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Rivers of Sacred Sound



Solveig McIntosh

Rivers of Sacred Sound traces the flow of influences from East to West, from

BC to AD and from wordless jubilations to the setting of texts. It takes the

discussion about western chant beyond a European perspective.

The text of this book, preceded by an introduction, is presented in seven

chapters and covers a period of approximately five thousand years. There are

many references all over the world to praising the divine with sound. Thus

the starting point is the praise song, a fundamental impulse in mankind. The

Rg-Veda requests that our loudest-sounding hymn be accepted, as food most

delightful to the Gods. The Psalms request us to make a joyful noise unto God

and to sing forth the honour of His name. Spontaneous songs became ritual

events. In an aural culture what was the role of gesture and what is its role

now? There are many doors to open in pursuing these and other questions.

This book opens some of them.

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The praise-song [sāma] let him sing forth bursting bird-like: sing we that hymn which like heaven’s light expandeth.

— Ṝg Veda 1.173.11

The praise-song is an act of acknowledgement of the power and splendour of that which is ‘other’, whether manifest or invisible to the ordinary eye. It ‘spreads and blesses like the light of heaven’.2 It is also a means of bringing the innermost being into a state of resonance with the essence of creation from which all has emerged. This was the primary impulse of mankind.

This book traces some of the connections between ancient musical understanding, sāmans, psalms and Gregorian chant which have led to the development of Western music. It is a very long history but the approximate starting point in physical time for this enquiry is around 3,500 BC.

It is surmised that very early forms of chant only used vowel sounds. This was, no doubt, due to their inherent resonance. Early forms of song and chant eventually acquired language. Language and anatomical verticality go together; animals neither speak not chant. An upright stance, therefore, allowed for control of the breath and vocal sound. More specifically, the physical architecture of the human body was considered essential to some of the concepts of early forms of chant. The subtle form of this human architecture allowed for even more possibilities. Thus the body was the temple from within which sound for praise and worship of...

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