I spent the weekend at a great dharma celebration at the fabulously ’70s Town and Country Resort in San Diego, which should rightfully be the subject of a different post, or maybe a different blog, to keep things from becoming too, too scattered (although when has that stopped me before?).
But there is this: all that Buddhist chanting put me in mind of some pop music — in particular, Magnetic Fields and B-52s songs.
The Magnetic Fields thing is actually not so obscure. The chants were done along with a CD featuring a male and a female voice, and those voices sounded a lot like Stephin Merritt’s and Claudia Gonson’s. (Maybe it was them!) The limited, almost monotone range and sparse instrumentation of the chants reminded me a lot of some of the songs on 69 Love Songs — “Love Is Like a Bottle of Gin,” for example.
Fred Schnieder of the B-52s also has a famously limited vocal range, his singing really not singing at all, but more like short, excited bursts of shouted rap. Or Tourette syndrome maybe. (Have you ever heard Fred’s version of “Coconut“? You really must.) Like with the chants, it’s not quite singing, not quite talk.
Between hits about hot pants and outer space, the B-52s did have some nice, Eastern-mystical, dharmaish (a new word) songs — think “Dreamland” — but really, the chants I heard this weekend could hardly be confused with B-52s songs. That said, they did have something else in common: really wacky phrasing.
Given their simple, repetitive melodies comprising maybe 3 notes on average and the fact that the words were written out in booklets (and mostly in English), you might expect it’d be pretty easy to sing along with the chanted Buddhist prayers. But, like a good B-52s song, the phrasing could really trip you up.
Have you ever had the unfortunate experience of watching a whole group of drunks try to sing “Love Shack” on a karaoke stage? I know, we all have. It’s tempting to blame the alcohol, but I don’t think so. Drunks sing soul and country and power ballads and seem to do just fine. I think it’s the phrasing.
Fred is very good at keeping you off balance when he “sings.” Part of that is the shouting and the oddball subject matter, but a bigger part is not knowing how many syllables he’ll throw into each line. I don’t think even he knows before the words come out of his mouth.
Consider “Strobe Light,” a sexy song wound up so tight it makes you giddy. Like a speeded-up “Black Dog” or, come to think of it, a strobe light, the music starts and stops in manic bursts; and each time it’s stopped for 2 seconds, a line comes out. The 6- or 7-syllable lines fit easily in those 3 silent beats, but what of the 1-syllable Yeah and the 10-syllable I feel electricity in the air? They can throw you. This verse is particularly brilliant:
I’m gonna kiss your eye
Then I’m gonna kiss your neck
Then I’m gonna kiss your tummy
Then I’m gonna kiss your pineapple
One extra syllable is added to each line, and that syllable-cramming progression builds tension as the kisses progress down the body to more and more risque territory, culminating in an orgasmic Hawaiian Punch explosion.
Now, what does this have to do with chanted Buddhist prayers? Not subject matter. But the chants do have highly variable numbers of syllables per line…even more so than in “Strobe Light.” I think that may be in part to give the mind a workout and keep it engaged. It may be a result of translation. Or there may be no good reason…other than to give me something to write about. Let’s all chant.