Songs of the Soul ~ Musical Poetry and its Inspirations

One Sunday, on one of our searches in Los Angeles to find a retreat to relax and quieten the mind, my husband and I paid the Self Realization Center a visit. Dedicated in the 1950’s to the Indian Yogi and meditation guru Paramahansa Yogananda, the Lake Shrine is an outdoor oasis that welcomes visitors of all religious denominations.

The ten-acre site is tucked off of the famous Sunset Boulevard and only a quarter of a mile from the Pacific Ocean. The natural spring-fed lake is home to a variety of flora and fauna, swans, ducks and a vast amount of large, colourful Koi fish and trees and flowers from around the world.


Like many landmarks in Los Angeles, its origins can be traced back to the movie industry. Silent films were shot on site of the Lake Shrine Temple at the Inceville film studio in the early ’20s. Later Los Angeles real-estate magnate Alphonzo Bell, Sr. bought the land and the surrounding hillsides were hydraulically graded to fill the canyon and make it level for future development. When these activities were stopped short, a large basin was left in the can­yon, which filled with water from nearby springs creating Lake Santa Ynez — the only natural spring-fed lake within the city limits of Los Angeles.

The grounds include a Court of Religions honouring the five principal religions of the world. A portion of Mahatma Ghandhi’s ashes can also be found here, entombed in a small stone memorial on the north side of the lake. There was a slight whiff of esoteric haughtiness in the air and it was obvious that a lot of money was sunk into the upkeep of the grounds but we highly appreciated that this oasis was open to the general public. Unlike many areas of lush and precious green you see when driving around in Los Angeles – the Veteran’s park in West L.A., the country clubs in Bel Air or Hancock Park – which are gated and completely restricted to the members of those elite clubs or organisations.

After walking in the gardens, we had a look in the small gift shop. To my surprise I found a small publication of poems by the founder Paramahansa Yogananda displayed in one of the cabinets titled ‘Songs of the Soul’. I lifted it up and flicking through it and learnt, that it had been first published in 1923. Although I can be a research-addict and can get lost in digging up pieces of information and juggling with words from dictionaries, I had no idea that this publication existed.

It had exactly the same title as one of the first pieces I had written shortly after moving to Los Angeles in 2005. Yogananda had also written most of these approximately 200 short poems during his early years in the United States which I thought was interesting. But perhaps impressions come more easily to paper when we are especially vulnerable in new and foreign situations and therefore receptive for new experiences. Many artists in exile have found comfort in expressing their inner emotions.

But unlike this book presented in its showcase, my version of ‘Songs of the Soul’ was unpublished. Perhaps because I somehow sensed that something was still missing. I just didn’t quite know what. Moved by this coincidence, especially because I was surrounded by a somewhat special environment, I decided to revisit the piece at home where I discovered some other interesting similarities.

In his poems, Yogananda describes his deep and religious experiences in nature. Some of them depict his memories of his motherland India, deep impressions made by new friends and acquaintances but most of all, they are spiritual, praising God. My poem ‘Songs of the Soul’ isn’t of religious nature at all, at the very least about worshipping any kind of God. But it is, in a similar way, about encountering a form of deep spirituality – in music.

I could even translate Yogananda’s short foreword, “Love is the song of the soul, singing to God” into the sentiment “Music is the song of the soul, singing to its listener”. The first drafts of the poem had initially been triggered by two very intense musical experiences and from then on, the it had basically written itself. But I now felt that words weren’t enough and wanted to make the translation of these experiences more viable.

That is when I decided to make live recordings of three poems; of ‘Songs of the Soul’, ‘The Maliciousness of Words’ and ‘During the Hours’ and release them as an EP. To support and interpret the atmosphere of each unique piece, I chose three of Los Angeles’ finest young jazz musicians. I had seen and heard them many times and felt that not only their instruments but even their personalities suited the individual poem. My goal was to capture complete performances, of both the reading and the solo instrument, rather than the usual studio procedure of assembling tracks for endless overdubbing and editing.

The recording sessions took place in November 2009 at the studio of Nolan Shaheed in Pasadena and were produced by the composer, producer and guitarist Greg Porée and myself. The musicians had not heard or read the poems prior to their studio arrival. I wanted them to respond as if they were at a live jazz gig, improvising on the spot which was exactly where I saw their greatness. Each piece was recorded live, with the individual instrument in dialogue with my recital of the poem: The atmosphere was electric and invariably my concept was achieved within two to three takes.

‘The Maliciousness of Words’ is a fun piece which deals with the characteristics and moods of individual words. I chose the jazz pianist Brandon Coleman because of his humour and his ability to convey such easiness which enabled him to fully compliment the poem.

‘During the Hours’, which I also chose as the album title, is an ode to a loved one. It features the violinist Paul Cartwright whose gift in creating lyrical melodies with strong narratives complimented the romantic and scenographic notion of this piece.

In Zane Musa on tenor saxophone, I found the perfect match for ‘Songs of the Soul’. Zane is unique for blending middle Eastern melodies with intricate jazz improvisation. He is an incredible live performer so I was proud that we had captured that side of his playing as well.

With my reading and his playing I had finally completed the piece ‘Songs of the Soul’. It mirrors musically, technically and emotionally the highs and lows of musical performance and the conflicts of creative angst I tried to capture.

I realized that during that tranquil Sunday, whilst gazing lazily at Koi fish, I hadn’t been closer to God but perhaps to myself and I was emotionally receptive for what needed to be done.

 

Songs of the Soul

Exposed in the idle spotlight
awkward and unfashioned
almost uncongenial
bleak and inhospitable
transparent paper swaying
languidly waiting
lost, but no frustration
life, does it feel alien?

But then you strip down to the bone
start slashing at my flesh
emotions bluntly plundered
and torn out of my chest
as your songs of the soul
impatiently unfold
revealing dark obsessions
that violently evolve

Slave to your instrument
the bridge to each sentiment
the culprit of insanity!
or the medium of lucidity?
A lover lost in rapture
in haunting ecstasy
distilling good and evil
to disturbing melodies

That are darker than the darkest
side of a blood-shot moon
your notes a lake of indigo
spreading through the room

Longer than the longest
Arab caravan
drying my insides
winding through the desert sands

And sweeter than the sweetest
mistresses’ delight
sugar dusted lokum
in the heat of a vibrant night

Oh and softer than the softest
warm summer‘s breeze
ling’ring in the shadows
of ancient Cyprus trees

Steeper than the steepest
spiral stairway
as you climb to higher higher –
and your body folds in labour
bearing sighing melodies

Pain and passion synchronized
comprising unborn, old and wise
Songs of the soul
oh, in torment they are born.

(c) Frances Livings 2011. All Rights Reserved.

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Here are some other artists which have explored “Songs of the Soul” in a variety of ways:

This video shows the two Swiss musicians Adesh (Sitar) and his wife Ajita (Tabla) performing as part of the “Songs of the Soul” concert tour in Zurich. The concert was commemorating the musical legacy of spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy who inspired thousands of people with his mantric melodies.

Another interesting find is a trailer for the documentary “Sacred Sounds: Music of the World, Songs of the Soul”. It explores the idea of sacred music and how it is used as a communicator with and in celebration of God in a way that is shared by almost every culture and faith in the world. Through dynamic musical performances, interviews with artists and religious figures, director Carmine Cervi breaks down cultural, political, and religious barriers to bring us to an understanding of faith through music.

More than a dozen artists from Islamic, Christian, and Jewish traditions appear, including Noa, a renowned Israeli singer bringing her message of Middle East peace to the Arab world; Sheikh Yassin, an Egyptian singer of religious hymns; Avay-e-Douste, an Iranian female quartet improvising songs in the Radif system; the Aissawas of Fez, a religious brotherhood performing Sufi ceremonial music famous for its trance-inducing ability; and Liz McComb, an American gospel singer who transmits her passion in a performance of intensity and emotion.

Sacred Sounds takes place against the exotic backdrop of Fez, a millennium-old city of twisting alleys and covered bazaars, bright-tile mosques and crumbling palaces. Busy souks, bundle-laden donkeys, and the call to prayer that flows from the city’s pervasive loud speakers contribute to a sensual, mystical experience in Morocco’s center.

Also, recently this is a groundbreaking documentary on the science of Yoga Meditation and the life of Paramahansa Yogananda, the Indian Swami who came to America from India in 1920 to bring Yoga to the west, was released. This is the trailer to the film:

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