I was recently at my friend and colleague Liam MacDonald’s house for a rehearsal. We are playing with the great Iraqi oud player Serwan Yamolky, who was accompanied by his friend of many years Vahey Zacharian. These 2 musicians belong to possibly the last generation of those musicians that enjoyed a golden age of Arabic music that culminated in the work of the great Um Koulthoum and Abdel Wahab. Both in their 70’s, they bring a centre of gravity to their musical expression which is rare in this day and age, and this was a powerful experience.
After the rehearsal I noticed a copy of Daniel Lanois’ book “Soul Mining”. Liam pointed out an interesting passage which I can’t quote verbatim, but it had to do with the reasons for why Lanois pursued certain skills, and why he pursued certain beauty. The upshot was that in many cases there was no real “reason” for it, no practical goal, no end “use” for that skill. Rather, it was a pursuit that was focused on beauty for the sake of beauty, and of the inherent enjoyment (I would invite the reader to see JG Bennett’s thoughts on Enjoyment and Pleasure).
This seemed significant, because it came from a time well before Daniel Lanois was famous, and before his meetings with Brian Eno. In other words, these were activities done without prior knowledge of their usefulness, their practicality, and even the possibility of ever using them again.
On my way home from the rehearsal, I thought about this and suddenly the image of the life of children came to mind. I suddenly realized that in fact children have exactly this ability – to play for the sake of playing. Robert Fripp once commented that working with Brian Eno always involved a sense of play. If it’s true that this is a characteristic which children have, it’s also true that somehow or another it is trained out of them, and therefore out of us. Thinking about that can produce a sense of resentment or loss, as if we’ve been hard done by society. And yet there’s an opportunity for self reflection here, and even self forgiveness for agreeing to these rules, agreeing to these limitations.
I often heard phrases like “virtue is its own reward” in my earlier days, and when I hear them now I race through them thinking I know what they mean. And yet, when I reflect on my decisions, both artistically and morally, I can’t escape the feeling that I rush it all.
What an incredible presentiment this is, though: a true opportunity to breathe deeply, stop the practicality censor, and just produce beauty for the sake of beauty. Enjoy the music for the simple sake of enjoying it. Touch the guitar just because it is sensual to hold it.
Could it be that a phrase like “Abandon all hope ye who enter here” in this case can actually point the way to a much more free and playful way of being? Abandon the hope for acknowledgement, for utility, for credit, for a masterpiece. Just. Play. Just. Beauty.
PS for those who are interested, these are a fascinating set of interviews with Daniel Lanois