Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Use of Silence in Learning Tai Chi

There is a western prejudice against silence. Even in the days of early cinema “silent” movies were accompanied by music from a single piano or a full orchestra. Music set the mood and glossed over the embarrassing sniffling and shuffling of the audience. Music supplied the rhythm that might otherwise be absent in the movie editor’s continuity. When I see Tai Chi demonstrations presented on youtube or on DVDs where the “master” is filmed at the beach or in the mountains with a sound track of Chinese music (usually not in synch with the movement) I think of this strange tendency we have not to trust visual images to stand alone. When I am in a class following along in the “Chinese dance” of Tai Chi to the boom box beat of a new age melody I wonder why my internal rhythms are not sufficient for orchestrating my form. Indeed, I have a difficult time visualizing the early masters of the Yang family practicing Tai Chi attended by players of the Pipa, the Guqin, the Qinqin and the Bamboo Flute!

Harken back with me (again) to the idea rich 1960s to meet two unique individuals, a filmmaker and a composer, who will help me make my point. There was this fellow, Stan Brakhage, who lived in the Colorado mountains making what some called “experimental films” (rather, we like to use the term “personal films”). A kind of cult grew up around him, sometimes including myself, of filmmakers who rejected the sound track, or at least the use of music in film, as an intrusion of over-powering and counter-productive mood and rhythm. Brakhage made a film called “Mothlight” by sandwiching the wings of moths between strips of clear editing tape and running this through a motion picture printer. He was on a quest to create “Visual Music.” Although silent, you can hear and feel the music of this film. It is rhythmic and melodic. I believe Tai Chi practiced in silence can achieve a similar kind of internal musicality.

The experimental composer, John Cage, felt that all sounds were music. Silence, he said, does not exist. There is a wonderful story about him entering a sound proof room in search of silence, but realizing his own body generated pulses and rhythms and tones. The following is from his book, “Silence: Lectures and Writings.”

There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot. For certain engineering purposes, it is desirable to have as silent a situation as possible. Such a room is called an anechole chamber, its six walls made of special material, a room without echoes. I entered one at Harvard University several years ago and heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he imformed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation.

Your heart beat and your breathing supply two significant rhythms which are always with you. What is the sound of Qi? A Zen master might say it is the soundless sound. I don’t mean to imply that Tai Chi is like a dance to the rhythms of your biological system. It is more complicated than that. Consider what the movements represent (techniques of martial art) and why the pace is so slow (possibly because Yang Lu-chang, founder of the Yang family style, wanted to disguise the form and hide its secrets from the emperor). Each individual movement, and I’m already committing an error since the form is one long continuous movement, has its own cadence and duration. To think of the form as sequence of equal “measures” is to impose western quantitative analysis on a natural, and therefore mostly indeterminate phenomenon. Pacing yourself to your breath and heart beat makes a great deal of sense to me. Breath! This will need be another blog entry. Now, however, we need to give equal time to the use of music in learning Tai Chi.

In Gordon Muir’s book, “Yang Style Traditional Long Form T’ai Chi Ch’uan,” there is a chapter written by his teacher, T. T. Liang, himself a student of Cheng Man Ching. In “Why We Should Practice T’ai Chi to Music,” Master Liang writes that practicing Tai Chi can be divided into 4 stages. First, you must memorize the number of beats for each posture, breathe naturally and not use music. Second, having mastered the guiding points, you will use beats, music and breathing. The third stage is to use only music for concentration. Of the fourth stage he says:

After practicing T’ai Chi with music for a sufficient time, you will forget the music, the movements, even yourself--- although you are proceeding as usual. At this stage you are in a trance…

Master Liang goes on to state that practicing without the use of music for concentration is the highest level of T’ai Chi we can attain, but that, after 35 years, being only human, he has not yet achieved this. The argument he makes which I like the most is that he likes music. I do too. In fact, I enjoy listening to music while I practice, but I do find it over-powering. The choice of exactly the right music is all important.

Gordon Muir has made T. T. Liang’s music available on his web site, I found it made me move a bit faster than I liked. I experimented with several new age pieces and some Chinese music and settled on Native American flute music, such as R. Carlos Nakai’s Canyon Trilogy. I found the soft flowing flute uplifting and helpful in creating my own flow of form, while its less rhythmic quality allowed me to follow my own natural pace. Lately, I have been experimenting with a piece of fractal music by Steven Berkowitz: “EC(s)TASIS” from his CD of the same name. Although intricate, it has a sort of drone quality and much like the flute music gives me a sense of timelessness. There is an underlying rhythm which is too fast to follow so you can adapt any number of beats to your own personal rhythm for syncopation.

So if I advocate the use of silence for learning Tai Chi, why am I listening to music? In my present world it is sometimes impossible to actually find silence, or at least enough quietude to enable my inner rhythms to guide me in my practice. An extreme example is the day I had to share the workout room at the health center with a person whose trainer was using rap music to instruct them in jump rope. So like T. T. Liang I would like to reach that ultimate level of Tai Chi practice without music: the Qi of silence.

1 comment:

  1. I once heard John Cage's "4'33" performed at a large concert hall filled with people and it was a very interesting experience! The "music" became all the little noises around us, people shifting in their seats, my own breathing, cars going by in the distance (it was an outdoor ampitheater).

    The little bit of Tai Chi I have done felt like learning a dance routine! But it would seem that if you were going to listen to music while practicing, something "droney" would be best. Something without a beat.

    Or practice on the beach to the sound of the ocean waves!