Dialogue Through Music

Thu, 21 Nov 2013 14:45 | {ga=omer-f-sener&t} in Articles
Omer Sener

In my secondary school years I was part of the school choir, practicing the whole year for a performance at the end of the year as part of the graduation ceremony. We would sing pieces ranging from Turkish folk songs to songs from the Beatles, and we would practice incessantly during school hours and at home. When the time came for the big day, my friends and I were ecstatic. We were going to perform in front of a crowd for the first time, a group of people including our headmaster. The dining hall was prepared with great care for the event. I recall making my way to the school dining hall for the event with great trepidation...

‘Music is the nutrition of the soul,’ says a Turkish proverb. This was not just a saying, but something that was practiced and studied, which can be observed in the historical examples of music being used to heal psychological illnesses in Anatolia, particularly during the Seljuk era. Music is, in addition to its healing powers is also a means for dialogue as it can help to connect people and communities. Often we listen to music even if we do not understand the lyrics; there is a soothing effect in classical pieces whose language may not be familiar to us. It can be said that music has its own language and syntax, and its universality stems from this reality, that music can appeal to a huge variety of people regardless of its language and culturally specific aspects.

Hence, the dialogic function of music becomes apparent: when we listen to a particular soundtrack or a concerto, we enter into a dialogue with the universal and culturally specific aspects of this particular art form, and enter into the realm of a different culture, language, and civilisation, through the lens of music. Through music, we learn to appreciate different cultures and their specific musical styles and tastes, even learning to appreciate and understand our own musical traditions better.

This year I had the privilege of being asked by Prof. June Boyce-Tillman to participate in a musical event, to sing as part of a chorus as well as individually, to explore the possibilities of ‘peace through music’. The event called ‘Space for Peace’ was truly dialogic, with each faith, culture and civilisation showcasing its own musical tradition through a brief song, hymn, or incantation. When I was offered to partake in this event, I had to think of what to sing. I finally chose to sing a Sufi hymn called ‘I Asked the Yellow Daisy’, by the Anatolian Sufi dervish Yunus Emre. The hymn itself consisted of a dialogue between a wandering dervish and a yellow daisy, a metaphysical dialogue that resonated with me since my childhood:

I asked the yellow daisy
Do you have a mother and a father?

The flower said: well, Dervish father
My mother and father are the earth!

****

I asked the yellow daisy
Do you have siblings?

The flower said: well, Dervish father
My siblings are my leaves!

****

I asked the yellow daisy
Why is your head always bowed?
The flower said: well, Dervish father,
Because my heart is in constant remembrance
Of God, the Beloved.

Before the event, I had to translate the hymn into English to read it to the audience, as I was going to sing in the original Turkish. But out of sheer excitement, I forgot to give the translation after my performance. And yet, I was approached by many from the audience after the event, who came to say they felt connected to it, how they very much enjoyed it and particularly liked the melody, one of them even saying, “yours was my favourite.” I had not provided them with the meaning, and yet this was the general response. This proved to me my general impression that music is a form of dialogue with its own universal language that is understood and felt by everyone, regardless of ethnicity, culture or background.

As to my experience in taking part in a choir back in my secondary school years, when I tried to step inside the dining hall, an attendant stopped me and asked what I was doing. I was taken aback by the question. I simply answered by saying that I was part of the choir. The attendant didn’t seem to believe me. As I tried to convince the attendant to let me through my friends went on stage and began to sing the first piece. I could see that there was no point arguing and trying any longer as the performance had already begun, and there was no way of getting on stage in the middle of it. I quickly excused myself and walked back home.

Then I realised something. There was nothing dialogic about the final performance. I could see my friends from outside, and the whole scene seemed cold and contrived. It was one of those rigid official ceremonies, where the singing was a formality, something to be done with before moving on to the next event. I realised that the real dialogue had already taken place among my fellow choir members. We had sung together, rehearsed together, and taken in the music, the lyrics, and the emotions together. Ours was the real musical dialogue par excellence, whilst my failed attempt at partaking in the formal occassion was no loss to me or others.