My Interview from Dr Siddartha Ganguli

Dr. Siddhartha Ganguli, Neuroscientist, Educator and Author from Kolkata, has recently published a new book on the effect of music on the body, brain, mind & soul. It's an extensive book on how music can heal. A brief interview with me is included at the end of the book, titled “Music is Divine”. (pp. 746-751). (Parts of this interview are taken from previously written articles on this website).

Taken directly from the recently published book by Dr. Siddhartha Ganguli. Music is Magic | Music is Medicine, Allied Publishers Pvt. Ltd.. ISBN: 978-93-90951-59-8  Now available on Amazon.  © 2023, Dr. Siddhartha Ganguli

Music is Devine

A brief Interview between Dr Siddhartha Ganguli & Toss Levy

(Toss Levy is one of the most knowledgeable & widely experienced instrument technicians in Europe today specialising in the repair & refurbishment of musical instruments)

Dr. Ganguli: How you came into and fell in love with this fascinating profession of yours?

Mr Toss Levy : As a young English boy listening to music, I came across the music of the instruments of India, and I simply became mesmerised by their strange and fascinating sounds. I started learning sitar in 1977 with Jamaluddin Bhartiya, a senior student of Pt. Ravi Shankar. It was through my teacher that I learnt the importance of jawari and how the sound should be. I started doing basic repairs on the instruments, and that was the start of my repair profession. As a repairer, I came into contact with all kinds of Indian instruments and realised that they all have their sound and character, their colours, and their flavours, and one has to understand what that meant. I learnt the process of acquiring the required sound of each instrument. We hear all kinds of sounds and have to learn how these are scientifically produced, and by understanding these basic principles we can adjust the quality and timbre of the sound. By looking deeply into this, we find that it is all based on vibrations.

Unlike the Western harmonic system, Indian classical music is based on a modal system. This means that there is a sustained ground tone, a ‘bourdon’. The main note, the ‘tonic’, is called ‘SA’, and this is where all musical scales are starting. Simply the ‘SA’ is the backbone of all Indian music, and it is the job of the Indian instrument, the tanpura, to emphasize this note. The ‘SA’ is the foundation of the music and all instruments within the ensemble are tuned to this note, consequently giving the drone a fundamentally prominent function. The tanpura, ironically, is a non-melodic, non-rhythmic instrument, and with its four or five strings, it sings the ‘tonic’, the common note that binds and connects all the instruments in the ensemble together. Tuning is constantly and consistently adjusted to the ‘SA’. The precision of tuning is essential to produce the overtones and the interactions between the notes of the scale.

Dr. Ganguli : What changes have music brought into your personality – how music has changed into what you are today? (The impact of music on you – the magical impact.)

Mr Toss Levy : Working with the tanpura is probably, for me, the best way of explaining how to realise the importance of how a simple note can be transformed into a universal window into the realms of vibrational overtones and how it has affected my life.

As a repairer, I have come to understand the profound effect the tanpura has on people. I have personally experienced the transformation within my inner self through the help of a deep concentration on the sound of the instrument itself.

Practically speaking, the process I need to follow involves many levels:

Jawari is known as the process of shaping the bridge in such a way as to produce the correct overtones. Once this is achieved, the application of the jiva, the thin cotton threads that are placed under each string on the bridge, need to be adjusted in the correct position. Firstly, to enhance the overtones, then to balance the vibrational timbre between the strings.

When the instrument is correctly tuned, it comes alive, in such a way that it creates an all-enveloping “cloud” of sound, an energy that seems to float above us. The separate plucking sound of the strings disappears and seems to melt into an eternal sea of vibrations. Consequently, the musicians are lifted, inspired, and able to open to a higher level, enabling the inspiration to flow through them.

One may call this a divine inspiration, and once this is established it can initiate a connectedness to a deeper level of consciousness, a kind of communion with the wider universal dimensions. Earthly dimensions fall away, such as time and body, and one finds him or herself suddenly involved in a profound spiritual experience.

This can have an enlightening effect on people. It can heal and change a person’s life forever. This is the power of music, sound and vibration as a creative energy, one we have, in many forms, encountered in our lives. The above experiences are known to us already for thousands of years. This is explained in the following passages. Because the process of playing the tanpura, the repetitive playing of the strings over and over again, undoubtedly becomes a form of mantra.

In India, the essential creative vibration is known as the syllable ‘ OHM’ or ‘AUM’ and has played a major role in the Holy Scriptures and philosophies for the past 3000 years or more. P.B. Mukharji says in writing the introduction to the book Japasutram, by Swami Pratyagatmananda Saraswati, that the syllable OHM is a mantra, an animated or charged word, and its sound resembles as nearly as possible that all-enveloping harmony of all the dissonances and the differences of the disjointed and discordant sounds of the universe, and that it can also be heard. He goes on to explain:

The metaphysics of sound, technically known in India as Mantram and the Japam is the use of the technique and the basic principles of sound, to liberate the mind to a total awareness of all times, all spaces, and the timeless and spaceless status which is the eternal matrix to which all Creation returns in dissolution”.

The ‘sadhana’ from the musician is very much like the ‘sadhana’ from the ‘yogi’, who concentrates on the mystical mantra OHM which, according to the Nadabindu Upanishad enables one the ability to hear subtle sounds. OHM is the primaeval vibration, the vibration of heaven and earth. Sufi Inayat Khan tells that the ancient singers used to experience the effect of their spiritual practices upon themselves first. They used to sing one note (the tonic) for about half an hour and study the effect of that same note upon all the different centres of their body; what life-current is produced, how it opened the intuitive faculties, how it created enthusiasm, how it gave added energy, how it soothed and healed. For them it was not a theory, it was an experience. As a musical exercise, this practice will sharpen the ear and give purity to the voice.

Along similar lines, a meditation practised by the medieval style of Indian classical music, dhrupad, is the deep concentration on this fundamental, primordial vibration, and can prove to be musically, and spiritually very rewarding. Accompanied by the tanpura, the participant sings the low ‘tonic’ with as much resonance as possible. This special type of meditation is also recognised as a form of ‘yoga’ and is known under the names of Karaj (lowest tuned string), Sur-Sadhana (The concentration on the tuning) or Mandra-Sadhana (concentration on the lower octave).

Vibration as a creative force can be perceived through the practice of playing tanpura (or other instruments). It becomes clearer that sound itself is a direct path to the universal life force. Philosophically the Sanskrit term “Nada” which means sound, is the creative force behind all of creation. According to the tantric texts from Bhartrhari (570–650 AD):

Nada being the essence of the alphabet, the words, sentences and language, life itself turns around language, therefore all manifestations are based on Nada”.

To conclude; these spiritual experiences have over the years become a driving force in my life and profession alike. They help me to understand the profound effects people may experience with music. It has given me, as a repairer of these fascinating instruments, a deeper understanding of these processes. I can therefore be of service to other musicians, and help them to attain this state through their instruments, towards the source of musical and universal inspiration.