Discovering Spirit in Sound: 
AV Talks with Robert Gass

1999AmbientVisions

  

Robert Gass

To visit Robert Gass'
Website
click here.

 

Chanting: Discovering
Spirit in Sound

 

Chant: Spirit in Sound

 


Om Namaha Shivaya

 


Other Titles include:

Medicine Wheel

Heart of Perfect Wisdom

 Alleluia/Kyrie

Chant

From the Goddess

Ancient Mother


Ambient Visions 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.

 

AV: 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?

RG: My 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.

AV: When did "On Wings of Song" come about, as a formal group?

RG: 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.

AV: Is the current group pretty much the same group that you began with?

RG: 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.

AV: Where does the material come from? Do you have to wander around to find the choruses and the chants you record?

RG: I'm working on a new album right now and I actually listened to about 150 chants jut this morning seeking new material.

AV: Is it difficult to find new material or is it just something that moves you?

RG: It's 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.

AV: What kind of correlation's do you see between music and spirituality?

RG: A 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.

AV: Tell me a little about your book and where the idea came from?

RG: 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."

AV: 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?

RG: 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.

AV: 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?

RG: Absolutely. 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.

AV: What kind of feelings, emotions or experiences do you want people to walk away with from one of your performances?

RG: When 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.

AV: 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?

RG: And 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.

AV: 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?

RG: Unquestionably. 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.

AV: How would you define your own spiritual path, or is it a mixture of many things?

RG: To 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.

AV: 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.

RG: Its 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.

AV: You talked in your book about the healing properties of chant. Could you tell me a little bit about what those properties are?

RG: Chant 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.

AV: 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?

RG: No, 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.

AV: Are there any things we should be looking for from you in the near future?

RG: Two 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.

AV: We will be looking forward to that. Thank you, Mr. Gass for your time and a wonderful talk with us.