Tibetan monks want the chant to share philosophy

May 05, 1994|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Mention "musical monks" to most people, and what they usually think of are Benedictine Friars singing Gregorian chants. But Catholicism isn't the only faith with a monastic music tradition; Buddhist monks in Tibet have been chanting, playing instruments and dancing as a part of their worship for more than a thousand years.

Take, for instance, the 10 lamas from the Drepung Loseling Monastery who are currently touring the United States (and will be at the Senator Theatre this evening). According to Glenn Mullin, who is shepherding the monks around the country, even the newest tunes in their songbook predate the Declaration of Independence by more than a century.

"I think the most recent piece they do is 350 years old," he says. "That's like a contemporary piece. The others are more in the range of 1,000 years, 800 years, that sort of thing. Some of the dances go all the way back to the tantric dance traditions of Northern India."

Mullin adds that some of the dances may be even older than that. "We can notice similarities in some of the dances -- in the rhythms and the movements and so forth -- to the dances of our own Native Americans," he says. "So actually, the root of those traditions goes back at least to the time of those migrations, which is at least 15,000-20,000 years ago. "

What most listeners find most striking about Tibetan sacred music isn't its age, but its sound. The Drepung monks specialize in multiphonic chanting -- that is, singing in which two or three notes are sounded simultaneously. One form features a guttural bass drone with a melody several octaves higher; the other uses higher notes to create bright, ringing, ghost-tone melodies.

Listening to these chants "is certainly a very powerful experience," says Mullin. "It creates a very powerful physical resonance in the body of the listener, which is extremely beautiful. You don't really get the impression so much from the recorded music, but there's an actual resonance created in the listener, so people will get a sense of being almost in an idyllic state."

What the monks chant on tour isn't liturgical music in the Western sense, but more like philosophy set to music. "For instance," says Mullin, "one work -- of which they do a passage on this tour -- is known as 'The Sound of Wisdom.' Essentially, it's a text describing the nature of the relationship between ultimate and conventional reality. So the words of the text, if you will, are guidelines to how one brings together the wisdom to integrate these two poles of reality."

Imparting a sense of spiritual elevation is part of the idea behind these chants and dances. "Each of these pieces . . . is by some great saint or sage, who achieved a vision and saw the dances in his or her meditations, or heard them, if it was musical pieces," explains Mullin.

"So their idea, I think, is that because each piece is produced from a vision-quest, anyone who performs it or observes it makes a link to that vision. And in that way, it's something of a healing or purifying experience. And it's thought to be as useful to participate in one as an observer as it is to be a performer."

Mullin adds that the monks find nothing odd about performing these sacred dances and chants in theaters and concert halls. "In the tantric tradition, the entire world is sacred, and all living beings are equally sacred," he says. "Some may not realize or appreciate their sacred qualities as much as others, and some places may feel a little less sacred, but it's all equal in the one-taste quality.

"So they don't feel that their monastery is in any way a more sacred place than the Senator Theatre."


What: Lamas from the Drepung Loseling Monastery

When: 8 tonight

Where: Senator Theatre

Tickets: $10 in advance; $12 at the door

Call: (410) 558-0428 or (410) 323-1989

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