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Considerations in Setting Sacred Text to Music for the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar

by R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram

published in Arts Dialogue
1996
Introduction

Consciously produced art is based on rules: rules that delineate the requirements of genre, form, and technique. In simple terms: the uninspired but competent adherence to such rules produces academicism; the more signatured use of them produces classical or traditional art; the conscious breaking of them (and in doing so the articulating of an alternate rule set) denotes the avant garde.

Naive art is based on the direct interaction of the artist with the materials used to create. The naive artist can achieve banality or greatness, but the way in which this has been done must be articulated by another.

Conscious art is mediated by an understanding of rules that allows for results to be predicted, replicated, and improved. The rules are a tool for the conscious artist: They make it possible to plan products, and to judge them, on a basis other than the purely visceral. When a new set of parameters comes into play, however, existing rules may not meet the needs of this situation.

My aim here is to articulate a set of 'rules' (or principles, guidelines, considerations) that can aid the conscious development of a devotional music for the new situation of the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar. It may be thought that this is too cold an approach for such a spiritually 'hot' zone; but just as a beautiful visual concept for such a building would not suffice unless it grew out of an understanding of both the building's intended functions and basic engineering principles, so the beauty of the music that is heard in the building should derive from an understanding of the principles unique to this context.

In the first part of this discussion, I will consider the relationship of music to the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar as a place and as a gathering of people. In the second, I will discuss more detailed aspects of the selection and setting of texts.

There are three areas of devotional song associated with the Mashriqu'l- Adhkar: sacred text, hymns, and dhikr. In this discussion, I will concentrate on sacred text. The technical examples will be primarily limited to Western music and English text. This is for simplicity of presentation in a relatively brief discussion. The principles adduced, however, are intended to be applicable across cultural and linguistic boundaries.

Part One

The Mashriqu'l-Adhkar is as much an activity as a place. The sincere devotional activity of an individual or group performed anywhere is a Mashriqu'l-Adhkar; yet this activity reaches its utmost potentiality when carried out in a specifically built and dedicated "Centre of Worship." The activity and place together are endowed with great social potential:

The wisdom in raising up such buildings is that at a given hour, the people should know it is time to meet, and all should gather together, and harmoniously attuned one to another, engage in prayer; with the result that out of this coming together, unity and affection shall grow and flourish in the human heart. ('Abdu'l-Bahá 1)

These spiritual gatherings must be held with the utmost purity and consecration, so that from the site itself, and its earth and the air about it, one will inhale the fragrant breathings of the Holy Spirit. ('Abdu'l- Bahá 2)

The active Mashriqu'l-Adhkar is the community's spiritual hub and its satisfactory functioning is consequential for the broader life of the community and its expansion. The basic consideration in the setting of sacred text for Mashriqu'l-Adhkar use is what is the function of such a means of rendering text in this place in contributing to achieving the purposes of the institution?

A letter written on behalf of the Guardian in 1931 states about the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar:

It should be different from other houses of worship, where, even if they are filled, their source of attraction is the music heard. Here the spirit should be so powerful as to awaken the heart of every one that enters to the glory of Bahá'u'lláh and to the importance of the message of peace He has brought to the world. (3)

Yet, a letter written on the Guardian's behalf to Louise Waite about her hymns states:

It is the music which assists us to affect the human spirit; it is an important means which helps us to communicate with the soul. The Guardian hopes that through this assistance you will give the Message to the people, and will attract their hearts. (4)

At first sight there seems to be some conflict between these two statements: Music should not be the factor that attracts people to the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar; but it is music that assists us to attract their hearts. This discrepancy seems especially strange as there are so many statements by both 'Abdu'l Bahá and Shoghi Effendi on the importance of music in Bahá'í devotional life. In order to understand the apparent discrepancy, we need to know something of the concepts of music and its religious use in the cultures that formed the background to the writings of the faith.

In Islamic cultures, the religious use of music and music as such are seen as totally different. However much a kind of music it may seem to Western ears, the chanting of the Qur'an and prayers, and other devotional practices are not considered to be 'music' in Islam. They are conceptualised as essentially different from secular song and identified by different terms. This is true even when there may be little actual difference in the sound of the two. To be sure, the lengths to which religious 'non-music' may go before seeming to be unholy secular 'music' vary from region to region and sect to sect, but nowhere would the central devotional practices of reading the Qur'an and prayers be considered 'music'. The text used and the context of use make it something else.

Islamic cultures draw a sharp distinction between 'music', which is seen as probably bad and morally corrupting, and what Westerners would consider the religious use of music which is seen as good but not music. In the various cultures in which Bahá'u'lláh resided throughout his life to 'read' scripture was, in Western terms, to sing the text and it was taken for granted that on most occasions devotional 'reading' involved singing.

The distinctive feature of the Bahá'í writings on music is that they preserve the special character of musical devotion in a Mashriqu'l-Adhkar, or other devotional context, as something apart, while also exhorting that 'music' music should aim to achieve the same ends as this exclusively religious use. Thus, just as work done in the right spirit may be worship, so all music should be religious in intent.

The words translated as "read", "recite", or "chant" in the Bahá'í writings are usually "tilawat" (the term used in the Qur'an) or "tartil" and these imply what Westerners would consider a musical or sung rendering of the text, that is a form of heightened vocalisation characterised by more formally organised pitch and rhythm patterns than occur in common speech. Such 'reading' of the Qur'an is referred to technically as cantillation. Although the actual sound of Qur'anic cantillation can vary greatly from region to region and style to style, the basic requirements are that it observe the sound values of the words themselves and that it enhance the accessibility of the text. One way in which this is done is to use a moderate pace, with sufficient pauses at appropriate places. A significant phrase may even be repeated to assist consideration of its meaning. As a devotional act by the reader it involves more of ones being than would internal silent reading; and for both reader and listener it encourages contemplation of the text as both meaningful statements and an aesthetic experience.

The famous passage in the Kitab-i-Aqdas -- "We have made music a ladder by which souls may ascend to the realm on high. Change it not into wings for self and passion." -- refers to secular 'music' music and extends the spiritual potential of devotions to all music.

However, the problem with bringing the Western concept of music into association with sacred text is that this concept implies adherence to a set of rules that are concerned with abstract sound structures. The aspects of pitch and rhythm may essentially be addressed in the same way irrespective of whether one is composing for voice or instrument. Indeed, it goes further than this in that there is a bias built into the system in favour of the acoustical attributes of instruments.

Obviously, in a context such as the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar where only voices are used the relevance of much of a system built on the use of instruments is questionable. Thus, in the most basic sense in which Western music exists as a system of aesthetic concepts and rules, there is indeed no 'music' in the Mashriqu'l-Ï Adhkar. Western music is essentially melogenic: its products derive from a concern with patterns of sound. Mashriqu'l-Adhkar music should be essentially logogenic: its products should be derived from a concern with texts.

In Mashriqu'l-Adhkar devotions, music does have an important position but in the service of text. Indeed, it may be convincingly argued that the musical (in the Western sense) rendition of sacred text is the normative and optimal form of 'reading'. Putting it another way, drawing a distinction between 'readings' and 'music' in the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar is a false distinction derived from Western culture. In terms of the writings there is no 'music' in the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar; there are only different ways of 'reading'.

So, when it is stated in the Guardian's letter that the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar "should be different from other houses of worship, where ... their source of attraction is the music heard", this expresses an expectation that the singing in the Mashriqu'l-Ï Adhkar will attract on the basis of its making the words of the sacred text heard there more penetrating and affective to the soul, rather than attracting on the basis of the abstract sound structure of the singing itself as a purely sensual experience.

The music in the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar is to harness sensual means to assist understanding of text. If a music provides a comprehensible vehicle for the sacred text and attracts the heart of at least its singer it is probably acceptable music. If a music does not provide a comprehensible vehicle for text it is not suitable no matter how many people find it beautiful or moving. The primary function of Mashriqu'l-Adhkar music is to make the text more accessible than if it were spoken.

Let me restate some of the functional requirements which should be met by devotional music for the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar as we may derive them from the writings: - Such musics should enhance the text. - They should increase the clarity and vibrancy of the creative word. - They should be spiritually refreshing and quickening: lightening the heart, enrapturing the soul, and filling the hearer with joy. They should attract the hearts of humanity to God.

In short, the writings require that musics composed for, and selected for, use in the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar aim at certain affective qualities while clearly delivering the sacred text. These requirements are not tied to any particular style of music belonging to any particular culture, and may be applied in any culture. They do make very specific demands, but demands referring to goals rather than means.

But, whose hearts most specifically are these musics to attract ? The earliest extended discussion by Shoghi Effendi of the purpose of the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar includes these statements:

...the central House of Bahá'í worship, enshrined within the Mashriqu'l- Adhkar, will gather within its chastened walls, in a serenely spiritual atmosphere, only those who, discarding forever the trapping of elaborate and ostentatious ceremony, are willing worshippers of the one true God, as manifested in this age in the Person of Bahá'u'lláh. .... And thus having recognized in Bahá'u'lláh the source whence this celestial light [of Guidance to mankind] proceeds, they will feel attracted to seek the shelter of His House, and congregate therein. (5)

The devotional activity of the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar is oriented primarily toward Bahá'ís. Devotional music in the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar must first be meaningful to the Bahá'í community. It must contain the devotion to the faith and understanding of the faith of the composer and the singers and stir the spirit of devotion in those Bahá'ís who hear it. Such musics must attract the Bahá'ís to the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar on the basis of an understanding of its spiritual function in the life of the individual and the community, before the spirit can be generated to attract others to the faith through such devotional services.

Mashriqu'l-Adhkar devotions are not a deepening or a public meeting. They are an occasion for communion of the individual with God and the Manifestation of God, and for the growth of a community of devotion among the believers in that Manifestation. In Mashriqu'l-Adhkar devotions we reach that pinnacle where God and Bahá'u'lláh, each Bahá'í and the community should spiritually meet. The true Mashriqu'l-Adhkar devotional practice, as it is held out as an ideal in the writings, embodies both the most exalted and the most practical conception of worship. To commune with God, and to use the spiritual energy imbibed in that communion for the good of humanity.

In developing devotional music for the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar, however, we are not attempting a once and for all creation, but rather to initiate and perpetuate a process that will result in ever richer devotional expression. To attune the hearts of humanity to the melodies of God through the melody of humans addressed to God is one, not insignificant, link in the chain that binds us to the future.

Notes

1. Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá. pp.94-5
2. Bahá'í Meetings / The Nineteen-Day Feast. Tablet of 'Abdu'l-Bahá to an individual. p.7)
3. Bahá'í News 55 p.4
4. On behalf of Shoghi Effendi to Louise Waite, 15 November 1932; Bahá'í News 71 p.2, February 1933
5. Shoghi Effendi To NSA of USA & Canada 25 October 1929; The Bahá'í World IV p.214

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