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On Musical and Spiritual Harmony
A Tribute to David Crosby.
The music world lost one of its all-time greats last week when the legendary David Crosby of The Byrds and then Crosby Stills and Nash passed away at the age of 81. This podcast explores some of his work and the nature of harmony—both from musical and metaphysical perspectives. To hear the audio version (music included), click here.
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Hello, music fans, and welcome to episode 14 of The Secret Chord featuring the music of the Great Crosby Stills and Nash, also known as CSN. So who were they? They were a vocal supergroup made up of American singer-songwriters David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and the English singer-songwriter Graham Nash. They're called a supergroup because they were each part of popular bands before they joined together into this one mega group.
They were extremely successful on their own, and they became much more successful when they were together. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, and interestingly, all the members were also inducted for their work in other groups. David Crosby for The Byrds, Steven Stills for Buffalo Springfield, and Graham Nash for the Hollies. Each one of those bands was excellent. And Neil Young, who was part of CSN on and off over the years, a Canadian singer-songwriter, has also been inducted as a solo artist and as a member of Buffalo Springfield.
So each one of these four individuals is an extremely gifted and talented performer and singer-songwriter, and together they were just an explosive combination. Believe it or not, their first performance together was at the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival in 1969. It was an iconic, epic performance, and if you haven't had a chance to see it, you really should go on YouTube and check it out. Their first album as a trio was called Crosby Stills A Nash, appropriately enough. And from the very beginning, they kept their names as part of the title of the band specifically, so they wouldn't be permanently associated with this group, and they could go off on their own and do solo projects, which they did again and again. Sometimes in duos and sometimes as solo artists. They've made a lot of albums together and apart over many decades. Most of them gems.
Their eponymous album was released in 1969, and it was a major hit in the United States, peaking at number six on the billboard charts and stayed there for 107 weeks. That spawned two top-40 hits. One was called Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, which is a wonderful song, and another called Marrakesh Express. They also got a lot of FM air radio play. This song I'd like to discuss today is called Woodstock, appropriately Enough, and they didn't actually write it. It was written by singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, who also happens to be Canadian and also deserves her own podcast as one of the great performers of all time. And she composed the song based on what she had heard about the festival from her then-boyfriend, Graham Nash. David Crosby, who was there at one point, stated that Mitchell had captured the feeling and importance of the Woodstock Festival better than anyone who had actually been there. So her version is slower, deeper, and more contemplative. This is what it sounded like:
Now, in 1970 CSN covered this song on their album, Deja Vu. The band's version introduced major changes to the tone and overall feel of the song. And something that I didn't know was that Jimmy Hendrix was involved early in the song's development and actually recorded on September 30th, 1969, half a year before the album came out, a version with him playing bass and overdubbing the guitar. This was eventually released on an album called Both Sides of the Sky in 2018. The sound engineer of that gig, whose name was Eddie Kramer, stated that with Jimmy helping this song along, it sounds more like Crosby, stills, and Hendrix. So what a lineup to put together for a song. Crosby, Stills, Nash, Mitchell, and Hendrix. And the results, I think you'll agree, were fantastic. Well, let's check it out. This is Woodstock by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young:
I beg your indulgence for a few minutes to give you two history lessons. One in the history of music and the other in the history of Kabbalah. And then to see how the two things can be related and how they could possibly relate to Crosby, Stills, and Nash in their song. At first, melody was everything in music. It sounded something like this:
There wasn't so much of a concept of harmony in the Middle Ages. It was possible for two notes to be played together, but it wasn't done that often. As I said, they were much more focused on the melody. During the Renaissance, there was more of a concept of harmony, and up to three notes could be sounded together at the same time, and that became known as a chord. Famously a chord is three or more tones being sounded at the same time. So that was quite a revelation, quite a discovery in the history of music that it didn't have to only be about the melody or, even better, that it was possible to combine several melodies at the exact same time and to produce something far more grand than the simple chanting that was being done before.
A chord is like a miniature dynamic closed system. I think of it sort of like an atom with protons and electrons. It's its own little world, and there are certain tensions within a cord and certain balance, and a chord generally wants to either resolve somewhere or wants to sit somewhere, depending on how the chord is voiced. But suffice it to say it was a grand advance in the history of music. So what does this have to do with Kabbalistic thinking?
One of the major themes of Kabbalah is the idea that there are 10 energy structures that underlie the entire universe. And although we could speak about this for hours, and there are literally hundreds of books written on this topic, which I encourage you to go out and research on your own. Originally these 10 structures were considered like points. They were distinct from each other and functioned separately from each other and very much like our tones in music. Amazingly around the time of the Renaissance, which seems to have been this both culturally and spiritually explosive moment in history, steps onto the stage a Kabbalist whose name was Isaac Luria, also known as the Arizal.
And he introduced the idea that these distinct spheres of energy could also function simultaneously in a terminology he labeled Partzuf, which literally means the face. That you could sound, so to speak, several of these energies at once and that they interacted and that they could exist and function simultaneously exactly like a chord. The question for us in terms of our spiritual exploration is which of those more accurately reflects the nature of the spiritual world?
Well, it's a tenet of at least the Judaic belief in the spiritual world, that in that world, multiple things can happen at the exact same time, as strange as that might sound, that it's possible to be at two times at once, it's possible to be in two places at once, that there's a lot more fluidity in the higher dimensions, let's call it, than in the dimension that we generally occupy.
As such, chords clearly represent spirituality in a greater fashion than single tones do. And therefore, the understanding both Kabbalistically and musically advanced for whatever reason in the 15th century and helped us to understand spirituality through music and through thinking contemplation. We've mentioned before that there are seven things that everyone wants out of life. We spoke about love, and last week we spoke about the need to be understood.
An additional one of those seven is harmony, that people want to live harmonious lives and they want to feel that their existence is resonating with the rest of existence, that it's resonating with people around them. People want to be in harmony with the important people in their lives and not in discord. Obviously, it's extremely pleasurable for people when they feel harmony between themselves and those around them, and we seek that all the time. Musically speaking, one of the fascinating things is that dissonance became more and more popular as time went on.
During the Renaissance even, dissonance wasn't allowed in music, or if it was allowed, it was treated extremely carefully over time. For instance, in Jazz, dissonance became incorporated into the music itself in a way that it was extremely compelling and extremely effective.
This reached its zenith, I think, with the composer John Cage, who sought to demonstrate that all of life was harmonious. And he did that through his famous piece, 4:22, which essentially consisted of a musician walking out on stage, opening up the piano, and sitting there for four minutes and 22 seconds, and that's it. And the music, as far as he was concerned, was whatever sounds the audience made, which for the first performance included people getting up, walking out, and yelling. But his idea was dissonance isn't so bad and that, actually, life is replete with harmony. It just may not be a harmony that you understand.
Yet many people listen to modern classical music or Jazz and think, what the heck is this? It doesn't make any sense. I can't get it. And the truth is, it may be very beautiful, and there may be an amazing structure to it, but you have to be taught about it to really appreciate it, and that takes some time and some effort. The same is true, by the way, with spirituality. You have to understand it; you have to work on it. It doesn't just naturally occur.
And one of the interesting things about the band Crosby, Stills, and Nash, who are known internationally, known and acclaimed for their harmonies, is that among themselves, they weren't too harmonious. There were fights, disagreements, they admit that they were highly opinionated, extremely egotistical people, and they fought a lot, and they fought about the direction of the music. But at the end of the day, when it came down to sitting down and making the music, they got on the same page, and they sang.
They sang their hearts out, and the result was the result, which is a remarkably durable and impactful series of songs that is their catalog. Just one word about the lyrics, there's almost an overt religiosity to the lyrics that Joni Mitchell wrote. She viewed the Woodstock experience as being a transcendent one. Ultimately. Listen to what she says in the opening:
I came upon a child of God. He was walking along the road, and I asked him, where are you going? And this, he told me, I'm going down to Yasgur's farm. I'm going to join in a rock and roll band. I'm going to camp out on the land. I'm going to try to get my soul free. We are stardust, we are golden, and we have got to get ourselves back to the garden.
That's pretty religious sounding. So what is this garden? So Woodstock was more than just a rock concert. It was a cultural earthquake in some ways. It was a massive group of people who figured out how to share and get along and enjoy their time together in an extremely peaceful and harmonious way. So much so that it shocked the world, and it was perhaps an attempt on a micro-scale to live inside of that garden to try to reclaim that initial innocence and purity and goodness that we think of when we talk about the original biblical garden. Whether or not they actually did it, whether they succeeded, whether it was real, whether it would've lasted. It's up for debate, but certainly, 50 years later, its effects are still reverberating in our culture.
And for those who love music, it remains a significant musical and cultural phenomenon. Harmony is a critical part of all of our lives. We all seek it at all times. We feel negatively when we don't have it. And we're happy when we do. The history of music and the history of Kabbalah seem to reflect that harmony brings us literally to a higher plane of awareness.
And I hope that we're able to just ruminate over these ideas and consider that maybe it's possible for me to increase my appreciation of the harmony in my life, whether it sounds discordant or not, and to use that as a springboard to reach higher and higher levels.
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