Reflections on Music and Buddhism

Recently, e-Newsletter editor and music enthusiast Matt Dawson met via zoom with Graintraderr (A.K.A. Jarrah Wishart) to discuss his music, the creative process and the relationship between spirituality and music. We hope the reader enjoys this deep dive into the role music plays in our lives and the potential benefits it can offer by way of complimenting spiritual practice.

MD: Hello Jarrah. First of all, congratulations on taking on the preliminary (Skt. Ngondro) practices in the Nyingma lineage and specifically in the New Treasures of Dudjom (Tib. Dudjom Tersar).

JW: Thanks.

MD: So, how long have you been making music and when did your interest in music start? Was there a school music teacher who got you interested and involved in music? What was the catalyst in the beginning?

JW: My interest in music started in primary school. From a fairly young age I was taking violin lessons. This was from the age of about eight and continued through the rest of primary school. Going through high school I picked up other instruments and I suppose I’ve always been lucky to have really engaging music programs at the various schools I’ve attended.

MD: And did you choose the violin or was it forced on you? Tell me about how playing the violin came about as your first instrument.

JW: No, no, it was actually my choice. It was an option at school. It was between violin, the flute, recorder, and classical guitar. I became interested in learning the violin because movies I liked at the time had violin music in them. The interesting thing is I started playing violin and I got really, really into classical music. Vivaldi was the first music I discovered for myself. You know, as children often our music tastes come from our parents, then there is a point where we start finding our own things. And for me, the first thing I found was actually classical music. In part I think this was because I wasn’t exposed to it at all by my parents. In that sense it was funny. Classical music was what I wanted to listen to and to play, and I was really into playing really intense classical violin. That was then, and my taste in music has gradually shifted over time.

MD: That’s an interesting twist. Because a lot of people might start out the opposite way. To generalise a bit, they might hear pop songs on the radio or hear what songs their family plays, and over time, their musical tastes might become a bit more, for lack of a better word, ‘sophisticated’. For example, they may delve into more complicated musical arrangements as found in genres such as jazz and classical music. Of course, not all jazz and classical music is complex and the converse is true, some pop music is quite sophisticated and complex in its arrangement and so on, but I suppose that’s the disadvantage of generalising. Everyone is unique and has their own background and experiences which influence how they hear and engage with music.

JW: Also, I loved a lot of action movies which had classical orchestral music. And that, to me, was very exciting. My friends and I made films and we had really intense action music. And all that would be strings based. So that was really exciting to me.

MD: Makes sense, you can build a lot of tension and dramatic effect with strings. Sounds like fun.
So Vivaldi, he was one of the big influences early on. Who would you say has also influenced you besides Vivaldi?

JW: In high school it was Pink Floyd and Nirvana, and this is what got me playing guitar. One day, my violin broke, something wasn’t working for some reason. And so I picked up the guitar that was sitting around the house, gathering dust, and just taught myself with YouTube actually. The music I was learning on guitar was more in line with the music I was listening to at the time.

I was playing violin in high school bands and bands outside high school and kind of starting to learn how to play gigs. The bands I was in started playing pubs. The people in the bands were a couple of years older than me. I was around 13 at the time. So playing in bands in pubs shifted my interest from classical into rock music. And this shift also came about because I was a teenager, you know, with the transition through the teen years, the angst and whatnot (laughs).

MD: Some would say that’s quite young to be playing in pubs. Was there any pushback from your parents or anything like that?

JW: I think there was concern sometimes, for instance when opening shows for other bands. We’d open for some over-age gigs and Warrnambool at the time had a really strong young metal scene. There were lots of really talented young metal bands, and we weren’t playing metal music at all. And that was kind of how we kind of integrated into the community.

There were some issues sometimes, but most of the time I just had to leave the venue as soon as I played. I don’t think any of us were 18 years old at the time. But that was the start of my gigging experience. I was really young and kind of hanging out in pubs and gigging, which was interesting.

MD: What did you learn from that experience – being quite young and frequenting pubs and gigging in that environment?

JW: Well, I learned a lot about crowd reaction. Because I feel as though when we were making music in primary school, and for the first couple years of high school, we noticed people loving our music unconditionally because we were young. For instance, our parents and our parents’ friends enjoyed our music. Playing in pubs though, people would turn up who didn’t have to be there. So playing at venues, to people outside our circle of family and friends, I noticed the public reacting to our music in a more genuine and perhaps more objective way. And thankfully, the response was generally good. Realising this was something significant for me. The connection between the musicians and the audience was more authentic, or it seemed more authentic than us just playing for family and family friends. Realising how to make an authentic connection with people, through music, was an important experience at that time.

MD: Interesting! Picking up on that authentic connection thread, playing guitar and singing in a band, I also had similar experiences of genuine reactions from people I didn’t know. In the beginning we were just playing at parties of school friends. Then we moved on to playing mostly to family members and friends in venues, and they would love it, but it was a different kettle of fish when we stepped outside that bubble.

JW: Yeah, definitely. It’s really, really different. But experiencing that at a young age kept me really open to musical possibilities and those experiences helped develop the skills I carried over into the next chapter of my musical endeavours.

MD: Stepping out of the family and friends bubble, I noticed huge adrenaline hits when performing live, because, like you said, people are watching you perform out of their own free choice. So stepping up and meeting their expectations is part of the whole performance. It’s nerve-wracking, hence the adrenaline. 

JW: Absolutely agree.

Jarrah Wishart (a.k.a. Graintraderr)

MD: How would you describe your music as Graintraderr? What does ‘Graintraderr’ mean? Is it an alter ego?

JW: It’s a moniker. I released some demo tracks on SoundCloud, at first, under my name. Realising that I wanted to keep some level of anonymity, I decided I didn’t want to use my name, so I came up with Graintraderr. I actually don’t remember how that name came about. It’s been my artist name for a couple of years now. The name is just what I’ve gone by. I only make my solo music under Graintraderr and there’s no particular meaning behind the name. It just fits together well. There’s nothing behind it.

MD: And how would you describe your music as Graintraderr?

JW: The music has gone through changes over time so it’s difficult to describe. Originally it was more ambient music – ambient guitar and stuff like that – and lately most of the music falls under the genre of house music, electronica, and trip hop, but still with elements of ambience. I personally think the sound is unique and different because it takes a couple of different sounds and genres and blends them together in a way not many people are doing right now. I feel positive about making music that is different to what many other artists are doing, because I feel I’m contributing something.

JW: How do you go about creating the music you make as Graintraderr? For instance, you obviously create the music, but do you also produce, edit, and do everything else besides in the production of the songs?

JW: Part of the story with Graintraderr is, at the beginning, I wrote the songs on my guitar and then recorded them on guitar in basic form. As I got more into the process, and as I got better at using the recording software, I got better at mixing and arranging the music, so I ended up actually making the majority of the music on the computer. In terms of arrangement, most of that is done on the computer and I do the production as I go. This part, the production part, is also part of the songwriting process for me, because rather than writing a song and then producing it, there isn’t this linear workflow for me. So now I’m more likely to work with an idea in the Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), taking an idea and running with it, trying different things in the DAW, in a process of trial and error. Arranging the song comes from that process, the process of running with ideas in the DAW, rather than having a set song idea, and then recording that set idea. At least most of the time that’s the case. I’m working on a couple of songs at the moment which are more structured at the outset, based on chord progressions and the like, which will then be produced, still in a similar style and feel to previously recorded tracks. Making electronic music and house music to me is very spontaneous and is very much based in the moment and context in which the song is being heard. So for me, it’s about coming up with an idea and a feel and deciding where that idea and feeling should go next.

MD: Sounds like there’s two parts in the songwriting process for you: the creation of an idea or feeling and then the cultivation of that idea throughout the production process. Seems also like this process snowballs, gains momentum and in some ways takes on a life of its own; the music creates itself in some ways. 

JW: I would say that there are two different sides to the process, but they’re completely inseparable as well, because you can’t have one side of the process without the other side, with the music that I’m making. Like I couldn’t make the music without, in some ways, working on the production side at the same time, because that’s how coming up with a new sound is generated, and new ideas and things ferment. So for me, the process is very much about creating an atmosphere, creating certain feels, and certain unique sounds that give off a certain feeling rather than working with lyrics for example. Instead of the instrumentation being secondary to the lyrics of the song, the instrumentation is always paramount.

MD: To what extent do you use sampling in that process? Do you sample to create your own sort of ‘musical language’ so to speak?

JW: That’s an interesting question. For quite a few years, I never even bothered using samples at all. I wasn’t aware that it was a way of making music; I didn’t think it had any application or use to me. But in the past year my interest in sampling has grown, and I’m realising there’s actually a lot of really interesting sounds to be made from sampling. It’s a very different way of working with sound. And so, over the last year, I’ve used a lot more sampling in my music and I think most of the songs you’d find on my Spotify have at least one sample in them. Usually the samples aren’t that prominent, sometimes they’re fairly obscure, and usually heavily edited and warped so that they’re not quite recognisable as the original sample. I think sampling has got its whole philosophy behind it as well, in terms of the old crate diggers – people like J Dilla and Madlib – those hip hop producers from the 90s who really started sampling heavily and influenced the sample culture today. The great thing about sampling is that I’m not having to pull my samples from vinyl records – I’m pulling the samples from YouTube.

MD: Of course! (laughs)

JW: I’m not having to search through all this music. I look through, you know, a sound collection or something on YouTube, or I’ll know exactly what I’m looking for and search for that. And I’ll be able to search on YouTube and find the right thing and then just convert that to an mp3 and chop it up. And so that’s something amazing that working digitally has afforded musicians today. If you need a sound, it’s there. We’re not going to be digging through a vinyl collection, trying to find the right sound and trying these different things, which in some ways, I mean, makes it kind of homogenised in some ways, but I think it leaves a lot of room for creativity and possibilities.

MD: Yeah, that’s a really good point. It didn’t occur to me that YouTube is this whole other world for musicians today, whereas back in the day, they didn’t have that resource. So it’s like ‘YouTube digging’ now, a little bit. Do you think your music says anything? If so, what do you think it says? You mentioned that part of the songwriting process is going by feel, and you’re creating sounds and an atmosphere where you’re trying to run with a thought or a feeling, there’s some Greek word that I can’t remember….[1]

JW: Sounds like you’re talking about synaesthesia or something. Something like that. I think I understand what you mean. To be honest, I mean, I’m always making music with intention in some respect, or with a kind of particular feel in mind. I’m not usually making music aimlessly – sometimes I am, but most of the time that’s not the case. But in terms of whether it says anything, I just think that’s completely up to whoever is listening to it. I mean, to me what seems to be experientially true is that – especially when it’s got minimal lyrics and especially if there are lyrics that are nonsensical – in terms of my music at least, I don’t think it says anything in particular. I do think the music conveys certain feelings. And of course, the feelings conveyed will be entirely relative to the listener’s experience. And that’s part of what’s really exciting about having your music heard is that it’s interpreted completely differently by different people. But for me, I’m trying to create a visual picture; I like to think that my music is very visual. Because to me, there’s always some kind of image being presented by the sound, and sometimes people catch on to that. And like, they come back to me and they’re like, “Oh, this song made me think of this.” And I’m like, “That’s exactly what I had in mind.” But sometimes it’s completely different. That’s just entirely based on people’s experiences.

MD: And how do you think Buddhism has influenced your music? I noticed that some of your track titles contain words often associated with Buddhism – words like ‘mindful mobsters’, and ‘restless blessings’, things like that. So does Buddhism inspire or have any influence on your music, or on why you named the tracks that way?

JW: I have been exposed to Buddhism all my life and I was always interested in it. There was a point where I was really interested in Buddhism and practising as well but I felt music was a separate field; there were two completely different sides of my life that never really met. But more recently, by the advice of teachers and from reading and investigating more, the best course of action is actually to integrate everything into Dharma practice, and try to take everything as the path. It’s difficult to do that when some teachers will say “abandon all projects” and “deeply contemplate the futility of projects” (laughs). Then I think, “Ah, shit! I really want to make that album, but maybe, maybe I shouldn’t be making it. It’s a waste of time because music is impermanent.” But at the same time, I think there is benefit for people in music and, more so recently, I’ve been thinking more about the kinds of benefits that can be created through music. So, in terms of other music I have released recently, in a lot of ways, it’s been inspired by the people that are close to me and my close friends. All that goes into my music. Also, in terms of the track titles – I like ‘Last Ride for Mindful Mobsters’. I thought that was just funny. I didn’t have any particular intention with that. But I think with some of the other track names I did. Like ‘Restless Blessings’, that track name, the words worked together really well, in terms of the way the words sound together. Having the connotation of something positive and beneficial is really what, in the end, I want to remain as the effect from putting out my music. That positive benefit. Added onto that, there are a couple of tracks which are references to particular teachings. The song ‘Distraction and Recognition’ for instance, is specifically about a friend of mine who took his life a couple of months ago, and the effect that had on myself and the people around us. The title, ‘Distraction Recognition’, is just a blatant reference to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which says “listen without distraction” at each line. And to me that was just kind of thinking about the Bardo states and trying to find a way to put into musical form an aspiration for my friend to navigate the Bardo and to be able to find liberation. That’s what that title was about, and it was one of the tracks with an actual specific intention from the outset.

MD: I’m so sorry to hear that. And it sounds like just through your intention, I think it’ll have some benefit. Thanks for sharing that as well. To depart from Graintraderr for a moment, you’re also involved with another band, Hours. Can you say a little about your involvement with that band?

JW: So we formed two years ago through school, through the VET music program. We completed a Certificate III in Music Performance together. The members are myself and my three best friends. We just jam out and play really, really loud heavy psych rock. The music is in a completely different vein to what I do on my own with Graintraderr. We’ve sort of been on hiatus since whenever they first introduced the stage three restrictions, so we haven’t played together since before then. Also one of us is living in Melbourne now studying at uni and doesn’t have the time to come down, but we are hoping to get back together and do some recordings and start playing together soon. Basically, we did a lot of gigging around Geelong and a little bit in Melbourne as well. It was just the most fun in the world! So much fun. We just love, love, love playing together! And they’re my best friends as well, so the chemistry in the band is fantastic. I would love to play with them again soon. But we’re kind of waiting to see what happens with the state restrictions in terms of whether we can get back together anytime soon. We are on hiatus for now. In terms of the sound of Hours we were quite inspired by The Doors and Pink Floyd, and King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – some of those Melbourne bands. In terms of my playing in the band I’m very influenced by Tropical Fuck Storm, My Bloody Valentine and King Crimson – some of the more shoegaze-y bands, I suppose. So that’s where we’re at, at the moment. We’re all doing our own things at the moment. We’re all working on own individual music projects, and kind of doing the home production thing, so we’re not losing that creative flow. It’s just that we’re split into four channels at the moment and hopefully our channels will meet again and form a magnificent stream.

MD: Are you working on individual things in order to then regroup together and share your ideas? Or are you not planning on doing that and keeping your projects separate, such as with Graintraderr?

JW: We’re keeping it separate and individual for the moment. That’s because we’re doing individual solo projects at the moment. We aren’t working on anything together, currently. This is just the way it’s worked out. And it’s been really good for the other guys to dip their toes into home production, because for a while, I was the only one who knew anything about it. It’s great learning about it. It’ll mean that when we come back together, it’ll be completely different. It’ll probably have evolved significantly in terms of the direction we want to take, because we’ve all spent so much time working with our own music and what we want to play individually.

MD: Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview for the E-Vam Newsletter Jarrah. Looking forward to hearing the next tracks that you are working on.

JW: No worries. Have a good night, thanks.

To listen to Jarrah’s music click on the links below:

Graintraderr –

Hours –

[1] The word was ekphrasis: a rhetorical device or skill in translating works of art into words. I was thinking about a reverse process such as translating ideas or feelings into works of art such as music or imbuing them with ideas and feelings. However, it probably doesn’t apply here because we are talking about turning sounds into feelings which is probably more akin to synesthesia as the interviewee suggests.