The first compositional act I remember occurred when, at age 9, I taped "Within You, Without You" backwards on my family's old reel to reel, cut it into pieces of random length, and spliced it back together in a different order. Later, I created sonic art installations, played in a jazz ensemble, made experimental films, sang in choirs and wrote music for dance troupes. Eventually, I got an internship at Columbia Pictures, and moved to Hollywood to work in the movie industry.
A film editing project took me to an ashram in India. I wasn't consciously seeking anything, and I knew very little about Eastern spiritual traditions. I had been practicing yoga for a few years, but my involvement with it had more to do with managing some persistent back problems than with any process of spiritual inquiry. On a number of occasions I had been invited to meet different gurus who were visiting Los Angeles, but had always declined.
I'd had a brief professional involvement with someone who had lived in this ashram, and one day I received a phone call from her asking if I would be interested in a project that would take me to India. Her contacts had asked her if she knew anyone who would be right for this job, so she sat down to meditate on it. She said that she knew this would sound strange to me, but I had appeared in her meditation as being the person who was meant to go. Although I was skeptical, at the time I was also quite broke, and an all expense paid trip to India seemed far preferable to spinning in the void of Hollywood unemployment.
At the ashram, I didn't understand the Sanskrit they were chanting, but the sound of it had a powerful effect on me. Because I was an employee and not a devotee, at first I didn't participate directly in the chants. I would sit and listen to people chant from across the road.
I would then figure out the tunes on a dulcimer and an accordion I had brought with me to keep myself entertained. After I while, I started to absorb the sounds of the mantras… they were easy for me to learn, as if they had been in me all along.
For many years I had been making sounds that were like mantras in my own music, sounds that spoke of some state that mere words couldn't really convey. It's as if I could tell the truth on one level, but that would obscure the truth on another level. I could speak emotionally with truth, but that would obscure the intellectual meaning, and vice versa. In India, I found that there was a long tradition of singers like me.
My job involved distilling lengthy talks by the guru into fifteen minute short subjects suitable for viewing by newcomers to Eastern philosophy. There was a certain logic in hiring me for this work, since I myself was a beginner. I spent every day immersed in the teachings of yoga. The people overseeing my work were knowledgeable and open to discourse. The guru was warm and witty and very accessible to me, and I had some experiences so astonishing and transformative that it shifted the course of my life.
I chose to stay on in India when the film editing work was done, and since I had already been volunteering my time at the local grade school, the ashram sent me to assist and eventually teach there. There were traditional Indian instruments there for me to practice on, and we would chant every day. Athough I did receive formal instruction in eastern music from teachers at the ashram, I really learned more about the heart and soul of chanting by singing with the kids. Basically, a bunch of schoolchildren taught me to chant!
After I returned to Los Angeles, I began leading chants privately at meetings of different spiritual organizations. I started recording a CD of songs I had written while I was in India, and continued supporting myself as an editor. I became involved in a volunteer organization that taught meditation and and chanting and yoga to prison inmates, and for a number of years I conducted weekly programs at different correctional institutions. I had no intention or idea that chanting would ever be more than an avocation.
Then one day someone from Yoga Works, a yoga center in Santa Monica, CA, asked me If I'd be interested in leading regular call-and-response kirtan nights that would be open to the public. I got a little band together, and put out a flyer. At first not many people came, but eventually word spread, and I started chanting at yoga centers all over Los Angeles. An invitation came to chant in New York at Jivamukti, and I started travelling with yoga teacher friends to chant for their workshops in places like Detroit and Phoenix and Chicago. Gradually, as invitations from other cities came, I started traveling more and more and chanting became a full time occupation.