Donna Quesada: Well, Jill, it’s just wonderful to meet you. I’m so thrilled and excited about this because the voice and sound is
something I’m personally interested in and I’m so thrilled to bring your expertise to our community. So, thank you for joining us today.
Jill Purce: You’re welcome, yeah.
DONNA: But first, we have a special way that we like to start these conversations. They are more like conversations than interviews… and that is with the question of awakening. And I would like to hear you share what your feeling of awakening is. What is awakening to you?
JILL: Awakening for me is to be awakened to the presence of the spirit. And to incorporate that into every moment of every day.
DONNA: So simple and so beautiful. To be awake to the presence of spirit. And you’ve used voice and you’ve used sound as a conduit to that place where you can touch spirit and bring it into our lives…
JILL: Yeah. One of the hardest things… and the core of every spiritual tradition… is how to be present. We have this way of regretting what we forgot to do yesterday and therefore anticipating and dreading what we have to do tomorrow, which is largely not going to happen, anyway. And so, we create this circuit of anxiety, which leaves us out of the loop because we are unable to be present if we are in the past and in the future… which don’t exist.
And so, the very core of all spiritual tradition is how to induct us into the present. So, we are not thinking about the past and constructing an illusory future. And there are many meditation techniques that are about all of that. That’s the very core of all them. And the simplest is using the voice because you can only chant in the present. But you can chant in the present and still make a shopping list. So, the key when chanting is that it’s more important to listen to the sound that you are making, than it is to make the sound that you are listening to.
So, in other words, you are creating a circuit of attention. So, mindfulness is a war of being mindful of everything that is around you. But this is where you are doing the thing that you are being mindful of. And so, you are creating the circuit of attention, which teaches us how to be present when we are not doing the thing that we are mindful of.
DONNA: This is wildly wonderful and fascinating to me. So, let me just take a step back to connect the dots and bring listeners in with us. So, bringing the divine with us into our lives is to awaken? And we do that in the present and that is what all spiritual traditions have in common… Are they guiding us into the present moment? Would it be fair to say? Or is it over simplifying… that tapping into this divine presence is being present? They are one and the same?
JILL: Yep. Definitely. I talk about the three P’s. Praise, Petition and Participation. So, in traditional cultures, there was a sense that our lives were held in the hands of some main, great spiritual being and that it is polite… We have to have good manners. And how we have good manners with this great powerful being is by honoring and praising them.
So, how great, how wonderful, green or blue, blah, blah. Which was all done through chanting. In the bible, there are 222 references to praise. And then, only then, when you have praised with good manners do you then ask permission… Do you then ask “can you make it rain so my crop will grow?” “Help my children pass exams?” So, first praising, then petitioning. And then, on a more sophisticated level, participating.
So, praise, petition and participation. Participation, for example… In the Tibetan practice where you have a lot of deities differentiated in different ways… They all carry qualities of enlightenment. And if you are aligning yourself with one of them, you are getting a particular quality of enlightenment. And in some of the earliest stages, you see this being put in front of you and you ask favors. You are participating.
And on a more sophisticated level, you become a manifestation of that particular enlightenment. You actually become that being yourself, and you embody the qualities of enlightenment that that being carries. So, participation is a much more sophisticated level.
DONNA: Why must we praise? I have to take a relative detour here. What about when one asks, and surely some ask this… Are the Gods so insecure that they need praise?
JILL: Well, I think it’s just good manners. That is a good question. If you look at the Gods in different traditions, they are pretty dodgy characters. If you look at the Greek Gods or the Abrahamic Gods or if you look at the Hindu Gods… They are all up to incredible nonsense and mischief. I mean, it’s quite terrifying. They are all very strange characters and I’m sure they all respond very favorably to praising them.
DONNA: A good thing for westerners to remember is that the Gods aren’t all necessarily good. They can be mischievous, as well.
JILL: You just have to read the old testament for that. It’s full of the most terrifying stories.
DONNA: You said something very interesting… so it’s Praise, Petition and Participation?
JILL: That is my characterization. I didn’t find it anywhere else. It’s something that I have come to over years of working, as a way of thinking about it.
DONNA: Let’s dive into it because sound, for me personally, enabled me to deepen my practice… it was the chanting. And so, that’s why I connected so much with your work. Let’s dive in there. You said something that really piqued my curiosity. In this step, the participation step… we have to listen to what we are doing. More than listen to the thing… Being present has to do with how I am participating. Am I capturing that correctly?
JILL: The ultimate delusion is the delusion of separation, which is the core of every problem. Sound allows us… if we are chanting, then we are in the present. And if we are listening to ourselves chanting, then that is the circuit of attention. It overcomes the separation because we become the sound… which is the present moment. There is no separation.
DONNA: So, there is a right way to chant and there is a wrong way to chant? And I hate to use that division “right” and “wrong,” but let’s say I’m deepening my sense of connection… the Yogic purpose, here… but being present and hearing my voice as I chant, and merging with the sound current…
JILL: Yes, and there are lots of different ways of listening. When we think of listening normally, we think of critical listening. Judgmental listening. Is my voice better that someone else’s is? Am I singing in the right pitch? When we are listening to anything, we are comparing it to something else. That’s not the kind of listening I am talking about. I’m talking about a kind of integral listening, where there is no separation between our hearing and the sound itself. And this is the key really.
In that way we overcome the separation, which is the core of all of our delusions… which is the delusion. Ignoring… that there is no separation. That’s what ignorance is. Ignoring.
And by ignoring that there is no separation, even though we know there isn’t… we then, If I see you as separate from me, at least it leads me to want more of you. It leads me to the state of attachment, where I am trying all the time to have more of you. Or, I am lumbered with you and I am pushing you away, which is aversional anger.
In Tibetan Buddhism, there are The Three Poisons. And they are seen as the core of all our problems because through this delusion of separation… through this ignoring that there is no separation… we act as if there is a separation, which by definition leads us to having more of what we can’t have. And not wanting what we do have, and that gives rise to all the reactive passions… which gives rise to all of our problems. Physical, emotional, and psychological.
DONNA: And you use Tibetan mantras to facilitate this process…
JILL: Well I do, but when I started this work, which was a very long time ago… this rediscovery of the voice many years ago, in the late 70s, and what I realized then is that we had gone silent… all the ways that, as a society, we chanted together. Societal, spiritual activities had somehow been eroded through atheism. Also, musical literacy… when people start writing music down, they can capture these very complex ways of doing things, and compositions, and so forth. But then the people that play them somewhere else execute them.
What it means in a sense, is that sacred music was hijacked by the professionals. Because only the professionals can read music. Most people can’t read music. So, this meant that we were disaffected from our sacred musical chanting tradition. And then, these societal activities, where we chant together, were gradually being eroded. The sense of professionalism… People are told to stand in the back because they don’t sing in tune.
Not all children sing in tune, but it’s something that you can learn. If you are told at an early age that you can’t sing in tune, then it’s very hard to do the two things you need, which is to show off and to listen. You don’t want to show off because you are going to be told something and you don’t want to listen because you are going to be told something horrible and that is what you are going to hear.
So, all of this led to us having these kinds of devices to which we put professional music, which is acceptable. And we put earphones on to ram it back inside us. There is a sonorous vacuum.
So, when I started, I was very aware that to sing or chant, you had to join a choir. In those days you had to have an audition, read music. All the things that most people couldn’t do. But that’s all changed now. So that’s why I started giving workshops. And I thought, if we are going to sing again, what are we going to sing? There is no use singing songs. It could be the right songs or the wrong songs. You step on this side of the border or that side of the border and it’s the wrong song. So, words are a problem. And words are also a problem because they are in time. They take us from here to there. A beginning a middle and an end. They are linear… they are part of the whole problem with evolution. Salvation history. The whole western development… which is taking us away from the present.
So, my question to myself, when I look back, although I didn’t ask it at the time, was… if we are going to sing, what are we going to sing? And so, I came across this kind of chanting from central Asia, where there are no words. And where we sing on a single note. But we amplify the harmonics, which are these inner notes… the inner structure of the sound itself, that normally we don’t hear. And we amplify so loudly, but you hear the notes higher than the note itself. And this has an additional really important feature, which is one of the things that happened to music in the 17th Century, with the popularity of keyboard instruments, which have fixed tuning, is… you press down a key and a damper off… a lever comes up, and you can’t modulate it.
And so, this fixed tuning system meant that we couldn’t tune it the way that we had in the past. From one note to the fifth above that. It’s called the circle of fifths. And the thing about the circle of fifths is that when you should reach the octave above when you started, it overlaps by a quarter of a semi-tone and that is the problem.
So, the question is, what do we do with this little bit of overlap? So, what happened in the 17th Century is that a tempered scale was adopted… after much talk and discussion by mathematicians and musicians, was how to do that. So, in a sense, the spiral became an eternal go-round. This little bit of sounds was put into the octave, so all the tuned relationships between the notes were stretched or squashed. In other words, made it out of tune. So, since the 17th Century, it has been, and still is, out of tune.
And it can only be out of tune and Bach celebrated this with his Preludes and Fugues for the well-tempered clavier. Show how now you could play in every single key which you couldn’t do before. So, this means that whenever we are listening to music, whenever we are making music… by default, we are no longer authentic. We are no longer sonorous with our own constant geometry… with the sonorous geometry of nature. We are out of tune. At the same time, it wouldn’t be possible to have all this glorious musical tradition without this. I call it a pact with the devil. A Faustian bargain. We’ll make all of our music out of tune and look what we can do with it.
DONNA: Why is it that we don’t hear it? Because there is something so mathematical about being in tune…
JILL: Well, that was the assumption, that we couldn’t hear it… because the out of tune is barely audible. Only if you have a really accurate ear can you hear it. Most people haven’t a clue. They can’t hear it. And that was the assumption… that nobody would hear it. But there are some people that can and its agony for them.
DONNA: You’ve blown my mind. That is fascinating.
JILL: So, this whole point about the chanting of this over-tone… is that they are in tune. And so, what I discovered is that this chanting was a way of retuning ourselves… in tune with each other and with nature, so we could be healthy and sound in mind and in body.
DONNA: So, it seems like, just to recap a little bit… and you can correct me where I have misunderstood… From the 17thCentury, we have been acclimating ourselves to a musical scale that isn’t exactly accurate. And that, coupled with the process of writing music and executing music… interesting word!… The process of killing it has distanced us from its healing power?
JILL: Exactly. Yeah. That’s it. And that’s why I felt for one thing, it was really essential to bring people together to create sonorous communities. And sonorous communities that were making music that was in tune with each other and with the world around us. That we could be… You know, people talk about being disenchanted. So, the answer to that is to be enchanted! Which means, to be made magical through chanting.
Jill Purce is a British voice teacher, Family Constellations therapist, and author. In the 1970s Purce developed a new way of working with the voice, introducing the teaching of group overtone chanting, producing a single note whilst amplifying the vocal harmonics. She is a former fellow of King’s College London, Biophysics Department and has produced over 30 books as General Editor of the Thames and Hudson Art and Imagination series. Between 1971 and 1974 she lived and worked in Germany with the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. Since the early 1970s she has taught internationally-diverse forms of contemplative chant, particularly overtone chanting. For over twenty years she has been leading Family Constellations combined with chant. www.healingvoice.com
She is the author of The Mystic Spiral: Journey of the Soul a book about the spiral in sacred traditions, art and psychology, as well as numerous articles.
Read and watch Part 2 Here: Awaken Interviews Jill Purce – Pt 2 – The Power of the Feminine
Read and Watch Part 3 Here: Awaken Interviews Jill Purce – Pt 3 – The Resonant Field of Family Constellations