Sri Chinmoy’s performance on the Grand Organ at the Sydney Opera House, November 30th, 1987
by Prachar Stegemann
BA (Music), Canberra School of Music
Part 1 – The Prelude
Towering high above the stage in a shell-like concrete chamber 50 feet high, 43 feet wide and 27 feet deep, the ten thousand pipes of the Grand Organ dominate the magnificent interior of the Concert Hall, the largest of the Sydney Opera House’s famous white shells.
Like the building it inhabits, the Grand Organ is regarded with a mixture of apprehension and awe.
Apprehension – because ten years’ labour and over 3 million dollars for a musical instrument seemed a bit extravagant to taxpayers who had seen the construction expenses of the Opera House balloon to such an extent in the late sixties that the State Government had to institute a special Opera House lottery to raise the funds.
And awe – because this 37-tonne colossus is the largest mechanical-action organ1 in the world and, certainly, the most intricate. While most organs fall into a particular category (one hears of the “German Baroque organ” or a “late French Romantic organ”), the Opera House organ covers all likely options, simply by containing a lot of all the different sorts of pipes, and some amazing ways of combining the various sounds. It also has a generous complement of ancillary stops – bronze hand bells, two types of bird-call (cuckoo and nightingale), and even an eerie drum-roll reminiscent of distant thunder.
It is an instrument designed to cater to every conceivable musical demand, concealing within its endless combinations and permutations myriad marvellous possibilities.
For Sydney organ-builder, Ronald Sharp, the Grand Organ was the fulfilment of a life’s dream: his darling child. When the organ was not ready for the opening of the Opera House in 1973, he continued his painstaking perfectionist work under mounting pressure and criticism for six further years, until the organ was finally inaugurated in 1979. Even a decade later, it was difficult to separate him from his instrument; he was often to be found making minute adjustments to tiny pipes and, indeed, he was doing just that at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, November 30th, 1987, when Sri Chinmoy arrived...
When first smitten with the idea of Sri Chinmoy playing on this great instrument, we had commenced by approaching organists who were familiar with the Grand Organ to see if they would endorse an application for Sri Chinmoy to be allowed to perform on it. As a general policy, the organ is only made available to organists of considerable renown, and an application from someone with only six months playing experience would not normally be considered!
Our strongest supporter was the Chairman of the Department of Organ and Sacred Music at the most prominent music conservatorium in Sydney, David Rumsey. He was also organist with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and a touring organist of distinction. Having heard recordings of Sri Chinmoy‘s earlier organ performances, he even informed all his students that they could not afford to miss such an important performance. At this time, Opera House administrators were saying that only three people, including Sri Chinmoy, would be admitted to hear the performance. David Rumsey had readily and eagerly agreed to be the one to introduce the organ and its many particular features to Sri Chinmoy, so he would certainly be one of the three. Yet he was determined to find a way around these restrictions so that his students and others could be there!
Once the authorities had confirmed that permission was granted for Sri Chinmoy to have a ‘private rehearsal’ with two other people in attendance, it began to seem very sad that such a momentous occasion would only reverberate through the vast emptiness of the Concert Hall. This was something the whole of Australia, and eventually the world should hear!
We once again consulted with David Rumsey, who gave us the name of the Head of the Music Department of the ABC, Australia’s [then] only national FM broadcaster. This lady immediately expressed interest in the idea of recording Sri Chinmoy‘s performance and began to formulate the concept of building an entire program around Sri Chinmoy, which would include an interview. As an afterthought, she mentioned that she knew of someone who would do an excellent interview, if only he were available... she mentioned the name of David Rumsey! The intricate threads of destiny were being unravelled.
After some weeks of discussion, the ABC proposal became definite, the Opera House agreed to this new arrangement and granted official recording rights, thereby enabling a much larger crowd to attend.
Part 2 – The Performance
David Rumsey, the organist who was to show Sri Chinmoy the mechanisms of this famous instrument led the way up the stairs. Sri Chinmoy, resplendent in red dhoti, followed – quietly, purposely, serenely. Through each door, there would be more stairs, spiral stairs and straight stairs. Each trodden stair heightened the anticipation in the air, the sense that our destination was far more than an organ loft... It seemed word had already gone out in the higher worlds that Sri Chinmoy was to give a momentous performance. Sri Chinmoy’s expression was inward, absorbed – mystical moments.
We had arrived at the loft and passed through to the organ itself. The vast, silent auditorium was dotted with the upturned faces of expectant souls. Sri Chinmoy eased onto the seat and watched attentively as the various stops were pointed out to him. He took particular note of the bell stops and the “full organ” button.
Then the moment for which Time itself had been preparing – Sri Chinmoy began to meditate.
On tiptoe, we departed the console. Clearly, there would not be time to descend all those stairs and be in the auditorium in time for the performance. As the only way for us to depart the organ console was back through the organ itself, and not wanting to be moving around at this juncture, I found myself sitting cross-legged on a kind of wooden platform.
In the silence of Sri Chinmoy’s meditation, I became aware of my surroundings. There were pipes to the right, pipes to the left, pipes above and all around, neat row upon row of pipes, tiny flute pipes, larger reed pipes, hooded brass pipes, metal pipes, wooden pipes, massive pedal chorus pipes. It was as though this legion of pipes were themselves silently meditating, inwardly preparing for this moment of destiny, each pipe wholly responsible for only one note, which would be executed wholeheartedly and perfectly.
The first chord voiced forth from somewhere just above and to the right, plunging me into a breathtaking sound-adventure of three-dimensional ecstasy.
These pictures were taken by a fixed video camera placed above Sri Chinmoy in the organ loft.
Sri Chinmoy’s directions to his pipe-army were being relayed via a bewildering network of levers and tracker rods, which were being subjected to a breathless workout keeping up with his rapid-fire fingers. An incessant storm of clucking, bumping, clicking, clumping and thumping, each moving part operating in perfect co-ordination with every other at speeds faster than the eye could follow, was witness to a superlative effort of precision machinery stretched to its capacity in the task of bodying forth the sounds of Sri Chinmoy’s transcendental vision.
Just by my left elbow was a huge bellows that only got called into service when the larger pipes sounded. To get sufficient air rushing through a thirty-two-foot pipe takes tremendous lung capacity and, when Sri Chinmoy would suddenly call all the big pipes into action, these bellows would hurtle into a tremendous flap of intense exertion.
Sri Chinmoy seemed to be surcharging the instrument with his own force, the whole living organ bent on transcending its physical capacity in a supreme effort to render Sri Chinmoy’s phenomenal fingerwork with utmost clarity and, at the same time, convey the unprecedented power of the loud sections – it was a non-stop blur of exhilarating activity.
When Sri Chinmoy would toy with the delicate flute pipes, or weave subtle counterpoint against the cuckoo or the bells, the bulk of the levers and the bellows would lie dormant, getting their breath back for the next explosion of power. During these quiet passages, one melody might sound from a distant upper corner of the loft, answered by another reverberating right in front of me, at eye level.
The teeming multitude of sounds streaming forth from this ordered mass of metal and wood, sounding above, below, all around and, seemingly, within – this all-encompassing flood of power, joy, beauty, surprise, delicacy, wonderment and awe – was at once a source of deep mystery and elation.
Invisible behind it all was Sri Chinmoy, in trance-like Lord Shiva, but at the same time, ordering and instigating every tiniest twitch of each little lever – the omniscient, omnipotent creator embodying and igniting his vision-creation. For thirty-six timeless minutes, this organ became the universe itself, while the supreme musician revealed his cosmic music through ten thousand thrilled voices.
Retracing the interminable stairs that led back down to the earth-plane, Sri Chinmoy spoke about his performance. These are not his exact words, but a recollection:
“So much was happening... one moment Indian melody, then this world, that world – the beings from different worlds would come and invite me to their world, and the music would come from that world... then other beings would be there. Like this, all the time going from one world to another, to all the seven worlds.”
The following morning, back at his hotel in Melbourne, after listening through headphones to several minutes of the performance, Sri Chinmoy exclaimed: “There are forty people playing!”
Part 3 – The Interview
Right after Sri Chinmoy had finished his immortal performance – lasting 36 minutes and 14 seconds and taking a monumental physical, not to mention spiritual effort – while still in the organ loft, he was interviewed by one of Australia’s foremost organists, David Rumsey, for ABC (Australian national) FM Radio.
Following is a full transcript of that interview...
David Rumsey: Thank you very much, Sri Chinmoy, for coming to the Sydney Opera House this evening and playing for us. You have a very unique style of playing the organ. As many other musicians have said, you combine a kind of Eastern as well as a Western style. Your own style is, perhaps we might say, Eastern; whereas, the organ itself is very Western. For many centuries, the organ has served the Christian church as a spiritual kind of musical instrument. Do you also find spirituality in the organ?
Sri Chinmoy: Yes, I find spirituality in the organ, more than I find it in any other instrument. Here I see that the organ is not only the King of all the musical instruments but it is also the Queen of all the instruments. It has a very subtle, delicate touch at the same time. When you think of a king, you think of somebody who is very powerful, like a sovereign and, when you think of a queen, there is softness and sweetness, a delicate touch. So the organ combines both God the Man and God the Woman.
David Rumsey: So, in your music, you are finding an expression of God, which comes from within you and is expressed by the organ, sometimes as king, sometimes as queen?
Sri Chinmoy: Yes.
David Rumsey: They are very beautiful sentiments. I‘ve seen you on videotape talking about soulful music. Do you find the organ is, what we might call, a “soulful” instrument?
Sri Chinmoy: It is soulful and, at the same time, powerful. Sometimes the soul does not express power. But I see that the soul of the organ expresses power as well. In the case of an individual, he can express his inner capacities through power, or through love or other divine aspects. But the organ has the capacity to express many divine qualities at the same time.
David Rumsey: Do you find that, through the organ and the sounds that it makes, there is a kind of awakening of spirituality, an expression of spirituality?
Sri Chinmoy: Not only the awakening, but also the expression and the revelation of the inner being.
David Rumsey: Since you are a poet as well as a musician, I find it very interesting to compare the inner spirituality of poetry with the inner spirituality of music. In the Western tradition, for example, they have gone almost separate paths for the last two or three hundred years. Maybe four hundred years ago, music and poetry were rather more similar and, when we go back to the ancient Greeks, music and poetry were almost one thing. Now, in your poetry and your music, do you find a similar kind of spirituality?
Sri Chinmoy: Yes. In my case, I find poetry and music go together. Poetry has the vision and this vision is expressed through music. We have the vision, let us say, of tomorrow’s dawn. But, although we have the vision, there is no way to reveal and manifest that vision. So here comes the music! Music expresses the vision that poetry embodies. First we have the vision of reality deep within us and then music brings that vision to the fore.
David Rumsey: Regarding the improvisation which you just played, did it have a particular title or any particular ideas?
Sri Chinmoy: No, there was no particular idea. I don’t use my mind. I see myself as a child playing in my own heart-garden. In the garden, there are many beautiful plants and I play hide-and-seek. I move around, I play with the leaves and plants and flowers. I enter into my heart-garden and I enjoy Nature’s beauty deep within me. So, I do not use my mind. A child does not use his mind. He just plays with the flowers, with toys and dolls. In my case, also, I play with the flowers, leaves and fruits.
David Rumsey: It is just creativity, just being creative...
Sri Chinmoy: Creation for creation’s sake. There is no set method, there is no hard and fast rule that I have to do this, I have to do that. A child uses his heart, he does everything spontaneously. So, in my case also, I try to do everything spontaneously, like a child.
David Rumsey: Your spontaneity comes through very clearly in your music. You have also been quoted as saying that, alongside meditation, music is the next thing for a spiritual person or words to that effect.
Sri Chinmoy: Music and spirituality must go side by side. A Truth-seeker and God-lover pays more attention to God the Creator. Twenty-four hours a day he is ready to pray and meditate. He wants to embody God’s infinite Light. A seeker is more conscious of God, fortunately or unfortunately, than a musician. A musician has the universal language deep within him but he does not know that the source of the universal language is silence. Language is not the source. Silence is the source. Sound is not the source. The source is silence. Meditation helps us dive deep within. Silence is the source and sound is an expression. It is the outer form.
When we enter into a temple, we see the shrine inside it. For me, meditation is the shrine inside the temple. Music is the temple. Without the temple, there can be no shrine and, again, without the shrine, there can be no temple. So, music and spirituality have to go together. Spirituality reminds us of God the Creator and music reminds us of God the creation. Universal Beauty we get through music but Silence, transcendental Silence, we get from meditation. They are like the obverse and reverse of the same coin. But we have to know which one has to be brought forward – the inner divinity or the outer reality. Inner divinity has to come forward to express the outer reality.
David Rumsey: Over the last two or three thousand years, there have been periods of Western civilisation – such as the times of the ancient Greeks and the Renaissance – where it has been considered important to look at all the things that make up a completely rounded person, a whole man: intellectual life, sport, music and so on. Many people have spoken of you, with all your interests, as a kind of Renaissance man.
Sri Chinmoy: I am jack-of-all-trades, master of none!
David Rumsey: I think it’s not just a question of being a jack-of-all-trades, though. It‘s something that you have been able to use, in a sense, to transcend yourself. You set yourself a certain goal and you move in a certain direction – just as, in music, you’ve taken up the organ only relatively recently. Previously, you’ve played the Indian esraj, the bamboo flute and many, many other instruments.
Sri Chinmoy: Tomorrow I will be playing about thirty instruments in Melbourne.
David Rumsey: Do you find that the organ, then, is a kind of transcendence in your own life?
Sri Chinmoy: In my case, the organ seems to be the highest peak. I have been playing quite a few instruments for the last ten years. Sometimes I go up to one hundred instruments. Usually I play thirty instruments in my concerts. But the organ is like the highest pinnacle, it is the culmination.
When I play organ, I feel myself complete. It is something deep within me. It is like the blossoming of the tree, a fully blossomed tree. Whereas, when I play other instruments – flute or cello or violin or viola – there I see a few beautiful flowers on a particular branch, a few most beautiful flowers. But when I play the organ, I feel that the whole tree has blossomed fully and gloriously to my satisfaction. Here I feel my hunger, musical hunger, is satisfied completely.
David Rumsey: Well, Sri Chinmoy, thank you very much for granting us this interview. You have been very gracious and thank you very much once again.
Sri Chinmoy: You have been extremely kind to me. My heart is all gratitude to you. I have heard so much about you and I am extremely, extremely grateful to have been allowed to play here and to be here with you. My heart is all gratitude to you.
David Rumsey: Thank you, Sri Chinmoy, thank you very much.
Part 4 – The Tributes
David Hindler, the Chief Producer for the ABC FM Radio programme that included both the performance and the interview, is himself an organist of some distinction. He made the following observations a few days after the event:
I was in an unusual position during Sri Chinmoy’s performance, in that after setting up the recording booth I then had to prepare the mikes and so on for the interview afterwards. So I was actually behind the organ area. However, I was quite amazed by Sri Chinmoy’s facility on the organ and the ideas that he was conveying. His music has quite a sophisticated form, which is all the more amazing when one considers that he has come to the organ only relatively recently. Tell Sri Chinmoy that I consider there was a very deep message in his improvisation.
After I had set up the interview, I was waiting behind the organ area. When it had finished, Sri Chinmoy went by me and, as he passed, he nodded at me and said goodbye. I felt a wave of spirituality coming from him, it was like a kind of magnetism, and my immediate thought was: ‘There is tremendous good in this man’. I was very, very glad to have met him.
Immediately following the interview Sri Chinmoy drove ten minutes to the Sydney Town Hall, where he gave another immortal performance on the famous organ there. Both performances are presented on the CD Heart-Power-Victory.
On hearing the CD, music reviewer for New York’s Pulse Magazine Lee Underwood was moved to write:
‘Heart-Power-Victory’ is a live recording of a concert guru Sri Chinmoy performed at Australia’s Sydney Opera House in November, 1987. Playing one of the world’s largest pipe organs, Chinmoy improvises a divinely inspired music that shatters standard academic conventions and raises the soul to the heavens.
To be sure, orthodox and mentally ‘busy’ listeners will find themselves nonplussed at Chinmoy’s leaping, jabbing, fluttering, poking approach to the keyboards. However, adventurous listeners who are inwardly quiet and fully-present while listening will discover the music of genius.
Through dissonance and external speed, Chinmoy creates in the receptive listener a profound internal sense of ecstatic peacefulness. As he dashes from cluster to cluster, obliterating western harmonic relationships, he pours forth a veritable river of spontaneous enharmonic joy.
Chinmoy’s ‘Heart-Power-Victory’ improvisations, born in the deep quietude of meditation, manifest extraordinary spiritual power and intensity – accessible to all who have the ears to hear in new ways, to all who have the courage to explore previously uncharted worlds within.
– End –
1 A mechanical action is one where the message from the depression of each key is conveyed to its destination pipe or pipes by mechanical means, i.e. by wires, cords, levers and rods, and air is forced through each pipe not electronically, but by mechanically activated bellows.
Copyright © 2009, Prachar Stegemann.
All rights reserved under Creative Commons license.