Text by Anna Harmon
Images by Cody James
In his 20s, Murray Hidary was immersed in the tech boom of the 1990s, having co-founded a thriving Internet-related company with his brother. He also had a piano in his office and, every week, was visited by shakuhachi (bamboo flute) master Ronnie Nyogetsu Seldin for instruction. “I would play usually at the end of these crazy startup tech days that are just so insane, dealing with things on such a rapid pace, putting fires out,” he says. “And it really helped to reduce my stress and balance me and reduce my anxiety. It just really reset me every night.”
Hidary grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn. His parents signed him up for cello lessons when he was 5 years old and piano when he was 6. “Even at that young age, when my feet didn’t even reach the floor, just dangling, I would sit and kind of play around with melodies and harmonies,” he says. “I was a very shy kid, so it was like a voice within myself that it was able to unlock.” When Hidary headed to college, his boundless curiosity led him to sign up for classes ranging from Japanese poetry to astronomy. But he felt like just another number in a lecture hall, so after a few months, he opted to see the world instead. During a year of travels, he spent time in India, Southeast Asia, lived in Zen monasteries, and absorbed Eastern philosophy. He began composing in earnest, fusing his Western classical training with the thinking and music he was encountering.
This fusion of East and West manifests in his piano compositions in open fifths and pentatonic modalities as well as patterns that are “almost mantra-like.” He also mimics the emotional cries of the shakuhachi. “There’s a wonderful saying about the bamboo flute in Japan,” says Hidary, who first encountered the instrument in Kyoto and studied it for decades. “The saying is that the kind of crying sound the flute makes is the bamboo yearning to go back to the ground from where it was plucked.”
Hidary continued to develop his musical voice after graduating with a music degree and heading tech startups into the early 2000s. But with the sudden loss of his sister on a trip, the tectonic plates of his world shifted. Having witnessed the accident that caused her death, Hidary had to cope with losing someone he loved and also the trauma of what he experienced.
“Music is the language of emotion. It picks up where words leave off,” he says. “When we don’t have the words for something, we turn to music. … It’s a multidimensional language, and our emotions are multidimensional and layered.”
When he saw how music helped him process his grief and trauma, he came to understand that “you don’t get over something, you only go through it. And the way to get through it is to confront it and to deal with what you’re feeling.” This processing left him “cracked wide open” and with the realization that he had a higher purpose. If music did that for me, he thought, I wonder what it can do for others.
To try this concept, he played improvisational piano at his Los Angeles home for around 40 acquaintances. When he saw how it touched people, he decided to follow the music. Hidary extracted himself from various companies and permanently relocated from New York, which he found too distracting, to his home in L.A. He practiced piano obsessively and held more performances, which he calls experiences, eventually hosting them at various theaters. But he wanted to bring the experience outdoors, since nature is such an inspiration for him.
Santa Monica Beach was one of the first places that came to mind. While he normally plays a Steinway piano, he knew that beach acoustics and elements wouldn’t cooperate. This is when he thought of the MindTravel “silent” piano experience—he would play live on an electronic keyboard onsite and livestream it to the audience via headphones. The event took place on the beach right behind Hotel Casa del Mar and Shutters on the Beach.
MindTravel, on a normal year, includes outdoor piano performances as well as guided walks, hikes, and underwater meditations. (Until the coronavirus pandemic subsides, events are hosted virtually, and MindTravel is also offering recordings for self-led experiences.) “It’s this beautiful balance of the individual and the communal,” Hidary says. People will bring chairs and blankets to a beachside piano experience, but then walk along the sand or enter the water, “taking in nature, the ocean, the beauty, and having their own personal intimate moment, and then coming back to the group.”
For his piano performances, Hidary improvises, allowing internal and the external factors to influence him. “It could be just the way I’m feeling that day,” he says. “But I remember a concert a couple of years ago in Central Park, where a storm started rolling in in the middle of the concert. And I just, I was staring, looking at these clouds coming in, and I could even see almost some lightning in a distance, and I started to score it live. And I had the liberty to do that. … It was a soundtrack to what was happening.”
How Murray Hidary integrates music into daily life
Morning: “I try to start each day with some intention and some space, even if that’s just lying in bed, listening to a recording.” He finds that early morning after his dream state is when ideas start surfacing, which music enhances. “Take that time for some meditation, reflection, to just see what emerges and create possibility at the beginning of your day,” he says.
Day: Hidary tends to take a walk as the sun goes down. “It’s just a beautiful time of day to take in the sunset and listen to a recording,” Hidary says. (MindTravel offers a range of such recordings.) “And it’s very connective to nature, the healing power of nature.” According to Hidary, walking is one of the easiest and best things we can do for ourselves physically and mentally, and it also increases creativity. “Einstein went on a daily walk, and that’s where he had his thought experiments,” Hidary says. “By the way, he also turned to music. He was an amateur violinist … when he got stuck on the equations and in his thinking, he would just take to violin and start playing, and it would open up new pathways.”
Night: When Hidary is ready for bed, he puts on another musical recording, this one intended for rest. “It really just helps me transition into a beautiful night’s sleep,” he says.