storm and ocean, song and chime, rhythm and vibration, not to mention into Om, the sound of all sounds.
Sitting in Svaram’s open balcony, with Aurelio’s Om chimes mingling with the sound of the wind in the trees, in Auroville Pondicherry, we talked about this journey.
Soon though, I am presented with an image that takes us out of Auroville. Of Aurelio back in Europe, high up in the cold Alpine mountains in Austria. Alone, with a tanpura. No electricity, no radio (it is the late eighties after all, so no phones either).
Om, the gateway into sound
And what Aurelio is doing, is chanting Om. For one hour in the morning, and one hour in the evening. Just Om. For one year continuously.
It is the kind of Sadhana that today we can only dream of, either in the West or here.
And the inspiration as he puts it was Om, as a “metaphor, as the entry gate into the secret of sound.”
And has he experienced it to be such? “Yes,” he says simply.
Aurelio had been inspired to start learning Hindustani music, when the tanpura effort began. In addition, there was a bit of background in Western music therapy.
“In the West, Music therapy has established itself as an academic and clinically accepted therapy over the last 40 years. Thousands of papers have been written. Many of the Western music therapists are open and interested in knowing what is the secret behind Om.”
“I was reading many books, and I was inspired by the idea of riyaaz, practice, at dawn and so on. The traditional practice was to sing in just one tone for a year. So that is what I did.”
“So of course if you do that for a year, you go through many ups and downs, boredom and disillusionment. I did do meditation. But when you live in the mountains without electricity, no radio, what do you do?”
As he discovers, there is a lot to do. Because you start paying attention.
“Our senses are geared for input. But then you shift and get the input from nature. And then you learn a lot from nature. You learn the sacredness of the mountains. You learn many things out of necessity. In the mountains if it is a new moon and if you are not careful you may not find your way back.
“You learn about the cycle of the months, the days, in the northern latitudes we have 14 hours daylight in summer, in winter we have seven hours. You understand the cycles of the seasons, of the year. You see just how cyclical nature is.
Finding your pitch
Om. At one shruthi, for one year. I ask, “so at what pitch were you chanting?” That sets off a long rumination on pitch itself.
“That is a big question. Standardisation of pitch in the West is a fairly recent phenomenon, somewhere around the end of the Second World War. So now there is this whole conspiracy theory that it was imposed on humanity. That ‘A’ at 440 hz is not a healthy pitch for humanity!
“Anyway, I was once in a study circle on a neo-Pythagorean revival of harmonic sciences. Harmonic sciences is basically looking at the inherent law of music and finding its reflection in the micro and macrocosm. Pythagoras had spent 20 years in Egypt. He had these mystic experiences of sound, of music. Of the music of the whole of the universe, of the music of the spheres. It was the time when science was born, the rational mind came in. He wanted to explore basically the principles of music – the mathematics and structures of music – though music is an intuitive, emotional experience.
“Interestingly in Sanskrit we talk about Pitha Guru, the original guru. He was in Babylon which was a kind of a hub, at that time, between world cultures, with Indian scholars travelling up there too.
“So while standardisation in the West is so recent, Indian music has a history of a few thousand years. Same with Chinese music. In Egypt, we don’t know what the music sounded like, but we have a lot of imagery of musicians, of orchestras.
“Today, when we think about music, it is keyboard or guitar, and not the ancient forms. It was possibly an imperialistic thing, imposed by Western culture on all of humanity. Necessary for them as if you go from place to place you cannot retune a piano.
“But it is different in India. I moved to Auroville in the 90s, and I was often on stage playing the tambura. And often, in the green room, musicians would not know what they were going to play. I would ask, sir, what raga you will play, and they would say ‘let’s see’. Then they would sit on stage and start to tune their instruments. And then I said wow.
“As any singer knows, in the morning one’s pitch is different, in the rainy season it is different from the dry season. In the West there has been this idea that the universe is making a sound and it is in harmony and all that. ‘The music of the spheres.’ Johanas Kepler and others have made calculations, and the revolution of the earth around the sun is between C and C sharp, which is the basic pitch of the male human voice.
So there is this image of Indian musicians who sat on the floor and tuned the tanpura to the frequency of the earth around the sun. Of course you can ask why the male pitch is C and why the female pitch is a fifth above.
“So when you ask on which pitch I chanted Om…well, I learnt from my teacher that you have your tambura tuned, it can be on a standard, but if you don’t feel perfectly comfortable, just adjust it. For me there is a beauty here, such a strong individuality in Indian music.
“In the West, people think of India as this big mass of people, a large social community and so on. But there is individuality. There is a clear structure for Indian music, but every interpreter sings the raga differently. Each musician can give his own interpretation of the raga.”
Indian are actually very individualistic, I say.
“Yes, I love to speak about this. In the West, in the name of democracy America has created such a mess on the planet. And in the name of defending democracy, if you look at it, it is a police state. And then we say about India, it is a mass culture, with the ignorant masses. But it is the only culture, where these so called ignorant masses, you can drop out of the mass culture and be a sadhu or mendicant. You can also 8 hours of music day, nothing else!
“It is a dreadful thing that this Western cultural imperialism has spread quite a bit, has lots of power. And I think India was especially, heavily damaged. The British did a very good job of demoralising India, destroying the culture. I had this image just a week ago from Sadhguru (Coimbatore), of India’s two arms cut off at partition. So it couldn’t reach out, trade, grow, after Independence. We were cut off. They say it was actually strategized, planned by the British.
We reflect on that a bit. Then it is back to the journey. Aurelio in the Alps. One year of Om, at Eka Shruthi, one tone. What after that.
“When you do something like this for a year, you learn about the vowels. The colour of the sounds. There is this Zen story which inspired me. There is this old man with the flute and his wife is going crazy as he plays only one tone. And after months she says, everybody plays such beautiful melodies and you are playing only this one tone. And he says, ‘well, the others are all still looking for the right tone, I have found it!’
“So what happens when you spend time with just one tone. You go deeper and deeper. You listen and hear layers of it. You are hearing the harmonic structure of that tone, the overtones, and then you go into the vowels. In Sanskrit that is such an interesting subject, with vowels like ‘ru’.
“But then naturally one wants to move, we are progressive beings….the next step from Eka shruthi, is tri shruthi, three notes. Vedic chanting is in three notes.
“And then you come into the mystery. It was very beautiful. There is a middle position (Udatha), and you reach up (Svaritha) and you reach down (Anudhatha). I did some research on my own. What I did was I placed the Svaritha in the middle because that is the beingness, because it expands and contracts like the breath. It is symbolic. When we are tightening up and we get nervous you lose tone. That is what I think Ekashruthi and Tri shruthi is. You find that if you want to sing in one shruthi, you are singing in your right tones. That is the exercise. Every Indian student should do it. So you have to have the loosening and the tightening. It is the base of all healing modalities. I also read about the different options for the up and down notes, combinations of komal and shudda Ri (for Svaritha) and Ni (For Anudhatha), how the Rudram has to be with Shudhdha Ri because of its seriousness and so on.
“When you are at Tri shruthi, your emotions take over. And then you come into the Sama Veda, Saamagaana is usually 5 notes, pentatonic, originally. My next step was the morchana or thaat system.
Singing the rainbow
“Western music is Minor and Major, happy/sad, bright/dark, expressive/impressive and I thought, Indian music has the whole palate of colours. They have 72 colours. We in the West could only create black and White. Sure, we do a lot of shifting between black and white when we modulate.
“Indian music has all the pastels and all the colour mixtures, but what are the prime colours, — we have those colours in the rainbow. So then I thought, ‘wouldn’t that be fantastic. I would be able to sing the colours of the rainbow!
“So the next step, I practised it for 12 years, at least 7 years continuously for sure, I sang the seven note diadonic scale corresponding to the seven planets. We begin with the solar scale, it starts on Sunday with A, A is the central note, the A scale would be Darbari Kannada or something. It is a minor scale. Monday the B Scale, Tuesday of Bilawal, Wednesday Kafi the D Scale, Bhairavi on Thursday (Jupiter), and so on.
“I would sing all the Thaats. I would sing the scales, the Chalan. Basically I would do the 7 thaats from the 10 thaats, 7 of them are morchanas of one scale. And then you have Todi, Purvi and Marvad which are, kind of like combinations. So that was my kind of undersanding of Indian music. I was a music Bhakth in this period.
“You know the story of how Sundara smashed the yazh? (An early Tamil instrument). He breaks it because people were coming with lutes. Because in the lute you have possibilities of tuning. So symbolically smashing this is a transition from the harp instrument, where each string has a separate note. “Then the drone took over and there was absolute hierarchy and we sing all the scales from 1.
“The next question to ask is, then, why do we need 22 shruthis? I don’t know if I should reveal the answer because it took me 20 years to find it. In the Diadonic framework, in the Moorchana framework, you always stay in the natural proportions of the intervals. You see the proportions between the intervals are all given. Now to be able to sing from one note, you also want to stay in the natural intervals, if I want to stay with the natural tonal system, the natural tonal structure of our body. Everything is in proportion in our body also, even the arm span is in proportion. The nabi is in a specific proportion. So to stay in the natural proportion of this harmonic structure, I need 22 shruthis.
“Because if I have a Komal Re and I want to sing a pure Komal Dha or something like that I have to have a choice of shruthis. Because there are two different ‘Ga’s.
“All of this very relevant in music therapy, where you have to study how music works on the system. Everything in nature is an open system. Even the human body is an open system. The galaxies are open systems. There is input and output. Music is an open system because music is reflecting the law and structure of the universe.
“The image of it is a spiral. Take the circle of fifths as shown in Western music. If you take a circle of pure fifths it is not a perfect circle, you actually come in, in a spiral. Music is a vortex. But when musicians want to play together, each one wants to be equal in a way, we had to close the spiral into a circle, which gives you the Western 12 tempered chromatic scale.
“So you can say we tempered the natural expansiveness of music. We tempered it into an idealistic circle. And the circle allows us to start anywhere and every note is even and everything is expressed beautifully in 12 tone music. But without coherence, each one a universe in itself. Each one equal and so on. And if you just play those, it doesn’t make good listening,” he laughs.
Looking back, I ask him, what has stayed with you. How have you changed. And looking ahead, what do want to accomplish?
A new music, a new consciousness
“If you look at the evolution of human consciousness, and at the evolution of music, you find this beautiful parallel. This is of course because the evolution of music is reflecting the evolution of consciousness. In Western music you have had this evolution in modal music with the pure Greeks, the Gregorian chants and so on. You have this growth from primal beginnings to a 120 member symphonic orchestra.
“Indian music refined modal music into its most elaborate and beautiful extreme. Looking at this whole development of music and maybe also the development of human consciousness we are asking, where are we, what’s the next step in our evolution.
“What we created in the West, maybe this is not so apparent in India, we ransacked a big part of the planet, we enriched ourselves at the cost of others and at the cost of the environment.
“I think in human psychology we are trying to discern and differentiate the different components in human consciousness. There is mind, there is body, there is this amazing interactive field between the two, and you have this whole emotional chamber. And so it is the same thing in music. You have this music hijacked and made into a prostitute. And then you have this beautiful attitude in Carnatic music, that music is for the Gods, something for communicating with the Gods.
“It’s like regaining the sacredness of music. That meant I learnt about the building blocks of music, the elements of music and that search, because if you understand the building blocks of music, then you understand how music is working on the Physics, on human psychology, on the body,
“The Pythagoreans would have said ‘music is a gift of the gods.’ Music we can perceive emotionally, we just feel it, we don’t have to think about it, but we can also apply our mind into it. Music has all the physics in notes, in instrument building. I never thought that I would be managing 50 people and have a unit like Svaram here.
“In the Indian scriptures also, music is not even for music therapy. Therefore music therapy has not been a focus in India, because, like Sarangadeva very clearly says, music is for Mukthi, it is for liberation. Why bother about therapeutic contexts, use music for what it is, the ultimate!
“People here in Auroville have said that the Mother (Mirra Alfassa Richard, 1878-1974, collaborator with Shri Aurobindo, who called her the Mother) has talked about a new music which is coming into the earth. A new consciousness will express itself in a new form of music.
“In the old days the musician was also the priest, the healer and the medicine man in the shamanist tradition and I think that in this reintegration of the sacredness of music there is solitary music and then there is community building, society music and celebration.
“Svaram was adopted by United Nations in a project called ‘Music is a Natural resource.’ They had this Millennium Goals project which caters to our basic, animal nature in terms of food, protection etc. But what makes us human? Culture. So they said music is the most common expression of human culture. Music might be as important in the future of humanity as our basic necessities like food, air and water.
“Greek culture talked about the four sacred arts. Linguistics, Arithmetic, Astronomy and Harmonics. Harmonics is music. The point about the four sacred arts is that in each, you have the others. In music you have Mathematics, you have the cosmic order, the structure of language, Mathematics reflects the cosmic order and you have music in Mathematics.
“So definitely, here in Pondicherry, that is our tone, that is our tuning. Aurobindo was a seer of the next step of evolution and like many others in the last century he first saw and predicted an integral consciousness, predicted an entry into integral consciousness. If we don’t do it, it will soon be too late.”