The Son supports, supports.
Lesson II - The Long-tone Exercise
Unfortunately, we have inherited certain prejudices from ancient philosophers who were neither Christian nor musicians. No object created by God, including sound, can be evil. Evil manifests itself only in the form of sin which is human pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust. Without these, Satan is powerless. In this monastic retreat, we strive fervently to free ourselves from these forces while we gladly indulge in seeking God through the signs which he has revealed to us in his creation. If, while we are on this path, Satan finds ways to tempt us to sin, we must find how and why the temptation occurred and modify the path accordingly. You will find, however, that the sounds that we find spiritually uplifting naturally have little relation to that music which has become associated with drinking and debauchery. We, in fact, find the mindless musical revelries of the vulgar quite boring, while we become greatly excited about what they would find rather unpleasant.
This leads me to that wonderful exercise, known by all practicing musicians, from jongleurs to troubadours, as the "Long-tone Exercise." A common jongleur will go through the motions of practicing this exercise only because, if he does not, no one could stand to listen to him play. Certainly no one would pay him. We, on the other hand, find what is so tedious to him perfectly sublime, second only to just listening in silence, for putting our minds and hearts in a spiritual ecstasy that could give the impression to the unfaithful that we are quite mad. And so we are: MAD FOR GOD.1 The Long-tone Exercise reveals to us the heavenly worlds that exist in every minuscule part of his creation. It perfectly demonstrates to us how God's universe folds in on itself in perfect harmony. The root of the word harmony is, by the way, ar, which means fits together.2 How can we pretend to have any understanding of God's harmony without learning to appreciate the harmony in each and every one of his sounds?
The Long-tone Exercise may be done on a musical instrument that can sustain a sound or the human voice. However, one may find that this exercise is much more difficult for the voice for its lack of physical endurance and its lack of resistance to the air-flow, causing the exercise to have a shorter duration. There are those who warn against the playing of musical instruments because striving to acquire skill on the instrument may cause one to abandon reason and become a slave to the instrument.3 We, on the other hand, make use of musical instruments to help us gain access to higher spiritual realms. If we have become slaves for that purpose then LET IT BE SO! I will describe this process with the aid of this happy looking diagram:
One begins by taking three seconds to exhale all of one's breath, then immediately taking three full seconds to take a very deep breath. This is done in a spirit of reverence for thou hast come into the presence of the Lord thy God. With the exhalation goes all of one's past sins, and on the intake of breath, one breathes in the Holy Spirit as one newly baptized. Then, one begins blowing on the instrument (or intoning vocally) as quietly as one can, keeping the breath always focused and controlled, then gradually increasing the pressure from the diaphragm until the sound is as loud as it can be without losing control of it. At that point one returns to the quiet sound in the same gradual way that one has approached the loudness. The exercise is then repeated without a break, beginning again by exhaling any leftover air from the previous tone. Each sound is then created in a purer and purer spirit for each exhalation is our confession, repentance, and penance while the sound is the expression or our joy in God's grace which climaxes in the middle but then diminishes upon the realization that such ecstasy cannot be maintained due to our weakness. The exercise must be done for the length of one full breath, each intoning being slightly longer than the one preceding it.
As one practices, one can discriminate between two basic types of sound. They are described in many ways: tone/noise, ring/clatter, fundamental/harmonics and partials. The latter words describe the phenomenon more accurately and technically. The fundamental is what allows us to determine the pitch, whereas the balance of harmonics and partials gives the sound its timbre, or quality of sound. The timbre is what enables us to determine what instrument is playing without our seeing it. While you practice, you should notice that, as the sound increases in volume and intensity, the harmonics will increase in volume disproportionately to that of the fundamental. Some new harmonics may even enter the sound. This makes the instrument sound "brighter." A "darker" or "fuzzier" sound contains less audible harmonics. This brightness or darkness adds to our ability to discriminate whether an instrument is playing loudly or softly even though it may be close or far away.
After many days of this practice, you will more easily hear the harmonics individually. The first harmonic is the easiest to hear. It is the octave which has a ratio of 2:1 to the fundamental. The second harmonic, which is the next easiest to hear, is a twelfth from the fundamental and a fifth (the ratio of 3:2) to the first harmonic.4 The perception of consonance and dissonance is relative to lower and higher harmonics, respectively. St. Olivier Messiaen, the venerable father of the Abbey at Darmstadt, has an amazing ear for these harmonics and develops extended harmonies reflecting his expansive perception.5
When interpreting this on a spiritual level, those with untrained ears will say that it is the fundamental which represents the goal of the soul which longs to attain union with God. However, if this were so, one would infer that union with God is attained by sloth because even the most untrained and impure can hear the fundamental, whereas only those who have undergone rigorous discipline would be even able to fall from God. This is absurd, for only a saint like Messiaen can advance his perception to such heights as to be able to hear every tone as a part of that infinite series of harmonics reaching upwards to what is truly unattainable simply because it is infinite. In this light, one may see that what may seem dissonant to the vulgar is sublime to the saint. Only a saint who is mad for God is so situated that he cannot fail to see God's infinite hierarchies in all things. Anyone who will take the time to read the intricate symbolic code in St. Messiaen's work may begin to understand the intricacies of God's great code in his magnus opus, the universe. Even St. Messiaen's ingenious students (Brother Karlheinz Stockhausen, Brother Pierre Boulez, and Brother Luciano Berio) can only approximate the thoroughness of his symbolism. However, this humble saint declares that he can only approximate the beauty God has instilled in His work. St. Messiaen often says that birds are the greatest musicians on the planet. Birds, like angels, are truly messengers of God. St. Messiaen has cataloged thousands of his transcriptions of bird songs, seeing each beautifully fitting into the symbolism of the church, and yet, his ear and heart are trained well enough that he fully admits that bird song is not transcribable.6 The Order of Euphonius Monks tries to make up for this deficiency in notation by transcribing God's sounds in our hearts and appreciating the fullness of sound that God has given us in our bodies, our instruments, and our souls. May we praise him forever and ever. Amen.
Rule for the Day: Practice the Long-tone Exercise for four hours on a bowed or blown instrument, and for two hours with the voice. Spend the rest of the day in silence.
1 See story of Jada Bharata; Srimad Bhagavatam.
2 Taruskin, Richard and Piero Weiss; Music in the Western World; A History in Documents; 1984.
3 Boethius; The Principles of Music.
4 Nicomachus; Enchiridion Harmonics.
5 Johnson, Robert Sherlaw; Messiaen; 1975.