deutsche Version
Festival of Sacred Music
Encounters – Concerts – Conversations
The Soul of the World
Encounters with Sacred Music
Festival of Sacred Music
Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Jewish culture, Sufism, communication, mysticism, ritual, trance
The Art of Religious Experience
Sacred Music as immediacy and transcendency
Sources of Buddhist Knowledge
Music, Religion, Rites and Mysticism in Traditional Cultures of Iran I
Music, Religion, Rites and Mysticism in Traditional Cultures of Iran II

Today’s new communication techniques and satellite images could easily lead us to imagine that we are all subject to one single ‘image’, dominated by a world-wide monoculture, but the reality is different. Certainly, there is no doubting the dissemination of a particular cultural form – the McWorldview – into the most far-flung corners of the planet, yet this has not altered in the slightest the richness of cultures and ways of life our earth offers. Once we penetrate behind the flickering media images, we discover these riches both in the East and the West and although the moods of history may have decreed they are differently active, hidden or marginalized, nonetheless they exist, weaving their invisible threads across all borders between religious traditions, creating what one might call ‘The Soul of the World’.

The importance of sacred music lies precisely in the experience of this resonance. The tonality and tonal colours are at once unique and universal, embodying the most important thing today’s world can learn from a heritage, seemingly so far away, yet still so vital: the message of unity in diversity. This is not something we need to establish as a tenet of faith since anyone can really experience it who is a part of a country, a culture and a tradition and, because they are receptive to their own genius loci, are able to pick up those invisible threads.

It’s the ability to travel – and we can actually criss-cross the globe without having travelled anywhere – which allows us to encounter sacred music while remaining in one and the same place. In the few days here, we have the chance to persuade ourselves of the enormous riches in the spiritual tradition the world over and appreciate how sacred music unfolds inside us like light breaking through a prism. It is a music aimed at awakening a tremendously powerful feeling, though one often forgotten, a feeling for beauty, love and compassion; and without the spiritedness of this feeling, no world can exist.

An encounter with sacred music protects us from the pitfalls in language: there is nothing to prove and no-one to convince. It is simply an invitation to take the best way to understand another culture, to get to know it, to listen and discover, and to grasp its secret inner melody – and experience how this melody is repeated on all levels of life, at home in the simplest elements of everyday life, lending it meaning. It is there shaping human relationships and the search for knowledge and wisdom. Any culture which lost this inner dimension would wither and die, bereft of any meaning: Perhaps it might still be a consumer object or an ideological weapon, but it would never serve as a companion for a person on the road of life.

And now, the task must be to bestow such an inner meaning and a world soul on what we call globalisation, if it is ever to tread any of the paths of wisdom.

But what do we understand concretely by the term “sacred music”?

Music, or at least chants and song, is a part of the western religious tradition, serving as a medium of ritual or invocation yet simultaneously developing itself further. In this context, “tradition” as a term is especially important, not only because it underlines the historical character found in each culture of sacred music as the transmission from generation to generation, but also because it emphasises the collective or
shared form of transmission through communion.

This communion takes place between the musician and his audience, and even more so between the divine or transcendental dimension of music and the human sense of hearing. The musician, just as much as the music too, becomes nothing more than a medium flooded with divine inspiration where the musical language is the interpreter of an indefinable spiritual content existing beyond the physical sounds. The force and beauty in a particular form of sacred music finds expression to the extent that it is able to transport this universal divine meaning.

Each sacred music, in its different modalities and local colours, presents its own face of this universality. In this way, a festival of the world’s sacred music becomes a setting for a meeting which would otherwise hardly be conceivable, let alone actually possible.

But one could ask why traditional music (in the sense of the Latin ‘tradere’), music “transmitted” from one generation to another, never becomes monotonous? Since sacred music is a particular form of inspiration, we need to define precisely the meaning of the word ‘tradition’ within a religious context. It is never an end in itself but always a medium for divine inspiration, expressing, for example, what the Sufis term “Häl” (an inner state) or in India is referred to as “Rasâ”. Sacred music is the music of invocation, sometimes generating an ecstasy in which the performing musicians can loose themselves completely; in this case, he (or she) is possessed by that “Häl” which first imparts life, manifold meanings, and unique truth to this moment of music.

Even if musical performance could theoretically be identical, each moment of music would actually be
unique. This certainly applies to ritual or liturgical music where, through the regular repetition of an invocative moment, the uniformity itself generates an opening to the divine, for example, similarly to the musical tradition in Tibetan Buddhism. This is even more applicable to other musical forms like the Indian “Raga” or the Arabian “Maqamat”, both of which give a significant role to improvisation and, in this way, to variation. In this context, the Sufis speak of connecting the dimension of rigorousness (“majesty”) with that of divine inspiration (“beauty”). During the moments of pure improvisation, the structures are so fine and beauty as a divine attribute so vividly present that a complete and unlimited communion can take place. It is a moment where the spirit becomes freed from its normal bounds, just like the bird freed from its cage.
It must have been a similar instance of devotion or ecstatic trance which enabled Pythagoras and his students to reach a state where they could perceive the normally inaudible music of the spheres and develop a notion of the harmony of the worlds (in the literal sense of the word). This Pythagorean thought was then adopted by the Ikhwân as Safâ (“Brothers of Purity”), an Ishmaelite movement in the 10th century AD, as the basis for the symbolic choreography used by the “whirling dervishes”, where the dancers spin like heavenly bodies, twirling around, yet simultaneously all moving around a fixed central point.

The notion that sacred music is (and intends to be) nothing else than an echo of a divine music is anchored in many different traditions. In the 4th century AD, Johannes Chrysostomus wrote: “Our singing is only an echo and imitation of the voices of angels. Music was created in heaven. Around and above me, the angels are singing (...) the singer receives their inspiration from above.”

The prophet David is another model for divine song in the Bible and Koran. His Songs of Praise are recorded in holy scripture as reaching a deep level of resonance with the spiritual in Nature. Holy song and holy music ought to address that inner perception letting us discover a profound oneness with the cosmos and grasp the secret of the unity of its being. In the songs of the “Hidâ”, the desert Bedouin achieved this insight, even influencing the stride of the lead camel in the caravans by the slower or faster rhythms of their singing.

The tradition of divine song and music operates on a variety of levels, making it possible for everyone to achieve an insight into themselves, as subtle as it is profound. The music is woven around the history of humankind, in the hues of their different cultures, encouraging us to start our own search and fire our striving for transcendence; it makes communion possible by a feeling we all share, experienced by each of us individually, yet at the same time so universal that no other culture is excluded. It allows us to receive the resonance of the secret soul of the cosmos.

It is for this reason that Al Kindi, the Arabian neo-Platonist philosopher and musicologist, added a fifth string to the traditional four-stringed lute – in addition to one string for the four elements, he argued, there should be an extra string for the soul. Sacred music in the Semitic tradition is considered as a recollection or memory of this soul: the colours of the voice, the sounds of the lute or flute recall the soul’s memory of its primordial state and awaken its longing for freedom. The myth of this return (in the original sense of “mystery”) is also what provides the secret power of Spirituals und Gospel songs, as they express both the pain of separation and the anticipated joy of experiencing a freedom regained.

And, finally, sacred songs and music awaken the fire of the heart and collect the holy nectar of divine love there. They move us to tears or to outbursts of joy (‘enthusiasm’ in ancient Greek means ‘God is in us’), awakening in our soul that feeling expressed in the “Songs of Solomon” in the Bible: a mystical desire for unity between the loving and the loved.

Author: Faouzi Skali, „Fes Festival des musiques sacrées du monde“ Marokko