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Halloo! When I found out I could go to med school with a Humanities degree with an Ethnomusicology emphasis, I almost peed myself. Here's to me holding it in.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Annotated Source

The Music of Tibetan Buddhism in Ladakh: The Musical Structure of Tibetan Buddhist Chant in the Ritual Bskaṅ-gso of the Dge-Lugs-pa Sect
Author(s): Atsuko Tsukamoto

Source: Yearbook for Traditional Music, Vol. 15, East Asian Musics (1983), pp. 126-140
Published by: International Council for Traditional Music Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/768646 .
Accessed: 20/01/2012 15:29

 This article from the early 80s describes and transcribes, in detail, the bskan-gso ritual of the Tibetan Buddhist monks in Ladakh. Ladakh was chosen because it was isolated in the post-war period, and is most likely to have retained much of tradition as a result. 

Chant is learned orally, but the Tibetans have developed a form of musical notation. Some of the monks are not even aware that written notation exists, suggesting the primacy of oral tradition. I have copied some of the most interesting and important parts of the article, including sections that may be indicative of the wider tradition.

Bskan-gso ritual performance is split into twelve parts:

1) Skyabs-hgro = to seek refuge and worship the Three Treasures: Buddha, Teaching (Skt. dharma), and Buddhist Brotherhood (Skt. samgha);
2) Sems-bskyed= to have a conception of seeking the Enlightenment (Skt. bodhi);
3) Dgah-ldan Iha-brgya = to worship Tson-kha-pa and Maitreya;
4) Nan-mchod byin-rlabs = to bless articles such as water or food and
offer them to deities;
5) Spyan-hdren = to call up and welcome deities; 
6) Snon-tshe la dkar-ma = to offer to Neser;
7) Bskul = to enjoin deities to protect the Teaching; 
8) Zlog-pa = to dispel evil spirits;
9) Hchi-bdag-ma= to offer to Yama;
10) Zlog-pa;
11) Mnah-gsol = to praise deities and
12) Gseg-gsol=to send off deities. 
These parts are indicative of the Vajrayana tradition. Parts 1 and 2 would be comfortable in any Buddhist tradition, but the rest would only have application in the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions. The inclusion of the worship and supplication of many gods and demons is typical of the wonderful syncretism that Buddhism is capable of when it moves to various countries and meets the local religions.
  This table charts which instruments are used for what. I have some other sources that identify what each instrument is, and I'll do a post with a list and pictures, but the important thing here is that different sounds are intoned relative to the ritual purpose. In Western music, it is a given that various instruments have various connotations relative to their use - black and silver electric guitars shaped like lightning bolts with bleeding airbrushed skulls probably won't show up in the next Mormon Tabernacle Choir broadcast (but hey, you never know), and a drummer who plays tympani is seen very differently from a drummer who plays a double bass drum set. Think of the images conjured up when a tympanist is imagined vs. a drummer with two huge bass drums - one is probably wearing a suit, perhaps a tuxedo, and the other might be wearing ripped jeans and that's it (unless you're old school like me and think of Louie Bellson and his sweet jazz double-bass set up first). It seems that in Tibetan ritual music different instruments have different cosmic connotations, and may be used alternately to scare away demons, welcome gods, or boost one towards enlightenment. It will be interesting to find out why certain instruments have become associated with the various modes.

Below is text from one of the sections: 

Hum, bshefis sig bshefis sig chos kyi dbyifs nas bshens, chos dbyins rnam dag nan las ma gyos kyan,
gdug-pa hdul phyir khro bo skur ston-pa, lha chen ma-ha-ka-la spyan hdren no.

"Rise up, rise up from the ultimate True World. Rise up firmly from the part of the enlightened True World. You show us your angry appearance, so we call to the mighty deity, Mahakala." 

If my Sanskrit is any good, "Mahakala" means "the great black one," though I would have to see it in Devanagari script to tell for certain.
A bit tangential, perhaps, but one of my favorite aspects of Tibetan Buddhism is the great pantheon of vengeful and fierce gods. Here's one of my favorites, Vajrayogini:
Super intense.
She's usually depicted drinking blood out of a skull cap bowl, stepping on demons representing various vices or shortcomings (ignorance, etc.), holding a cleaver, and wearing nothing but skulls. The feminine aspects (i.e. breasts and labia) are emphasized, though I've chosen pictures that conceal this a bit for the benefit of more conservative viewers. As a tangent to a tangent, Vajrayogini as a powerful symbol of femininity is worshiped by many female practitioners and is especially relevant today as Buddhist nuns gain power and standing in a traditionally male-dominated society/religion.
And, finally, a list of general properties of chant (using, of course, Western terminology. These aspects may or may not have direct cognates in Tibetan music theory.):

1) In principle, all the chants consist of a single melodic line; 
2) The melodic range is less than one octave;
3) Several scale types are employed;
4) Melodies consist of several melodic patterns which are composed in
proportion to phrases of the text; and
5) Disjunct melodic motion is most common, and the melody at the
end of the phrases has a tendency to descend.

Pretty cool stuff, eh?

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