ARTICLE: Mood, soul manifest through sounds

Take a chance on chants
By Stephen Powell

East meets West.

During the past few generations, that often has meant Westerners, feeling bereft of a vital spiritual tradition, have turned to Eastern religions and meditation as a nourishing substitute. For the Easterner, it has meant a turn to the kind of abundance and joys provided by Western material life.

But rarely, at their central core, have those distinct global sensibilities truly met.

When Annette Cantor was in a class Shanti Maffey (Shanti Shivani) was leading on the "yoga of sound" for pregnant women, the beginnings of a fertile collaboration were in the making. Whereas Cantor steeped in vocal and violin training from the Western classical tradition, Maffey has been a devotee of dhrupad, the most austere of India’s ancient classical music.

The two first experimented with various ways to come together. However, they soon realized each had to stick to the heart of what her training had offered.

To their surprise, in that purity and depth, they found a sublime meeting ground.

Temple Beth Shalom hosts a duet performance by Cantor and Maffey at 7 p.m. Sunday, May 23…
In East Indian classical music, the voice always has been considered the highest, most pristine vehicle for musical expression. All other instruments attempt to replicate the integrity and ethereal dimensions of that human instrument.

Dhrupad is considered the most esoteric and exacting of those vocal traditions, a type of discipline based on the belief that there are two kinds of sound – one spiritual and beyond the dimensions of the outer ear, the other physical and audible.
It is that "unstruck" sound, believed to be a liberator of the soul, to which the student of dhrupad always is moving.
Accompanying the journey is a four-string tambura, which produces a drone sound that serves as a reference point for the performer and listener alike. 

Into that austere tradition arrived Maffey as a young woman on an eight-year pilgrimage to the East. Maffey started out with tablas and sitar but soon her teacher encouraged her to sing.

Maffey blossomed, becoming one of the few Westerners to bring dhrupad to the post-modern world.

Even in India, dhrupad has lost favor to the flashier, less devotional and more pop-oriented styles of music.

"When you learn how to sing and then be within pure sounds, you find a deeper and deeper inner peace within yourself." Maffey said in a recent interview. "It is from there that you connect with the anahata nada, the unstruck sound. We all have these sounds that are within us, that are unmanifest, that are reflections of the state of consciousness that we are in."

Hearing Maffey sing is not so much a listening experience as it is exquisitely entering into the notes for which her body and vocal cords serve as vehicles.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, Western Christiandom codified a type of devotional singing originally referred to as a plainchant or plainsong.
Later Pope Gregory sanctified that growing body of choral work by integrating it into the Mass. Thereafter the form was known as Gregorian chant.

Founded upon the Latin motto Bis orat quui canta ("the one who sings prays twice"), written by St. Ambrose (A.D. 397), the chants literally became a way of creating the religious refuge prayers invoked.

Like the dhrupad tradition, Gregorian chants were meant to be sung and experienced from the inside out. 

"Annette comes from an entirely different tradition," Maffey said, "But we bring the same devotional aspect, the same feeling of an inner sanctuary both traditions wanted devotees to connect with.

"We get to soar together. Interestingly Gregorian chants use the old Greek scales, which are the same as the old Indian scales."
Cantor’s classical voice training comes from an education in oratorio (lead singing) and violin at the Vienna School for Music and Dramatic Arts in Austria. She came to the United States to study healing arts and in 1988, became a certified teacher of the Alexander Technique.

Collaborating since last February, Cantor and Maffey have developed an uncanny way of communicating by improvising together on two historically separate but philosophically akin ways of approaching the human voice. The results are stunning.

Their performances are not so much concerts as opportunities to experience the expanse of the human mood and soul become manifest through sound. Their performing becomes a meditation, an invitation to the listener to bathe in the devotional space of the devotees.