“That wasn’t music any more, was it?”

When the Master was in the state of Qi, he heard the Shao music, and for three months after did not even notice the taste of meat. He said, “I never imagined that music could be so sublime.”  (Analects, 7.14, tr. Slingerland)

When was the last time you were so rapt by an experience that for many weeks afterwards you barely noticed what you were eating? Confucius loved music — not just well-composed pieces well played, but the kind of music that goes way beyond music. I once heard an anecdote about two British conductors standing outside the concert hall after an otherworldly performance of a Mahler symphony, and after a long silence one said to the other, “That wasn’t music any more, was it?” It may be that originally the “music of the spheres” did not mean physical notes given out by the planets, but the immaterial, unearthly aftertaste of music, the thing that music points us to. 

   According to legend the Shao music was composed by the legendary sage-emperor Shun, whose moral purity pervaded everything he did and could be heard in his music. Confucius’ rapture was therefore caused by an encounter with ethical perfection in music. If music always expresses the ethical and spiritual states of its makers, then it is no surprise that a large part of what moves us in music is more than just what is technically music. The latter is just the surface, concealing an oceanic body of character and spirit. Confucius was that rare person who could find moral excellence so intoxicating that for a while at least mere physical pleasures were insignificant. 

[The photograph above is of an inscription near the ancient city of Linzi: “Confucius enjoyed Shao music here.”] 


4 thoughts on ““That wasn’t music any more, was it?””

  1. Krishnan,

    What is there to say? It is so sublime! The point where you are no longer vulnerable to clinging, lust or desire or attachment to other things. Is it an obsession? Is it an entrancement? One would prefer that Confucius had discovered the intensity of focus or absorption in thought on a subject of meditation as or was like Guanyin’s preference – sound. He could face the mirror and see nothing as in equanimity, neither ugliness or beauty, things are perfect as they are; face the music and it is beyond and above judgment, it is absolutely sublimally perfect as it is. The perfect harmony as he would say that can be seen in the ‘mean’ or Zhong of Mother Nature – like the zephyr through the trees, like the raindrops on the roof, like the birds in the sky, like the grass in the fields – everything is perfect as Mother Nature wants it under the Tien of Heaven.


  2. Harry Manx. I saw him perform at Blues Fest in Chicago. My friend had heard about him, and dragged me along (not that I really had to be dragged along to Blues Fest.) He was a blues musician who had traveled throughout Asia and found elegant ways to mix traditional Asian music, mostly Indian, with the blues. At one point he brought out a Korean harmonica player who played that thing like he was trying to diffuse a bomb. I won’t call Harry brilliant, overall, but it struck both of us that day. After he finished, my friend and I stood up, and walked around the festival for 10 minutes before speaking to each other.

    His album work tends to be over-produced, but that live performance was incredible.


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