How did you first get into Kundalini Yoga?

I had started seeing the word Kundalini in my reading when I was younger and the word held a kind of power to me, even before I understood what it meant.  Before Kundalini Yoga, I was exploring the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff as a road to awareness, but certain aspects of his teachings really require a group to work with.  I sat in with a few groups who were more like study groups interpreting Gurdjieff’s writings, but I could never find a group to learn the movements.  At the time, that was the path I really thought I was going to take.

About 12 years ago I was touring with Larkin Grimm and we were talking about Yoga and she had said something like, if you really want to understand Yoga, it is about daily discipline and experiencing yourself change over time.  You really have to be dedicated.  I liked this idea of growing and changing over time. Discipline and dedication were something I was familiar with from my musical life, so I started exploring some different forms of Yoga while I was traveling.  One of the studios I went to had Kundalini Yoga on their schedule.  I did not take the class then, but I again had a very powerful feeling around that word – Kundalini.  On this same tour I came into contact with Father Yod’s book and met some of his “Family” and again it was pointing me toward Kundalini Yoga.  When that tour ended and I landed in Pittsburgh, one of the first things I did was find a Kundalini Yoga class.

I have been interested in consciousness from as far back as I am able to trace my memory. What is amazing to me is that we as a global society still do not have a perfectly defined definition for what consciousness is.  I like Yogi Bhajan’s definitions and explanations a lot.  I think he was onto something with his multi-layered definition of the Ten Bodies and that still feels right to me – bringing together different aspects of the soul, the mind, the body and different aspects of the energetic field.  There could still be more that we are not aware of yet (or at least I am not), but I believe that I have now trained myself to understand myself at these levels.  Gurdjieff said that in a given day we can be over a thousand different “me’s” and that your me at 9am is very different than your me at 2pm.  I thought this was an interesting concept as well. When I ask myself, which me is talking or thinking or experiencing right now, I do observe that it is usually coming from one of these aspects of self/ten bodies and that I ask myself is this part of me acting rationally or honestly right now.  If I answer yes, then I relate to these bodies being balanced at that moment and if I say no, then I ask myself where is this imbalance coming from and I get back to work.I still think that we need to keep researching consciousness and utilizing whatever technologies and other perspectives are available to us at this time.  We have a good blueprint right now, but I still believe there is more to be discovered and explored.  I personally am exploring the sciences more now.  I need to keep reminding myself to have a broad perspective.  Sometimes in my life I have noticed myself doing what Alfred Korzybski would call “confusing the map with the territory”.  This would be the times in my life where I was experiencing kind of a tunnel vision with whatever I was studying, be it Yoga, psychology, science, art or music. I have sometimes become more focused on the system I was studying and kind of ignoring the whole and the real life experience or application. Not to say that is always a bad thing, because I tend to learn best when I am immersed in something, but I think I am using Yoga and my other studies and practices to understand the higher questions I keep coming to.  I am really exploring the self, the planet, the human experience and trying to understand the human being and what it means to be alive.

My only interest that is greater than my interest in consciousness has been my interest in creating music (which is still just a level of consciousness in itself).  I really began to explore the Kundalini paths in order to understand certain energetic and ecstatic states that I was experiencing while playing live music. I identify my spirituality really through the spaces I have explored while playing music and the kindness that develops within me as a response to these experiences. Music is my highest form of meditation. Meditation has not taken me higher than music, but it has made my music more nuanced and purposeful. It has given me a lot of insight in terms of keeping and building on a certain space or energy.  It has taught me how to really be in the sound current.  It allowed me to really explore aspects of the mind through repetition (mantra, breath, movement, etc). It helped me to understand more functional relationships in music.

Crown of Eternity live 2
So it seems that you have found a spiritual path through music and sound?
In hindsight there seems to be a running theme in my life where I have been approaching my work with sound from two different paths – one informing the other.  The first path is very passionate (sometimes ecstatic) and comes from a place where I have been lost in the music, where I enter an inner space where the experience takes over and I become filled with the complete energy and rapture of the moment. This often happens as I am improvising or chanting.

My other path is of a very measured learning and practice.  It has been very focused, reductionist and perhaps somewhat methodical.  I am exploring music as a higher art, as a philosophy and as a science.  This manifests through my interest in tuning, rhythm, interval relationships, exploring the harmonic series, deep listening, acoustic phenomena, composition and studies in perception and consciousness.

What got you interested in perception?

Perception has been a running theme in my life.  Pittsburgh has an amazing art and music scene.   There are amazing museums and great concerts and a lot to explore.  I used to skip school and spend the day at the museum. There is a piece by James Turrell at a museum called the Mattress Factory where you sit in the dark until your eyes focus to see the art.  That was profound for me.  Pittsburgh was really an inspiring place to grow up where I was exposed to a lot of ideas that I am still interested in and exploring to this day.When I was 18 I started interviewing a musician and artist who lived in Buffalo named Tony Conrad for a failed book project that I was working on.  I wanted to wrote his biography.  Tony was the genius of geniuses and in my opinion he was one of the greatest artistic thinkers of the 20th century.  He had his fingers in so many different aspects of media (music, film, video, installation, perceptual studies, mathematics, social commentary and humor to name a few) and different ways of thinking that it became quite evident after a few months of interviews that my feeble and arrogant 18 year old mind still had a lot to learn before I could even begin to explain everything that this man was and everything he did.  I literally had to study in order to understand everything he was talking about.  He let me off the hook one day by saying it was time to stop worrying about him and to start living my life in a way where someone might want to write a book about me.  I was a little hurt by this at the time, but he really gave me such a gift  by sharing these conversations with me, even after he realized that I was not the one who would be writing his biography. Our interaction was one of the most fruitful interactions in my life. Over the 7 months of our dialogue, he introduced me to tuning theory, film theory, some really heavy concepts in acoustics, otoacoustic emissions, mathematical philosophy and not to mention an oral history of the downtown New York art, music and film scene in the 60s (a major interest of mine).  It was like being in an advanced college course.  Tony helped me to understand a lot of what I was interested in at the time and in hindsight gave those interests some direction.  He passed away around 2 years ago.

In art school I was studying 16 mm film and animation.  I became kind of obsessed with the concept of perception of vision (something Tony had taught me about).  Film is generally shot at 24 frames per second and video 30 frames per second, so this means for every 1 second of moving image, there are actually 24 images.  When I thought about how the mind is working with this, it kind of blew me away.  I have thought about sound like this as well and I try to apply these ideas when I am listening in.

I was really inspired by the work of experimental film makers Stan Brakhage and Harry Smith.  They both did a lot of work painting directly on the film.  This would mean for any kind of continuity, they would have to paint something similar on each frame in a way where we could perceive it as movement – early animation worked like this as well, but by taking a still snapshot of each drawing.  Harry Smith did an amazing job at this frame by frame painting.  Brakhage in his work and in his writings was very interested in how much the eye sees and what the brain interprets.  He would manipulate each frame differently and it created these beautiful fields of color.  That became one of my interests and in order to understand the idea I kind of stole the idea and started working in a similar fashion.  This became the film I toured with from 2000-2007 called ‘Lucid Visions: A Guide To Seeing With Your Eyes Closed’.  In the process of making this film I started to become somewhat obsessed with altering my sense of sight by making these films where I would do something completely different on each frame.  This was painstaking and long work.  I had to bleach parts of the film and I used different dyes and paints.  I often had burns on my hands and smelled horrible from all of the chemicals I was working with.  So long story short, I would work closely on the film and then watch it.  Work and watch, work and watch, trying to catch these images I created as they sped by. I am not sure if I have just convinced myself of this or if it is so, but I feel that I did train my eye/brain to see/interpret more.  I think people preferred my work once I switched to video and started slowing things down, but it really had a profound effect on me to explore myself in this way.

This has kind of been a running theme for me in my art and life.  I am really interested in either fully engaging the senses or withdrawing from the senses completely.
What made you realize that music was a higher form of art and science?

I had a lot of fascination with sound at an early age.  I still remember the first time I consciously heard and understood an echo.  I was fascinated by this phenomenon.  Growing up in our first house (before I was 6) we lived near a group of buildings whose positioning and reflective properties created an incredible echo.  I remember clapping my hands and running around in the echo.  I remember my father bouncing a tennis ball off of the walls and I just marveled at the results.  I started following the speed of the sound as it bounced off the walls from different distances from my hands and then the time it took the sound to travel back to my ears.  I was just playing, but at the same time I was completely absorbed.There was a football field down the street as well and when the marching band played the drums echoed through the neighborhood and all of the other instruments seemed to blur together.  I was fascinated by this.

We also had this very old vacuum cleaner that had a little valve on the vacuum tube that opened so you could pull dirt and debris out.  I noticed when this valve was open, the air flowing through the tube had one sound and if I closed it even a little, the sound changed.  Every time I had chores, I played with this.

I got my first tape recorder when I was 5 and I ran around my world recording everything I could.  What amazed me listening back was that the tape recorded sounds that I was not listening to or focusing on while I was recording them.  It was like there was another world going on than the one I was paying attention to.

I had a lot of issues with my ears in my childhood – tubes, perforations, ruptures, infections.  I had a tough time.  I spent a lot of time with Ear, Nose and Throat doctors, listening to subtle variations in test tones.  I also developed a very physical relationship with sound at this time.

These were some of my first experiences in considering how sound behaves and how sound is perceived.  I have continued to explore the world of sound in a similar way – pondering the nature of sound through listening, acoustics, rhythm and tone.  I can go on an on, so in short I have been marveling over sound since I was a child.
How did these realizations manifest in your work?
 
I think that it has given me a sense of playful experimentation.  I have created a lot of music and done many many concerts and a running theme is that I have never wanted to create just one kind of music. Certainly a lot of my work has certain similar qualities, but I keep developing in new ways. I always want to explore new ideas and new instruments.
I grew up at a time where we had access to most of the world’s music via vinyl albums, tapes and eventually CDs.  I was very interested in absorbing as much different music as I could.  There are so many different ways that different people and different cultures have used sound as a form of expression or ritual even.  This has always interested me – especially when I started looking beyond popular music.  I never felt comfortable with working in only one style or even one instrument, so my music can range from micro-tonality and long form structures to mantra, to rock and roll.  It is all fair game.
Crown of Eternity at SNF by Mike Gaitan
How did you decide to pursue a career in sacred chant music/gong? 

I have dedicated my life to listening to, appreciating, exploring and creating music and exploring the power of sound as as well as exploring perception and consciousness. I have taken a somewhat experimental approach to my music. I always thought there was something to be discovered; some kind of deeper meaning to the universe that could be revealed through exploring sound or exploring the senses.  My career in music began when I played my first concert 25 years ago.  Everything that I have done since then has been on kind of a continuum.  Perhaps first exploring genre and then moving beyond genre to just making the music I was hearing in my head and then moving to really wanting to understand sound on deeper and deeper levels.

Realizing that listening is a form of meditation and a gateway to exploring consciousness is a part of that continuum.  When I found a spiritual practice that utilized sound, it very much made sense for me to make my own music for that practice.  I think that is where our work with chanting came from. There were certain mantras both Gallina and I really wanted to connect with.  I could not fully understand the power and experience of these words until we made our own arrangements for these mantras, I found my understanding of their meanings and feel through the rhythms and melodies of our interpretations.

I have been focusing a lot more on listening lately and it seems that my work has shifted again away from the mantra work and more towards very dynamic listening experiences where I am exploring the tonalities and textures of bells, gongs and tuned metal.

What has really changed for me over these last few years where I have been exploring sound and consciousness as a study and practice is that the audience is really a part of this music.  Chanting alone is beautiful, but chanting with others takes it to a whole new level.  Listening dynamically alone is powerful but listening together consciously I feel is divine.
I keep growing and changing and allowing myself to evolve musically and as a human. This is really my path.  I keep following it to where it takes me.

What inspired you to become a KY teacher and what keeps your passion for teaching going?

Well, I really wanted to understand the practice.  I have gained a lot of healing from the practice, especially with chronic back issues I have had since I fell off a ladder when I was 18.  It also really made me much more aware of energy as well as the power of attention.

My focus right now has been less on teaching Kundalini Yoga and more on teaching the conscious use of sound and music.  I realize now that I really feel the most useful as a music educator and in my performances.  What I am really interested in is helping others realize and explore a certain kind of listening.  I am interested in Suni-ai, listening consciously and creating and playing from this space.  I love to learn and I love to share.  I realized there are a lot of people who want to play music, but for one reason or another were not led down that path or had uninspiring teachers. I have interests in creating a different kind of music education both for adults and for children – one that is based less on virtuosity and more on listening, self reflection and experimentation.  I had certain experiences growing up trying to learn the piano where my teacher just destroyed any love for the traditional use of the instrument that I could have come up with.  My tiny little hands could not play the music that grown men with giant hands wrote.  I am interested in working with systems and instruments where the focus is based more on how we listen and how we explore rhythm, relationships, timbre and tonality rather than saying something is right or something is wrong.  This is still evolving of course, but the future is becoming clearer for me. A lot of what I am teaching is about perception, about stillness, the breath and listening into the moment.

I am always teaching from my understanding of sound and consciousness that day.  I have been consistently doing well over 100 performances a year for many years and I have done this playing a lot of different instruments.  I have a lot of realizations through that much involvement with sound.  I am constantly in the process of creating a language where I can share these realizations. Teaching music in this way where I am connecting what I have learned from the yogic path with everything I have learned on my music path is incredibly rewarding.  

 

Why do you like teaching and performing at Sat Nam Fest? 

It is a community of people who are consciously working on themselves. We all share realizations that come through deep inner exploration.  Playing for people who are consciously breathing and consciously listening is one of my greatest joys.  

 

What is your favorite aspect of Sat Nam Fest?

Spending time with my friend Harnam.

 

What are some of your hobbies?

Someone told me recently that it seems like it is impossible for me to have a hobby because I end up taking everything so seriously. That is probably one of my greatest flaws.  I just want to understand many different sides of whatever it is I am doing.  Sometimes I get in the bath and I am like ohhhh look at this water displacement or I will watch water dripping from a faucet into the tub and start thinking about transverse waves. It is kind of funny actually.  But in all seriousness, I love art, so I go to museums.  I love music so I listen to a lot of it and try to get out to concerts when I can.  I am a video artist and also explore a lot of other mediums of expression.  I like comedy. I read a lot.  I take a lot of baths.

What are tools you use to help manage stress?
I try to be in nature as much as I can – listening, walking around and exploring different environments.  It is one of the best parts of my semi-constant traveling. I have really gotten to explore the beauty of our country intimately.

Water really helps my stress level.  I like to swim.  I like to soak in hot tubs and cold tubs.  I love the spending time near the ocean.  I love listening to the sound of water.  Hydrotherapy is really one of my main practices.

For over a decade now I have been exploring sensory deprivation flotation tanks for stress relief, self study and consciousness expansion.  It is really one of my favorite experiences and a real life saver from the rigors of travel.  We just bought a tank.  It arrives around the time I get back to Santa Cruz in October.

What will you be sharing at Sat Nam Fest?
I will be sharing a sound meditation performed on bells, tuned metal plates and gongs.
I will also be leading a workshop on sound and perception, where we will explore timbre, time and space.  We will ponder upon the perception of tone and we will explore some thoughts on listening and consciousness.  It promises to be a very exploratory experience and I will be demonstrating some sonic concepts that I feel are important on a 34 stringed Monolina and a 38” gong.  There will be a short lay out, but it is mostly a demonstration and lecture.
Do you have a favorite mantra, meditation, yoga set or kriya?

Breath of fire is my favorite breath.  When I learned breath of fire, my life really changed for the better, so I have kept that practice going pretty consistently.  It is amazing how quickly it gets me back in the right place. I am really into hydrotherapy.  I like meditations where I am blocking my ears and listening to my internal sounds – Shanmukhi Mudra has been a favorite of those.  More recently I have been just putting in ear plugs and listening. I enjoy anything where I am chanting long sounds. I like humming.  I like the whistling meditations.

I am traveling a lot and working my body hard so a lot of my physical practices are based on what I need that day.  Most of my practices I like now would be considered the beginner’s exercises.  I get more benefit in my life from spinal flex, cat cow and neck rolls than almost anything else.  I also love to practice Qi Gong and I love to swim.

You have 2 new albums coming out this month.  What do you have in store for your listeners?
Crown of Eternity has a new CD called ‘Universal Hum’.  Gallina and I were exploring the Planetary Tuning System of Hans Cousto.  My first interest in these instruments was really in being able to work with gongs that were tuned – where the modes of vibration were made to express pitch within the lowest tones, but at the same time had a very rich timbre.  I love Gamelan music and I also love very slow music, so using multiple gongs made sense to me.  Cousto’s calculations were not meant to be a scale, but I asked myself if I could treat some of his tunings like a scale.  I did this with the gongs, but they are all in the second octave.  I felt like it was hard for me to actually articulate this as a scale that I could work with. Then I met Martin Bläse, who was working with the planetary tuning in other octaves with different instruments.  I love working with octaves, so I had Martin create instruments for me where I could treat certain frequencies of the planetary system more like a microtonal scale.  This recording is what Gallina and I came up with in regards to that exploration.  I recently have switched gears again, swapped some instruments out and I am now working more with scales that are in Just Intonation.
I also have a solo cd called ‘World of Sound’.  It is kind of my take on experimental rock music.  A lot of these tracks were arrangements that I tried to use for Crown of Eternity music, but maybe they just were not right for mantra.  I did a lot of work with Anthony Molina on these. Gallina was there too, so it was a little weird to call it a solo album, but that is what we all thought was best.  It was very fun to make and because I am so busy with other projects it kind of felt really stress free in it’s conception and completion.  I worked on it when I was inspired to.  It took me 5 years to complete.

Gallina recently shared that she is having some health issues and that you are now touring as Crown of Eternity alone.  How is everything going with all of that?

Crown of Eternity PortraitI guess first I just want to really stress how amazing Gallina is.  All of my work, even solo, since I met Gallina in 2008 has involved her in some way.  She has been the great collaborator in my life.  There are many times in this interview where I have said I, but really I should be saying we.  I feel especially blessed that not only do I have an amazing person who I get to spend my life with in marriage and in friendship, but someone with an incredible artistic sense who I get to create with.  It has been an honor to learn from her.  She has an understanding of the subtleties of emotion and energy that blows me away.  We really balance each other when we teach together.  It is amazing to travel with someone with such a unique perspective on life and culture.  We are fortunate to have found each other.

She has been dealing with some chronic health issues for 6 years now and she has just such an inspiring outlook.  We have toured a lot during those years when she was not feeling well.  Touring can be very hard on the body, even for a healthy person.  We really had a mission that we started together which was to explore how listening effects consciousness. We continue to develop a sonic experience where our listeners hopefully can be absorbed in the experience of listening in a way where consciousness expands.  We both feel that there is an aspect to self healing which is very much related to consciousness changing and inner listening.  This mission has continued to develop over the years and we have learned and unlearned a lot about using sound in therapeutic ways.  One aspect of working closely with sound is that you also need to work with silence and stillness.  I think Gallina is very courageous to take a step into silence for her healing.  It is hard being away from each other, but this is for the best right now.

Touring alone and doing this work is really moving for me.  I am really moved to share my personal artistry in front of an audience and like I said above, I feel the audience completes this work.  I am really moved that I am playing music for people who believe that they can have profound experiences by being still and listening.  I am happy to provide the soundtrack to these experiences.