In an age of countless divisions between people - political, cultural, ethnic, religious - finding common ground is not so easy.
Yet throughout history, there have been those who recognize a spirit within the mind and heart of humanity, a flame which burns above and beyond conflict, persisting regardless of the turmoil present in existing circumstances. A hope which shines brighter than suffering.
In honor of this idea and of such a potential existing within all of us, a film project began in 2009. Travelling to Australia, India, America and Europe, the filmmakers - Michael Stillwater and his wife, Doris Laesser Stillwater - endeavored to discover a common awareness in the hearts and minds of people everywhere.
In Search of the Great Song began filming in December 2009, at the Parliament of World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia. Permission was given to interview leaders of indigenous and religious pathways by asking the question: “Is a recognition of the Great Song in your tradition? If so, how would you describe it?”.
As filming continued through the ensuing years, interviews were carried out with scientists, artists, philosophers, authors, spiritual leaders, and indigenous elders. All responded with their unique perspective on this idea. Not speaking about their favorite song, but something deeper, something underlying music itself- a central dimension within all creative expression.
As the search went on, a quest which culminated after seven years with the release of a documentary film, it became clear that not only was there a recognition of such an impulse but also that a common understanding of such a primal force extended beyond humans to include all living things. And that within this search of various viewpoints was actually a continuum revealing the uniqueness of our humanity.
Another awareness arose during this filming. Even when spontaneously presented with the question about the Great Song - with no advance preparation - those who were interviewed expressed their perspective from a sense of peace and generosity, of kindness and respect for all other viewpoints.
At the point when editing the footage was reached, the selection process of who to include was daunting. A movie timeline began which included a wide spectrum of perspectives, journeying through a panorama of indigenous, cultural, religious, scientific and artistic voices.
Following are selected transcripts from the film.
Angeles Arrien, PhD Cultural Anthropologist (1940-2014). “One of the things that's so important for us all to treasure are the ancient sounds and ancient songs that the indigenous peoples of the world have preserved no matter what they’re facing. They preserve the oldest songs of the planet and the essential Great Song that we’re all participating in.”
Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq, Eskimo-Kalaallit Elder, Greenland. “The Great Song is around you for every breath you take. Without the Great Song, man would have no voice expressions. Remember when the mountains were living and they spilled out. That’s their voice. In modern-day language, we call them volcanoes. That’s the mountain speaking- and it comes out with incredible sounds.”
Paul Mealor. Welsh composer/conductor. “In JRR Tolkien’s the Simarillion, at the beginning of his great work, the Lord of the Rings, he talks how in this magical world that he created the whole world began through music. In this mythology that he creates, life comes into being through song. Illavatur sings this song and the whole of Middle Earth begins to exist. That’s a beautiful way of thinking about how important a song that has been, is, and will always be, is to us as human beings.”
Paramacharya Sadasivanathaswami, Monk/Editor, Hinduism Today, Hawaii. “It’s from sound and not light that all things come into the cosmos. That sound doesn’t merely give life to all things but it lives as the life within all things at every moment.”
Lalita Shivaji, Biotech Administrator, India. “One great song which connects everybody all over the world is the mother's lullaby to her child. Because wherever it is it is the mother's lullaby which she holds the affection which she gives to the child. The feeling of comfort, togetherness, I mean total care, and the child feels very comfortable and can trust and be free of any fear- is the best song I feel.”
Irwin Kula, Rabbi & Author, New York. “What did Moses hear on Mount Sinai over the forty days that he was there, getting a great wisdom and the Torah to be able to teach the people? And the teaching is that he received 600,000 individual melodies, each a different melody for each of the 600,000 people waiting for him. And redemption will come, says one Hassidic master, when every single human being can discover his or her particular melody revealed at Mount Sinai.”
Dana Gioia, Poet Laureate, former Chair, National Endowment for the Arts. “In the mystical Jewish tradition, God created the world with a single Word, a single Song. And everything which exists, in a sense, participates in that single Word, that single chant by which the world was summoned into existence.”
Brother David Steindl-Rast, Benedictine monk/author, Austria. “There is really only one song, and it’s the Great Song, it’s the cosmic song. It’s the song that all things and all animals and all plants and all humans sing in their deepest heart. And every song that a human sings with his or her voice is only an expression of that one Great Song that is there from the beginning and will be there after the end. The Great Song, the Great Sound comes out of silence or it isn’t the Great Song. If you listen deeply to the silence within then you find that Song.”
Rinaldo Brutoco, author/futurist, USA. “To me, the Great Song is like the harmony of the spheres. It’s the harmony of the universe. It’s the harmonic that keeps the planets in their places. It’s what keeps the planet Earth in its rhythmic harmonies. And that harmony which transcends any one of us, any single planet, any singular star or stellar constellation- that harmony is the Great Song.”
Stephan Thelen, mathematician/musician, Switzerland. “In physics we know there’s background radiation, kind of noise that we can hear all the time, and actually it's an echo of the creation of our universe. You could also think of the songs that we hear as representations of one Great Song- of course in many different dialects, and it may sound different- but in the end, maybe they just speak about the same thing, this one thing that appeals to us, to all human beings. Regardless of which religion you’re from, it just speaks to you in a way that everybody can understand.”
Richard R. Ernst, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry (1933- 2021). “It’s a continuity of spirit in life through the various generations, coming from ancient time and passing into the future. The flow of life in us and among us. A kind of stream that gives life also sense. Of course, there is not only one Great Song. There are many parallels, and it’s not just one stream. There are many bigger and small streams which come together and separate again. It’s our task to find it- to recognize it and to see that we are all part of this Great Song. And we also have a responsibility to carry it on so that it doesn’t die out, and it leads to something that makes sense.”
David Whyte, Poet/Author, USA. “The Great Song is what underlies human perceptions of life and what can be embodied by the human voice. So the song to my mind and in my own experience is a way of both incarnating joy in your life and remembering it if you’re far from it. And even a great old song full of grief from the west of Ireland would embody that experience human beings have of being able to speak their exile exactly as they feel it. And the incredible thing about human belonging is that you only have to articulate exactly the state and mode of your exile, and as soon as you've sung it or said it, you're on your way back home.”
Gary Zukav, author of Dancing Wu Li Masters, USA. There are so many ways to describe the experience of the Great Song. The experience is not an understanding, it's not a thought, and it's not an idea. It's much more intimate and real than that. Musicians call the experience of the Great Song 'the groove', being in it. Athletes call the experience of the Great Song 'being in the zone'. It’s above us. It’s below us. Whatever you hear. Whatever you think, whatever you say. Whatever you experience, that’s the Great Song. Some people say that life is a sad experience, it's a sad song. Some people think it’s a happy song. I say it’s not the song, it’s the way you sing it.”
This film project became a series of three distinct documentaries, each featuring a different aspect of the Great Song. The other two films are Shining Night: A Portrait of Composer Morten Lauridsen, exploring the life and music of one of the greatest contemporary choral composers (reviewed in Wall Street International magazine, January 2020). Beyond the Fear of Singing reveals a widespread trauma experienced by people around the world and many ways in which one’s creative connection is restored. (reviewed in Wall Street International magazine, April 2019).
The filmmakers continue to share the series in cinemas, festivals and online. Produced through Song Without Borders, each film has received multiple awards including Best Documentary, and may be viewed online or seen via DVD.