(Part 16 in our ongoing series, Swami Kriyananda on Art & the Artist.)
When Swamiji arrived in San Francisco, he invited a dozen of us to come to his room on the top floor of Ananda House to hear the melodies he had received for the Oratorio that he was writing: the life of Christ in music. On a tiny electric keyboard, he played a single line of notes, telling us which holy site each melody expressed. We understood Swamiji’s creative process; the only possible response was to match his enthusiasm with our own. Later we laughed about it with him, as he was the only one in the room who heard in those tinny notes the glorious Oratorio it became.
Swamiji’s home at the Village was a construction zone. His downstairs room was untouched, but with all the construction noise it was not the place to write music. David and I lived nearby. We didn’t work at home, or write music, so the noise wouldn’t be a problem. We moved into his room, and he went to our house.
His room had been built while he was in seclusion in India after finishing The Path. It gave him more privacy, and also shored up the foundation of the dome, which was so weak, Swamiji feared the whole thing might roll down the hill into the river.
He had expressed only gratitude for the room, so I was astonished to discover how uncomfortable it was. A large porch extended from the living room above, so with the hill on one side, and a huge eave shadowing the only windows, it felt like a cave. There was no sunshine; the light was dim even in the daytime. The wood stove didn’t work properly—it had been put in wrong—so it was always cold. Even one person walking across the living room sounded like a migrating herd of large animals.
Later, when I mentioned to Swamiji how unsuitable his room was, he immediately changed the subject. He wasn’t going to complain. Building new quarters for himself was on the list, but in last place, after all the community areas were done.
Swamiji kept no schedule; he just worked on the Oratorio, meditated, slept, and ate occasional meals prepared for him by Karin Levin, now his full-time cook and housekeeper. Karin was from the Tyrol and set up a Christmas tree in the living room in the European way, with real candles. One side of the room was all windows. In the daytime, Swamiji enjoyed the expansive view. At night, the candles on the tree reflected in the window as dozens of tiny points of light.
He spent many hours sitting on the couch, writing lyrics. The words were so few, a computer was no advantage. Paper and pencil allowed him to tune in more sensitively. His secretary came over every day, but Swamiji refused to put his mind to anything except the absolute essentials. When he needed a break, he invited a few friends over for dinner.
Many multi-talented people, Swamiji said, don’t accomplish much in any field because their energy is always divided. To keep that from happening, he gave his total concentration to one project at a time. “When I write books,” he said, “I can’t even imagine how I could ever write music. When I’m writing music, I can’t remember how to write books.”
Devi said, “When Swamiji was working on the Oratorio, even when he was with people, his mind never left the music. He was always gracious, but you could see it was difficult for him to relate to us. I felt he had to translate words into melody before they made sense to him. Sometimes I think he couldn’t remember my name, but tried to identify me by deciding which key I was in: B flat? G minor?”
Most composers, Swamiji said, think only of the notes that are needed. “They don’t consider how the musicians will feel when they play it, or the singers when they sing. The alto part is usually written last, out of whatever notes are required to finish the chord. I try to make every part an interesting melody in itself. The music will sound more beautiful if the singers are inspired by what they are singing.”
As he finished each piece, Swamiji passed it on to the choir, soloist, or musician to learn and perform for him. He had received the melodies; it was rare for him to change even one note. But sometimes when a piece was performed he would discover a discrepancy between what he heard in his mind and what he’d written down on paper. Or small adjustments in the lyrics made the songs easier or more beautiful to sing.
He often worked late into the night. “When inspiration comes, I have to respond,” he said. Once, after midnight, he called and asked me to come over. “This is the song for the Crucifixion,” he said. He read me the lyrics, then asked, “What do you think?”
Giving Swamiji feedback, even when he asks, is a delicate art. One has to be both supportive and sincere. I responded, “Not every song will be the best one in the Oratorio.”
“Thank you,” he said, “that’s just what I wanted to know.” At dawn the next morning he called again. This time, the lyrics were perfect for You Remain Our Friend.
During his last trip to Italy, Swamiji had met an old friend, Alessandra Bonsignore. Her family had a villa in northern Italy, on Lake Como, near Milan. She offered it to Swamiji to use as an Ananda center. It was the ideal place for PEKI and Ananda to begin a work together; they agreed to start in the spring.
Seven members of PEKI served as the Pastorale; the other thirty or so were lay members. They all loved Master and practiced Kriya, but the group started as Charismatic Catholics and were still oriented that way. Working with the Church was central to their mission; the local priest was one of the Pastorale. In our shared love for God, Ananda and PEKI had one heart. Theologically, though, there were differences.
Swamiji called the Oratorio Christ Lives in the Holy Land—and in You. “Before this,” he said, “I wrote music to express a thought. Now I am writing music to express a vibration.” He hoped the living presence of Christ, experienced through the Oratorio, would bridge the gap between PEKI and Ananda, and through PEKI, inspire in others a deeper love for Jesus.
“The inspiration I felt in the Holy Land was complete in itself,” Swamiji said. “Expressing it did not make it deeper for me. The thought, however, that translating my experience into music could build a bridge to the churches, deeply inspired me and drove me to work unceasingly until the Oratorio was completed.” (1983, pp. 192-195)