Play Piano Today With Dr. J

When The Ancestors Sang The World Into Existence

Posted on: March 30, 2012

It is my privilege to share Jess Smith’s continued exploration of a “compelling rhythm” or a “sound substance”.

“When we drive a car, the point of action is where the tires meet the road, yet we know that the source and control of that dynamism is somewhere else, just as in playing the piano, the fingers “finding the appropriate keys” are an effect of a greater and more powerful surging force we call a “compelling rhythm”.  This was most effectively stated by Abby Whiteside in her book INDISPENSABLES OF PIANO PLAYING[1].  Sophia Rosoff, in her Dedication in the front of that book, says “Robert Frost said in an interview, ‘A sentence has a sound on which you hang the words.’  Through outlining with an emotional rhythm one can hear the sound of a phrase into which the notes of the music fall.”

Such statements suggest to me that the very substance of this “rhythm”, or this “sound substance” is something larger than Music itself, and instead is a more universal “essence” which manifests itself in music as only one avenue of outlet.

Bruce Chatwin, a British writer who spent many years in Patagonia and then in Australia became interested in primitive man’s beliefs about music and its place in the primitive view of life.  In his book    SONGLINES[2], he discusses the Australian aborigines, still living in Australia in a still primitive culture.  They believe that “to wound the earth is to wound yourself, and if others wound the earth, they are wounding you. The land should be left untouched, as it was in the Dreamtime when the Ancestors sang the world into existence.”…..”

To get to grips with the concept of the Dreamtime, you have to understand it as an Aboriginal equivalent of the first two chapters of Genesis—with one significant difference. Here in Australia, the Ancestors created themselves from clay, hundreds and thousands of them, one for each totemic species.  Each totemic ancestor was thought to have scattered a trail of words and musical notes along the line of his footprints.  These Dreaming tracks lay over the land as ways of communication between the most far-flung tribes, and a song is a kind of passport.  The distance between two such sites can be measured as a stretch of song.  A featureless stretch of gravel might be the equivalent of Beethoven’s Opus 111.  By singing the world into existence, the Ancestors were poets in the original sense of “poesis”, meaning “creation”.

If these ancestors “sang the world into existence”, then in their view of life, the world itself is a song, a musical experience, and it must be experienced as such in order to confront it in daily life.

Chatwin, in conversation with a member of an Australian Aborigine tribe, once asked “So the land must first exist as a concept in the mind?  Then it must be sung?  Only then can it be said to exist?”  “True”, was the answer.

The Native American Indians who occupied this country before it was settled by European Culture in the early 17th Century, had many ceremonies and dances which sought to make contact with a higher Spirit, a controlling and nourishing Power.   Putting on their warrior costumes, they danced a furious and all-consuming dance not to develop a power within themselves, but to become a channel for the higher power of “The Great Spirit” in order to defeat their enemies.”

Jess Smith, former teacher and Executive Director of the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, resides in Seal Rock, Oregon where he teaches piano and writes.

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  • bhundley1: I'm interested in your elaborating on the "fingering" aspect of practice. Are you a fan of Czerny, for instance, in terms of building up dexterity wi
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