“Your being a person is due to the illusion of space and time; you imagine yourself to be at a certain point occupying a certain volume; your personality is due to your self-identification with the body. Your thoughts and feelings exist in succession, they have their span in time and make you imagine yourself, because of memory, as having duration. In reality time and space exist in you; you do not exist in them. They are modes of perception, but they are not the only ones. Time and space are like words written on paper; the paper is real, the words merely a convention.” – Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
The 4th Dimension.
You read the words, and your imagination does the rest. Wasn’t that part of The Twilight Zone? You recall something you may have read in a science fiction novel. Spaceships and time travel. You vaguely remember something in connection with Einstein in the physics class you slept through. If you ask someone about the 4th Dimension, they might think you’re talking about a vocal group from the ’70s.
In fact, the 4th Dimension is neither otherworldly or a concept that requires a PhD. to grasp.
The 4th Dimension is the world that we live in; the world we function in. Some call it the Physical World, the Material World, or the Phenomenal World. Most of us call it Reality. One problem with this concept: there are no absolute realities in the 4th Dimension. States of consciousness, perception, the senses, and life experiences are unique to each individual. My sense of reality was permanently altered in 1973 when John McLaughlin and his music opened the doors to worlds beyond the 4th Dimension. And I have been eternally grateful ever since.
If you ask devoted fans of McLaughlin’s music, “Why do you like it?” they probably couldn’t give you a thorough answer. There is a point they want to make, but the intent won’t be fully realized. Expressions such as “very spiritual,” “life changing,” and “from the heart” might be in their sentences. But they don’t have the exact words to describe the passion that the music stirs inside of them.
At the same time, if you ask, “What do you admire about John McLaughlin?” a heartfelt reply is a certainty. The words “devotion,” “aspiration,” and “inspiration” flow forth with relative ease. Talking about the man is easier than talking about the music – although they are one in the same.
John McLaughlin has cast a wide and far reaching shadow of influence on musicians and non-musicians alike. He changed the course of guitar playing; creating new standards of command, technique, and innovation on the instrument. By example, he demonstrates the character and dedication needed to attain our goals in life, as well as in music. He has shown us the power of music, and the power within us.
Space and time are elements of the 4th Dimension. They are words that describe and measure change in our physical world; and change is constant. For some, change does not come easy. John McLaughlin surrenders to it. Whatever path his Muse desires he accepts without question; because he is on a quest. From soaring fusion and eloquent jazz on electric guitar, to lyrical romanticism and satorial splendor on acoustic: McLaughlin pursues the will-o’-the-wisp of music.
I had the honor of meeting John McLaughlin in 2005. Seeing him in his roles as husband to his wife Ina and father to his son Luke humanized the mythological figure of “Guitar Hero” very quickly. That does not mean I stopped being in awe of him. Maintaining my cool around him took a lot of will power. But his graciousness and generous spirit put me at ease, and the dream of a lifetime had been realized.
In theory, if you could travel at the speed of light, time would stand still. That seemed to be happening when I spoke with John McLaughlin before the 4th Dimension Tour. The formalities of an interview were quickly tossed aside, and we settled into a “just go with the flow” casual chat. Contradicting the constant change of time, two things remained the same since our 2005 meeting. McLaughlin was still gracious and open-hearted. And I was still in awe of him.
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Discussion of the 4th Dimension usually falls under the topic of Science, not Music. Our conversation began with John providing his insight.
Rod: Why use the 4th Dimension as a theme?
McLaughlin: I had to come up with a name for the tour. And we’re a quartet, which also ties in with the title. It’s basically a concept.
As you know, the 4th Dimension is the dimension of space and time. Space and time is the canvas upon which musicians paint their spontaneous pictures and tell their stories. They are the media through which music is communicated.
There must be a lot of books around about space time, but for me it’s the world we operate in. We live in the timeless and spaceless world of inner pure consciousness, but all our activity is in the space and time world; with the exception of meditation, contemplation, etc.
Plans for the 4th Dimension Tour were in their initial stages at the time of our talk. But one idea had crystallized.
Rod: You have a mantra for the tour, “Just Improvise”. It has a familiar ring to it.
McLaughlin: I know Nike did it with “Just Do It”, but we took it one step further. It’s not just a musical expression. I think this is a very Zen statement. I’m a great admirer of this way of thought, this way of philosophy, and this way of enlightenment; because that’s what it is, also.
One of the key elements of Zen Buddhism is spontaneity. And one of the key elements in jazz – in real jazz music – is spontaneity. So that’s what it’s all about. It’s an admonition: Just Improvise!
John McLaughlin lives very much in the present; in the Now. His focus is on what he is doing, not what he has done. For all of his accomplishments in music, he regards them as part of the past. I ask him to give some perspective on his life.
Rod: Using any time frame that you like: how have you changed?
McLaughlin: That’s a difficult question because we start to change as soon as we have a kind of prophetic vision of ourselves in our imagination. When I was fifteen-years-old I said, “I want to be the world’s greatest guitar player.” It might have been wishful thinking, but in a way it’s not. You have a kind of prophetic vision of yourself projected in the future. And these are tied up intrinsically with our dreams. We all dream, we all have imaginations; which is another one of those fabulous gifts we could possibly have.
But there’s something, what some call “karma” or “destiny,” that plays its role. I don’t know how, so please don’t ask me. But it certainly plays its role: that you just happen to be at a certain place at a certain time. People call it “luck” – and it’s happened to me. But “luck,” when you look at that word, it’s just a word to try to explain something that we don’t really understand. It has good connotations to it. But nevertheless, when you try to understand the word “luck,” it’s difficult to define “why?” or “where does it come from?”
As far back as my early childhood, I knew there was something magical about the world and about life. I don’t know how I knew it, but I knew it. But you become an adult – a dull Croesus adult – when you’re growing up. And you have to unlearn a lot of things to harmonize what you always originally were, with what you are today. This is probably one of the goals of life.
It’s difficult for me to define how I’ve changed, because I’m still the same “me.” I’m changeless in a sense. You become wiser because your awareness expands as you grow older. And you become more inclusive as opposed to exclusive. I believe this is simply a movement of awareness, or consciousness. Where you grow from a family, to a village, to a town; and you adopt different kinds of hats as you expand. Then you become of a nationality and you have a flag. In a way, this determines your perspective. But then you move to another continent, and you have another view of the continent where you were before. So your perspective grows as a result.
I think these are what change you. You adopt these different perspectives. So you’re no longer a citizen of U.S., or France, or Germany; or India for that matter. You become a planetary citizen in a way. And in the end, we’re all going the same way. We’re all walking the way toward becoming galactic citizens, where we have a true cosmic awareness. And I’m on that road like everybody else.
There is a pause, as his thoughts momentarily take him to a deeper level of contemplation.
McLaughlin: That reminds me of a real dichotomy of a situation where Man has these cosmic weapons, like atom bombs, but very little cosmic consciousness to handle these kinds of powers. And it’s extremely dangerous in a way.
Spirituality plays a significant role in John’s life and music. A large portion of his audience connects with his spiritual aspirations as much as they do his music. Although he is still a seeker, there has been a marked change from his past disciplines.
Rod: You once said of Miles Davis, “Miles is an extremely soulful musician, he’s not yet conscious of his divinity. But his music is almost more conscious than he is.” Can the same be said about you and your music?
McLaughlin: I’m not aware of it in that sense because I don’t think of myself as divine. If you’re thinking that, I think you’re on the wrong level. You’re part of the Supreme Spirit that’s totally divine and totally amazing.
There’s no message of divinity in my music. I’m not trying to bring a message – or trying to bring people to God. People will do what they will do. The whole point of anyone’s existence, I think, is trying to feel inspiration.
If you can inspire someone in their life somehow, even in some small way, then you have been useful. You’ve shared something that’s unspeakable with yourself with the unspeakable part of that other person. For example: some of the great saints, the beautiful words they say come from the depths of them and go to the depths of you. They’ve shared something with you. They’ve touched you on that point. They inspire you.
So I’m unable to think of myself in that way. Maybe it was during my Mahavishnu days when I said that statement about Miles. I wouldn’t put it that way, now. Divinity’s got nothing to do with it any more. It’s all part of the same reality. It’s there; it always was there and it always will be there.
I think we should forget all this “divine stuff.” You’re putting a label on something that doesn’t need a label. It doesn’t need a label because it’s there. It’s permanently there; permanently with us, permanently in us. The minute you label it, you separate it from what we are.
So my statement was wrong at that time. I would not use the word “divine” again; it’s a word that is treacherous. “Divine” is a concept. It’s a truly important concept, I know. But it’s just a concept. I wouldn’t put a label on it.
We delve into the subject of consciousness and perception. I ask John what is “real” to him.
Rod: What do you believe in?
McLaughlin: That’s a big question. Well, it’s not belief any more. We may think that we are separate from each other and from the Supreme Reality. But that is total illusion and all wrong. We are inseparable from this Supreme Spirit, from this Supreme Beauty. People call it God. Whatever you want to call it: we are inseparable from that, and we are inseparable from each other. Anybody that thinks otherwise is in illusion.
Sometimes it’s an interesting illusion – or maya – this fascination with separateness. Maybe from the beginning of time we have this kind of desire for separateness. Maybe that’s the beginning of Creation?
But I know. It’s not a question of belief any more – I know. Because I’ve had glimpses of it.
That’s reality for me. It’s the Supreme Reality for me. And it’s inseparable from me as it’s inseparable from you. Because you are it, and I am it; and we all are it. We have this wonderful theater play going on where we all think we’re separate. That’s the rules of the game. But the reality is wonderful. What we are inseparable from is marvelous beyond any wildest imagination. That’s all I can say really.
In December 2006, John McLaughlin and his family moved to India for an extended stay. India is a second home to McLaughlin, its people and music inspiring new directions for him to explore. We talk about a new project that was almost finished.
Rod: Can we expect some new music soon?
McLaughlin: We’ve been doing a lot of work here in India. We made a CD here which was not really anticipated. I got over here without too much idea of what I was planning to do. About six weeks into the stay I started writing music like crazy! Not that I really wanted to, but I didn’t have any control over it. I’d sit down – and boom! I’d say, “Let me get this out.” Ina would come in and she’d say, “You’re writing again?” I said, “I don’t know?! I don’t know how, I don’t know why! I’m out of control here.” It never really happened like that before.
I wrote eight pieces, and I thought it would be really good to record them. So we decided to do it in India. We actually organized everything over here. It features Indian musicians, but it’s a very Western album. The players are absolutely amazing! For each piece I featured one of the new young lions in Indian music on that piece with the rhythm section. Most of them are unknown to people in America. But I would be hard pressed to find musicians of equal caliber anywhere in the world. And it’s different. I never really know how the music is going to come out. I’m surprised at what comes out of me, which is a nice feeling.
We also filmed a “making of” DVD for the new CD. It also features individual interviews with the Indian musicians. These young guys, their eyes were wide open. Their ears were wide open, too. They know a lot about Western music. But studying traditional Indian music, they don’t have that training in harmony. We asked them questions like, “What is it to be an Indian musician in the 21st century?” and “When someone asks you to improvise over a tune with chords, how do you approach it as an Indian player?”
What was really inspiring was the way these guys have dedicated their lives to music. They see that building bridges to the West is as important to them as it is for people like me. It was really wonderful just to hear that, to see that. So we’re going to try and get as much of that into the DVD as possible.
Inspiration is as vital to John McLaughlin as the air itself. He needs to be inspired, and feels it is his duty to inspire others. Just as he bends notes to color his guitar phrases, John shapes his words with inflections that convey his passion as we discuss the subject further.
Rod: Sufi Master Hazrat Inayet Khan wrote, “Inspiration may be called the soul’s reward.”
McLaughlin: Without inspiration we’re basically dead. You need it. I need it. It’s always been there and it’s always around us. You have to have the eyes to see it. You have to have the mind to figure it out; or the heart to feel it. But these in the end they’re all blessings from God, aren’t they?
We have permanent access to inspiration, really. You read books, you see a movie, or you read a poem. You open up the Upanishads, or the Gita, or the Bible. They’re well-springs of inspiration; and they’re permanently accessible. You can find millions of things that are really inspiring. There are places where you can draw inspiration from. You can go somewhere in the mountains, and there’s a river and some beautiful scenery. And they put you in a state of inspiration. It’s marvelous.
But nothing can ever equal the inspiration that you get from a human being. Whether they’re alive or they’re dead. They said something or they wrote something. They painted something, or they played something. Because it’s like total identification, total connection – you know what I’m saying? I can never forget all the people who have been an inspiration to me; and still are on a daily basis.
It’s very touching to know that you’ve been useful to someone in their life. It’s very satisfying, that feeling. Words start to betray you when you try to express certain sentiments. And that’s why we play notes, they don’t lie [chuckles]. It’s true, eh? It’s all true. You cannot lie with notes.
Another important aspect of John’s life includes daily meditation.
Rod: How does meditation influence your music?
McLaughlin: Existence is just a wonderful, marvelous miracle. The experience that we have as a being in this universe, with the beings around us – and the universe itself – is fabulous.
I’ve been meditating for a long time, and you see it. You see that we’re inseparable from this amazing perfection that life and consciousness is. That thing inside is unchanging. Eternal realities – changeless. The Supreme Consciousness. The Supreme Reality that holds the universe. Unchanging: but out of it, everything changes. But to get that in “form,” that’s something else. That’s what a life is about, I guess. You try to articulate what cannot be articulated.
We exist on many different levels and different dimensions. In music what we try to do, well basically what everyone is trying to do, is harmonize the inner world and the outer world. Music has the power to build a bridge across that great abyss between them. You play music – not just the notes – to build a bridge to the interior world. You can cross over the abyss and go into the inner world as somebody else. There the two worlds really become one world. It’s wonderful, really wonderful. The bridge is there; it is there all the time. But there is a way to make it really lucid and clear so that other people can cross over.
Few musicians in the West have John McLaughlin’s veneration and knowledge of the music of India. We talk about another project he was working on in Madras.
Rod: You have a new instructional DVD coming out?
McLaughlin: We’re producing a DVD on konnakol. Konnakol, without a doubt, is the greatest system on the planet for learning rhythm without having to learn a percussion instrument. It’s the system of learning rhythm that uses the voice with the hands. You keep the rhythmic cycle with the hands, and use your voice to sing the subdivisions of the rhythms. Every beat can be subdivided depending on how fine you want it. You start playing with the subdivisions, like 4+4+4 or 3+3+2. Konnakol allows you to do this spontaneously and improvise with it.
It’s mathematics with a groove. You sort of split your mind in two while you sing to calculate the subdivisions while you keep the rhythm cycle – the groove – with your hands. I recommend that people use a metronome in the beginning. It’s such an amazing system. It’s not surprising that the Indians invented konnakol because they’re unbelievable mathematicians. They have a fantastic gift for abstract thought.
It’s born in India, but konnakol is a global system. If you know konnakol, you can listen to complicated Cuban or Latin rhythms and figure it out. There are things that are universal in rhythm; really, truly universal. You put music on, and people start moving right away. Rhythm roots your body to the earth.
The new DVD is really wonderful. I transcribed all of the konnakol rhythm phrases into Western musical notation. You’ll be able to download them as PDF files, just like we did with the This Is The Way I Do It DVD, from our website: www.johnmclaughlin.com.
Changes have occurred on the business side of McLaughlin’s career. Though he has signed with major record labels for most of his professional life, John made the decisive move to strike out on his own.
Rod: Now that you’ve left Universal, how do you feel about working as an independent artist?
McLaughlin: Artistically, I feel exactly the same. I’ve been very fortunate insofar as the record companies I have been with in my career have always let me do what I wanted to do. They’ve always had faith in me to do that; and God bless them for that. So nothing’s changed in that sense. My leaving Universal in a way coincides with this global crisis that is going on in the record industry. And in fact, this is one of the reasons why I left.
Although concert attendances are healthy, I think it must be a counter-reaction to the dismal audio recording situation. Record sales are dismal, especially if you’re marginal to begin with. Some record companies are suffering financially. They’re firing a lot of people. I know from real life experience. I’ve seen people that I work with fired, and the people who were left had to do basically two jobs; and they end up doing them badly. There’s no money for promotion, which is very bad. You need promotion today, you need marketing.
We have to do everything ourselves now. We have to produce and finance everything, and hope that it’s a break even situation. For someone like me to make money on a CD – I mean the last four years – it’s very difficult. You don’t really make CD’s to make money. They’re like paintings. I’m a musician, and I’m alive, so I gotta play; I have to record. Making audio recording products today, you have to have a whole new mindset.
I think the way of the future is with the DVD. People are so much more visually oriented. They want to see the people play. People are curious about how music is made and how people approach it. They want to see what’s going on inside of it. One of the reasons why we made this “making of” DVD to be a bonus with the CD is to bring people into the visual side of things.
So anyone can get this DVD and see what’s happening in this recording session in Madras, in southern India, with different musicians. This is part of this whole global village thing. We have access to culture, information, music, and art on an unprecedented level. Never, ever in the history of the world has it been like this. And that side is wonderful.
But nevertheless, we have to be, how shall I say, “modest” in our budgeting. Simply because we don’t have a record company behind us.
There’s really no point in asking John McLaughlin “What musical direction are you headed in?” But I did it anyway.
Rod: Where is your music taking you?
McLaughlin: The music is taking me to places “where no man has gone before” [chuckles]. Well, where I’ve never been before, anyway. After all these years, I’m still looking for that unknown “thing.” That fantastic unspeakable “thing” that music is capable of transmitting.
What’s amazing about music is that it can transport us. You can go into a deep state of consciousness listening to music. It can happen in all kinds of different activities. More so with personal activities where you become absorbed, like reading a book. You forget yourself, and you resolve to find yourself in a larger sense. I love music and I make music, that’s my life. But it transports me just as it transports the listener. Because I’m a listener, too.
I have to tell you, frankly, that I have no idea where the music is going or where it’s taking me. I’m a little like a painter: insofar as he wakes up and he says, “I have to paint.” So he gets his canvas out and he paints. But he doesn’t do it for somebody else. He does it because he has to do it and get it out of his system; so he can keep on living. Then he’ll go to the next painting. But does he know what he’s going to paint next? Unless he’s working on a commission basis: probably not.
Generally speaking, musicians and artists today create by necessity; because they have to. They can only go from where their past brings them. What we’re doing is continuously bringing the past up-to-date. Which is an indication of where we’re going in the future.
One thing for sure, you will never please everyone. And I don’t really want to please everyone. I don’t really want to please anyone except me. It’s very self-centered in a sense. But I’m probably harder on myself than any other human being.
So if you ask me, “Where are you going?” – I don’t know. I trust music so implicitly. I just go with whatever comes into me. I have total, absolute faith in the music. Because the music will never betray me.
Dedicated to my Friend and Brother, Souvik Dutta. – Rod Sibley
The Gateway To Rhythm konnakol DVD will be released in the Fall of 2007, and will be available at www.abstractlogix.com and www.mediastarz.com