The Arty Semite

Tibetan Magic at the Met

By Jenny Hendrix

  • Print
  • Share Share
Arlene Lee
Raphael Mostel’s ‘Music for the October Moon’ performed by Tibetan Singing Bowl Ensemble at Cathedral of St. John the Divine, 1986.

In 1982, musician, composer and writer Raphael Mostel was walking down Lexington Avenue, when a sweater in the window of a Himalayan gift shop caught his eye. Going inside for a closer look, Mostel heard a sound, unlike anything he’d heard before, that quickly chased all thoughts of the sweater from his mind. It was a Tibetan singing bowl, an instrument almost completely unknown in the West. It was, Mostel said, a wild kind of sound that became connected for him with shamanic magic and healing. At a lecture and performance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Sunday, Mostel gave some insight into the way this magic works scientifically.

The subject, “The Mysteries of the Tibetan Singing Bowl,” was appropriate for a Halloween afternoon. “The world is just as full of magic as it has always been,” Mostel began, rubbing the edge of a large singing bowl to produce an eerie ring. He demonstrated what he meant with a brief explanation of the history and science of musical vibration. Using instruments from the museum’s collection, Mostel showed the sonic difference between gongs and bells, which resonate from the center and the edge respectively. He played a video of rice moving on a vibrating plate to show the physical effect vibration has in the real world. The images of the rice shifting into a series of mandala-like shapes as the vibration changed pitch proved Mostel’s point about magic almost single-handedly.

But the heart of the demonstration was a performance by Mostel’s Tibetan Singing Bowl Ensemble, the first it’s given in 16 years. The group played Mostel’s composition “Music for the October Moon,” a piece in five movements for six performers on singing bowls and two soloists on horns and conches. Rubbed and struck by the players, the singing bowls emitted a series of metallic screeches, dings and thrums that never let you forget their materials — mixed metals, each with its own sonic character, producing multiple tones and overtones. Because of this almost irrational harmonic quality, these instruments emphasized not just their own materiality but that of sound itself. As the tones moved and shifted in the Met’s auditorium, you could feel the sound waves spreading like ripples from the edge of each bowl.

The six performers, Mostel among them, at times held the bowls up to their mouths as though drinking from them. As they opened and closed their mouths next to the bowls, the tones pulsed as the sound waves were intercepted and shifted by the players’ mouths. Because the singing bowl’s sound is so close to the vibrato in a human voice, this interaction of body and sound became a visual metaphor for the music.

Later in the piece, players moved dried leaves around inside the singing bowls, stirring them with their hands or with sticks to produce a gentle rustling. Others cracked sticks of different sizes between their fingers, each stick breaking in a different tone. This may have seemed a bit literal, evoking the natural sounds of fall visually as well as sonically, but it was touching nonetheless. The sounds, minimal, almost incidental, melted into the low throb of the bowls, quiet but still strong enough to separate themselves from the sounds of the audience shifting and coughing in their seats.

This peace was shattered, however, by the earsplitting sound of two conches from the auditorium’s balconies. The grunts, moans, shrieks and hisses of the shells, shofars and the other horns the soloists played were so odd that they might have been funny, had they not also been so disturbing, sounding as they did like something in pain. Throughout these solos, the gently discordant hum from the bowls continued.

When the music was over, the performers held the bowls in their hands for almost a full minute as the vibration faded away. But the sound was so insistent that it almost seemed to continue even after it had gone. As Robert Thurman, the Dalai Lama’s translator, once told Mostel, the singing bowl’s sound “sits in the ear, and waits until you’re ready for it. Then it goes right in.” It was, as Mostel intended, a beautiful demonstration of a wild scientific magic at play in the real world.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Tibetan Singing Bowl Ensemble, Tibet, Tibetan Singing Bowl, Robert Thurman, Raphael Mostel, Music for the October Moon, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jenny Hendrix, Halloween, Dalai Lama

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.