Sacred Music: Its Origins, Powers, and Future — Traditional Music in Today’s World
Ed. Jean-Louis Gabin
Varanasi, India: Indica Books, 2002
“People who lose their language and their music cease to exist as a cultural and national entity and have no further contribution to make to world culture.” — Alain Daniélou
“All our harmony is only a Gothic and barbarous invention, to which we would never have taken, had we been more sensitive to the real beauty of art and of truly natural music.” – J.-J. Rousseau
Alain Daniélou was only one of the original Traditionalist Bigshots known to have actually lived a Traditional way of life in a Traditional society: from 1932 to 1963 Daniélou lived in India, often travelling about rural villages in a silver Airstream trailer with his longtime companion, Raymond Burnier. As Jacques Cloarec notes in his foreword to the book under review, “The Mleccha’s Exercise Books,” his status was that of a Mlecca, or “barbarian,” the term for anyone not born in the sacred land of India, and assimilated thus to the 80% or so of the population belonging to the Shudra caste. As he also notes, this did not serve as a “barrier to knowledge,” and Daniélou studied traditional cosmology and metaphysics, as well as the vīṇa (or veena) under a number of renowned pandits, and was eventually initiated into Hinduism (under the name Shiva Sharan).
Although favoring independence, he opposed the furious attacks on Hindu Tradition launched the Westernizing new government, and returned to Europe to present “the true face of Hinduism” to the West. Along the way,
By organizing concerts for the great musicians of Asia and by publishing record collections of traditional music, under the aegis of UNESCO, he played a major part in the West’s rediscovery of Asian art music. For artists like the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, or the sitarist Ravi Shankar, his work was decisive in having India’s’ classical music recognized not just as folk music . . . but as a great and masterly art on the same level as western music.
As Jean-Louis Gabin points out in his introductory note, “Alain Daniélou and the Musical Renaissance,” Daniélou expressed “with great clarity” throughout his life and work an “ideal of . . . natural influences and reciprocal reinterpretations in the genius of each culture, against the standardizing pace of what is nowadays termed globalization.”
Against this naïve and implicitly hegemonic standardization, Daniélou contrasted the true “diversity” fostered by the Traditionalist attitude of mind, “an active tolerance, one of curious pleasure, of understanding other systems, penetrating their logic, and of learning to appreciate their beauty.” He even goes so far as to use the M-word:
The ancient world was multi-cultural. The contribution of one civilization to another took place, like trade, on an equal level, the Hindus employing Greek craftsmen, the Chinese enjoying Burmese orchestras, and the Mongols influencing Persian art.
Just as his Traditionalist colleague René Guénon railed against the superficial syncretic approach to religion, contrasting it with the true Traditionalist method of unity from above — by one who penetrates a tradition to his core, or heights, and from there is able to note the similarities elsewhere; so Daniélou compared those who, seeing Western music was “dying of sclerosis and intellectualism,” were trying to revitalize it by “’decorative’ borrowings,” to “a child imitating the sounds of a language it does not understand.”
As the Western world continues its — truly barbaric — program of “helping” the world by imposing the 19th-century bourgeois musical form everywhere, Daniélou asks whether
We are the semi-conscious partners of an enterprise to destroy musical languages, which could be — even for ourselves — a future source of enrichment and renewal. Does this mean that, subconsciously and collectively, we do not believe in the future?
The globalizers’ self-congratulatory feeling of being “on the right side of history” masks the truth that these supposed “futurists” are the ones rejecting the task of leaving a world of diversity to their children and rendering the future impotent:
Tradition is inevitably the basis on which innovations can develop. Change, if it results in the loss of tradition, is more often than not a loss rather than a gain.
These are words — reprinted here in Chapter Five — that Daniélou dared to hurl at a congress in Moscow in 1971, when, as Gabin notes, most of the “Western intelligentsia actively protected Soviet ideology [in the name of] creating the ‘radiant future’.” Post-1989, they apply as much or more to today’s neo-con/neo-liberal “intelligentsia.”
For many readers, it may already seem odd that music, a “trivial” area of culture, should provoke such political reflections. But Daniélou goes even further; he reiterates “what Plato, Pythagoras, or the Indian theorists never lose sight of: the fact that music is closely linked to metaphysics,” and that it “reflects and expresses the very processes of revelation.”
Thus, in the first essay here, “The Origin of Sacred Music,” Daniélou plunges the reader right into the heart of metaphysics:
As stated by all the philosophers of antiquity, whether Hindu, Greek, Egyptian or Chinese, it is in non-articulated sound — and the forms of music in particular — that we shall find the most obvious key to symbols and to the means of communication with the supernatural, since sound is the most abstract of our perceptions and musical sound is the most abstract form of sound expression.
It is in music that we can directly perceive numerical ratios . . . Indeed, relationships, harmonies, appear to be the only basic reality of all matter and all appearance. Whether atoms or stellar systems, the formation of crystals or the development of living beings, all can be traced back to the relation of powers that can be expressed by proportional numerical facts. The mechanisms of our perceptions, or of our emotional reactions used to perceive and react to the external world, necessarily follow parallel laws. It is on such base that Hindu philosophers have conclude that matter and thought are identical, the world being a divine dream perceived as a reality, and matter being merely appearance.
Sound structures, in which physical vibration reunites emotional feeling and thought, are thus the most powerful tool for the supernatural world beyond perception to manifest itself and at the same time the means through which mankind can become aware of the supernatural world and be integrated with it.
Music, for the Tradition view Daniélou represents, is — due to its connection to both the nature of reality (vibration) and the corresponding effect on our souls (attunement), is more than a mere aesthetic pleasure: it educates and refines the soul.
Modal music, owing to its structure of intervals established in relation to a fixed tonic, has a deep psycho-physical effect, while mental concentration on the structures of a mode is considered as one of the most efficacious forms of meditation.
What Hindu, Persian, and Greek music accomplishes with modes, the Balinese do with contrapuntal forms, and African cultures through “complex polyrhythmics.” (“Magic and Pop Music”). This has been long forgotten in the modern West, where “for all its sophistication, European polyphony is totally incapable of creating the hypnotic states produced by complicated African rhythms, or the states of mind created by Indian rāgas“ (“Tradition and Innovation in the Various Musical Cultures”) and “a Mozart sonata can have no important or durable effect in curing illness or increasing a cow’s milk yield. Its only value is diversion, amusement.” (“The Magic of Sound”).
Since real music answers to a real human need, it cannot be long suppressed.
Jazz, pop and beat all represent the return of a whole culture towards another scale of values, to participation in an invisible but real world, which the logic of appearances tends to hide from us.
Does this mean Daniélou expects us to abandon “what has been the western conception of art for several centuries in Europe? Not at all.
It was the barbarians that burned the idols. We must consider this art as a historical phenomenon, like an exceptional terminal flowering. The era of Europe’s classico-romantic musical art is now over, and to the extent to which modern experiments seek only new forms and do not look back to the very reason for music’s existence they will remain an appendix of classical art and doomed to failure.
By contrast, the aforementioned “jazz, pop and beat” allow us to “recognize the vital basis that can bring new life to musical art.”
It must be said that Daniélou can be inconsistent, or else driven by his logic or rhetoric to untenable positions. This is not merely a result of this being a collection of originally independent essays, since it can occur within the same piece. For example, in “Tradition and Innovation,” right before that quote about polyphony being “totally incapable,” we read that
No known language is really better than another, or more developed. Each language has its advantages and subtleties. The same applies to music. No system is altogether superior to any other. Each offers possibilities that other others do not possess.
And at the beginning of the essay,
There is no known spoken language that does not show a high degree of development and does not permit communication of the most abstract concepts. When one language replaces another, it is not because the new one is better, but simply because it belongs to a politically more powerful group.
I’m not sure if that’s true. Which is not to say it isn’t profound or important. For example, the next passage reminds me of Heidegger, or Spengler: “Each system has its own goals, linked to a particular philosophy of life, and is irreplaceable as a means of musical expression.” It sounds like Heidegger, but would Heidegger say that every language shows the same level of advancement? I seem to recall some talk about philosophy only being doable in Greek or at least German.
Daniélou is always on the attack against the hegemonic, or at least always ready to defend the little guy, which is admirable, I think, especially in his day, when everyone, including the Indian government, was busy discarding anything perceived as “backward” in the eyes of the “advanced” Westerners. Here, I think he’s carried away by his irenic impulse.
What he really wants to get at here is more akin to Spengler; several great musical traditions, like Spengler’s major cultures, equally developed but also incommensurate. The “negative counterpart” to Spengler’s notion of cultures, according to Evola, was the resultant “embrace of pluralism and historical relativism.” By contrast, Evola emphasized the positive value of seeing, once Spengler disposed of the idea of one, progressing path of history, the basic “essential duality” which lies between Traditional and modern civilizations as a whole.
And this is the essential duality that Daniélou hammers home again and again. For example, in “Modal Music and Harmonic Music,” we hear that “The new musical elements brought by Muslim invaders many centuries ago were successfully assimilated by the ancient Hindu music of Northern India” because they belonged to “a system very akin to Indian music and their assimilation therefore presented no great difficulty.” By contrast, “the rift between [modern] Western and Indian music is . . . a very deep one and to many seems unbridgeable.”
In fact, at times Daniélou seems to lean very far towards the idea that there is no rift so much as an abyss:
Indian music is really a form of magic, in which the repetition of particular sound-relations at a fixed pitch gradually acts upon the hearers and brings them to a degree of emotion quite unknown in any other system. Harmonic music is descriptive and architectural but has no such power. In actual fact, the two arts are so different that it is misleading to call both by the same name.
Contemporary discussions of “paradigms” (Kuhn) and “epistemes” (Foucault) and whatnot have the same problem: at some point the exciting talk about “incommensurable” perspectives leads to the suspicion that if you can’t compare them at all, they really aren’t the same things anyway.
The first half of the collection, divided between The Origins of the Musical Languages and Tradition and Modernity, contain the most readable and immediate essays. The second half, The Sources of the Future, sounds promising but is filled with rather dry accounts of “Comparative Musicology: Principles, Problems, Methods,” “Elements of the Formation of Scales,” “Categories of Intervals or Shruti-Jatis,” and other worthy topics.
“Mantra: Principles of Language and Music,” though, is a return to form, a bravura examination of everything in terms of everything else — that is, metaphysics:
The overlapping triangles, that we call Solomon’s seal, represents the union of opposites, the union of the sexes, as does the cross, whose vertical line is the symbol of fire, the male principle, and whose horizontal line represents water, the female principle. In music, this symbol corresponds to the ratio of G (ratio 3/2) and of F, the female symbol (ratio 2/3).
Well, either you like this kind of stuff or you don’t, and Constant Readers will know that I loves me some symbolic correspondences.
Studying the parallels between the various aspects of the apparent world prepares the way for communication, through the magical power of sound, gesture, and symbol, with the various states of being, with mankind, as well as between mankind, the sprits and the gods. We can go beyond the barriers of the senses and reach, at the bottom of our own selves, that transcendent reality that is the essential and ultimate goal of yoga.
Filling out the book is some very interesting material from other hands. Christian Braut introduces us to the Semantic, an electronic instrument Braut developed — at Daniélou’s initiative — to make available to musicians the 52-note scale Daniélou himself devised as a natural (“based on simple integer ratios of frequencies found in the prime harmonics of most sounds”) alternative to the fatally flawed tempered system. Harry Partch lives!
Jacques Cloarec contributes a “Brief Biography.” There is also a Bibliography — or rather, something called “Alain Daniélou’s Musical and English Bibliography,” divided into Music, In French, About India, and Others — a Discography, and source notes — or “Origin of the Texts Forming this Book.” Though somewhat oddly titled, all are filled with information and neatly laid out in an easy to read format. An Index, though, would also have been appreciated.
Highly recommended for those interested in culture, multiculturalism, and the metaphysical — dare I say, metapolitical — context of both.
1. Guénon, of course, spent his last years in Cairo, but that was more of a retirement. Interestingly, for those who emphasize his embrace of Islam, he had wanted to go to India, but wartime travel restrictions prevent him. He had asked Daniélou to use his diplomatic contacts to persuade the British to give him a visa, but was rebuffed. For more on Daniélou’s life, see his fascinating autobiography, The Way to the Labyrinth: Memories East and West (New Directions, 1987).
2. Just as most White Nationalists imagine themselves not just as racial patriots but as members of the Best Race, I suspect most Traditionalists imagine themselves as sage Brahmins.
3. As well as the followers of Gandhi, who despite his saintly reputation was, in Daniélou’s experience, essentially a Taliban fanatic.
4. “Alain Daniélou. A Brief Biography” by Jacques Cloarec, in the book under review.
5. See my article on classical musicians and Brexit, “‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing . . . Or Else’: Britons Break Bad,” here. Daniélou writes that “The fact that the harmonic phenomenon was accepted as the sole form of musical development and that it was identified with an uncontested notion of “progress’ is psychologically very curious, connected to the whole western domination complex, which tries to find its justification in a faultless dogma. Whatever did not comply with western doctrines on a religious, social, ethical and artistic level could only be barbarous. It consequently became the moral duty of the European missionary, soldier, adventurer or composer to impose progress on peoples who had till then lived in obscurantism, or even to destroy them for their own good.” Chapter Eight, “Harmonic Aggression.”
6. See “Concerning the Traditional Method” in Evola’s The Mystery of the Grail.
7. Conventionally “supernatural,’ although in fact perfectly natural, only obscured and denied by the dominant epistemological paradigms; see Jason Reza Jorjani, Prometheus & Atlas (Arktos, 2016).
8. Among others, of course; see Jorjani, op. cit.
9. “This is because in harmonic music, melody is of necessity very poor, mode is nil, and rhythm is reduced to highly simplified forms, since chords need time to be perceived and therefore do not lend themselves of any rhythmical intricacy.” — “Modal Music and Harmonic Music.” Those readers who doubt this should remember that “Even musicians trained in one system are incapable of understanding the other. They simply do not hear the essential of the music and can grasp only its superficial form.” — “Can Harmony be Introduced in Indian Music?”
10. “Beat” I think is what we call rock or rock ‘n’ roll; oddly enough, the American Beats despised such much as commercial and conformist, preferring jazz, as long as it was of the bop sort, such as Charlie Parker, about whom Kerouac wrote enthusiastically. It seems to have been a popular term in Europe and the UK, hence “The Beatles.” Evola also refers to “beat girls.” While Evola agrees with Daniélou on “beat” as a symptom of the failure of classico-romantic music, he is far less enthusiastic about its effects on White folks, seeing it as purely Negroid. See “Modern Music and Jazz” in Ride the Tiger.
11. The “logic of appearance” is the dead world of fact, of “what is,” the “signs” that the Pharisees looked for, rather than the world of faith that works from the certainty of what is not seen. See, for example, such New Thought authors as Neville Goddard; for example, Feeling is the Secret, edited with an Afterword by myself, Amazon Kindle, 2016.
12. Colin Wilson diagnosed the sterility — and unpopularity — of modern music as stemming from creating new languages without having anything new to say; see his Chords and Discords. I would suggest that Harry Partch would meet that requirement of seeking music’s essence rather than just creating new forms. See “Harry Partch, Wild Boy of American Music,” here and reprinted in The Eldritch Evola … & Others (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2014). Daniélou cites John Cage as an example of the latter, and Partch despised Cage and all other “avant-garde” poseurs.
13. “Magic and Pop Music.”
14. Daniélou’s comparison of the musical simplifications of the tempered system to the plethora of similar sounding consonants in Sanskrit would suggest he would find Sanskrit a more suitable language than either Greek or German.
15. I suspect more North American readers are taken aback when Spengler includes Mesoamerican among his key cultures, for reasons Daniélou articulates: “That part of America which, as good colonialists, we continue to call ‘Latin’, suffered more than any other region from European invasions. Its inhabitants lost even their name, and are called Indians as the result of a geographical mistake by the conquistadors. . . . The whole civilization [has been] despised and degraded by the invaders . . . They have been excluded from the cultural heritage of civilized peoples.” — “Harmonic Aggression.”
16. See The Path of Cinnabar (Arktos, 2009), pp. 203-04.
17. At first thought, descriptive: R. Strauss; architectural: Bruckner.
18. This was brought home to me in discussions of Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method (London: New Left Books, 1975) with Pat Francken at Wayne State University. For an excellent presentation of Feyerabend and Foucault, see Jorjani, op. cit.
19. See his Music and the Power of Sound: The Influence of Tuning and Interval on Consciousness (Inner Traditions,1995).
20. See his Yoga: Mastering the Secrets of Matter and the Universe (Inner Traditions, 1991).
21. See “Harry Partch, Wild Boy of American Music.” Partch himself was content with 40 tones.
22. Reminding me of someone who said that Aristotle’s Categories made as much sense as dividing objects into men, women, horses and rocks. Or, as Daniélou says, the Chinese philosopher who defined the five elements as earth, water, fire, silk and bamboo.