“Everything in the universe has a rhythm, everything dances.”
Lua believed that music — the most profound of all the arts — represented life and living as no other art form could, as life’s mysteries were better understood through analogies drawn from the world of hearing than from the world of sight. While eyes and hands are good at perceiving space, the ears perceive the passage of time as an audible image ― an image of tones or vibrations, in the case of music.
Music requires time to reveal its essence, to demonstrate how parts relate to wholes, both melodically (horizontally) and harmonically (vertically). We don’t know until the end of a song how the parts of a musical piece has served its purpose. In music, as in life, all things are in motion — all things are in process. Both music and life reveal their nature from a holistic complete view, not by looking at a particular static slice of time, which would be meaningless.
During our time at sea, Jack had shared with us his own scientific view on how music reflects reality. Everything is ultimately made up of the same substance and bound by the same laws: a handful of particles, a hundred or so elements, and four cosmic forces. The universe differentiates within itself, creating finer patterns and more complex forms as it quickens through the course of time. Today, modern physics recognizes that these subatomic particle are not absolutely distinct, but rather ‘smeared out over a probability wave’ just as individual musical notes are ‘non-local’ in the sense that each note in the ‘line’ of a melody is also a participant in other relations, intersecting and interacting with them.
The same note will be experienced in a completely different way, depending on its musical context, just as an atom serves a different purpose in your body than in a rock. Moving from the smallest of empirical scales to the largest, the universe itself is a whole system, so its parts can only be understood in the context of the whole. It cannot be understood by analyzing the parts and then coming to understand the whole. And wholeness is the primordial condition of the universe.
The solid matter we construct out of our locally evolved senses cannot be dissected from the sea of energy ― the music ― that underlies it. And that mysterious sea of energy is all vibrational. Ultimately, everything in the universe is somehow inside everything else, much more like a living organism than a mechanical machine. It dances to interdependent rhythms, heavenly clockworks — what the ancients called ‘the music of the spheres.’ Poet Maya Angelou expressed it this way: ‘Everything in the universe has a rhythm, everything dances.’
Plato argued that music was a moral law. It ‘gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.’ Aldous Huxley said that ‘after silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.’ And Nietzsche characteristically cut right to the chase: ‘Without music, life would be a mistake.’
Sadly, in modern Western civilization, music has been diminished into nothing much more significant than any other commodity, just another product for mass consumption. But the ancient world had a very different relationship with music. It had real power and was used in healing and ritual on a regular basis. Music was the most effective way to connect people to the rhythmic universe they lived in where everything alive spins and oscillates with varying rhythms.
The rhythmic patterns of complexity — that delicate life-creating and sustaining balancing act between the extremes of order and chaos — seem to be the standard building blocks of Nature. Rhythms tie together so much of the external phenomena outside our direct control, but integral to our lives: the seas, the winds, the heavens, the stars, the cycles of life, death, and rebirth. Rhythm is the soul of life. When we fall out of rhythm, we get into trouble.
As far as we know, no human culture has ever existed without music. It seems to be inseparable from our humanity. It fills needs at the very center of our being. Perhaps it is the very thing that makes us human. Music, dance, and ritual celebrate the stories and events that bring community closer together.
In carnival, for example, with its shared spirit and emotion, the sense of community membership is often reinforced by music and dance. These activities are interactive, synchronized, and require people to playfully engage with each other. There is a sense of being willfully swept up in a spontaneous and beautiful social event free of any complicated or stressful decision making, politics, or uncomfortable obligations. Carnival is the party that gives community its cultural life. The play of carnival lifts the spirits, banishes boredom, neutralizes aggression, and bridges the distance between community members. It is a domain of strange attractors where order and chaos, life and death, the sage and the ass — all dance together for a brief time.
Though we may never fully understand the mysterious power of music, we do know that it has a crucial role in creating well-being by transcending culture, politics, race, and gender. The arts have a superior way of communicating across cultural boundaries. They are essential for maintaining social balance and cultural harmony in a world of mounting stresses. Music has the power to morph problems into possibilities.
Lua believed that because music expresses life and living so purely, it has a unique way of putting us in touch with something outside ordinary experiences, a different order of being. We have the experience of being taken out of time and space altogether and perhaps even out of ourselves. It brings us closer to a perception of the inner, unspoken significance of life — it picks up where speech leaves off and represents internal emotional states that cannot be put into words. It conveys the ineffable and makes us discover in ourselves depths we did not know were there. It speaks the unspeakable, touches the untouchable.
Lua’s last words to me before I left Rarotonga were about music,
“Mister Rico, don’t ever stop playing music. Sing. Dance. Listen. Learn. Teach. Discover. May the gift of music always be with you. Trust it to take you where you need to go.”
I promised her I would.
What deeply resonated with Lua must have been that mystical, otherworldly quality of music, I surmised, after having spent many decades of her life absorbed in the empirical this-worldly here-and-now reality of the environmental sciences as a brilliant researcher, beloved professor, and international lecturer — a remarkable and illuminating fact that I became aware of only during the final moments of our time together. For a long time afterwards, I felt stupid and ashamed for having learned so little of the Story of Lua.