From the Goddess
is proud to present our first interview. Robert Gass has been
involved with the study of chanting and spiritual music for over
twenty years. A frequent lecturer and workshop leader, he is the
founder of Spring Hill Music, a leading producer of chanting and
transformational music. His own CD's and tapes made with his renowned
choral group, On Wings of Song, have sold more than 600,000 copies
and were hailed by New Age Journal as "the most influential
recordings of the last twenty years." For those in the
Wiccan/Pagan community you have no doubt had the opportunity to hear
some of his chants as .wav files over the internet. Two of the most
popular being From the Goddess and May the Circle Be Open chants.
Thanks for stopping in and without further ado we present Robert Gass.
Tell us a little bit about when music first began to be an influence
in your life and how it progressed into what it is now?
earliest memory is of music. Around age 3, we used to go visit my
grandparents on Sunday afternoon. They had a piano and I used to sit
in front of the piano and literally play for hours. They had old
classical sheet music which obviously I couldn't read, but I would
sit there and look at it and let my hands dance on the piano. The
earliest memory is of feeling energy, color of movement and of being
connected to something larger than myself.
I started formal studies of music around age 6 or
7, taking classical piano. My teachers wanted to groom me for concert
halls from an early age, but while I enjoyed classical music, what I
loved most was singing with people. Now, I didn't grow up with chant.
The songs I knew mostly came from musical comedies. What I found was
that if I took the choruses to the musicals I had learned, and
started playing them over and over again, everyone would join in.
Everywhere I went, I got groups of people singing together Looking
back on it, it was a predecessor to my current experience with chant.
When I got to high school, it was the time of the
folk music revival in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near where I lived.
They had these things called "Hootenannies's" where
musicians and non-musicians alike would come together singing simple
repetitive songs over and over again.
Songs like, "If I had a Hammer" or
"We Shall Overcome" or "Amazing Grace". I played
my accordion. Looking back on it, though none of us would have then
used the word "spiritual" experience, it was very similar
to the kinds of things we experience today in chanting.
I was still studying classical music all this
time and went to college at Harvard as a music major. But being a
child of the 60's, I moved away from classical music and joined a
rock band. Rock and roll concerts in the late 60's were ritualistic
affairs. I remember looking out and seeing crowds of people singing
along and chanting, dancing, swaying, holding hands and doing tribal
dancing. Very primal and again, very spiritual in a way.
When I was 22, I was exposed for the first time
to sacred chant at a yoga retreat with Swami Satchidananda. The
chanting was very familiar to me, combining the heartfulness of a
sing-a-long with the ecstasy of a rock concert, and the spirituality
of meditation of which I was just discovering. So as soon as I
experienced that, it was, "Oh, this is what I've been looking
for!" From that day forth I really immersed myself in the study
and practice of chanting.
When did "On Wings of Song" come about, as a formal group?
In the mid seventies my wife, Judith and I, were part of an eclectic,
spiritual community called Spring Hill in Massachusetts. We created
psycho-spiritual workshops called "Opening the Heart" and
used a lot of chanting in the workshops. People would often say,
"Gee, you should record these so we can take them home and bring
back some of the memories of the workshop". So around 1978 I
called a bunch of my friends together, bought a simple four tack
recorder and turned it on at our barn while we sang some of the
chants from the workshop.
The tape (still sold today) was called "Many
Blessings". We tried to get the New Age music distributor to
carry it but they said, "People don't want vocal music. We like
it but our customers want Windham Hill style material". So we
just sold it at our workshops and thought that was the end of it.
We had so much fun making the chanting tape that
we decided to start performing together as "On Wings of
Song". From around 1979-1986 we performed many concerts in the
Northeast and in California. Every year we became more professional,
our music sounded better and we performed for larger audiences. It
was a unique blend of tribal rock and chanting both political and
spiritual. We called our events "Transformances", as they
were designed not simply to entertain, but to move and uplift the
human spirit. We did some more recordings, but they continued to be
sold sold primarily at our concerts.
A number of years later, after our family had
moved to Colorado, I got a call late at night from a man named John
Paul who was a representative of Sondra Ray, a well-known author and
workshop leader. One of their students had taken our 5-minute
arrangement of "Om Namaha Shivya" on the original "Many
Blessings" tape and made a 90 minute loop of it. She was
playing it for the people at her Loving Relationships Trainings, who
were chanting along and having incredible ecstatic experiences. They
wanted us to make a 90-minute version of "Om Namaha Shivaya"
so that they can sell it at workshops.
Actually, my first thought was "What a dumb
idea!. Who would want 90 minutes of the same music over and over
again?" But I said yes, and looped the 5-minute chant into a
90-minute cassette. Much to my surprise, something magical happened.
The world came beating a path to our door. Stores and distributors
from literally all over the world wanted to start carrying it . It
became a best seller, with sales that have continued to grow over the
last 13 years. Even more important, something on this tape opens
people's hearts, connects them to spirit. We receive such wonderful
letters about the impact of this chant on peoples' lives. And so we
began recording our series of chanting tapes and CDs.
Is the current group pretty much the same group that you began with?
While we don't perform anymore, we still record. Amazingly enough,
there are probably a good number of people who have been singing with
us over fifteen years. I have also continued to grow the group to our
current 45+ singers. We also have several children of original
members, now in their late teens and early twenties, who have joined.
Where does the material come from? Do you have to wander around to
find the choruses and the chants you record?
working on a new album right now and I actually listened to about
150 chants jut this morning seeking new material.
Is it difficult to find new material or is it just something that
very personal, and I can't always predict what will move me. I don't
try to be all things to all people. I have a certain aesthetic which
appeals to me and I find there are a many people it appeals to also.
I am definitely looking for chants that are accessible, that will
touch people in our contemporary western cultures. When I take music
from other cultures, I westernize it to a degree, to make it more
familiar and agreeable to the western ear yet I still try to maintain
it's authenticity and cultural flavor.
What kind of correlation's do you see between music and spirituality?
small question (laughing). To me, music, and in particular chanting,
make spiritual concepts such as oneness, love, and inner peace into a
living vibration, a reality. Music in many ways is a bridge between
the world of spirit and the material world in which we live. Its
right at that dividing line. Music is invisible, but we feel it. It
can move matter, as we experience in low-flying jets, ultra-sound
cleaning of our teeth, or the furniture in our house vibrating to
music from the stereo. For me chanting is a spiritual path, a
spiritual practice, the way to bring us closer to God or the Divine.
When I was researching the book, every
tradition I looked at has some form of chanting. It's universal. I
hear over and over again from people who didn't feel connected to
their religious upbringing until the music touched them. Today, when
they hear the music from their childhood that was part of their
church or temple or whatever, it still touches them, even though the
concepts of religion may not.
Tell me a little about your book and where the idea came from?
I believe the idea for the book was Spirit's. I didn't have the idea
for Om Namaha Shivaya, and I had never considered writing a book on
chanting either. I was actually in New York peddling to publishers a
book called "Soul Work" on my coaching work with leaders. A
publisher came to me and said, "We need a book on chant, would
you write a book on chant for us?" It came out of left field,
but it felt right and I said, "Yes."
When you set out to do a new piece of music, do you have any goals in
mind for the overall content and flow of the project?
For most albums, I receive an inspiration for the whole, a gestalt, a
vision. For the album "From the Goddess", I was lying in a
field of mountain flowers here in Colorado and for the first time I
had an experience of the Goddess, or the feminine face of the Divine.
She talked to me and explicitly said, "Do this!" It was
very clear what I was being asked to do.
Most of my albums have been like that. There has
really been a kind of organizing principal, a vision, or sometimes
it's more of a feeling, and I get the whole thing at once. After
that, I work to make the pieces represent or fulfill that concept or vision.
When you do an album like "Ancient Mother" where there are
lots of different traditions represented and lots of separate pieces
of music, are they sequenced in any way?
I pay great attention to the sequencing. In "Ancient
Mother" I used natural sounds to weave the pieces together, so
that the listeners won't feel bounced all over the universe, culture
to culture, from the 14th century to the 20th century and back to the
17th century. I'm trying to guide people, take them on a journey,
create an experience. It's much more than entertainment. So, I'm
trying to feel my way into the journey and use the music and sequence
it very carefully to take people on that journey.
What kind of feelings, emotions or experiences do you want people to
walk away with from one of your performances?
I do a concert, it's often for conferences. For example, when I do
music at the "Body and Soul" conferences there are several
things I wish to communicate. It's about community, wanting people
who are lost in their own personal feelings and personal history to
come together and experience their essential oneness. Their hearts
open and they feel one with humanity and with their brothers and
sisters in the room through song, through dance and through shared
prayers. But it's not just oneness with people, but also an
experience of communion with Spirit. The last thing is ecstasy,
having an ecstatic experience that takes them beyond the boundaries
of who they think they are and into ecstatic joy.
Do you think that once people experience these emotions and feelings
that they take them with them back into their everyday lives or do
they just sort of say "Oh, that was nice" and then fall
back into their normal routines without giving it a second thought?
the whole range in between. For some, it's like a drug, and it wears
off and all they know how to do is go back and try to get another
hit. For other people it becomes an ongoing process, a spiritual
practice, where they learn increasingly elevate their lives and
consciousness to frequency of Spirit.
Do you find your work reaching a broader audience now than in the
past because of the renewed interest in "alternative"
religions and spiritual paths that have flourished over the last few year?
What used to be the counter-culture is now mainstream. One, we have
grown up. People who were 25 or 30 and on the fringe years back are
now 50 and have become the mainstream. Second, alternative
spirituality has found its way out of that niche. Health and
wellness, spirituality, meditation, are part of our national culture.
How would you define your own spiritual path, or is it a mixture of
say it is a mixture of many things makes it sound jumbled and it's
not. It feels very coherent, but it's more on the inside than the
outside. I have been a practitioner of Vipassana meditation, a form
of Buddhist meditation, for 20 years. I also consider myself Jewish,
which was the religion of my upbringing. But I do some Sufi practices
and a lot of my connection to Spirit comes through time alone in the wilderness.
It does sound a little jumbled but then again I think sometimes to
make it a very individual path, you borrow and take from a lot of
different traditions and beliefs. You don't necessarily identify them
as "a piece of this and a piece of that" but rather you
look at it as a cohesive whole.
not a supermarket approach. I find what works, and stay with it.
It's not about the practices anyway. It's about God. And God is One.
You talked in your book about the healing properties of chant. Could
you tell me a little bit about what those properties are?
as a spiritual practice is very embodied, it is happening in your
body. The actual tones of chant fill your body with vibrating sound.
The way you chant is very much like getting a massage on your inside.
Your inner organs, your cell structure and your skin are all
vibrating with sound, so that part of it, the actual physical effect
of the tone is vibrating in your body. The overtones that are
produced naturally and sometimes artificially in chanting have an
effect on consciousness. Chanting is also a breathing practice. When
you chant, your breathing naturally slows down. In our much too busy
everyday lives we are typically breathing 12 to 15 times a minute.
And what is considered ideal for Mind/Body connections and health is
5 to 8 times a minute. Which is why in every Mind/Body practice they
always say "Breath!" Well, when you chant, that happens
naturally without your ever thinking about it. When you chant there
are only so many places to breathe as you sing. The flow of the
phrases controls the breathing, so we click into that slower breath
rate. So as you chant you find many things happening in your
Mind/Body practice. Your breathing slows down, your heart rate slows
down, your blood pressure goes down. There's a release of endorphins.
There is a decrease in the production of stress related hormones, and
increased lymphatic circulation. All these things happen as you chant.
There are some people who associate chanting with a certain spiritual
path. Eastern religions tend to be very chant oriented. And people
still associate it with these Eastern spiritual paths and feel they
don't want to be associated with this form of religion. Does that
hinder your music's acceptance at all?
because it's not true. Every religion chants. If you go to any
Orthodox Jewish Temple, the entire service is chant from beginning to
end. There are no spoken words, it's all chanted. If you go into a
Catholic Mass, much of the service is chanted. Lutheran worship
service was traditionally chanted. I consider gospel music a form of
chant. All religions embody chanting.
On our new double album, "Chant," I
deliberately tried to create an experience of chant that transcends
any one religion, and would appeal to many. I chose chants that I
thought, even if people didn't think of it as chanting, would love it
to listen to because it is beautiful. I picked chants where
performances would sound good to western ears. People who would think
they would never want to hear a recording of chant would say
"This is chant? WOW! That's really good." And it affects
them too. I wove the 30 chants I selected into two discs. One CD is
called "Ecstasy"--all chants that raise energy. The other
is called Stillness, and is designed to bring the listener slowly
into a state of meditative awareness. Even people who are not on a
spiritual path feel the impact of it and they like the way they feel
when they hear this music.
Are there any things we should be looking for from you in the near future?
things. One is the record "Enchanted" which is a
retrospective, coming out in October. And then I am also working on a
new album which will use chants from a number of traditions. I'm
taking traditional chant forms and melodies, but making pieces which
are more artistically complex than ever before, yet at the same time
really working with the powers of chant to create a spiritual experience.
We will be looking forward to that. Thank you, Mr. Gass for your time
and a wonderful talk with us.