While browsing through the Smithsonian Global Sound archives, I happened across a recording by Sri Chinmoy, a name that sounded vaguely familiar for no reason I could think of. The title caught my eye, too: “Music for Meditation.” As a skeptic with my own ideas about spirituality, I wanted to know what this recording was going to sound like and, more than that, what it was supposed to do. What does it even mean for music to be for something? As a musician with my own ideas about music, too, the prospect of this recording was already a spectacle, and I hadn’t listened to it yet.
It turns out Chinmoy’s name rang a distant bell because he was a major figure in the 1960s and ’70s bringing Indian music and culture to American spiritual seekers, and thus has entered American cultural parlance. And it turns out this record is a fairly smooth syncretism of all of the above. Recorded in New York City in 1976, with “cover design by Ashok Chris Poisson” and “cover photos by Pranavananda Anthony Hixon,” Chinmoy already had an American following. Track titles for side one: “Music (poem),” “Invocation,” “Existence-Consciousness-Bliss.” Side two: “I Sing Because You Sing (poem),” “Ke oi dake,” “Amar asru nire,” “Jibane marane,” “Jedike phirai,” “Amito tomare.” The ordering of the contents constitutes evidence for the Americanness of the record’s target audience, starting with English-language titles and only entering into Bengali devotional song after turning over the record. The first track, “Music (poem)”, exemplifies Chinmoy’s genre-crossing in the span of one minute. In spite of its title, it contains nothing that a listener would normally identify as music: the first half is spoken English, intoned as though from a hortatory speech, and the second half is a single long “Om” without a clearly defined pitch. Here we have Chinmoy immediately challenging us to relax our conceptions of what music is, what poetry is, and indeed to relax our conceptions in general in order to make room in the same arena of consciousness for a meditative mantra. He has rather cannily set the table for the record, prefiguring for the willing listener the nature of what is to follow.
My skeptical interpretation of the title “Music for Meditation” is that any effect the music has on the listener is largely due to the power of suggestion; put another way, the stating of its intention is necessary in order to achieve that intention. Toward the same goal, the pamphlet notes included with the record have much more to tell. First, they prescribe (along with the track listing and credits, on an unnumbered page) the recommended manner of usage: “ Note: This album should be listened to at a soft volume during meditation.” Chinmoy offers a more personal followup:
Let us not try to understand this music with our mind. Let us not even try to feel it with our heart. Let us simply and spontaneously allow the music-bird to fly in our heart-sky. While flying it will unconditionally reveal to us what it has and what it is. What it has is Immortality’s message and what it is is Eternity’s passage. (3)
At a high level of awareness of his audience, Chinmoy then makes use of the preponderance of the available space as “a general introduction to meditation,” under the headings “Proper Breathing”; “Concentration”; “Meditation”; “Contemplation”; “Mantra”; “Flowers, Candles and Incense”; and “Choosing a Guru” (3). Mostly this contains no surprises, but there are two points which offer keys to interpreting his work. Early on, he steps outside of his explanation of breathing to allow that “This is not the traditional yogic pranayama , which is more complicated and systematised,” perceiving and reminding that these spiritual lessons are compressed versions of something larger (3). Near the end, he explains the guru as a spiritual master by way of a thoroughly modern analogy, placing his record in a particular place and time familiar to his audience:
Right now I am in London. I know that New York exists and that I have to go back there. What do I need to get me there? An airplane and a pilot. In spite of the fact that I know that New York exists, I cannot get there alone. Similarly, you know that God exists. You want to reach God, but someone has to take you there. (6)
So this is what Chinmoy has to say directly about the ideal experience he wishes the music to engender. There are also a few revealing comments in the “About the Artist” section. For instance, “…he has written nearly 300 books on spirituality and painted 120,000 paintings” (2). (If true, this number becomes more tractable to the imagination as an average of over seven paintings a day from birth to age 45, which is how old Chinmoy was at the time of the record’s creation.) These numbers appeal to well-worn and still deeply held Western notions of the inscrutably creative artist (a holdover from the Romantic era) and of the tirelessly productive worker (an idea perhaps as old as the United States itself). The beginning of the following paragraph admits as much, then goes right for the American spiritual seeker’s jugular via generic flowery language: “Sri Chinmoy’s musical creativity is in a class by itself. It unites the lyrical, devotional tradition of India and the power, speed and vastness of the dynamic West — all in the universal human aspiration toward the Infinite” (2).
It is Chinmoy’s own interdisciplinary approach that suggests such close reading of his liner notes, but what of the music itself? The Bengali songs (with English translations provided for accessibility) consist of Chinmoy’s thin, wavering voice backed by a very simple waveform (not much more than a square wave) outlining the same pitches as the singer. His unsteady voice — or violin, on other tracks — is more than a little distracting to my ear. If this be music for meditation, it’s for someone other than me, and here my reactions to the record begin to enact the same sequence of reactions to Ravi Shankar we discussed in class. There is something cheap about this Chinmoy record: it offers the impression of the ritual, the ascetic, the spiritual, but the impression is lightly acquired at a record store, and then experienced as needed, to taste, in the comfort of one’s living room. Is the kind of meditation we can experience with the assistance of this record of the same kind Chinmoy himself experiences, or is it lesser not only in degree but also in quality? Does the process of meditation really benefit from certain kinds of sounds deliberately provided, or is it a shortcut of sorts? Chinmoy seems not to hold the American spiritual seeker in terribly high esteem. When what is desired is to pause from the practice of doing, of thinking, of feeling, and simply to be, Chinmoy presumes that this is too much to ask and instead offers a substitute activity, exaltedly relaxing though it may be designed to be. My least charitable interpretation is that Chinmoy is doing little more than cashing in on the Indianist trend that rose to prominence when certain of the Beatles took an interest in Indian music, but upon passing this judgment I become aware of what I’ve done and can take a larger view. A more charitable interpretation is that the effect of Chinmoy’s album — whatever his intent — was to take advantage of the favorable cultural conditions to introduce, to a very wide audience, a set of ideas and beliefs worthy of being studied and discussed further. His continued American career suggests that this effort met with some success.