Music and Tea
The Sound of the Leaf
For the musician, tea arrives in life as a godsend, a stillness in the noise, a craft to develop artistic control, an opportunity to create culture and express vision, an embrace of the enduring value of transitory beauty. For the tea person, music is the light that accents a dark room, the perfect touch and final punctuations of the tea ceremony, the extra dimension of color that brings tea to life, the fluid frame of a tea narrative, the cherry on top. Most musicians are creative people who spend a lot of their lives in their imagination and work to bring their visions into the world. They seek perfection, innovation, expression and the pulse of culture, often understanding the deeper mythic movements of culture better than the culture itself. While they emerge from an inner place, many of these characteristics are outward manifestations. Most tea folks (cha ren) are attracted first to the archetype of the sage. They seek truth, freedom, wisdom, self-understanding and the meticulous study of detail. The sage studies life outwardly, yet ultimately wishes to find the truths within. They seek not knowledge alone, but the realization of true understanding. The Artist and the Sage find their alliance in the alchemy of Tea. And thus, these two extraordinary mediums of Music and Tea were born for eachother; Long lost unrequited lovers who find their consummation in the tea ceremony. Together, they allow the master of ceremony to pluck acoustic landscapes from different times and places, and set that landscape as the backdrop to the singular, momentary event of the tea ceremony. It is in this marriage that the fluid and static merge, that the moments of Presence expand into a symphony of sensorial immersion. They compliment one another perfectly, and when the selection of music aptly hems a tea ceremony, a prosaic meditative experience is elevated to a sublime artistic expression.
Music and Tea share an important characteristic. Neither of them is serious, yet both should be approached with sincerity and thoughtfulness. From a utilitarian perspective, both crafts are fairly superfluous. And yet, nobody in their right mind would question the indispensability of music and tea to a life well-lived. They are important parts of our lives. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “life is far too important to be taken seriously.” And like the many rascals, merry pranksters, archetypal fools, wandering sages, and grinning bards of teas colorful history, so too must the selection of music for tea carry notes of combined levity and sincerity. For what is life but a wonderfully evanescent game? And in this game, the play of music and the performance of tea ceremony are certainly “play,” though neither trivial nor frivolous. To be of a higher expression, these mediums require sincerity, honesty, attention and perhaps most importantly, the ability to not take oneself too serious in identifying with the role of “tea master,” “tea person,” or “musician.” These roles are temporary facades used to explore a state of being, and a mode of service. As soon as they become crystallized, the spontaneity wherein shines the magic of tea and music, is lost. Music and tea that take themselves too seriously fail to fulfill their purpose.
At this moment in history, humanity does not “need” more subjective expressions of abstract, conceptual or visual art. These modes are the business of museums and galleries. We need another kind of art that changes people and heals them through an intimate experience. We no longer need to pick apart, and deconstruct and interpret the world through our creative mediums. We need to construct a new world through a useful medium that represents not a revolution, but a transformation. In the words of Buckminster Fuller, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” At their higher levels, tea and music are expressive mediums that come from love, create space for love, embody nature’s love of man and the resonant rhythms that are central to the life of man. Thus, they broadcast a message of unity and wholeness without ulterior motives. When the details of the tea ceremony, including musical accompaniment, come from this place of wholeness and connection, the medium of tea as an art form reaches its zenith. Music crystallizes and catalyzes the inherent healing potential of tea as a moving meditation and living art.
While there is no good or bad music for tea, there are certainly more appropriate musical selections. The “better” selection of music depends on the intentions and circumstances surrounding the ceremony. Here are some of the considerations in choosing musical accompaniment: time of day, weather, occasion, environment, guests, cha xi and of course, the tea. A Cha Jin or tea person looks for subtle communication and honoring of the guest in the Cha Xi, the ceremony and the attitude of the moment. Music is an important means of communication and exemplifies the cha jin’s understanding of the needs of this moment. Further, musical selection offers an opportunity to place personal preference aside in consideration of the guests and the circumstances of the tea session. Like so many things in a tea life, this process of letting go while paying attention to the moment allows for a doorway to open to deeper states of consciousness in the tea ceremony. The following categories offer a general outline of considerations in selecting music for tea. Again, these suggestions are general, and no list will ever supersede experience in the process of learning about tea.
Green Tea- (lu cha):
Evanescent aromas, flavors and Qi that come and go like a dream. The Zen aesthetic of Ichie Go Ichie or One Chance, One Encounter is beautifully epitomized by the subtle qualities of green tea. Japanese green teas are steamed and this process brings out the fresh grassiness, while Chinese teas are wok fried, which brings out a nuttier, more complex, toasted flavor. Green tea is fresh, slightly dry or astringent, toasted, clean, cooling and refreshing. Most people like it the most in the morning because it has the highest caffeine, which is balanced by the theanine, to feel relaxed and alert.
In matching the delicacy of aroma, the gentle flavors, the historical relationship to Zen and Japanese Chanoyu, and the quality of evanescence, one can choose music that evokes similar qualities. Japanese Shakuhachi flute serves this purpose very well. Due to its unique ability to imitate more sounds from nature than any other instrument, the haunting beauty of Shukuhachi is embraced by Zen masters and nature-lovers alike. Some particularly gifted modern masters are: Stan Richardson, Goro Yamaguchi, and Kurahashi Yoshio. Some of John Cage’s pieces are subtle and wonderful with green tea, reminding us that creating music, as well as living life, are as much about listening as they are about making something.
White Tea- (bai cha):
A green tea leaf covered with a white, downy, hair-like fur, yielding a pale-green jade liquor. Usually air-dried in the sun. The leaves are picked very carefully so as not to bruise and oxidize the tea. The air/sun drying will naturally set the oxidation level at 5-10%. The flavor is light, elegant with slight nutty notes and floral fragrance. It is a very mild, gentle, meditative tea. For these reasons, we often enjoy white teas in the afternoon and early evening.
Bai Cha is all about gentle opening, subtle details, and ethereal delicacy. Thus, the appropriate musical accompaniment shares these characteristics. Some artists worth exploring are Goldmund, Arvo Part, Johann Johannson, Max Richter, Nawang Kechog, Arms and Sleepers, and Evan Bartholemew. Many of these artists draw heavily from string instruments and piano, with distinctively sparse emphasis on individual notes and extensive use of silence. These qualities of space for silence and distinct notation allow room for perception of the subtle aspects of white tea’s flavor and Qi.
The most gloriously diverse tea with semi-oxidization ranging from 12-18% or 40-80%, depending on the style of Oolong, which yields many variations of gold, yellow and red in the liquor. The leaves are first dried slightly under the sun, then shaken or rolled to begin oxidation, then pan-fried, followed by rolling and further drying- all with significant variation depending on the style. Ball, striped and unprocessed Oolong are the most common. Generally we refer to light or dark Oolong depending on the oxidation levels. Light Oolongs focus more on floral, creamy notes while the darker Oolongs or more roasted, toasted, fruity and complex. The red corners of leaves come from the damage to the edges in the rolling process. The beauty of Oolong is maintaining the freshness of light teas while bringing out the complexity, sweetness, depth and body of the darker teas. Therefore, we have a tremendous variety of music that would accompany Oolong nicely.
Many of the artists suggested for White Tea also work well for light oolongs. Some additional considerations are Maxence Cyrin, James Blackshaw, and Jami Sieber. For darker oolongs, we can explore bassier, more complex and layered music including acoustic and electronic instruments. Modern classical artists like F.S. Blumm, Peter Broderick and Anne Muller explore heavily atmospheric piano-centric pieces that carry the complexity and depth of Oolong. Nils Frahm and Olafur Arnalds are two of my favorites. Many of us in the Global Tea Hut community know of Jonsi’s tea-famous album Riceboy Sleeps, which is a beautiful example of music that carries the complexity, depth, atmosphere and impressions left by a traditionally processed Oolong.
Red Tea- (hong cha):
Generally one bud and two leaves, processed (oxidized/fermented) into a dark colored tea-leaf, yielding a red beverage. Usually dry-fried or hot-air dried, fully oxidized and rolled to bruise significantly. Through oxidation, the tannins develop and the tea becomes richer, stronger, more robust and invigorating. Malty, dried fruit, spices, bittersweetness. The aroma is very comforting, as is the tea. Red tea is very satisfying and approachable to everyone.
Two qualities that we rely on when considering musical pairing with red tea are accessibility and movement. Generally, anyone beginning their journey into the world of Living Teas will start with red tea because it is approachable, frank, robust and easy to brew. Thus, this category of tea music is broad and open. Generally, we drink red tea in the morning or earlier in the day when the yang energies are rising and we are waking up. I personally prefer music that is more moving, invigorating and awakening to match the time of day and the energies of the tea. If tea is part of one’s morning meditation, they might listen to kirtan or mantra such as Krishna Das, Choying Drolma, Lama Gyurme, or Yungchen Lhamo. I often listen to uplifting music from different parts of the world including African artists Samite, Ayub Ogada, Toumani Diabate, Boubacar Traore and Baaba Maal. One of my all-time favorite West African musicians is Ali Farka Toure, whose low-pitched vocals, midtempo rhythms and often minimal accompaniment make him a good candidate for a good morning red tea session. His respective collaborations with Toumani Diabate, Ry Cooder and Idan Raichel just might change your life. Red tea is often served as a bowl tea, which is all about letting go of mental constructs, meticulous brewing methodology and heady tea. Bowl tea is about returning to what is essential in tea: leaves and water and the simple joy of being. Therefore, my suggestion for music is to do the same. Go with what you love to listen to in the morning, what speaks to you, what connects you to the joy of life, tea and music.
Puerh is good for a life-long obsession because there is incredible variation in processing, aging, region of origin and brewing. Thus, one can draw from a vast palette of music depending on what fits the occasion and tea. Puerh is a dark, oxidized tea that is picked, withered (to oxidize and dehydrate the tea), fried (to kill green enzymes that make tea bitter and arrest oxidation), rolled (to break down the cells and expose the inner essence of the tea), and finally sun-dried. If the tea is then left to ferment naturally, in conjunction with the endless microbes in it, we call it “sheng” or “raw” Puerh. If the tea is then piled and sprayed with water, covered with thermal blankets and turned, in order to artificially ferment it, we call it “shou” or “ripe puerh,” which can be ready to drink within two months. The cultivars are wild or semi-wild large, old-growth trees. The flavor is very earthy with qualities of dark, wet, loamy soil, fresh leaves and undergrowth. Puerh microbes help with digestion and lend their mysterious power to the strong Qi of Puerh.
Within Puerh tea, there exists too vast a world of flavor, aroma, sensation and impression to easily match it with specific genres of music. Therefore, these are some general suggestions. For dark, earthy, grounding ripe Puerh teas (often consumed in the afternoon or evening), one might enjoy more meditative, deeper music. Some artists worth exploring are: Armenian master of the duduk Djivan Gasparayan (album From the Soil), Lisa Gerrard, Sangeeta Shankar, Loscil, Arms and Sleepers, Benjy Wertheimer and Tim Hecker. Sheng puerh varies considerably depending on many factors, most notably the age of the tea. Generally, for aged Puerh, the Qi is deep and strong. Thus more grounding, deeper music typically more appropriate. Whereas, the “youthfulness” of young Puerh tea is most evident in the strong, enlivening Qi that fills the body and uplifts the spirit, while also carrying the distinct characteristics of the trees and land. For younger puerh, I often like to explore artists with combined depth and energy like Italian pianist Ludovico Einaudi, Gujin master Li Xiangting, Jami Sieber, or Brian Eno. You might also explore modern artists whose music goes well with tea. For example, consider songs like The Trapeze Artist by Iron and Wine, Cicadas and Gulls by Feist, Yawny at the Apocalypse by Andrew Bird, Rolling on the Sea by Taj Mahal, the Ballad of Keenan Milton by Devendra Banhart, or Matters Most by Tim Reynolds. Again, these are all just suggestions or perspectives on an incredibly intimate, personal topic. The music that you discover and use to accent your teas sessions is a unique expression of your understanding of what the moment calls for. Just as it requires personal experience with your teas to know the best way to brew and when to serve a particular tea, so too must you explore the infinite worlds and genres of music to find the best music for a tea session. While it exceeds the scope of this exploration, when choosing music for a tea session you will also want to consider the season, the weather, the environment where the session takes place, the occasion and the cha xi. By harmonizing the music with all of these elements, you weave an acoustic fabric through the experience that heightens the senses and deepens the “listening.” Finally, when drinking tea alone you might not know what’s best in terms of music. When in doubt, just put on the Blues or sit in silence.
Music modernizes because it speaks a timeless language of the heart. So much of tea’s healing power is in its ability to remind people of their true history, their true selves. This self-reflective quality also exists in the cathartic power of music. The trees in Yunnan were thousands of years old before China discovered them. People chewed and ate the leaves for strength and vigor and other medicinal qualities. Music is as old as the first hide pulled tight between an encircled piece of thick bark. It calls to what is essential in us, to the heartbeat of humanity. And, by carefully combining these two forms, we remind participants in the tea ceremony who and what we are. We remember that which is essential to the human experience. We remember our humanity. A cha jin’s role in hosting tea is to create a space within which the guests can remember the simple joy of living, remember who they are, connect with their interior lives, connect with one another and find right relationship to their lives. May your journey in these two magnificent mediums of connection deepen as your life of tea unfolds.