Journey to the Temple of Melodious Sound
(an excerpt from a book in progress.)
by Doug von Koss
It began innocently enough. As part of my negotiations to teach mask-making at Robert
Bly’s third Mendocino Men’s Conference in the redwoods of Northern California we
agreed that I could use a particular unused tent-cabin for morning voice work. Robert
insisted, as only he could, that it must not upset the conference schedule and had to
happen before breakfast. You see, he had a map—a quest for me, as he had for each of
so many others, a life’s work—cast like a spell in an off-hand remark. Think of Coleman
Barks being handed a book of Rumi’s poems from a Sri Lankan Sufi guru in Philadelphia
to translate from Urdu to English. Wow! I had been dreaming and working for a couple
of years toward a vision of men chanting sacred music surrounded by magnificent trees
and now it was up to me.
I had a hunch the sound in that cabin would be great. All the previous year I had been
gathering chants and songs that might be suitable for men with no experience of group
singing. I was clear I wanted a success experience for the men. There was to be no
struggling to learn music off the page. The singing would be paperless. Everything
would be taught simply, by rote.
My deal was there was to be absolutely no coercion of the men to join in the morning
singing. Whoever attended had to want to be there. If you considered yourself a
singer, fine. If you thought you were definitely not a singer, fine. During the teacher
introductions on the opening evening I had made it as clear as possible that all were
welcome to come and chant an hour before breakfast in a place carefully prepared for
On the floor in the center of the cabin I placed a small bowl of water from the dining hall,
some fern fronds radiating outward and a candle. I had gathered some fresh greens from
deep in the camp while making my morning wake-up rounds. By piling them across the
entrance they became a threshold so that to enter the cabin you had to duck your head
under a batik cloth and step over the greens. Voila, you were entering someplace special.
We now had a place where something good might happen.
I had no idea how many men would show up. I had wanted to begin right on the hour but
man after man kept coming over the threshold until the space was filled to bursting with
everyone sitting cross-legged on the tilting floor.
There is an unspoken group-knowledge within men in community. The group knew the
moment when everything was right to begin. We came to silence on our own. After a
moment of stillness I took a deep breath and began by making the time-out sign from
football with a flat hand palm down over the other flat hand pointing up beneath it. (That
gesture is as close as I’ve ever gotten to football.) From that moment on that sign came
to mean, come to silence. We were assembling the tools for the collaboration to come.
I pointed to myself and sang “Ahhh——” on one sustained note and then pointed to them
and they sang “Ahhh——.” It was beautiful. I pointed to myself again with one hand
and changed the vowel and the pitch. Again the men responded with a unison sound that
made the floor vibrate. We had begun.
I sang one repetition of the Buddhist mantra Namo Admita Butsu and then the men
mirrored it back. There are many translations of these almost magic words.
I like this one:
“Simply chanting Buddha’s name, may I become simple, no more trying to know
everything, no more attached to explanation, just clear and natural.”
It was not bad for a first attempt, but in my eagerness I had sung much too fast and that is
the way they sang it back to me. It had been sung too fast and I told them so. A feeling
of safety entered the cabin when I stopped. I had implied to the group, “I know you guys
can drive the bus too, but I’ve got the map for this part of the trip.” By including them in
the creative process they knew that I had a goal for the hour. Men like to wander in ones
or twos but in a group they feel safe if they are certain that one guy has the map.
That first stop on the first song on the first morning of my first attempt at impromptu
group singing was a good teaching for me. It was the first thing in the morning and we
were all just out of our bunks. We hadn’t sung. Heck, we hadn’t really used our voices
at all. Our breaths were shallow. Parts of us were still in our sleeping bags. Yes, slow
would be much better.
I told the men what I thought. Let’s slow the tempo way down and begin again. We
took a deep breath and the sound rolled out vowel by vowel. “Nah-moe-ah-mee-tah-buu-
tzuooo”. It was glorious. Particularly on the ‘buu’ which is sung a half step lower and
held a little longer than the rest of the syllables of the otherwise monotone chant.
As we sang the line over and over, the phrase became longer, vital, and seemingly
effortless. The sound became more coherent as individual voices began to blend
together. The group was learning from each other with each repetition just when to
shift together from vowel to vowel. The individual men were amassing as an entity that
knew without instruction just how long to pause between phrases so that everyone could
breathe properly to sustain the phrase. It may seem a little woo-woo but I had the feeling
for a time that we were not so much singing as being sung.
So many things happened then.
In a way, the ripples of sound from those first early morning chants continue to move
through me. It was so obvious in that cabin. The men clearly resonated with great joy
from singing together. It was as if they were coming home to something, unsought, and
forgotten, yet fresh and precious. As Wendell Berry has said, it was “ancient knowledge
seeking new minds.”
The ability to sing effortlessly and freely is a gift we nearly all possess. For me, that
morning began the work of creating more often, large circles for perfection-free singing;
spaces and moments of community, where it is safe, easy, and fun to sing simple
beautiful music together with deep appreciation for each other’s presence—and in the
way it has always been done— to reconstruct from ancient plans Temples of Melodious
* * *
The Songs I Had
The songs I had are withered
Or vanished clean,
Yet there are bright tracks
Where I have been,
And there grow flowers
For others’ delight.
Think well O singer,
Soon comes night.
Doug von Koss: http://www.dougvonkoss.com/
Coleman Barks: Who Says Words With My Mouth
Wendell Berry: A Short Biography
Ivor Gurney: A Biographical outline