Question + Answer

02024-06-24 | Uncategorized | 5 comments

Backstage has a feature called Ask Ottmar. Here is a question that merited a long-ish answer.

You have talked about the imaginative quality of instrumental music that allows the musician and listener to enter a symbiotic relationship beyond the often fragmentary confines of language. I wonder if epiphanies come to you in your meditative practice, and if they come in the form of language, a rhythm or a melody to you? Does music mean something deeper to you that language cannot convey? To me, music is closer to raw feelings and therefore childhood memories whereas language is more cerebral. Beautiful language written precisely takes me to an interesting place that allows me to see the world in a different perspective. I cannot say whether I enjoy a beautiful song or a beautiful poem more. Apologies for the scattered questions but I guess my main question is: how would you describe your relationship with meditation, language and music and how do they co-relate to you?

I like poetry and perhaps I am a frustrated poet. I have never been good at it and admire people who are. I do think poetry applies to not-words as well. Music can be poetic. Art, photography, a path through a wood, the way a person carries themselves can be poetic.

I find that my favorite poetry leaves space for the reader to insert themselves. To feel, to imagine. Perhaps a poem is a bench that invites us to sit down and experience a moment with the poet?

Many years ago I wrote a little piece about instrumental music for a magazine. You can read it here – in the rant archive. I wrote then, that instrumental music is a book while a song is a movie. (While instrumental music is also a song, in this case I mean song as music that features the singing of words, language, lyrics.)

A book invites participation and requires imagination to come alive, while the movie shows instead what the director imagined. The tree described in a book will have many different shapes… one for each person who reads the words. A movie shows only one tree, the director’s tree… there it is. Perhaps one could also say instrumental music is to songs what poetry is to prose. A suggestion, a signpost pointing at a perception or an emotion, rather than a full description of a landscape or a situation. 

I have played guitar for most of my life… (for about 83% of it). I have meditated almost as long. I know these two practices have influenced each other, but how to tease them apart? They are like two trees that have grown into one another and have become inseparable. And when we look beneath the surface the large and the small and the microscopic roots have all mingled and are intertwined… 

Meditation and playing guitar are food for me. It’s as basic and simple as that. Today I forgot to eat and walking to dinner I realized that all day I had only eaten an apple. But while I can forget food I generally don’t forget to sit. I have written about my beginning with meditation when I was fifteen and how my mother changed from a sceptic, who thought I was engaging in some crazy cultish thing, to a believer, who created space for my meditations and reminded me daily to sit. She made me sit because she saw what meditation did to me. How it tethered me, grounded me. 

I have heard people say that meditation puts a little air between everything. That makes it sound like meditation protects like bubblewrap… the reality is that you don’t feel less, you actually feel more and can allow yourself to feel more. 

Meditation and music are family. They are the river and at the same time the boat that moves in the river. 

You asked how some of the music originates. I have not perceived a pattern. Some music is birthed almost instantly, some needs time. Some music only needs time to sprout and grow and some music requires work and sweat. I woke up from a dream, grabbed my guitar, and played the new piece given to me in the dream. Often I can’t remember how I came up with a piece. It was just suddenly there, standing or reclining in the room, or feeling as if it had always been part of the landscape. Some music begins with a melody, some starts with a rhythm. A feeling becomes words becomes sounds. Or the other way around.

Sometimes I discover music through playing with the guitar. Playing with the guitar is very different from playing the guitar. Playing with the guitar is playing like a child… to forget about harmony and about chords and scales and to put fingers here and there… simply to find out what that sounds like. Not thinking about music theory. Directly experiencing the sound of the strings. I have a lot of fun discovering music that way. Some of the music on Rain Poems came about that way. Every child is an artist. The problem is to remain an artist once they grow up. – Pablo Picasso

I hope I have given you something, even if it doesn’t seem like a good definitive answer. More like an answer cloud.


  1. Steve

    >Meditation and music are family. They are the river and at the same time the boat that moves in the river.

    This is absolutely a perfect description of my relationship with music and meditation as well.

    • ottmar

      Thank you, Steve. That means a lot.

  2. Steve

    I was riding home from campus and these two poems from Kazuaki Tanahashi’s and Peter Levitt’s translation of the “Cold Mountain” poems and it reminded me of this meditation/music topic:

    No matter how high you climb Cold Mountain road,
    the way to Cold Mountain never ends.
    The long valley is stacked with boulders,
    its shoreline wet with lush grass.
    Slippery moss, regardless of rain,
    pine trees singing, even without wind.
    “Who can go beyond the entangled world
    to sit with me in the midst of white clouds?

    Lute and books should fill your life,
    what can fame and money provide?
    Abandon your carriage and follow the wisdom of your wife.
    A humble cart is pulled by devoted children.
    Wind blows over barley drying on the ground,
    water floods from the pond stocked with fish.
    I often think of wrens
    that live peacefully on just one branch.

    • ottmar

      The first two lines of each poem really relate to art and music beautifully.

      Lute and books should fill your life,
      what can fame and money provide?
      No matter how high you climb the road,
      the way never ends.

    • anne

      steve, tks for sharing – lovely

      the area i live in, lacks mountains, but little else it lacks.

      poetry is all around me

      (There is a movie – called – cold mountain. Some parts, i think, are well done – especially the final scene. The actor who plays – Inman reminds me of a man, I feel instantly in love with a very very long time ago -he turned out to be a jerk but for a short period of time it was perfect….nice to be reminded of that brief time. )


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