Following two highly-appreciated concerts in Auroville, renowned cellist, Michael Fitzpatrick, spoke to Auroville Today about the deeper purpose behind his music-making, and his involvement in The Compassion Project, a musical expression of inter-faith unity.
Auroville Today: You call yourself a ‘musical diplomat'.
What does that mean?
Michael: The cello, I've discovered, is an extremely useful diplomatic tool. It's allowed me to go into settings like the United Nations, where the predominant activity is words, and to use the instrument to ‘tune' the audience and the space. Actually, even before I play the first note, I still my mind and go into silence, and to ‘presence' the space with silence is already an extraordinary transformation of energy. And then to play the music into that space, to reach the cellular level – what I call ‘searching for the golden sound' – has been my quest for the past twenty years. I would have these mystical experiences on stage when it would feel like golden light coming in, I would hear it change the sound of the instrument, I could feel it fold over the audience, and then this union experience would occur: something in the room would crystallize. Another way to put it is that the diplomat's responsibility is to communicate in such a way that everybody understands. And music is the universal language of the cells; it is sound carrying the light.
How universal is music? Can Bach be understood by all cultures?
Yes, once you're in the domain of it. If you're not in that consciousness space, there is no shared field. Pablo Casals once remarked that generations of musicians have approached Bach as ‘The Professor' and that, until the mind can break out of this concept, nothing is happening because the music isn't alive. That's why I think it's important to change people's perceptions of things, people get stuck in the labelling...
Is The Compassion Project which you've been so involved with intended to change perceptions?
Absolutely. The genesis of it goes back to 1968 and the historic meetings between the Dalai Lama and the Roman Catholic monk, the late Thomas Merton, in Dharamsala. Apparently when they met they had this profound sense of recognition. The Dalai Lama said, “I feel he is my spiritual brother”; Merton wrote, “There is a deep bond between us.” During those meetings they made plans to extend the dialogue and work together for world peace. However, very soon after Merton died in a tragic accident in Bangkok .
When His Holiness heard he was devastated and, I believe, he dedicated himself to fulfilling Merton's wish to bring East and West together in a project for peace and compassion. In 1993, at the Parliament of World Religions conference in Chicago , there was a meeting between the Dalai Lama and the Vatican 's North American monastic Interfaith Council at which His Holiness said he felt the time was now right to have a convergence summit. It was decided to hold the summit in 1996 at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky , where Merton had lived for 27 years as a monk.
I was living in Chicago then, and about to make my way to Hollywood with my electric cello. I was putting a rock band together, but then everything went badly wrong. I was at my wit's end when somebody called me up and said the Dalai Lama was coming to spend six days at the Abbey of Gethsemani. At that moment I saw fate lines crossed and, indeed, I received an invitation to provide the sacred music for the six day encounter between 25 Buddhist and 25 Catholic monks and nuns, an encounter which turned out to be a turning point in terms of a fusion of East-West consciousness. The music was intended only to be a minor part of the meeting – I played some Bach and Ravel and also did some improvisations – but the music started binding the consciousnesses, like firing them in a kiln, and it got to a point when, for an instant, it seemed as if all the worlds and all the heavens stopped turning, and then started again in a new direction. When the meeting finished, we all felt we'd been rearranged at a cellular level.
As the participants left, I was sitting with Geshe Lobsang Tenzen and Sister Mary Margaret Funk, Head of Religious and Monastic Dialogue, and somebody came over and said, “Is there going to be a recording of the music?” Both of them thought it was a great idea, but I wasn't so sure. I'd just been offered this fabulous opportunity to be involved in a Broadway musical, and I also knew that taking on this project would be a huge responsibility. I also knew that if I did take it on, it could not be done in a recording studio. At that moment, a vision flashed through my mind of Tibetan and Trappist monks chanting together inside Mammoth Cave , the largest cave in the world, deep beneath Kentucky , with torches lit like a scene from the Bible. So I said ‘I'll do it on one condition – you have to let me record it inside Mammoth Cave '. And they both said, ‘Let's do it'.
What we got was the musical expression of what had happened at the Summit , and we experienced this musical cellular awakening in the core of the earth during the last summer solstice of the old millennium. We were in some other universal time zone, and the sounds that came through reflected this.
You were seeking a new kind of music?
I didn't go down to the cave with a programme, we were not simply going to recreate what happened in the Abbey. I decided we would start with an improvisation for cello; it would be an invocation for world peace. When I started playing, the music that came through my cello was like when your soul is on the line, I just poured everything in there: as I finished, I plucked one string so hard I ripped it off! Then there was a flute solo, the monks chanted, and Brother Paul delivered this extraordinary invocation: “Can there be any silence as deep as that in the heart of the earth, and out of that depth let there rise up a new hope, a new spirit of greater aspiration for peace, for justice, for compassion over the entire surface of the earth, from East to West.”
All the way through we had spontaneous epiphanies like that, up to the moment when my logistics assistant gave the Tibetan monks soap bubbles, and these Buddhas were blowing these beautiful bubbles which looked like the cells, like musical harmonics, in the magical light of the cave. And the epiphanies, the magic, happened only because nothing was pre-planned, there was no safety-net: we had to keep flinging ourselves off a cliff and trust that we had the wings to carry us safely to the other side.
The subsequent studio work was very complex. I wanted the first sound on the CD to be something that nobody could recognize, something very hypnotic, and we finally settled on crystal toning bowls which have a beautiful OM-like sound. Then the Dalai Lama gives a special message, Merton gives his prophetic message at the end, and then the cave music goes through this wild weave of celestial Trappist chant plunging into primordial Tibetan chant, singing cello lines, heavenly flute, and finally ending with this one call that is the ‘Golden Sound'. When I listen to it what happens is that it gradually moves through all my chakras and, when it gets to the last note, I feel the energy flow up from my base through the spine to my crown, and I go into a union state.
As soon as the CD was ready, I drove to the Abbey to present it to the Abbot, and then jumped on a plane and flew to San Francisco and presented it to His Holiness on the first anniversary of the cave recording. When he looked at the cover, which had photos of himself and Merton facing each other, I saw him journey back to 1968 and a tear came to his eye. After he'd finished listening he said, “Thank you for doing this. It will bring many people around the world the deep feeling of peace.”
In fact, the response of people to the Compassion CD has been extraordinary; it became clear that not only had we had an extraordinary experience in making it but that experience was transferable to others. Now we are working on a film of the cave concert to bring it to an even larger audience. The film will be like a waking dream, beginning with gold-lit images inside the heart of this 350 million year old cave to give people a primal, ancestral memory experience.
The idea of seeking for a new music deep in a cave, in the heart of matter, is a very powerful one...
I wanted to break patterns, to take us out of our surface world. Ultimately, it was about not only going into the heart of the Earth to find the new sound, but to put it back into the Earth and so shift the morphogenetic field of the Earth into a higher vibratory rate, to allow for openings of consciousness and increasing love and compassion. That's really what was driving everything, with the larger plan of using this project as a model so we could then take it, perhaps with Mayan musicians rather than Trappist and Tibetan monks to, say, The King's Chamber of the Great Pyramid. The idea, now that we've crystallized this vibration and we know we can intentionally call it forth, is to go to all the sacred Earth sites and temple structures and send it back into those stones, and see if we can get the planet vibrating a little more harmoniously.
So my fascination with the Matrimandir is in that line. The Matrimandir is radically important because it's a massive, energetic consciousness generator that has a key birthing role in this accelerating cycle that we're in now. So I would encourage everybody who goes there to focus on the pure music in the silence and let it sing.
What is it like to play traditional concert music after your experience in the cave? Are you rediscovering it?
To be able to come back to the music now is the ultimate reward, because I'd imagine what we went through in the cave was like a near-death experience. Once you've travelled to the light and come back, you know what it is, and everything afterwards is completely changed. You realize, for example, that all those guys I played the other night – Schubert, Bach, Saint-Saens – were tapped into the same thing. It's as if you've been listening to a Beethoven Symphony in black and white for your entire life – and it's already incredible – but then suddenly it's in full colour and in 3D or 5D: you start hearing how Beethoven was hearing the totality of creation. So then, as a performer, it's not about playing it ‘right' – I wasted twenty years of my cello-playing education trying to do this – but about one's capacity to hold the frequency, to tune to the consciousness and to emanate the consciousness as purely as physically possible.
And then there is a phenomenon of spirit that happens with the instrument itself when it's almost as if an invisible filament or film gets created between the string and the bow. It's like riding on a beam of light, and when that happens, everything melts, goes golden, and you're far out, and far in. Ultimately, that's what it's all for.
Michael Fitzpatrick is a recipient of the Prince Charles award for outstanding musicianship and has performed at the UN and at the opening ceremony of the Parliament of World Religions in Barcelona . More information on The Compassion Project can be found at voicesofcompassion.com