Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Arun, together with his wife Sunanda, sat on a couch at the Living Enrichment conference center of Oregon in July 1997. Having agreed to an interview, they were curious as to what my intention was.
“What would you say to someone who was dying?” I asked. “If you only had a short time to speak, what might you say to comfort and ease their anxiety?” They reflected for some moments, then spoke.
Arun and Sunanda were the first voices to respond to a project which became known as ‘Graceful Passages: A Companion for Living and Dying’, eventually featuring the voices of wisdom keepers from around the world, including Ram Dass, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Thich Nhat Hanh, Rabbi Zalman Schachter, and Fr. Maximilian Mizzi. From different spiritual traditions or no specific tradition, each speaker offered their genuine and deeply caring message.
As with many creative projects, this one began with a single idea. I wished to produce a traditional singer/songwriter recording of songs inspired by my hospice encounters (see Music at the Threshold, WSI June 2021). For this, I arranged to visit my long-time friend and film composer/music producer, multi-Emmy award recipient, Gary Malkin, in his California studio.
At the end of the first day of recording, our conversation led to a question: “The issue of death, loss and grief is so personal and sensitive. Could there be an even better way to reach someone than through a song?”
Gary was sitting at his keyboard, I was standing before the microphone. He began playing an ephemeral pad, a musical underscoring like an open question inviting what would come. I imagined myself talking directly to a person who was in the dying process. With long pauses in between words, the music provided a soft and tender bed for the message.
Let yourself relax into this moment. Let yourself be held without any need to hold yourself up. Let yourself meet the unknown. It’s OK. It’s a place we don’t have to know with our minds.
What if there were angels all around you, and you just couldn’t see them? What if there was a love so vast, that you could never be apart from it? What if it was impossible for you to go anywhere where this love could not find you?
Afterwards we listened. The effect was profound, quite different from listening to a song. We imagined what it might be like to have other voices, from trusted elders steeped in compassion and wisdom, with their spoken words set to music.
That weekend I was scheduled to offer music at a conference in Oregon, where I would meet Arun and Sunanda Gandhi. It was there I approached them for a possible interview.
After the conference and interview, I returned to Gary’s studio. We began the process of combining words and music. From his expertise in ethnomusicology, Gary arrived at sounds, instruments and melodies which complemented and reinforced the spoken message. His companion engineer, Dan Alvarez, converted the elements into a finished piece, which we titled We Are Not Alone. The effect was both evocative and stunning in its peaceful power.
Who might we record next?
My partner (and now wife), Doris Laesser Stillwater, a Swiss psychotherapist with a wealth of knowledge of classical and world music combined with spiritual understanding, opened doors to deep thinkers and teachers whom she knew from various conferences. Without her contribution, the project would never have become what it became.
Thus began an intensive process of conducting interviews and gathering recordings from both America and Europe. Always based on this same question, the responses varied widely. And, due to the spiritual maturity of the speakers whom Doris, Gary and I searched for and found, each message transmitted a sense of peace, compassion and insight.
Following every interview, we would approach the question of the music. What style, what genre would sound and feel most embracing of the message? One by one, new accompaniments were customized by Gary. Messages were edited, allowing the words embedded in the music to allow for the power of silence to contribute to the overall effect.
Samples of finished pieces were sent to leaders in hospice and healthcare across America.
We sometimes questioned the very basis of our approach. How would this be received? How can a spoken message together with music touch people from widely diverse walks of life and belief? Was this a vain and futile attempt to console the inconsolable? To bring an impersonal light of kindness into situations that may best be served only by personal care and concern?
The response to the first samples was wholehearted and enthusiastic, resulting in requests from chaplains, therapists, ministers, administrators, nurses and physicians to have more of these soundtracks to put into immediate use.
Gary, with a lifetime of experience in live orchestral production, instinctively knew the phenomenal difference between digital sound and live instruments. He persistently advocated incorporating a live orchestra into the recording. Thus, funded in part by donations received from foundations focused on end-of-life care, a string orchestra conducted by Gary Malkin, together with the U.C. Berkeley Chamber Choir conducted by Marika Kuzma, were recorded at the legendary Skywalker Sound of George Lucas in Marin County, California.
In the twenty years since its publication, the work has touched literally millions of lives. Using music to comfort those at the end of life is not a new phenomenon; what Graceful Passages offers is a bridging of spoken word and music in such a way that listeners were deeply relaxing, feeling met and seen. This was our original hope, and we are grateful to have our intention confirmed in such an overwhelming way.
In the words of Tu Weiming, a leading Taoist scholar and one of the speakers on Graceful Passages:
Your vital energy is returning to the source.
Like the flowing stream returning to ocean.
Heaven is our father, earth is our mother
All people are our brothers and sisters
And all things are our companions.
In this gentle peaceful journey
You are forming one body
With heaven, earth and all things.
Entrust yourself in the transforming
and nourishing care of the cosmos.
Listen to the voice of love in silence.
You have heard the way.
Return home in peace.