When you are in the heart

“When you are in the heart, there is nothing to say.”

At the Met Breuer last week, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and pianist Vijay Iyer performed music without melody, music with few patterns, music without beginning or even, quite, end. Was it music? Does it matter? Inspired by the February 1 New Yorker essay on Iyer, we went hoping to experience Iyer’s work within the study of embodied cognition.

The mind inside this body began the work of listening to the instrumental conversation, the improvisation of two geniuses. Quickly the mind became confused. These eyes looked for clues to the direction behind the sounds. Iyer, clad in black, seemed to bear an expression of perpetual questioning, perpetual listening. His hands and feet were making music on the super-sized Steinway but otherwise he was all ears. He seemed to be listening for the notes which were to come. Smith stood before us an amazing Presence, in a white jacket, dreadlocks pulled back into one massive, beautiful mane. Iyer held himself away from the formidable piano, as if to create a spaciousness for his arms and fingers to move about within. He maintained a respectful distance from the instrument and yet…. Smith seemed to swallow his instrument at times, licking the inside of the mouthpiece, blowing into the bell of the trumpet, drenching it with his juice. The mind continually cast about for the life ring of a melody, a recognizable, sustained pattern, anything that would speak to span and time and frame, anything familiar. But throughout the hour and a half experience, the mind found only fragments, vestiges of a musical language that seemed old, old, tired, and clingy by comparison to the language happening before us.

So the ears had to listen. Iyer says he is interested in what happens in the body of a listener “from the shoulders down,” meaning, I think, that he is wanting a person to feel her way through his music rather than think her way through it. He is interested in an emotional response, a heart-centered rather than mind-centered response. These ears really had to dig, and patterns that came seemed planted only to keep the old ears listening a bit longer, a kind of placating to allow the deeper experience to emerge in a body trained for something less vivid, aurally, less exciting; and it worked, and Iyer and Smith seemed to even enjoy these swift forays into patterns of oceanic rumblings and classical techniques. Even in the rumbling piano sequences – like an eruption on the Pacific floor, or the piling of cumulus clouds on a blue-sky day – it seemed that Iyer was feeling for and with each note he played. In these swells my heart felt carried, both in turmoil and in lullaby – my heart was in a feeling state – and even with the complexity of chords and multiplicity of notes, Iyer seemed to feel for and with each note he played. Just exquisite. The trumpet, a sublime range in dynamics; Smith made the trumpet sound like a whistle, then a flute, then a man wailing. The musicians, both men so beautiful in their enstasy.

First, the enstasy, then the ecstasy. The musicians experienced each note themselves before, during, after the execution of each. Never have I felt a musician so exposed before me. This was not performance but the experience of a seemingly unrehearsed and intimate conversation. I had to continually catch up to them. For most of the performance my eyes remained closed. I couldn’t listen and watch at the same time, because the mind is habituated to be gripped by the eyes. Eyes closed I entered the meditative state of blue sky, big enough to hold the power of the moment-by-moment unfolding of notes.

Afterward, we spoke of the performance as an experience of Savasana – the state of yogic sleep where the body becomes a corpse and the experience of being transcends the physical. Time collapses into something else. “Time,” says Iyer, “is a ghost of experience. Time is the feeling of eventfulness.”

The heart sang throughout. The heart swelled and leaped and subsided; the heart made way for the deeper swells of the belly, the viscera. I seemed to access a kind of dream state – again, a collapse of conventional time – and I felt with everyone in the room.

Although the conversation between the instruments and the men playing them felt compassionate and loving – no egos here, no play for dominance here – it is Smith who holds center with his bearing, his carriage, his Presence. As he wailed the final notes his body remained grounded, feet together, legs like one piece of kelp in the current, his clothing soaked with the effort of sustained mindful activity; and I recognized that his body had become a body of prayer. The breath, the breath, the breath: each breath he took and spent held so much intention and intelligence; each breath became a fleeting gift to savor. I kept expecting – oh, my inadequate 20th-century mind! – Smith to hold a note forever, as I knew he could; and yet he sublimated such predictable effort for the sake of compassionate presence. There was no display, no ego; just the truthfulness of the moment.

The body as a body of prayer: it takes humility, above all. It takes a continued acknowledgement of the inadequacy of one to achieve anything at all.

I am nothing without You.

“When you are in the heart,” said Smith, when the hundreds, thousands of notes had been spent, “there is nothing left to speak.”

Judy McClain