Where Do Songs Come From?
In a place called Barunga, in the Australian outback, there was a singer named Maralung. He took dance troupes around to traditional Aborigine places. The ghost of a master song man called Balanjirri and a bird called Bunggridj-Bunggridj gave Maralung his songs.
One night, Maralung was sleeping, watching mysterious blue and green Minmin lights, moving west to east in the sky. Balanjirri and the bird, Bunggridj-Bunggridj, appeared and set off after the lights, got a song, and then came into the camp where Maralung was sleeping.
Balanjirri said, “Get up, I have a song to teach you!” The dreamer woke up and the master taught him the song. The bird sang too.
The song was in the ghost language so humans could sing it but only spirits could understand it.
“Don’t lose this song,” advised the old song man Balanjirri, “I sang this song for you. It’s yours, and you must remember it properly.” He spoke kindly like that.
“All right,” said Maralung. But he fell asleep again, and forgot the song. “But don’t you worry,” he said to himself, “I’ll get it. Maybe one or two, three, four, five…if he shows me…six, seven, eight, nine, that’s it. “
So the next night, Maralung dreamed again and it happened the same way: the song master and the bird came into his dream, woke him and sang for him. He fell asleep afterwards, but this time, in the morning he remembered the song.
~ Pacific Zen Miscellaneous Koans
Where do songs come from? This is the deepest of questions in Zen, because our songs and our music are the expression of our original nature, our original voice. I recently asked some musician friends about where songs come from. Jordan Mcconnell is an award winning guitarist and luthier. Jesse Cardin, Roshi, writes and plays his original music, when he is not working as a therapist or as a Zen teacher.
Jordan: On our typical Sunday meditation, when I know I’ve got a block of playing time coming up, I’ll just take in the vibe. I may not be paying complete attention to the talk, but I’m still absorbing something there: faces I can see on zoom, JT’s voice; there is some input being built up. It feels as if there’s a breeze blowing by, which is the source of the note. The breeze tends to be the faces on the screen.
Often, I’m thinking about what I’m going to play based on those feelings. I’ll think of a little riff, and there is a sense of moving toward the moment. Excitement and tension build, the moment arrives, and it is almost never what I had planned. When I drop down into the moment, something emerges.
I just try to ride that feeling, that single note. I really have a sense of not knowing what the note is until it is finished. And then the next note happens.
Jesse: When I write music, I tend to prepare, prepare, prepare, and then throw it all away when I get there. I spend months building a boat, drag it to shore, and realize its not water, just a desert. What the fuck am I gonna do with the boat?
Sometimes the song comes as words, guitar riffs, melody. Humming. Kinda like that. What is that? Kind of like pulling a golden thread that dangles down. Just gently tugging on it, it unravels, and the more I tug, the more gold thread comes out. Tug, tug, tug. Oh, that’s interesting. This is turning into something. Now a verse, a chorus, a whatever.
The production of a song is like a very slow, embodied experience of working with a Zen koan. It can be extremely painful: rage, loneliness, dreams of falling in love with my high-school girlfriend. But as a discovery process, it goes best if I don’t try to manage all the neurotic stuff: worrying about a certain deadline, a certain sound, a certain idea. All that gets in the way.
There is also a timelessness to creation. Songs I may have started months ago, I may put away for a while. What’s increasingly clear is the reason I haven’t finished some songs is because I haven’t yet discovered that part of my voice, that particular guitar skill, or that rhythm which the song needs. I’m still trying to sail the boat even in the desert.