Tao and my music


Tao and My Music

In a world increasingly separated from natural things, Lao Zi’s small five thousand word tome the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching) extended a gentle invitation to me to recover my place as part of a greater universe over 20 years ago, when I first read it in its entirety. Of course, so much of its grace and spirit inspires Chinese (and, hence, also Korean and Japanese) traditional culture that it is not often possible to distinguish between being a Taoist artist (which I am) from being a non-Taoist one, especially if you are an artist working within (or close to) a traditional Chinese art-form (which I am). Still, there is an ineffable, fugitive quality of grace and naturalness to the best work produced by artists/persons living in touch with Nature, with themselves, the Universe, with Tao.

And this is so all over the world, in all cultures and for people of any race or religious faith. For Tao is a universal thing, it exists underneath the skin and veneer in every corner of the world. Most of the time such people do not actively call themselves Taoists (or Daoists) or profess to a belief in a system that is at its very heart anti-system. Most of the time, such people don’t call themselves anything. But you can tell…. you can smell it, hear it, sense it, touch it, in their work…… a sense of groundedness, timelessness, centredness.

Still, let me try to say what I have learned over the years from Lao Zi and also from the inner chapters of Zhuang Zi and Lie Zi…

Everything and Nothing….. (aaah, more obscurantist ranting… what do I mean?)

Well, let me quote:

“Those who know do not say,

those who say do not know.

Shut the door, blunt your sharpness, resolve your complications

Harmonise the light, melt into the world…” (chapter 56, Tao Te Ching)

In a profession that requires the cultivation of a public persona, a public image, and that also encourages self-promotion (at the expense of everything else), outlandish behaviour as cool and hip, sensationalism as the only way to grab attention and sell, reading Lao Zi reminds me not to lose myself. Not to let the inner person be disturbed, to focus time and again on – The Music.

I have learned that an artist has to work hard at his craft and then also work hard to get his/her work made public. And that the making public is not about self-promotion but is necessary so that the work can be appreciated. To get the music heard, to send the music out into the world, to share the writing, the performance, the artist has to learn the art of pushing AND not pushing. The Tao of being an artist is the tao of living fully, being unashamed at working hard, unashamed of saying your work is worth the time and effort spent. And then the art of learning how to let it go, to step aside:

“This is the way of heaven,

When you have done your work, retire!”

Tao Te Ching chapter 9 – trans. by John C. H. Wu

To step aside and let the creation be… not worry about how people see you but how they hear The Work. Which is why, as early as twelve years ago, I started moving away from thinking of myself as a pop singer, even if some of what I wrote and recorded still counted as pop. I did not want the lifestyle or the attitude of a pop singer. I wanted my own inner space to explore, my inner quiet, my private room where birds still sing in the morning, where the night still flowed quietly by – where I could “wan yue” (just sit and appreciate the moon) and not have to explain it to anyone! I realised that the essential things are – dedication to your Art/Work, the love of it, the natural expression of it (whatever natural means to your personality and character), to focus on keeping the harmony, balance and integrity of your life, your work, your world… the appreciation of the small and the quiet in a world of bigger is better….in a world of noise.

“Fame or integrity: which is more important?

Money or happiness: which is more valuable?

Success or failure: which is more destructive?

If you look to others for fulfilment,

You will never be fulfilled.

If your happiness depends on money,

you will never be happy with yourself.

Be content with what you have

rejoice in the way things are.

When you realise there is nothing lacking,

the whole world belongs to you.”

Tao Te Ching, chapter 44 (trans. Stephen Mitchell)

Yes – simplicity, integrity, honesty, creativity, diversity…… these codes of living emerged over the years and I must confess that the old Taoist masters have constantly reminded me of where I should place my feet.

“A good traveller has no fixed plans

and is not intent upon arriving.

A good artist lets his intuition

lead him wherever he wants.

A good scientist has freed himself of concepts

and keeps his mind open to what is.”

Chapter 27 Tao Te Ching, (trans. Stephen Mitchell)

I felt freed to be expressive. Which for anyone who does any form of creative work will tell you is the most liberating experience in the world. I felt freed to be myself. No need to bullshit or hide or exaggerate….. free to be serious, free to have fun. License in the true sense of the word – not the illusion of freedom. Liberation and feedom start from within. From a sense of knowing who you are. Where you belong. Knowing that you do not have to prove anything to anybody. Knowing your own silent space inside.

And so, on to the music I create. One day, about fifteen years ago, I suddenly realised while out shopping for music that there was so little available that would help me “connect” (quoting E.M. Forster)… with the larger world. Not just to myself. To the universe.

It was then that I realised that I had to make the music I wanted to buy! Create the music that I needed to listen to. And if I was looking for it, there had to be others looking for it too, others wanting and needing to listen to just such music….. Music that would be peaceful, spiritual in the lightest sense, music that would be a connection back to Nature, be integrating, not destructive, ( i.e. not make people see themselves as separate from everything else – but a part of it all )…. Wholesome, not in the milk and goody-two-shoes sense (which is often mere conformity and fear of individuality) but in the sense of being a vital, creative part of a greater whole…

Which is why I choose to use flutes made of bamboo, sometimes wood. The Chinese Di and Xiao, the Indian Bansuri, the Japanese Shakuhachi, the Indonesian Suling and Seruling. The sheer simplicity of construction of the instruments, the immediate nature of the breath and timbre, the naturalness of the voice of bamboo… This also explains, in part, my preference for mostly acoustic instruments in my music…..besides the fact that they sound better (of course!) – they are a wonderful reminder to go outside and look at the moon, play in the sun, swim in the sea, dance in the open air

And, living in modern cities as we do, that is a reminder we can never have too much of!


No better way to end this page than with another quote from Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching – chapter 39 :

In harmony with the Tao

the sky is clear and spacious

the earth is solid and full

all creatures flourish together,

content with the way they are,

endlessly repeating themselves

endlessly renewed.

When man interferes with the Tao,

the sky becomes filthy,

the equilibrium crumbles,

creatures become extinct.

The Master views the parts with compassion,

because he understands the whole.

His constant practice is humility.

He doesn’t glitter like a jewel

but lets himself be shaped by the Tao

As rugged and common as stone…


<  a bit   / letters  /  previous  /  next   >