“It’s not the music which creates the magic, it’s the magic sitting over, under and all through the music.” – Ken Hyder
Ken Hyder is a Scottish percussionist and shaman. His brief but sparkling e-book, How To Know, is a story about his journey through percussion, shamanism in Tuva, and what he calls Spirit Music. Along the way, Hyder touches on issues of teaching, energy, musical time, listening, and perception. For a sixty-five page book, there’s depth here.
One of Hyder’s first drum teachers, John Stevens, once told him “Go where the energy is.” And so he did, finding energy or Spirit in disparate places. One early path was the Gaelic psalm singing tradition of the Western Isles of Scotland. Here is a clip about that tradition:
Hyder also hears energy in some jazz music. In particular, he cites two “classic Spirit Music” recordings: John Colltrane’s A Love Supreme (with Elvin Jones on drums) and Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity (with Sunny Murray on drums). Building on these examples, Hyder describes good jazz drumming as having everything to do with musical time: “There is a tension between precision and looseness…The paradox is that the tempic differences which create the swing are also in fact very precise, and this tension between strict-tempo and loose swing is something which goes throughout music-making.” Hyder describes Jones’ drumming as a flurry of polyrhythm, while Murray’s drumming is “more polytempic than polyrhythmic. He disoriented the listener by speeding up and slowing down.”
Here is Coltrane’s “Resolution” (part 2 of A Love Supreme):
Here is Ayler’s “The Wizard” (track two on Spiritual Unity):
Eventually, Hyder’s own Spirit Music-oriented jazz trio ends up performing in Tuva where Hyder learned that the art of shamanism was there waiting for him to learn. Shamans in Tuva are healers who use frame drums called dungars as their musical/therapeutic tools. “You know, you can heal people from a distance” says one of Hyder’s Tuvan teachers, Kungaa. Hyder learns their craft mostly by osmosis and is on his own when it comes to both the shaman’s way and specific drumming techniques. “None of the shamans who taught me” he says, “ever gave me even a hint of a lesson on how to use the drum. It’s more that they facilitate how you can learn for yourself. Giving you the answers is not the answer.” Hyder learns a lot from his teachers though:
“Everything you do can be part of your spiritual knowledge”;
“a question of how you access what’s inside of you as much as how you access the spirit outside of you”;
“Energy is all around us and we can access and use it in different ways”;
“Getting information through light trance is a complex kind of transmission.”
What, then, is Spirit Music? Hyder says that sometimes it’s difficult to say. Ultimately, determination of the spiritual, “is analogue, and not digital. Spirit is very hard to define, and pin down. You must recognize what you recognize, and go with your feeling.” Still, Hyder is weary of the whole enterprise, even while apprenticing as a shaman in Tuva. “I was very, very skeptical. It was important not to fool myself.”
Despite Hyder’s skepticism about his pursuits, he passes along to us some interesting observations about drumming. Hyder describes the sound of the dungar drum as being “spectacular” at a very close distance. This is the kind of observation only a musician could make–after all, what we hear is never exactly the same as what listeners hear out there (in the audience, on the recording). And the experience of drumming “becomes a part of the psychic state of the shaman. It’s an audible reflection of the unseen psychic state.” Not only this, but the drum itself can function as “a kind of guidance system” for the shaman/musician/mystician.
Reading Hyder as someone with a fairly active musical life myself, what I found most to the book’s point were two passages near its end. In the first, Hyder describes a thought process familiar to anyone who has performed–especially improvised–music: “Decisions. Decisions. Decisions. Based on what? Spiritual considerations or musical considerations?” Here, Hyder articulates the magnitude of what it is musicians grapple with in their evanescent, time-bound work. By what means do we “think” as we play music? One can make a strong case that the best performers tap into some flow zone that resembles what Hyder has experienced in his shamanism studies. Still, there are so many ways to go about making music. You can read the notes, play the patterns, rely on muscle memory, draw on tradition, make it up as you go along…There are many paths.
In the second passage near the book’s end, Hyder has some useful advice for us: simplify. When you feel yourself “nearer to accessing spiritual energy, you make a decision to strip everything down. It is at that point you might consider narrowing your path.”
Here is a short documentary on contemporary Tuva, Tuvan music, and shamanistic practice that’s worth watching. One of the featured shamans, Dugar Suron, says that the twenty-first century “will depend on people coming to understand that we’ve become over-civilized.” At 10:25 we see him perform a healing ceremony for the son of the film’s host.