“We are swimming in a celestial symphony and we don’t have the ears to hear it,” Kayleen Asbo powerfully stated in her opening remarks during a session at the Harmony in Food and Farming Conference entitled “Music of the Spheres”. In order to understand and ‘see’ the divine pattern which permeates our universe, we need to open our eyes to what is going on around us, “tuning ourselves in” to the interrelated harmonies that exist within and around us. Music, according to Asbo, acts to “shape the clay of the human soul, softening us so that we can hear the symphony that surrounds us”. Music can express a sense of reality and existence beyond words – grief, sorrow, tenderness, spirituality and joy – through exciting and emotional compositions.

Singing, as the basis of western harmony, has been transformed and shaped by our understanding of consonance and dissonance. Whilst most would agree that consonance is an agreeable and pleasant sound and dissonance its opposite, the fact is that no one has been able to say for certain that this is the case. Although there are physical and neurological facts important to understanding the idea of dissonance, the precise definition is culturally conditioned – definitions of dissonance vary greatly among different styles, traditions and cultures. For example, two notes played simultaneously but with different frequencies produce a sound that is objectionable in traditional European classical music. However other musical styles such as Indonesian gamelan, consider this sound an attractive part of the musical timbre. In Western tradition at least, dissonance is defined as a quality of sound “that seems unstable and has an aural need to resolve to a stable consonance”.

‘Acoustical truths’, as discovered by Pythagoras, established the basis for a musical system with five consonant intervals that have been accepted by the human ear: the octave, fifth, fourth, third and sixth. These intervals were demonstrated to the audience during the “Music of the Spheres” session by British Pilgrims, Guy Hayward and Will Parsons, whose voices, conducted by Sir John Elliot Gardiner, filled the room in perfect harmony.

The human ear, suggested Gardiner, has possessed the same physical capacity to accept sounds from the very earliest appearance of an interval, however, whilst the ear has remained the same structurally, the mind, at different periods in time, has been conditioned and transformed. This has etched out new understandings of musical consonance and dissonance in relation to shifting traditions and fashion. What we once heard to be ‘pleasant’ may no longer sound as such.

Dissonance, the idea of music that is imperfect, is essential to our understandings of a society that has fallen out of harmony with itself and the world around it. Gardiner claimed that, as a society, we are currently in a state of discord which affects our music, food, lifestyle and most significantly, our farming. This can be understood more tangibly if one thinks of the development of digital music recordings, which, despite being one of the most astonishing inventions of the twentieth century, often pale in comparison to the sound of live music. Much like digitalisation, the relationship between farm and fork in our current agricultural systems is one of growing distance, such that few connections are made between consumer and farm produce. Gardiner went on to question this dissonance, asking if it is beneficial as a society to stay in a totally harmonious state? Perhaps, he suggested, dissonance, in the form of music, is a necessary sign of a society straining – demonstrating feelings of stress and uncertainty.

Following on from this, Hayward and Parsons discussed the significance of song to pilgrimage. Their quest is to renew the medieval tradition of British pilgrimage according to modern needs, “to create an open spiritual activity without religious prescription”. Though practised by most world religions, pilgrimage at its root contains no specific religious association. The word comes from Latin ‘peregrine’ or ‘per agri’ – which means ‘through the fields’. Singing fulfils a crucial part of pilgrimage for Hayward and Parsons, who also seek to “keep song alive” on their journeys. The British Pilgrimage Trust define pilgrimage as “a journey on foot to holy places” – holy meaning wholesome or healthy. Holiness, then, can take many forms – cathedrals, rivers, long barrows, monasteries or ancient trees. The songs sung during Hayward and Parsons’ pilgrimages are often circular structures – in the form of mantras or rounds sung in harmony or unison. This structure, much like pilgrimage walks which are as much about the journey as what is taken away from it, reflect the interconnectedness of life and the life cycle.

During a chapel service at the conference, as well as at the final plenary session, Hayward and Parsons sang ‘The Life of a Man’ – a song they once sang at the centre of Saffron turf maze in Essex, having walked the 1.5 kilmetre labyrinth to the sacred centre. Both pilgrims, as well as CEO of the SFT Patrick Holden, agreed that the song, in addition to its beautiful harmonies, reflected the mood of the conference as a whole as well as the deeper harmony framework which had been the central focus of the two days. “The universe,” said Patrick Holden, “is in a perpetual state of emotion…of ascent and decent, of evolution and devolution” and this is reflected in every aspect of the world we inhabit – from the seasons to the broader life cycle. “We are born, we ascend, we reach physical perfection and then we decline and eventually we die”. This cycle is not one of morbid hopelessness. Instead it both reflects and signals the importance of our connection to the universe and the natural system of life.

As I was a-walking one morning at ease
A-viewing the leaves as they hung from the trees
They were all in full motion, or appearing to be
And the leaves that were withered, they fell from the trees.

What’s the life of a man any more than a leaf?
A man has his seasons, so why should we grieve?
Although in this life we appear fine and gay,
Like the leaves we must wither and soon fade away

If you’d seen the leaves just a few days ago
They were all in full motion and appearing to grow.
A frost came upon them and withered them all,
And the rain came upon them and down they did fall.

Go down yonder churchyard, many names there you’ll see
All have fallen from this world like the leaves from the tree.
When age and affliction upon us do call,
Like the leaves we must wither and down we must fall.

What’s the life of a man any more than a leaf?
A man has his seasons, so why should we grieve?
Although in this life we appear fine and gay,
Like the leaves we must wither and soon fade away.

(from To Be a Pilgrim (Songs from The Way to Walsingham), released May 5, 2015)

Watch a film of the session here.

Photograph: Richard Weaver

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