Michael London is a singer-songwriter and performer, living in the 21st century who has a unique relationship with a 13th century ecstatic Sufi poet. I think of Rumi’s words as ‘love poems to God’. Michael takes modern day translations and merges them with his own music. Having heard his music on Philadelphia based WXPN 88.5 fm, I initially encountered him in person when my friend Pat Harmon (a.k.a Harmony) invited me to a CD release concert as Michael debuted “The Soul Wakes”. I was enthralled by the musical fusion and have since become a fan. Michael’s latest is called “The Field”.
How do you live your bliss?
To live my bliss, I first need to get in touch with what it truly is, and to distinguish between what merely feels easy or good and that which really fills my life with meaning and heart. There is a deeper joy that I want and when I stay connected to it, I can deal with all the bumps along the way. I look for the center of things.
I have a commitment to stay deeply connected with my wife, Lisa, and this gives me a grounding and a strength in which everything else is possible. Another part of my foundation is to be at peace with myself and what I am up to in the world. To know I am serving and doing it in a way that is my own work, not something I am doing to survive, but something I do out of love. Anytime I feel connected to this, I feel bliss in what I am doing and how I am being.
My bliss also involves lots of guitar playing and singing, both alone and in community. The solitary playing centers me, gives me a space to think and lets my fingers come right from my heart and soul, rather than my brain. Then, when my brain is engaged, the larger connection remains. In community, my bliss comes from connecting musically, from spirits sharing their joy or pain together and from lifting a room off its hinges and making it dance!! This is a joy beyond anything I can imagine.
How did Rumi come to be a cosmic soul friend?
I was introduced to Rumi by my wife, Lisa. She is a wonderful poet as is my friend Bill, and they have steeped me in poetry. I had always been drawn to words and music that would take me out of my own way of thinking and take me somewhere new. I had also always been drawn to ecstatic experience and the feeling of a larger presence or reality that was bigger than myself.
In music, I’ve always visited a place that seemed enormous and vast and had room for all kinds of thoughts and feelings for which there often seemed to be no place for in societal norms. Rumi just delighted me right from the start and I found myself drawn to the words and the images, even if I couldn’t really understand the references or images. For example in my song “Refuge”, there is a translated line from Rumi, “Turks understand Armenian. Rubies appear in the begging bowl..”. Even though I don’t really relate personally to Turkish experience or the notion of begging, I can imagine a transformational experience where such leaps are possible. The notion of people at odds suddenly getting each other is very exciting to me, and relates to the work I do as an academic, consultant and leadership coach. This transcendence is what I am always hoping for, and sometimes it actually happens!! The idea of finding a ruby in the bowl, suggests to me that what I am going for is not always what I get, but sometimes it is much more, when I do things with honesty, grace and openness.
In a way that is what happened with Rumi. In 2005, I was working on a recording of some exercise music, as I was just starting to work out. This was a departure from the folk music and improvised acoustic music I was doing at the time. In this recording I was doing instrumental music, with a bit of chanting, Tibetan bells, acoustic guitar and synthesizer. I was listening to Marvin Gaye around the same time. Marvin always has a transformational effect upon me and growing up in the Detroit area, he was a clear example to me of what music can do! He sends me somewhere beyond the notes, melodies and rhythms. I was just getting into Rumi and took one of the instrumental pieces I was working on and asked the question, “How would Marvin Gaye sing Rumi?” The result delighted me and I found myself on a whole new voyage. The pieces that came out of that early exploration became “The Soul Wakes” and “What is the Soul?” Then, as I began to perform the pieces, I found that even people that were turned off to the words “poetry” and “Rumi” responded with their hearts, and were drawn into the music. I knew then that I had to keep exploring this. I found out later that people had been singing Rumi for centuries, but for me it was completely uncharted territory.
Do the songs ‘write you’ or do you write them?
I don’t usually sit down and say I’m going to write a song, like it’s a problem to be solved. I will usually start with a flow of some kind; playing mediation, a phrase that pulls at me, a melody that just kind of leaps out of me. Once I get something that has a strong energy to it, then the writer in me gets engaged and I start crafting the piece. Sometimes a song comes out pretty much formed and I instinctively know what to do. Sometimes one part of the song has great power and another does not. I’ll take whatever is working and then expand it. For example, in “The Guest House”, on the new CD, one time when I was performing the song I started playing with the phrase, “Everyday, a new arrival”. This is one line in the poem, and not one that really jumped out at me. However, when singing it and repeating it, I felt this great energy and momentum that pulled the song to a new place. I try to listen to these moments (following my bliss?) and I made this a bigger part of the song and part of the structure. This would not have occurred to me ahead of time. By working with the songs in community, I learn and the pieces grow on their own!
I tend to create a piece in a moment of flow and later on I learn it cognitively, so I can play it even when I’m not in a flow. The song then induces a flow in me and hopefully the audience as well. I try to keep effort out of the process. I don’t want my music to sound like I am trying to do anything, but instead being. I like tension in music, but not the kind of tension that comes from trying or pushing. I want the music to pull me and the listener along. It should tug at our hearts and move us to a wonderful place where we are moved. For me if there is effort in creating it, then there is usually effort in listening to it. Therefore I have to really practice my instrument so I can play effortlessly and fluidly without forcing things. I find that the more effortful pieces I’ve created, I tire of quickly as a listener. The ones that flow I can listen to time and time again.
I know that your mainstream work is a professor of business; how do you merge your worlds?
The two worlds are not as different as you would think. My teaching has become increasingly personal for me, and there is an intimacy in my classes and a sense of community that I think is very healing to the students and myself. They experience a bigger picture, a sense of possibility and beauty in each other as we learn about leadership, organizational behavior, management and creativity. Teaching is not just about “covering material”. People don’t retain much of what they passively read or hear anyway, so there is little meaning is simply going over facts. I’ve learned to look for what is meaningful and offers the most potential for transformational learning, and I put my emphasis there. I have to be able to pull the topic or issue into their lives, to really connect with them around it, and to let them connect with each other around it.
I also use music and poetry in my teaching and I find that this helps me to bring some of the special qualities they bring into the academic environment. They engage the whole person and make us accessible to the material and to each other. I’ve also been experimenting with a collaborative teaching model, where the students and I work with each other in putting on the course. I’ve found that my student respond with great passion to this challenge, and that they can make amazing things happen in the classroom when they are supported and given the conditions to succeed.
I’ve recently started teaching two new classes that merge my two worlds even more so. One is called, “Finding Your Muse”, and the other is titled, “Managing Creativity in the Performing Arts”. In these classes I combine what I know about group dynamics, developing people, interpersonal relationships and motivation with creative expression. The students learn to get in touch with their creative souls and to bring out the potential in collaborating with others. This kind of teaching is also a spiritual practice for me, because I have to get very clear about my own intentions in creating and to develop the courage to speak my truth in a clean way that others can hear and resonate with. The students in all of my classes bring great energy and hope about life and all this reverberates in my throughout my, especially in my music. Also they can be so wise and challenging to me that I can’t possibly get too full of myself!!
What would you like people to experience when they hear your music either in concert or via recording?
I want people to be moved in their own way and to find connections within themselves, with each other and with their larger vision and purpose. I want the music to fun and I hope the audience will be delighted. I hope that they will be uplifted by the experience and that it will be a refuge from their busy life that sends them back into it, a little stronger, a bit more courageous and with a smile on their lips. I also like to involve the audience, not in a way in which they have to be polite and support, but because they want to sing those marvelous words and step into their bliss!!
Does it feel as if Rumi reaches out to your beyond space and time to deliver ideas?
I love that words written in the 13th century can be made alive today, and that they speak so directly to us, without all of the trappings of modern society and current references. They seem to cut through all that and get to the central themes and issues of life. I don’t know if it is Rumi the being that is reaching out, or the words. I think it is more that we are reaching back in time and space to find something that we desperately need. Resonance is resonance, and if it comes from long ago and another time and place, so be it. I also think that the translators, Coleman Barks and Kabir Helminski are brilliant, and have made it possible for you and I to find the essence of the work. They are a bridge that lets us grasp at all the beauty in the original Persian. I hope that I can also be a bridge as my music adds life, shape and color to the words and amplifies the meaning in ways that make sense to me. Also, I think it is very different to experience poetry by reading it, versus speaking it or singing it. Some of the Rumi verse I’ve worked with has surprised me, for in reading it, it wouldn’t seem to be appropriate for singing. For example, in “The Fruit of Knowledge”, which is on the new album, the chorus I chose does not seem singable, until you actually do it!! Then it is just a blast to sing, “By love, the dregs are made clear, and pain begins to heal. By love, the dead, they come alive. And a king becomes a slave, this love, moreover is the fruit of knowledge”…
Please talk about the new CD.
The new CD is a collection of 17 songs and includes Rumi translations, originals and covers. The unifying theme is connection, and I named it “The Field”, after the Rumi poem, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there…” I’m fascinated by the idea that even when times may seem harsh or overwhelming, we have the possibility to connect to all that is sacred, joyful and resonant. These are all songs that uplift me, both as a singer and a listener and I hope, offer a bridge to the higher self. In the years I’ve been working with Rumi, I’ve continued to write my own songs and they have been influenced by him as well. I’ve included some of them in this collection. Five of the songs are live and from a concert I did at the PSALM Salon in 2010. It was an amazing evening and we had Paul Butler on sax/clarinet and Jan Alba on flute. At the end of the show I was wishing we had recorded it, because it had that energy that you hope for; heart, reverence, joy.. it was all there in the room. Then PSALM’s Jamey Reilly told me he had recorded it!! I don’t necessarily believe in fate, but when I get a break like that, I go with it!! The other recordings were done in my home studio. This allowed me to do the songs many times and to keep refining the compositions as I listened and got feedback. Ultimately it was having the right energy and resonance that gave me the feeling that the pieces were done. The artwork came from the Mia Bosna. We had an illustration she did up in our living room and had always loved it. When the concept for the CD began to take shape it was an obvious choice for the cover. Then Mia worked her magic and extended the theme throughtout the CD artwork.