Published: Jan 01, 2006
Martin Wolff first became known to me as one of those readers of "Swami Uptown" —- the blog where I used to unload all the spiritual/political ranting that I spare you here at Butler — who regards Internet writing as the start of a conversation. Soon after the blog launched, he shot me an e-mail, and I, out of politeness, responded. He wrote again. And not only did I gain a virtual friend, I had the good fortune to be in a dialogue with a very sharp guy who had more to teach me than I had to teach him.
That didn’t become fully clear until Martin mentioned that he had recorded a CD of sacred Hindu chants. Out of curiosity, I asked for a copy. My expectations were low. Yours would be as well. A guy from Jersey privately recording music from a tradition thousands of miles and years distant — what are the odds he’s great?
He is great. There’s no look-at-me in his voice. Martin dissolves into the chants, and becomes them, and then it’s over. I emerge, blinking, delighted by the lack of ego.
Turnaround’s fair play. I asked Martin how a nice boy from Long Island found his way to chant.
Here’s his response:
I was in a teen rock band for a short while, mostly performing at church dances. I didn’t sing in the group, but simply played chords — on an electric accordion! I guess I thought it was cool, but it wasn’t really a fit for my nature and it didn’t last long. I have also been in a number of church and amateur choirs and I enjoyed this much more. I was especially fond of the polyphonic sacred music.
But I should also say that growing up on suburban Long Island, our church was, for some inexplicable reason, using an 800 year old liturgy — all of it Gregorian chant! There was something about that sound that reached me very deeply. I certainly knew no Latin or Greek, but the sound itself was like a heart massage and gently cooled my fevered teenage brain. I think this was really the beginning of my deep connection to sacred music.
In one form or other, it seems like I have been singing sacred music ever since. There was a time, in my early teens, when I thought I wanted to become an Episcopal priest. I asked a lot of questions of the parish priest. But the answers didn’t reach something in me that I wanted to be reached. Soon I was reading western philosophy. Of course, I had very little comprehension of what I was reading, but it was all part of the process.
In college I became exposed to Alan Watts and, in particular, his "The Book (on the Taboo of Knowing Who You Are)." This opened up an entire universe for me and put into question all my basic assumptions about myself and the world. I was completely enthralled and began to sense some underlying message about unity in the Eastern traditions. Once I had read Baba Ram Das’ "Be Here Now" I was totally hooked and the exploration of the East was fully engaged. But I never see a conflict between Christ’s teachings and Hinduism (with which I am the most familiar), for example. All the difference is outer appearance, not essence.
I think I should emphasize that I don’t consider myself an artist. I don’t have the usual musical skills or the temperament of a performer. But I have had the opportunity to chant in sacred settings and have noticed that often when I am chanting, the chant moves — or stills — others the same way it affects me. So I was encouraged to offer the chanting which I love; it was a natural step to make this offering more available.
I really had not planned this CD — on a retreat, the man who became the recording engineer suggested to me that we could work together and come up with something that people could benefit from. I am not trying to push anything with the CD, it is an offering and I believe it will end up where it should end up.
In my case, it ends up on my CD, in heavy rotation, as a morning cleanser or late night comfort. It’s not a wonder drug; it doesn’t banish the world or bring lasting peace. But it points a way, soothes the soul — it gets the immediate job done. What a wonderful medium this is that brings a Martin Wolff into my life. And how great it is that I can alert you to a potentially valuable CD you’re not likely to find anywhere else…