Verses of Disquiet
In a recent podcast by Malcolm Gladwell, he sheds light on the legendary song, Hallelujah's improbable journey to become an all purpose secular prayer for a desacralized West. The song, written after many drafts, that eventually arrived on a small record label met little success early on. Even Cohen's record producer found it trite. Years later the writer Michael Barthel described the song's undergraduate melancholy as "so hyperserious that itʹs almost satire". Perhaps that isn't entirely true. It has the marks of Cohen's self-referential weariness that he addresses to his muse: "but you donʹt really care for music, do ya?" In any case, after it was released and nearly sank into the unfathomable abyss of 1980s pop music, when it unwittingly reappeared on the horizon. As a tribute to Cohen, the song was re-sung for an obscure Canadian vinyl by the Welsh musician, John Cale of The Velvet Underground. As if blessed by the Gods of obscurity, this version too met with little success and languished when through some improbable sleight of fate, an American woman picked up this Canadian vinyl. One of her friends was a young and unknown singer, Jeff Buckley, who happened to hear it. He decided to sing it - slowly, more deliberately, his voice graceful and capable of swirling tension, like some dervish in possession of spirits beyond his own understanding - for his album 'Grace'. But Buckley's version more or less simmered in the background, lost in the maelstrom of other more synthetically produced songs of the decade. It might have been the fate of this song, when Buckley unfortunately dies in 1997, at the age of 31. Buckley, as the Gods of evolution deemed it and as Gladwell notes in his podcast, was a very handsome looking man. Aquiline face, melancholy in a weary rock musician God kind of way, part Jesus and part Calvin Klein underwear model. His death juxtaposed with the whispery, breathy voice that ascends and descends with the ease of a bird, words which spoke of lost certainties, laments about erotic redemption arrived in the American cultural scene as the post-Cold War high had run its course. Thanks to our cultural fondness (since Rimbaud, at least) for good looking, dead artists, Buckley's version broke forth into popular consciousness with the force of mid-life infatuations. Soon, the song was part of the popular TV show O.C., the animation show Shrek, in April 2007 the song was polled as one of the top-10 all time great songs, and by 2014, the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry decided to put it up in its archives to commemorate the cultural life of the United States.
At the heart of Gladwell's narrative about this song was his thesis that there are two kinds of genius. That some creative acts of genius don't burst into the open as singular, finished products - unlike say as Picasso's works or Shakespeare's tragedies. But rather, these works of art are often half-born, nearly asphyxiated by the umbilical cord that is still attached to the frenzies of its creator's imagination. To enliven them requires continual work by many, cleansing and scrubbing by different minds, so that the underlying conceit, musicality of its writings eventually froths with effort, like butter, from the milk of everyday sounds and culture. I found myself nodding. Indeed, some works do emerge after a long, arduous, and nearly improbably journeys. I thought about it for a few days after hearing that podcast (which I recommend), and then I forgot about it.
Till this morning, when I heard in the silence of my apartment, the Carnatic singer T. M. Krishna's version of a composition by Muthuswami Dikshitar in a minor raga called Yamuna Kalyani. In it, the soft thud of an accompanying mridangam - the percussion instrument - marks the contours, while the arching tones of violin follows the voice with the fidelity of a shadow to its body. The song itself was written some time in the early 19th century and I am not sure if it was always sung in this specific Raga. Irrespective, the song speaks of waters that consecrates - if indeed, water can be offered in devotion, like prayer or despair - the great transcendent presence of Shiva, the God who watches over the immanent geographies of India. The words speak of waters that flow and attest to an idea of a Godhead whose kindness gurgles for all, even those who profess no faith in this, much like the rivers Ganga, Kaveri, and Yamuna themselves. Musically speaking, like Buckley's Hallelujah, Krishna slows down the composition, enunciates with care, rests tenderly on word endings, like some wayfarer seeking to admire the trees along his route. This is a kind of music - absent often in modern Carnatic music format - that tries to explore the song by sublimating the grammar of a Raga and the architecture of composition in search of a sensibility, a quiet. It is a way of (musical) being, an intentional stance, in this world that sidesteps the obvious and frenzied in search of something else. What that search leads to is hard to put down in words. Yet it is precisely by constraining oneself to a grammar that a kind of release is achieved. As the song in my headphones rose and fell and the singer's aspirated breaths lost themselves in curlicues of sound, this human song meandered back from crescendo to a basal note with the constancy of Odysseus returning to Penelope, I watched my wife's breath rise and fall in her early morning sleep. That music merged into the here and now, coalesced into an all too human activity of resting, offered itself as a soundtrack to the mind's repose, just as early morning light vanquishes the imperium of darkness from the night before - it all seemed incredible for a moment. This stillness in the eye of a city lost in a storm of its own making. Suddenly, the elaborate effort that Gladwell's podcast embarked on to track the history of a song seemed like an exercise condemned by its clinical and precise nature (something that I am guilty of, often). An effort that somehow mistook the analytics of discovery for discovery itself, the coastline for the continent-sized land that lay beyond, the gasp of recognition for redemption itself, and the song Hallelujah for the forgotten longings of a religious experience itself. On my end, I could only think of how many voices before this moment at the edge of this island on a Sunday morning, might have sung this very song composed by Dikshitar. The conceit of perfectability, the idea of success as understood by contemporaneous popularity, the ideology of genius - all seemed so far away at that hour. I found myself moved by the yearning contained in the voice, the preciseness of the words that describe Shiva, or life itself, as the subsumer and the subsumed, as an indescribable droplet of sound: anirvacaniya nada bindo.