In the sempiternal instant prior to creation, the Lord looked out over the numberless souls of the children of Adam. “Am I not your Lord?” resonated across the space without space, and those teeming infinities of humanity responded with “Yes.” Thus, the primordial covenant was sealed. Each time we listen to music, we strive to hear, ringing in our hearts and souls, God’s declaration of love and devotion from before time. So it is said by some Sufis.
Ruzbihan Baqli, the ecstatic poet and mystic, saw music as a divine epistemology. Those with cheerful hearts and souls oriented toward love could learn what could not be taught. In his Treatise on Holiness, he writes: “Listening to music is the refreshment of all thoughts from the weight of humanity. It is the agitator of human natures and the mover of divine secrets. […] In music there are a hundred thousand pleasures, and with a single one of those pleasures, one can travel the path of mystical knowledge for a thousand years.” As is common in Sufi discourse, it is love that remains at the heart of experience, and it is love that ferries us toward God. When we listen, we must seek to replicate our covenant: “For listening to music is God’s listening to music; it is from God, by God, in God, and with God. If one makes any of these relationships with something other than God, he is an infidel, he has lost the way, and he has not drunk the wine of union while listening to music.”
The man most credited with popularizing Sufism in Europe was a musician in the early 1900s. A Chishti Sufi, Hazrat Inayat Khan focused on Sufism and sound in his central work The Sufi Message, claiming a mantic power for those who can interpret the direction of sound. He also provides a rather deep exegesis of Arabic and Sanskrit phonology, reflecting the burgeoning of linguistics as a field of study. He writes: “The deeper we dive into the mystery of life the more we find that its whole secret is hidden in what we call words. All occult science, all mystical practices are based upon the science of word or sound.” Extending from a simply divine epistemology, the spiritual character of music can now be examined scientifically. While still intoxicating, sound has drifted into the ken of modern rationalism while simultaneously maintaining its position outside the easy taxonomy of things. It can be rationalized and analyzed, but not reduced.
It is his son, Pir Vilayat, who extends this science of the spirit into all parts of life. All rays are begotten of the sun. All science and all religion remain distinct yet bear, inscribed in their very being, the markings of the divine silsila. As in Ram Dass, atomization of the world does not abolish the angelic, rather it provides greater proof of its existence, extending the great chain of being to the basest particles. Vilayat’s Toward the One interlards Sufism with Buddhism, Christianity, genetics, geology, Zoroastrianism, molecular chemistry, optics, evolutionary theory, mystery religions, and quantum physics. This striking alloy of mysticism and supposed scientific fidelity was beat thin and filigreed about the then infant New Age movement. However, most interesting is its syncretism as monism, its many-trails-one-path philosophy that makes it both inclusive and despotic.
It is this thread — the power of sound and of the word, the intoxication of the spirit, the synthesis of unlike into divine union — that informs Daniel Higgs’s newest release, The Fools Sermon, part 1. Although he certainly avoids the categorization of the Renaissance fool cast out on the stultifera navis, he does not exactly live up to the yurodivy either. Rather, he presents us with a fool of his own making, one that calls upon, whether consciously or not, this long line of Sufi sonic wisdom, refiguring the mast as a crucible for language and sound, indiscriminately inspiring and exhaling nonsensical truth.
While Lungfish was by far the most transcendent product of the greater DC post-hardcore scene, Daniel Higgs as a solo musician has embraced the metaphysical even more strongly, making his music more and more involute. Higgs’s former bandmate Asa Osborne has too taken a more inward turn as Zomes, but where in Zomes the method is crucial to the meditation, Higgs deviates from comfortable forms constantly. He tackles everything from more familiar Lungfish fare to half-baked banjo hymns to spoken word deliria to Jew’s harp jams. Like his work in Fountainsun, The Fools Sermon has a kitchen-sink approach to its composition, applying all manner of noisemaker and style to underline the delivery of the poem, and it is the poem that is the true center of this work.
The fool, in any manifestation, speaks to truth. He not only recognizes, but articulates what is concealed. The Shakespearean fool may safely criticize the king in court while the yurodivy, wearing the mask of antic, forces society to challenge its contradictions. They speak from the margins of a culture while operating within its heart. However, Higgs is firmly outside society here. Moreover, his glossolalia is not gifted by tongue of flame nor self-imposed insanity. Rather, it is a recitation, ritual, a modernist take on dhikr. He does not speak, he intones. The foolishness espoused is not for Christ nor for culture. It is not the engine of mankind that Erasmus outlines in his adoxography. Rather, for Higgs, foolishness is the movement towards monism, toward a plane of immanence.
It’s not so simple, it’s simpler.
The recording begins with the flute — Inayat Khan tells us the flute of Krishna is symbolic of the sound that fills all space — leading into the first line: “Oh clot of spirit.” Body and soul. Higgs’s interest is in the power of words and their sound. His enunciation cleaves words into potsherds, pieces of a whole only barely connected to the sound before it. Yet this focus on distinction is washed away in the flow of his language, the sheer volume of signification that streams from his mouth. Images elide into each other without effort. Drinking one’s reflection from the surface of a still pond becomes a stumbling journey down an unknown road becomes a sacrament performed by Wisdom becomes becomes becomes becomes.
How to explain there is no explanation why.
The language of science gives universality to the spiritual. The Higgs molecule is Christly, we are all pilgrim particles falling through the void until clinamen, and atoms chanting the name of God weave together the entire universe. Consciousness is Ariadne’s thread. The panoramic sweep of being reveals that all things are interconnected. The soul is a mote of dust lazily drafting in a shaft of light. A canticle for the universe, for Leibowitz.
I am the sanest man I have ever met.
The yurodivy is most certainly sane. He chooses to wear no clothes, he commands his own privation, and he directs his ceaseless prayer. The mast is sane because he is intoxicated with love of God. The fool is always sane. Vision and audition of the divine are sanity. Listen! the bells are ringing out of time, out of tune, but whose? The song is a path. The pilgrim’s road, the Sufi’s tariqa, the wisewoman’s tale are journeys. Higgs stops at the threshold and asks us to step through into the garden.
Trampled by the convoy of Nature’s holy caravan.
Flutes flutter feathery as drums shake their frame free. The banjo sketches helices in nude air, the bass sweeps clean the temple. All form of creaking and clattering speaks to the tectonic foundation of things, foundation telluric in origin and power. The whining of the wind and the whispering of the water belie union. The sounding of the gong dispels our hallucination of the past.
You are the means, the method, and the message.
We are all just one mistake away from perfection. The fool is wise precisely because he understands his fate is decided. Whether you take the hand he offers to lead you down the path has no effect on him. He has seen hell, and it is paradisiacal. The weight of the words and of their sounds are but an investment in the self. We can pierce the arras and vanish the principium individuationis. Take all things you have and build a common woodpile. Treasure troves of garbage swelling to cathedral spires. Set a songfire.
Let us borrow the words of Pir Vilayat:
Imagine the emotion that sets the stars in motion, that molds the matter of the chains of light into temples of light, that gathers the clouds into patterns of sheer splendor at sunrise… A cosmic emotion you pick up from outer space, you vibrate in resonance with it. You are part of the blue sky and the sap rising in the trees and the motion of the planets around the sun, the electrons around the nuclei of the atoms of the molecules, the tidal waves of the emotion of pleorama play upon the Aeolian harp of your being… All Being…
It is said by some Sufis that in listening to music we strive to hear the first words God spoke to us. His words and the phonemes that made them are a sweet tune. Souls without bodies, without worlds, exist in endless insouciance for love of God. Souls within bodies, within worlds, work in ceaseless pursuit of dissolution. We strain our ears at every sound to hear the voice beneath all voices.
The Fools Sermon, part 1 extends its effort. Higgs does away with transcendence, preferring the closeness of before-space and before-time. His poem, his attempt at qawwali, resonates only for those who wish to listen to a fool. However, who else can it help other than those with a cheerful heart and soul oriented toward love?
To return to Baqli: “Listening to music is beyond presence. It is wonderment and raving, astonishment upon astonishment. In that world, conventions are cut off, the world is ignorant, and the lover is annihilated.”