October 2001 Editorial
Living in Rhythm

As I said in the introduction to this magazine, the world is in shock. I can’t for the life of me imagine the horror of experiencing the holocaust in the streets of lower Manhattan. 24,000 gallons of jet fuel burned at over 800°C in each of the two 110-story buildings of the World Trade Center, melting them from within. What remains are two vacant lots. When my brother-in-law on the West Coast began to tell his daughter about the events that were happening—before she was to go to school that morning—she interrupted him and asked, “Are we going to die?” What sort of onus is that to live under? Is America now to adopt the practices and mentalities of other strife-ridden countries by having armed guards on every street corner, in every market, and within our places of worship? How do we explain this behavior to our young children? How do we grasp for a glimmer of hope in the cloudy future? Sometimes I don’t envy the future of my son, and that of his children-to-be, and onward. The world has changed forever and we had better start doing something about it—fast. I don’t have the answers, but we definitely have to start at home with how we raise our children, teach them, nourish and love them—instead of sweeping them under the collective rug of day care centers, bad nutrition, broken marriages, poor schools, gangs, mental and physical abuse, and prisons. How can a teenager possibly reach the end of that path and have a modicum of sensibility about morals, integrity, self assurance, and a belief in anything good?

Allow me to propose a small beginning. It has to do with rhythm. Humanity’s rhythm is all out of whack. And we have messed up the rhythm of our own planet. All life has rhythm, from the revolving galaxies to the tiniest of atoms. The seasons, the tides, the cycle of day and night, light waves, sound: all elements of nature have in common the pulse of life. Our first experience of rhythm is our mother’s heartbeat heard from within the womb. We humans are walking rhythm machines, our own hearts being the core of our pulse. The blood rushing through our veins and the way we breathe and walk remind us of our rhythmic connection to the heavens and all things living. To stop the rhythm would be to stop life itself.

Look at the dying coral beds of the Great Barrier Reef, the barren and scarred land of the once-majestic Brazilian rain forests, the melting and diminishing ice caps. The rhythm for much of the world has either been altered or stopped, and look at the results. All the planet needs is its rhythm back—who could ask for anything more?

In music, rhythm is the key element, for without it a melody would go nowhere. It is the distance from one note to another, a forward progression in time. Life is also a continuing, forward progression in time. In order to heal a cancer, a broken bone, a depression, or even a headache, one must move forward, living a life that is mentally, physically, and spiritually creative, stimulating, and nurturing. To “heal thyself” is to move forward, not stagnate in the past.

The eighteenth-century philosopher Novalis said that “every illness is a musical problem. Sickness is thus a matter of being out-of-tune with both oneself and the world, and healing, a question of making whole.” We must be aware of and in-tune with the life-giving rhythms and pulses around us. Many times we ignore our own natural biorhythms and get out-of-sync with them, causing disharmony and distress. We can become dislocated from our spirituality, not letting the rhythm of the Cosmos influence our daily lives. We become disconnected in the clash of our many faiths.

In nature, “entrainment” occurs when two bodies that are in close proximity and are vibrating at nearly the same rate eventually lock-in to the same frequency and vibrate perfectly in tune. It is more efficient to vibrate in unison than in opposition. In dealing with people it is ultimately far easier and more productive to relinquish our oppositions and work together. There is certainly no “music” in the discord of the Middle East, or in the conflicts between North and South Korea; no harmony exists in Tibet, Iraq, Afghanistan; and sadly enough, on its own doorstep, White America cannot be in-tune with anyone of another color.

I own and play many percussion instruments from around the world which, among other things, help to remind me of and keep me in touch with the global community. I am acutely aware of the different world cultures of each drum, and I play each with deep respect for its peoples and their history. Tablas from India, a djembe from Ghana, Turkish gongs, multicultural frame drums, Vietnamese temple blocks, dumbeks from Morocco and Afghanistan, and a Chinese temple drum—each speaks to me in its individual way. As I play, the rhythmic undercurrent reinforces and augments my awareness of the omnipresent, life-sustaining rhythms that are around me. I can feel the pulse and spirit of life within me at home, at work, and while asleep. That energy is there for all peoples of the world to lock-in to, to entrain with, and to be in-tune with. It opens the door for one to be in-sync with the energy within oneself, allowing it to flow out to others.

Yes, music can be a wonderful healing medium, and frequencies are the building blocks. I have two low “F2” gongs which, vibrating at about 86 cycles per second, are in themselves amazing instruments of healing. “F” corresponds to the root chakra in Chinese medicine. After a long, hard day at work I will go to the gong and stand before it with my eyes closed. Though I do not have perfect pitch, I can actually hear the “F” before striking the gong. The “voice” of the gong is in the air, and I can pick it out and sing it before striking. The “F” is a grounding tone. It cleanses the body and mind of all the negativity of the day. Once I do strike the gong, its warm and embracing tone permeates my entire being. I can almost feel every stressed-out and fragmented cell in my tired body begin to line up and work together again. The experience is a sonic bath.

Music also has the power to incite. When I was a teenager in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I went to a dance at the Masonic Lodge. The band was loud and the crowd, angry. At one point a fight erupted next to the stage, and one musician savagely tried to hit people on the head by swinging his solid-body guitar at the lunging mass. That experience summed up the entire state-of-mind of kids at the time. Albuquerque was in a very bad way in 1967-68, as was the rest of the country. I am convinced that had my sister and I continued on in Albuquerque, one of us would be dead. I was constantly harassed, and many times narrowly escaped severe beatings. My sister still had her real growing up to do, and she could have hooked up with a very bad element. I am thankful that my family relocated to the Northwest.

When we first moved I was astounded that I did not get beat up at my new school—that people in the halls actually smiled and said “Hi.” My school in New Mexico I regarded as a death camp. It was at the time of the SDS, the infamous Democratic Convention in Chicago, and the “don’t trust anyone over thirty” mentality. The Beach Boys had irrevocably dazzled the minds of teenagers with California visions of blondes, beaches, and surfboards, making life even harder for kids stuck in the middle of an arid state, surrounded by miles of dusty mesas haunted by the ghosts of the long-extinct Anasazi. There seemed to be nothing to do but rumble. I saw serious, hospital-case fights almost every day, which continued on into the dance halls and clubs. Aggressive rock’n’roll only served to fuel pent-up tempers and whip the kids into fighting frenzies.

Years later, when my son was in high school, I dropped him off in Hollywood so that he could see a concert at the Palladium. It was one of those no-seats, stand-or-dance-in-front-of-the-stage events. When I picked him up, the jacket I had loaned him was torn at the shoulder. He had been a participating victim of the infamous “mosh pit.” It even sounds scary: a packed room, dance hall, or auditorium full of kids, and a frenzied band. In the middle of this human crush is an open circle about ten feet across, which only the daring enter. Once inside, it becomes a combative, slam-dance, free-for-all. Kicks and punches are par for the course. My son had been bodily picked up and passed horizontally over the sea of heads before crashing to the floor. 1960’s Albuquerque still exists in different form and expression: it is alive and well in the angry mosh pits of our youth today.

I have been a part of the collective mass of energy that music can embody. While I love good ole rock’n’roll, I also know that some of it can speak right to the gut and fuel all kinds of imbalances and disturbances, creating a false sense of heightened importance and omnipotence. Add drugs to a helter-skelter, Mansonesque frenzy and the combination can be quite formidable. The postures and costumes of many rock groups leave no room for interpretation; they speak for themselves. The same mentalities that throw televisions out of twentieth-floor hotel windows and trash their luxury suites because room service didn’t provide red jellybeans exist on the dance floors as well, and they react to what they hear. Those attitudes are in the music, and the messages are loud and clear.

During the terrible years of slavery in America, slaves were prohibited to dance or play drums. Slave owners thought that any sort of drumming would communicate secret messages to organize and incite a revolt. They knew of the power of rhythm and feared it greatly. For a rude awakening, read some of the lyrics to a lot of rap music. They advocate rape, theft, destruction, and murder, and the authors and performers of such make a fortune. Maybe rap is the sounds of the finally-unsilenced drums of the slaves. The slave owners were afraid for a good reason: they knew what they had done. They were well-aware of their crimes against humanity. But the drums couldn’t be silenced forever. The revolution is here.

A French scientist who became interested in the connection between frequencies and sound discovered that a molecule can be broken down into a chain of amino acids, each possessing its own frequency, which is a vibration measured in cycles per second. In music, the “A” above middle “C” resonates at 440 cycles per second, therefore any molecule can be translated into musical terms. The scientist analyzed the frequencies of the amino acid chain for the molecule “prolactin,” a milk-inducing hormone, and notated the resulting melodic pattern. The melody was then played to a group of cows for eleven minutes every hour for a week. The cows then began to produce the largest quantity of milk anyone had ever seen, and it was by far the sweetest—yielding the most flavorful cheese anyone had ever tasted.

Imagine the good that can come of this. The healing powers of music, written with the proper “amino acid/melodic relationships,” could be wildly phenomenal. But, consider the potential for evil. In the 1930’s the famous Argentinean tango composer, Carlos Gardèl, composed a tango with a haunting melody which had a very strange effect on people. Many who heard it became severely depressed. There was a documented case of someone who jumped out of a window to his death. The French scientist analyzed the melody and, reversing the process, determined what chain of amino acids would be created by the melodic frequencies. The result was a drug that is a known major depressant.

How was Gardèl to know? Imagine the power of music—its powers to soothe, seduce, and heal. But with knowledge of molecular structures and their frequency relationships one could conceivably create melodies designed to kill. As of this writing, the French government has confiscated all of the scientist’s research and has prohibited any further work on his part to this end.

Can the same be said for a rhythm? Is there a particular tempo or a groove that has healing effects? My average natural pulse is about 80 beats per minute, a little faster than one per second. Would music played at that tempo be beneficial for me? There are certain tempos that are universally “comfortable,” and for whatever reason, they seem to be very natural to play in. Others, which are faster or more frenetic, can cause an adrenaline rush, agitation, or excitement. Is the tempo of our mother’s heartbeat the most soothing? Would we do best to conduct our lives at such a pace?

Imagine a rhythm started by one person playing a conga drum at the pace of an average heartbeat. A neighbor hears the rhythm and joins in, perhaps playing a tambourine. Another plays along on a tom-tom. Someone else down the street adds to the rhythm with hand claps. Soon, the entire block is involved in a rhythmic jam session, pulsing out a groove for the rest of the neighborhood to hear. Others join in, and the beat travels to outlying areas. Entire communities become united in one collective rhythm. Like “Hands Across America” the country is soon linked coast-to-coast with a national heartbeat. It spreads across both borders into Mexico and Canada. Via telephone lines and satellite the beat travels overseas to Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia. The earth pulses with a unifying world beat. Every country is of one people, vibrating at the same frequency. Global entrainment. Imagine the possibilities. Imagine the potential.


©2001 Stuart Vail