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Chod: Musical Examples Part IV

Composed by Shunda Wallace Music Therapist

Chod incorporates a woven texture combination of text, melody, visualization and gesture while utilizing Tibetan instruments that include the two-sided damaru drum, the Tibetan bell, the thighbone trumpet as well as the human voice. In this particular practice there are two practitioners of Chod. In this practice meditators are visualizing their body as an offering. The Lotus Flower has eight stylized petals that naturally refer to the Eightfold Path as it accompanies the Tibetans in their solitary intonations. The flower is a way of making the demons or whomever wishes to harm the practicing members go away while also paying their karmic debt in the process. The accumulation merit is for the materially poor that cannot offer wealth to visualize their bodies as a form of offering. During the practice member’s call out spontaneous phet’s in accordance with their spiritual needs at the time. The phets are not sung on any pre-composed melodies although there is a tonal center and the practitioners seem to inherently know the melodies by rote. In this meditational practice the rhythm starts with eighth notes happening interchangeably occasionally tied to the next grouping of beats.

Bodh Gaya is a sacred location associated with the Mahabodhi Temple in the Gaya district of Bihar. Bihar is a Northern Indian state where Buddha is said to have experienced Enlightment (Bodhimandala). Bodh is the most divine of all Buddhist sites where the four main pilgrimage sites are also located.
In this particular example the meditational practice begins by all members of the ensemble with a driving pulse that western musicians would characterize as eighth notes or quarter notes depending on the meter implied. The special ritual trumpet made of the human thighbone normally holds the attention of all members of the practice. The instrument emerged in Tibet for the performance of esoteric rites, in the footsteps of the great Tantric masters. Following the chant master begins a call with very a nasal sound quality that is very reminiscent of traditional Middle Eastern music.
Within this call there are examples of glissando purposely sliding from one note to another. There is always a tonal center while the gliding in many of the notes are microtonal many times throughout. The tone quality of all members imitates that of the chant master while every member sings and play the drum in unison. Subsequently every member of the ensemble is watching either the chant master or the person sitting next to him to ensure that they are playing in unison. In the mantra tradition the members begin to play the instrument at the end of the first phrase of the chant master. One of the main purposes of playing the damaru is to gather an energetic effect throughout the body while playing the drum. This is a form of meditation involves spiral visualization somewhat similar to the spiral movement of movement meditations like Tai Chi while there is monophonic texture happening simultaneously. Eventually every member plays the damaru drum while every member is singing beautifully as one spiritual entity. The Khata is the sacred scarf that is the sign of civility. The sacred scarf is also a gesture of offer of offering of welcome and of courteous exchange. The scarf is the present in all ceremonies, large and small, public and private. The sacred scarf is usually white, sometimes orange or golden yellow and sky blue in Mongolia. The gesture of the scarf is given with the hands; this gesture is a testimony of respect and good intentions.

Music and song play an important role in Tibetan daily life accompanying work in the field as well as dance and entertainment. Like all traditional art of the snows, music is essentially religious. According to practitioners of this art, the art itself contains magnified amplified interior melody of the human body. By shifting the negative voice of suffering inside the head slowly transitioning to through the amplification of the human body’s rich tapestry of rhythm, melody, poetry, harmony, and visualization to wise enlightenment. This practice is of one individual utilizing the damaru drum, the bell and the thighbone horn simultaneously. The melody in this practice is the same as the preceding example listened to. In this example there is the improvised chant in the beginning followed by a melodic structure. The omnipresent damaru, native to India is a tambourine made up of two wooden hemispheres joined back-to-back and covered with cloth or leather, each one provided with a small ball at the end of the cord. The rotation of the wrist is what produces the instruments characteristic sound. Tantric masters sometimes prefer an object made of two half skulls set with precious skulls. Musical skills and the difficulties of their apprenticeship has never been the subject of any rigorous transcription while they are learned in performance. The only indications given are in the form of the melodic lines, with the peaks marking fortissimo and the hollow representing piano.

Chod under the Bodhi Tree begins with acapella chants of the phets simultaneously by all group members. Unlike the prior example, there is not a chant master. The bells are rung every three to four phrases of chanted phet’s while one member strikes the bell lightly to accent the beginning of the phrases. The first 45 seconds or so consists of acapella chants followed by the swinging of the damaru drum then followed by further chants. The damaru drum, a sacred instrument that was not designed exclusively for musical accompaniment, is beautifully designed with golden mantras inside, designed as a conduit for the energies of the spiritual lineage. Throughout the rotation of the spiral playing of the damaru drum is a way to drive the energy deep into central channel areas of the body and the subconscious. One important point about Chod practitioners of the damaru drum during ensemble playing is the importance of playing the drum collectively in unison, as one.

This particular musical excerpt is an example of men and woman practicing together with all woman on one side of the room while the men are on another. There is a tonal center will a full melody sounding less like chants of phets that are improvised. While the camera does not provide a full view, rather panning a cross, it appears that there is a song leader on a microphone. The texture is that of monophonic while octaves are employed to accommodate each female and male voice type. The damaru drum provides a driving eight-note pattern while the bell is rung in the left hand of the women at the beginning of each beat. This study reveals the intimate relationship between the men and the women.

Considering that the tradition was developed and perfected by a woman Machik Labdron, most of the footage provided of practicing members of Chod has been men. This is one example of a woman practicing, which provides a refreshing perspective. According to practitioners of this art, the art itself contains magnified amplified interior melody of the human body. By shifting the negative voice of suffering inside the head slowly transitioning to through the amplification of the human body’s rich tapestry rhythm, melody, poetry, harmony, and visualization to wise enlightenment. From reading the comments on youtube, this singer Ani of Chod is a very famous interpreter of Chod music. Her vibrato interpretation is very reminiscent of blues singer Aaron Neville. Very quick and tight vibrato that has a very bluesy and soulful feel as if she could have possibly listened to blues singers in the West. Ani’s interpretation sounds more melodic although perhaps improvised. Ani begins by swinging her damaru drum first to quarter notes then accelerating briefly back to the quarter notes. Ani’s voice gives me chills as it is so beautiful and rich. It is implied that she is performing to an extent rather than practicing meditation of Chod because of the microphone. Ani is reading text while practicing her chants. On the end of the piece Ani retards, stops swinging the drum and begin singing acapella as she ends the piece with bluesy articulations and inflections that brings chills through your spine.

Ms. Wallace joined the faculty at Michigan State University as Guest Lecturer in 2004-2005 while being considered for the Doctorate of Musical Arts in Western Composition Program (later learning there was no Doctoral Program in Jazz Composition).  Ms. Wallace holds a Bachelors of Music in Music Management from William Paterson University a Masters Degree in Jazz Arranging and Orchestration from William Paterson University in addition to an Advanced Level Board Certification in Music Therapy from Montclair State University.